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.