Friday, September 30, 2005

Signifying Marks


The following image appeared in Marissa Frattini's photo galary at PBase.com. She titled the image Free Speech Canine Style. I received a link to Frattini's image in an e-mail with the header "Good Dog." Obviously, both Fraattini and the sender of the e-mail found great significance in this picture. Regardless of your political beliefs, the picture's humor should be obvious. But why, exactly, is it funny?

I want to argue that at a fundamental level the humor is based, like so much humor, on confusion between an agent's intention, that is, the meaning he (the dog here is clearly a male) intended a speech-act to have, and the significance that others attributed to his speech act. A key theoretical issue raised by this issue is whether or not the dog's urination can be considered an act of free speech.

I'll be using this picture to help my literature students better understand the difference between a signifier and a signified, which I hope will enable them to make sense of all the humor that is dervied from scenarios that require readers to consider the materiality of communication in Samuel Beckett's Molloy. I expect we'll begin by considering Molloy's claim that he understands his mother's profane parrot better than her "clattering gabble."

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Might Blogging Help Solve the Publishing Crisis in Academia?

My hunch is no, if one thinks that blogs could somehow replace scholarly books. However, I predict that once the majority of academic journals are available online and once the next generation of scholars gets comfortable with accessing electronic archives, we might see a shift in emphasis from the book to the article. I hope so anyway. Given that university presses are cutting back on the number of acadmemic titles that they publish each year, I think its ridiculous to expect assistant professors in the humanities to have published at least one and, increasingly, two books in order to get tenure. A few strong articles should suffice to establish the young professors' merit

Scott McLemee's piece, A Dogged Pursuit, is more about the fact that university presses have established blogs. It remains to be seen whether these blogs will function more or less as electronic catalogs, or if they will become a discursive site in which the ideas in the books are debated and discussed. I'm skeptical about whether the latter can work well due to the obvious conflict of interest involved. After all, the university presses want to promote their books, and its not true, particularly when book buying is concerned, that all publicity is good publicity. Besides, don't journals and reviews already cover the books anyway?

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Skeptical About Angrefristloven?

For the benefit of those readers who may think that I've become excessively pro-Scandinavia in my socio-political world view, I'm reprinting the following comments of mine. I posted them in response to Jill Walker's question: does iTunes have to respect angrefristloven?, a Norwegian "regrets deadline law" intended to to protect consumers from impulsive purchases outside of a shop. You'll have to read Jill's post or go to law school in Norway to get the specifics about this situation.

My comments, unedited (except for removing an emotive icon that I impulsively used):

A law to protect consumers from impulsive purchases?!?

Now, in general, I like Scandinavia's commitment to maintaining the welfare state in a neocon/neoliberal era where 'free-market' values means Big Corporations rule, but this sounds a bit excessive.

(1) Isn't the impulsive part half the fun? I mean, in retrospect, I probably didn't need my Edgar Allan Poe action figure, my squish Bush stress reliever, my numerous ape artifacts, or the various band t-shirts purchased at the end of a fantastic set, when my ears are ringing & I'm soaked in beer. Come to think of it, I probably didn't need that last beer (though we'll confirm that) tomorrow morning. But, as G. Bataille might put it, what's life w/out a little excess expenditure?

(2) At the risk of sounding like my Dad: Whatever happened to responsibility? Or learning from one's mistakes? I'm all for the government stepping in to help consumers in cases of fraud, but I don't expect Uncle Sam to help me get the money back for the two garish King Kong ties I bought on e-bay but never wear (actually, only one is truly hideous and has never been worn; the other made an appearance last Halloween)...

(3) Please tell me the generous no-questions-asked return policy doesn't apply to underwear purchases.

Cue the Sid Vicious: "Regrets, I've 'ad a few. But then again, too few to men-tion..."

Note: After posting my smart-ass remarks in the wee hours of the morning, I see that I skimmed over the part about the law applying to purchases outside of shops, so some of my examples are clearly irrelevant. I assure everyone that I normally am not so cavalier with my blog comments, but I consider Jill a friend. And even though we've never met, the fact that she's dating Scott entitles me (by an obscure piece of Chicago legislation) to give her extra shite.

By the way, Jill, Happy Birthday!

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Poet Declies to Dine at White House

The Nation has published an eloquent letter by the poet Shannon Olds to Laura Bush in which she explains to the First Lady why she is declining to read at the National Book Festival, attend a dinner at the Library of Congress, or eat breakfast at the White Houuse. Here's the close of the letter:

But I could not face the idea of breaking bread with you. I knew that if I sat down to eat with you, it would feel to me as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush Administration.

