March 2018

The first two essays in this issue examine responses and critiques to colonialism in very different historical, political, and cultural contexts. The next two essays both deal with cultural politics in the age of rock ’n’ roll. The four book reviews introduce exciting new writings in various areas, from transimperial geographies across the Caribbean, the Atlantic, and the Americas to the history of American food to critical prison studies and poetics, aesthetics, criticism, and experimental writing.

 Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard, and the Queer Roots of Rock
Tyina Steptoe

The article uses African American performers Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton and Richard “Little Richard” Penniman to explore the influence of queer performers on early rock ’n’ roll music. Both musicians became recording artists during a climate of anti-queer backlash in the 1950s. Yet Thornton and Penniman found ways to subvert normative ideas about gender. Their gender non-conformity helped establish the rebellious nature of rock ’n’ roll, which shows how black queer performance influenced the genre’s development and popularity in the 1950s and beyond.


As rock ’n’ roll music soared in popularity, Hollywood capitalized on the new sound with films designed to appeal to teenage fans. One of those films, Don't Knock The Rock (1956), features a dynamic performance of the hit songs “Long Tall Sally” and “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard and his band. Little Richard briefly retired from popular music in 1957 and turned to religion before making a triumphant return in the early sixties. In a 2017 interview, Little Richard (who had not given an interview in decades) discusses why he traded rock 'n' roll for religion.

Big Mama Thornton experienced a career revival in the mid 1960s. She especially gained a following on college campuses, where she largely played to white audiences. A video of a performance from the early 1970s shows her performing for an enthusiastic crowd in Eugene, Oregon. Thornton also toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival revue, which included Buddy Guy and Mississippi Fred McDowell. In 1970 she performed the song “Ball and Chain” during a television appearance with the Buddy Guy Blues Band. 

The Primal Is The Political: Psychotherapy, Engagement, and Narcissism in the 1970s
Paul Williams and Brian Edgar

“Through no fault of mine the therapy is in the shadows. I never learned how to promote.”
Arthur Janov, February 1, 2017

Our article “The Primal Is The Political: Psychotherapy, Engagement And Narcissism in the 1970s” seeks to contribute to the revisionist historiography of the 1970s by showing that Arthur Janov’s primal therapy, which is often cited as the paradigmatic example of the decade’s retreat from political engagement to a “narcissistic” concern with the self, was in fact predicated on a socialist critique of American capitalism and offered by its creator to a generation of revolutionaries looking for a way to avoid the mistakes which, Janov believed, had been made by predecessors who had sometimes succeeded in changing societies without first changing themselves.

This 1973 Canadian TV film about Janov (“Primal Therapy” - In Search Of The Real You) comes across as rather uncritical, but the footage shot inside the primal institute is genuinely illuminating and gives a good idea of the nature of the “primal,” a sometimes violent reliving of past trauma that forms the basic unit of Janov’s therapy.

Our article seeks to establish the existence of Janov’s politics, not their merit, and we discuss his failure to seek connection to some of the most relevant struggles of the day, while highlighting his fundamental flaw as both therapist and political strategist: the grandiosity that led to the claim -apparently on the basis of having treated 64 people, the vast majority almost certainly white Californians—to have discovered “the cure for neurosis.” Nevertheless, a brief survey of his cultural reach in the years following the 1970 publication of The Primal Scream helps us to understand why he had such confidence in his own contribution.

It is hard to think of any figure with greater influence over the young at that time than John Lennon, so Lennon’s enthusiastic response to a copy of The Primal Scream sent to him by the publisher guaranteed massive publicity for the new therapy. Before the year was out Lennon had produced a classic album - John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band - that might well have seemed an endorsement of primal therapy.

Our article analyses the primal politics of “Working Class Hero,” Lennon’s channeling of early Bob Dylan.

We offer a new reading of the enigmatic “Well Well Well,” based on the assumption that there is a lot more to screaming than meets the ear.

As we show in our article, Lennon’s second solo LP Imagine was just as primal (and just as political), and when the British people voted “Imagine” their favourite lyric they were unknowingly paying tribute to primal therapy’s ability to give Lennon a global vision through which to articulate his politics.

Our article challenges the view that Yoko Ono’s screaming was significantly influenced by her time with Janov. This track -"Greenfield Morning"- from the post-therapy album she released in parallel with her husband’s LP, expresses the pain and loss not of childhood but of an adult woman. It’s a good example of Ono’s early and courageous feminist politics.

