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Andrea L. Dennis presents RAP ON TRIAL in November 2019 at Avid Bookstore in Athens, Georgia. Photo: Alexa Rivera.

Rap on Trial: Conversation with Erik Nielson and Andrea L. Dennis

By | The New Press

By Jeremy Wang-Iverson

Last fall, The New Press published Erik Nielson and Andrea L. Dennis’s Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics and Guilt in America. The book examines a very specific but insidious action on the part of prosecutors over the past three decades: citing rap and hip-hop lyrics and video in court cases to persuade juries to make convictions. Nielson, associate professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond, and Dennis, professor at University of Georgia School of Law, offer fascinating legal analysis and cultural criticism in this important contribution to the publisher’s unrivaled list of criminal justice titles. Nielson and Dennis discussed their work, some examples of Rap on Trial in action, how they came to collaborate on this project.

When did each of you first become aware of the extent to which rap lyrics were being used in America’s courtrooms?

Andrea first encountered this tactic in the early 2000s when she was a criminal defense attorney. About five years later the issue landed back on her radar when she was researching connections between hip hop and the law. At that time, she realized the practice was more than just occasional and isolated, leading her in 2007 to publish her law review article entitled Poetic (In)Justice? At the conclusion of the article, she opined that technological advances, such as social media, would facilitate the spread of the practice. She was right. By 2012, it was clear that state and federal law enforcement and prosecutors nationwide were using rap evidence in every phase of the criminal justice process.

Erik has served as an expert witness or consultant in roughly 50 cases involving rap lyrics as evidence. Ironically, his work in U.S. courts began thanks to the work of Eithne Quinn, a British scholar at the University of Manchester, who had begun working on cases in which grime (similar to rap) was being used as evidence in the UK. Suspecting that if the practice was occurring in the UK, it was likely happening in the U.S., Erik began looking. It quickly became clear that it was widespread, but he didn’t appreciate the full scope of the problem until he and Andrea teamed up to begin looking in earnest.

At present they have identified hundreds of cases and suspect that thousands remain hidden from public view.

Rap music is the only fictional musical genre used this way because its primary producers are young Black men, who the criminal justice system happens to target.”

Why are rap lyrics so much more likely to be introduced as evidence than lyrics from other musical genres?

Rap music is the only fictional musical genre used this way because its primary producers are young Black men, who the criminal justice system happens to target. Police and prosecutors highly value statements and conduct by a defendant that can be argued as self-incriminating. Rap lyrics often fit this mold because they are usually written in the first person, and oftentimes focus on criminal themes and use violent imagery. Lyrics that reinforce common narratives and stereotypes that Black men are dangerous criminals are powerful influences on judges and jurors.

Class also plays a factor. Most defendants in these cases are overwhelmingly black or Latino, most of them amateur rappers without the name recognition or financial resources that insulate more prominent artists.

Studies have shown that people perceive the same song lyrics as more damning of the writer when they are told they come from a rap song than a country song—is that because rap is a predominantly African-American genre?

Yes. The lyrics are also perceived as more threatening and in need of regulation. They are also more likely to be read literally. This is thanks to other stereotypes, namely that young Black and brown men are incapable of producing sophisticated art, so their lyrics must be literal. There’s no acknowledgement of their ability to master complex poetics.

Why do prosecutors and juries have so much trouble distinguishing the real and fictional identities of rappers?

Sometimes they’re simply uninformed, or misinformed, about the conventions of the genre, and don’t understand that it is a fictional art form even when based on reality. But in other instances, prosecutors and juries are actually unwilling or unable to accept the idea that an artist—particularly an amateur—is appealing to an audience that craves hyperbole, exaggeration, and realism, and deploying sophisticated artistic strategies to do so. For example, a juror may struggle to reconcile use of the first-person narrative in lyrics with fake personas and false claims of authenticity.

And we can go a step further. In some cases it’s clear that prosecutors and police “gang experts” are knowingly misrepresenting rap music to judges and jurors in order to secure convictions.

What are some of the most common misperceptions about hip-hop that you have encountered?

That it’s all violent and hypersexual. There’s often no understanding that like any major art form, there is variety and rap artists explore a wide range of themes and ideas in their music.

Another is that it’s not music. Another is that it’s definitely not poetry.

For our purposes, the most important misperception—aside from the idea that rap lyrics are autobiographical—is that rap perpetuates violence. The history of rap music, as well as hip hop culture generally, tells a very different story.

You write that famous rappers have found it easier to defend their lyrics in court. Why is that? And should it matter to the court whether lyrics were written by a professional or amateur rapper?

One explanation is that money buys justice. Well-resourced defendants have always fared better in the criminal justice system. Another explanation is that people generally believe that a famous or commercially successful artist is a true creative—not just spinning real life tales in musical form. But up-and-coming amateur artists are perceived as writing lyrics that are simplistic, rough, and crude.

What are some of the ways prosecutors use rap lyrics in criminal trials?

  • As evidence of a true threat directed at someone else. (That’s when the lyrics themselves are the crime).
  • As confessions.
  • As evidence of a person’s motive or identity with respect to a crime.
  • In many, many cases, to establish gang affiliation.

And in a new spin, we’re beginning to see prosecutors who allege that, even though a defendant did not personally commit a criminal act (e.g., homicide, assault, drug distribution), the defendant should be convicted of conspiracy because he wrote lyrics that described, encouraged, or facilitated a gang’s criminal acts.

We hope this book serves as a wake-up call to criminal defense attorneys who are not aware of the issue or how to battle back.”

Have judges set any limits to how rap lyrics can be used at trial?

Overwhelmingly, judges have set very few limits. They’ve uniformly rejected constitutional arguments that would preclude using these lyrics as evidence and rarely bar their use during trails. Defendants generally prevail only in extreme cases such as when prosecutors violate court rulings or make highly inflammatory arguments based on the rap lyrics being used as evidence.

What can defense lawyers do to fight back against the use of rap lyrics to prosecute their clients?

We hope this book serves as a wake-up call to criminal defense attorneys who are not aware of the issue or how to battle back. Luckily, there are many tools available to challenge the practice in criminal court. One of the easiest approaches is for a defense attorney to use an expert to counter the often- demonstrably-false narratives of police and prosecutors, who generally know next to nothing about rap music.

But alongside litigation, attorneys must work to draw public attention to the practice and the injustices it causes. We believe that they can play a significant role in educating judges and citizens, i.e., potential jurors, of the extent and perils of the practice.

