The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
“I am merely opening a dossier,” says Roland Barthes, again and again, throughout his three final seminars in Paris in the late seventies, each course posthumously converted to a book, each book divided into annotated weekly lectures, subsectioned into brief semi-independent scholia. More than lecture notes but short of sustained essay, each book is agile, esoteric, and unsynthesized, pivoting continually to consult yet another tangential text or discipline.
“I am merely opening a dossier,” says Roland Barthes, again and again, throughout his three final seminars in Paris in the late seventies, each course posthumously converted to a book, each book divided into annotated weekly lectures, subsectioned into brief semi-independent scholia. More than lecture notes but short of sustained essay, each book is agile, esoteric, and unsynthesized, pivoting continually to consult yet another tangential text or discipline. In my favorite, a course he called How To Live Together, Barthes unpacks a kind of fantasy he has (and so do I) of idiorrhythmy, by which the editor says he means: historical or utopian arrangements, at some remove from civilization, wherein individuals live singly but with common spaces of voluntary, nonfamilial togetherness. For examples, Barthes sees fit to make brief forays into the Shakers, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, the history of the university, and certain Greek monastic traditions, signaling throughout his express intention to pull or recall only what he wants, to forestall exhaustiveness, by repeating that he is only glossing, opening the dossier wherein much more lies, should anyone wish to pursue it.
A dossier then is a repository of otherwise loose relevant material, a file, on a subject. Usually a human subject. The term is professional, and may be primarily legal. I believe there is even a kind of briefcase called a dossier briefcase, one which—in my image of it—is still portable by a handle but larger than standard, with an overtop flap and front clasp. One might keep a dossier on a client or a suspect, or, in other professions, a recruit. I think it has currency in the world of espionage. For me, though, for many teaching writers, more than ever, the term is a codeword of academia, full of a kind of consternation for those who struggle for a career there. As I write this, it is again high season for applications, and I am yet again updating my teaching dossier, which has been kept on file with a dossier service since 2005. In a practice I began last year, I have copied and pasted a few appealing job postings—a meager amount this year —from a horrid site called Academic Wiki Creative Writing 2015, a kind of toxic message board in which anonymous posters, who identify themselves and others by their credentials to measure in shorthand their relative professional attractiveness (“2 Books, PhD” or “1 book, MFA, visiting position”), carp at one another, speculate about each search’s fairness, and hiss at the opaque system generally. Who do you think you are, shitting on a TT poetry job at Purdue? You’d be lucky to make it past initial screening for a Big Ten MFA program. A huge name will get this job. The wiki has so many pop-up ads, it crashes my browser if I am on it longer than five minutes. I move my cursor around the window so I don’t hover over anything unintentionally. I feel certain each time that I’ve caught a virus there.
Not long ago a dossier was understood (if that’s the word) to be “evidence of teaching success”: evaluations from one’s students and peer observers, syllabi, and even sample assignments, as well as letters of recommendation from more established writers in the profession, letters invalid unless applicants waive their right to read them. Applications are now so numerous, that amount of material would be prohibitively unwieldy and so schools request only the letters, until finalists are named. Still I pay the service $65 a year to keep my three letters unknown to me, and mail them to the search committees. As do, I presume, the majority of my 267 fellow applicants—the number named in the rejection letter from Rice University last spring. The rest of the dossier one provides himself, later in the process, at the preliminary interview stage. Dossier, from the French, for “on one’s back,” I have started to say in shorthand commiseration, to my confrères on the outs. A family, we, of unaffiliateds.
Last season I was lucky. At the Modern Languages Association conference in Chicago, I had preliminary interviews with five schools, more than anyone, everyone said. I bought a suit bag to contain my new second suit, the overcoat I purchased for my first such interview six years prior, a few shirts, and all five ties I own, as well as a $400 flight and a $225 registration fee, as it is unclear whether one is admitted uncredentialed to a conference hotel; my own room was $150 per night. A week thereafter, Rice was the school that called me back, for a campus visit. I was one of three candidates flown to Houston and put up in a chic boutique hotel, and elaborately hosted. I toured the campus; taught a sample class; interviewed with more than a dozen faculty members, including the dean of Humanities and the chair of English; shared four meals over two days with would-be colleagues; and gave a presentation of my work. The job went to a fourth candidate, an “inside hire,” time would reveal, the lecturer whose closed office was next to the one I had been given as a staging area. It made sense of the unnerving disengagement I had perceived from the faculty who torpidly attended my late-afternoon talk, and of the odd c’est la vie air from the chair as she was confiding to me that my teaching materials were the finest in the search. My dossier was exceptional. Thanks.