What kept coming to the fore of my mind was that I would be taking food from the hand of the First Lady who represents the Administration that unleashed this war and that wills its continuation, even to the extent of permitting "extraordinary rendition": flying people to other countries where they will be tortured for us.

So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame, for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it.


Nicely put, Ms. Olds. Obviously such symbolic gestures are invisible to the President, who was oblivious to the chaos and misery in New Orleans until his aids finally sat him down in front of a TV, but one wonders whether the First Lady is aware of the suffering that her husband's adminstration has contributed to directly through its reckless policies. If so, does she have anything resembling a guilty conscience?

Read Sharon Olds' letter in its entirety online at The Nation: No Place for a Poet at a Banquet of Shame.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Materiality of Language/Text/Communication in Beckett's Molloy

Reading notes from Beckett's Molloy, one of my all-time favorite novels...

A. Trope/Theme: the materiality of language/text/ communication

B. Annotated list of relevant passages:

1. Incomprehensible marks: When Molloy receives back the pages he writes, he cannot comprehend the marks that are written there (3). The other's writing appears to him as meaningless traces. This is the first indication we get that Molloy's relationship to language is peculiar, to put it mildly. For the rest of the novel, we know to be alert to issues pertaining to signification and interpretation.

2. Freedom to obliterate meaning: Reflecting on his sense of freedom, Molloy acknowledges that he doesn't know what the word "free" means. Nonetheless, he suggests that this is the word he intends to apply to his condition. Here, Molloy associates Freedom with destorying or blackening texts, reducing them in both instances to meaningless matter. He speculates that he is free "to do nothing, to know... the laws of the mind... of my mind, that water rises in proportion as it drowns you and that you would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery" (10). Given the violent turn of events near the close of part I and how they transpire, the manner in which Molloy associates freedom with meaninglessness here becomes quite ominous in retrospect.

(Political aside: Freedom = meaninglessness. Is it just me, or has that equation become frighteningly apparent in the policy and rhetoric of a recent president who is notorious for his inarticulate speech and oxmoronic claims?)

3. Molloy's coded communications with his mother: Molloy doesn't listen to his Ma's constant “clattering gabble" and attempts to communicate with her by "knocking on her skull" (15). However, because of his mother's short-term-memory loss, which makes her unable to count reliably, the code Molloy develops, in which the number of knocks on the head corresponds to a basic concept, fails. In the end, Molloy finds "a more effective means of putting the idea of money into her head": "thumps of the fist, on her skull" (15). That is, brute force or violence becomes the means of 'understanding.'

4. Failed interpellation by the policeman: Apparently in violation of an anti-loitering ordinance, or some law intended to maintain "public order, public decency," Molloy attracts the attention of a policeman who asks him for his papers. Molloy responds by thrusting bits of newspaper that he carries with him to "wipe [him]self...when [he has] a stool" (19) under the policeman's nose. Instead of presenting documents that would establish his official identity, Molloy, who at this point in the text is still nameless, provides the representative of the Law a text that is literally meaningless waste, i.e., old shit-smeared papers.

In a sense, however, Molloy's gesture speaks a sort of truth. He is, from the perspective of mainstream society, nothing but shit or waste.

5. Impermeability of the TLS: Like many homeless people, Molloy uses old newspaper as insulation to keep himself warm in the winter months. He notes that the Times Literary Supplement was "admirably adapted to this purpose, of a never failing toughness and impermeability," even to his farts (30). Here, as McLuhan put it, the medium is the message, meanging what...? Beckett's choice of this particular intertext must be intentional. He is thumbing his nose at the British literary establishment. But this scene is more than a literary joke. It's important to note how use trumps meaning in Molloy's relationship to the TLS. Dare we describe Molloy as a pragmatist?

6. Icy words: Reflecting on how he "had been living so far from words so long," Molloy recalls how, at the time, he had been unable to recall the name of his town and his own name. This period appears to have been near the beginning of Molloy's deteriorating relationship with language: "even then, when already all was fading, waves and particles, there could be no things but nameless things, no names but thingless names" (31). (This "waves and particles" remark intrigues me. I want to connect it to the cosmological 'perspectivism' that is a principle of modern physics). But Molloy suggests that his ability to remember the past has been compromised"...what do I know now about then, now when the icy words hail down upon me, the icy meanings, and the world dies took, foully named" (31). For Molloy, language has become akin to a meaningless force of nature that batters his body and threatens to overwhelm him.

