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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

black women writers and a chinese dissertation

Black Women Writers and a Chinese Dissertation

One of my Chinese students, a Ph.D. candidate, recently wrote a very good essay on the whip in Frederick Douglass’s  1845 narrative as an instrument of punishment.  She derived her ideas about punishment from Michel Foucault.  Over coffee at Starbucks, I suggest that her essay would have been “superior” rather than “very good” if she had, to use the cant of our profession, put Foucault in conversation with Douglass.  She might have considered whether Douglass’s specificity was better than Foucault’s generalizations about discipline and punishment.  Theory must be tamed by history.
The suggestion is an entry for our longer conversation about the dissertation she wishes to write on Dessa Rose, The Women of Brewster Place, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I ask why she chose those three books, why she chose Sherley Anne Williams, Gloria Naylor, and Maya Angelou.  What connects the texts beyond the fact that the authors are twentieth-century women writers?  What is her rationale for the selection?  Would texts by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston be equally acceptable?  She says the books have personal meaning for her.  That is not good enough.
She will have to write a strong dissertation proposal for a skeptical senior scholar.  African American literature is an emerging area of study in China. Many senior Chinese scholars harbor doubts about the academic merit of black writing.  They think writings by Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf are better than literature by Toni Cade Bambara and Alice Walker. Her proposal must have a solid theoretical basis.  It must include an argument about the value of her research, a thorough review of previous scholarship, a reference list, a research plan, a statement of her objectives, a listing of questions to be answered, a statement of methodology, a description of the contents of research, a feasibility analysis, and a statement regarding the unique features of the projected research. In short, the proposal must be a microcosm of the dissertation.  In China, the demands are stringent.  My student will have to climb a mountain.
“Find what links a powerful fiction about enslavement with fiction that concerns urban geography and the witnessing properties of autobiography,” I tell her.  I think she understands. To discover the links she must absorb many facts and features of African American women’s history.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.          November 15, 2014    Wuhan, China

Ishmael Reed and the Idea of Multiculturalism

Ishmael Reed and the Idea of Multiculturalism


We may agree that the concept of multiculturalism is concerned with one of several ways we have chosen to talk about how human beings live together.  The most basic meaning of “multiculturalism” refers to conditions of existence in a defined space (nation or territory) that is inhabited by people who have, and identify with, different cultural assumptions, beliefs and practices.  Our literary discussions of multiculturalism often borrow ideas from the discipline of anthropology, just as our literary theories borrow freely from the domain of philosophy. If we have been trained to study literature rather than the subject matter of various social sciences, we need to be cautious.  For American scholars, good critical thinking demands that we first examine de facto (actual, operative) conditions of the multicultural in tandem with de jure (abstract, legal) conditions. For all scholars, I believe it is prudent to identify the multicultural behaviors that obtain in our own countries before we produce ideas about the multicultural in “cross-cultural contexts.” We need to know the nature of local borders (both in the geographical and metaphorical sense) prior to embracing transcendent global perspectives.
The wording “cross-cultural” implies, for me at least, that the foreignness of culture A has been distinguished from the foreignness or strangeness of culture B.  If we are not in possession of such distinctions, we fail to notice that we can be foreign (strange, dissimilar, marginal) in our “home” cultures.  Recognition of that possibility is crucial.
We can easily fall into the trap of believing that our culture and its artifacts are superior to the culture and artifacts of the “other,” especially when “we” and “the other” share the same citizenship. Recognition of a problem that is at once cross-cultural and multicultural led to the publication in 1990 of Redefining American Literary History by the prestigious Modern Language Association. Those of us who produced that book found a theoretical model in the groundbreaking work of Ishmael Reed, even if we did not say as much at that time. I hasten to note that “theory,” as the word applies to Reed, does not refer to the kind of work done by Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, or Jacques Derrida.  It refers to the explanatory suppositions Reed as a non-academic writer uses in telling us what is multicultural and why we should absorb the idea of multiculturalism in our everyday lives. Our work was based on that kind of theory.  We did say that our redefining project eschewed “traditional, patriarchal thought about culture and literature” and sought “instead explanatory models that account for the multiple voices and experiences that constitute the literature and literary history of the United States”(4).
 Failure to minimize disciplinary prejudices tends to defeat our objective of acquiring new knowledge.  It would be a mistake, for example, to ignore the hidden dimensions of differences that have obtained historically in the evolving of American literature before making a dash to find the significant differences among a range of literatures written in some variety of English, in some variety of other languages.  In the case of American literature, we can gain insights about multiculturalism as a combative process from a brief review of what Ishmael Reed has been working at for almost half a century.
Among contemporary American writers, Ishmael Reed is the major “informal” or “non-academic” theorist and “pragmatic” proponent of late 20th –century and early 21st-century “literary” multiculturalism in the United States of America.  Since the early nineteenth century, America has embraced political myths of “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” to minimize recognition of its multiethnic and multicultural identity.  Reed has effectively challenged the validity of those myths by action that goes beyond “deconstructing.”  He has consistently “constructed,” by way of his provocative essays, anthologies, and fiction, a rationale to maximize acknowledgement of the interactive presence of multiculturalism in the literary and social evolution of America. 

