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...


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.