Are there any potential legislative solutions to the problems you outline in this book?

We call on legislatures nationwide to rely on the First Amendment to enact rules shielding rap music, a form of expressive speech, from being used against artists to impose criminal penalties on them. We call these protections rap shield rules.

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Erik Nielson is an associate professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond, where he teaches courses on African American literature and hip-hop culture. He lives in Richmond, Virginia and Brooklyn, New York. Follow Erik on Twitter: @ErikNielson

Andrea L. Dennis holds the John Byrd Martin Chair of Law at the University of Georgia School of Law and was formerly an assistant federal public defender. She lives in Athens, Georgia. Follow Andrea on Twitter: @ProfALDennis

Anu Bradford at Columbia's Morningside Heights Campus (2020) | Photo by Michael Skoglund

The Brussels Effect: How EU Regulations Help the Environment

By | Oxford University Press

By Anu Bradford

Anu Bradford’s The Brussels Effect received a warm reception upon its publication this month, including Andrew Moravcsik writing in Foreign Affairs: “This may well be the single most important book on Europe’s global influence to appear in a decade.” This week, she launches her UK and European book tour, including stops in London, Oxford, Brussels, Paris, Berlin, and Helsinki. For more information, please visit the book’s website Below we’re pleased to offer a short excerpt from Chapter 7, on Environment.

Environmental protection is one of the policy areas where the EU’s dedication to protect the global commons and willingness to promulgate stringent regulatory standards in this regard is well known. However, in the public discourse the EU is often best known for its commitment to multilateralism and active backing of global environmental treaties. While the EU plays an out-sized role in multilateral environmental cooperation, in fact its environmental goals are often most effectively accomplished through the Brussels Effect ­– three examples are noted below.

1) Hazardous substances and electronic waste. The EU’s regulatory efforts in this area culminated in the adoption of the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS Directive or RoHS 1) in 2002. The RoHS Directive bans the use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment, with the goal of preventing these substances from leaking into the environment when many common products such as household appliances and computers reach the end of their useful life. The Directive applies to all products placed on the market in the EU regardless of whether they are produced in the EU or in non-EU countries. In 2011, the Directive was extended to cover all electrical and electronic equipment, including medical devices and monitoring and control instruments (RoHS 2). The EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE), first adopted in 2002, complements the RoHS in that it is aimed at removing e-waste from landfills and redirecting it to recycling. Both sets of directives impose upon the manufacturer the responsibility for product management throughout the life cycle of the product. These directives have therefore had a dramatic impact on the entire electronics industry.

2) Animal welfare. The EU has also taken decisive regulatory measures to advance animal welfare. The first such provision in 1974 focused on governing slaughterhouses. Regulation in this area was expanded in a 1998 Council Directive that lays down general rules on the protection of animals kept for farming purposes, incorporating the “five freedoms” for animals as declared in the European Convention for the Protection of Animals kept for Farming. The 1999 Amsterdam Treaty contains a Protocol on animal welfare, declaring that animals are sentient beings, a position confirmed by the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. From the Lisbon Treaty’s affirmation that animals feel pain and pleasure grew the EU Strategy for the Protection and Welfare of Animals 2012–2015. This Strategy implemented new welfare standards around housing, feeding, transportation, and slaughter while also targeting the competitiveness of European producers. Another prominent example is the EU’s decision to ban animal testing for cosmetics. Since 2013, no cosmetics tested on animals can be marketed in the EU.

3) Climate change. The final example discussed concerns climate change—in particular the EU’s emissions trading scheme (ETS). Known as a “cap-and-trade” system, ETS imposes a limit on overall emissions and, within this limit, allows companies covered by the scheme to buy and sell emission allowances as needed. The ETS comprises 11,000 power stations and manufacturing plants in the EEA area, reaching a total of 45% of EU greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Initially, climate change emerged as a policy concern at the member-state level, including in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. The EU had first opposed flexible market mechanisms such as the ETS during the 1997 Kyoto climate negotiations. However, after realizing the significance of the issue for the European integration, the Commission changed its course and argued that an EU-wide ETS was necessary to avoid market distortions after the United Kingdom and Denmark had introduced national ETSs. Further, once the EU undertook to fulfill its own Kyoto commitments regarding the reduction of GHG emissions by 2008, it became a priority to convince other countries outside the EU to do likewise, both to protect the global commons and to retain the competitiveness of the European industry.

These examples ranging from electronic waste to animal welfare and climate change are illustrative of the EU’s stringent environmental policy. They have also provided a foundation for the EU’s global influence as they have subsequently been externalized through the Brussels Effect.

Anu Bradford is the Henry L. Moses Professor of Law and International Organization at Columbia Law School. She is also a director for the European Legal Studies Center and a senior scholar at the Jerome A. Chazen Institute for Global Business. This is adapted from her new book The Brussels Effect: How the European Union Rules the World, published by Oxford University Press.

Stephanie Taylor, mother of three, reading I Can Change Everything with her two youngest daughters. (Photo by Steven Mansour).

I Can Change Everything by Stephanie Taylor

By | Strong Arm Press

By Jeremy Wang-Iverson

Strong Arm Press recently published Stephanie Taylor’s first children’s book I Can Change Everything. This charming picture book, with illustrations by Laura Brenlla, encourages young kids to use their imagination to change their circumstances in life – both big and small. The wish to imagine change for a better world has driven Taylor throughout her professional career – first as a union organizer in Appalachia, and later co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an organization with over a million members. Her organization, which has supported over a thousand local, state, and federal candidates, is well-known for running the Draft Elizabeth Warren for Senate effort in 2011 and were the first national organization to endorse Warren for President. (Along the way, Taylor earned an MFA in poetry from Columbia in 2007 and a PhD in American History from Georgetown in 2017.) In a Reddit AMA last December, Taylor answered a few questions on the upcoming election, our current political situation and how to talk to children about the difficult issues facing us today. An excerpt from that conversation is below.

What would you say to my parents who are voted for Trump because they feel like the Democratic party has forgotten about the cultural values of rural America?

I live in Pennsylvania, and also have family in rural parts of Oregon and Missouri. When I think about our shared values, I think about kindness and sharing with our neighbors. My uncle wouldn’t hesitate to pull his neighbor’s truck out of the mud if it got stuck. So how do we develop a political language that equates the values we hold as progressives — lending a helping hand, making sure everyone can see the doctor when they get sick, making sure kids can go to college even if they can’t afford it — with that culture of kindness, sharing, doing right by your neighbor. I don’t think they are incompatible, but I also don’t think that most Democrats have done a good job developing the right political language around this yet.

