Saturday, December 23, 2006

How to have all men against you

George W. Bush, Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People (2001):
Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.

Friedrich Nietzsche, "The Wanderer and His Shadow"(1880):
How to have all men against you. -- If anyone dared to say now, 'Whoever is not for me, is against me,' he would immediately have all men against him. -- This does our time honor.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Other Voices, Public Works

Issue #45 of Other Voices, edited by Cris Mazza, is out. You can read my review of Christopher Grimes' Public Works: Short Fiction and a Novella on the reviews page of the Other Voices wesbite.

My review is rather short, due to editorial constraints, not choice. Other Voices is primarily a journal of new fiction, so it reserves only a few pages for reviews. The maximum number of words permitted was 750. I had much more to say about Grimes' short fictions, and my first version was about three times as long (and even in this draft I was aspiring to be concise).

At some point I expect to return to this material and incorporate it into a piece of literary criticism - a review essay rather than a book review. The distinction might not be immediately apparent to those not in the field, but it's a difference that matters.

On the topic of appearances, you might not know it, but I spent several weeks on this review, reading and rereading Grimes' stories, pinning down the ones that best exemplified the elements I wanted to foreground in my review, and, of course, writing and rewriting countless drafts of this essay. As I mentioned previously, Cris Mazza provided some excellent editorial assistance, enabling me to make cuts that were extremely painful. After spending hours crafting a few sentences, watching the words rapidly disappear as you hold down the delete key can be an agonizing.

But here's the really frustrating part: I've been told that since Other Voices is creative, not academic, journal my efforts won't count for much in terms of professional advancement. I can put the review down on my CV, sure, but book reviews, particularly ones appearing in a non-peer-reviewed publication won't count for much, if anything, in the eyes of most hiring-and-promotion committees. Such reviews are not regarded as real scholarship and might even be viewed as a diversion.

I appreciate the need to make a distinction between academic and non-academic writing, but given the systemic economic exploitation of intellectual laborers that is pandemic to academia, especially in the humanities and English departments in particular, there should be some credit given for efforts to write and speak to a non-specialized audience.

That's not likely to happen anytime soon. The paradox is that as university and scholarly presses publish fewer titles, the professions continues to raise the bar when it comes to the publications necessary to get - and remain on - the tenure track.

At least I'll know Public Works thoroughly when I teach it. If nothing else, the review could work to kickstart a class lecture. That's assuming, of course, that the teaching opportunities remain there. One shouldn't presume anything, particularly when it comes to work and universities, both public and private.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Against The Day

Pynchon is back, and his new novel, Against the Day, finally arrived in my hands today. It's been sitting in the UIC English Department offices since last Friday, which was frustrating, but allowed me to remain focused on the tasks at hand over the past Thanksgiving weekend.

I've only had a chance to read twenty pages, and I've savored each one so far.

When Mason & Dixon came out (has it already been nine years?!?1?) I read the entire book in two days, but I was employed only part-time, and out of school, then.

Now, there's a stack of papers to grade, and much end-of-the-semester work to be done, so here's the deal. For each paper graded, I get to read three pages of Pynchon.

Ain't it funny how an teacher of American lit feels slightly guilty about taking time out to read from the latest work by America's greatest living novelist?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Writing and Resistance: A Response to Coetzee

It is naive to think that writing is a simple two-stage process: first you decide what you want to say, then you say it. On the contrary, as all of us know, you write because you do not know what you want to say ... Writing, then, involves an interplay between the push into the future that takes you to the blank page in the first place, and a resistance. Part of that resistance is psychic, but part is also an automatism built into language: the tendency of words to call up other words, to fall into patterns that keep propogating themselves. Out of that interplay emerges, if you are luckly, what you recognize or hope to recognize as the true.

(J.M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point).

Coetzee's deconstructive account of the writing process directs attention to the materiality of language, the linguistic automatism that is a function of language's materiality, and the writer's stuggle to harness the autopoetic energies inherent to language during the act of writing. In this way, his remarks help explain why writing (and especially teaching composition) can be so challenging.

Writing, as George W. Bush might put it, is "hard work." The successful writer (and here I will resist constructing an extended metaphor of writing as war) must be prepated to encounter opposition and resistance throughout the writing process. Novice writers, and some experienced ones who forget what they've learned, tend to approach writing naively, as the direct expression of a preformed thought or idea.

However, as thoughtful and honest writers will tell you, writing - with a few instrumentalized exceptions (such as, perhaps, writing a grocery list, though Derrida's theory of differance makes even this act of writing more complex that it would initially appear) - is rarely, if ever, so straightforward a procedure.

If, to deploy a familiar trope, writing is a journey towards the truth, or at least some sort of knowledge, the route that the writer must take is a circuitous one in which the available pathways are not immediately recongizable. Indeed, the writer will frequently be disoriented and discover that what appeared to be the safest and most direct path is filled with obstacles that necessiate a rerouting.

Writing is a matter of resistances. Like thinking, or cognition, with which it is virtually synonymous, writing is a recursive process. As we write, the very transcription and inscription of our thoughts, which do not exist independent of the linguistic forms, words, in which they are materialized, makes it possible for thinking to continue into the future.

Coetzee characterizes this compositional proces as a kind of "interplay" during which linguistic pattern formation in which words come to cohere into units that are positioned or arranged in a recognizable and thus sensible and coherent shape. Coetzee's account of writing as a kind of linguistic pattern formation identifies two types of resistance with which the writer struggles.

Both of these types of resistance include an affective dimension.

The first type of resistance is "psychic," Coetzee's term for the psychological obstacles - doubts about one's authority, anxieties about being original, clever, aversions to exposing oneself to the gaze of the Other, etc. - that can generate writer's block and impede the process of composition. Here, then, the affective dimension involves the emotions the writer experiences when facing the space of writing, figured by Coetzee as the blank page.

Lacan and Zizek, not to mention numerous literary writers who offer testimony to the anguish and suffering (jouissance) involved in writing, remind us that these negative affects are a necessary component of writing. The writer must 'tarry with the negative' and work through these affects, which, particularly if one is excessively egocentrically oriented, can become debilitating obstacles. However, when the writer risks becoming a dupe of language and recognizes the impossibility of not falling into error, nonsense, or madness (the terrifying "night of the world" in which relations to the other are literally severed), these negative affects can shift valence. The extreme anguish writers feel when tarrying with the desubjectifying and inhuman force of language can morph abruptly into ecstatic jouissance.

Such shifts occur when these negative affects are not registered immediately as signs of one's personal failure but are instead posited externally as an element immanent to the act of writing. When looked at awry, from a dialectical perspective, these affects appear as obstacles that create productive resistances that exercise and test the writer's constitution or will to power in a way that ultimately makes him or her stronger. In this way the affects can act as catalysts, not obstacles.

The second type of resistance is material. It has to do with the machinic quality of words, which are always and already endowed with significance and meaning that is beyond our control. The connotative and denotative force inherent to language puts constraints on the writer's ability to make use use of them, to shape them into sensible utterances, the meaning of which is fixed within a particular composition.

In another post I will say more about the affective aspects of this second type of resistance.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Chicago Street Studio Project Portrait

Photography by Thomas Marlow.

Believe it or not, this photo was shot out at O'Hare Airport, shortly before Ira had to catch a flight to Sweden. You wouldn't guess it from the photo, but Ira was worried about missing her plane and a bit camera shy during our quick photo session.

Thomas Marlow happened to be at the airport today shooting photos for his Chicago Street Studio Project, which I'd read about in a Chicago Reader article a couple months back. In fact, I'd traveled downtown to The Silk Road Oasis on September 30 to have my portrait taken, but Marlow had already pulled up shop. (The trip was not wasted, however, as I ended up catching a noontime performance by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, but that's another story). So, I was particularly pleased to spot him and his portable studio at O'Hare and to be able to get my picture taken with Ira.

Marlow's biography is remarkable. He'd never shot portraits when he began his project, which is being sponsored by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. I suspect that when he wraps up this project, he'll have plenty of potential clients seeking professional portraits.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Aesthetic Ideology: The Politics of Language

Leading neocons exress despair at the Bush Administration's incompetence in Neo Culpa: Politics & Power.

As a literary critic with a keen interest in the relationship between affect and meaning, I'm intrigued by the implicit understanding of how language works in this quote by David Frum:

"I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel himself committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big shock to me has been that although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas. And that is the root of, maybe, everything."