I am merely opening a dossier here, on disappointment with academia. The file is rather full. I have been second in line for three other tenure positions at universities, and in each case I have been told afterward by someone in the hiring department (once by telephone with the express assertion that he would deny it to the end if ever I reported it was he who told) that the job was “rightly” mine were it not for: first, the dismissal from one search committee of its own chair, a drinker, for violating confidentiality with another candidate—he had been my main supporter; then, elsewhere, the eleventh-hour capsizing of my candidacy by a poet on faculty who protested the committee’s recommendation with an elaborate, persuasive denunciation of my work that he distributed overnight to his colleagues; and last, the veto of my selection by a dean who cited other needs in the “opportunity hire.” (It wasn’t a year for queer.) Nothing entirely nefarious about any of these situations. In each case, someone qualified got the position, and anyway I am not foolish enough to believe academia is a meritocracy. But hurt and cynicism have, for me, compounded the basic demoralization of spending the effort against such odds and in a climate with so little transparency. There is a one-year master’s program in Geographic Information Systems where I live, and there are jobs for graduates. I will not repeat behaviors and expect new results. I like maps.
Executive summary of my professional situation is a practice I would like to break, a practice that belongs (like a physical memory) to two recurrent subjectivities: the letter of application, in which for years I forecast my intention to “narrate and detail what is merely glossed in the attached CV,” an importunate phrase that now makes me cringe, and infrequent but regular conversations with my stepfather, Frank, each time conforming to one seeming objective: to present myself as fully formed, self-aware, and undeceived, but upbeat and particular about possibilities on the horizon. He would reply with a broad flat question: Tell me, how is it that one teaches poetry?
There have been two questions—in the many warm emails and congratulatory phone calls—occasioned by the announcements this fall that my book had won a significant American poetry award and had been “longlisted” as finalist for another even more prominent one. The first, many times over, is: Well, doesn’t the job market look quite different now?, and the second, asked just once, by my friend Claudia the night of the heady awards ceremony, on our walk back to the hotel after dinner: Is this the sort of thing that means anything to your family? It’s the former that triggers a kind of panic. In truth, I have always felt, and it is a shameful sort of narcissism to feel, that others—while saying some version of “surely it’s your turn now”—hold a secret understanding of me as a rather sad, unfortunate figure. Is it my hair? Is it my unnaturally thin wrists? Is it my somehow sorrowful face in profile, its misguided, expectant smile? Is my voicemail gay? Gay enough? Is my posture unemployable? And it’s the second question, certainly the more tragic one, the one Claudia asked, that kindles, alternatively, a sturdy kind of peculiar strength in me, which I don’t think is spite. Implacability is power in my family. That night her question was occasion to explain that Frank had died, and to acknowledge aloud that with him alone (who routinely bought prize-winning books) the import would have registered. With my mother, no. She seems glad enough to know of my achievement but is (rightly) dubious, as it never seems to parlay into livelihood. Appropriate to our history, I never offered to send her a copy of the book and she hasn’t asked for one. At some point Frank, were he alive, would have found opportunity in my presence to explain to her why a National Book Award nomination was a big deal. I can hear how that would sound, and that is not something I want. But I can’t think of a way outside of our triangulation I ever learned, while he was alive, that he was impressed.
If proud is the better word, it would mean he felt an association with, or stake in, what he admired. I think that’s something both parties sense, like love. We didn’t love each other.
