Thursday, December 23, 2004

A Day in the Life Of...


Remains of the Branda Bocken
Originally uploaded by erasmus.
I just joined the Flickr a day in the life of ... group and posted five photos that I took on December 21st. I wasn't actually aware of the "a day in the life of..." project on December 21st, so I didn't shoot photos with the intention of participating in this collaborative networked project. Consequently, the picts don't chronicle my entire day. In fact they were all taken within a few minutes of each other late in the morning. Still, I thought I'd post them to the group's site, because they are from December 21st and they will introduce viewers to a different chronicle, that of Gavle's storied 'Branda Bocken.'

Much of my day, if I recall, was spent revising a paper about E.L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel and reading David Foster Wallace's Infinte Jest, which I finally finished yesterday, December 22, 2004. In retrospect, close-up shots of the pages from these novels, replete with flourescent-green highlights and indecipherable marks and annotations, would have made for some fine images.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Imitation of Life: Shelley Jackson on The Sims

I know next to nothing about computer games, though I have played a precursor of The Sims -- I remember spending one afternoon back in 1995 or 1996 playing SimCity (I think) and realizing how dangerously addictive the game could become. I sort of decided back then that I hadn't enough time in my life for both literature and video games and decided to stick to the former as my preferred mode of virtual reality. That said, I recognize that game theory has a lot to contribute to literary studies and, if pressed, will acknowledge that "the book is no longer the main portal to another world."

This last observation is quoted from a short essay by Shelley Jackson, "The Village Voice: NY Mirror: "The Sims: Life In A Glass House". Jackson's essay is a review of the new The Sims 2 video game, but is also a meditation on how to go about constructing an engaging imaginary world.

As someone who constantly struggles with a perfectionist issues when writing, I was particularly struck by Shelley’s comments on creativity and the necessity of failure. Her advice to creative artists in the business of producing simulations is not that failure is inevitable, but necessary. Shelley writes, “So one thing an imaginary world needs, I think, is to fail. Those toiling away on CGI dinosaurs and VR helmets might consider this: When the illusion is perfect it will no longer amaze. Lifelike is impressive because it’s like life, meaning slightly, deliciously different.” This is basically the argument informing Richard Powers’s Plowing the Dark, and the next time I teach the novel you can bet that my students will be reading Jackson’s essay along with it.

Shelley’s remarks are equally applicable to novelists, filmmakers and videogame makers, all of whom would do well to remember that flashy f/x and technical pyrotechnics should not be a work's raison d'etre.

This reminds me, I should get offline as I am about 100-pages away from finally finishing David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and I have other writing to do.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Hegel: On the Basic Character of American Society

Here is G.W.F. Hegel on the “basic character of American society”:

In further comparing North America with Europe we find in the former the perennial example of a republican system of government. There is an inner unity in it, for there is a president as head of state who is elected for only four years (as security agasint any possible monarchical ambitions). The general protection of property and the almost total absence of taxes are continually commended. This shows us the basic character of the society: it is marked by the private person's striving for acquisistion and profit and by the predominance of a private interest which devotes itself to the community for personal benefit alone. There is, to be sure, a legal system, and a formal code of laws; but this legality has nothing to do with integrity--and so the American merchants have the bad reputation of cheating with the protection of the law.

This excerpt is from the “Geographical Basis of History” chapter from the Introduction to The Philosophy of History, a text that was published posthumously. My edition is based on an 1840 edition, but Hegel died in 1831, so I'm not sure when Hegel wrote this passage. In any case, it's remarkable how applicable this account of the American character is at present, at least 174 years later. I’m thinking not only of the emphasis in American culture on the individual pursuit of profit and property that Hegel discerns, but also and especially of the functioning of the legal system and its lack of integrity.

If ever I publish an article on William Gaddis, I’ll have to use Hegel’s line about “this legality has nothing to do with integrity” as an epigraph. Gaddis’s JR is all about “cheating with the protection of the law,” which is a useful way of explaining the concept of exemption, which, as a motivator for all sorts of schemes and incentives, is a driving force in American culture and one on which Thomas Pynchon in particular, but many other American literary figures as well, has a strong interest.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Wilco and Bright Eyes to Appear on Austin City Limits

Two of my favorite bands, Wilco and Bright Eyes, each hailing from the two places that I've lived longer than anyplace else, Chicago and Nebraska, respectively, will be appearing on Austin City Limits on January 8, 2005.

I already know that I won't be able to see the show, so I'm hoping somebody will record it. Jim, Adam, are you there? Will you set yr VCRs? Or maybe Santa brought you a TiVO.

Thoughts on The Book of Daniel

I'm in the midst of revising an article on E.L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel, and am using Blogger to both get a different view on different paragraphs and lexias from my text and to back up my writing in yet another place.

A critical element of Daniel’s vicious eroticism is Daniel’s role as a teacher, the older man who instructs and educates Phyllis. There are multiple levels at play here: on the one hand, Daniel is, as an ABD PhD student on the verge of becoming a professor, literally a professional pedagogue, and his text is laced with academic analyses and observations. On the other hand, Daniel assumes the role of Phyllis’s mentor from the very beginning of their relationship. After meeting at a “Central Park Be-In,” Daniel takes Phyllis to his apartment where he wows her with his intellectualism by playing some Bartók and amazing her with the “numbers of books” (56). He reports: “I suggested to her that fucking was a philosophical act of considerable importance (57). Daniel’s suggestion is, as he acknowledges, part of his seduction strategy, a come-on line intended to get Phyllis into bed (“I knew that in deference to this possibility she would allow herself to be fucked”). Yet Daniel’s sentiments should not be dismissed too quickly. What is interesting is how the novel’s “strong erotic content” reinforces this postulate, which, ironically, proves to be something of a prophetic utterance. The irony lies in the fact that the prophecy is largely self-fulfilling, as the eroticized rhetoric in genreal and the sex scenes between Daniel and Phyllis in particular suggest that, by the novel’s present, Daniel has truly come to believe in the philosophical import of fucking. For Daniel, sex is integral to the formation of one’s (political) subjectivity. As Phyllis’s instructor and tormentor, Daniel aims to use sex to teach his wife a lesson about the fragility of political principles. [explain..] Daniel’s tormenting of Phyllis is an effort to convey a sense of the suffering that the Isaacsons experienced, and a fantasy that enables him to act as though he were the committed political subject that he is not.

At issue: must one experience pain and suffering in order to take a stand against it?

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Get Smart

In "Here's the Problem With Being So 'Smart'," Jeffrey Williams critiques the "special status and value" that the term smart has assumed in contemporary academic culture. The gist of Williams's essay, which is excerpted, I think, from a longer piece in the minnesota review, is that although smart "purports to be a way to talk about quality in a sea of quantity," it really operates as more of a stylistic marker, a judgment of taste that disguises itself as a judgment of reason. Williams is wary of the phrase, suggesting that it often operates as a sort of buzz word for insiders. I'm sure he's right.

Here's my take: In the ultra-competitive academic marketplace -- where the publication requirements for tenure keep increasing, even though everbody knows there's a surplus of scholarship -- a 'smart' publication is one that is supposed to have a certain cachet. It's a text that everyone is talking about in the faculty lounge and about which everyone has an opinion, regardless if they've read it or not. A 'smart' scholar is not just intelligent, but savvy, sharp, and clever. An agile performer, both on the page and behind the podium.

I'd go so far as to suggest that the phrase denotes a sort of academic hipness or trendiness that everybody bemoans, but is probably inevitable so long as universities become ever more corporatized. (Of course, Harvard was, if I'm not mistaken, the first U.S. corporation, but what I'm referring to is the influx of for-profit values into our institutions of higher education.) It's all very anxiety inducing for those of us just entering the profession. Not only is there enormous pressure to publish "innovative" research early and often, but one is expected to be a performer, projecting a 'smart' image and the promise of being a 'rising star' in one's field.

Monday, December 13, 2004

New E-Lit by Richard Powers: "They Come in a Steady Stream"

The latest online installment of Ninthletter contains a work of short fiction by Richard Powers titled "They Come in a Steady Stream Now." I eagerly read the piece as soon as I received word of it via e-mail, because I've been waiting for one of our major contemporary print novelists, such as Powers, to make the digital leap.

My personal impression has been that in the world of electronic literature, poetry has made the migration to the screen (to borrow a formulation from Joe Tabbi) far more smoothly (should I say Flash-ily) than prose narratives have. This is somewhat surprising (or perhaps not) considering that most films in the US are narrative based. While it's understandable that longer prose narratives, novel-length works, might still be best encountered on the page, in a book format, one would think that short fiction, particularly of the image + text sort pioneered by the likes of Donald Barthelme, would be by now a staple of the e-lit universe. But it isn't. At least to my knowledge.

What I'm trying to say is that e-lit has been waiting for some time for an established print-based author of considerable talents to publish an e-fiction that would blow the whole genre wide open. I had great hopes that "They Come in a Steady Stream" now would be that text. Without sounding too disappointed, let me just say that it's not.

I've only read "They Come in a Steady Stream" once and don't want to say too much until I've read it again, but what Powers gives us is a sequence of thoughtful, though by no means profound, meditations on spam. Powers' text, once opened, appears as a window from a standard-model e-mail application for a PC running Windows OS. What you read in this simulated e-mail application are a series of e-mails from Richard Powers. Again, these e-mails consist of short blog-sized musings about the plethora of unsolicited e-mail missives that we receive each day. The messages from Powers are interrupted by spam messages that may or may not be from actual companies.

While it's heartening to think that Powers may be preparing to take the full digital plunge into electronic environments, the author of Plowing the Dark is not breaking any new ground here. The e-mail narrative as a genre already has more experimental antecedents, such as Rob Wittig's Blue Company. To be honest, I was hoping for something more, a fiction in which hitherto unmagined possibilities inherent to the onscreen environment were brought to the foreground. Sorry, but the e-mail inbox frame just doesn't do it for me.

But, hey, not every work can be revolutionary, and I'm sure I'll find more to think about and remark upon in Powers's fiction when I reread it.

Northern Sky, Sverige, Dec A.M.


Northern Sky, Svergie, Dec A.M.
Originally uploaded by erasmus.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Laptop Use May Lower Fertility

Researchers claim that men who use laptop computers on their laps may be at risk for infertility. Apparently, the heat generated by laptops and the closed-thigh posture preferred by many men when they balance their computers on their laps may contribute to make them infertile. I can see how these factors could lead to a reduced sperm count. However, if procreation is the concern here, I have a hunch that the fellas who are lugging their laptops around with them everywhere are probably less likely to get laid in the first place. I could be wrong, but I think that having a fast, top-of-the-line laptop doesn't have the same effect on the ladies that having a fast, top-of-the-line sportscar does.

Gorilla Wake at the Brookfield Zoo

Gorillas at the Brookfield Zoo held a wake for Babs, the dominant female of the group. Babs was 30-years old and suffered from an incurable kidney condition, so the zoo euthanized her.

Ramar, the silverback male leader, was the only gorilla not to pay his or her respects to Babs. I wonder if this is typical behavior? Was there resentment? A rivalry?

Kudos to Adam Richer for sending me this link, and for taking me and Ira out to the Brookfield Zoo a year or so ago to see the apes in the Tropic world building.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Republican Dictionary

A handy guide to deciphering right-wing rhetoric from Katrina vanden Heuvel's Editor's Cut. The contributions were submitted by readers of The Nation.