Notice how Frum avoids talking about trying to convince Bush to believe in a particular position. Instead of referring to reasons and arguments, he imagines a sort of understanding via osmosis. In this fantasy, ideas are objectified as the foundational substance of words, and these ideas, once spoken, get absorbed by the body, like lotion. Indeed, it's not even clear that "understanding" is the right term here, since Frum talks about a feeling - a committed feeling - towards ideas rather than a belief in them.

Thank you, Mr. Frum, for providing a textbook example of how a neo-Platonic, logocentric model of language can prove to be disastrous.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

John Ashcroft On Belief: Why Christianity? It's Easy

In this short but telling interview John Ashcroft basically attributes his embrace of evangelical Christianity to the fact that it provides him an "easy" means of excusing his sins. He explains, "I'm a Christian for a variety of reasons. Maybe because it's easy. What I have to do to please God is to confess that I'm a sinner instead of trying to prove that I am good."

Well, at least Ashcroft knows he's a bad man. But as Sartre would put it, Ashcroft is acting in bad faith by objectifying himself as a being-in-itself, in this case a sinner, whose identity is fixed. By failing to imagine that he could at least work at doing good in the world, Ashcroft denies our capacity for freedom.

Of course, this denial of freedom is completely consistent with his political views and deeds and helps explain his defense of the Patriot Act and, in this interview, a failure to recognize the universal applicability of the Geneva Conventions.

Now, I'm no theologian, but Ashcroft's last sentence is particularly perverse, in the psychoanalytic sense. That is, for Ashcroft Christianity is all about becoming one of the elect who knows how to provide pleasure for the Other. Ashcroft fantasizes that he pleasures God by confessing his sins, which, conveniently, absolves him of having to "prove that I am good."

Note how self-absorbed Ashcroft's framework for conceptualizing religion is. In the individualistic binary he establishes, it's all about him, John Ashcroft. Religion is either about proving that one is good, or, in his version of Christianity, pleasing God. Either way there's no consideration about one's responsibility to act as Christlike as possible in this world, which we share with God's creatures and our brothers and sisters, nor is there any sense of how difficult it is to perform good acts and deeds in a fallen world.

Clearly, Ashcroft needs to ask What Would Zizek Do? and listen to a little of that rock 'n' roll music.

As St. Paul sings, "Absolution is out of the question..."

Friday, October 13, 2006

No Answers from this Bush

Around this time during an election year, we're all sick to death of being bombarded with political ads, the majority of which do little to educate the public about the way a politician has voted in the past and will likely vote in the future on specific issues. Instead of providing useful, accurate information, (which, it should be noted, can be found relatively easily online, if one is willing and knows how to search for it) these ads, whether they are attacking a politician's opponent or heralding the candidate, tend to dumb down everything in a crude effort to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Consequently, political ads usually remind me of the perverse state our union is in at present. The United States has become a virtual plutocracy, thanks in no small part, to the government's giveaway of the public airwaves to corporate broadcasters who have a media monopoly that puts tremendous constraints on the range of political discourse and debate. The situation that requires candidates to waste loads of time and money to publicize themselves and get their "message" across on TV and radio to potential voters.

But this ad by The September Fund is different. It's brilliantly simple. Please watch it.

Walter Benn Michaels Weighs In at The Valve

Walter Benn Michaels responds to bloggers who've been debating the merits of The Trouble With Diversity. In my estimation, he does an excellent job of refuting the major arguments against made him, most of which turn out to miss his major point concerning the way the Left's efforts to combat economic inequality (the US once aspired to wage a War on Poverty, after all, though it ultimately decided to fight a war in Vietnam instead) have been eclipsed in the US, first by modes of identity politics and then by a more banal commitment to "diversity."

(Cue Luna's "Lost in Space.") "I've heard it all before" at various UIC forums, so what I found most intriuging in this exchange was Michaels' response to the University Diarist, a blogger who wonders why the dedication to The Trouble with Diversity made her "skin crawl."

Lately I've been researching about affect and literature, a project that I suspect Michaels would view as a dead end insofar as it would seem to privilege the subject's response to the stimuli produced by textual object over the author's intention. The critics and theorists I'm looking at try to posit a subjectless affect, and at this point, to be honest, I'm undecided about the viability of this model, at least when it comes to writing.

But to return to the topic at hand, the UD's rhetorical question could certainly serve as a example of the need to reason through our initial affective responses. The UD's visceral response to the dedication in TTWD that leads her to fantasize about Michaels and his wife dying while having sexual intercourse. I won't go into details. It's just a bit too gross, not least because Michaels and Jennifer Ashton are colleagues of mine at UIC. (Yes, my response is based partly on my subject position.)

Anyway, here's Michaels' reply, which provides an example of how to respond with dignity to a pretty outrageous remark:

All this is put a lot more provokingly in the chapter itself, and because it’s put provokingly, I am not surprised that people are provoked. UD’s also being provoked by the dedication, however, I can’t explain. Maybe it’s because she literally misread it (she says it’s to “my wife” but it never mentions “my wife”). Maybe it’s because she doesn’t recognize that “so necessary” is an allusion and hence doesn’t see that it involves a certain amount of irony. But as to where her coital death fantasies come from, I’ve got nothing.

Coital death fantasies. Where's Zizek when we need him? I'm sure he'd have plenty to say on this topic, particularly within the context of a - ahem scholarly discussion. More importantly, I'd like to hear Zizek and Michaels debate the claim that the truth of a claim has "nothing to do" with the speaker's subject position. As I've suggested in an ebr essay discussing Zizek's account of Christianity's pervese core both Michaels and Zizek insist upon a universalist notion of the truth against varieties of postmodern pluralism or relativism. They also agree that multiculturalism, particularly academic multiculturalism, is a strategy for eliding class-based inequality. However, what I didn't address properly in my ebr essay was how differently Zizek and Michaels understand the truth.

The difference, in short, has to do with Zizek's commitment to a universally divided subject and his model of ideology, two factors that lead him to insist that a speaker's motives (both conscious and unconscious) matter greatly when it comes to assessing the validity of his or her claims. For instance, it might be true that Sadam Hussein was a brutal dictator, but when VP Cheney was making this claim in the buildup to the Iraq war, what mattered was the deeper truth concerning the motives for repeating this assertion publically from a position of great authority. Michaels would argue that Zizek's position is based on notions of authenticity that he finds irrelevent. I should work all this out rigorously at some point, but there's work to be done...

First, one pressing question: What is the ironic reference to "so necessary" that Michaels suggests the UD misses? My guess: Jay-Z's "Change Clothes, lyrics by Pharrell. If Walter is at today's colloquium, I'll have to ask him.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Commodify your Dissent and Conformity

Here's an informal, but effective analysis of the convoluted ideological messages conveyed in the current "This is Our Country" Chevy Truck. I'd refrain from describing it as a work of deconstruction, but I do want my American Literature and American Culture students, who read a piece by Rosa Parks earlier in the semester and are currently in the process of learning about various conceptions of ideology, to ask themselves "Can Rosa Parks Sell Pickup Trucks?"

Monday, October 09, 2006

Rushdie to Be Writer in Residence at Emory

Salman Rushdie is joining the faculty at Emory University, where I earned my M.A. in English. Insofar as Rushdie will be teaching mini-seminars to Emory grad students, I'll admit to having twinges of regret at deciding to leave there so many years ago. But while UIC might lack some of the cultural capital and certainly a lot of plain ol' capital that Emory possesses (it's known around Hotlanta as Co' Cola Campus), graduate studies here have, by and large, been more to my liking for a variety of reasons, which I'll keep to myself as a matter of professional pragmatics.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Amis on the novel

Martin Amis on the novel as a site for reflection and recognition: "A novel asserts nothing; it provides a framework for thinking about things. I suppose we're in the education business."

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Tom Waits' Orphans

Coming soon (the Nov. 21 release date coincides with the new Pynchon novel; how's that for a truly harmonic convergence): Tom Waits' new 3-disc collection Orphans, which is comprised of "Brawlers," "Bawlers," and "Bastards."

Shit, I wouldn't be surprised one whit to learn that Pynchon, or maybe ol' Tyrone Slothrop himself (whatever happened to him anyway?) make an appearance on the record, playing the kazoo, of course.

Scroll down to read Tom's commentary on what this project's all about. With such an eloquent account, what'll the rock critics have to add?

Note to Jeff: It includes a Jack Kerouac song (lyrics by him?) and the last two tunes on the "Bastards" disc are "King Kong" and "On the Road." Apes love 'dat shit.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Alternative Interrogation Techniques

Students in my American Literature and Culture class are busy compiling examples of various tropes, figures of speech, that turn up in their readings, both novels and nonfiction. Although I'm confident that most have a fairly firm grasp on euphemism, I'll have to refer them to the following article by Andrew Sullivan to demonstrate why the ability to identify tropes is no purely 'academic' exercise.

