It is important, I think, in the crafting of a certain identity—be it national, regional, personal, et. al—to call upon the identity-crafting work of those who came before. So Chuck Reece, editor of the online magazine The Bitter Southerner, does in his attempt to explain the origins and purpose of the magazine. In his editor’s note (“We Are Bitter”), Reece quotes William Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom, as Mississippi-bred Quentin Compson’s Canadian roommate demands of his Southern friend: “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” Reece builds on this in his own writing: Why, and how, to live with so much historical baggage, so much collective guilt? To what degree is the guilt even collective?
The solution for some, it seems, is to refashion the South’s regional identity into something at once sweet, edgy, and newfangled (hence the ever-popular branding of the “New South”). I worry that this branding, in an effort to make amends, sidesteps the loaded history that our region has moved through, and that has placed us where we are now—it gets over without the work of having got over, so to speak. When he visited Duke and UNC a few weeks ago, Reece talked about the work his publication is trying to do in contrast to a quick and easy celebration of a “renewed” cosmopolitan South. Perhaps paradoxically, The Bitter Southerner offers beautifully designed multimedia stories about the South every Tuesday—stories so beautiful I might even call them sweet, edgy, and newfangled—while their content attempts to get at the confusing, bizarre, unique, and—dare I say—ugly aspects of the contemporary South.
The story published this week is called “Made in Durham,” and it’s an excerpt from a larger multimedia zine project by local photographer Justin Cook. I think it’s powerful and worthwhile for several reasons. It’s likely the first mainstream media photo essay consideration I’ve seen of the interplay between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Durham(s), with an attention to who, specifically is making said claims—and who’s reaping the benefits. (See the Fullsteam water gun shot, contrasted with nearly every other photo in the series). It brings the incessant talk about “urban renewal” into glaring contrast with what residents of Durham’s Southside neighborhood call urban “removal.” Perhaps most importantly, Cook’s photo essay doesn’t shy away from talking about urban violence and incarceration and how these things are bound up with race and civic responsibility. Cook’s individual note is especially potent in its grappling with questions of agency and empathy that should come up in any serious conversation about the claims we stake for the cities and regions that we live in. “We hope these images will celebrate Durham,” Cook writes, “but also challenge us to create the best Durham for everyone.”
Dear readers: I write to you hunkered down in the basement Bear Den (West Duke 01E) in the midst of polar vortex 2014, on a day when local schools are delayed due to cold weather and college students sit stranded on tarmacs in hopes of soon being en route back to Durham. It’s a new year at Kenan and the Insider is doing the groundwork to help usher it in—groundwork looking a lot like shuffling about to refill mugs of tea and emailing folks across the campus and across the country as we work to secure the moving parts of Kenan’s spring programming.
Over the holidays, I visited family up north. As happens at family gatherings, I was asked a lot of questions about what I “do.” As you may have surmised from my past blog posts, I’m the type of person who is easily overwhelmed by questions like that, because “doing” means a lot of different things for me on a daily basis: I read an article on my phone, alternate between projects at work, read a few pages of a book, go to an art exhibit or a movie, eat dinner. (Through all of these activities is an emotional flux too various and thorough to describe here.) Then I’ll go to sleep pulling at the strings of the past 24 hours, convinced that they weave together somehow, and wake up lingering in a dream threaded from one moment of the day before. As I enter a new year I want to take comfort in the idea that as humans we just get all of this; that our daily lives are scrapped from and connected by a series of thoughts and activities. But this leaves out the work that needs to be done—the making sense of things, the pulling at the strings in the company of others, like a giant communal Cat’s Cradle.
And I appreciate both being with family and ringing in the New Year for a chance to renew this mode of being, of doing. The postgraduate fellowship is multi-part, and moving-part by design, and, yes, explaining that is sometimes hard. To my cousin’s chagrin, my job is not just “sitting around all day and thinking about ethics.” It’s more like “moving around all day and thinking and doing ethics in a large and diverse community.” In the spirit of the new year, I’ve selected and profiled a few different programs I’m especially excited about this spring at Kenan—all of which reflect the wonderfully busy and interdisciplinary nature of the Institute itself.
Ethics Film Series: The South
Way back in August and September of 2013, Nathan and I began throwing around ideas for the Ethics Film Series. They stemmed largely from our personal interests and movies we’d seen recently or wanted to see: “toward an ethics of art!” “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present!,” “family!” As N.C. natives, we’d both entertained the idea of the American South, but (and I speak for myself here) feared its potential specificity, a restrictiveness in programming films that treat a certain geographic region. And then we realized that this concern was exactly what we wanted to unpack in a series of public film events. What does it mean to bind a region to certain themes, to understand it according to (often-)dark historical events? What does it mean to praise a “New South” defined by glitzy restaurants and urban rejuvenation as much as—and especially in North Carolina—stark poverty and deep divisions of race, class, and cultural attitudes? We think these are questions worth asking, and especially in the company of our local community. Our series, free and open to the public, begins on Tuesday, January 21 with the 2007 documentary Moving Midway. Director and Triangle native Godfrey Cheshire will be on hand to discuss the film, which feels particularly relevant after Ani DiFranco’s recent plantation-based artist retreat fiasco.
In the spring of 2012, I was on the cusp of becoming a senior and in the midst of re-working summer plans, doubting my major, pondering adding a certificate program to my course of study, and wracking my brain day after day about what I wanted my life to look like post-Duke. In short: lots of thinking at the expense of doing. DukeImmerse, which began that same semester, was nowhere near my college “plan,” as it shoddily and ambivalently was, and two years out, I regret that. That spring, Kenan piloted one of Immerse’s first two programs. It was themed around issues of human displacement, and is now known as DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted. This year, the semester-long program will engage twelve students in four related courses around a central research question: how does displacement affect the well-being and the social identity of those displaced? Students will collaborate with local and international refugee communities, work both in and outside of the field in Durham and in Nepal and Jordan, thinking and doing via oral history and original interdisciplinary research. The experience is both intensive and experiential, analytical and personal, and demanding in different ways than a typical academic semester. I’ll get a glimpse of what DukeImmerse looks and feels like this spring, as I work with the twelve students in their Field Ethics class on documentary ethics and production.
Ethics Book Club, Teju Cole, and the Humanities in full force
This past fall, I helped begin Kenan’s first staff-wide Ethics Book Club. Our group—hopefully the first of many at the university—has actively sought out texts that explore lively and unique narratives and tell of life from very different and very particular voices. We started with John Green’s Young Adult novel The Fault in Our Stars and have moved to Katherine Boo’s nonfiction work Behind the Beautiful Forevers. On the horizon is Teju Cole’s novel Open City. Cole is Kenan’s 2014 Kenan Distinguished Lecturer, giving a talk on April 24 titled “Here Comes Everybody: The Crisis of Equality in the Age of Social Media.” He is also a photographer, art historian, cultural and political critic, and notorious Tweeter. He’s a model of what it means to live and work widely in the 21st century, and what it means to grapple, as we all do, with media, globalization, and the ethics of how we as humans interact—and especially how those forces can cohere into art. I’m excited both to read Open City and to meet Cole. And I’m excited that Kenan continues to push these issues to the forefront of this university and community, helping to shape a multi-dimensional and innovative understanding of the humanities in our time.