ACTIVIST JUDGE, n. A judge who attempts to protect the rights of minorities--most especially homosexuals--against the tyranny of the majority. (Amy Mashberg, Austin, Texas)

ALTERNATIVE ENERGY SOURCES, n. New locations to drill for oil and gas. (Peter Scholz, Fort Collins, Colorado)

CIVIL LIBERTIES, n. Unnecessary privileges that you aren't afraid of losing unless you are a God-hating, baby-killing, elitist liberal who loves Saddam Hussein more than your own safety. (Megan Ellis, Bellingham, Washington)

CLIMATE CHANGE, n. Global warming, without that annoying suggestion that something is wrong. (Robert Shanafelt, Statesboro, Georgia)

DEATH TAX, n. A term invented by anti-tax zealots and referring to a tax used to prevent the very wealthy from establishing a dominating aristocracy in this country. (David McNeely, Lutz, Florida)

DEMOCRATIC ALLY, n. Any democracy, monarchy, plutocracy, oligarchy or dictatorship--no matter how ruthless--that verbally supports American diplomatic and economic goals. (L.J. Klass, Concord, New Hampshire)

DEREGULATE, v. To pursue greed and exploitation. (Nathan Taylor, Long Beach, California)

DETAIN, v. Hold in a secret place without recourse to law and treat in any manner one wishes. (Jeannine Bettis, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma)

ECONOMIC PROGRESS, n. 1. Recession; 2. Rising unemployment; 3. Minimum-wage freeze. (Terry McGarry, East Rockaway, New York)

FAITH-BASED INITIATIVE, n. Christian Right Payoff. (Michael Gendelman , Fair Haven, New Jersey)

FAMILY VALUES, n. Oppression of women. (Nancy Matsunaga, Brooklyn, New York)

FOX NEWS, n. White House Press Office. (Donnalyn Murphy, San Francisco, California)

HARD WORK, n. What Republicans say when they can't think of anything better. (Brain McDowell), Durham, North Carolina)

INSURGENT, n. Armed or unarmed, violent or non-violent Iraqi on the receiving end of an American rocket blast or bullet spray, regardless of age, gender or political affiliation. (Joey Flores, Marina del Ray, California)

MODERNIZE, v. To do away with, as in modernizing Social Security, labor laws, etc. (Robert Sean Roarty, Atlanta, Georgia)

OBSTRUCTIONIST, n. Any elected representative who dares to question Republican radicals on the issue of the day. (Terry Levine, Toronto, Ontario)

OWNERSHIP SOCIETY, n. A society in which Republican donors own the rest of us. (Adrianne Stevens, Seattle, Washington)

PRIVATIZE, v. To steal the resources of the national community and give them to private business. (Susan Dyer, Ottsville, Pennsylvania)

REFORM, v. To eliminate, as in tort reform (to eliminate all lawsuits against businesses and corporations) or Social Security and Medicare reform (to eliminate these programs altogether). (Darren Staley, Millers Creek, North Carolina)

STRICT CONSTRUCTIONIST, n. A judge with extremely conservative beliefs, who interprets laws in a manner that fits his/rarely-her own belief systems, while maintaining that this was the original intent of the law. (Floyd Doney, Athens, Ohio)

SUPPORT THE MILITARY, v. To praise Bush when he sends our young men and women off to die for no reason and without proper body armor. (Marc Goldberg, Vancouver, Washington)

TAX REFORM, n. The shifting of the tax burden from unearned income to earned income, or rather, from the wealthy elite to the working class. (Eric Evans, Gregory, Michigan)

TORT REFORM, n. Corporate immunity and impunity. (Sue Bazy, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

UNITER, n. A Leader who brings together his followers by fomenting hatred for anyone who disagrees with him. (Larry Allred, Las Cruces, New Mexico)

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Back in Nebraska



Originally uploaded by erasmus.
A great panoramic view of Northeast Nebraska taken in August of 2003. I just had the role of pics from this trip back home developed, and there are some really fabulous photos on it.

Unfortunately, the two photos of my entire 'nuclear' family -- my mom, dad, sister and me -- are blurry. Typical. At least this shot of me and my mom turned out.

Just look at that sky...

Everything Seems to Be Up in the Air at This Time

Is it just me, or does this 'oldie' from Camper Van Beethoven, the "Ambiguity Song," seem just abou' perfect at the present moment?

Everything seems to be up in the air at this time
Everything seems to be up in the air at this time
One day soon, it’ll all settle down
Everything seems to be up in the air at this time
All across the nation, people are gettin’ together
From many ideas they form a single goal
Some people are gonna benefit
And others gotta sacrifice
But everything seems to seems to be up in the air at this time
I got some certain special feelings for you
I got some certain special feelings for you
I don’t know if they’re good or bad
But I just might give you a call
Everything seems to be up in the air at this time


DJ, cue that up one more time, if you will, that's right...
"Some people are gonna benefit/ And others gotta sacrifice"...

Yup, that 'bout sums it up...

A lot of Reagan-era rock sounds fresher than ever, I think, as we brace ourselves for round two of the Bush-Cheney regime.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

School's Out for Win-ter!


Last Day of Class
Originally uploaded by erasmus.
Almost anyway. Today was the last day of the semester for my English 109 class--American Literature and American Culture.

Here's our class photo, or one of them. It features about 75% of the students, a lower turnout than I would like. Thanks to Doug, for graciously volunteering to shoot this picture. He's the absent presence whose gaze is behind the lens.

Once again, I only display my full smile in the blurry shots, but I can't complain. This time of year, its not unusual for everyone on campus, students and faculty alike, to look a bit peaked. It's a busy, stressful time.

At UIC, the last week of classes is the week after the Thanksgiving holiday, which has always struck me as being piss-poor planning, particularly since we don't have a fall break and, up until Thanksgiving, have been going more or less full throttle since the third week of August (sorry but one day off for Labor Day doesn't count). Then it's two days off for Thanksgiving and back to school for the last week and finals. It can be brutal.

But it almost over. I've already started reading a few of the final papers and so far so good.

By the way, didja catch (Michael) Stipe on (Tavis) Smiley tonight? Or Lyle Lovett on Letterman?

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Doctorow Abstract

Spent most of the evening rewriting and revising an abstract for a conference that I hope to attend next year. It's only 358 words long (which still might be too verbosel; abstracts are typically under 200 words in the PMLA) so I shudder to think at how many words per minute this that averages out to be.

Ah, well, there's still a few days left in the semester to deal with everything else that must be done...

‘THEY’RE STILL FUCKING US’: SEX AND THE FAMILY MYTHOLOGY IN E.L. DOCTOROW’S THE BOOK OF DANIEL

The fate of the family in modern America, the decline of patriarchal authority, and the search for surrogate families are recurring motifs in E.L. Doctorow’s fiction. The Book of Daniel—Doctorow’s most overtly political novel and an experimental, hybridized text that mixes family history, personal memoir, sociology, political theory and pornography—fits this pattern. Through the figure of Daniel Isaacson Lewin, born to the Issacsons, a Russian-Jewish, communist immigrants (loosely modeled on the Rosenbergs) and adopted by the Lewins, more ‘respectable’ East Coast liberals, Doctorow details the demise of an ‘extended’ patriarchal family and the fracturing of a ‘nuclear’ family as they confront Cold War forces. While recent readings have illuminated how Paul and Rochelle Issacson’s trial and death function as familial and national traumas that return to haunt their children, the emphasis has remained on the family as a figure for foregrounding generational differences dividing the Old and New Left. Taking seriously Doctorow’s remark that he did not write a “documentary novel,” my paper will analyze an element in The Book of Daniel that, surprisingly, critics have largely overlooked—namely, the hyper-eroticized familial relationships depicted by Daniel, the novel’s narrator. These relationships include Daniel’s sadomasochistic and abusive relationship with his “child bride,” Phyllis; Oedipal tensions with his biological parents; and incestuous fantasies about his sister Susan and a childhood friend. By focusing on the trope of “vicious eroticism” in Daniel’s rhetoric and the analogies that Daniel makes between various sexual acts when narrating the “family mythology,” I will explain why the family becomes the privileged site in which sexual and political desires are conflated in Daniel’s mind. My reading will be informed by Michel Foucault’s observation that modern forms of biopower effected a shift from a ‘symbolics of blood ‘to an ‘analytics of sexuality.’ That is, I will argue that if the subjectivizing effects of Daniel’s discourse is taken into account, then The Book of Daniel, i.e., the ostensibly real “false document” we’re reading, appears to be far less of a liberating or therapeutic project than many critics have previously supposed.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Surprised By Sin

Last night I couldn't go to sleep right away, so I picked up a copy Surprised by Sin, Stanley Fish's classic monograph on Milton's Paradise Lost. Yeah, yeah, I know, a little 'light' bedtime reading.

In the "Preface to the Second Edition," Fish devotes a section to "THE POLITICS OF BEING AND POLITICAL CRITICISM" in which he stresses that the "distinction between plot-thinking and faith-thinking is the key to understanding...the question of Milton's politcs" (li). Milton, of course, is a 'faith-thinker' who advocates a politics of being. And what might that be? Read the essay yourself, if you really care. For now, I just want to draw attention to the following gloss that Fish provides.

"The politics of being is the politics of styling, of affirming the real with no support except for the support provided by the strength of your affirmation ('On other surety none'). The politics of faith-thinking which refuses the lure of plot-thinking, the lure of allowing the accidents of time and history to define meanings and define obligations" (lviii).

Is it just me, or does this description capture the difference between Bush (politics of being) and Kerry, who was tagged a flip-flopper for "allowing the accidents of time and history to define meanings and obligations"?

This is not to suggest that either Dubya's intellectual powers or his faith are even remotely close to those of John Milton's. But I bet a lot of Bush voters would like to think so.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Irina on Wheels


Irina on Wheels
Originally uploaded by erasmus.
It's such a crappy day outside, rainy and cold, that I thought I'd post this fabulous photo, which Cris Smith shot during a much more comfortable day earlier this fall.

It was Sunday, September 26, to be exact, and Cris and Jeff were back in town for the weekend. Jim, Jeff, Ami, Ira, Seth, Finn and I were leisurely hanging out in Winnemac Park in the last couple hours before Jeff and Cris flew back to Nebraska.

I just spoke with Ira a few minutes ago on the phone, which is what made me think of this photo.

Is Postmodern Literature Soulless?

A rapidly written response to an e-mail from a student who explained that his/her slacking in my class was partly due to the fact that the novels we'd read (with, interestingly, the exception of Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49) were not his /her "cup of tea" and seemed "soulless":

If you find the novels that we've read 'soulless,' that’s fine. Literary critics don’t need to like what they’re studying, they just need to be able to understand it. The claim that a lot of postmodern literature is soulless is not an uncommon one, and this offhand, subjective impression might be developed into a final-paper topic.

What would it mean to describe a text as 'soulless'? Why would we personify a literary text in such a way? How might a text's author respond to such a description of his or her writing?

For example, a writer like Burroughs, were he still alive, would likely embrace the tag of being a 'soulless' writer. Why? Because Burroughs would agree with Foucault that “The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body” (Discipline and Punish 30). Indeed, one might argue that Burroughs’ literary aesthetic — his cut-up technique, his ‘language is a virus’ trope, etc. — is designed to undermine traditional humanist concepts of the soul. How? By exposing these concepts to be ideological tools and subjugating technologies that infect our bodies, making us submissive in the face of authorities who want to dominate us (kneeling before God's priestly representatives, etc.).