“The young climate activists are the ones who give me the most hope for the future.”

With the ever-growing threat of climate change, how do you feel we should prepare children to live in a world that doesn’t resemble our own?

I think about this all the time with my own kids. It’s one of the reasons I wrote my book for them, to help prepare them to use their own resourcefulness and imaginations to change the world. I try to encourage their empathy, and imagination, and inner reserves. The massive social and climate upheavals are going to require humans to either cooperate or fail together. Right now the young climate activists are the ones who give me the most hope for the future.

How do you feel early educators, if at all, can approach and discuss this presidency with students?

My stepdaughter is nine, and we try to make our criticisms of Trump more what he’s done — and why it hurts people — than anything personal. So we talk about kids being separated from their parents, or how kids can’t have school lunches if they can’t afford to pay, and that Trump is allowing that to happen, and we don’t believe that’s right. We try to build our criticisms around empathy.

It looks to me that progressive movements are both in a great position and a terrible position, right now. On one hand, the existence of someone as ultra-right as Trump means the pendulum is more likely to swing further left than normal so progressive gains are far more likely….Especially given that Trump is, somehow, inexplicably, currently favored in a few critical swing states, how do you resolve the tension between long-term gains and the need for immediate relief?

We have a saying that we started using after 2016. “We need voters to run to the polls, not be dragged there.” When you look at Trump vs Clinton, she outspent him 10-to-1 on field. She had organizers out knocking doors everywhere on Election Day. But his voters got themselves to the polls. That’s why we need a candidate who inspires voters to get themselves to the polls — someone voters will believe will put more money in their pockets, help them get health care, and do something real about the crushing problems facing us. And the progressive candidates — Warren and Sanders — are the ones most likely to inspire that feeling in voters!

My wife is much, much more conservative than I am and every time I bring up (with evidence) even a center-left position she shoots it down following her right wing parents ideal except for abortion (which she’s flaked a couple times on as well recently) and religion (both atheist). Do you have any suggestions how I can get her to stop acting offended every time I offer a different point of view?

I think this is one of the major challenges for progressives. I do believe we can build bridges even with folks who disagree with us, but we need to figure out the right political language (see my answer from earlier about rural folks.) For instance, what if we talk about the environment in the evangelical language of being stewards and shepherds of the earth? I think it’s something we have to experiment with, but it’s vital we figure out how to develop a language that speaks (respectfully) to the worldview of more conservative folks, but doesn’t abandon our core progressive and Democratic principles.

The progressive wars online are breaking my heart. And it’s definitely doing damage, it’s dividing us at a time when we need to be united.”

How can progressives best espouse and bring others on board with their political values and opinions while not doing so to the exclusion of others who don’t fit the mold exactly? If you don’t believe this is a current issue, what’s the path to ensuring progressive values gain more traction among those left-of-center?

The progressive wars online are breaking my heart. And it’s definitely doing damage, it’s dividing us at a time when we need to be united. I don’t have a good answer, but I know what my answer is — I’ve tried really hard to be nice, online and offline. This sounds small, and it is, but I don’t spread gossip or lies. I assume good intentions. I’ve started and then deleted many, many comments. And I try to be relentlessly positive in my advocacy for Warren and the other candidates we endorse (and we endorse lots besides Warren! We supported 1100 candidates last cycle!) Basically I just try to do my part not to feed the beast of progressives eating our own.

As to the other part of your question — bringing others on board with us — one of our core beliefs is that we ARE a left of center country. When you poll on issue after issue — expanding Social Security, Medicare for All, ending student debt, universal child care, more unions — a majority of voters, even a majority of Republicans, agree with us. So we need to keep talking about these issues, and we need our candidates to keep talking about these issues. That’s how we win.

Lizzie O’Shea Visits the US for Future Histories

By | Verso Books

By Jeremy Wang-Iverson

Writer, lawyer and activist Lizzie O’Shea, who lives in Melbourne, will visit the US later this month to discuss her recently published book Future Histories. In shortlisting Future Histories for the prestigious Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia, the judges called the book “an intellectual kaleidoscope that sits effortlessly at the crossroads between investigation, history and radical philosophy.” Dates and locations for O’Shea’s tour are below. She also answered a few questions for us on the importance of encryption, what we can to protect our digital rights, and the class divide in how we experience technology.

1/24 Los Angeles           Honor Fraser Gallery (with Sam Dean)
1/29 San Francisco       Green Apple Books
1/30 San Francisco       Mechanics’ Institute Library (with Wendy Liu)
1/31 San Francisco       Another Tech Industry is Possible (SF DSA)
2/4   New York City ­      The Strand (with Alex Press and Meredith Whittaker)
2/5   New York City       The New School (Institute for the Cooperative Digital Economy)
2/6   Washington D.C.   Solid State (with Andrea Peterson)

In recent months, US Attorney General Bill Barr, with support from the UK and Australia, has been pushing Facebook to stop using end-to-end encryption in their messaging apps, claiming it could prevent law enforcement agencies from protecting against illegal activity conducted through them, including child sexual exploitation, terrorism, and election meddling. Could you talk about the dangers of going down this road in the name of public safety?  

Encryption has increasingly become standard in digital messaging and communication tools, in the wake of the Snowden revelations. In the book, I track the history of modern policing as a way of understanding why surveillance is such an enormous feature of the digital age. Western liberal democracies are often contrasted with authoritarian regimes in places like China, but the reality is that we have a long history of seeking to manage social division through surveillance, and this is accelerating as technology allows law enforcement and intelligence agencies greater power than ever before. My claim in the book is that we need to approach this political moment with a more sophisticated understanding of privacy and public safety, so we better understand the power dynamics at play, and in doing so, can organise to change them.

One of the few protections we have against such snooping is encryption. When applied to messages, it means that the communication cannot be intercepted and read by someone other than the intended recipient.

My claim in the book is that we need to approach this political moment with a more sophisticated understanding of privacy and public safety, so we better understand the power dynamics at play, and in doing so, can organise to change them.

But encryption is not just about privacy, it is also about security. All sorts of infrastructure, like mass transit, the electricity grid, health systems, rely on digital communications. If those systems are not protected – and encryption is pretty much the only way we can protect such messages as they travel – then they can be intercepted and manipulated by parties with ill intent.