Like many self-destructive people, Frank was largely self-made. In turn he admired, above all, a bootstrap independence in others; and he shared his own (at one time substantial) financial success pointedly where he sought to level the playing field for the hardworking but not well-born. In my teenage years I was to be that sort of beneficiary. When Frank met me at age eleven, before the dossier on Brian Overby was sealed, it was not a promising profile. I had read maybe one book through to completion. I covered my large, crooked front teeth if I smiled, and between my high, heavy twang and the mumble endemic to early male puberty, I was often incomprehensible. I could not (and would not) hold a fork correctly. My best friend Tobby and I were weak and weird and intimidated in our giant junior high and clung to each other in a syrupy brew of righteous revenge fantasy. Primarily due to redistricting, I had been in six schools by the start of seventh grade, and had never had a gifted or interested teacher. My father’s very young girlfriend was beating her five-year-old son at my dad’s apartment during his weekend custody, and my mom and I were scraping by without his alimony or child support. She was wallpapering her bosses’ homes for extra money. On Sundays I wore a clip-on tie to High Hill Primitive Baptist Church, and on New Year’s Eve I listened to The Country Countdown on my mother’s blue bedspread all the way to Barbara Mandrell. What did I have when I had all one hundred hits tabulated in pencil at midnight? 1984. I was a quiet, private, careful boy. Sensitive was the word. I guess he agreed to take that on. I can remember thinking that Frank’s adoption of me was my decision to make him feel included. As I practiced in my old room my new signature, its big new double b’s, its bunch-up of consonants, some of which I elided (still do), I had very little concept that he was affording me a different future than the one facing me, or that there was any future at all staring me down. Gratitude was, in the rough ride of our new life together, a hard thing for me to access, and a dicey thing anyway with someone like Frank; it bespoke a dependence, for one thing, which he found shameful if it endured past a certain point. Certain to whom? I gathered gradually that finding my own course outside of his expertise and influence, expecting nothing from him, would be safest. Safest from what? What did I fear when for nearly three decades I dreaded being disowned? Not fatherlessness, not exactly. It was to that dread I belonged. It was an association.
Though he was a tax attorney and though of course he had confronted his mortality for years, Frank died without a will, without attesting anything, without naming anyone in his plans, so the property he owned alone (not jointly with my mother) became by default the “estate” that my mother and I were to inherit equally. There were a couple of condominiums (a rundown place in Florida that had belonged to his father, another in Charlotte that he lived in before he met us), a 1957 Pontiac Star Chief he had partially restored, season tickets to the 2013 Charlotte Panthers home games, some seed investment in a struggling Italian restaurant, and several other smaller concerns, all of which we quickly realized we would need to liquidate. So before I left Charlotte for two weeks in Palm City to repair and clean the Florida condo and enlist a realtor, we needed together to make sense of the dozens of hanging file folders he kept in the several drawers in his home office, and separate out the useful records. Our inspection of course had collateral effects. It confirmed a number of dark suppositions for my mother, and profiled a downfall I had underestimated. I assembled a sort of paper trail of his diffuse and involuntary retirement from his law firm. He was edged out as his diabetes and disability inhibited his productivity and he lost his hard-won (and hard-driving) impunity and career-long leveraged advantage over other attorneys who then drew him into conflict and outfoxed him, denied him pension even in the end. His home office became a private and even abject place, a mess, where he learned how to email without a secretary, tinkered with investments and lost a great deal of money day-trading (five-sixths of his wealth, best I can tell), and wrote long, rhetorically impressive, morally stinging, logically airtight letters to officials at Bank of America (who denied him mortgage refinancing) and insurance claims adjusters, who were likely not as upbraided as a reader worthy of such prose would be. There was a file for 1935 SW Silver Pine Way, Unit H-1, for 310 West 10th Street, for each property or investment; a file for medical receipts and claims; and a file for each of the several pro bono cases on which he had remained a consultant. Each concern had a file, and several were duplicate, redundant files he had apparently misplaced and started again. There were a number of files, for instance, called “Nixon Portrait.”
Frank had purchased in the mid-1990s one half of an oil portrait of Richard Nixon. The dossier was richly detailed. His partner on this venture was a former girlfriend, a lobbyist in Washington named Mary Scott Guest, who apparently understood that then Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole wished to hang the portrait in his office; the painting, once purchased, was immediately loaned to Senator Dole. It could be assumed that it would rise in value as its new quarters deepened its provenance. The artist was a South Carolinian illustrator and painter who had been commissioned by Time magazine to paint the portrait in advance of its 1972 Man of the Year issue. Ultimately the editors ran a different cover image of Nixon, as the portrait was rejected for making “too penetrating a comment.” As it happens, it was the second such rejection; the first artist they approached was a sculptor whose bust of Nixon had portrayed, they concluded, “too sterling a character.” This was documented in the typed letter the artist’s representative had written, which I found in facsimile twice before I found the original as well. Perhaps the real portrait here was America’s slow-forming image of the self-made self-saboteur they would soon reelect. Together Frank and Mary Scott had paid $25,000 for the painting. My subsequent research revealed that the painting sold for only a few hundred at auction a couple of years ago, by an anonymous seller, to someone in Charleston. The dirty sale established the current value of the painting and no action against the auction house would be worth the attorney costs. I got as far as trading messages with a docent at the Nixon Presidential Library, before seeing, as it were, my fruitless intel collection in the mirror. It’s my hope it was the artist himself who recovered the work.