But DeLillo, who you'll be writing about, is hardly advocating as radical a posthumanism as Burroughs. Right? After all, many passages in Underworld seems to express a strong spiritual impulse. Would you agree? If so, why or why not? Consider the opening of part one, "Long Tall Sally," when Nick Shay remarks about his Lexus, an auto that was assembled entirely by machines. What do you think DeLillo intends to say in such moments. What about all of the religious stuff going on in the novel? How are we to take,say, Nick Shay's appreciation for his Jesuit upbringing or Sister Edgar's visionary experience near the end of the novel?

One thing is certain. You could definitely write the art and aesthetics paper on a topic related to ‘soullessness’. You’d just have to define what you mean by ‘soul’ up front.

Another way of approaching the topic of 'soulless postmodernism' is to begin by examining how, as a literary artist, DeLillo constructs his novel in response to an increasingly cybernetic world: is the text designed to be a soulless construct — a sort of machinic entity — or is it representing a ‘soulless’ world where human lives matter less than, say, the flows of capital? Does DeLillo intend his work to be making a critical intervention? As a writer and rhetorician, what techniques does DeLillo employ to make readers think about various phenomena?

Another topic that is much discussed in conjunction with postmodernism (a term that you'll need to define: a historical epoch, a literary movement, a shared sensibility) is the topic of irony. It’s been said (particularly well by David Foster Wallace in his book A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) that we postmodern Americans are excessively ironic. That we constantly live life at a distance and are overly skeptical about the possibility of having authentic experiences. We ironize everything, including our affective responses, by treating them as arbitrary constructs that are programmed in advance (through language and other semiotic systems). The problem with certain modes of irony, then, is that they can lead to cynicism and apathy. We become a nation of smart-assess — Jerry Seinfelds— voyeurs who scrutinize things and other people carefully, but only to make fun of them and to assure ourselves, if only temporarily, that we’re not so naive.

What’s the problem with that? Well, perhaps the pervasiveness of irony helps to explain the way phrases such as “compassionate conservatism” function in contemporary political discourse. Perhaps our psychological tendency to distance ourselves from the world, to report on events, even our own experiences, like, second-hand as if, like, we’re removed from them . Maybe this, like, affected, ironic distance, like, explains why half the country doesn’t seem to care about the destruction of welfare programs, of the privatization of social security, of the fact that the richest country in the world doesn’t provide health coverage for its citizens, etc. You get the point.

I’m sure you don’t want an e-mail lecture and I don’t want to write one, so I’ll stop. I hope this inspires you to a more rewarding engagement with Underworld.

Friday, November 26, 2004

All Good Things Must Come to An End...

Including my beloved Nebraska Cornhusker's 42-year-long streak of winning football seasons. And their NCAA-record 35-year bowl streak. The Huskers lost to Colorado 26-20 today, which means that they'll end the 2004 season with a 5-6 record. It's their first losing season since 1961. I wasn't even born for more than a decade, so this all seems unreal to me.

I'll admit to turning the game off at the end of the 3rd quarter, when the Buffs were up 26-7. It wasn't too painful to watch or anything. I just have a lot of work to do and figured that heading down to the UIC Library for a few hours would be more productive than bearing witness to the end of a dynasty. Besides, my beer supply is running low.

Last year Frank Solich, who was picked by Tom Osborne to replace him, was fired after going 9-3 (the team went 10-3 after winning their bowl with Bo Pelini as the interim coach). I suspect that Bill Callahan and his crew, not to mention the fans, would be thrilled if the Huskers could do that well next season.

As a Cubs fan, I really, really am sick of the old "wait 'til next season" refrain, but what else, at this point, is there to say?

On the plus side, I spoke with Ira and having had some rest, she sounded much better today than when we spoke yesterday. She's still going to see a doctor though. Why not, when you have a health system that works for the people rather than for the bottom line?

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Thanksgiving, Sorta

Today, for the first time in my life, I spent Thanksgiving alone, which sounds sadder and more pathetic that it really was.
Ira flew back to Sweden Wednesday, and I don't have the time or money to fly to my folks in Nebraska, so I decided to go it alone this year. No turkey, no big gathering, no celebrating. Just a frozen pizza and a frozen pumpkin pie. I probably could've gotten myself invited to somebody else's gathering, but didn't want to publicize my situation and make someone feel obligated to invite me out of pity. Plus, I sorta liked the idea of laying low since I have so much to do this time of year.

Consequently, I spent the day grading exams, reading, sorta watching the boring NFL games on the tube, and eventually watching The Usual Suspects, which I was interested in seeing again since Zizek refers to Keyser Soze's familial sacrifice as an example of an 'act.' One thing I didn't do that I've done in recent years was to listen to William S. Burroughs's "A Thanksgiving Prayer." No, not this year.

After the recent election -- with Bush and co. prepared to shift even more of the tax burden onto the poor, working and middle classes, with the deficit growing and more spending cuts being imposed on social services, and with the war in Iraq being so grossly mishandled -- I'm not ready to hear Uncle Bill recite stanzas like the following:

Thanks for the American dream,
To vulgarize and to falsify until
the bare lies shine through.

Not now. Not by my lonesome.

I spoke with my parents, who were eager to head up to Gilbert Vaughn's place for dinner, and with Ira, albeit briefly. She'd just arrived home and was dead tired, having been sick for much of her flight from Chicago to London. Poor thing. I hope she's feeling better tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Vonnegut's Saab Story

Kurt Vonnegut explains why the Swedes have never awarded him a Novel Prize for Literature in "Have I Got a Car for You!." As the owner and manager of an auto dealership that went out of business 33 years ago, Vonnegut talked trash about the poor Swedish engineering in the Saab (only one make back then) and "so diddled myself out of a Nobel Prize."

Speaking of Sweden, Ira flies there in a few hours. She's eager to see Daniel again.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Derrida's Doppelganger

The Village Voice has published an interesting anecdotal essay by Leland de la Durantaye on the cult of personality surrounding the late, great Jacques Derrida. De la Durantaye describes the curious crowds that Derrida's lectures would attract, including a "giant double" who regularly attended the talks and asked questions that were "mirror image[s]" of the topic on which Derrida had just spoken. He admits to wondering whether this uncanny phenomenon, of the bizarro Derrida and his nonsensical queries, might not've been staged by Derrida, "a master of conceptual disguise." The prospect that "the two were working in concert" is intriguing. While I'm sure Derrida would appreciate the dadaist flavor of such a scene, I have difficulty believing that he would go to such lengths to pull one over his audiences.

On a related note, I'm pleased to see that over four-thousand people have added their signatures to the Jacques Derrida In Memoriam page.

It's Not All Relative

Who believes that 'Anything Goes'? Nobody.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Bidding Adiou to The Office

After waiting nearly a year, I've finally seen The Office Special, the final episode. Been feeling a bit under the weather today, regretting that I didn't feel up to going to down to UIC to see DJ Spooky perform, but watching the show (with a few pints -- of High Life, but still pints) put me in better spirits. The special was all I'd hoped for. I agree with Letterman, The Office might just be the greatest TV series ever and after a comedy like this, it'll be damn near impossible to ever watch a sitcom again. I first saw the series when I was visiting Ira in Leeds over the Christmas 2002 holidays. For a week BBC 2 broadcast a different episode from the first season each night, and we stayed in at her flat to catch every one. (Not that we could've afforded to be out at the pubs for long anyway. The dollar was weak back then too, and meagre grad skool stipends don't go far.) I was hooked from the start.

The first episode was like nothing I'd ever seen before on TV. Some of the scenes were so excruciatingly painful to watch -- it was like some alternative universe where Harold Pinter and Nick Cave were writing for TV, after having been forced to work in a dead-end, white-collar, cubcile-dwelling office job. Just fucking brilliant. If you screen the DVD, but sure to watch the extra, especially David Brent's videos. The ending of the series truly surprised me, but I won't 'give it away' here, even though y'all probably have BBC America or the actual BBC. Glad to see the crew go out on top. Cheers!

Underworld Exam Preview

A burst of pre-holiday kindness has prompted me to post the following preview of tomorrow's exam.

On separate pieces of lined paper, write short answers to four of the following five questions. You must answer question A. Be as specific as possible and make a point of interpreting individual phrases and sentences from within the text.

Demonstrate your ability to do close readings of passages in which you are attentive to details, but don’t lose sight of the ‘big picture’—i.e., how a passage works within the novel as a whole.

Take 10–15 minutes up front to outline your four responses on the back of this sheet. Then, spend the remaining hour (approximately 20 minutes/question) writing your essays. Turn in this sheet with your exam. Write legibly. If I can’t read your handwriting, you’ll lose points.

A. First, explain the theoretical difference between a text’s meaning and a text’s significance. Then, briefly discuss two episodes from Underworld in which this distinction between meaning and significance is particularly relevant. In your discussion of these episodes make sure to explain (1) whether the distinction is implicit or explicit and (2) why the distinction is crucial to our understanding of the episode.

*** Answer three of the following four questions***
Sorry, but I'm not going to tell you everything that'll be on the exam. I will give you these final tips for last-minute studying.

1. Reread DeLillo's "The Power of History" essay. Be able to explain concisely, in your own words, how DeLillo understands the connection between fiction and history. What does DeLillo mean by counterhistory? Flag passages from the novel that allow you to explain the connection.

2. Check back over your notes on affect, be able to define this term in your own words so that you can identify and discuss particularly affective passages from the novel. Flag passages from Underworld in which sensory experiences are foregrounded.

3. Before each section/chapter of the novel jot down phrases in shorthand that remind you of the key scenes or events that occur in it. Doing this will enable you to navigate through the novel efficiently so that you can quickly locate passages that you want to discuss in your answers. (You'll also be able to use these notes on the take-home portion of the exam and your final paper).

4. Reflect upon how time functions in the novel. Pay particular attention to the way the different sections flash forward and backwards in time. An awareness of how DeLillo structures our experience of time and temporality throughout the novel will enhance your ability to discuss the significance of events. Why? Well, in general, the order in which we learn about different events (especially secrets) impacts the effect that connected events have upon us when we read about them.

5. Relax. If you've read the novel, taken notes during class and followed the advice I've been giving over the past few weeks, you'll do great.

6. Get plenty of sleep. You'll perform better tomorrow because of it.


Monday, November 15, 2004

The EU Dream

Fellow Americans, don't be put off by the slightly misleading title, "Welcome to the new cold war," of Andrew O'Hehir's excellent essay about the rise of the European Union, which is now arguably the United State's greatest rival, economically, politically, and culturally. The piece merits your attention, as O'Hehir does a great job of dispelling the widely circulated myths and lies that circulate in the US about "Old Europe."

It's time that Americans wake up to the fact that "Old Europe" is more progressive than the US, where one can only hope that the current reactionary backlash is only temporary, and that many Europeans enjoy a better quality of life than their American counterparts. If America would just show some humility, the EU might help the US to make the transition into the 21st century.

Franco bashing has become a national passtime for many, but French workers are both more productive than Americans in terms of hourly output and they enjoy the benefits of a 35-hour work week and more vacation time.

1. Productivity and Quality of Life

Much of American "productivity," Rifkin suggests, is accounted for by economic activity that might be better described as wasteful: military spending; the endlessly expanding police and prison bureaucracies; the spiraling cost of healthcare; suburban sprawl; the fast-food industry and its inevitable corollary, the weight-loss craze. Meaningful comparisons of living standards, he says, consistently favor the Europeans. In France, for instance, the work week is 35 hours and most employees take 10 to 12 weeks off every year, factors that clearly depress GDP.