Sullivan's article addresses the ongoing debates in the United States regarding the legality of torturing terror suspects by drawing attention to the way ethical considerations have been circumvented. The torture debates have degenerated into battles over the Bush Administration's efforts to redescribe "torture" as "alternative interrogation techniques," "coercive interrogation," or "harsh interrogation methods." Could we find a more pressing, or dangerous, instance of euphemism?

In general, I'm no fan of Sullivan, a gay Republican whose endorsement of the GOP's homophobic platform seems awfully opportunistic and cowardly, but it's refreshing to hear a conservative citing Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" in opposition to Bushco's use of doublespeak. In contrast to the obfuscating rhetoric on torture issued from the likes of Rumsfeld and Bush, Sullivan's argument is straightforward: Torture by any other name is just as vile.

The problem is that the very act of debating publicly whether, in some instances, torture should be tolerated and permitted changes the parameters of what actions are permissible in liberal-democratic states. The unthinkable--state-sponsored torture--has now become a viable option.

Now that the Bushies have effectively legitimized torture, it will require a concerted political effort to make the practice taboo again. This effort will require people from across the political spectrum to collaborate. Most likely, in a familiar political paradox, in the United States it will be a conservative politician like John McCain, who has acquired a certain kind of political capital that will prevent him from being branded as being "soft on terror," that will be most effective in leading the opposition to state-sponsored torture.

Friday, September 22, 2006

When Bathos Trumps Analysis: Remembering 9/11

For the commercial broadcast media, the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks provided an opportunity to boost ratings through sentimental remembrances that compelled viewers "to think instead of feel." For Susan Douglas, a profession of communications at the University of Michigan, the lack of journalistic integrity has perpetuated the circulation of propaganda, misinformation, and lies that have served the Bush Administration, if not the United States, so well during its reign.

With a couple rhetorical questions, Douglas suggests how the media should have responded after 9/11, had they taken their mission to inform the public seriously:

How might the broadcast media have analyzed the path since 9/11 if it were non-commercial, not so craven for ratings and had the stomach for self-examination? Might we see an examination of the collapse of journalistic skepticism and backbone in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, or an expose of the Bush administration's blanketing the media with propaganda and PR techniques, or an explanation that bush squandered every ounce of goodwill we had in the aftermath of 9/11, or a reflection on the unnecessary killing of so many U.S. troops and Iraqis, or a condemnation of our country's use of torture?

Thus, the tragedy of those victims who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks is compounded by a subsequent tragedy: the lack of fair, accurate and thorough reporting on the Bush administration's "War on Terror."

Douglas's call for analysis over bathos is sound, but it will take systemic structural changes in our corporatized, profit-driven media if we're to see the kind of informative, investigative journalism that we need.

One looming problem: Who will subsidize a media independent enough to produce intelligent, analytic investigative journalism, which is, of course, much more costly than producing news programs that superficially cover events?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Caution: Philosophy

Here's a photo loaded with allegorical possibilities. It was shot at the Border's bookstore on State Street in downtown Chicago.

Does the yellow tape express some new managerial position about the dangers of philosophy? And why is the warning applied primarily to philosophy written by Germans whose surnames begin with the letter 'H'? Indeed, why the need for caution? Are the ideas expressed in the books considered dangerous? Or are such weighty tomes simply hazards impeding to the efficient sales of more marketable titles, e.g., the latest fad-diet title, a volume of New Age pop psychology, or the newest Harry Potter book?

As someone working in a U.S. English department I can't help thinking that the images register the shift away from so-called 'high theory' (Continental Philosophy) toward historicist criticism and cultural studies that has occurred over the past decade or so in the humanities, especially literary studies. The rise of historicist criticism and a naively simple modes of cultural studies in literary studies has led, in various forms, to a return of the long-standing opposition between philosophy and literature/poetics. The winner in this battle? In literary studies, anyway, both are losing, as language and lit departments face increasing pressures to churn out students whose ‘literacy’ ‘pragmatically’ enables them to secure jobs writing various genres of corporate copy.

I'm posting these images for a colleague of mine in literary studies (not at UIC) who has recently experienced resistance from his or her departmental colleagues for drawing so heavily upon Hegel in his or her work. Nevermind the fact that the project, is intended to demonstrate how Hegel's dialectical logic informs the manner in which Joyce depicts a day in Dublin unfolding Ulysses. Against those academics who bizarrely claim that Joyce was an apolitical high-modern elitist, this project presents a universalist Ulysses, i.e., Joyce’s efforts to materialize cognition via punning and cunning language experiments can best be grasped through a Hegelian framework that never forgets Dublin’s place within a larger totality – the world circa 1904.

S/he presented material at a departmental seminar and discovered that the many of the attendees hadn't read the larger manuscript circulated before the seminar, apparently because they were put off by the explicit philosophical content of the material. Then, during the seminar, they wasted time by asking this academic to define basic Hegelian terms and concepts that, had they bothered to read the essay, were explained carefully in the text. Moreover, they had the gall to imply that the philosophical concepts were somehow superfluous. It was disappointing to discover these anti-philosophical attitudes are prevalent in Europe as well.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Teaching and Technology: Will the Students Collaborate?

This semester I'm giving my American Lit & Culture students several semester-long projects to work on. I've warned them that they will need to be disciplined and do a little bit of work for each class, because the project requirements are simply too great to put off until the last minute.

I suspect that students may be feeling overwhelmed, so I wrote them the following message in which I encouraged them to collaborate on the courses electronic discussion board, which is part of the BlackBoard software platform used at UIC.

Use this forum to post quotes, annotations and comments related to your semester-long project "The Rhetoric of Freedom: Annotated Quotes." I encourage you to show class solidarity and to help one another on this assignment. Your annotated remarks, of course, cannot be plagiarized directly from someone else, but you can and should share ideas.

One of my research interests is new media studies, and I'm particularly interested in communicative systems that emerge in networked environments such as this. I'm curious to see whether you, as a class, harness the potential inherent in this software platform to develop an efficient collaborative system for (re)marking on the course texts.

Good luck! 

Based on past teaching experiences, my sense is that most students resist using BlackBoard, which is fine with me, if that's what they choose. My primary concern is that they read the books and other texts and learn various analytic strategies. However, I do think that electronic collaboration offers them opportunities that were unavailable when I was an undergrad.

Monday, September 04, 2006

But is it Activism: Springsteen Plays Seeger

Ron Radosh reviews Springsteen's Seeger Sessions for the right-wing American Interest. It's a pretty well-written piece that raises an intriguing question: But is it activism? My quick-and-dirty and a-bit-too-easy answer would be that the songs are a mode of activism if Springsteen intends them to be. Of course that assertion says nothing about the song's effectiveness as a form of activism. As the article notes, some in Springsteen's recent concert audiences are apparently finding it more difficult to 'connect' with Seeger's folk songs than with Springsteen's rock anthems. Go figure.

Is the audience's disconnect due to hearing an out-of-style musical genre or the unabashed socialist content of the songs? Probably both, particularly insofar as form and content inform and shape one another. I'd like to remind Radosh, and others on the right who often make similar arguments when they find artists mixing pop and politics (to quote the great Billy Bragg whom I heard live again a few months ago): The fact that the leftist artists are making money from their art and perhaps even getting rich doesn't count as an argument against their progressive conviction in the necessity of eliminating material inequality around the world.

Monday, July 03, 2006

AOL Said, 'If You Leave Me I'll Do Something Crazy' - New York Times

I've been warning of the evils of AOL for years, but for those of you who are still using AOL to access the internet, please read this horror story: AOL Said, 'If You Leave Me I'll Do Something Crazy'.

Damned to Fame

Leland de la Durantaye comments on Samuel Beckett's cult of impersonality and the surprisingly enduring popularity of Beckett's art of subtraction.

File a copy for students to read the next time I teach Beckett.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Ambush in Afghanistan

War correspondent Christina Lamb reports on being cornered with her photographer and British Army troops during a Taliban ambush in Zumbeley, Afghanistan. Lamb's essay, 'Have you ever used a pistol?', offers a gripping first-person account of the dangers coalition forces are facing in Afghanistan, where, contrary to previous claims of victory, the Taliban remain a powerful presence. Would the situation in Afghanistan be better today if the U.S. military had not rushed to wage war in Iraq? The deteriorating conditions in Afghanistant suggest that the U.S. military should have been allowed to soundly defeat the Taliban and Al Quaida in Afghanistan rather than being forced to redeploy its resources for the invasion of Iraq.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The $2.97 Gallon of Pickles, Sam Walton's Neoliberal Reality

In my English and American Fiction class this semester, one of the ideas we're returning to regularly is the claim - often identified with postmodern, or post-Nietzschean theory - that 'reality' (as opposed to the Real) is inherently fictional. Variations of this claim - which understandably sounds rather esoteric to some ears, a piece of New Age obscurantism - I try to explain informs the way many people go about their business in a neoliberal world in which The Market is revered and feared like Zeus or some other fickle Greek god.

