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Posts Tagged ‘interview’

03 DECEMBER, 2013

Young vs. Old, Male vs. Female, Intuition vs. Intellect: Susan Sontag on How the Stereotypes and Polarities of Culture Imprison Us

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“The young-old polarization and the male-female polarization are perhaps the two leading stereotypes that imprison people.”

“Identity is something that you are constantly earning,” Joss Whedon observed in his fantastic Wesleyan commencement address on our inner contradictions, adding: “It is a process that you must be active in.” But ours is a culture that prefers to make our identities static and confine them to categories, often diametrically opposed to one another, with specific stereotypes attached to each. And yet what is a human being if not a locus of exceptions, a complex cluster of contradictions, coexisting and in perpetual flux, which becomes a caricature of itself as soon as it is flattened into a label? From Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library) — the same fascinating, wide-ranging 1978 conversation with Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonathan Cott that gave us Sontag on the false divide between “high” and pop culture, which was also among the best biographies, memoirs, and history books of 2013 — comes Sontag’s timeless and timely meditation on the polarities and stereotypes that imprison us as individuals and flatten us as a culture.

In the introduction, Cott captures Sontag’s unflinching resistance to stereotypes:

In all of her endeavors, Sontag attempted to challenge and upend stereotypical categories such as male/female and young/old that induced people to live constrained and risk-averse lives; and she continually examined and tested out her notion that supposed polarities such as thinking and feeling, form and content, ethics and aesthetics, and consciousness and sensuousness could in fact simply be looked at as aspects of each other — much like the pile on the velvet that, upon reversing one’s touch, provides two textures and two ways of feeling, two shades and two ways of perceiving.

Indeed, Sontag explores these toxic stereotypes and polarities throughout the conversation. She tells Cott:

A lot of our ideas about what we can do at different ages and what age means are so arbitrary — as arbitrary as sexual stereotypes. I think that the young-old polarization and the male-female polarization are perhaps the two leading stereotypes that imprison people. The values associated with youth and with masculinity are considered to be the human norms, and anything else is taken to be at least less worthwhile or inferior. Old people have a terrific sense of inferiority. They’re embarrassed to be old. What you can do when you’re young and what you can do when you’re old is as arbitrary and without much basis as what you can do if you’re a woman or what you can do if you’re a man.

Susan Sontag on love, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

One of her most poignant points comes from an anecdote she shares in discussing “the misogyny of women,” about her son, David Rieff (who edited her fantastic recently published journals):

Regarding those sexual stereotypes: the other night I was in a situation with David when we went out to Vincennes University, where I was invited to attend a seminar, and then after the seminar, four people plus David and myself went out to have coffee. And it so happened that the four people from the seminar were all women. We sat down at the table, and one of the women said, in French, to David, “Oh, you poor guy, having to sit with five women!” And everybody laughed. And then I said to these women, who were all teachers at Vincennes, “Do you realize what you’re saying and what a low opinion you have of yourselves?” I mean, can you imagine a situation in which a woman would sit down with five men and a man would say, “Oh, you poor thing, you have to sit with five men and we don’t have another woman for you.” She’d be honored. … And don’t forget that these were professional women who probably would have called themselves feminists, and yet what they were expressing was quite involuntary.

She then returns to an equally imprisoning polarity related to age, drawing a parallel:

You can find something very similar between young people and old people, since if a young person — man or woman — in his or her twenties would sit down with a bunch of people in their sixties or seventies, one of those persons might have said, What a pity you have to sit here with five old people, that must be boring for you! The point about women is or should be obvious, but people haven’t said how awful and embarrassed and diminished and apologetic they feel about being old.

Another dangerous polarity she points to is that of intuition vs. the intellect — one historically intertwined with our culture’s male-female stereotypes. Sontag, celebrated as one of the greatest intellectuals in modern history, turns out to be averse to such categorization and echoes French philosopher Henri Bergson as she tells Cott:

Most everything I do seems to have as much to do with intuition as with reason. . . . The kind of thinking that makes a distinction between thought and feeling is just one of those forms of demagogy that causes lots of trouble for people by making them suspicious of things that they shouldn’t be suspicious or complacent of.

For people to understand themselves in this way seems to be very destructive, and also very culpabilizing. These stereotypes of thought versus feeling, heart versus head, male versus female were invented at a time when people were convinced that the world was going in a certain direction — that is, toward technocracy, rationalization, science, and so on — but they were all invented as a defense against Romantic values.

Sontag then returns to her treatment of male-female stereotypes, which Cott terms “the male-female polarity as a kind of prison” — something I find especially prescient as I head to TED Women this week with equal parts excitement for the TED part and skepticism towards the women-ghettoization part. She riffs on the work of Hannah Arendt, whom she considers “the first woman political philosopher,” and tells Cott:

If I’m going to play chess, I don’t think I should play differently because I’m a woman.