2. Business (Aspiring entrepreneurs, pay attention to the following)

Perhaps more surprisingly, European business has not been strangled by the EU welfare state; in fact, quite the opposite is true. Europe has surpassed the United States in several high-tech and financial sectors, including wireless technology, grid computing and the insurance industry. The EU has a higher proportion of small businesses than the U.S., and their success rate is higher. American capitalists have begun to pay attention to all this. In Reid's book, Ford Motor Co. chairman Bill Ford explains that the company's Volvo subsidiary is more profitable than its U.S. manufacturing operation, even though wages and benefits are significantly higher in Sweden. Government-subsidized healthcare, child care, pensions and other social supports, Ford says, more than make up for the difference.

Oh, what the US could do if it we didn't waste so much on wars, prisons, and handouts to corporate special interests (Big Pharma, etc.)...

3. Freedom

The rhetoric of 'freedom' in the US really disgusts me, and the following quote just hits it on the head.

There is a large class of people in this country who are sympathetic to the "European dream" of a managed market economy in which cooperation is emphasized over competition, leisure is privileged over work, and the social costs of capitalism are closely regulated -- and you know who you are, gentle readers. But to most Americans "freedom" still means untrammeled private-property rights, open markets, workaholism and the belief that somehow we'll all die rich.

Being an American workaholic, I should get back to work, but first one more quote. Ira was pleased to see that Joyce got the final word in this piece.

I am a democrat," James Joyce wrote in 1916, while an entire generation of Europe's young men were slaughtering each other in the fields of Flanders. "I'll work and act for the social liberty and equality among all classes and sexes in the United States of the Europe of the future." People read that and laughed bitterly. Europe seemed poisoned by mustard gas and history; America was the land of liberty, democracy and the future. Nobody's laughing now.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

William Gibson: Beyond Cyberspace


William Gibson: Beyond Cyberspace
Originally uploaded by erasmus.
A slightly blurry photo from the "William Gibson: Beyond Cyberspace" event at the 2005 Chicago Humanities Festival. Bill Savage, who teaches English at Northwestern U, interviewed Gibson, still best known for coining the term cyberspace in his 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer about topics generally related to time. technology and futurity.

Gibson downplayed the notion that his novels display a gift of prophecy on his part. He said that he envisions his authorial role not as being "a game of predicting the future." Rather, he tries to identify places where the future has "violently and precipitously arrived in the present." Gibson confessed that recently he feels as though he no longer knows where the future is and that places like Tokyo, which had previously seemed emblematic of what the future would be like, had come to seem quaint and indicative of what the future might've looked like.

Although Neuromancer is often described as a darkly dystopian novel about the future, Gibson noted that when was writing the novel back in 1981, when the Cold War was again heating up, he regarded his fictional vision of the future as being "heroically optimistic," because it imagined a future in which the danger of nuclear war had dissipated. He said that he took it for granted that in the early 1980s various places around the globe (which he did not specifically identify) were far worse places to live than in his fictional Chiba City. The same observation, of course, holds true today.

Having just taught DeLillo's Underworld, a novel all about Cold War secrecy, I was skeptical about Gibson's suggestion that secrets, particularly state secrets, were no longer sustainable because modern societies have become so interpenetrated with communications technologies. That is, the duration for which a secret can be kept a secret from the public has shrunk greatly, and 'leaks' (a concept that he argued is a recent phenomenon) are more or less inevitable.

While I take Gibson's point, I have a hard time feeling so optimistic about either the phenomenon of the leak or the notion that communications technologies have made possible a more transparent society. As Bill Savage sort of hinted at in his follow-up question, the same communications technologies also facilitate the widespread dissemination of misinformation and propaganda that make it difficult for the public to know what information they can trust.

Moreover, I would add, the accelerated pace of our culture means that a secret doesn't have to remain undisclosed for as long in order for it to be effective. And once a secret has been exposed, such as, say, the crimes committed at the Abu Graib prison, it takes a disturbingly short amount of time for it to be forgotten by the mass public, which seems to depend upon the commercial mass media (especially network TV) as a sort of collective memory. If an event isn't being covered and commented upon incessantly on TV, it probably won't register in the average person's psyche.

I should get going. At present, Ira is downtown listening to Patricia Williams. If I hurry around, I can make it downtown in time to meet Ira and catch Roddy Doyle, one of my Mom's favorite writers...

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Spring Teaching at UIC

There's almost a month left in the Fall semester, but I've been planning for my Spring courses for some time now. For those not in the bidness, you'd be amazed at how much time goes into drafting these course descriptions. At least for those of us who are relatively young and new to the game.

The sad truth of the matter is that for 100-level courses, many students enroll blindly, taking a class simply because it fulfills a gen-ed requirement and is available. Nonetheless, I generally expend a great deal of intellectual energy crafting my descriptions, in part because it helps me to narrow my focus, both in the classroom and in my research and writing.

Here, then, are the two courses I'll be teaching next semester.

Engl 105: English and American Fiction (Call #s 14334, 20942)
Eric Dean Rasmussen
11:00 AM-12:15 PM TR / 307 SH

Narrative, Textuality, Subjectivity: The Transatlantic Postmodern Novel from 1950 to 2001

A sampling of some of the most innovative and critically acclaimed novels written in the English language during the last half century, with a focus on (1) the narrative techniques deployed in these texts and (2) the questions about subjectivity these texts raise. We will explore, in depth, how five exemplary modern/postmodern novels play with readers’ expectations, foreground the extent to which our experience of reality is thoroughly textualized, and—through their narrative experiments—suggest different models (grammatical, politico-legal, and philosophical) of the human subject.

This class will help you understand what narratives are, how they are constructed, how narratives act upon us and vice versa, how narratives are transmitted, how a narrative’s significance (though not its meaning) can change when its medium or cultural context changes, and why all these topics are so relevant to our sense of selfhood. By the end of this class, you will be smarter, more thoughtful readers, better equipped to identify and respond to the ways in which our subjectivities emerge in, through, and because of our engagement with language.

  • Beckett, Samuel. Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. 1951–3. New York: Grove, 1995.

  • Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. 1962. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.

  • DeLillo, Don. The Body Artist. New York: Scribner, 2001.

  • Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. 1969. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998.

  • Hall, Donald. Subjectivity. New York: Routledge, 2004.

  • Hughes, George. Reading Novels. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2002.

  • Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita. New York: Vintage 1991.

  • Pifer, Ellen, ed. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: A Casebook. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.


  • Students should read Nabokov’s The Annotated Lolita over the Christmas break.

    ----

    Engl 109 : American Literature and American Culture (Call # 14338)
    Eric Dean Rasmussen
    12:30-01:45 PM TR / 316 SH

    Novel Ideologies: Mapping the Social and Political in Postmodern American Literature

    This reading-intensive course offers an introduction to postmodern American prose literature with a focus on four acclaimed authors—Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, E.L. Doctorow and Thomas Pynchon. These authors share a fascination with post-WWII cultural paranoia and political hysteria and an interest in interrogating various American ideologies in their writings. We will read both fiction and non-fiction by these authors, aiming to discern how their texts assert or imply positions about politicized issues: how meaningful or significant communication occurs, how knowledge and power are interrelated, how beliefs and values are transmitted, and how we can exert our agency given various systemic constraints.

    If you’re uncertain what is meant by ‘ideology,’ that’s fine. One of our primary goals will be to understand different uses of this loaded term and to recognize the ways in which we produce, consume, and transmit ideologies all our lives. The following literary and theoretical texts will be our guides in this endeavor.

  • Belsey, Catherine. Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2002.

  • DeLillo, Don. Underworld. New York: Scribner, 1997.

  • Didion, Joan. Vintage Didion. New York: Vintage, 2004.

  • Doctorow, E.L. The Book of Daniel. 1971. New York: Plume, 1996.

  • Doctorow, E.L. Reporting the Universe. 2003. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004.

  • Freeden, Michael. Ideology: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.

  • Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. 1965. New York: Harper Perennial, 1986.


  • Students should read the first 272 pages of Underworld over the holiday break.

    ---
    Yes, I know that the bit about reading over the holiday break is wishful thinking, but there might be a couple serious students who will dig in early.

    Wednesday, November 10, 2004

    Election 2004: Cognitive Mapping

    Maps and cartograms of the election that attempt to represent population and strength of support.

    Claire E. Rasmussen
    Assistant Professor
    Department of Political Science and International Relations
    University of Delaware
    Newark, DE 19716

    Building Up a Truly Liberal Media

    In order to win elections, political parties need to get their message across consistently, and to do that they need regular media access and the ability to maintain a constant flow of information. In "Too Little, Too Late," Robert Parry argues that Democrats and liberals (and the left, too, I'd add) must follow the example of the right, who have spent the past twenty-five years buidling a "vertically integrated media apparatus—reaching from the powerhouse Fox News cable network through hard-line conservative newspapers and magazines to talk radio networks, book publishing, well-funded Internet operations and right-wing bloggers."

    If the left doesn't establish a similar media infrastructure, comparable in size and scope, the right will continue to win the war of 'ideas' (propaganda) and, of course, the elections. One major problem is obtaining and sustaining the flow of capital needed to maintain an effective media juggernaut. Apparently, rich liberals have been reluctant to invest in Air America, the liberal radio network, so why would they help to fund other ventures in the mediasphere?

    I can't answer that question for wealthy liberals, who will have to decide themselves whether or not they are willing to wage the necessary ideological battles with the Republicans and the conservatives.

    The fact that John Kerry raised so much money through relatively modest individual dontations gives some hope that even if the left lacks the backing of a Rupert Murdoch or a Sun Myong Moon, it might find other sources of captial.

    One thing is clear, which is that the mediasphere needs a forum for liberal and leftist thought. What Parry doesn't address is whether it a liberal or leftist media network would deploy the dirty tricks used so effectively by the right.

    Tuesday, November 09, 2004

    Rossett, Rasmussen & Rettberg Celebrate the ELO

    A great photo from my days with the Electronic Literature Organization, back when the ELO was in an industrial building in the Ravenswood neighborhood on Chicago's North Side. I've gotta admit that when I walk west on Montrose, past the old ELO offices, I think fondly of the many hours that Scott and I clocked in there.

    Meeting Barney Rossett--the founder of Grove Press, publisher of the Evergreen Review, and the man responsible for publishing Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, and other modern literary greats in the USA--was definitely the highlight of my time working for the ELO. It was inspiring to meet a literary legend like Barney in person and to get words of encouragement about our project from him.

    On the night that this photo was taken, I really lucked out. John Vincler, who was doing an internship with the ELO, and I got to share a table with Barney, so we spent the evening hearing his stories, about everything from serving in the Korean War to his exchanges with Beckett to the bombing of the Evergreen Review offices by anti-Castro Cubans, who were upset that the Evergreen Review ran a piece by Che Guevara.

    Later that week, we were invited to Barney's loft, which was lined with bound correspondences with all the great writers with whom he'd published. Barney even showed us his FBI files, which he'd obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

    Monday, November 08, 2004

    Scenic Stockholm


    Scenic Stockholm
    Originally uploaded by erasmus.
    I'm taking a break from an essay that I'm writing to fart around with my flickr account. I've uploaded a few old photos, some of which I'll make public. Others will require clearance from Ira first. Ira took this shot last May.