My comments quite briefly address what might be designated Reed’s “combative conversation” with his nation.   Reed’s anthologies ---- 19 Necromancers From Now: An Anthology of Original American Writing For the 1970s (1970), Calafia: The California Poetry (1979), MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace (1997), From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900-2002 (2003), and Pow Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience –Short Fiction from Then to Now (2009) -----provide subject matter as well as evidence for open-ended debate regarding theory and praxis of  “literary” multiculturalism in American and  global contexts. Reed’s introductions contain the theory; the works he selected for each anthology illustrate the praxis.

Reed opens a recent collection of writing, Going Too Far: Essays about America’s Nervous Breakdown, with two sentences that fundamentally establish his place in the history of black writing since the 1960s:
When they tell me “don’t go there” that’s my signal to navigate the forbidden topics of American life.  Just as the ex-slaves were able to challenge the prevailing attitudes about race in the United States after arriving in Canada, I am able to argue from Quebec against ordained opinion that paints the United States as a place where the old sins of racism have been vanquished and that those who insist that much work remains to be done are involved in “Old Fights,” as one of my young critics, John McWhorter, claims in articles in Commentary and The New Republic, where I am dismissed as an out of touch “fading anachronism.” (11)
Reed is not an anachronism.  He is a writer who provokes us into seeing what multiculturalism might be in the United States and why it is so often attacked
Reed’s evolving theory began with his assaults on restrictive monoculturalism associated with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. In his December 1969 introduction for 19 Necromancers From Now, Reed proclaimed
Perhaps at the roots of American art is a rivalry between the oppressor and the oppressed, with a secret understanding that the oppressor shall always prevail and make off with the prizes, no matter how inferior his art to that of his victims.  Art in America may even be related to sexual competition.  In the beginning was The Word and The Word is the domain of White patriarchy.  Beware.  Women and natives are not to tamper with The Word. (xix)
After much autobiographical testimony about America, Reed admitted that he “omitted White writers.” Having examined “the many exclusionary American anthologies that flood the market, I somehow feel that they will get by” (xxiii). With a slip of contradiction, he wrote “Indian People, Black People, White People, Chinese People, and Blue People unravel their experiences through its [the anthology’s] pages” (xxiv).  At this stage of theory-making, Reed was himself exclusionary.
He was feeling his way into multiculturalism.  By January 22, 1978, the date of his preface to Calafia: The California Poetry, he had arrived at a more mature idea of multiculturalism and how to represent it.  He provides a quite “breezy” historical account of California as “the home of the multi-cultures,” the physically and linguistically different indigenous peoples, the Spanish, the Mexicans, the blacks and, since the 1840s, Asian immigrants. To reflect all this mixing, tense state of difference, and cross-fertilization in poetry, Reed brought “together the poetry of different California cultures under one roof” without segregating “those cultures according to ‘race,’ ‘nation,’ or chronology. The erasing of categories makes it appear that poetry, in the words of Simon Ortiz, is “an all-inclusive singular event and idea throughout time” (xlii).  I suspect Ishmael Reed was imitating the nineteenth-century practice of authenticating slave narratives with letters and testimonials.  Thus, Calafia has “authenticating” introductions by Bob Callahan, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Simon Ortiz, Shawn Hsu Wong, Wakako Yamauchi, and Al Young.  Their words give multiethnic credibility to the multicultural enterprise.

