mercredi 15 octobre 2008

Guy Talks with Hofstra Students

Hempstead, New York: October 15 On the day of the debate, the campus swirling with paranoiac panoptic Secret Service agents, I gave a morning lecture here at Hofstra University ("The Ontic Cringe Behind the Smile: A Semiotics of Michelle Obama's Face"), I ate lunch at one of the many malls of Long Island (at what you call Taco Bell, with its faux-Mexicano flavor signed by "Taco" and it's homespun American front porch signed by the "Bell").
I then retired to the campus grounds for an outdoor Q&A with young Hofstra undergraduates about politics and culture. A sample of our lively exchange is below; my editor of course leaves in my sometimes broken English.

Guy: So are you all voting in this upcoming big day?

Helena (Psych Major): of course Guy, do you think we would have attended your talk on Michelle Obama if we didn't care? And by the way, what did you mean when you said [consults her notes] the smile of Michelle Obama represents an agency of acquiescence about which she is both unaware and aware Guy, are you saying Michelle Obama is letting herself be used, like a pawn by her husband's campaign?

Guy: I do not know how you mean this word used, but, I will say, to be short about this, that she is acting a role which she dislikes and yet which liberates her as well.

Johnny (Business major): You mean, like she's cool with the cost benefit analysis? She puts up with Larry King and all the media jerk-offs and interviewers and in exchange she gets to be First Lady if Barack wins.

Guy: Yes but I meant she surrenders part of her Being, her wholeness is ruptured by the camera lights, a quasi-suicide to be so much in the public and forced to pose.

Kyle (Sociology major): That's called 'false consciousness,' what you're talking about with Michelle Obama, Guy. I think you're a Marxist at heart.

Johnny: Of course he is, all the French are communists, right Guy? But man look at his threads. That's Brooks Brothers tailoring, no?

Guy: No, it is Yves St Laurent. But I do not mean Marxian false consciousness, Monsieur Kyle, though yes I know this concept. What I mean is, ontologically, how you say, in the core of her being, Michelle Obama is displaced from the role she had made, successful lawyer, mother of two, suburban privacy, and has been asked to be, how you say, the white genteel lady of the plantation, if you will, the first lady of power, smiling through the psychological race-warfare waged in these campaigns, no?

Jennifer (English major): It's like the Elizabethans who believed in self-fashioning. Like, a self isn't just some natural thing. You make it up from different material. Like clothes.

Guy: Ah, oui. Perhaps. Alors, in America you can not only make self but re-make self. Like the Tide laundry detergent I see always says New Formula, Better Acting, Faster Stain Remove.

Jacob (Accounting major): So is France like a total socialist dictatorship?

Guy: France is socialist only to some small degree. We have more how you say "safety netting" of social needs and health but, inside that, we French can be very medieval-fascist about class and accent, which I do not see to be the case in America. Here, if you are fascist it is about invading countries to solve problems bot because someone has a lower accent than you. You drop bombs to solve problems but let people speak poor English and you don't think them unequal to you. And now of course socialism in America is okay to save CEOs.

Jacob: I agree, it's total bullshit, this bail out. Even my brother who works for Lehman Brothers and has this huge house in Highland Park, he's not even into this bail out. And McCain and Obama, they just go along.

Maria (undeclared major): At least Obama is going to lower taxes for poor people.

Kyle: All the tax talk is just a phony way to avoid the ideology which is the rich take care of the rich once they have pretended to campaign for the so called middle class. Obama might not own 10 houses like McCain, but if you think he's for the poor, get real, Maria.

Jacob: Yeah, plus Obama's going to raise taxes [much arguing ensues]

Guy: Tell me, each of you, if you were to say, here, here I hold up one single product of American culture that is, how you say, the quintessence, the best of, for you, to hold up and say this person or this business, or a product which is American truly American, what would you say represents America?

Jennifer: Ok. Don't laugh. I have traveled a lot in Europe. In all seriousness, ice cream. Carvel. The old drive-up parlors like the one near my house in Levitown. We make it the best, soft ice cream.

Jacob: Nah, not Carvel. America is not food, it's people, man. Warren fucking Buffet baby, the man got bucks to burn.

Maria: I'd say Jennifer Lopez, because I came out of Parkchester section of the Bronx myself and J Lo made it in movies and music, big time. And I tell you that is not easy being Latina. We are the invisible millions we Latinos and Latinas. J Lo, baby!

Kyle: Charles Bukowski, you know him Guy? He's our Artaud. "What matters most is how well you walk through the fire."

Helena: I'd say Meryl Streep because she has been at it so long and so well.

Johnny: That's all pretty intense, Streep, that Charles Lubowski poetry stuff. But no, I say America is technology, inventions. The Mac computer. What's more USA? Steve Jobs.
What about you, Guy, what single thing in our country do you think sums up America the best for you? And don't say "McDonalds."

Guy: Well, I have not seen everything yet I would say, I come back to that famous collar of Elvis Presley, how you say, 'up turning' collar.
Maria: Upturned collar, yeah.

Guy: Yes that collar up like so. It is sort of James Dean origin too and Fonz, yes, Happy Days? But it is distinctly American. In Paris in the 1950s when I was a student, this turn up collar was a sign that you hated French establishment and believed in American rebellious ideal of partial self concealment. In movies you see this too, the collar up. It is American defiance which yet wants to be seen and yet protects itself, hides a little under this collar which paradoxically also draws uneasy attention to the person. Elvis always wore this, yes? And Top Gun Tom Cruise. And George Bush on his declared mission accomplishment day, on the aircraft ship?

Kyle: Mission Accomplished. Yeah, that sums up America, Guy, that phony phrase. Did you prefer young Elvis or the fat Elvis?

Guy: Of course, fat. Look at me. How can I not prefer fat Elvis? [Guy pats his belly and much laughter ensues]

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