But even without any contribution from Yoko Ono, Janov’s cultural reach was impressive, and in 1974 the single "Life Is Like a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)" by Reunion included “Arthur Janov’s primal screaming” as one of the iconic items of post-war pop culture.

Nevertheless, this influence was far from global, being mainly confined to Europe, and to North America and other English-speaking territories. Primal therapy was appropriated by the Indian spiritual leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later Osho), but on behalf of “neurotic" Westerners who, he thought, needed catharsis as preparation for meditation. Even within Europe, Janov’s influence was uneven; Sweden seems to have been particularly open to his ideas, and one admirer of The Primal Scream was Ingmar Bergman, who read a translation in 1974, and developed a friendship with Janov after meeting him in October-November 1975. Some critics have seen the influence of Janov’s ideas in his 1976 film Face to Face (some clips from the film can be seen here.)

There was even a primal connection to the Olympics: as part of the closing ceremony at the 1976 Montreal games, Canadian jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, performed “Pagliacci”, a song from his album Primal Scream, recorded August-October 1975.  However, we’ve been unable to establish if Ferguson was interested in Janov’s ideas or simply liked “primal scream” as a title. In fact, ever since The Primal Scream was published Janov’s phrase has taken on a life of its own, re-used as the name of a Scottish band founded in the 1980s by Bobby Gillespie and a British underground comic from 1976. Recently it’s been pressed into service by commemorators who see it as suggesting both the raw and inarticulate anger of American and European populism and the agony and indignation of its opponents. Janov became a victim of the success of his own book title, and was sometimes forced to insist that he did not practice ‘primal scream therapy’. 

Janov’s influence was fading in the 1980s but its presence was palpable on one of the decade’s standout singles, “Mad World” by British synth-pop band Tears for Fears.

Their very name came from Janov’s ideas and the song “Ideas As Opiates” was inspired by Janov’s iteration of the work of Candace Pert, discoverer of the body’s own opiate system.

Janov’s influence declined swiftly from then on, although he has occasionally inspired later work, such as Mötley Crüe’s song “Primal Scream” (1991).

Janov himself impacted directly on popular culture when in 1993 Celine Dion recorded a song he co-wrote with David Foster.

Given the precipitate decline in his cultural influence and therapeutic presence, it is appropriate that an early appearance in the new millennium was alongside Emmanuel Swedenborg and Wilhelm Reich at the Tate Britain, in an installation called BE ANGRY BUT DON’T STOP BREATHING by Mark Titchener, an artist described as someone who “often revisits defunct and outmoded philosophies, especially those born out of an avant-garde idealism which has long since waned.”

If primal therapy no longer inspires chart-topping musicians, in recent years it has shown a continuing capacity to interest artists working in less popular media.

This good-natured 2014 parody is accompanied by some provocative comments on Janov’s career.

Manoman (2015) a BAFTA-nominated short by British artist Simon Cartwright turns “primal therapy” into “primal scream therapy”, with interesting consequences!

Liz Magic Laser’s Primal Speech (2016) is a brilliantly imagined and realized probing of the political implications of primal therapy and the New Age practices with which it now finds itself in uneasy co-existence.

Critical Prison Studies: Review of the Field
Micol Seigel

This book review tries to sketch out the field of “critical prison studies,” which it argues deserves to be understood as a coherent field despite the varying politics and disciplines of the authors and works one might argue belong under this umbrella.

For those who might like to introduce undergraduates to aspects of the CPS project, there are some great films available these days, from Ava Duvernay’s popular 13th, which I would call a film rendition of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow; the 1974 Attica film, soon to be joined by another documentary drawing from Heather Thompson’s research; the devastating film about the rebellion at the Brazilian prison Carandiru (2003); Whose Streets, about police violence and protests in Ferguson, by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis; Jacqueline Gares’ profile of CeCe McDonald, Free CeCe; and my personal favorite CPS film at the moment, Brett Story’s The Prison in Twelve Landscapes

Another classroom possibility involves thinking about, perhaps interacting with or flat-out joining some of the activist groups that are doing the work the field aims to support.  Here’s a very brief, very abbreviated list (perhaps students could research the activities going on in their own city or town):