The following quote, from "The Price of Pickles" an essay by John Lanchester on Wal-Mart
illustrates how economic fictions shape our reality in mundane and profane ways:

Wal-Mart is about price, so much so that it has created a reification of cheapness, in which cheapness becomes a mystical quality, a Ding an sich or fundamental essence, separate from questions about utility or practicality or how on earth a thing can be put on sale for such a price. Charles Fishman, in his punchy and valuable book The Wal-Mart Effect, cites the example of Vlasic pickles, the most popular brand in the US. Wal-Mart talked Vlasic into pricing the pickles so that a gallon jar was on sale for $2.97. That is a bizarre, surreal price for a gallon of pickled cucumbers; no one had ever seen such a jar outside a deli, and no one had any real use for it, since even if you’re a pickleholic you’ll only manage to eat about a quarter of a gallon before the remaining pickles go mouldy. It had never occurred to anybody that there was such a thing as a market for a gallon jar of pickles. Even so, priced at $2.97, there was something so magnetising about this Brobdignagian vat of pickles – something so alluring about the way it embodied the Platonic ideal of cheapness, in and for itself – that Wal-Mart was soon selling 200,000 gallons of pickles a week. The ‘scary part of the Vlasic story’, as Fishman points out, is that:

The market didn’t create the $2.97 gallon of pickles, nor did waning customer demand or a wild abundance of cucumbers. Wal-Mart created the $2.97 gallon jar of pickles. The price – a number that is a critical piece of information to buyers, sellers and competitors about the state of the pickle market – the price was a lie. It was unrelated to either the supply of cucumbers or the demand for pickles. The price was a fiction imposed on the pickle market in Bentonville. Consumers saw a bargain; Vlasic saw no way out. Both were responding not to real market forces, but to a pickle price gimmick imposed by Wal-Mart as a way of making a statement.

Wal-Mart is so big and so powerful that it is in effect defining its own reality – creating its own products, and a market for them, by sheer act of will.

And the Wal-Mart reality, as critics have explained, is all about maximizing profits, which often means that people, particularly workers, and the environment must be exploited.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Czech Bud vs. American Bud: No Contest

I don't follow soccer closely enough to know whether or not the Czech's World Cub victory over Team USA was an upset. But I'm not at all surprised to learn that Czechs Bud soundly defeated its American rival, which is the 'Official Beer of the World Cup' in taste tests outside the stadium. Word to Anheuser-Busch: Money can't buy you love.

Lest I be labeled 'anti-American' by some zealous patriot, let it be known that my sojurn in San Francisco convinced me that Anchor-Steam is a world-class brew, a worthy candidate for the prestigious, if not necessarily lucrative, 'beer-of-the-year' that I like to bestow annually.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Journal for Class 6

“The Dead” by James Joyce; “On Truth and Lies in the Nonmoral Sense” by Friedrich Nietzsche; “Figures and Tropes” by Bennett and Royle

1. Bennett and Royle claim that “’The Dead’, which is above all about death, is also about dead language, dead metaphors” (83). They support their claim by providing a close reading of the story’s final paragraph that focuses on the figurative effects produced by the “verbal repetition” (84) of the word ‘falling.’ Find another passage from “The Dead” that is in some way ‘about’ dead language or dead metaphors and which Bennett and Royle could’ve used to support their argument. Then write your own analysis of this passage that explains how and to what purpose Joyce makes use of a particular figurative effect (or effects).

2. After reading Graff and Birkenstein’s “Three Ways to Respond,” identify one or more of the arguments that Nietzsche makes in “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” Then write a response to Nietzsche’s essay in which you summarize and/or quote some of his ideas and makes clear whether you’re agreeing, disagreeing, or both agreeing and disagreeing with what he says and why. Use the templates in They Say, I Say: see Chapters 1-3 for templates that will help you to represent Nietzsche’s ideas and Chapter 4 for templates that will get you started with your response.

Beware of Stray Voltage

Wally, when you're out for walks in Delaware, you and Claire should take care to beware of 'stray voltage.'

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Chimpanzee and human ancestors may have interbred

Chimpanzee and human ancestors may have interbred the headline reads. Who sez it ever stopped? As the man on the 66 Chicago bus raged, "I've seen The Planet of the Apes. I know what you people are capable of."

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Coursepack Contents, Summer '06

My accomplishment for the day. Finished my xeroxing and dropped the Coursepack documents for this summer's English 105 class off at the printer's.

1. Auerbach, Erich. “The Brown Stocking.” Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask. 50th anniversary ed. 1953. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003. 525–53.

2. Coover, Robert. “The Babysitter.” Pricksongs & Descants. New York: Plume, 1969. 206–39.

3. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” 1899. College of Stanten Island Library, Stanten Island, NY. 16 May 2006.

4. ___. “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” 1913. College of Stanten Island Library, Stanten Island, NY. 16 May 2006.

5. Kafka, Franz. “The Penal Colony.” The Complete Stories. Ed. Nahum N. Glatzer. New York: Schocken, 1971.

6. Kavanagh, James H. “Ideology.” Critical Terms for Literary Study, 2nd ed. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. 306–20.

7. Mansfied, Katherine. “Bliss.” Arthur’s Classic Novels. 17 May 2006.

8. Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Purloined Letter.” The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: Norton, 2004.

9. McLaughlin, Thomas. “Figurative Language.” Critical Terms for Literary Study, 2nd ed. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

10. Miller, J. Hillis. “Narrative.” Critical Terms for Literary Study, 2nd ed. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. 66–79.

11. Nealon, Jeffrey, and Susan Searls Giroux. “Ideology.” The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts for the Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.

12. Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Ed. Lawrence Cahoone. Expanded 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003. 109–16.

13. Žižek, Slavoj. “Ideology Reloaded.” 6 June 2003. In These Times. 16 May 2006.

14. ___. “Jack Bauer and the Ethics of Urgency.” 27 Jan. 2006. In These Times. 16 May 2006.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Another Ideological Map...

This is what happens to your politics if you spend too much time in Sweden. Trustees and endowers of academic chairs: I swear that I'm more open to entrepreneurial innovation than this chart would indicate. Does this mean that I'm going to have to sign a loyalty oath?

You are a

Social Liberal
(80% permissive)

and an...

Economic Liberal
(8% permissive)

You are best described as a:


Link: The Politics Test on Ok Cupid
Also: The OkCupid Dating Persona Test

Friday, May 12, 2006

Reading Colbert: It's Time for Some Lit Crit

James Wood's essay MSM S&M is the smartest piece I've come across yet about Stephen Colbert's performance and the media's timid reporting on it.

"It is time--it is always time--for some literary criticism," Wood writes. Yes it is, sir. Yes it is.

And Wood's lit-crit approach enables him to make a crucial point. In response to the blogsphere's indignation at the lack of coverage of Colbert's performance, the MSM and Bush supporters responded by changing the subject. Colbert just wasn't funny, they protested. Thus, Wood opens strong by immediately distinguishing between "being funny" and being "ironic" and "satirical" before proceeding to justify Colbert's "brutal" tactics eloquently: "These issues are just too painful for humor."

Spot on, James. Spot on.

Wood proceeds to explain how reading the transcript of Colbert's routine differs from watching the performance and explains why the strongest moments in Colbert's act are precisely when he's not being funny and is speaking the ugly truth to the president, sitting a few feet away. But there's no need to summarize his essay. Go read it yourself.

I've been considering devoting a day, maybe two, in my Composition II course on media studies to discussing Colbert's performance. I thought the whole episode would fit it nicely in our discussions about media bias and provide some comic relief to what can be pretty dry stuff. I confess: I'd rather be teaching a course on literature, literary criticism, and theory. Thankfully, Woods piece provides me the opportunity to do a bit of lit crit: distinguishing between types of irony, the subversive potential of performative reiterations, etc..

So, thank you very much Mr. Wood.

I consider James Wood to be possibly the best literary journalist writing today. What makes him so good is that he is skilled as both a literary journalist and a literary critic. That is, he writes short (compared to an academic journal article) book reviews for a non-academic audience that manage to be packed with critical insights and claims supported with well reasoned evidence from the texts under consideration.