Reed’s speculations about multiculturalism take an instructive turn in his introduction to MultiAmerica. He was dealing in this anthology with the essay, a genre that contrasts with either poetry or fiction. For Reed, collecting essays facilitated a turn from multicultural expression as “proofs” to multicultural expression as an array of “weapons” to deploy in battle with American mass media’s efforts to promote monocultural thought, even as it gave lukewarm recognition to cultural diversity or cultural difference. Reed was fighting the persistence of the binary (the black and white characterization of American society) and highlighting essays by writers of many ethnicities to put “race” in its place and offer the American public alternative articulations, newer diverging and converging perspectives on the drama of being American. Reed recognized multiculturalism is “safe” between the covers of a book but often dangerous and threatening outside the book. That is to say, literary representation does not force us to deal with the palpable elements of the multicultural.  The anthology was to some degree, Reed assured us, “an intellectual anti-trust action against the tyranny that communications oligopolies hold over public discussion”, an action conducted by writers “concerned about the future of the United State in which one ‘race’ or ethnic group is no longer dominant and where the pressures to assimilate are not as demanding as they were in a former time “(xxvii). Such multicultural battle still continues. It sponsors optimism and pessimism, or the branching of multicultural speculations that we find in Reed’s introductions for From Totems to Hip-Hop and Pow Wow.


The introductions to these recent multicultural experiments are less combative in tone, less devoted to speculation than to application. Their nuances call for very close reading. The shift is a warning about limits, about how radical discourses may get transformed over time into persuasive gestures and lose a bit of strident provocation.  From Totems to Hip Hop is constructed as a textbook of multicultural poetry. Reed gives much more attention in this anthology to consequences of teaching multicultural literature and to the status of universal themes in his October 23, 2002 introduction.  At the core of his Cinco de Mayo 2008 introduction to Pow Wow is a concession germane to thinking about cross-cultural contexts, because Reed asserts that
Deprived of or excluded from the normal channels of communication by media increasingly monopolized by a few companies, people from diverse background and from different time periods may have no other means but writing to engage in a cross-cultural or a cross-time dialogue with one another.  No other means to comment on the important issues both historical and current: war, slavery, race, anti-Semitism, gender, class, dysfunctional family life, and the like (xi).
A few pages later, he reiterates:
Excluded from media power, American Indian, Hispanic, Asian American, and African American writers often use fiction to tell their side of the American story and to explore the fault lines that separate groups from one another. In the media it is left to outsiders to define members of ethnic groups, often with disastrous results like Birth of a Nation and the television series The Wire (xiii).
I sense that Reed has given us an important lesson about power in his introductions, that he warns us to exercise caution in how we go about engaging “multiculturalism” as conditions of existence in a defined space (nation or territory) that is inhabited by people who have, and identify with, different cultural assumptions, beliefs and practices.  Scholars are neither exactly “outside” that space nor immune to its unpredictable conditions.




WORKS CITED


Reed, Ishmael, ed. Calafia: The California Poetry. Berkeley, CA: Y’Bird Books, 1979. Print.
____________. From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900-2002. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003. Print.
___________., Going Too Far: Essays about America’s Nervous Breakdown Montreal: Baraka Books 2012. Print.
___________. MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace. New York: Viking Penguin, 1997. Print.

___________. 19 Necromancers From Now: An Anthology of Original American Writing For the 1970s. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1970. Print.

___________, ed. with Carla Blank.  Pow Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience ---Short Fiction from Then to Now. Philadelphia: DaCapo Press, 2009. Print.
Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown and Jerry W. Ward, Jr., eds. Redefining American Literary History. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990. Print.