Closing that file and opening any other, an inventory would similarly reflect on the times, but it was hard not to feel that the files’ reflection on the man was a paltry late snapshot of a life that exceeded them and was mocked by their arbitrariness. Where was the file on Frank’s role as student bar president, a progressive, at NYU Law School in the early seventies, surely the most turbulent time to be a student leader in the history of Greenwich Village? Where was the file on his rough Irish Catholic childhood in Ridgewood, New Jersey, whose contents would give context to his tortured expression whenever in the presence of a certain stern-faced older man in the childhood photos I found loose in his office? Who was this man who had stepped in after his father left? Where was there a file on his first years in the South, his absorption into aristocratic families in the home he made of Augusta, Georgia, as a young lawyer, after serving at Fort Gordon during Vietnam? What would be revealed in a file, if there were one, about his key role in the acquisition of several failing Texas banks that led to the formation of NationsBank? Could something there help explain what he did to exploit an environment of Reagan-era bank deregulation at the end of the savings-and-loan crisis and discover the loophole in the federal tax code that helped CEO Hugh McColl’s Charlotte bank become the behemoth that would be Bank of America? It had earned him one of ex-Marine McColl’s signature crystal hand grenades for a job well done. Where was the file on his participation in the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Law and Society, at the invitation of Justice Harry Blackmun? I remember well when I, by then in Charlotte Latin School and fully alive in the literature we were reading in Honors English, found Frank carrying from sofa to bathroom not Scott Turow but Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, which Justice Blackmun had himself assigned to all participants. I read it too. I never told him.
In the bottom drawer, in what could be called inactive files, one almost went unnoticed, one of the thinnest, a file on whose manila tab was written, in Frank’s unmistakable hand, the words Brian Blanchfield. I pulled it. Inside were three items, all of which I now have with me in Tucson. Item 1. My revised birth certificate, post-adoption. In North Carolina, it is or was custom in 1986, apparently, to supplant the biological parent’s name with the adoptive one. Curtis Overby is nowhere to be seen on the document, though it appears to have been issued in 1973. Indication is that Francis J. Blanchfield, Jr., was in the Winston-Salem hospital room, age 28. Item 2. A photocopy of the front page of the local section of the Durham Herald-Sunfrom February 1993. I can remember one of his colleagues had sent it with a note that made mention of Frank’s legendary Super Bowl parties at the bar near his bachelor condo. The photo there showed me sitting on a platform in a tree in the campus forest in Chapel Hill. My hair is long, swept over my ear, and I am wearing a jersey-sleeve shirt and swinging one booted leg in tight jeans. I would have been nineteen. I am holding open a heavy paperback and soaking in the sun. The caption reads, “Keeping the Peace. Brian Blanchfield, a sophomore from Charlotte, reads a copy of War and Peace as he perches in the Forest Theater at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Temperatures climbed into the seventies on Super Bowl Sunday.” Item 3. An essay I submitted on October 11, 1994, to English 58, my Shakespeare class my senior year. “The Legitimacy of Don John the Bastard, in Much Ado About Nothing.” An A paper. With pencil annotations by Professor Megan Matchinske. A study of the play’s malicious outcast villain born out of wedlock as a plain-dealer among much scrutable seeming, and his portrayal as homosexual in the Brannagh film. Nietzschean genealogy of morals stiffly applied: ill-doer as symptom of societal disease.
It is possible I showed the essay to him, which would have been risking quite a lot simply to share something I was proud of having written. I don’t recall. Reading the essay in his office, I felt myself split. I mean, I would need three dossiers to keep this artifact. I can remember well who I was writing it, on my blue-screened Brother word processor, up late on ephedrine after my Pizza Chef shift in my little apartment at 107 West Main Street, while my first boyfriend, Austin, twisted in the sheets on my futon bed. We would have met a month before, over a barrel fire at a party (our marshmallows touched). I resisted his beautiful body until the end of each paragraph. Is there pleasure greater than that sweet agony? Then, now, with eleven years’ experience as a professor myself, I know, too, the perspective of Dr. Matchinske, who recognized there a rare urgency in undergraduate analysis and pressed its author for substantiation and concluded that I uncover more questions than I answer, but good ones. And, I can begin to see how it would have been significant to Frank, a moment for assessment at the end of a decade. As the newest of the three items, the last, it may have occasioned the file and collected the scatter of other material retroactively. Probably last of all he wrote on the tab the words of my name.