The point is one that Snowden himself has made: we don’t need to give up privacy to enjoy security, quite the opposite, they are complementary. When our messages are more private because they are protected by encryption, then our system is also more secure against external risks.

This is not how state agencies want you to think about the problem. This is why they talk about child sexual exploitation and terrorism – some of the worst crimes we can imagine – to justify their program to stop encryption, or break it when they so desire. They want to prioritise their own interests above those they seek to represent, and they put us at risk when they do so.

In the book you mention data scientist Cathy O’Neil’s observation that machines’ decision-making is more likely to be imposed upon poor people, as it is cheap and efficient, while ‘the privileged are processed more by people.’ Could you expand on the difference between the privileged person’s experience of technology and the regular person’s in terms of decision-making?

There is a common trope that people don’t care about their privacy because they consent to it being violated all the time. I think this fundamentally misunderstand our political moment. It’s not that poor people are stupid or gormless, it’s that an entire economy has evolved around exploiting their online lives, like a parasitic vine choking the tropical ecosystem of human experience. Numerous predatory industries, such as gambling and payday lending, shell out big dollars to place targeted advertisements before segmented audiences. They play on some of the most powerful forces in our psychology—shame, desire, guilt—for the purpose of making money. The base drivers of capitalism strip away the complexities of our personalities and pulp them in the name of consumerism. They redefine our personal history, rendering it into data to be consumed by others, framed around our inclinations to buy. It represents a coup on our consciousness; a takeover of the parts of us that we instinctively believe ought to be under our control.

[Also see Lizzie O’Shea’s recent piece in Jacobin from 12/1/19]

Law, technology and politics are all fields that require our attention if we are to make the digital future more democratic. Find what you are good at and push.

What are some of the things people outside of the world of tech and government can do to help control how the digital revolution unfolds? In other words, what could we do at home right now? 

One thing everyone can do is get organised. If you are a tech worker, you could try organising your workplace. If you are a worker in a non-profit, you could ask questions about your organisation’s digital security and the digital security of the people you serve. You could find your local digital rights organisation and offer to help out. The eight-hour day movement, arguably the most successful social movement in human history, started when workers went on strike. Radical and progressive social change often starts at the margins and from below. We need to build a movement that can reclaim our digitals life from corporations and governments, which is every bit as simple and complicated as it sounds.

Of course, there are technical things you can do, like use open source software, using a VPN, using encrypted messaging services. You can download an ad blocker and Facebook Purity, which will make you both safer and happier. You can try to break your reliance on private social media platforms, and practice linking away from them whenever you can.

We can also advocate for better laws that make companies accountable for the quality of the products they sell. There is a full chapter in my book talking about the campaign to make cars safer, including the work done by the consumer lawyer Ralph Nader. The laws he advocated for have saved millions of lives by forcing manufactures to make their cars safer, and stop them from blaming the driver for design flaws. We can run a similar campaign today, which holds companies to account when they design products with the philosophy of ‘move fast and break things’ through well designed laws.

Law, technology and politics are all fields that require our attention if we are to make the digital future more democratic. Find what you are good at and push.

Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer, writer, and broadcaster. She is regularly featured on national television programs and radio to comment on law, digital technology, corporate responsibility, and human rights, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Guardian, and Sydney Morning Herald, among others. A board member at Digital Rights Watch, O’Shea recently accepted the Human Rights Hero Award for her work campaigning for encryption protection in Australia.

Conversation with Amanda Michalopoulou

By | Dalkey Archive Press

By Claudia Acevedo

In her latest novel to be translated into English, God’s Wife (Dalkey Archive), Amanda Michalopoulou – one of Greece’s most highly acclaimed contemporary writers – deftly straddles the line between literal and metaphorical, producing something that is equal parts love story, fairy tale, dystopia, and philosophical treatise.  Originally published in 2014, and now translated by Patricia Felisa Barbeito, the book is an unnamed protagonist’s account of her experiences as the ultimate creator’s companion. The Wife’s open letter tells the story of an impossible marriage—sometimes joyful, often miserable, always sexless, always full of questions. But it also serves as her coming-of-age in writing. As the reader, we are compelled to follow the Wife through time jumps and physical, spiritual, and intellectual travails. So much of her story is about asking the questions that we all spend our lives trying to answer, about the nature of creation and love. When I interviewed Michalopoulou by email this past May, we discussed everything from heretic female mystics, to mind circuses, to how abandonment engenders art. Our conversation is a window into the making of this strange, important novel, written in and about a space that Anne Carson calls “that emptiness where God would be if God was available, but God isn’t.”

How did this concept come to you? Was there an event/text/film, or combination of those that compelled you to write the book as a long letter?

I honestly don’t know. The idea of the Virgin Mary obviously played a role in it, though. From a very young age I was puzzled by the concept of the Immaculate Conception, a woman who is chosen for reproduction through an accelerated, mechanical procedure presented as Grace. I thought that God deserved another kind of woman, one who is probably naive and obedient in the beginning—this is how she is at 17 after all, when they meet in the book—but grows older and stranger because of her peculiar fate to be God’s Wife, and then reclaims her right to happiness ever after.

Were there any written testimonies by women (or men) that you were influenced by or interested in while working on the novel?

Marguerite Porete, mainly, this medieval mystic who was burned for heresy in 1310 after refusing to withdraw her book, “The Mirror Of Simple Souls,” from circulation. And Simone Weil, for her idea that creation occurred when God withdrew. Anne Carson brilliantly spoke about the same thing: “that emptiness where God would be if God was available, but God isn’t.” A frustrating, nauseating idea of abandonment.

Did the structure of the book come first (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso), or was it the other way around?

Structure always comes afterwards for me. In the beginning all is wild creation, a real cosmogony. It was especially the case with this novel because of its subject matter, which is, among other things, our place in the world and how this world of ours is created. This is even when we are talking about a solipsistic world, a concept we create to live and dream within our heads.

I am dreaming of a reader who would play with all of this, someone who is more like a juggler, really. Reading novels is, after all, a daring circus show for the mind and the soul.

Is there one thing that you want your reader to take away from the work? Or is the act of writing the point?

I hope there are many things that work simultaneously, subplots that work in unison in the mind of the reader, the same way an orchestra produces sounds, and, hopefully, a melody. God’s wife wants to write her own version of the marriage and God is terrified by the idea of a testimony being written at all, as He is tremendously introspective and afraid of critique.