Unlike, say, Michiko Kakutani (who is probably the most powerful book reviewer in America), Wood's reviews aren't one dimensional. When Wood weighs in on a book, he does so by placing it within a larger literary framework where he can make comparisons. He's got a scholarly mind and the scholar's reservoir of knowledge, but he doesn't produce scholarship. Not that scholarship is bad, but within academia we need more eloquently written literary essays -- as opposed to the dry academese that is arguably becoming the norm -- and lord only knows that the arts and culture pages of our mass-circulation publications need more smart reviews.

(I have my own pet theories about why academics can sometimes write such dry, often obscure prose, and it's got everything do with the constraints imposed by a routinized, corporatized university with a "publish or perish" model of professionalism. But I'll save those for the proverbial faculty lounge.)

Having celebrated Wood's writing, let it be noted that I don't always agree with Wood. In fact, his preferred literary aesthetic is quite different and often opposed to mine. His assertion, for example, in a mixed review of Underworld, that the novel "proves... the incompatibility of the political paranoid vision with great fiction" wrongly conflates DeLillo's views with those espoused by his characters. Wood finds Underworld repetitive thematically, whereas I think he neglects to pick up on Underworld's subtlety, DeLillo's repetitions with a difference.

Fortunately, Wood is a much more attentive reader in the Colbert case. Would it be too much to insist that all professional journalists be such adept readers?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Molecular Mixology, or, Color Me Impressed

Does anybody really need a laser concocted cocktail?

Call me a Luddite, if you must, but when it comes to drinks I draw the technological line at the blender.

So, now that smoking is verboten in many bars, this is the next step: Two Parts Vodka, a Twist of Science.

"Molecular mixology," "freethinking bartenders"...

I shudder to think what the Final Solution might be.

Bartender, a Jameson's on the rocks please, and [wiping Beer Nuts salt and oil from hands whilst fumbling for some change] .... some quarters for the jukebox.

...Sanitation expert and a maintenance engineer
Garbage man, a janitor...

[Sips from glass, from which Irish whiskey overfloweth.]

Ahhhhhhhh.... Yes, comrades, the class warfare intensifies daily.

...Don't treat me special, don't kiss my ass
Treat me like the way they treat 'em up in first class...

One more round, Drinkers of the World, and don't forget to arm yourselves.


Animals Reedemed in the Corpse

Wally, have you read the Anti-Anthropomorphism or: Animals Redeemed edition of Exquisite Corpse?

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kundera on his novel:

This story is not allegory. But my book is a polyphony in which various stories mutually explain, illumine, complement each other. The basic event of the book is the story of totalitarianism, which deprives people of memory and thus retools them into a nation of children. All totalitarianisms do this. And perhaps our entire technical age does this, with its cult of the future, its cult of youth and childhood, its indifference to the past and mistrust of thought. In the midst of a relentlessly juvenile society, an adult equipped with memory and irony feels like Tamina on the isle of children.

Much to consider here, but what grabbed my attention was the analogy Kundera makes between totalitarianism and postmodern technocratic society. He sees the two forces as similar in that they work to infantilize the population by denying people a sense of history. Memory and irony are presented as two potential counterforces. I may want to bring Kundera's views - and the literary aesthetic that they imply - to bear on the American postmodernists about whom I'm writing.

First question: How durable is the link Kundera makes between totalitarianism and technocracy? At what point does the comparison break down and why?

Second question: How do Kundera's remarks about totalitarianism, made, I believe, in the mid 1980s and based on his first-hand experience of living under Soviet rule, apply to the world today: a neoliberal world order of global networks in which the U.S. is said to be the sole superpower?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Abort That Thing

I've always wondered why the 'culture of life' crowd are more concerned about the fate of unborn fetuses than the fate of the already living. Where's their compassion for the poor, the homeless, not to mention the millions of uninsured etc.?

The Onion offers a plausible hypothesis: New 'Anti-Abortion Pill' Kills Mother, Leaves Fetus Alive.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Of Rap and Racism

The question posted in John Cook's article's title is stupid: If you don't like rap, are you a racist? But that's because the basic claim being assessed here - that one's cultural tastes and preferences correspond to or can be mapped onto one's racial identity - is ludicrous. If, say, Toni Morrison were to profess that she didn't enjoy reading or watching performances of Shakespeare plays, would that make her a racist? And what about black jazz musicians who don't like rap? Are they 'race traitors?'

If only someone - perhaps Jessica Hopper's and Sasha Frere-Jones's editors - would call two posturing writers on the racist logic informing their smears of Stephen Merritt, the singer-songwriter who is best known for his work with the Magnetic Fields, whom they attack for being an outright racist and a cracker. Someone please make these two read Paul Gilroy's Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line, which explains why it's a mistake - logically, politically, ethically, and morally - to divide humanity into identity groups based on skin color.

And if you want to say in response that race goes beyond skin color, that it's a 'social construction,' read Walter Benn Michaels' work to understand how modern and postmodern talk about cultural identity repeated the same, discredited logic of racial essentialism as did talk about racial identity in the late 19th and early 20th century.

I've a lot more to say, but I've got to get back to a paper on performance and DeLillo before heading to the MCA for a talk about Chris Ware.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

More on the Media's Missing Colbert

We know the answer to this question: Did media miss real Colbert story?

Kierkegaard on Islam

What would the Christian existentialist and Denmark's most famous philosopher make of the violent reactions to the Muhammad cartoons? Carlin Romano consults with Howard Hong and Gordon Morino to find out: What Would Kierkegaard Do?

Friday, May 05, 2006

Thank You Stephen Colbert!

Take a minute to say "Thank You Stephen Colbert!"

Kudos to your courageous performance, Stephen. Bush's lackeys in the corporate media weren't laughing and have responded like cornered rats to your subversive humor. Let's remember, these are the dolts who proclaimed irony dead after 9/11; they prefer outright lying and spread the propaganda that led the country to an ill-advised war.

Just want you to know that there are millions of us across America who are sick of being played for suckers by Bushco. We love to laugh at your smart, outrageous humor, which inspires us to keep fighting the good fight. Lenny Bruce and Thomas Paine would be proud!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Was Colbert Censored from "White House Letter"?

Dear Ms. Bumiller,

Why didn't your article on the White House Correspondents' Association dinner report on Stephen Colbert's performance?

I've watched clips of Colbert's simulation of a right-wing pundit, and his performance was definitely newsworthy. While Colbert clearly didn't amuse the president, his ironically subversive performance has been celebrated throughout the blogsphere and other online forums.

Perhaps you refrained from reporting on Colbert's routine because you feared offending the White House? Or perhaps Colbert's barbed endorsements of Bush Administration policies revealed too much about the corporate media's complicity in manufacturing consent by uncritically representing political spin as the truth?

In the future, please be more fair and accurate in your coverage of events. This means reporting on dissenting voices in America, even when those voices question the professionalism of you and your colleagues.

With respect,

Monday, May 01, 2006

Attn, Mr. President: Colbert is in da House

Stephen Colbert White House Correspondents' Association dinner performance before the President is brilliant. This man's fearless. No softballs thrown tonight.

It's pretty apparent that if I'm going to teach about media and cultural studies, I need tiVo and cable so I can study The Colbert Report.

Gangs claim their turf in Iraq

It's heartening to know that gangs are enlisting their members in the military in order to receive urban combat experience . I suppose this gives the gun lobby another reason to repeal the ban on automatic weapons. After all, don't these vets, who fought for the U.S. in Iraq, deserve the same access to weapons and equipment here? Homeland security, indeed... [sigh]

Public Works

This review is supposed to be under two pages, double spaced. Obviously it needs some cutting. But where?

Christopher Grimes, Public Works. Normal, IL: FC2, 2006. 200 pp. $15.95, paper.

Our most base desire, generally speaking, is to reduce and reduce matter into quantifiable nothingness, the last digit of pi that closes the circle for instance. Reduction to our ilk is an animal’s instinct for blood. Words, pictures, sculptures, buildings and nebula are like rabbit droppings on a field of snow from which we strive to infer the meal who produced them.

The Nobel Candidate in physics who makes this observation may be right, but her interpretation-as-scatology analogy does nothing to alleviate my anxieties about writing an overly reductive review of Christopher Grimes' debut short-fiction collection. Bottom line: this is some good shit. Grimes' short fictions are always clever and often profound, and aficionados of the masters of postmodern minimalism (Kafka, Calvino, Borges, Beckett, Barthelme) and maximalism (Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, Coover, Wallace) must read Public Works. Grimes successfully fuses the maximalists' art of expansion - their will-to-master excessive amounts of information - with the minimalist's art of retraction - their sensitivity to the material signifier's tendency to short-circuit and generate surreal interference patterns.

