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.