    Saturday, November 06, 2004

    He Got Game: Chuck D at the CHF

    Today Ira and I attended two events at the Chicago Humanities Festival. Although both events were held downtown at the First United Methodist Church on Washington, they couldn't have been more different. The first event was an appearance by the British novelist and literary critic David Lodge, who gave a lecture titled "Time in the Novel" that provided a concise overview of basic ideas regarding the relationship between temporality and storytelling drawn heavily from the work of Gerard Genette. Then, Lodge read a humorous excerpt from Author, Author, his new novel about Henry James, that illustrated the techniques he deployed in order to create the illusion of simultaneity in a particular scene.

    Whereas Lodge gave a witty and polished talk, Chuck D--yes, the Chuck D from Public Enemy, still the greatest rap group ever--offered a more free form talk. The official title of Chuck's talk was "Hip-hop and the Digital Divide," though the issue of access to new digital technologies was not really primary issue. Chuck gave a rambling sermon that began by bemonaing the recent election results, then railed against the dumbing down of American culture, and concluded with remarks about the need for the hip-hpo generation to know their mustical history, because the story of musical migrations is also the history of African-American migrations. But my account here is selective. To be honest, Chuck was all over the place in his talk, which was given off the cuff. At the close, he even apologized for his digressions, but I wouldn't have had it any other way.

    I'd heard most everything he had to say before, but it was good to hear someone from the 'streets' broadcasting the news using rhetoric less polished than, say, the writers from The Nation or In These Times.

    The highlight, for me, was witnessing Chuck D at the pulpit, dressed down in a Cubs cap, black t-shirt and jeans and bathed in the light pouring through the stained-glass windows, rail against George Bush's faux faith as a cover for corporate greed while reminding the crowd of the need for authentic Christian values. In many ways, Chuck's remarks were another version of the call for the progressive Left to reclaim the Christian legacy and to forge a fighting collective--an argument advanced by Cornel West and, of course, Slavoj Zizek.

    A few other moments that I want to remember from my notes... (1) Chuck D noted how ill educated and solipsistic many Americans are at this isolationistic moment. Remarking on people he'd encountered in his travels to 53 countries, Chuck said he found people elsewhere to be "quicker, wiser, more humane and smarter" than your average American. (2) He noted that rap is not a genre of music, but rather a "vocal application on top of music." (3) Chuck noted that if you placed a person dying of AIDS on a stage next to a Lexus that was crushed by a wrecking ball, more people would express outrage about the machine being destroyed than the human being.

    Wednesday, November 03, 2004

    Was the Election Rigged?

    I've gotta admit that I harbor many of the same that doubts about the 2004 election results that Mark Crispin Miller raises in Salon.com.

    Miller, a media critic, pulls no punches and declares that the election was rigged. I know for sure that the election wasn't entirely clean. What election is? But would I endorse his bold claim? Ultimately, my gut tells me that he's right. Rove and the Repugs probably hedged their bets to get Bush back in the White House.

    As Letterman just quipped, "a warning to Ohio: the crooked voting machines are due back in Florida."

    Many people, Republicans and Democrats alike, will immediately reject Miller's concern about vote fraud as a conspiracy theory, but why shouldn't we be skeptical about virtual voting and other dubious technologies that could relatively easily be used to rig an election. After 2000, I don't know why there weren't outside observers, from the UN or wherever, monitoring this election.

    Anyway, here're Miller's remarks from Salon.com.

    Mark Crispin Miller is a media critic, professor of communications at New York University, and author, most recently, of 'Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney's New World Order.'

    First of all, this election was definitely rigged. I have no doubt about it. It's a statistical impossibility that Bush got 8 million more votes than he got last time. In 2000, he got 15 million votes from right-wing Christians, and there are approximately 19 million of them in the country. They were eager to get the other 4 million. That was pretty much Karl Rove's strategy to get Bush elected.

    But given Bush's low popularity ratings and the enormous number of new voters -- who skewed Democratic -- there is no way in the world that Bush got 8 million more votes this time. I think it had a lot to do with the electronic voting machines. Those machines are completely untrustworthy, and that's why the Republicans use them. Then there's the fact that the immediate claim of Ohio was not contested by the news media -- when Andrew Card came out and claimed the state, not only were the votes in Ohio not counted, they weren't even all cast.

    I would have to hear a much stronger argument for the authenticity, or I should say the veracity, of this popular vote for Bush before I'm willing to believe it. If someone can prove to me that it happened, that Bush somehow pulled 8 million magic votes out of a hat, OK, I'll accept it. I'm an independent, not a Democrat, and I'm not living in denial.

    And that's not even talking about Florida, which is about as Democratic a state as Guatemala used to be. The news media is obliged to make the Republicans account for all these votes, and account for the way they were counted. Simply to embrace this result as definitive is irrational. But there is every reason to question it ... I find it beyond belief that the press in this formerly democratic country would not have made the integrity of the electoral system a front page, top-of-the-line story for the last three years. I worked and worked and worked to get that story into the media, and no one touched it until your guy did.

    I actually got invited to a Kerry fundraiser so I could talk to him about it. I raised the issue directly with him and with Teresa. Teresa was really indignant and really concerned, but Kerry just looked down at me -- he's about 9 feet tall -- and I could tell it just didn't register. It set off all his conspiracy-theory alarms and he just wasn't listening.

    Talk to anyone from a real democracy -- from Canada or any European country or India. They are staggered to discover that 80 percent of our touch-screen electronic voting machines have no paper trail and are manufactured by companies owned by Bush Republicans. But there is very little sense of outrage here. Americans for a host of reasons have become alienated from the spirit of the Bill of Rights and that should not be tolerated.

    Political Musings

    Thought I'd share this e-mail (in italics) I received this grim morning, which managed to make me grin, if only momentarily.

    Dunno if the e-mail's author wants to be named, so I'll leave him/her anonymous. Make Ashcroft's cronies do their 'data mining.'

    Shit. Are you making plans to move to Sweden yet? What the fuck is wrong with America? Unfortunately, it appears Repugs may have tipped the scales in their direction with well-placed anti-gay marriage referenda. Someone needs to write something about the Republican obsession with the asshole--why do you care so much how other people (i.e., gay men) are having sex. Bigots.

    I must admit that I was paging through Jim's exquisite DK World Atlas last night, thinking of long, Swedish summer days and wondering if Ira and I might get on the tenure track in Sweden.

    And why the hell didn't young voters turn out? P. Diddy?

    I'd like to scapegoat Puffy, but, sadly, I think many American kidz are conservative and/or cynical.

    I'm really impressed with Obama's margin of victory--and even more so with Kerry's in Illinois. I think Obama clearly had coattails--and he did well even in conservative areas. The Dems need to take a look at what he's doing. He shouldn't be such a superstar--black, legal aid lawyer, snooty professor--and he still can woo non-Democrats. Rather than lamely moving to the center, I hope they take heart from the performance of Obama and the near upset of Specter in PA by a fairly liberal Dem. I hope the Dems get angry and start holding Repugs accountable--they have the Presidency, House, Senate and Supreme Court--if things don't improve in America it's your goddamn fault. If things get morefucked up in Iraq, take fucking responsibility.

    As much as I'd love to see the Democratic party move leftward, I fear that they'll continue to drift right in a misguided hope of winning back the South. But we'll see...

    Please apologize to Ira for how shitty our country is. Did you hear bin Laden had a line in his latest tape that "If we hate freedom, why didn't we attack Sweden?" Heh. The only sensible thing he's ever said.

    Ira is more positive than me. Having grown up in the USSR, she knows not to let authoritarianism break one's spirit. Of course, it's sad to think that the spectre of the Soviet Union has to be evoked in order to make the present-day US of A appear in a good light.

    Take care. At least you live in a sane state--though it still worries me a little that ANYBODY voted for Keyes.

    I agree, though I don't think Keyes is that much wackier than other politicos from the Christian Right. He just is more direct in declaring his beliefs

    Oh, by the way, apparently the Pentagon HAD mulled over some possibilities for increasing the size of the military--including extending Selective Service to age 35. I'll vouch for your flaming homosexuality before the draft board.

    Yeah, and if that doesn't work there's always the Iggy Pop strategy...

    Mourning in America

    A sad, fucking day to be sure. The 2004 election guaranteed that all branches of government in the United States will be dominated by a crass coalition of conservatives — greedheads and bible freaks — and that the standard of living for most Americans will continue to deteriorate for years to come.

    It's sickening how the Repugs have used bullshit 'cultural' issues (abortion, gay marriage, flag burning) to drive a wedge through the electorate, many of whom seem to be either too ignorant and/or too stupid to recognize that they are voting against their own economic interests and our Constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties.

    Looks like the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer, the environment will get dirtier, and affordable health care for all Americans will remain a pipe dream. And I don't even want to think about the ongoing privatization of everything and what could happen to Social Security.

    At present, writing from Chicago, the only bright spot I can discern is Barack Obama's massive victory over out-of-state, right-wing nutter Alan Keyes in the Illinois Senate race. I'm glad I live in Chitown, a proudly Democratic city, and Illinois, which remains a solidly blue state. One thing I gleaned from the electoral maps is that I would prefer not to live in a vast portion of this country—all those Repug-dominated districts — which are apparently populated by prosperous, selfish cynics, whose primary concern is to avoid paying taxes, or gullible wanna-be 'patriots,' who believe the lies and propaganda churned out by the Bush-Cheney plutocrats.

    Anyway, now that the Repugs control everything, I hope people start holding them accountable for the sad, sorry, shitty state of the Union. If things don't improve in this country and pronto, the GOP and their supporters have nobody but themselves to blame.

    Monday, November 01, 2004

    Cornel West: Righteously Indignant About the State of Democracy Today


    Cornel West
    Originally uploaded by erasmus.
    On Friday (Oct. 29) Ira and I went to hear Cornel West speak at the Borders Bookstore downtown on State Street. Although the event was poorly organized, as Borders wasn't prepared for the overflow crowd, started the event late and neglected to shout off the store's loudspeakers, West's talk was captivating.

    For about 35 or 40 minutes, West spoke extemporaneously on topics addressed in his new book, Democracy Matters: the fragility of the 'democratic experiment', the fact that the United States is an Empire, the need for Socratic questioners to interrogate imperialist orthodoxies, and the need to buttress and draw upon a Western (no pun intended) democratic tradition that can present a radical challenge to contemporary corporate nihilism.

    West's talk was exactly what I expected and had hoped for -- a rousing sermon that introduced the audience to the major themes outlined in his new book. West is a master orator, and he had me, Ira and and many others in the audience on the verge of tears as he recounted examples of people having the courage to fight against oppression and exploitation.

    I was the last person to get my book signed before West began speaking, and during our brief encounter I said something to the effect that his book provided me with hope during a particularly anxiety inducing historical moment. West appeared to appreciate my remark, but I noted that during his lecture, he emphasized the difference between hope and optimism. West insisted that, as a black man in the United States, he simply could not be optimistic (or pessimistic, for that matter).

    Here's a picture of Cornel West in action. Unfortunately, all of the pictures that I shot turned out blurry, but I think this image conveys a sense of West's intellectual dynamism.

    Friday, October 29, 2004

    NASA Image Analyst Confirms Bush Wore Wire During Debate

    Dr. Robert M. Nelson, a senior research scientist for NASA and Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laborator, declares that he is "willing to stake my scientific reputation to the statement that Bush was wearing something under his jacket during the debate" that caused the notorious bulge. Obviously, Bush's cheating during the debates is a minor offense compared to, say, lying about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Nonetheless, this incident deserves attention, as it is indicative of Bush's character, demonstrating that our pampered president, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, believes that he doesn't have to play by the rules by which most people are expected to abide. Had John Kerry or Bill Clinton worn a wire during one of their presidential debates, you can be damn sure the Republicans would have been calling for their heads.

