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.