Internet Histories | 27 May
celebrating the commencement speech
those criticisms of Kanye
My favourite season is the American spring: that dewy metaphor for fresh starts and new hope and the lush soil from which the commencement address blooms. They're my favourite formality. They're beautiful. They're meaningless. I get lost in them.
In my life, I've experienced two great commencement speeches, which - as you'll see - is a lie. The first was in my seventh form year. It wasn't a speech. It was a sixth-former singing 'I Believe I Can Fly' by R Kelly. We were a generation of teenagers who loved Space Jam, who grew up jiggling to 90s R&B and who, most importantly, believed we could fly. Skip a decade, because I don't remember any of my university graduation speeches. Couldn't even tell you who spoke at them. The main lingering memory I have from those days is of an English professor, telling the class about a former student of his who now worked in a bank. I think it was meant to be a motivational.
The second wasn't a commencement address either. It was Steve Maharey speaking at a conference for the National Research Centre for Growth and Development. It was the New Zealand spring, and he spoke about setting up the Centres of Research Excellence and the challenge of building inspiration and charisma into an organisation - a far more specific speech, but it had all the qualities of a great commencement address: a remarkable orator striking the perfect balance of anecdote and analogy, charming platitude with meaningful commentary, encouragement with caution and grand calls to action.
My favourite commencement speech so far this year has been Rolling Stone journalist Greil Marcus on the false dichotomy between low and high art, and what art is for:
There’s always a social explanation for art. Only it doesn’t explain anything important. Most explanations of art – of what art is, of why people make it, of why some art leads to great success (in other words, fame and money) and some doesn’t – most explanations are meant to reduce art to something that can be easily explained, that can be easily understood. And most explanations of art are meant to exclude a lot of art, and to exclude a lot of people… It all comes down to that urge to fascism — maybe a big word to use for art, but I think the right word — it comes down to that urge to fascism to know what’s best for people, to know that some people are of the best and some people are of the worst; the urge to separate the good from the bad and to praise oneself; to decide what covers on what books people ought to read, what songs people ought to be moved by, what art they ought to make, an urge that makes art into a set of laws that take away your freedom rather than a kind of activity that creates freedom or reveals it. It all comes down to the notion that in the end there is a social explanation for art, which is to say an explanation of what kind of art you should be ashamed of and what kind of art you should be proud of.
The Guardian have rounded up the more high-profile ones here. I'd also highly recommend:
I remember one time when a friend came with a question. “You’re a doctor now,” he said. “So tell me: where exactly is the solar plexus?”
I was stumped. The information was not anywhere in the textbooks.
“I don’t know,” I finally confessed.
“What kind of doctor are you?” he said.
I didn’t feel much better equipped when my wife had two miscarriages, or when our first child was born with part of his aorta missing, or when my daughter had a fall and dislocated her elbow, and I failed to recognize it, or when my wife tore a ligament in her wrist that I’d never heard of—her velluvial matrix, I think it was.
This is a deeper, more fundamental problem than we acknowledge. The truth is that the volume and complexity of the knowledge that we need to master has grown exponentially beyond our capacity as individuals. Worse, the fear is that the knowledge has grown beyond our capacity as a society. When we talk about the uncontrollable explosion in the costs of health care in America, for instance—about the reality that we in medicine are gradually bankrupting the country—we’re not talking about a problem rooted in economics. We’re talking about a problem rooted in scientific complexity.
Michael Lewis' speech to Princeton last year, which asked them to remember that they were lucky, and maybe didn't deserve that luck:
This isn't just false humility. It's false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people… Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.
David Foster Wallace's seminal address to Kenyon College:
And, finally, here's Ira Glass on storytelling. Technically it's not a commencement speech, but as sources of inspiration go it's my favourite:
Kanye West released two new songs last week, a fact that won’t have evaded rap fans or anyone who tosses the occasional glance at the internet. By now you’ve probably seen clips of Ye’s Oz-like face projected onto the sides of high-end designer stores, museums and chapels in major cities worldwide; you may also have caught his performance of both tracks on Saturday Night Live. Perhaps you’re aware that the lyrics of New Slaves deal with racism faced by black men in America, rich and poor alike; that scathing shots are fired at the prison industrial complex and the relentless, predatory vortex of materialism. And if you’ve been keeping up so far, you’ve no doubt witnessed some of the burgeoning backlash, because, as fully 37 trillion people have pointed out, this anti-capitalist critique comes from the Louis Vuitton Don himself.
Sure, Kanye’s the self-proclaimed Louis Vuitton Don. He’s also the self-proclaimed Fly Malcolm X; he’s a rapper who referenced Emmett Till on his very first single; who confronted us with lines like “even if you in a Benz you still a nigga in a coupe” a decade ago; and who’s been ruminating on issues like racism in the porn industry and Chicago’s murder rate ever since. Kanye’s entire back catalogue contains political undercurrents and overtly racial themes, and accusations that he’s suddenly cashing out on the back of oppression or that this is a new, attention-seeking Political Phase should smack as self-evident nonsense to anyone with even a passing familiarity with his work. On Wednesday I asked the universe (via facebook) for someone to put these frail criticisms to bed, and when I woke up the next morning Meaghan Garvey (aka Moneyworth) had tucked them all in with hospital corners. She distills the criticisms levelled against Kanye into three main categories (He’s A Hypocrite, This Isn’t New, and He Wants Attention) and then swiftly dismantles each one. Go and read the whole thing.
There’s not much to add to Garvey’s takedown, but it is interesting to note that all three of the criticisms she identifies target the messenger, rather than the message, of New Slaves. It’s a shitty way to argue, but it’s understandable: it allows Ye’s detractors to sidestep the issue, to avoid confronting the ugly reality that racism - that slavery - still exists. It also speaks to the particular discomfort induced by black men who crack the upper echelons of society and then fail to adopt the role of easily-digestible Dignified Black People; the un-American idols who force their new one-percenter peers to confront the relentless racism and inequality of the system they sit perched atop.
Another great piece on the topic was Ernest Baker’s “On Listening to New Slaves With White People”:
They wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself” and “you know that niggas don’t read” aren’t cute punchlines from a Judd Apatow movie. They might contain an air of wit and sarcasm that lends itself to humor, … but it’s serious commentary on social plight, institutional bigotry ... and overall race relations in America. Listening to “New Slaves” with white people is like going to see Django Unchained. Leonardo DiCaprio might say some ridiculous shit about “niggers,” but that’s not an invitation for your white ass to cackle in the theater.
It’s a call to white people enjoying this song to be mindful and tactful in how they do so; a reminder that even the most well-intentioned of us — those of us deeply invested in anti-racism, those of us who burn for this message to be told and understood — are confronting this stuff from a safe distance.
Well, most of us, anyway. White Feminist, as always, was doing noble work at the frontlines of anti-racism this week:
So ironic that #KanyeWest is arguing against #racism in our society WHILE using the "n" word in his new song. #Triggered #NoExcusesForRacism
— White Feminist (@WhiteFeminist) May 19, 2013