    Thursday, October 28, 2004

    How Has Bush Betrayed Thee?: Let Us Count the 100 Ways

    Judd Legum has compiled an extensive (though no doubt not entirely comprehensive) list of 100 facts about the Bush Administration that every American should read, particularly those who intend to vote on November 2. The piece is titled "100 Facts and 1 Opinion" and can be found in the November 8, 2004 edition The Nation. The online version contains links to sources that corroborate the 100 facts, most of which did receive mainstream media coverage, but in an age of near-instantaneous amnesia and information overload were, perhaps, too soon forgotten or overlooked by many Americans.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2004

    Pro-Dope Students Duped into Registering Republican

    Actually, my headline is a slightly sensationalistic. Indiana University of Pennsylvania students thought that they were signing a petition in support of legalizing marijuana for medical use, but the documents were actually used by duplicitous Republicans (sadly, these days it seems as though the 'duplicitous' tag almost goes without saying for most GOP politicos) to register them as Republicans. As this article from The Indiana Gazette reports, the party-registration issue should not matter in the November 2 election; however, it could be an issue in the next primary election. It's going to be an ugly election day this year, I think, as the GOP appears to be going to great lengths to disenfranchise voters inclined to vote for John Kerry.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2004

    Eminem Moshes All Over Bush, But Will His Fans Follow?

    I'm no Eminem fan, though I've enjoyed a few of his tracks, but I was pleased to hear about and even more impressed by the video for his new single "Mosh," in which he holds Bush accountable for the disastrous war in Iraq and encourages his fans to give Bush the bum's rush. How will "Mosh" play for all the suburban frat boys in Eminem's fan base who applaud Bush's shallow cowboy act but, like Bush, are chicken hawks who would never think of enlisting in the military?

    Unfortunately, in what seems to be an act of cowardice on the part of the record company, "Mosh" isn't the first single to be released from Eminem's new album, which, I understand, isn't scheduled to be released until November 16, when the ballots will have long been cast and, presumably, the next President will have been elected. I'm hoping that MTV and other major media outlets pick the video up, though my guess is that they can't handle a real rap 'controversy.' The entertainment industry made it seem as though Eminem's dissing Britney Spears was shocking, but let's see if they have the cajones to generate some pre-election buzz for "Mosh."

    If you want to see Eminem's "Mosh" video now, it's available at the Guerrilla News Network.

    Thursday, October 21, 2004

    Ronald Reagan, Neuromancer

    William Gibson has been blogging lately, and this post is simply a reminder to myself to archive the following quote for the next time I teach one of his novels: "If I were to put together a truly essential thank-you list for the people who most made it possible for me to write my first six novels, I'd certainly owe as much to Ronald Reagan as to Bill Gates or Lou Reed. Reagan's presidency put the grit in my dystopia. His presidency was the fresh kitty litter I spread for utterly crucial traction on the icey driveway of uncharted futurity. His smile was the nightmare in my back pocket."

    Most of my students were just infants during Reagan's second term, and what they 'know' of Reagan is largely the stuff of campaign ads, i.e., the morning in America myth, etc. When teaching the literature that came out of the 1980s, of course, a very different account of life in America emerges.

    Sunday, October 17, 2004

    Faith-Based Fanaticism

    Ron Suskind's profile of George W. Bush and faith-based presidency "Without a Doubt, " is truly frightening, because it makes clear that Bush and his inner circle are not only Machiavellian, believing that might makes right, but that they believe they have a divine mandate to define and construct reality. Bush's mix of arrogance and stupidity

    It's ironic to think that, in the past week, I've been reading in publications, including The New York Times and Spiked, about "the pernicious influence of Derrida's philosophy." The latter claim is made by James Heartfield, who aruges (wrongly) that that Jacques Derrida's legacy is nihilistic, denying the possibility of true knowledge, and that Derrida contributed to the "unreason of the age."

    Now, I agree that we are living in an age of unreason, but to identify Derrida, a left-leaning French philosopher, as being a "cunning articulator" of unreason and a facilitator in the undermining of rationality is ridiculous. The Left (Heartfield) and the Right (Lynne Cheney, etc.) love to attack the so-called 'postmodernists' and 'deconstructionists' for abandoning the truth, while, in actuality, it's the perverse culture of lying in in the name of faith propagated by the political Right that, at present, is denying the possibility of the truth outright.

    As Suskind's article demonstrates, Bush and his inner circle simply override any information that might conflict their ideological agenda and make dialogue, let alone dissent, impossible, even from members of their own party. Read the following anecdote and shudder...

    In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

    The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

    Who besides guys like me are part of the reality-based community? Many of the other elected officials in Washington, it would seem. A group of Democratic and Republican members of Congress were called in to discuss Iraq sometime before the October 2002 vote authorizing Bush to move forward. A Republican senator recently told
    Time Magazine that the president walked in and said: ''Look, I want your vote. I'm not going to debate it with you.'' When one of the senators began to ask a question, Bush snapped, ''Look, I'm not going to debate it with you.''

    Friday, October 15, 2004

    Tips on Teaching Lolita

    The following remarks were originally posted on Scott Rettberg's blog in response to comments he made about teaching Lolita this semester. Scott's reflections were prompted, in part, by his reading of Mark Edmunson's essay "All Entertainment, All the Time."

    Scott,

    I taught Lolita last spring and experienced the same difficulty you describe: getting the students to get beyond their impulse to condemn Humbert Humbert's reprehensible behavior and to reflect upon Nabokov's artistry.

    Here’s what I found worked well to overcome this obstacle.

    1. Read the annotated edition. We read The Annotated Lolita, edited by Alfred Appel Jr. Appel's introductory essay and his useful annotations cue students in to things such as Nabokov's intricate wordplay. This edition costs a bit more, but is worth every penny.

    2. Beware the Morality Fallacy. Explaining why reading literature for a moral lesson is lame. Every semester, I typically give a lecture in which I explain what I like to call the 'morality fallacy,' which is based on the premise that art and literature differ from a sermon and that it is a critical error to evaluate art or literature as though they were merely models for right, proper or 'politically correct behavior.

    3. Explain your affective reaction. I asked students to reflect carefully upon their feelings toward Humbert. In which passages did they find him most reprehensible, and where did they find themselves feeling some pity for him? After pinpointing some of these passages, including, of course, the account of the first seduction, we discussed how the narrative strategies Nabokov deployed via his unreliable, pompous, but nonetheless rhetorically savvy narrator, encouraged particular emotional or affective responses.

    4. Read smart literary criticism. We read several essays from Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita: A Casebook, edited by Ellen Pifer that do a great job of addressing issues such as (1) how the novel can be read as a romance in a parodic mode ("Parody and Authenticity in Lolita) (2) why Humbert is only partially successful in his rhetorical manipulations ("The Art of Persuasion in Lolita") and (3) how Humbert's attempts at self-exoneration lead him to denigrate America ("The Americanization of Humbert Humbert").

    5. Screen both versions of the film. We watched both Stanley Kubrick's and Adrian Lyne's film versions of Lolita and discussed how the two movies approached the novel differently, particularly in the extent and manner in which each film leads us to identify with Humbert. I argued that Kubrick treated the book as a black comedy and emphasized the outrageous humor in the novel, whereas Lyne emphasized the more melodramatic aspects of the narrative. The result, as I saw it, was that Lyne's Humbert, played by Jeremy Irons, seemed more authentic and elicited more pathos from viewers, due in part to his awkwardness, whereas Kubrick's Humbert, played by James Mason, emphasized the cultivated aloof, somewhat arrogant European. I highly recommend screening both versions, in part because doing so will demonstrate how time constraints and the need for a certain cinematographic consistency require filmmakers to adhere more strictly to one genre than novelists, who are more free to vary the 'tone' of their work.

    6. Discuss Lolita as a popular culture phenomenon. We also read Michael Wood's essay "Revisiting Lolita (also in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita: A Casebook) which was written as a response to the 1997 media controversy surrounding Adrian Lyne’s film. Wood addresses important issues including how filmic constraints are both limiting and enabling when remediating a work of fiction into a film and how the term "Lolita" has entered our vocabulary and why the colloquial use of the term signifies something vastly different from Humbert and Nabokov's use of the term.

    7. Let the master have his say. Finally, before beginning the novel, I familiarized students with some of Nabokov’s views on aesthetics and literature.

    • “I do not give a damn for public morals, in America or elsewhere.”

    • “Now if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know.”

    • “Let me suggest that the very term ‘everyday reality’ is utterly static since it presupposes a situation that is permanently observable, essentially objective, and universally known.”

    I look forward to hearing or reading more about your students’ responses to Lolita. Good luck!

    Derridian Wisdom Explained

    After publishing Jonathan Kandell's ugly (for both its xenophobia and its arrogant ingorance) obiturary on the occcasion of Jacques Derrida's death, it's somewhat heartening to see that the New York Times has published a more fair and informed account of Derrida's project by Mark C. Taylor, who edited Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy, a useful anthology of 19th-and-20th century continental philosophy from Kant to Derrida, and who actually has read and engaged with Derrida's texts.

    Unfortunately, in a situation similar to the Times's willingness to propagandize on behalf of the pro-Iraqi war neoconservatives, it may be a case of too little, too late. Taylor's piece, "What Derrida Really Meant, was published on the op-ed pages, implying, perhaps, that Taylor's account is more subjective and less accurate than Kandell's ostensibly objective obituary.

    I don't want to suggest that any obituary can be entirely objective; indeed, Derrida's thought teaches us to be attentive to the dangers of understanding any situation in terms of the crudely reductive objective/subjective binary. Nonetheless, for those who have read any Derrida, it is clear that Kandell went beyond the typical obituary format, a death notice accompanied by a biographical account of the person's life, to launch a vitriolic attack on a straw man dubbed 'deconstruction.'

    But enough on Kandell and his hack work. I want to congratulate Taylor for managing to convey a few important Derridean insights in a short, fourteen-paragraph-long essay. For those of us who occasionally teach Derrida to undergraduates, Taylor's essay is a particularly welcome gift, for it not only explains why Derrida is such an important philosopher, but also explains how not to approach Derrida's texts.

    Taylor's second paragraph opens with this fantastic observation: "To people addicted to sound bites and overnight polls, Mr. Derrida's works seem hopelessly obscure." I say fantastic, because Taylor doesn't hesitate to imply that it is intellectual laziness, not philosophical complexity, that should be condemned. One of the particularly disturbing and disgusting trends to be discerned in the mass mediasphere is a general willingness to condone intellectual laziness, either through outright dismissals of attempts by people, such as John Kerry or Ralph Nader, to articulate complex position, or through the failure to provide an adequate forum for intelligent debate.

    Anticipating a typical anti-intellectual response to Taylor's claim, I'd just like to add that Taylor is not being elitist or endorsing complexity for complexity's sake. Rather, he is simply suggesting that the world is complex, and any truly thoughtful engagement with it should reflect that fact. Thus, Taylor goes on to note, correctly, that "density and complexity [are] characteristic of all great works of philosophy, literature, and art."

    I particulary appreciated the following sentence, which pinpoints Derrida's especial relevance at a time when "cultural conservatism and religious fundamentalism" are on the rise around the globe: "Fortunately, he [Derrida] also taught us that the alternative to blind belief is not simply unbelief but a different kind of belief - one that embraces uncertainty and enables us to respect others whom we do not understand. In a complex world, wisdom is knowing what we don't know so that we can keep the future open."

