Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Institutional Snobbery

The prime motivating emotion of the bureaucratic personality is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of difference, fear of change.

The individual sits complacently in his office. As long as the machine he works for keeps operating, and paychecks for him regularly appear, all is well. The world outside the building is a vague blur, a hum of noise, not understandable to him, frightening in itself.

Changes to the bureaucrat's world then come as a surprise. More, as a shock. The individual's training and mindset has left him or her unprepared for all but the predictable.

I had an interesting exchange yesterday, on a blog, one attached to this site, with a person who works for this city's daily newspaper. The person, John Brumfield, representative of the newspaper, could do no more than engage in name-calling. A disappointing performance-- but from this Soviet-style apparatchik one can't expect more. One can't hope for a spark of an idea, a germ of an intellectual defense of himself and his employer, when he's a mere processor of words and information, not a creator. He's likely never had an original thought in his head. That's not why he's there.

I have to give kudos to Carla Spataro, who appeared with me on the WHYY radio show last week, for appearing with a representative of the Underground Literary Alliance; for debating our words and ideas.

I could challenge representatives of the Philadelphia Inquirer to do likewise-- Carlin Romano or Frank Wilson or Katie Haegele or John Brumfield-- but I know they would never consent. They are too caught up in the importance of their institutional roles; too full of their perceived station above that of mere writers, especially of the underground variety.

Never mind that the exchange between Ms. Spataro and myself was the first REAL exchange between different literary viewpoints which has occurred in this city in many years. It was genuinely exciting, worthy of notice. This doesn't matter. According to the bureaucrats at the INKY, the ULA isn't worthy of notice, mainly because we don't play by the rules and we don't have proper manners. Which means, we don't put ourselves in the position of supplicants. We don't appear with hats in hand and humble expression. We refuse to do this. We instead expect to be treated as equals. As the best writers in this city right now, we expect to be treated as no less than equals of anyone.

The fact is that the crimes of the INKY against Philadelphia's underground writers go back far beyond the seven years I mentioned to Mr. Brumfield. Frank Walsh has been in this city for thirty years, hosting readings, winning open mic contests, penning the strongest poetry to be found anywhere in the entirety of America itself-- yet through that lengthy period has escaped the notice of the supposed newshounds at the local daily. Bureaucrats more interested in press releases from other institutions, like the main library, or U of Penn.

This behavior is artistically criminal. Walsh is so good as a performer-- writes such provocative words, and knows how to present them-- that twice in recent years he's been physically attacked, and caused near riots-- at an arts festival in Baltimore and at an open-air show on South Street in this town-- simply by reading his poem, "Reagan's Brain." Not newsworthy enough! In fact, the opposite of what the INKY expects from writers, which is to remain in the closet literature resides in within society's house and not make any noise at all.

Does the ULA make a mistake by seeking to engage the office dwellers at the local daily? We do so from a generous impulse. We don't want them to outdate themselves. We want them to be part of our excitement, to justify themselves and their positions by covering truly exciting writers. We don't wish these folks to make themselves eternally irrelevant.

Possibly we make a mistake by NOT kowtowing to such. We might alienate these important mandarins (never mind that we've been alienated from official kulture by its sterility and its corruption). I'm not worried. I see the trend lines, and they're on OUR side, not theirs. Dwindling newspaper readership; vanishing book review sections; marginalized literature no longer competing with movies, sports, or radio. It will take much noise and excitement to turn these trend lines around-- the kind of excitement which in literature today only the ULA offers.

Peace is on the table, to be grabbed by the INKY at any moment, as long as they stop blackballing us. A public debate between us and them would be a good starting point. It would take, on their part, intellectual courage, of a kind I don't believe they have.

What Mr. Brumfield doesn't realize, in his narrow viewpoint, is that literature and the world which produces it in this society MUST change-- or literature will go the way of fine arts, to be as relevant to the culture and the mass public as opera.

(Don't miss ULA excitement tomorrow at Germ Books in Fishtown. Info about this and other readings at http://www.literaryrevolution.com/)

1 comment:

King Wenclas said...

Journalists without imagination or guts; without enough zest for life to jump at any opportunity to exchange opinions. If anyone challenged me the way I've challenged these fossilized characters, I'd be at their next event to prove I have the goods.
The problem is that these individuals DON'T have the goods and know it. They fear anything that would take them out of their well-regulated comfort zone.