I guess a writer will read the book as a metaphor about writing and responsibility, and someone who suffers from a broken heart will read more into the devastation of this archetypical love affair. A feminist would recognize the woman’s oppression, and a psychoanalyst would probably talk about hysterics—who knows? I am dreaming of a reader who would play with all of this, someone who is more like a juggler, really. Reading novels is, after all, a daring circus show for the mind and the soul. You do so many things simultaneously by reading, appropriating, interpreting, enjoying.

Could you talk about the importance of love in the book? Or, if not of love, marriage? In other words, why is the main character God’s “wife,” as opposed to his friend or disciple?

Oh, but this is about love, about falling in love in admiration. I was very tempted to describe this kind of love, which can’t be physical. God doesn’t have a body, He is only soul. If I chose to make the narrator a friend or disciple there wouldn’t be the kind of tension that is created by physical rejection. And then it was interesting to think about how that bitterness and dismay end up creating real existential resentment over the years. The marriage is obviously unhappy, and the wife’s way to survive is to write a book about it. But God has other plans.

Could you talk about the research process for God’s Wife? I learned a lot about astrophysics, philosophy, and literature reading this. It felt very “filling,” and like a lot of work, to put it mildly. Why did you choose the poets you quoted?

During the years I wrote the book I read a lot, as always. Whatever I found interesting, like poems and theories, I set aside to use. I was trying to follow the way of thinking of a woman who is discovering the world through reading. That was her “university course.” It was at first encouraged by God, and then slowly taken away when the Wife became too inquisitive, too “educated” about the nature of the world, the nature of knowledge. I would like the reader to follow her in this education, to ask the same questions, to see her grow as she desperately inquires about the world.

How many years did you spend writing God’s Wife?

I fully read for two years, it was an education! And afterwards, the writing was broken up into two parts. One part was written in Greece and Italy when I took part in the Bogliasco Residency in 2012, and the next one was written in China in 2013, thanks to a Shanghai Writers Association Residency. I mention these places because they are crucial settings in the novel. When God and His wife return to the world they go first to a place that resembles China, and then to a place in the Mediterranean that had a lot in common with the Italian coastline.

I feel as though there are, at least, two ways to read the book. How many are there?

It can be read as a romantic fairy tale for grown-ups, as a thriller of sorts, as a dystopia (a woman imprisoned in her own book, living and ruminating in her story). It can also be read as a bildungsroman about a girl who finally becomes a woman, or as a philosophical novel about the nature of the world. Or as all of the above and more.

Writing is my religion. It shaped my faith in the unknown, in the magical. It reconciled me with life and death. I was an introspective child, and books provided me with hope and solace.

If it’s not too intrusive, could you talk about the ways in which religion and writing intercept and relate to one another in your own life?

Writing is my religion. It shaped my faith in the unknown, in the magical. It reconciled me with life and death. I was an introspective child, and books provided me with hope and solace. Literature is, for me, pure metaphysics; it starts with suspension of disbelief (what a miracle!) and gradually it gives meaning to life, by giving meaning to a certain story. It is a constant ritual and a rite of passage. It has ethics, it has hymns and commandments, fear and gratification; who could ask for more, religion-wise?

Did writing God’s Wife answer any questions you may have had when you started it? If so, which were they?

I believe we write books to ask questions, not to answer them. My intention for writing a novel is to ask better, to ask fearlessly, unflinchingly. In this sense my questions remain and run deeper. How to create as a woman today, how to understand sexuality and passion and rejection and survive it and think for yourself, stubbornly, heartfully.

Amanda Michalopoulou is the internationally acclaimed author of several books of fiction, two of which have previously been published in English: I’d Like (Dalkey Archive Press, 2008) and Why I Killed My Best Friend (2014), both translated by Karen Emmerich. Her work, which has been translated into twenty languages, has been awarded the Diavazo Novel Prize, the Academy of Athens Award, and the International Literature Award by the National Endowment for the Arts among others. She lives in Athens, Greece.

The first mention of LeWitt in the New York Times came in 1961, when he was earning less than $1,000 a year on his art. (Neal Boenzi/The New York Times/Redux)

Lary Bloom on Sol LeWitt’s Rebellion

By | Wesleyan University Press

By Lary Bloom

Fifty years ago, Sol LeWitt published his second manifesto, further upending centuries-old assumptions about how art is made. The effect of “Sentences on Conceptual Art” was minimal at the time, as LeWitt and his circle of rebels were dismissed by influential critics, and their practices had yet to spread much beyond the Lower East Side where they lived (in many cases, as with LeWitt, illegally).

LeWitt saw his role similar to that of a composer or architect whose work is largely done when the score or drawing is finished, leaving the completion to others.

Yet over the last half century, LeWitt’s vast body of work (nearly 1,300 wall drawings and hundreds of “structures” as well as other forms) and his ideas about art have become arguably the most influential as those of any 20th century figure. His name is always attached to two movements, minimalism and conceptualism. Though he often decried such labeling, his writings and practices firmly connected him to the latter category. Moreover, he argued often in public that for the contemporary artist, the brain is much more important than the hand.

By the time of his 1978 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, LeWitt had long since farmed out wall drawing installation to assistants. But he joined the crew in this instance. (Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

His worked showed that, as he was seldom involved with physical installations, leaving that to his crew chiefs and the thousands of young artists he hired over the decades. But it also became central to the installations themselves.

For example, just a few years before he died in 2007, he explained to me that he was asked to do a site-specific installation at an abandoned synagogue in Stommeln, one of the few in the country that hadn’t been destroyed by the Nazis, but which in recent years had been home only to art installations.

His idea was not traditional art at all. That is, no painting, no sculpture, no physical element except for one crude construction: a brick wall. The wall was to be placed inside the entrance, fulling blocking the sanctuary from view. But though visitors to the exhibition would not be able to see what’s inside, they could hear voices. These were the recorded “Lost Voices” of German Jews praying, which I translated from Hebrew into English, along with our friend Reuven Clein. So, the effect was to demonstrate a strong sense of humanity inside, even if it was in the form of ghosts reciting liturgy.

Indeed, the project demonstrated LeWitt’s commitment to the end of his career of what he argued in “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” – that art can be art even if never becomes a physical manifestation and that for artists, “Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically,” that “bad ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution,” and that “It’s hard to bungle a good idea.”