7. Lousse's parrot: The bird speaks expressions that, obviously, it doesn't comprehend (38). The parrot doesn't intend to say anything meaningful, it simply repeats sounds. (Not unlike a student who aspires only to parrot correct answers.) Nonetheless, Molloy claims he understands the bird better than Lousse. In what sense might this absurd claim be true?

8. Writing as decomposition/blackening pages (74): …



Anyone with further additions, please post 'em!

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Tuesday Morning Joke

Q: What is George W. Bush's position on Roe v. Wade?

A: He really doesn't care how people get out of New Orleans.

Courtesy of my sister, the Political Science professor.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Alleged Failings of Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown

I've been following the reviews for Salman Rushdie's new novel, Shalimar the Clown and the bulk of them appear to be negative. Is that because it is simply mediocre work of literature, or is Rushdie being evaluated according to inflated standards that were established by the tremendous critical claim his early works, e.g., Midnight's Children received? Writing in The Nation, Lee Siegel notes that recent Rushdie reviews have presented a common narrative about Rushdie's artistic trajectory: the fall from an artistic state of grace. Siegel then proceeds to argue that the critcial consensus is correct: Rushdie has lost his subtle artistic touch and "seems to be writing novels that insisently annoate and reiterate what he believes to be a priori truths about life." And the main a priori truth that Rushdie reiterates concerns connectedness, the extent to which our lives are intertwined with others.

Unfortunately, Siegel suggests, Shalimar the Clown fails to present us with believeable characters and as a consequence never achieves the level of intimacy necessary to illuminate Rushdie's vision of the world's connectedness.

Siegel's damning judgments include the following:

"Alas, there is not a single real, intimate moment between characters in this book; not a single scene or situation unfolding according to its inner laws, away from the disheveling hurry of the novel's judgments and opinions; and barely any dialogue."

"Rushdie hastily comments on his characters and their milieus from the outside; he never gives them an inner life out of which they can act and speak for themselves."

"Max, for example, seems less a character than somebody's ego-ideal: i.e., the construction of a flawless self-image in response to feelings of humiliation and shame."

"But Rushdie himself apparently doesn't believe that we're all connected, because he portrays some of the people in this novel's world as if they lived on an alien planet."

"But so confused is this book beyond its complacent clarities, beyond its easy, all-embracing, platitudinous politics that its story finally undermines its theme. (Even the name "Noman," seemingly heavy with all kinds of significance, drifts through this mess of a novel into a portentous meaninglessness.) By attributing, as Rushdie does, the central violence in Shalimar to jealousy rather than to ideology, he is unwittingly affirming that people's stories are not alike; that whereas ideology funnels diverse thoughts and feelings into a single, pinpoint intensity, experience--for example, the experience of jealousy--shapes each person in a different way. Only tyrants delude themselves into seeing people and places as one undifferentiated mass, to be manipulated at will. Only tyrants, that is, and writers whose egos have been scarred and then inflated by the fury of tyrants."


The last remark, actually the final paragraph of the essay, interests me most, because the underlying claim presented here - that Rushdie presents us with a post-ideological vision in which people's differing beliefs about what's true or false are effectively rendered irrelevent - is one that Walter Benn Michaels makes against many 'postmodern' texts, both fictional and nonfictional.

The artistic challenge facing today's novelists, it would seem, is to write narratives that are genuinely dialogic, i.e., that present us with characters who [Internet connection acting funky; will save & follow this up later]

Thursday, September 15, 2005

How to Write a PhD Dissertation: Get Down Words on Paper That are 'Good Enough'

To complete a PhD dissertation one should abandon aspirations of greatness, decide to finish the damn thing, and simply write. Easier said than done, especially if the ABD harbors perfectionist tendencies that can trigger crippling bouts of writer's block. Brian Bialkowski suggests repeating the following mantra in order to stay focused on what matters most: words on paper, words on paper, words on paper, words on paper....

And don't forget to remind yourself that "nobody is really going to care about what you write." Is that last reminder a blessing or a curse? Being told that what you're working on doesn't matter, to anybody, sort of takes the motivation away. Unless the ambition is simply to get the degree.

Three other 'secrets' that Bilakowski provides for the ABDs of the world out there.

