Remedial education

This essay considers the process of remediation in two North American reproductions of the song-and-dance sequence “Jaan Pehechaan Ho” from the 1965 Bollywood film Gumnaam. The song was used in the opening sequence of the 2001 U.S. independent film Ghost World as a familiar-but-strange object of ironic bewilderment and fantasy for its alienated teenage protagonist Enid. But a decade before Ghost World’s release, “Jaan Pehechaan Ho” had already become the lynchpin of a complex debate about cultural appropriation and multicultural identity for an “alternative” audience in the United States. I illustrate this through an ethnographic analysis of a 1994 videotape of the Heavenly Ten Stems, an experimental rock band in San Francisco, whose performance of the song was disrupted by a group of activists who perceived their reproduction as a mockery. How is Bollywood film song, often itself a kitschy send-up of American popular culture, remediated differently for different projects of reception? How do these cycles of appropriation create overlapping conditions for new identities—whether national, diasporic, or “alternative”—within the context of transcultural media consumption? In drawing out the “ghost world” of Bollywood’s juxtapositions, I argue that the process of remediation produces more than just new forms and meanings of media, but is constitutive of the cosmopolitan subjects formed in its global circulations.

The demo for “Blank Space”

Naomi Watts in Flirting, 1991.

Poster for The Long Goodbye by Jack Davis, 1973

Henri Cartier-Bresson. Andre PIEYRE DE MANDIARGUES, 1933.

from T. J. Clark: For a Left With No Future (2012)

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will? Not any more: because optimism is now a political tonality indissociable from the promises of consumption. ‘Future’ exists only in the stock-exchange plural. Hope is no longer given us for the sake of the hopeless: it has mutated into an endless political and economic Micawberism.

The tragic key makes many things possible and impossible. But perhaps what is central for the left is that tragedy does not expect something—something transfiguring—to turn up. The modern infantilization of politics goes along with, and perhaps depends on, a constant orientation of politics towards the future. Of course the orientation has become weak and formulaic, and the patter of programmers and gene-splicers more inane. Walter Benjamin would recoil in horror at the form his ‘weak messianism’ actually took once the strong messiahs of the twentieth century went away. The Twitter utopia joins hands with the Tea Party. But the direction of politics resists anything the reality of economics—even outright immiseration making a comeback—can throw at it. Politics, in the form we have it, is nothing without a modernity constantly in the offing, at last about to realize itself: it has no other telos, no other way to imagine things otherwise. The task of the left is to provide one.

‘Presence of mind as a political category’, says Benjamin,

comes magnificently to life in these words of Turgot: ‘Before we have learned to deal with things in a given state, they have already changed several times. Thus, we always find out too late about what has happened. And therefore it can be said that politics is obliged to foresee the present’.[18]

Ziggy’s Gift (1982). Title song by Harry Nilsson.

A Visit from Saint Nicholas In The Ernest Hemingway Manner

“Some guy. A little guy.”

James Thurber, in The New Yorker 24 December 1927

It was the night before Christmas. The house was very quiet. No creatures were stirring in the house. There weren’t even any mice stirring. The stockings had been hung carefully by the chimney. The children hoped that Saint Nicholas would come and fill them.

The children were in their beds. Their beds were in the room next to ours. Mamma and I were in our beds. Mamma wore a kerchief. I had my cap on. I could hear the children moving. We didn’t move. We wanted the children to think we were asleep.

“Father,” the children said.

There was no answer. He’s there, all right, they thought.

“Father,” they said, and banged on their beds.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“We have visions of sugarplums,” the children said.

“Go to sleep,” said mamma.

“We can’t sleep,” said the children. They stopped talking, but I could hear them
moving. They made sounds.

“Can you sleep?” asked the children.

“No,” I said.

“You ought to sleep.”

“I know. I ought to sleep.”

“Can we have some sugarplums?”

“You can’t have any sugarplums,” said mamma.

“We just asked you.”

There was a long silence. I could hear the children moving again.

“Is Saint Nicholas asleep?” asked the children.

“No,” mamma said. “Be quiet.”

“What the hell would he be asleep tonight for?” I asked.

“He might be,” the children said.

“He isn’t,” I said.

“Let’s try to sleep,” said mamma.

The house became quiet once more. I could hear the rustling noises the children made when they moved in their beds.