Tuesday, August 26, 2014

grapes of wrath do scream


GRAPES OF WRATH DO SCREAM

 

Man is the immediate object of natural science; for immediate, sensuous nature for man is, immediately, human sensuousness (the expressions are identical) –presented immediately in the form of the other man sensuously present for him.

Karl Marx, The Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

The sonic environment of the United States of America in late 2014 is approaching perfection.  The sole sound worthy of your ears is the sound of death, the sound you hate, love, and dread unconditionally. “Like a landscape,” Emily Thompson wrote in The Soundscape of Modernity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), “a soundscape is simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving that environment; it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world.”  Thompson was on to something.

The sound of nature; the sound of spoken and artificial languages; the sound of what you call music; the sound of capitalism; the sound of aesthetic bullets entering bodies; the sound of explosions, drones, bombs, instruments of mass destruction; the sound of the mind dancing with hot logic and cold insanity in the chambers of the brain -----the catalog of sounds is the record of your middle passage into omnipotent nihilism.

The most important words Cornel West ever donated to his nation are very loud in Race Matters (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993):

Nihilism is to be understood here not as a philosophic doctrine that there are no rational grounds for legitimate standards or authority; it is far more, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and, (most important) lovelessness.

Your eyes read the donation of Cornel West. Nihilism and race matters have busted the eardrums of the United States of America. You are deaf. You sense but do not hear how the grapes of wrath do scream.

Even as you lie to yourself, squeezing all the vital fluids from any sacred scripture at hand and protesting the sound of nihilism in your soul, you voice a truth which is neither beyond argument nor understanding. Pray until your tongue is paralyzed. The cosmos is objective and indifferent to prayer.

The sonic environment of the United States of America, of every nation from Zambia to Afghanistan, in late 2014 is marching to perfection, the perfection of nihilism. Grapes of wrath do cry and scream and die.

Worry not if you can not arrive at the ground zero of nihilist perfection for another one hundred years.  Every old child, old woman, and old man shall arrive.  You shall arrive. Meanwhile, rage against the silence that is a consequence of death.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            August 26, 2014

 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Permanent Perplexity


Permanent Recycling of Perplexity

 

WARNING: THIS BLOG CONTAINS EXPLICIT POLITICAL CONTENT. CAUTION IS ADVISED.

 

The international and intranational pressures of violence, capitalism, progress, and terrorism is a powerful sex machine.  It has deflowered the world’s population without respect for gender, ethnic identity, or class.  It is on the prowl for unborn victims. The machine refuses to bear a name. Being neither a way with words nor a benign metaphor, the machine has materiality and agency in destroying its parents and everyone else.  Goodness, beauty, and truth reside in a cosmic graveyard, waiting for something to come that never will.  People live. Their eyes do not watch a Supreme Being. People watch and hear what they most dread about themselves.

Tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri are different in kind and degree from the horrors of kidnapping young females in Nigeria, beheading an American journalist in the nascent Islamic State, the practice of torture in Asian nations or the infamy of 9/11. Simple counts of the number of people destroyed are available.  We describe parameters, historical dimensions, and assign names to discriminate one tragedy from another. No instruments exist to measure the suffering of one family or the psychological devastation for groups of people. The sense of limits informs anger and revenge.

For Americans, the death of Michael Brown is one of many signs of where we are.  Until August 9, 2014, Brown was an 18-year-old American citizen at liberty to pursue the happiness of becoming a college freshman. He was an indivisible member of the American body politic. A police officer transformed a human being into two words, MICHAEL and BROWN.  People in Ferguson, Missouri and everywhere else in the United States use those two words in constructing images of themselves. And how mass media has chosen to distort and recontextualize those two words is an intimate part of the tragic plot. We have a hellish struggle to remember that MICHAEL and BROWN were, less than a month ago, words to address a human being rather than words to be used in permanent recycling of perplexity and the manufacturing of confusions.