1. The first great secret about finishing is that there is no great secret.

2.Stop telling yourself that the dissertation has to be great, that it has to redefine your field, that it has to be such a wonderful piece of scholarship that you will be able to trigger a bidding war between publishers the day after your defense

3. Repeat “words on paper” to reign in your wandering thoughts and commit to writing

Note to self: Get back to your research and writing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Please Don't Call It Postmodern Science

Read Andrew O'Hehir's excellent piece on the science wars, i.e., how Republicans have politicized science in order to assist corporate interests and appease the religious right. By politicized, I mean that conservatives have contested the truth claims made by the scientific community in order to advance a parisan agenda that benefits an elite few. They argue, for example, that because no absolute proof exists for ideas such as global warming, it is merely one hypotheses among many and should not influence our public policy.

One aside: As an observer in the humanities with an interest in rhetoric and postmodern literature, I just wish that 'postmodern' (as in postmodern science) wasn't the modifier chosen to describe the pseduo-scientific pap that the conservatives in the anti-science camp spew. I suppose the author equates associating postmodernism with relativism, an equation that is not entirely unjustified. Without launching into a lengthy and complicated genealogy of postmodern thought, I just want to observe that some of America's foremost postmodern fiction writers - Thomas Pynchon, Richard Powers, Samuel Delaney, and Kurt Vonnegut immediately come to mind - and are distinguished by the extent of their scientific knowledge and their ability to integrate complex scientific ideas into their writing.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Reyonds Writes on Post-Punk

File Under: Must Read. Simon Reynolds is one of the best rock critics around, and his account of 'post-punk' (don't call it New Wave) is officially on my 'wish list.' Chances are that it'll have to wait for some time. Fortunately, Andy Beckett's review Another Tribe provides an overview.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

I Want to Believe in the Young Literati

This week's New York Times Magazine section features a profile of the latest wave of literary journals written by A.O. Scott. The article, titled Among the Believers focuses primarily on The Believer and N + 1 both of which are based in Brooklyn. Reading about these publications filled me with both admiration and, I'll admit, envy. My admiration is based on my sense that the group of young editors and writers working on these publications are sincere about creating a space for eclectic and thoughtful literary writing (a term I won't try to define here) that doesn't slavishly follow publishing-industry trends. I say sense because I don't read these publications regularly, though I occasionally read articles from them, typically online. I remember being very impressed by Marco Roth's memorial essay on Derrida, Derrida: An Autothanatography, for example, which deftly blended personal ancedoctes with smart glosses on deconstructgion. It's heartening to find my generation of writers successfully integrating academic theory and philosophy, which is almost always denigrated when the mass media dains to refer to it, into non-academic publications. More importantly, it's fantastic that young writers are talking about the need to create an impersonal forum for debating ideas.

My envy comes from a sense that these young writers are engaging with many of the same ideas that I am in my PhD program. The difference is that they get to have a lot more fun doing so. But that's not the true source of my envy. To put it bluntly, my envy is class based. When I read this article, I first wondered how these young literati managed to support themselves and to pay for the magazine. Then I read about their backgrounds. Almost all of them attended the same prestigious East Coast Universities (Harvard, Columbia, etc.) and appear to come from rather privileged backgrounds. There's nothing wrong with that, but it did make the whole scene seem rather insular and somehow inaccessible. It's kinda like learning that the Beastie Boys and The Strokes were all rich kids. I don't hold that against them, and I respect the way that they seem not to take their class privileges for granted. Nonetheless, what they've achieved seems diminished somehow by the fact that they've had a huge safety net (financial and cultural capital) that has protected and enabled them to focus their energies on art, literature, philosophy and other things generally devalued in our profit-driven society. Is it possible for people from poor and middle-class backgrounds to devote lives to such pursuits?

Without launching into a lengthy litany about funding for the arts and humanities, let me conclude by stating a sincere concern of mine: I fear that due to market pressures, pursuing a career in the arts and the humanities is increasingly becoming an option available primarily for members from the wealthy classes. I hate to think of a world in which the study of history, philosophy, literature, etc. was regarded as a luxury and not a necessity. Unfortunately, I think America is moving ever closer to such a world. So, let's hope that the young generation of thinkers, wherever they may be, can start to reverse this trend. We don't want an intellectual oligarchy.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Terrorism and the Novel

Just came across Dangerous Characters, an article by novelist Benjamin Kunkel on terrorism and the novel. Kunkel aims to characterize the figure of the terrorist in the terrorist novel, both pre- and post-9/11. At present, I've just skimmed the essay, but want to post it for future reference. Students in my English and American Fiction course will be reading DeLillo's Mao II, probably the most influential terrorist novel (if such a genre can be established) from the postmodern era, in a few weeks, and this essay should help us to identify some of the key issues concerning the relationship between terror and fiction.

