How Many Times, Sweethearts?

by Belle Waring on August 21, 2018

Like most people (I think?), if I’m listening to an album with a song I dearly love I will hit the back icon on my phone screen and just listen to that joint again. And again. And then, additionally, again. I’m not sure what the limit has ever been. I mentioned this already about the Rolling Stones “Worried About You.” I have listened to it about 12 times this morning, and it’s just starting again. I’m trying to think what other songs demand extravagant repetition. I once made a mix tape to listen to on my long commute to high school that had Van Morrison’s “Madam George” twice in a row at the start, so I only had to go back once, but with the distinctive sound of the rewind clattering softly for such a long time.

Big Star is a little tough because there are so many songs. “Stroke It Noel” is the my one truest, though. I was both in love and depressed when I listened to it first, which may explain my obsessive fondness. When I learned about Big Star (which was in my first year of graduate school, meaning I wasted actual years of my life not listening to Big Star) I had the LP, so I had to sit by the turntable and pick up the needle and move it back again and again. I’m damn good at having the needle slowly settle down into the tiny groove of silent space. I know I’ve told you this, but maybe not all of you. I had the funny experience of going home to my dad’s and playing Big Star and having him say, “is that Alex Chilton?” I said yes, and his response was “I know that guy. I think he’s in Tennessee.” Me, breathless, “could you, like, call him up?” “Yeah, I could get his number from [my godfather.]” Me: soul swiftly leaving body “then–” “I wouldn’t, though, I hate that guy. He’s an asshole.” DAD WHY?! So, that.

Let me think of some other repeats. Mmmm…Sam Cooke “Cupid” live–so piercing and sweet. Teenage Fanclub “December.” I’ll post later about how ideally songs like this are 2:59 or less, because that’s just the perfect length, but also because it’s memorialized in The Clash’s “Hitsville UK: “the band came in and knocked them dead/in two minutes fifty-nine.” However I need the desktop and John is like, doing real work, god (eyeroll emoji). Many of these are longer but arresting; quite a number of my faves are a lot shorter than 2:59, like “Stroke It Noel” coming in at 2:06. You just have to listen to that again. Warren Zevon “The French Inhaler”–how did he convince Stevie Nicks to sing “where will you go/with your scarves and your miracles/who’s going to know who you are?” There are not enough recent songs on here which is not totally representative of what music I listen to but I’m blanking out somehow. The Mountain Goats (not recent, but I just thought of it): “This Year”; this is a gimme, but I had a year to get through or die, so I deserve this song. (Also “Wear Black” off their latest album). Sorry about the radio silence; things have been going epically badly, and we’re by no means out of the woods. My psychologist has suggested that withdrawing from other humans, practical necessities, and the entire world, alone with my sweet headphones, listening to the same song over and over in an OCD way is harmful to my mental health, or at least not best practices. Hah what does he know. Share your “must be listened to multiple times” favorites in coments

I wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the Avital Ronell/Nimrod Reitman sexual harassment story. Here are some excerpts:

The question of sex, of Ronell’s work and stature in academe, of literary theory or critical theory or the academic left, of the supposed hypocrisy of the scholars who rallied to her side, of the fact that the alleged harasser is a woman and gay while the alleged victim is a man and gay — all of this, if one reads Reitman’s complaint, seems a little beside the point. And has, I think, clouded the fundamental issue. Or issues.

What’s clear from the complaint is just how much energy and attention — both related and unrelated to academic matters — Ronell demanded of Reitman, her student. At all hours of the night, across three continents, on email, phone, Skype, in person, on campus, on other campuses (Ronell berates Reitman when he does not accompany her to the weekly lectures she is giving at Princeton that semester; according to Reitman, she even punishes him for this act of desertion, removing him from a conference she was organizing and at which he had been slated to present), in apartments, classrooms, hallways, offices, subway stations (there are multiple scenes at the Astor Place stop, with Ronell either insisting on walking Reitman to the train or keeping him on the phone until he gets on the train), and elsewhere. It’s almost as if Reitman could have no life apart from her. Indeed, according to the complaint, when Reitman had visitors — a member of his family, a friend — Ronell protested their presence, seemingly annoyed that Reitman should attend to other people in his life, that he had other people in his life. That really is the harassment: the claims she thought she could make on him simply because he was her advisee.

The issue of sex always clouds these discussions. One side focuses on the special violation that is supposed to be sexual harassment; the other side (including many feminists) accuses the first of puritanism and sex panic. Try as they might, neither side ever gets beyond the sex.

Hanging over all of these exchanges, unmentioned, is the question of power. This is a grad student trying to make his way in an institution where everything depends on the good (or bad) word of his adviser.

The precinct of the academy in which this story occurs prides itself on its understanding of power. Unfortunately, that understanding is often not extended to the faculty’s dealings with graduate students, where power can be tediously, almost comically, simple. Cross your adviser in any way, and that can be the end of your career.

In her various responses to the case, Ronell implies that people on the outside of these relationships don’t understand the shared language, the common assumptions, the culture of queer and camp (and of being Israeli, which both she and Reitman are). As soon as she went there, my antenna went up. It reminded me of communitarians in the 1980s and 1990s, who made similar arguments about local cultures, that people outside of them don’t understand the internal meanings of the specific codes and customs, particularly when those codes and customs are oppressive toward women or gays and lesbians or people of color, that people on the outside don’t understand how differently that oppressiveness might read to someone on the inside. And it also reminded me of Judith Shklar’s admonition to the communitarians: Before you buy the story of shared codes and customs, make sure to hear from the people on the lower rungs, when they are far away from the higher rungs, to see how shared that code truly is.

For all of Ronell’s talk of shared codes and such, there is one experience, one code, in this story that every academic — gay, straight, male, female, black, white, brown, trans, queer — has shared: being a graduate student.

And here is the whole piece.