If the great challenge facing contemporary writers is to make our globally networked systems of communication and exchange more intelligible, a project that by no means calls for a mimetic aesthetic, then Christopher Grimes promises to be an exemplary postmodernist. Although the most ambitious and successful postmodern fiction in recent years has been prodigious meganovels like Infinite Jest, Mason & Dixon, and Underworld, Grimes' fiction demonstrates that hundreds or even thousands of pages aren't required to address global complexity. Grimes brings a systems sensibility to short fiction, writing about potentially massive topics under extreme constraints. The short fictions range from about six to eighteen pages, the very short fictions from one to four pages, and even the novella is under forty pages, including extensive footnotes from Minot, North Dakota's Code of Ordinances. Rather than trying to give a gloss on a number of these stories (which would prove difficult since the tales tend to morph unexpectedly), let me comment on the way three exemplary fictions offer a vision of systemic interconnectedness that challenges the individualist ideology that dominates most political and fiction representations.

The narratees of the opening fiction, "Customs in a Developing Country: A Prefatory Story," are foreign visitors, tourists and businesspeople, who, whilst having their bags inspected by an alternately brusque and gregarious customs officer prone to puzzling digressions, receive a lecture on acculturation. The lecture is the story, and its genius resides in the way it interpellates readers as foreigners, a move that aligns Grimes with an authority figure whom we—sophisticated readers and free subjects vigilant about the need to ‘question authority’—will initially tend to regard ironically. After all, from the predominant neoliberal perspective—devoted to the efficacy of private enterprise and free-market’ initiatives, derisive of government (public works) programs, etc.—the customs officer appears as a somewhat anachronistic authority figure: a petty civil servant or a pretentious bureaucrat from a 'backwards' country.

Precisely because he is a petty authority not to be taken seriously, the customs officer functions as, if not exactly an author surrogate, than certainly a viable analogue for an ‘experimental’ literary writer (remember Melville) who, in an age of corporate-media conglomerates, cannot expect to be published by a commercial press and must turn to an independent press dependent upon funding: so, these fictions are literally public works. But Grimes makes it difficult to sustain our sense of ironic distance and superiority towards the customs officer. He does, after all, seem to be looking out for our best interest. And despite his severe tone and an exaggerated sense of self-importance, he provides some prudent and pragmatic travel tips designed to keep our “most private possessions” especially our (sense of) identity, safe and secure. Along with cautionary anecdotes about identity theft, polite conversation, and sexual mores, the customs officer advises us on how not to “insult the natives” as Zsa Zsa Gabor (a quintessential postmodern celebrity, a “hopelessly artificial creature,” more famous for her fame—her catchphrases, her social connections, etc.—than her talent) did during her visits by displaying a palpable “lack of interest” to her hosts and committing “ blunders” whenever she spoke.

Of course, Grimes has set a trap for readers. Through the customs officer, whose lecture espouses, however obliquely, values typically regarded as progressive—the benefits of multiculturalist tolerance, the grotesqueness of celebrity culture, the necessity of remaining attentive to cross-cultural semiotic and linguistic differences, etc.—Grimes suggests that these values have become banal platitudes providing ideological cover for more systemic political and economic exploitation. His lecture repeats truisms that have become multiculturalist cliches: “embrace the common sense that a people foreign to you will live in a manner that is foreign to your sensibilities. You are somewhere new. Perhaps try to appreciate its novelty” (18). But while it’s easy to “appreciate” superficial cultural differences (blue toilet paper) or minor inconveniences (low water pressure) can we truly appreciate a culture comprised of “proud, haughty people” (18) where “prisons are used prophylactically” (17).

Advocates of Criminal Year legislation support a mandatory year of incarceration for the “young and simple-minded” (17) on the grounds that the experience will prepare the prisoners for the future by giving them a taste of reality, a reality understood to be difficult and unfair. In what these conservative advocates imagine as sort of pre-emptive strike on utopian fantasies of social change, only the prisoners who bribe the warden can expect to receive any kindness while in prison. This system of bribery will condition the prisoners to “feel what it’s like to have the infinite possibility of their dreams reduced to the singularly ugly and hard business of living” (17). Suddenly we realize that we’ve in a fascist regime, and when the officer, cast in the role of a contemporary Virgil guiding us into postmodern purgatory, remarks, “like everyone else who passes through here, there was no way to know where her [Zsa Zsa Gabors'] visit was going to lead. It’s ironic, a vicious, vicious irony that we are made to labor under. You will please keep this in mind as you strike out now amongst us,” his words sound doubly ominous. First, when we recognize the implicit threat; then when we realize that this “developing country” feels uncannily like our own homeland. A vicious irony indeed.

“The Public Sentence” is an eight-page, single-sentence story concerning a more benign civil servant, a young Doctor, the Assistant Regulator of Flowage for Bismarck, ND’s Public Works, who is struggling to respond to a bizarre environmental accident—a sewage spill and a “burgeoning turtle population” (24) that threaten the Missouri River ecosystem—for which he is partly to blame. Just how blameworthy is the multi-million-dollar question raised by this comic tale about 'agency panic' and the tragic tendency we humans, as egocentric individuals,, have for misunderstanding and misrepresenting systemic complexity. While a simple mechanical error, the Doctor’s failure to “close the outflow seals of the sedimentation lagoon” (25) directly led to the “raw sewage overwhelming the tertiary system,” assigning responsibility for the subsequent problems proves infinitely more difficult. Was the “bad advice given... by the Indian Municipal Government in Delhi,” which recommended releasing a species of turtles that “subsists on decaying matter” into the river, the “true and primary source” of the eco-catastrophe? Perhaps. But why didn’t the Emergency Advisory Committee foresee that the Midwestern Americans, unlike the Dehlians, wouldn’t keep the turtle population in check by eating them? Now, the swarms of turtles present a “collective shock to our senses matched only by how shockingly quick we are to lay blame when, truly, no one contributing factor can be blamed” (24).

I can't begin to recount the number of mini-narratives, from the Doctor's courtship and marriage of an Argentinean musician to turtle-eradication plans designed serve as “cultural events,” Grimes packs into this digressive tale. I can, however, cite for your reading pleasure the following sentence fragment which, in the growing annals of American Literature about waste and excretory systems may rank up there with Slothrop's mythical descent into the sewer in Gravity's Rainbowand the various riffs and ruminations about shit> and civilization that course through Underworld:

...each one of us now, who haven’t the vaguest notion of how our public waste is directed through a system second in complexity only to that one posteriorly balanced above it, who have, until this moment, been perched blind as bats on the great public commode without once having occasion to think past our ankles, down the wrought iron throat that connects us to the municipal digestive system, the intestines of tunnels, conduits and channels, the brick-lined bowels that release into the newly vulcanized slag tanks churning the corporate volume flowing from our homes and businesses for, individually, we are more concerned with by whom the sound of the soft scrape of toilet paper is being heard than we are with the workings of the sophisticated mechanism to which we are just then affixed...

The final story I want to discuss features a narrator who, speaking colloquially, we might say is 'full of shit.' Narrated by a self-absorbed psychotherapist perturbed by her inability to cure a client and friend exhibiting acute “automobile anxiety,” “Moving Vehicles” lampoons the presumptuousness of narrative therapy, which vulgarizes deconstructive and psychoanalytic theories concerning the way our experience of subjectivity is thoroughly mediated through language and symbols by reducing them into banal self-help slogans: the ‘healing power of narrative,’ ‘we are the stories we narrate to ourselves,’ etc.

The story begins with the therapist describing how the nomadic Kirghiz tribespeople annually cross the “wide and turbulent” Irtish River with their flocks of caribou in reach winter grazing lands. The “old and infirm” unable to make the dangerous crossing are left behind with enough provisions for a few days, but only after a ritual in which the Kirghizes express their love and say their final goodbyes. Although this poignant anecdote would seem to illustrate the sacrifices required for a pre-modern community to sustain itself, our narrator finds it a “perfectly instructive one for inclusion in the therapeutic environment,” where it serves to accommodate clients to the “ambiguous future” that characterizes neoliberal 'risk societies.' She unironically repeats the Kirghizes' story to her clients as a parable about the individual's need to make lifestyle choices. It serves, for example, “to illustrate how they must each say goodbye to things in their individual pasts—former lovers, unreasonable expectations of each other—in order to move to the other side of the river” and “to suggest how they had the option to leave their relationship behind…so they could continue on as healthy individuals."