After Wall Drawing 370 went up at the Met, it prompted millennial selfies. (Richard Levine/Alamy Stock Photo)

Thus, he amplified what he had written two years earlier, in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” published in Artforum. LeWitt had focused on inception and inspiration rather than what happens afterward. “The idea becomes the machine that makes the art.” The physical creation of the art, he said, is “perfunctory.” In this, he saw his role similar to that of a composer or architect whose work is largely done when the score or drawing is finished, leaving the completion to others.

In “Paragraphs,” his opening salvo challenged conventional thinking of the time, and challenged his peers to seek their own truths rather than the ones defined by critics or market trends: “The editor has written me that he is in favor of avoiding the ‘notion that the artist is a kind of ape that has to be explained by the civilized critic’ This should be good news to both artists and apes.” And he held the view that critics use a secret language meant to impress each other and bamboozle the public. (“Reading art criticism is like chewing glass,” he said.)

LeWitt wrote “Sentences” in 1969 around the time Paula Cooper, a pioneer in SoHo, produced her first show.

LeWitt used “Sentences” to clarify points made in “Paragraphs” and further push the view that artists, far from being fringe societal figures whose talent is expressed by disciplined hands, can do their best work when hands become irrelevant.

LeWitt wrote “Sentences” around the time Paula Cooper, a pioneer in SoHo, produced her first show at her gallery with the assistance of Lucy R. Lippard, who as a writer on contemporary art that had championed the LeWitt circle. Fourteen artists were chosen to participate in the “Benefit for the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.” Aside from LeWitt and Andre, others selected included Dan Flavin, Robert Ryman, Robert Mangold, Donald Judd and the lone woman, Jo Baer.

Advertisement for benefit show at Paula Cooper (The New York Times via Wikimedia Commons)

At the time, LeWitt was still doing most of the physical work himself.  Cooper told me in 2012: “Sol came [to the gallery], and he picked a freestanding awful wall, you could see my storage was behind it—the worst space, and he came and made a drawing on it. It took him two days.” He drew with black pencil the straightest parallel lines he could, in an arrangement that would pre-figure the ideas in many of his works to come — horizontal, vertical, and diagonal.

All of the works at the show were for sale.  The asking price for Andre’s sculpture was $1,500; for Flavin’s fluorescent light arrangement, $2,000; for Mangold’s trapezoid $2,500, Ryman’s monochrome painting, $900. The price listed next to LeWitt’s wall drawing was “by the hour.” And even then, any prospective buyer (there were none at the time) couldn’t take the piece off of the wall and carry it home.

Indeed, Cooper’s biggest shock came when the show ended, and the artists came to get the pieces that hadn’t sold. She called LeWitt and asked what she should do with the wall drawing. He told her to paint over it. “I can’t do that,” she replied. So, he went to the studio and did the task himself. It was among his first efforts at the dematerialization of art, and the demonstration that the idea is more important than the execution, a view that would manifest in the system of verification; the only value of a LeWitt wall drawing is in the certificate of ownership itself. The physical piece is worthless.

Or as he would eventually say, among his many wry commentaries, “A wall drawing is permanent until destroyed.”

A twenty-five-year-long retrospective opened at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2008, featuring a hundred LeWitt works that collectively covered more than 27,000 square feet of wall space. (Randy Duchaine/Alamy Stock Photo)

In all, “Sentences” and its forerunner, “Paragraphs,” words that, according to their author, are not meant to be art itself, have changed basic assumptions that had lasted centuries. At first, as in all revolutions, it was considered fringe. Nowadays, LeWitt’s views don’t seem so extreme.

Thousands of young artists around the world adopted his views and joined his installation crews. They now see LeWitt, who died in 2007, as the artist who has had the most influence, inspiring them to rely more on their heads than their hands. More than 2,000,000 visitors have seen LeWitt’s wall-drawing retrospective (running until 2033) at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art may attest. But as detailed and meticulous as LeWitt’s work and process could be, he was not one to explain the mystery of how or why his art works. When a student at the University of Hartford asked him, “What is art?”, he replied, “It’s a big, fluffy thing.” And, with that, and all he had written down in “Paragraphs” and “Sentences,” he ended his explanation.


Lary Bloom is the author or coauthor of ten books, including the biography, Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas, which was published earlier this year by Wesleyan University Press. He lives in New Haven, CT and teaches memoir in Yale’s summer program.

The Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Sauk County, Wisconsin (Wikimedia Commons)

Insider’s Almanac: Excerpt from Krista Eastman’s The Painted Forest

By | West Virginia University Press

By Krista Eastman

West Virginia University Press published Krista Eastman’s The Painted Forest this month. She will appear at several events to launch the collection of essays, including the Wisconsin Book Festival on October 19 and Boswell Book Company on October 29. More details about the events can be found here. The below is an excerpt from “Insider’s Almanac,” the second essay in the book, followed by a Q&A. “Insider’s Almanac” was originally published in 2012 by The Georgia Review. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, which Krista Eastman considers below.

The girl version of myself, in her search to trace origins, couldn’t get much further than the county line, and so she became first a fixture at the town’s public library, then a traveler. And yet, local girl, avid reader, I never picked up A Sand County Almanac, the classic born just miles from my hometown, and I don’t recall learning about it in school. My copy of Leopold’s book, acquired in adulthood and in the spirit of research, smells of press and crispness, its pages not dog-eared nor tattered nor steeped in the oil found on fingertips. This almanac does not occupy my nightstand, has never been the binding I chose to brush up against in the dark, nor the words I intoned while on pilgrimage through the woods alone. But it has haunted me.

A Sand County Almanac is part lyric manifesto, but it does much more than merely conjure up the natural beauty of Leopold’s farm.

Reading A Sand County Almanac, I learned that Aldo Leopold made another kind of map of this place, providing the vocabulary for another way of looking at the world by transcribing the messages he found written on wind, dew, and pine with poetry and a pithy common sense. “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot,” he begins simply. “These essays are the delights and the dilemmas of one who cannot.” And these words, like much of A Sand County Almanac, twist my thoughts. Arriving a little late to this book, this particular county, I must entertain my own share of new and uncomfortable questions, my own delights and dilemmas. Raised among open fields and cultivated hills, how will I be sure that I can or cannot live without these wild things, which I do not identify and cannot always see? I underline words such as Silphium and bur oak and wonder if these plants are still around. Have they been around all this time? Do they survive in the unharvested corners of farmland whose cultivated verdure most certainly plays me for a fool, prompting me to gaze as one gazes at the back of one’s own hand, carelessly, with few questions?