Obviously, that is a more rule-determined kind of game, but even if I’m a poet or a prose writer or a painter, it seems to me my choices have to do with all kinds of different traditions that I’ve become attached to, or of experiences I’ve had, some of which may have something to do with the fact that I’m a woman but need not at all be necessarily determinant. I think it’s very oppressive to be asked to conform to the stereotype, exactly as a black writer might be asked to express black consciousness or only write about black material or reflect a black cultural sensibility. I don’t want to be “ghettoized” any more than some black writers I know want to be ghettoized.

In a sentiment Margaret Atwood would come to echo two decades later in discussing literature’s “women problem,” Sontag examines how women-only awards and accolades compromise rather than progress the gender equality movement:

Let’s say a film of mine is invited to a woman’s film festival. Well, I don’t refuse to send the film—on the contrary, I’m always glad when my films are shown, but it’s only the accident of my being a woman that accounts for my film being included. But as regards my work as a filmmaker, I don’t think that has anything to do with my being a woman—it has to do with me, and one of the things about me is that I’m a woman.

And, remember, this is 1978 — only shortly after the height of the Second Wave of Feminism and the passing of the Equal Pay Act, and at a time when Ms. magazine was changing gender politics. So when Cott pushes back and suggests that a feminist response might accuse Sontag of acting “as if the revolution had already been won,” she responds, more than a quarter century before the Lean In narrative, by nailing the issue with exquisite, prescient precision:

I don’t believe that the revolution has been won, but I think it’s just as useful for women to participate in traditional structures and enterprises, and to demonstrate that they’re competent and that they can be airplane pilots and bank executives and generals, and a lot of things that I don’t want to be and that I don’t think are so great. But it’s very good that women stake out their claims in these occupations. The attempt to set up a separate culture is a way of not seeking power, and I think women have to seek power. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t think the emancipation of women is just a question of having equal rights. It’s a question of having equal power, and how are they going to have that unless they participate in the structures that already exist?

[…]

I think that women should be proud of and identify with women who do things at a very high level of excellence, and not criticize them for not expressing a feminine sensibility or a feminine sense of sensuality. My idea is to just desegregate everything. The kind of feminist I am is to be an antisegregationist. And I don’t think it’s because I believe the battle has been won. I think it’s fine if there are women’s collectives doing things, but I don’t believe that the goal is a creation or a vindication of feminine values. I think the goal is half the pie. I wouldn’t establish or disestablish a principle of feminine culture or feminine sensibility or feminine sensuality. I think it would be nice if men would be more feminine and women more masculine. To me, that would be a more attractive world.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview is an excellent read in its entirety and one of the best history books of the year for good reason, brimming with layers upon layers of insight not only into one of the greatest minds in modern history but also into the broader cultural context and dynamics upon which this mind, and our shared legacy, fed.

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27 NOVEMBER, 2013

November 27, 1965: A Rare Recording of Stanley Kubrick’s Most Revealing Interview

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“People react primarily to direct experience and not to abstractions; it is very rare to find anyone who can become emotionally involved with an abstraction.”

In the spring of 1965, the physicist and prolific author Jeremy Bernstein wrote a short piece for The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” about of 37-year-old director Stanley Kubrick, who was accelerating towards the zenith of his cultural acclaim after releasing Lolita and Dr. Strangelove and was about to release his greatest film, his cult collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The piece garnered enough interest that Bernstein was assigned to write a feature-length profile of Kubrick — something the reclusive director wouldn’t have ordinarily agreed to, had it not been for one peculiar passion he shared with Bernstein: the love of chess. So Bernstein traveled to Oxford, where 2001 was being shot, and spent ample time with Kubrick, sneaking in chess matches during production breaks. And even though he never beat Kubrick, he accomplished an even greater feat: He got the young director, notoriously averse to long interviews, to engage in a 76-minute conversation, recorded on tape. This rare audio, recorded on November 27, 1965, is arguably Kubrick’s most extensive and revealing interview about his early career, discussing such wide-ranging subjects as how he learned that problem-solving is the key to creative success, why he got bad grades in high school, the promise and perils of nuclear power, the allure of space exploration, and what it was like to work with Clarke and Nabokov.

