The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

Posts about æsthetics

Good (Casting) Call

You would have to have been living under a rock with bad WiFi not to know about Hamilton by now. And if you know about Hamilton, you almost certainly also know about its casting: with only two exceptions, all the roles are played by people of color. This decision has been the subject of some controversy, but I think most of the discussion misses a central fact about the meaning of race in Hamilton’s casting: it has no single meaning. By my count, it does at least seven different kinds of work on stage and off.

First, casting people of color gave the musical’s creative team access to some phenomenally talented performers. The Marquis de Lafayette, Angelica Schuyler, and Aaron Burr were white, but if you insist that the actors who play them look like them, you don’t get Daveed Diggs’s lightning-fast raps in “Guns and Ships,” Renée Elise Goldsberry’s staccato flow in “Satisfied,” or Leslie Odom Jr.’s seductive croon in “Wait for It.”

Second and relatedly, casting people of color is essential to Hamilton’s musical authenticity. The show is built around musical genres created and continually renewed by people of color. There will be room for some very different productions as the show continues its outward diffusion into American culture, but given this country’s long and fraught history of musical appropriation, it’s symbolically significant that the original and official production gives this music of color to people of color.

Third, putting people of color in most of the roles makes it possible to sharpen the contrast of having a few people of no color. George III and his proxy Samuel Seabury are cast and presented as white within Hamilton’s racial universe, and they sing white, too. It all comes together in “Farmer Refuted,” where Hamilton raps his way over, under, and around Seabury’s Baroque pastiche, making the contrast between the (black) American revolutionaries and the (white) British royalists visible as well as audible.

Fourth, putting African-American actors on stage as revolutionaries helps rework the American Revolution as a moment of African-American empowerment, a juxtaposition that fuels the show. Filtering the 19th century (emancipation) and the 20th century (the civil rights movement) through the 21st (hip-hop) makes the 18th century (the American Revolution) come to life by tapping into a specifically African-American understanding of freedom.

Fifth, by making the all-white Founders black, Hamilton asserts that race doesn’t matter. Alexander Hamilton is defined more by his non-stop-itude than by his race. It’s an optimistic kicking-down of racial barriers; Broadway is open to everyone, so is high political office (thanks, Obama!), so is the world. If George Washington can be black, anyone and anything can be.

Sixty and simultaneously, Hamilton asserts that race very much does matter. Portraying these historical figures as non-white makes it obvious that the real Thomas Jefferson had a race, and that his race was white in a time and place where being white came with massive advantages. “Cabinet Battle #1” makes this explicit:

A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor
We plant seeds in the South. We create.“
Yeah, keep ranting
We know who’s really doing the planting

Seventh, casting slaveowners like Jefferson and Madison with non-white actors is a way of reclaiming American history. That history is deeply problematic (see above) in ways that the casting both acknowledges and transcends. The “your” in “who tells your story” is Alexander Hamilton, to be sure, but it is also the “slaves … being slaughtered and carted away across the waves” and all of the people pushed brutally aside in the long arc of American history. Putting people who look like them in these roles is a way of bending that arc a bit toward justice by repudiating some of history’s worst injustices.

Some of these meanings reinforce each other, while others are mutually contradictory. Resist the temptation to say that one is the right interpretation and another is wrong. Instead, accept that like so much else in this remarkable musical, Hamilton’s casting is overloaded with multiple meanings to a ridiculous degree. Like the musical, like Hamilton himself, it does everything at once.

Social Media and Oral Culture

Until recently, many critiques of social media have come from the perspective of written culture, but the better framework is oral culture.

— an xiao mina (@anxiaostudio) January 3, 2015

A written culture assumption: selfies are the height of vanity. An oral culture reframing: selfies are a way to convey emotion and stories.

— an xiao mina (@anxiaostudio) January 3, 2015

These tweets capture something I’ve also observed in law. For centuries, the Anglo-American legal system has dealt with a world in which written expression was both more fixed and more formal than oral expression. Many legal rules therefore take writings more seriously than the spoken word:

  • Copyright only arises once a work is “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.”
  • Many contracts, and all wills, must be in writing.
  • Written defamation (libel) was taken more seriously than spoken defamation (slander).

These rules are based on fixity: a written contract gives more reliable intentions of what the parties wanted than the their later uncertain and competing recollections. But they are also based on formality: requiring a written contract is a “device for inducing the circumspective frame of mind appropriate in one pledging his future,” as Lon Fuller put it.

Social media, however, combine the fixity of the written tradition with the fluidity, immediacy, and interdependence of the oral tradition. As a result, people use them in ways that resemble casual conversations more than carefully crafted compositions–but unlike with the spoken word, the results are preserved and made visible. As Zeynep Tufekci puts it, “Twitter is not a broadcast medium but a medium of conversation.” Misunderstanding results. Observers who expect that social media should have the dignity and gravity of the written word can feel affronted when others use social media more informally.

I see this slippage at work in Internet law all the time. The legal system repeatedly asks itself whether social media should be taken seriously. For example, the section of my casebook on online speech asks whether Amanda Bonnen’s infamous tweet was legally actionable:

@JessB123 You should just come anyway. Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s okay.

The black-letter doctrinal answer is that of course it was, ssuming the apartment was in fact mold-free. But it’s uncomfortable. Horizon would never have found out about the statement had it come up in a conversation between Amanda and Jess B.; even if it had, a lawsuit would have been extremely unlikely. I regularly get students who moot the idea that maybe Twitter shouldn’t “count” for defamation purposes. They’re grasping at this idea of orality, but they don’t have good doctrinal hooks on which to hang the intuition.