Assata’s Daughters. Statements.
Black Youth Project 100. About.
Critical Resistance. The Oakland power projects. Allies.
Disarm NYPD, “About Disarm.”
Durham Beyond Policing. (2016). We demand a Durham beyond police.
For A World Without Police. (2016). Overview. (an anonymous collective)
Justice Now.
LA for Youth, 1% Campaign.
Lifted Voices. #Stopthecops: Blockading the International Chiefs of Police Conference.
Milk Not Jails
No New Jail Coalition (Indianapolis).
Spirithouse. The harm free zone.
Unity and Struggle. Police.
Venus Project (a world without money).
We Charge Genocide 2016, sunset announcement.

The Shape of Poetics to Come: On Taking Up the Task of Criticism
Tiana Reid

My review essay brings together recent books in and around American studies that not only center poetry as a mode of social and political criticism but also imagine criticism to have poetic tones. Simply put, there is politics in poetry but there is also poetry in the political.

I read recent work by Franco Berardi, Maggie Nelson, Samantha Pinto, Anthony Reed, and Christina Sharpe but it is M. NourbeSe Philip’s She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, which was reprinted in 2015 by Wesleyan University Press, that is truly the backbone of my review essay in this issue’s American Quarterly. I have written about Philip’s work before, and have also had the bliss of watching her perform in various settings. To read a Philip poem is to experience disruption but to hear it is to feel unrepeatability. In the break between experience and feeling, the rhythm of silence and noise becomes archipelagic.

On her website, Philip envisions a collective performance of silence through the uploaded audio of an eight-minute reading of “Discourse on the Logic of Language,” which she has called the “signature poem” of She Tries Her Tongue. The recording includes various voices, music, and drumming floating in and out of the track. The recording starts with a jolt of silence, a white noise, a buzzing electric movement that marks all of the beyond-text that constructed this performance: the time of its recording (an exact date and time unknown to me) and its upload (September 2011), the place and setting of its recording, the preparation, the voice casting, the voice recording technology, the rehearsals, and so on. The reading starts with Philip’s voice, her reading the title and the middle column of the published version. About one minute into the recording, Philip’s voice gets softer and fizzles out as another voice begins to overlap with hers. This second voice, which might be best described as a conventionally masculine voice with a British accent, reads “Edict 1,” an order centering this voice as representing an official voice, a figure of authority, a figure that enacts the “silencing of the silenced,” the force of the law but also the vernacular of the law, the everyday way the law gets experienced as clashing tongues and incomprehensible pronunciations. Meanwhile, underneath, Philip continues to ask, “What is my mother / tongue” but her question is now layered by the force of the law. The “Discourse on the Logic of Language” is now background noise, still present but unintelligible or in the words of the poem “dumb-tongued / dub-tongued / damn dumb” for about fifteen seconds until the reading of “Edict 1” concludes.

Philip’s voice continues to read that middle column as another recorded version of her voice begins to read the first column, setting up another reading method as the recording now begins to resemble a part-song, a kind of choral music with various vocal parts (musical rounds are an example of this). This part of the text or, if you will, part-text, is written in the printed version in all capitalizations, though you would not know it if you were only listening to the recording and had no printed text to refer to. This passage, especially important for thinking about (gendered) labor and the work of silence, reads:


Tongue-as-language is figured as mother’s care. Recall that the background sound is still pulsing with the middle column—“English / is my mother tongue. / A mother tongue is not / not a foreign lan lan lang / language / l/anguish / anguish / —a foreign anguish.” Philip’s coupling of language with what Christina Sharpe might call a “monstrous intimacy” is worked through the dissonant voices and a newborn’s eventual silence, shedding light on a sounding out of the terms of coming into the world as constitutive of coming into language and thus, subjection.

The necessarily physical act of reading is expounded by the poem “Discourse on the Logic of Language,” which is organized into at least three sections on the first and third pages (four if you include the title). In order to read one part of the poem, the reader is required to shift around the book and read it on its side. This rotated view, this slighted worldview, confronts the Enlightenment-style tone of certain sections of the poem and asks the reader to either tilt their head or the book. The reading of “Discourse” on the page necessitates a similar kind of movement to the multiple layered voices on the recording by disorienting one’s relationship to up, down, left, right, inside, and out.

All is up for grabs.