The office the hiring committee at Rice had given me to prepare for my job talk, like each of the others along the hall, faced out onto a row of magnificent live oaks, each one wearing a rugged tinsel of Spanish moss. I closed the office door and sat down at the desk. On the other side of the door the airy, light corridor led around variously to the modern building’s smart mix of aviaries and courtyards and well-lit meeting areas and caucus workrooms. Architecturally it structured, it seems to me, an optimistic, exemplary idiorrhythmy. Each scholar in her private quarters with a singular concentration, and a trade of ideas in the common areas. I wonder if Barthes had this ideal in mind, in his last academic appointment he didn’t know would be his last. My nerves were building as I looked through the notes for my presentation—when I was frozen, of a sudden, in the gaze (for how long had it held me?) of a downy owl deep in the branches of the oak, studying me. Something stirred in me, and I thought of Frank. Why do we say brought when we say brought to mind when sent might be the better word? What I remembered, and chose that moment to recall as blessing or sanction or something, was the last night I saw him, late, after a difficult conversation of unprecedented openness with him and my mother, a night when I moved from needing to know where I stood to wanting to stand on what I knew. It was a turning point that is very nearly a trope in father-son relationships. I saw him see me. As if for the first time. Not so much approving as noting for later use the way another person was managing his struggle. That night, I had in a dream the most serene and safest sensation I have ever experienced. I was lying on the firm ground on a very dark night, away from everything, in a kind of breezy clearing in a forest. The dream had only one moving actor, a great bird of prey, an owl, I somehow knew, in silhouette, dark against the darker sky. From a great distance off, it glided, very few wingbeats, in absolute silence, and was impossibly large directly overhead. I was below. It knew. That’s all. It condoned, and sailed on. And I felt an extraordinary peace.
After I returned to Tucson from Houston, but before I received the letter from Rice, my friend Aisha listened to my story—to which I had added the lucky detail John and I had learned, that Rice’s team nickname is the Owls, if you can believe—and recalled that in some aboriginal faiths, encounter with an owl means that someone has been designated to die. She looked it up. It was foreknowledge she said, a farewell. A real gift. Why had it reappeared in Houston? I don’t know, she said. It seems like you already have what you need from it.
[This essay is from the collection Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, which observes as one of its organizing constraints a total suppression of recourse to authoritative sources. On his own authority then, the author gets a few things wrong; accordingly, the book concludes with a rolling corrective endnote. Relevant portions are printed here.]
Roland Barthes had said that each of his courses at the Collège de France would have at its root a fantasy. His third seminar, after How to Live Together and The Neutral, was called The Preparation of the Novel. It met for the first time in December 1979 but was never completed. Three months later, Barthes was fatally struck by a laundry van as he left campus.
The narrow soft briefcase with interior gusset design for expansion, overtop flap, and front fastener has no consensus name in English. Before the metal-framed box case was popularized in the nineteenth century, such a bag was originally called a budget.
The root of dossier is French, /dos/, from the Latin dorsus, meaning back. Dossier, in Old French meant “a bundle of papers labeled on the back.”
The Year-End Countdown as an annual New Year’s Eve special of the syndicated radio program American Country Countdown, which began in 1973 played the year’s top one hundred hits in Country music. Starting in 1979 this was halved to fifty.
Justin Harry Blackmun cofounded in 1979 and comoderated for sixteen years the Aspen Institute Seminar on Justice and Society, an annual six-day roundtable discussion, limited to twenty-five invited participants, on how a just society should structure its legal and political institutions.
Painter Joseph Bowler was commissioned in 1971 by the editors of Time magazine for a portrait of President Richard Nixon to reproduce on their January 3, 1972 Man of the Year issue. It was this work (20 inches x 16 inches, oil on Belgian linen) that was rejected for depicting “too sterling a character.” The editors ha already rejected the epoxy bust of Nixon made by sculptor Frank Gallo, the first artist they commissioned. It was that work they found had made “too penetrating a comment.” For that reason Bowler was expressly asked to make a “non-committal portrait.”
The Collège de France, created in 1530, is neither a university not a public research center, in traditional senses. It awards no degrees, and its lecture programming is free and open to students without preregistration. At any time there are fifty-two lecture chairs held by fifty-two scholars, who are elected by their peers and who, upon arrival, name their own chairs. Barthes was nominated by Michel Foucault in 1976, and created the chair of literary semiology.
Brian Blanchfield is the author of Proxies, a collection of essays, part life-writing and part cultural close reading, forthcoming in April from Nightboat Books, which also published his second book of poems, A Several World, recipient of the 2014 James Laughlin Award. A poetry editor of Fence and the host of the radio show Speedway and Swan, he lives in Tucson.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.