Unfortunately, we learn, our narrator hadn’t figured out how to apply the story to her friend’s Pauline’s phobia, and her musings on this “intolerable” situation eventually leads to a startling revelation: Pauline was hit by a car and will probably die. Up to this point we’ve enjoyed laughing at the therapist’s ridiculous psychobabble psychobabble, but now we see how her native commitment to of a world shaped entirely by individual acts of renarrativization and her crudely materialist view of language (which she likens at one point to kitty litter covering up, you guessed it...) render her oblivious to the real suffering and death of other. So the story closes with the therapist’s imaginary (and strangely racialized) account of Pauline’s accident, which ends abruptly as she is utterly unable to imagine the moment when Pauline presumably went unconscious. This failure of imagination, it seems, parallels the therapist's constant failure to reflect upon the ethics of her multicultural appropriations and her utilitarian approach to narrative. At the risk of sounding overly reductive, I want to suggest that Grimes' collection provides a public service by presenting readers the opportunity for serious and fun reflections on our postmodern, or neoliberal, condition.


Not happy with the ending, and I need to fix all the typographical errors that resulted when I cut and pasted from Word to the blog, but it's getting late and I've been before a monitor for most of the past 14 hours. Ugggh.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Scholars Discover 23 Blank Pages That May As Well Be Lost Samuel Beckett Play

Jim K. sent me this article from the Onion: Scholars Discover 23 Blank Pages That May As Well Be Lost Samuel Beckett Play. Although this is obviously a joke, the poet and critic Susan Howe, who takes a strong textualist postion, would claim that, yes, the meaning of a text is dependent upon its material form. Howe suggests, for example, that editions of Emily Dickinson's poems in which irregular spacing has been corrected and stray marks from the original manuscript pages omitted alter the poem's meaning. She also objects to editons of The Autobiography of Thomas Shepard that have omitted eighty-six blank pages from his journals on similar grounds.

Ahhhh, esoteric literary debates...

Gender and Education

Does Feminism Control The Bush Administration? The preposterous title of Phyllis Schlafly's op ed piece doesn't really give a sense of the essay's argumen. Basically it decries what Schlafly regards as the pernicious influence of feminism on American higher education. She's upset about the Title IX law that regulates the proportion of men and women on athletic teams.

She claims that's the law has resulted in the "senseless abolishment" of 171 men's wrestling teams, and suggests that a similiar move to effect a more proportional gender representation in math and science will be equally, if not more harmful. What cripples her argument, I think, is her acceptance of the notion that males are innately better at math and science than females. I'm skeptical about this, just as I reject the notion that females are innately better at languages or teaching.

I'm intrigued by the way Schlafly closes her essay. First she decries the gender inequality in the field of teaching. She observes:

The number of male public school teachers has fallen to only 20 percent, and at the elementary school level fewer than 10 percent of teachers are men, giving boys the distinct impression that school is not for them.

I agree that the decline in the number of male schoolteachers in public schools is a problem, not least because young boys do need male intellectual figures as role models. (Based on what I've heard from people who've been certified as teachers, a degree in education and getting certified to teach can be a decidely un-intellectual pursuit. I won't elaborate, but it's the oft-repeated claim that knowledge in a particular subject matter gets trumped by a lot of touchy feely tips. I've often thought it ridiculous that academics with MAs or even PhDs are not automatically qualified to teach in America's high schools, many of which are strapped for teachers. But this is another topic altogether.) There's definitely a need for more men in America's classrooms - hired as teachers, not security guards - though I wonder if Schlafly, like most conservatives, would endorse higher pay for American teachers? A fair salary, coupled with smaller student-teacher ratios in the classrooms, would make teaching a more attractive field.

Schlaffly closes by appearing to support the Liberal Arts, or at least an initiative to get more men to major in these subjects:

Nor do we hear anything about spending taxpayer funds to force universities to attract more men into the soft Liberal Arts subjects that now have a big majority of women students.

I'll refrain from ranting about that modifer "soft," and state that I’m all for more funding for the Liberal Arts subjects (not just for men – but for the Liberal Arts peritod) but I’m willing to bet that’s just a smokescreen.

Bottom line: When we talk about inequalities that undermine the American education system, the root problem remains class.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

What's Your Political Philosophy?

This thirty-five answer quiz promises to pinpoint your political philosophy.

Not surprisingly, I found some of the questions worded using unnecessary absolutes (e.g. always, never, etc., that made me pause about fully endorsing ideological sentiments or positions with which I generally agree. How that impacted my score, I don't know. Had I more time, I'd retake the quiz to better guage how it determines one's score.

I don't take the results too seriously, though I'lll admit to being a bit disturbed by how high my "Foreign Policy Hawk" and "New Democract" scores were. It's pretty obvious that this quiz was made by a North American, probably from the U.S., since it completely forecloses the possibility of holding a socialist political philosophy. Anyway, here's my results. Do not assume these results accurately reflects my actual political positions, which, for professional reasons, I prefer to keep fairly private.

That said, I do appreciate the fact that my initials are EDR.

You scored as Old School Democrat. Old school Democrats emphasize economic justice and opportunity. The Democratic ideal is best summarized by the Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Old School Democrat




New Democrat


Foreign Policy Hawk




Socially Conservative Republican


Pro Business Republican


What's Your Political Philosophy?
created with

Brothel Brouhaha: Muslim Mob Demands Removal of Pink Panty Poster

Another brouhaha in Europe involving Muslims offended by Western imagery declared to be an insult to the prophet Muhammad. This time the locale is Germany, not Denmark, where a murderous Muslim mob threatened violence against a brothel that displayed an enormous seven-story poster featuring allegedly sacrilegious imagery. No, the poster didn't depict the prophet Muhammad. Designed to solicit World Cup customers, the poster a depicted a woman wearing pink panties lifting up her bra next to the slogan "A Time to Make Friends." Just below the panties were images of flags from the 32 nations that will be competing in the 2006 World Cup, including two Islamic countries, Iran and Saudia Arabia.

Personally, I'm not convinced Muhammad would be bothered enough by a silly poster to demand a bombing in retribution, but to defuse the possibility of a bomb attack or other acts of violence the brothel owners capitulated to the angry mob's demands. The whole scenario is even more ridiculous than the Danish cartoon scandal, but I find the violent imposition of censorship chilling and think those who profess to uphold the right to free speech should take the situation seriously and speak out against a blantant act of intimidation. Read more here: World Cup Row: German Brothel Removes Muslim Flags Amid Threats.

Friday, April 21, 2006

DeLillo Speaks (as little as possible)

This reporter's interview with Don DeLillo yielded little new information about the private author, just a few anecdotes. It does provide some background on DeLillo's new play, Love-Lies-Bleeding, which opens in Chicago next week. I've got a ticket for opening night. In fact, it arrived in Thursday's mail. I'm excited.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Beaver Overthinking Dam

Believe me, as someone struggling to craft a [ahem] 'damn dissertation' prospectus, I can relate far more than I would like to admit to the conceptual agonizing that this poor beaver is going through. Read more about Dennis Messner, a self-described "integration-minded postmodernist" beaver here: Beaver Overthinking Dam.

As for me, I'm off to see Slavoj Zizek speak at the U of C campus, but then must return to work and stop "treading water." Don't want to end up stuck in the mud like ol' Dennis has the past few years.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Yes, I'm Here for the Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Photo of the Day #

... is Dr. Hegel available?

Actually, I don't believe that DBT has anything to do with the Absolute Knowing described in The Phenomenology of Spirit and I doubt 'The Awakening' employs any Lacanian psychoanalysts.

Nonetheless, in an attempt to help the New Agers whom I presume run this 'clinic' reach the truth through error, I would like to bring Slavoj Zizek here and have him present himself as a client seeking their services.

Would this not make a fabulous reality show?

Neil Young Sings "Let's Impeach the President"

It's good to hear that Neil Young still has a heart of gold. If I recall correctly, he endorsed Reagan, at least for a time, back in the '80s, but redeemed himself by taking aim at Bush the elder in the classic rock anthem "Rockin' in the Free World." (1989). Truth be told, it seems as though the song is older than that, which only goes to show I'm aging. The "We got a thousand points of light/For the homeless man/ We got a kinder, gentler/ Machine gun hand" line definitely dates it a George the 1st-era tune.

The next lines, though, fit just as well today, with Big Oil again running the country: "We got department stores and toilet paper/ Got styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer/ Got a man of the people, says keep hope alive/ Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive."