Out on the lawn a clatter arose. I got out of bed and went to the window. I opened the shutters; then I threw up the sash. The moon shone on the snow. The moon gave the lustre of mid-day to objects in the snow. There was a miniature sleigh in the snow, and eight tiny reindeer. A little man was driving them. He was lively and quick. He whistled and shouted at the reindeer and called them by their names. Their names were Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen.

He told them to dash away to the top of the porch, and then he told them to dash away to the top of the wall. They did. The sleigh was full of toys.

“Who is it?” mamma asked.

“Some guy,” I said. “A little guy.”

I pulled my head in out of the window and listened. I heard the reindeer on the roof. I could hear their hoofs pawing and prancing on the roof.

“Shut the window,” said mamma.

I stood still and listened.

“What do you hear?”

“Reindeer,” I said. I shut the window and walked about. It was cold. Mamma sat up in the bed and looked at me.

“How would they get on the roof?” mamma asked.

“They fly.”

“Get into bed. You’ll catch cold.”

Mamma lay down in bed. I didn’t get into bed. I kept walking around.

“What do you mean, they fly?” asked mamma.

“Just fly is all.”

Mamma turned away toward the wall. She didn’t say anything. I went out into the room where the chimney was. The little man came down the chimney and stepped into the room. He was dressed all in fur. His clothes were covered with ashes and soot from the chimney. On his back was a pack like a peddler’s pack. There were toys in it. His cheeks and nose were red and he had dimples. His eyes twinkled. His mouth was little, like a bow, and his beard was very white. Between his teeth was a stumpy pipe. The smoke from the pipe encircled his head in a wreath. He laughed and his belly shook. It shook like a bowl of red jelly. I laughed. He winked his eye, then he gave a twist to his head. He didn’t say anything.

He turned to the chimney and filled the stockings and turned away from the chimney. Laying his finger aside his nose, he gave a nod. Then he went up the chimney. I went to the chimney and looked up. I saw him get into his sleigh. He whistled at his team and the team flew away. The team flew as lightly as thistledown. The driver called out, “Merry Christmas and good night.” I went back to bed.

“What was it?” asked mamma. “Saint Nicholas?” She smiled.

“Yeah,” I said.

She sighed and turned in the bed.

“I saw him,” I said.


“I did see him.”

“Sure you saw him.” She turned farther toward the wall.

“Father,” said the children.

“There you go,” mamma said. “You and your flying reindeer.”

“Go to sleep,” I said.

“Can we see Saint Nicholas when he comes?” the children asked.

“You got to be asleep,” I said. “You got to be asleep when he comes. You can’t see him unless you’re unconscious.”

“Father knows,” mamma said.

I pulled the covers over my mouth. It was warm under the covers. As I went to sleep I wondered if mamma was right.

Gorod Zero (1989, d. Karen Shakhnazarov)

Bob Seger was thirty-one years old when he recorded “Night Moves,” which is about as old as I was when I heard it — I mean really heard it — for the first time. You have to be at least thirty to appreciate “Night Moves.”

We weren’t in love, oh no, far from it. . . . We were just young and restless and bored. “Night Moves” is about “grassers” — parties where Seger and his friends would park their cars and put the headlights on and dance to records before (according to the song, anyway) retiring to the back seat or the trusty woods, where they devoted themselves to working on mysteries without any clues. The song is about nostalgia — Seger was as far away from 1962 as we are from the year 2000 — but the weird thing about nostalgia is that it can make you nostalgic for experiences you never had. Objects in the rearview are more precious than they appeared, especially to those teenage virgins who never did anything in the woods but hike. Ain’t it funny how you remember?

The best coming-of-age stories have a hole in the middle. They pretend to be about knowledge, but they are usually about grasping, long after it could be of any use, one’s irretrievable ignorance. Felt the lightning / And we waited on the thunder / Waited on the thunder — that’s when Seger wakes from his reverie, to the sound of thunder in 1976. It took fourteen years for it to find its way to him.

In perhaps the most perfect coming-of-age story, Great Expectations, Pip finds out too late — which is to say, right on time — that he has misunderstood everything about his youth. The fondest memory of the protagonists of Sentimental Education is when, as boys, they ran out of a brothel; their best time was something they didn’t do. Robert Zemeckis had the same idea, in Back to the Future. When Marty McFly gives his parents a better love story and changes his whole childhood, the price he pays is missing it. He can only come of age in an alternate reality. He skips the life that happened. We all do. That’s why we need so many stories about it.