    'Nuff said, for now anyway...

    Thursday, October 14, 2004

    Remembering Jacques Derrida

    The School of Humanities at the University of California, Irivine is hosting a website in honor of Jacques Derrida. At this website, you can register your name on a NY Times / In Memoriam page that has been established in order to testify to the lasting influence of Derrida's writing, teaching, and life.

    As I mentioned in a previous post, in many of the obituaries for Derrida, including that written by Jonathan Kandell in the New York Times, Derrida's legacy has been deliberately distorted and maligned. The most typical distortion is some version of the claim that Derrida wanted to destroy the Western canon. In fact, Derrida's writings were intense and thorough engagements with some of the most important texts in the Western Canon, ranging from Plato's Phaedrus to Joyce's Ulysses to the Declaration of Independence.

    By signing the letter, you can show your support for Derrida and send a message to the editors of the New York Times and the world that their dismissal of Derrida as an "abstruse theorist" is ignorant.

    Sunday, October 10, 2004

    Giant Ape 'Discovered' in the DR Congo

    If this giant ape is actually a new species or a gorilla-chimpanzee hybrid, it's amazing news. Protect these primates, please!

    Saturday, October 09, 2004

    Jacques Derrida Dead of Pancreatic Cancer

    Sad news, indeed, though not that surprising. Ned Lukacher, a friend of Derrida's and the English translator of Cinders, told me last year that Derrida announced he had cancer to participants in a conference in UC-Irvine. Ned said that he was rather shocked at how frail Derrida looked at that time and noted that the philosopher, known for his vigor, was clearly tired and didn't participate as actively in the proceeding.

    What's particularly frustrating is that this obituary is full of erroneous statements and distortions of Derrida's thought and project. Derrida's readings of philosophical texts don't aim to reveal hidden meanings; they proceed to interrogate rigorously the basic trope of revelation as it functions to perpetuate the myth of communicative immediacy. Moreover, why not quote Derrida directly, rather than telling us that "Fellow academics have charged that Derrida's writings 'deny distinction between reality and fiction'"? Which academics have said this, and why not name them and hold them accountable for their misinterpretation? It will be interesting to see which, if any, of the major journalistic publications publish an accurate description of Derrida's philosophy, particularly his account of language's capacity to generate signifying effects beyond the control of any single language user.

    Thursday, October 07, 2004

    Was Bush Wired for the Debate?

    Who knew that the rules governing the presedential debates allowed for electronic earpieces and offstage promptings? Sadly, this latest rumor is probably true and, even more disheartening, it's not even surprising. Everybody knows (as Leonard Cohen sings) that we've got an animatronic president with a history of lying and cheating.

    Friday, October 01, 2004

    Here We Are Now, Entertain Us

    I'm taking the liberty of posting the following essay All Entertainment All the Time by Mark Edmunson, which pinpoints many of the challenges facing professors in the contemporary university, particularly professors who teach in the humanities.

    The following essay is excerpted from Why Read? by Mark Edmunson, which was published in September by Bloomsbury.

    I can date my sense that something was going badly wrong in my own teaching to a particular event. It took place on evaluation day in a class I was giving on the works of Sigmund Freud. The class met twice a week, late in the afternoon, and the students, about fifty undergraduates, tended to drag in and slump into their chairs looking slightly disconsolate, waiting for a jump start. To get the discussion moving, I often provided a joke, an anecdote, an amusing query. When you were a child, I had asked a few weeks before, were your Halloween costumes id costumes, superego costumes, or ego costumes? Were you monsters—creatures from the black lagoon, vampires and werewolves? Were you Wonder Women and Supermen? Or were you something in between? It often took this sort of thing to raise them from the habitual torpor.

    But today, evaluation day, they were full of life. As I passed out the assessment forms, a buzz rose up in the room. Today they were writing their course evaluations; their evaluations of Freud, their evaluations of me. They were pitched into high gear. As I hurried from the room, I looked over my shoulder to see them scribbling away like the devil’s auditors. They were writing furiously, even the ones who struggled to squeeze out their papers and journal entries word by word.

    But why was I distressed, bolting out the door of my classroom, where I usually held easy sway? Chances were that the evaluations would be much like what they had been in the past: They’d be just fine. And in fact, they were. I was commended for being “interesting,” and complimented for my relaxed and tolerant ways; my sense of humor and capacity to connect the material we were studying with contemporary culture came in for praise.

    In many ways, I was grateful for the evaluations, as I always had been, just as I’m grateful for the chance to teach in an excellent university surrounded everywhere with very bright people. But as I ran from that classroom, full of anxious intimations, and then later as I sat to read the reports, I began to feel that there was something wrong. There was an undercurrent to the whole process I didn’t like. I was disturbed by the evaluation forms themselves with their number ratings (“What is your ranking of the instructor?—1, 2, 3, 4 or 5") which called to mind the sheets they circulate after a TV pilot plays to the test audience in Burbank. Nor did I like the image of myself that emerged—a figure of learned but humorous detachment, laid-back, easygoing, cool. But most of all, I was disturbed by the attitude of calm consumer expertise that pervaded the responses. I was put off by the serenely implicit belief that the function of Freud—or, as I’d seen it expressed on other forms, in other classes, the function of Shakespeare, of Wordsworth or of Blake—was diversion and entertainment. “Edmundson has done a fantastic job,” said one reviewer, “of presenting this difficult, important and controversial material in an enjoyable and approachable way.”

    Enjoyable: I enjoyed the teacher. I enjoyed the reading. Enjoyed the course. It was pleasurable, diverting, part of the culture of readily accessible, manufactured bliss: the culture of Total Entertainment All the Time.

    As I read the reviews, I thought of a story I’d heard about a Columbia University instructor who issued a two-part question at the end of his literature course. Part one: What book in the course did you most dislike; part two: What flaws of intellect or character does that dislike point up in you? The hand that framed those questions may have been slightly heavy. But at least it compelled the students to see intellectual work as confrontation between two people, reader and author, where the stakes mattered. The Columbia students were asked to relate the quality of an encounter, not rate the action as though it had unfolded across the big screen. A form of media connoisseurship was what my students took as their natural right.

    But why exactly were they describing the Oedipus complex and the death drive as interesting and enjoyable to contemplate? Why were they staring into the abyss, as Lionel Trilling once described his own students as having done, and commending it for being a singularly dark and fascinatingly contoured abyss, one sure to survive as an object of edifying contemplation for years to come? Why is the great confrontation—the rugged battle of fate where strength is born, to recall Emerson—so conspicuously missing? Why hadn’t anyone been changed by my course?

    To that question, I began to compound an answer. We Americans live in a consumer culture, and it does not stop short at the university’s walls. University culture, like American culture at large, is ever more devoted to consumption and entertainment, to the using and using up of goods and images. We Americans are six percent of the world’s population: We use a quarter of its oil; we gorge while others go hungry; we consume everything with a vengeance and then we produce movies and TV shows and ads to celebrate the whole consumer loop. We make it—or we appropriate it—we “enjoy” it and we burn it up, pretty much whatever “it” is. For someone coming of age in America now, I thought, there are few available alternatives to the consumer worldview. Students didn’t ask for it much less create it, but they brought a consumer Weltanschauung to school, where it exerted a potent influence.

    The students who enter my classes on day one are generally devotees of spectatorship and of consumer-cool. Whether they’re sorority-fraternity denizens, piercer-tattooers, gay or straight, black or white, they are, nearly across the board, very, very self-contained. On good days, there’s a light, appealing glow; on bad days, shuffling disgruntlement. But there is little fire, little force of spirit or mind in evidence.

    More and more, we Americans like to watch (and not to do). In fact watching is our ultimate addiction. My students were the progeny of two hundred available cable channels and omnipresent Blockbuster outlets. They grew up with their noses pressed against the window of that second spectral world that spins parallel to our own, the World Wide Web. There they met life at second or third hand, peering eagerly, taking in the passing show, but staying remote, apparently untouched by it. So conditioned, they found it almost natural to come at the rest of life with a sense of aristocratic expectation: “What have you to show me that I haven’t yet seen?”

    But with this remove comes timidity, a fear of being directly confronted. There’s an anxiety at having to face life firsthand. (The way the word “like” punctuates students’ speech—“I was like really late for like class”—indicates a discomfort with immediate experience and wish to maintain distance, to live in a simulation.) These students were, I thought, inclined to be both lordly and afraid.

    The classroom atmosphere they most treasured was relaxed, laid-back, cool. The teacher should never get exercised about anything, on pain of being written off as a buffoon. Nor should she create an atmosphere of vital contention, where students lost their composure, spoke out, became passionate, expressed their deeper thoughts and fears, or did anything that might cause embarrassment. Embarrassment was the worst thing that could befall one; it must be avoided at whatever cost.

    Early on, I had been a reader of Marshall McLuhan, and I was reminded of his hypothesis that the media on which we as a culture have become dependent are themselves cool. TV, which seemed on the point of demise, so absurd had it become to the culture of the late sixties, rules again. To disdain TV now is bad form; it signifies that you take yourself far too seriously. TV is a tranquilizing medium, a soporific, inducing in its devotees a light narcosis. It reduces anxiety, steadies and quiets the nerves. But also deadens. Like every narcotic, it will be consumed in certain doses, produce something like a hangover, the habitual watchers’ irritable languor that persists after the TV is off. It’s been said that the illusion of knowing and control that heroin engenders isn’t entirely unlike the TV consumer’s habitual smug-torpor, and that seems about right.

    Those who appeal most on TV over the long haul are low-key and nonassertive. Enthusiasm quickly looks absurd. The form of character that’s most ingratiating on the tube, that’s most in tune with the medium itself, is laid-back, tranquil, self-contained, and self-assured. The news anchor, the talk-show host, the announcer, the late-night favorite—all are prone to display a sure sense of human nature, avoidance of illusion, reliance on timing and strategy rather than on aggressiveness or inspiration. With such figures, the viewer is invited to identify. On what’s called reality TV, on game shows, quiz shows, inane contests, we see people behaving absurdly, outraging the cool medium with their firework personalities. Against such excess the audience defines itself as wordly, laid-back, and wise.

    Is there also a financial side to the culture of cool? I believed that I saw as much. A cool youth culture is a marketing bonanza for producers of right products, who do all they can to enlarge that culture and keep it humming. The Internet, TV, and magazines teem with what I came to think of as persona ads, ads for Nikes and Reeboks, and Jeeps and Blazers that don’t so much endorse the powers of the product per se as show you what sort of person you’ll inevitably become once you’ve acquired it. The Jeep ad that featured hip outdoorsy kids flinging a Frisbee from mountain top to mountaintop wasn’t so much about what Jeeps can do as it was about the kind of people who own them: vast, beautiful creatures, with godlike prowess and childlike tastes. Buy a Jeep and be one with them. The ad by itself is of little consequence, but expand its message exponentially and you have the central thrust of postmillennial consumer culture: buy in order to be. Watch (coolly) so as to learn how to be worthy of being watched (while being cool).

    To the young, I thought, immersion in consumer culture, immersion in cool, is simply felt as natural. They have never known a world other than the one that accosts them from every side with images of mass-marketed perfection. Ads are everywhere: on TV, on the Internet, on billboards, in magazines, sometimes plastered on the side of the school bus. The forces that could challenge the consumer style are banished to the peripheries of culture. Rare is the student who arrives at college knowing something about the legacy of Marx or Marcuse, Gandhi or Thoreau. And by the time she does encounter them, they’re presented as diverting, interesting, entertaining—or perhaps as object for rigorously dismissive analysis—surely not as goads to another kind of life.