If I were singing the song, I'd change "department stores and toilet paper" to "Wall Mart stores and... buried Nader" and substitute "styrofoam boxes" to "SUVs 'n' Hummers." Jeff, maybe the next time we get to see each other you can get out the gee-tar & humor me.

But the reason I've got Neil Young on the brain, and on the stereo (a 1987 live bootleg that I picked up in Italy), is that the man is about to release Living with War, a new LP which includes a song for Dubya. The song's titled Let's Impeach the President.Could this be the Indedpendence Day anthem of '06?

After treatment for a brain aneurysm in 2005, it appears as though Young is recovering well. He certainly has been busy. He released Praisrie Wind last year and now Living with War. I wonder if a brush with death inspired him to write some anti-Bush-regime protest rock?

Perhaps the Dead Kennedys could redo "Let's Lynch the Landlord" with lyrics updated to better reflect the realities of Dubya's 'ownership society'?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Media Policies and Media Reform

Course descriptions for the Fall 2006 semester are due tomorrow, which meant I had to commit myself to a topic for the Composition II class that I'll be teaching. It's been a few semesters since I've taught comp, and I plan to do quite an overhaul on the way I organize the course. I'll be cutting down on the reading (which is hard to do since most students generally come with less background knowledge than one would hope) and placing more emphasis on the writing. I'm hoping that my daily use of rhetorical templates, as advocated by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing will help students to process the course material more thoroughly and enable them to generate ideas and structure their thoughts more coherently.

I'd like to have my students maintain blogs for the class, but will not do so unless I can get my class moved to a computer lab.

In my opinion teaching composition is the most difficult assignment one can get working in an English Department. Naturally, then, the task is generally passed along to graduate students and adjunct faculty, whom we all know are not well compensated for their efforts.

Strike up the band: "No-body said it was ea-saaaay..."

Course # 22418 ENGL 161 TR 11:00-12:15
Instructor: Rasmussen, Eric Dean
Course Title: Media Policies and Media Reform

The disciplinary focus of this class is media studies, with an emphasis on analyzing contemporary U.S. media policies and practices. We will be examining how the media system works in the United States and why, in the interest of democracy, academics and activists are calling for citizens to play a greater role in shaping the corporate dominated media sphere. To learn more about the course topic, visit and

I’ve designed this class to teach you to conduct college-level research and to write intelligently about your findings. At the macro level, you will focus on learning the basics of the craft of research, or writing analytically. That is, having surveyed a range of material on a general topic, media studies, you will then select a narrower sub-topic and independently conduct research on it. Your research project will require you to frame a relevant research question, locate source materials, marshal evidence, construct arguments, and craft a polished 10-page report.

At the micro level, you will focus on mastering the rhetorical forms that structure strong academic and argumentative writing. For each class reading you will be asked to identify the rhetorical moves that the text’s author uses to organize his or her argument. Then, with the aid of templates, you will deploy these same rhetorical moves in your own writing. With regular practice and concentrated effort, you will find that an awareness of these rhetorical moves enables you not only to comprehend better the texts you read but also to generate new ideas and enter into ongoing conversations. In short, you will become a more sophisticated reader, writer and thinker.

Students in this class will need to access and print out online materials regularly. To enroll, you must have daily access to the Internet and a printer.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Charitable Capitalism

Slavoj Zizek rejects the beneficent-business ethos promoted by today's (ironically self-annointed) 'liberal communists' who promote the notion that capitalist profitability and private enterprise can support social responsibility and humanitarianism. It's foolish, Zizek argues, to believe that "the ruthless pursuit of profit is counteracted by charity," because in this equation "charity is part of the game, a humanitarian mask hiding the underlying economic exploitation." The charitable mask simply provides the capitalists, liberal communists or otherwise, with a means of denying their "complicity in and responsibility for the miserable situation in the Third World."

We should have no illusions: liberal communists are the enemy of every true progressive struggle today. All other enemies – religious fundamentalists, terrorists, corrupt and inefficient state bureaucracies – depend on contingent local circumstances. Precisely because they want to resolve all these secondary malfunctions of the global system, liberal communists are the direct embodiment of what is wrong with the system. It may be necessary to enter into tactical alliances with liberal communists in order to fight racism, sexism and religious obscurantism, but it’s important to remember exactly what they are up to.

Etienne Balibar, in La Crainte des masses (1997), distinguishes the two opposite but complementary modes of excessive violence in today’s capitalism: the objective (structural) violence that is inherent in the social conditions of global capitalism (the automatic creation of excluded and dispensable individuals, from the homeless to the unemployed), and the subjective violence of newly emerging ethnic and/or religious (in short: racist) fundamentalisms. They may fight subjective violence, but liberal communists are the agents of the structural violence that creates the conditions for explosions of subjective violence. The same Soros who gives millions to fund education has ruined the lives of thousands thanks to his financial speculations and in doing so created the conditions for the rise of the intolerance he denounces.

Zizek is probably right about the lie underlying the logic of charitable capitalism (a term that, I think, is less confusing than the silly and misleading 'liberal communism' tag that the Davos gang adapted). It's more or less the same fantasy as 'compassionate conservatism' except that it takes more seriously the notion of corporate responsibility. Compassionate conservatives don't bother trying to reconcile corporate profitability with social responsibility; they simply propose (some sincerely, others cynically) that churches and other traditional charitable institultions, as opposed to the state, assume this role. However, I'm not certain what progressives - particularly those in the U.S., which lacks parliamentary representation and must work within the limits of a winner-takes-all two-party system, are supposed to do.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Modernist Representations of Consciousness

Ira, this afternoon I read the introduction to Jed Esty's A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England and came across a passage that struck me as relevant to your research. Esty takes a position on modernist representations of consciousness similar, I think, to the one you make in your dialectical reading of Ulysses. Like you, Esty is interested in the relationship between modernist nativism and what he sees as a 'cultural turn', that is, a literary move away from aesthetic to cultural investments. Esty's book focuses on late modernism, from roughly 1930 to 1960, but even though he reads literature from more of a historical than a philosophical lens, I think you'll find his approach to be informative, particularly as you consider how your project on Joyce links up more generally with recent modernist studies.

Anyway, I should be working with materials directly related to my research, not yours, so I'm putting aside the Esty until you return. For now, here's the quote:

Although I have suggested that the personal/impersonal antinomy of English high modernism reaches a new resolution via the supervening doctrine of anthropological holism, I do not read (as Lukacs does) modernist representations of consciousness as a cosmopolitan indulgence subsequently correctly when the return to national concerns enforces a properly sociohistorical aesthetic. Modernist representations of the subject were always, as Adorno insisted, shaped by (not detached from) specific and objective social conditions. Indeed, a genuinely critical or negative art required (more than ever) the language of subjectivity in order to avoid simply reproducing the real world in a naive attempt at mimetic objectivity or social realism. This Adornean model of 'objective subjectivity' as the key to modernist technique seems to have come under pressure in the midcentury, at least in practice, for English writers like Eliot and Woolf.

Coincidentally, the copy of Adorno's Negative Dialectics you ordered arrived today.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Lonesome Death of Rachel Corrie

Last Monday night, on the eve of our wedding anniversary, Ira and I saw Billy Bragg play live at the Double Door. That night Bragg debuted a new song that he had written earlier that day on the flight from Minneapolis to Chicago. The song was The Lonesome Death of Rachel Corrie, written about the late peace activist who was killed by an Isreali bulldozer in Gaza. You can read Bragg's remarks about the song and download it on The Guardian.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Douglas Coupland Meets the Moz

Author Douglas Coupland, who named a novel after The Smiths' song "Girlfriend in a Coma", travelled around the world to interview Morrissey but concluded that the eccentric singer was "interview proof." Thus, while Coupland's piece offers a few impressions about Morrissey that he gleaned during their meeting ("he has an almost clinical, Tourette's-like need to blurt out thoughtless things to people, and he's not even aware he's doing it, so when people retaliate, he genuinely has no idea why) Coupland spends much of the essay reflecting on why the interview is an obsolete genre in the age of Google. (On the whole, he's probably right, at least for the celebrity interview.) He advises fans to pay attention to the artwork, not the artist and proceeds to practice what he preaches. The essay concludes with an enthusiastic, if somewhat endearingly amateurish, review of Morrissey's forthcoming album, Ringleader of the Tormented, which, I'll admit, I'm eager to hear. Early reports are that Morrissey is taking his sound in new directions. We'll have to hear...

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Paper Shredder: Photo of the Day #74

Time to destroy old credit card statements and other documents that a foolish identity thief might want to steal. Later we put this baby to work and were shredding docs like Fawn Hall (now there's a blast from the past).