A typical example of what obtains in the United States is Campbell Robertson’s article “Among Whites, Protests Stir a Range of Emotions and a Lot of Perplexity” (New York Times, August 22, 2014, page A15). Are Americans of the color white somehow unique in having emotions and the capability of being perplexed? Are Americans who possess Asian, indigenous, African, and Spanish-infused colors “excused” from the experience of anxiety?  A wack reading of Robertson’s headline takes us down that path.

Two photographs amplify the text of Robertson’s article.  There a photo of a person alleged to be “Mark Johnston, a 61-year-old white merchandiser in Mehlville, the mostly white and working-class” area of St. Louis County.  The caption under the photo is: “Mark Johnston expressed sympathy for Michael Brown’s family, but as for the turmoil: ‘I think it’s a crock of stuff, myself ’.” Should one tell Johnston that he is inside the crock?

The second photo, shot in the affluent county seat of Clayton, transmits the image of three people of the color white seated on a bench and one person of the color African walking with a sign.  It bears the caption: “ ‘As far as justice and peace, we need to have it,’ said Arlene Rosengarten, seated right. But, she called protests ‘a bad precedent’. “ Use your literary to figure out what shade of white Ms. Rosengarten might be, because your eyes will deceive you.  There is social artistry (or perhaps engineering) in how a newspaper uses images and words.

Clayton is where Michael Brown’s grieving mother works (or worked) at a gourmet grocer according to Robertson’s text.  Such rich material for future cultural anthropology as the words MICHAEL and BROWN dim in memory to be replaced with words associated with the next, inevitable persons who will be killed by militarized policemen. The future anthropologist will rewrite Robertson’s headline: “Among Blacks, Reports of Death Stir a Range of Emotions and a Lot of Perplexity.”

What occurs in American journalism is not a random accident; it is the deliberate making of new Towers of Babel, new sites to ensure that systemic racism will not lose its identity as systemic injustice. All the President’s horses and all the Attorney General’s men shall never put Ferguson back together again. Nor shall the superior military power of the United States of America transform the dystopia we inhabit into Eden before The Fall.  The rage of the grassroots, the little people of this world, the truly wretched will always be with us, because they know that the languages of hope, optimism, and promise live in a universal crock of stuff and that human arms are much too short to grasp the abstractions of justice and peace.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.      August 22, 2014

Sunday, August 17, 2014

poem 8.17.14

THAT DAY THE RAINBOW DIED

(for people who prey darkly)

Was not a holy day
In the life eternal
But a cheapening
Of experience in a life,
A first supper of things unknown

Was an experience
Mainly of a drained trope
Coming bereft of faith,
Coming mainly to a dance,
Dangling in a terminal hope

Was an occasion
For an experience,
For the body and the blood,
The wine and the bread
The cigar and the gun
All passing through alembics

Was a transubstantiation
An experience of tragedy
Between your segregated god
And mine, the sacrifice, mock magic,
Severe cannibals communing
In temporary grace
That day the rainbow died.






Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            August 17, 2014

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ferguson, MO

Ferguson, Missouri

From the notebook of a visitor to Earth


Dreams of harmony and peace or absurd visions of the end of time are legitimate constructions of human imagination. If you are dealing with pure cinema, they are effective.  Such spectacles appear to confirm the implacable universality of violence, the murky origins of terrorism, and the marriage of reason with insanity. They are primary features of life on planet Earth. Women and men may satisfy their fantasies by imposing gender and by speaking of amoral Nature in their own images. They are free to tamper with Nature in efforts to make a more living-friendly “world,” and they may succeed for brief periods of time.  Ultimately, they fail. They manufacture abstract and material “worlds” that are mercurial, that speak back to them of their cosmic insignificance in visual and audible languages which negate interpretations.