For another example, Steven Salaita’s defenders have argued both that it was inappropriate for the University of Illinois to examine his tweets and that tweets shouldn’t be held to the same standards of rigor and decorum as academic writings. Rephrase those as claims about the orality of Twitter and it’s easier to see the division between them and his critics. Something similar is afoot in copyright’s increasingly tenuous distinction between reproductions and performances; we may be witnessing the demise of the “copy” as the core unit of copy-right. And some of the arguments about social media privacy may hinge on the idea that people use them conversationally.

Seeing a tweet that unlocks an idea for me, as these did, is a happy experience. It reminds me how much I enjoy participating in oral culture–and in written culture too.

Update (January 12, 2015)

An Xiao Mina has posted a Medium essay, “Digital Culture is Like Oral Culture Written Down,” that articulates and extends her points from Twitter. Consider it a must-read.

Lost Objects from Another Life Are Restored to You

Memory runs in reverse on the Internet: it improves over time. Fragments of ideas that once were irretrievably shattered jump up back on the shelf and reassemble themselves, intact and entire. What has gone, instead, is the numinous sentiment of forgetting, the possibility of a chord that is more beautiful because it is Lost.

In the spring of 1995, as an eager young admitted college student, I went to an a cappella concert. I was rapt; the whole weekend felt like a portal temporarily opened to a wondrous new world. (Yes, and no.) Somewhere toward the middle of the program, if I remember rightly, the Radcliffe Pitches took the stage, and performed a song that was etherial and haunting.1 It had suggestions of fairytales, and snow, and childhood and the sadness of time and growing up, and it hit me somewhere a few inches above and behind my heart.

Then, of course, I forgot it. I tried to hold it as best as I could, but between the whirl of the rest of the program, and the whirl of the rest of the weekend, and the whirl of senior spring, by the summer the melody had gone and so had most of the lyrics. Open fifths and something about a snowman, but that was close to it–that and the feeling of the song in its chill and wistful beauty. That the song itself was partly about forgetting and loss and trying to hold on to memories only made the feeling sharper.

But this was the dawn of the Web was we know it, that period of a few years when it went from being a specialized repository of weird and wonderful things to a reliable storehouse of just about anything. I started prowling through search engines and lyrics sites trying to find a trail back to the song. Given the technology available to me, it was something of a long shot: I was clicking through every site in promising sections of the Yahoo directory and punching random combinations of possible keywords into Altavista in the hopes that its inscrutable way of expressing itself would for an instant line up with my own and the song’s.

Sometime in the spring of 1996, after following a research trail I couldn’t have reconstructed even at the time, I got a hint that what I was looking for might (or might not) be a Tori Amos song. This was 1996. I couldn’t go to YouTube, or iTunes. So I started working through Tori Amos fansites, one after another, page after page, looking for plausible song titles and reading lots and lots and lots of lyrics. After looking at more B-sides and Tori Amos ephemera than I care to remember, I had just about convinced myself that I was barking up the wrong tree.

And then I found Winter:2

Snow can wait
I forgot my mittens
Wipe my nose
Get my new boots on
I get a little warm in my heart
When I think of winter
I put my hand in my father’s glove
I run off
Where the drifts get deeper
Sleeping beauty trips me with a frown
I hear a voice
“You must learn to stand up for yourself
Cause I can’t always be around”

I was about 60% sure from reading the lyrics that this was the song I remembered. (I told you that I had forgotten more of it than I remembered.) That was enough to send me off to buy the CD, and when I hit play, was 100% sure. I sat in my dorm room, completely silent and completely still, and let that sense of growth and loss, of sadness and memory and otherworldly beauty flow through me. It was a very first year of college kind of experience, and a very first year of college kind of song.

There is more to the story of me and the song, but not to this memory. The memory ends there, on that early spring afternoon (yes, it was exactly the right time of year, too) when, a little miraculously, the music that had disappeared from my life came back into it. The circle closed, the emotion recapitulated itself, the moment was complete.

Years later, I realized what bunkum my search for this “lost” song was. It wasn’t as though I was trying to reconstruct a fragment of music I heard once while passing through a tiny village in a country that no longer exists. It was a pop song, performed by a vocal group, at the college I was attending. A girl down the hall from me was in the Pitches. I could have asked her. It wasn’t even that asking would have felt like cheating, or that my connection with the song was too personal to speak of to another living soul. No, I never even considered that it was something I could ask about. Like I said, it was a very first year of college kind of experience, from start to finish.

But even if this particular search was a snipe hunt I sent myself on, the search was still a kind of experience that’s increasingly rare in my life and in others’. Search engines give much, but they also take away that ephemeral sense of something amazing just beyond one’s fingertips. If you go looking for something, you’re likely to find it, and quickly:

I don’t want to say that my aesthetic experience is poorer now, or that life online is emotionally flatter than it was two decades ago. It’s just different, is all. New kinds of experiences have taken the places left empty when what once was hard became straightforward. Calling them “better” or “worse” isn’t really true to the spirit of the old ones, or the new. I can feel wistful for the time when I knew a Tori Amos song without knowing what it was, without wanting to go back to that time. Just like in the song.

I love that in 2014, the Pitches’ website still has a Harvard Computer Society URL.

The 1996 me would have been stunned and delighted to learn that someday there would be a free online encyclopedia so absurdly comprehensive it would have a 500-word entry on the very song I was looking for.