The profile, fittingly titled “How About a Little Game?,” was published nearly a year later, in the November 12, 1966 issue of The New Yorker, and was eventually included in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews (public library) — the same excellent collection that gave us Kubrick’s Playboy interview on mortality, the fear of flying, and the meaning of life. One of the most interesting — and prescient — subjects discussed in both the New Yorker article and the audio interview are Kubrick’s conflicted views on nuclear power and the atomic bomb. Bernstein writes:

It was the building of the Berlin Wall that shaped Kubrick’s interest in nuclear power and nuclear strategy, and he began to read everything he could get hold of about the bomb. Eventually, he had decided that he had about covered the spectrum, and wasn’t learning anything new. “When you start reading the analyses of nuclear strategy, they seem so thoughtful that you’re lulled into a temporary sense of reassurance,” Kubrick explained. “But as you go deeper into it, and become more involved, you begin to realize that every one of these lines of thought leads to a paradox.” It is this constant element of paradox in all the nuclear strategies and in the conventional attitudes toward them that Kubrick transformed into the principal theme of Dr. Strangelove.

Kubrick goes on to argue that nuclear energy and the atomic bomb have been reduced to an abstraction, one “represented by a few newsreel shots of mushroom clouds,” which hinders people’s ability to actually engage with the reality of the issue. He tells Bernstein:

People react primarily to direct experience and not to abstractions; it is very rare to find anyone who can become emotionally involved with an abstraction. The longer the bomb is around without anything happening, the better the job that people do in psychologically denying its existence. It has become as abstract as the fact that we are all going to die someday, which we usually do an excellent job of denying. For this reason, most people have very little interest in nuclear war. It has become even less interesting as a problem than, say, city government, and the longer a nuclear event is postponed, the greater becomes the illusion that we are constantly building up security, like interest at the bank. As time goes on, the danger increases, I believe, because the thing becomes more and more remote in people’s minds. No one can predict the panic that suddenly arises when all the lights go out — that indefinable something that can make a leader abandon his carefully laid plans. A lot of effort has gone into trying to imagine possible nuclear accidents and to protect against them. But whether the human imagination is really capable of encompassing all the subtle permutations and psychological variants of these possibilities, I doubt. The nuclear strategists who make up all those war scenarios are never as inventive as reality, and political and military leaders are never as sophisticated as they think they are.

And yet, despite this glib view of our capacity for transcending the limitations of our own minds, Kubrick did have beautiful faith in the human spirit, as his timeless words bespeak: “However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

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11 NOVEMBER, 2013

Lou Reed on Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Laurie Anderson, Setting Edgar Allan Poe to Music, and Why Record Labels Deserve to Die

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“Making things that are beautiful is real fun.”

In February of 2012, the late and great Lou Reed, already severely ill and awaiting a liver transplant , visited the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, as a guest at the Blutt Singer-Songwriter Symposium — an annual event inviting prominent musicians, including Patti Smith (whose recent tribute to Reed is pure goosebumps), Loudon Wainwright, and Roseanne Cash, to perform and discuss their work. Reed’s conversation with Rolling Stone critic Anthony deCurtis, author of the excellent In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work, is one of his last recorded live interviews. Here are the essential highlights from the interview, in which Reed radiates his singular fusion of irreverence, insight, and uncompromising creative genius.

On Andy Warhol and the birth of The Velvet Underground:

Warhol was what you would call a workaholic. … And he worked — people have no idea. … He was an astonishing person. When you consider what he was like when he was doing art direction in windows and all that — with the suit, the tie, the whole thing. And then, one day, PHOOM! He’s not Andy Warhol anymore — now he’s Andy Warhol, he’s in Levis and the wig and the jacket — fantastic! He created himself — you gotta love it.

Reed doesn’t conceal his contempt for the music labels, who didn’t like or even listen to the very music they were selling:

All these record companies deserve to go bankrupt. They’re all, you know, lying sacks of shit. No joke — these are bad guys, they deserve everything that’s happened to them.

On Bob Dylan:

On his wife, the artist and musician Laurie Anderson, whose remembrance of Reed is one of the most soul-stirring meditations on love and loss ever written (“And death? I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.”):

She’s so smart and can do anything — anything she does is absolutely great. It’s amazing.

On balancing raw force and raw vulnerability in his music and writing:

I like conflict — it’s balance. Or, like tai chi, balance is like the yin and the yang. Even a song like “Perfect Day” — the kick is at the end, the last verse: “I thought I was someone else, someone good.”

Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti from The Raven by Lou Reed. Click image for details.

On adapting literary works to music and rewriting Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry in his 2003 album The Raven and the companion graphic novel:

The trouble with Poe was that his language is so serious — the vocabulary — the words he’s using — some of those words were arcane when he used them — and then, architectural terms from Greece. And I, dutifully sitting there with the dictionary, looking all of this up and thinking, certainly, in a song or on the album I don’t want to have [things like this] in there — you can just as easily use a word someone knows what it means. … For him, great. For me, no. I spent most of the time translating them into English before even starting, but I couldn’t wait to rewrite “The Raven,” the poem. Mine is like a contemporary version of it, and we have a graphic novel out … illustrated by this great Italian artist, Lorenzo Mattotti. … Making things that are beautiful is real fun.

The Raven is absolutely fantastic — here’s a taste:

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