A Sand County Almanac is part lyric manifesto, but it does much more than merely conjure up the natural beauty of Leopold’s farm. Leopold also takes up the problem of perception, of how we perceive ourselves and the land we make our own—and the ethics of both of those things at once. In the chapter entitled “December,” Leopold writes: “The wild things that live on my farm are reluctant to tell me, in so many words, how much of my township is included within their daily or nightly beat. I am curious about this, for it gives me the ratio between the size of their universe and the size of mine, and it conveniently begs the much more important question, who is the more thoroughly acquainted with the world in which he lives?”

Fueled by local affiliation, I approach this book with the same question, though mine conceals a different kind of curiosity. With sheepishness, I wonder about my mythic Leopold and myself, about the size of our two universes in this same Wisconsin county. I admit that asking the question this way risks placing the book in my hands at a perverse angle, exposing my interest as a brutish desire to defend, or to stake my own claim.

Arriving a little late to this book, this particular county, I must entertain my own share of new and uncomfortable questions, my own delights and dilemmas.

Leopold, measured and wise, continues: “Like people, my animals frequently disclose by their actions what they decline to divulge in words. It is difficult to predict when and how one of these disclosures will come to light.”

Perhaps I should also decline to put into words the insularities of my own habitat. Like the many who’ve come before, perhaps I should brush off clear declarations in favor of physical work, express myself only with silent necessity—with eyes that know but hold back, with a stolid distaste for the process of explaining and, worse yet, of being explained. And yet disclosures have already been made, squatting with imperfection on my page and under my name. That made-up memory of the sweat spot I stood long enough to admire, has emboldened me somehow, causing me to speak almost by accident of another universe, another definition of local, the many ways you can wed yourself to land. Here I admit to animal behavior.

Q&A with Krista Eastman

1. When did you start writing The Painted Forest?

I wrote the earliest essay, “Layers of Ice,” after having returned from working at McMurdo Station in Antarctica and while in my first year of graduate school, way back in 2008.

2. Do you find that your experience of living in many different places, from Senegal to Antarctica, affects you as a writer?

In a lot of ways, I think living and working abroad as I did in my 20s is what got me to commit seriously to writing and to literary nonfiction in particular. I began writing from other places and that experience helped me figure out how to write about home, or to hold the same fascination for the things in front of my nose as for the things I had gone to the end of the earth to find.

3. What brought you back to your home state of Wisconsin?

The official story is that I returned in 2010 when the U.S. economy was in the can because I knew I could get a job here. The unofficial story is that I had a fine case of burn out and wanted to be home for a while.

4. What’s your relationship to revision?

I actually revise as I go so that by the time I finish the “first draft” of an essay it’s usually about 98% done. Since we admire what other people have, I like to bitterly imagine other writers completing first drafts in fits of inspiration and then heading out to revel with each other at the neighborhood bar. What I do is suck on coffee, pinch up my face, and then move the text an inch or two a day until it’s done.

5. How did you choose which influences to explore and name?

There’s not much method to this, I’m afraid. What I love about writing is that I can justify exploring any interest I have. I can check out an embarrassingly broad spectrum of books from the library and not have to answer for it. I have my secret art and I don’t (and won’t) explain it. Some things I write don’t require much research. But for most of it I do read quite a bit, for background or context or to be privy to what experts are saying about X. I’ll read anything, even books I barely understand, because I’m trying to make sense of something. My writing almost always begins with a question of some kind, even if at first it’s barely formed.

6. Have you always been drawn to writing about place and the environment?

I don’t think of myself as someone who writes about the environment, at least not directly. I’ve always been drawn to thinking about storytelling and about how we humans create place-based identities for ourselves. I’m kind of obsessed with how we make the world through perception and that includes concerns about our relationship to the earth.

But of course I am extremely worried about our climate crisis. The challenge for me has been how to capture and make something from the cascading ills of this moment – from the wild precariousness, the cruelty, and the astonishingly unequal distribution of wrongs.

7. Could you tell us about your next work, Pionier?

I don’t really like to talk about work while it’s in progress, but you can read some of it – an essay called “Ancient Inland Sea” – this fall in the “Earth Elegies” issue of Conjunctions.

Krista Eastman‘s writing has earned recognition from Best American Essays and appeared in The Georgia ReviewThe Kenyon Review (KROnline), New Letters, and other journals. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin. For more information, please visit her website

Timothy Hampton in Berkeley, December 2018 (Photo: Eric Kotila)

Echoes of a Fantasy: On Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue

By | Zone Books

By Timothy Hampton

Music and film fans were treated in early June to the Netflix release of Martin Scorcese’s new film about Bob Dylan’s 1976 tour, the Rolling Thunder Revue.  The film features documentary footage of Dylan and his band in electrifying concert performances.  That footage is framed by a set of interviews with both actual tour participants and fake talking heads, who comment on the events.  By blurring history and fiction the commentary cleverly packages the tour as both chaotic and yet still relevant;  it’s subtitled “A Bob Dylan Story.”  Yet the clash of illusion and reality was already an essential part of the tour and contributes to its political meaning–both then, in the year of the American bicentennial celebrations, and now, in the age of Trumpism and Fox News.

By blurring history and fiction the commentary cleverly packages the tour as both chaotic and yet still relevant.

The Rolling Thunder Revue had Dylan traveling across New England, playing in small cities, Plymouth to Montreal.  He was joined by a Who’s Who of fellow singers, including Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, and Joni Mitchell.  The band included musicians such as the violinist Scarlet Rivera and the bassist Rob Stoner, who had made Dylan’s recent album “Desire” such a sonic delight.  The choice of New England mill towns for the tour seems to have had a kind of spiritual-political intention.  “Why would he play some place so small?” asks one of the fans in Plymouth, midway through the film.  It was an encounter with a semi-rural America that was being depleted by a changing economy.  The contemporary resonances with Trump’s claims to speak for a “real” America are, of course, unmistakable.  But the illusion of freedom presented by the tour was already  shot through with nostalgia.  For the context for the tour is the cultural misery of the mid-1970s, when the the late-1960s hippie dream of freedom, funny clothes, and “the road,” had been brought up short by the reality of the defeat in Vietnam, Watergate, and a slowing economy.