    As I saw it, the specter of the uncool was creating a subtle tyranny for my students. It’s apparently an easy standard to subscribe to, the standard of cool, but once committed to it, you discover that matters are different. You’re inhibited, except on ordained occasions, from showing feeling, stifled from trying to achieve anything original. Apparent expression of exuberance now seem to occur with dimming quotation marks around them. Kids celebrating at a football game ironically play the roles of kids celebrating at a football game, as it’s been scripted on multiple TV shows and ads. There’s always self-observation, no real letting-go. Students apparently feel that even the slightest departure from the reigning code can get you genially ostracized. This is a culture tensely committed to a laid-back norm.

    In the current university environment, I saw, there was only one form of knowledge that was generally acceptable. And that was knowledge that allowed you to keep your cool. It was fine to major in economics or political science or sociology, for there you could acquire ways of knowing that didn’t compel you to reveal and risk yourself. There you could stay detached. And—what was at least as important—you could acquire skills that would stand you in good financial stead later in life. You could use your educations to make yourself rich. All of the disciples that did not traduce the canons of cool were thriving. It sometimes seemed that everyone of my first-year advisees wanted to major in economics, even when they had no independent interest in the subject. They’d never read an economics book, had no attraction to the business pages of the Times. They wanted economics because word had it that econ was the major that made you look best to Wall Street and the investment banks. “We like economics majors,” an investment banking recruiter reportedly said, “because they’re people who’re willing to sacrifice their educations to the interest of their careers.”

    The subjects that might threaten consumer cool, literary study in particular, had to adapt. They could offer diversion—it seems that’s what I (and Freud) had been doing—or they could make themselves over to look more like the so-called hard, empirically based disciplines.

    Here computers come in. Now that computers are everywhere, each area of inquiry in the humanities is more and more defined by the computer’s resources. Computers are splendid research tools. Good. The curriculum turns in the direction of research. Professors don’t ask students to try to write as Dickens would were he alive today. Rather, they research Dickens. They delve into his historical context; they learn what the newspapers were gossiping about on the day that the first installment of Bleak House hit the stands. We shape our tools, McLuhan said, and thereafter our tools shape us.

    Many educated people in America seem persuaded that the computer is the most significant invention in human history. Those who do not master its intricacies are destined for a life of shame, poverty, and neglect. More humanities courses are becoming computer-oriented, which keeps them safely in the realm of cool, financially negotiable endeavors. A professor teaching Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper,” which depicts the exploitation of young boys whose lot is not altogether unlike the lot of many children living now in American inner cities, is likely to charge his students with using the computer to compile as much information about the poem as possible. They can find articles about chimney sweepers from 1790s newspapers; contemporary pictures and engravings that depict these unfortunate little creatures; critical articles that interpret the poem in a seemingly endless variety of ways; biographical information on Blake, with hints about events in his own boyhood that would have made chimney sweepers a special interest; portraits of the author at various stages of his life; maps of Blake’s London. Together the class might create a Blake—Chimney Sweeper Web site: www.blakesweeper.edu.

    Instead of spending class time wondering what the poem means, and what application it has to present-day experience, students compile information about it. They set the poem in its historical and critical context, showing first how the poem is the product and the property of the past—and, implicitly, how it really has nothing to do with the present except as an artful curiosity; and second how, given the number of ideas about it already available, adding more thought would be superfluous.

    By putting a world of facts at the end of a key-stroke, computers have made facts, their command, their manipulation, their ordering, central to what now can qualify as humanistic education. The result is to suspend reflection about the differences among wisdom, knowledge, and information. Everything that can be accessed online can seem equal to everything else, no datum more important or more profound than any other. Thus the possibility presents itself that there really is no more wisdom; there is no more knowledge; there is only information. No thought is a challenge or an affront to what one currently believes.

    Am I wrong to think that the kind of education on offer in the humanities now is in some measure an education for empire? The people who administer an empire need certain very precise capacities. They need to be adept technocrats. They need the kind of training that will allow them to take up an abstract and unfelt relation to the world and its peoples—a cool relation, as it were. Otherwise, they won’t be able to squeeze forth the world’s wealth without suffering debilitating pains of conscience. And the denizen of the empire needs to be able to consume the kinds of pleasures that will augment his feeling of rightful rulership. Those pleasures must be self-inflating and not challenging; they need to confirm the current empowered state of the self and not challenge it. The easy pleasures of this nascent American empire, akin to the pleasures to be had in first-century Rome, reaffirm the right to mastery—and, correspondingly, the existence of a world teeming with potential vassals and exploitable wealth.

    Immersed in preprofessionalism, swimming in entertainment, my students have been sealed off from the chance to call everything they’ve valued into question, to look at new forms of life, and to risk everything. For them, education is knowing and lordly spectatorship, never the Socratic dialogue about how one ought to live one’s life.

    These thoughts of mine didn’t come with any anger at my students. For who was to blame them? They didn’t create the consumer biosphere whose air was now their purest oxygen. They weren’t the ones who should have pulled the plug on the TV or disabled the game port when they were kids. They hadn’t invited the ad flaks and money changers into their public schools. What I felt was an ongoing sense of sorrow about their foreclosed possibilities. They seemed to lack chances that I, born far poorer than most of them, but into a different world, had abundantly enjoyed.

    As I read those evaluation forms and thought them over, I recalled a story. In Vienna, there was once a superb teacher of music, very old. He accepted a few students. There came to him once a young violinist whom all of Berlin was celebrating. Only fourteen, yet he played exquisitely. The young man arrived in Austria hoping to study with the master. At the audition, he played to perfection; everyone surrounding the old teacher attested to the fact. When it came time to make his decision. The old man didn’t hesitate. “I don’t want him,” he said. “But, master, why not?” asked a protégé. “He’s the most gifted young violinist we’ve ever heard.” “Maybe,” said the old man. “But he lacks something, and without this thing real development is not possible. What that young man lacks in inexperience.” It’s a precious possession, inexperience; my students have had it stolen from them.

    But what about the universities themselves? Do they do all they can to fight the reign of consumer cool?

    From the start, the university’s approach to students now has a solicitous, maybe even a servile tone. As soon as they enter their junior year in high school, and especially if they live in a prosperous zip code, the information materials, which is to say the advertising, come rolling in. Pictures, testimonials, videocassettes, and CD-ROMs (some hidden, some not) arrive at the door from colleges across the country, all trying to capture the students and their tuition dollars.

    The freshman-to-be sees photographs of well-appointed dorm rooms; of elaborate physed facilities; of expertly maintained sports fields; of orchestras and drama troupes; of students working joyously, off by themselves. It’s a retirement spread for the young. “Colleges don’t have admissions offices anymore, they have marketing departments,” a school financial officer said to me once. Is it surprising that someone who has been approached with photos and tapes, bells and whistles, might come to college thinking that the Shakespeare and Freud courses were also going to be agreeable treats?

    How did we reach this point? In part, the answer is a matter of demographics and also of money. Aided by the GI Bill, the college-going population increased dramatically after the Second World War. Then came the baby boomers, and to accommodate them colleges continued to grow. Universities expand readily enough, but with tenure locking in faculty for lifetime jobs, and with the general reluctance of administrators to eliminate their own slots, it’s not easy for a university to contract. So after the baby boomers had passed through—like a tasty lump sliding the length of a boa constrictor—the colleges turned to promotional strategies—to advertising—to fill the empty chairs. Suddenly college, except for the few highly selective establishments, became a buyers’ market. What students and their parents wanted had to be taken potently into account. That often meant creating more comfortable, less challenging environments, places where almost no one failed, everything was enjoyable, and everyone was nice.

    Just as universities must compete with one another for students, so must individual departments. At a time of rank economic anxiety (and what time is not in America?), the English department and the history department have to contend for students against the more success-ensuring branches, such as the science departments, and the commerce school. In 1968, more than 21 percent of all the bachelor’s degrees conferred in America were humanities degrees; by 1993 that total had fallen to about 13 percent, and it continues to sink. The humanities now must struggle to attract students, many of whose parents devoutly wish that they would go elsewhere.

    One of the ways we’ve tried to be attractive is by loosening up. We grade much more genially than our colleagues in the sciences. In English and history, we don’t give many D’s, or C’s either. (The rigors of Chem 101 may create almost as many humanities majors per year as the splendors of Shakespeare.) A professor at Stanford explained that grades were getting better because the students were getting smarter every year. Anything, I suppose, is possible.

    Along with easing up on grades, many humanities departments have relaxed major requirements. There are some good reasons for introducing more choice into the curricula and requiring fewer standard courses. But the move jibes with a tendency to serve the students instead of challenging them. Students can float in and out of classes during the first two weeks of the term without making any commitment. The common name for this span—shopping period—attests to the mentality that’s in play.

    One result of the university’s widening elective leeway is to give students more power over teachers. Those who don’t like you can simply avoid you. If the students dislike you en masse, you can be left with an empty classroom. I’ve seen other professors, especially older ones, often those with the most to teach, suffer real grief at not having enough students sign up for their courses: Their grading was too tough; they demanded too much; their beliefs were too far out of line with the existing dispensation. It takes only a few such incidents to draw other professors into line.

    Before students arrive, universities ply them with luscious ads, guaranteeing them a cross between summer camp and lotusland. When they get to campus, flattery, entertainment, and preprofessional training are theirs, if that’s what they want. The world we present them is not a world elsewhere, an ivory tower world, but one that’s fully continuous with the American entertainment and consumer culture they’ve been living in. They hardly know they’ve left home. Is it a surprise, then, that this generation of students—steeped in consumer culture before they go off to school; treated as potent customers by the university well before they arrive, then pandered to from day one—are inclined to see the books they read as a string of entertainments to be enjoyed without effort or languidly cast aside?

    So I had my answer. The university had merged almost seamlessly with the consumer culture that exists beyond its gates. Universities were running like businesses, and very effective businesses at that. Now I knew why my students were greeting great works of mind and heart as consumer goods. They came looking for what they’d had in the past, Total Entertainment All the Time, and the university at large did all it could to maintain the flow. (Though where this allegiance to the Entertainment-Consumer Complex itself came from—that is a much larger question. It would take us into politics and economics, becoming, in time, a treatise in itself.)

    But what about me? Now I had to look at my own place in the culture of training and entertainment. Those course evaluations made it clear enough. I was providing diversion. To some students I was offering an intellectualized midday variant of Letterman and Leno. They got good times from my classes, and maybe a few negotiable skills, because that’s what I was offering. But what was I going to do about it? I had diagnosed the problem, all right, but as yet I had nothing approaching a plan for action.

    I’d like to say that I arrived at something like a breakthrough simply by delving into my own past. In my life I’ve had a string of marvelous teachers, and thinking back on them was surely a help. But some minds—mine, at times, I confess—tend to function best in opposition. So it was looking not just to the great and good whom I’ve known, but to something like an arch-antagonist, that got me thinking in fresh ways about how to teach and why.


    From the book Why Read? by Mark Edmundson. Published by Bloomsbury USA.Copyright (c) 2004 by Mark Edmundson. Reprinted courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing. Available wherever books are sold.

    Mark Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. A prizewinning scholar, he has published a number of works of literary and cultural criticism, including Literature Against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida, and Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference. He has also written for such publications as the New Republic, the New York Times Magazine, the Nation, and Harper's, where he is a contributing editor.