Seth Messinger, PhD

Anthropology. Literature. Music. Art. Film.

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Class in Revolutionary Contexts

That is a really portentous title to what is a thin little complaint about a moment in an otherwise exciting and fascinating essay on Osip Mandelstam in the New York Review of Books by Jose Manuel Prieto and a similar moment in Marjane Satrapi’s film version of Persepolis. Prieto discusses Mandelstam’s fatal poem Epigram against Stalin in which the poet condemns the dictator and the regime for both its crimes and its mediocrity. This line in particular stood out for me: “Amid a rabble of scrawny necked chieftains, he toys with the favors of such homunculi.” (Translated by Esther Allen from the Spanish translation by Jose Manuel Prieto). Prieto interprets this line as being about the kinds of leaders generated by the Stalinist regime - playthings of the dictator - but also somehow unworthy of being high up in the regime.

In Persepolis, the film - I can’t remember if its in the graphic novel - one of Satrapi’s family members is trying to arrange to fly a very ill uncle to a hospital in Europe or the US perhaps. The family needs to get a certificate of permission or some other official document from a hospital administrator. The administrator is recently appointed as part of the revolutionary regime’s installation of new leaders. It turns out that the administrator was once the gardener to the family (or occupied some similar occupation). The family member who is narrating this event describes dealing with this man as humiliating and blames the man’s lack of credentials as one of the reasons the uncle dies.

All this is true of course - Stalin surrounded himself by thuggish toadies who themselves were always hanging by a thread. The revolutionary regime in Iran may very well have promoted or appointed “unqualified” people to positions of responsibility and which led to accidental or otherwise unnecessary death.

But what is lost in these complaints of Mandelstam or Satrapi’s filmic family is that these regimes were trying to create whole new worlds. And, that the very class status possessed by Mandelstam or, again, the broader Satrapi family was part of an old world in process of being swept away.

I’m not defending such a sweeping away (not least because I would be swept away with them), but I am pointing out the kind of blindness possessed by Mandelstam (according to Manuel Prieto) and the Satrapis that can’t help but see the old criteria and credentials despite the radical transformation that has brought in the new.  

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Drawing Copies

I haven’t talked much about “art” on this page. Below are three copies of drawings I’ve done in a class. The photo interface is strange to me, the “original” image I pulled from web sites alternates with my drawing.

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My copy of Chardin’s Silver Goblet next to an image of the original.

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The TOC of the new Medical Anthropology

This TOC is from the current issue of the journal Medical Anthropology which was originally posted by Somatosphere. I can’t figure out how to “track back” to them so they aren’t getting the credit they deserve. This is also a bid for self-promotion because I have an article in this issue. 

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Marina Abramovic Retrospective at MOMA

On Saturday (May 8) I went to the Marina Abramovic Retrospective on the sixth floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The exhibit is laid out in several rooms of increasing intensity. In the first gallery room are video panels - including one which dominates the space and has Marina vigorously (violently) brushing her hair. In the second room are a series of videos of her performances including one, quite painful to watch, of her repeatedly walking into a column at speed. In the third room - her memento mori room - there are images of her cleaning the rotting meat off of cow bones as well as a nude model lying under a skeleton. 

One particularly striking piece is a nude model, a woman when I saw it, sitting on bicycle seat suspended on a wall. On PRI’s Studio 360 this piece was described by a male performer named Yosmi (sic?) who explained that his performance would involve tucking his penis under the bicycle seat so that, to paraphrase, he would have ‘woman parts below and man parts above. He mused that that approach could be transgressive: “some people might be very uncomfortable looking at it, say stuff, throw something at me, who knows?”

Throw something, hmm. The New York Times published a story that museum goers were forgetting that today we look but do not touch. This is in sharp contrast to reports of how Parisians behaved in front of the paintings in the Salons (see Ross King’s Judgment of Paris for an account) or the riots which took place at the debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring by the Ballet Russe. 

I was an intrigued observer of the retrospective and quite sympathetic to the idea that performance art, like theatre or music, should be available to multiple performances and perhaps even interpretations. But there is still a sense of both sterility and institutionalization of, what once must have been shocking (or designed to shock - or at least provoke), when it shows up in an elite institution such as a major museum.

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Problems with the Warrior Transition Units - cont’d

I mentioned to a friend that I’d written about this: well, what I said was that I had talked about it a bit, but could not screw up the courage to offer any interpretation. His response was, to paraphrase, ‘with the economy no one has any interest in what’s happening to these soldiers.’

This might be the case, but I think one other reason that this story does not have the immediate traction that the Feb. 2007 Washington Post stories did is that the issues here are so fuzzy. At Walter Reed the public could latch onto what they thought the main points were: substandard housing, and lack of accountability to patients. But, I think, the larger point of the 2007 problems was missed: the moral and bureaucratic challenges of what to do with soldiers facing the complex dilemmas posed by the kinds of poly-traumatic injuries that they had sustained.

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Problems with the Warrior Transition Units

On Sunday April 25, 2010 the New York Times published a lengthy story exposing problems with the Warrior Transition Unit (WTU) system that the Army uses to contain and support soldiers who are currently in treatment in a variety of military treatment facility settings. The WTU is a relatively recent formation that was designed in the wake of the February 2007 Walter Reed scandal which was extensively covered by the Washington Post.

Read more …

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How To Train Your Dragon

So, I am a little embarrassed that my first post is about the film How To Train Your Dragon but it was so much fun to watch the other night. The two features of it that I particularly enjoyed was its progressive gender politics. There was no discernible gendered division of labor (there even seemed to be two leaders of the Vikings - though the man, Stoick the Vast, was the more significant) men and women worked / fought dragons together. The second was the way the film negotiated the impairment / disability issue. Two principle characters were victims of traumatic limb-loss but this did not seem to hinder their place in the social life of the community.