All that is happening in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 is merely a rerun of tribally-motivated antiquities. A frantic male of one tribe, believing himself to be authorized by the Holy Bible, the United States Constitution, and the codified laws of Charles Darwin, murders a male of a different tribe. People who identify themselves with the dead male react naturally.  They are shocked.  They grieve. They enact counter-violence, the only procedure that is paradoxically understood and misunderstood in a nanosecond by the American body politic. Violence is very obedient to folkloric injunctions to increase and multiply. And American as well as foreign mass media take special delight in the production of misinformation about how violence procreates. In the historical tragedy entitled the United States of America, the George Zimmermans and Darren Wilsons are proclaimed to be the stars of the show, the militants who keep democracy safe for those who are wealthy enough to buy it. The Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins and the thousands of unarmed dead who were the targets of tragedy are treated as footnotes in the smallest print on the playbill. In the sacred narratives of universal violence, this is proclaimed to be natural.  According to such logic, the American Nightmare that has decentered the American Dream; the death-bound mission of Europe; the family squabbles between Palestinians and Israelis and diabolic plots in the Arab/Islamic winter of the Middle East; the progress of environmental destruction in Asia; rampant neo-colonialism and unique ethnic hatreds on the continent of Africa; outbreaks of such health treats as Ebola and yearly variations of influenza; the refusal to acknowledge the humanity of indigenous peoples in Australia and the actuality of global climate change -----according to such logic, all is quite normal on Earth.

Unfortunately, this superb logic is not a part of the education of Americans.  The majority of them dwell in the darkness of believing that a meek savior will serve peace and harmony at the Finality Feast of Thanksgiving. Our transparent wisdom obligates us to tolerate their eternal ignorance but to act otherwise.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            August 16, 2014





Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Collecting


A Collection Remembered



Before Hurricane Katrina 2005 (we call it The Storm in New Orleans), I relished collecting manuscripts, books, and magazines.  The historian/poet Julius E. Thompson and I joked about our passion for books, congratulating ourselves that between us we had at least 80% of the African American poetry broadsides, chapbook, volumes and anthologies published since 1960. We were assiduous in buying the output of Broadside, Third World, and Lotus Presses; in having complete collections of Negro Digest/Black World, OBSIDIAN, Sagala, American Rag, First World, Callaloo, Hoo-Doo, Drumvoices Revue, Umbra, The Black Scholar; in treasuring our autographed books by Margaret Walker, Richard A. Long, Haki Madhubuti, Angela Jackson, Mari Evans, Sterling A. Brown, Sonia Sanchez, Kalamu ya Salaam, Tom Dent, Kiarri T-H. Cheatwood, Sterling D. Plumpp, Lance Jeffers, Harryette Mullen, Audre Lorde, Jay Wright, Michael Harper, Julia Fields, Carolyn Rodgers,  LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Pinkie Gordon Lane, Etheridge Knight, and such Mississippi writers as L. C. Dorsey, C. Liegh McInnis, Theodore Bozeman, Charlie Braxton, David Brian Williams, and  Otis Williams. I tried to buy all the poetry, fiction, and nonfiction Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker published as well as all the recordings of Cassandra Wilson, Isaac Hayes, and Esther Phillips. Julius bought hundreds of books on African American and Southern history. And the two of us were kids in the candy factory with regard to all the reprints of black materials during the 1970s.


Collecting was more than a simple matter of acquisition.  It had practical uses.  Having an extensive collection at hand made it easier to co-edit Black Southern Voices with John Oliver Killens and to compile Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry, to write literary criticism, and to share insights about black literature and culture with my students at Tougaloo College and Dillard University. Julius used his collection to write important books on Dudley Randall and Broadside Press, lynching in Mississippi, and black newspapers. There was also an irrational, special idiosyncrasy in my collecting. The physical objects allowed me to be in constant touch with the writers I got to know personally over the years; touching was a way of refreshing very pleasant memories.


The flooding after Katrina killed my passion for collecting. Losing relatives and friends is a thousand times more important than losing books and papers.  I still buy books, of course, but I no longer collect them. I leave collecting to colleges and universities and other institutions which are more able than I to prevent loss of items we want to transmit to a future. Moreover, the exorbitant cost of print books in the 21st century far exceeds the modest book-buying budget my Social Security income permits


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

August 12, 2014