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, 1963 (Wikimedia Commons)

The sense that the tour is a fiction (Dylan as gypsy) that is unfolding against another fiction (the glitzy surface of the bicentennial celebrations) is replayed in the iconography of the shows.  Dylan’s floppy hat and white face-paint mimic the main character of Marcel Carné’s 1945 film about the Paris theater world, “Children of Paradise,” an art house favorite about the clash between reality and illusion.   Carné’s film would form a loose template for Dylan’s own attempt to reshape the Rolling Thunder material in his 1978 film essay, “Renaldo and Clara.”  But he had been quoting Carné as early as 1975, when the lyric to “You’re a Big Girl Now” had cited the heroine of the movie reproaching her lover, who cannot free himself from the fictions he has made about her identity, “Love is so simple.”  Dylan, in makeup and headgear, here mimics Carné’s doomed character Baptiste, caught between the banal reality of family life and the romance of illicit passion–even as the singer’s jeans, vest, and boots turn him into some version of Billy the Kid from a Hollywood western.  He is both artiste and bandido, exotic yet American.  His carnival company and the powerful, shouted, vocal performances remind the post-1960s audience that the “real” America was a utopian collective that could still take shape—at least on the stage.  Life may not, in the end, have turned out to be a magical mystery tour for many of Dylan’s listeners, but Dylan’s show reinvented the audience’s favorite stars, from Baez to McGuinn, as Children of Paradise in the American grain.

Paralleling the ambiguity of the spectacle were the new songs, taken mostly from 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks” and 1976’s “Desire.”  The first of these albums looks back to the 1960s, recasting that era’s social unrest as a version of “On the Road.”  The mad journeys depicted in such songs as “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Idiot Wind” both reflected Jack Kerouac’s beatniks and the later, less sublime, moment of hippie restlessness.  Rolling Thunder reinvented these themes as a musical bus trip.  Against the phony patriotism of the bicentennial events, Dylan’s group was digging deep into the bloody recent history of a wounded country.

Bob Dylan in Rotterdam, 1974
(Wikimedia Commons)

Yet these songs are offset by the songs from the recently released “Desire album,” which form the heart of the set list in the film.  These songs, co-written mostly with Jacques Levy, have everything to do with the politics of Rolling Thunder and of Scorcese’s film.  For the “Desire” album straddles the violent line of confrontation between dream and reality, fantasy and brutal fact.  “Desire” features a set of narratives of wandering and romance–songs about the south seas, the Klondike gold fields, Mexico, gypsy camps.  Dylan’s stage act, with its gypsy flavor and exotic outfits, performs what the songs are about.  Yet at the same time, for every tale of exotic beauty on “Desire” there is a tale of brutality or disillusionment, bringing us back to the desperation of the mid-1970s in the “real” America.  Thus the mythical romance “Isis” (“a song about marriage,” as Dylan says at one point) stands over against the domestic drama of “Sara,” a tune written for Dylan’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, begging her not to leave him.  Similarly, the romanticism of “One More Cup of Coffee,” which depicts a beautiful gypsy woman whose clan is ruled by a knife-wielding king, runs up against the brutal sociology of “Joey,” a tune about a Mafia clan ruled by an “old man” and his sons.  This confrontation of enchantment and disenchantment haunts the album and makes it particularly difficult to read.   We find it again on “Mozambique,” a tune about jet setters on the beach recorded at a moment when the the African country had just achieved independence from Portugal after a brutal ten-year war.  And, of course, it is central to “Hurricane,” Dylan’s account of the framing of the boxer Ruben Carter for murder.   (Carter appears in a contemporary interview wearing a wide-brimmed hat of his own, almost like a parody of Dylan’s festooned Stetson from 1976).  The fact that Carter’s story unfolded in Paterson, New Jersey, the site of William Carlos Williams’s American epic poem “Paterson,” made the bicentennial background to “Hurricane” all the more cogent.   No less important, the harmony and groove of the tune hark unmistakably to Dylan’s own earlier hymn to poetry and art, “All Along the Watchtower” of 1967.  That song, with its “Joker” and “Thief” pointing ahead to the circus-like atmosphere of Rolling Thunder and Desire, here runs up against the brutality of life in the streets.  The allegorical medieval castle that ends the song–the site of the famous “Watchtower”–is swept away by the vision of what happens to real boxers, in real landscapes:  “In Paterson, that’s just the way things go,” sings Dylan.  “If you’re black, you might as well not show upon the street.”

Dylan is asking us to think about what happens to the dreams of American romance in a world of military disasters and framed boxers.

The point here is that the play of fantasy and reality that shapes the Rolling Thunder Revue is part and parcel of both the moment of its creation (the glitzy surface of the Bicentennial overlaying the despair following the recent defeat in Vietnam) and the songs that make up the performances.  Dylan is asking us to think about what happens to the dreams of American romance in a world of military disasters and framed boxers.  His exotic persona–in white face, peering out from under the floppy hat–seems now like a heroic attempt to replace anomie with magic.  The disillusionment of 1976 is sublimated into Dylan’s gypsy identity, which labors to resolve violence and romance.  That dialectical effort is, in turn, reworked forty years later, with Scorcese’s introduction of phony talking heads and grandiose commentary.  Halfway through the movie Michael Murphy turns up, pretending to be the fake politician he played on the “reality” TV series “Tanner ’88.”  The implication is that in 1976 Dylan tapped into something “essential” in America–but that it can now only be delivered as a cinematic joke.    

Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone: “With a style that turns analysis into a form of suspense, Hampton can walk you through “Visions of Johanna” or “Summer Days” the way the art historian T. J. Clark can walk you through Manet’s Olympia.

Every event in American history returns as show business at some point.  Even when we try to think about the limits of illusion and romance we can only do so through the prism of yet another form of fiction.  This American fact haunts the project of the film and the concert tour.  It is condensed in a single detail that emblematizes the whole project.  Near the end of the film we see Dylan visiting Ruben Carter in jail.  Dylan is trying to raise support for a man who has been falsely imprisoned.  This is the American echo of Emile Zola’s accusation of the French government in the Dreyfus Affair–an instance of a great artist stepping up to defend the innocent.  We are dealing with life and death here.  It is serious business.  And yet Dylan shows up for the meeting in his floppy buckaroo hat, adorned with flowers.  He is never out of costume, even when someone else’s life is on the line.  The moment encapsulates the interplay between fantasy and reality, show biz and political violence, that the tour and the film both chronicle and struggle to resolve.  Show biz, as always in America, wins out.

Timothy Hampton teaches literature at the University of California, Berkeley. A scholar of the romance languages, focusing primarily on the Renaissance, he has written widely about literature and culture. His recent book, Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work, was published this year by Zone Books. For more information, please visit his website, where this essay also appears.