Solich Scores First Victory as Ohio Upsets Pittsburgh

Ahhhh, college football season is here again... While the scholar in me detests the way athletics trump academics on too many college campuses across the country, I grew up in the Husker Nation and bleed the Big Red. College football remains the only sport that I follow passionately.

Ohio 16, Pittsburgh 10. What - an - upset. And this one is particularly bittersweet for us Husker fans. Sweet because Frank Solich, Nebraska's former head coach who is truly a class act, just won his first game as the coach of the Ohio University Bobcats. The underdog Bobcats, who have had 29 losing seasons in 35 years, defeated the Pittsburgh Panthers, the defending Big East champions, in overtime.

I'm truly happy to read about the outpouring of support for Frank Solich in Ohio. He deserves it, especially after the shabby treatment he received from Steve Pederson. Husker fans, too many of whom endorsed Pederson's judgment about Solich, know what I'm talking about.

The bitterness comes from the fact that Steve Pederson, Nebraska's arrogant athletic director, fired Solich after the 2003 season, when NU went 9-3. Pederson's reason: While Solich had compiled a fantastic number of wins during his tenure at NU (58-19 in six seasons) and had even played in the National Championship game (NU lost to Miami 34-14 in the 2002 Rose Bowl) he couldn't win the big ones. Nebraska, which dominated in the 1990s, was regularly losing to the likes of Oklahoma and Texas, its Big 12 rivals.

In 2004, under new head coach Bill Callahan, who brought with him a West Coast (passing) Offense, Nebraska suffered through its first losing season in 40 years.

Reading of Solich's victor, coming on the heels of Nebraska's lame victory last week over Division I-AA Maine, it's impossible not to cringe at Steve Pederson's decision to fire Solich as head coach of Nebraska and wonder where the Cornhuskers would be now had Solich remained at the helm. Next week Nebraska plays Pittsburgh, where Steve Pederson served before coming to NU, which will be hungry for a victory. It's painful to say, but I'm not convinced that Callahan's Cornhuskers are ready for the challenge.

But enough looking ahead. Tonight NU plays Wake Forest. And these days its especially true that NU can't afford to overlook any of their opponents.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Bush: One of the Worst Disasters to Hit the U.S.


It's been a grim week. While the Bush Administration's response to Hurricane Katrina has been a comedy of errors, the enormity of the diaster, coupled with the incompetence and corruption that intensified its devastating effects have made it hard to laugh much lately. However, this image, which I first found via a link on In These Times, did manage to make me crack a wry smile. The caption is from a TV capture from Sky News Ireland.

Do ya think the caption writer intentionally penned this double entendre? In any case, this dose of Irish irony went down as smooth as a pint of Guinness. Speaking of which, it is Friday...

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Post-Katrina Era Must Be Progressive

The linguist George Lakoff argues that the Katrina tragedy was exacerbated by the right-wing values that the Bush Administration has put into practice and that the Post-Katrina Era must see a return to progressive-liberal values. Lakoff suggests that the majority of Americans actually hold progressive-liberal values (empathy for others, that we're all in this together, equal protection for all, etc.) as opposed to the right-wing conservativism that (a winner-takes-all capitalism, extremist individualism that valorizes selfishness, and an animosity towards government, unless it can be used to benefit one's private agenda). Note: The glosses in parentheses are mine, not Lakoff's.

I'd like to believe that Lakoff is correct about the values held by most Americans, but I'm not so sure. As Bruce Springsteen sings in "Nebraska," a song narrated by Charlie Starkweather, a mass-murderer who, to my knowledge, was the last person executed by the state of Nebraska: "I guess there's just a meanness in this world." America is a violent culture, and I suspect that more Americans have a sadistic streak than many of us would like to acknowledge.

I fear that too many Americans have embraced right-wing individualism to such an extent that they can feel empathy only for a small circle of friends and family members. I remember a conservative in St. Louis whom I met a few years back. His son had contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion, and although this man was well off he could not pay for all the medical expenses. Fortunately, he qualified for financial support. His son remained alive only because of government largesse. Although he thankfully accepted the government support, he remained steadfastly opposed to universal health care. He was, to put it simply, an elitist who had no compassion for people whom he did not know personally.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Congratulations Raffet and Rita!


Raffet and Rita Exchange Vows
Originally uploaded by erasmus.


Attention friends: I'll be posting more photos from the festivities surrounding Raffet and Rita's wedding in days to come.