Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Pranksters

Anarchism antifamily? The Target manager obviously doesn't know the Traverses.

Somebody tell these merry pranksters to shopdrop some Pynchon (Vineland and Against the Day) in Aisle 3, pronto. Make sure the books are prominently placed, please. Ideally, they'll be obstructing Oprah's mag. (Glad she's endorsing Obama, but I'm still sick of seeing her bloated ego everywhere.)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Monday, December 10, 2007

Forget Integrity, In Politics It's Craftiness That Counts

Stanley Fish proffers a bit of sage advice, courtesy of Machiavelli and Hobbes, to US presidential candidates and the voters who will elect one of them: Craftiness -- the ability to adapt one's actions to best negotiate tumultuous real-world conditions whist giving the public appearance of consistency -- not personal integrity, better qualifies one to assume a leadership role. The so-called character test that the MSM applies to political candidates, who are ostensibly judged according to their personal integrity, won't necessarily yield the strongest leader. In fact, Fish argues, it may disqualify them from holding office:

Integrity — the quality of standing up for the same values in every situation no matter whom you’re speaking to — is probably not a qualification for navigating the treacherous and ever-shifting waters of domestic and international diplomacy. Morals strongly held may preclude the flexibility and compromise so essential to political negotiation. And if character were really everything, candidates would be judged by their relationships with family and friends (Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton might not fare too well if that were the measure) rather than by their ability first to recognize, and then to deal with, the many problems facing the nation.

Fish is correct to emphasize flexibility over fixity when it comes to the diplomatic skills required of an effective leader. He is right, too, to reject the appeals to "character," particularly when it's assessed by the politician's private relationships. Clinton's marital infidelities and Reagan's familial conflicts are, or should be, irrelevant to voters because they don't affect the American public one whit; what ultimately matters is the president's ability to shape public policy making.

(On this count I find both Clinton and Reagan lacking.)

Fish's lesson: In short, craft before integrity, but have sufficient craft to produce integrity’s image.

Okay, craftiness is crucial, yes, but I would add that an ideal political candidate, while being flexible in terms of negotiating diplomatic solutions, should maintain a fidelity to the cause that he or she represents. I'd like to see a candidate who would remain committed to combating material inequality and poverty, but would be crafty enough to weather the predictable neoliberal attacks on those who dare to suggest that the state, as a body constituted by and for the people, has a responsibility to provide for society's least fortunate.

The problem with Fish's Machiavellian model of leadership is that it perpetuates a debilitating ethos of selfish individualism in which politicians seek, above all else, to perpetuate their reign, rather than striving to build a better society. This selfish individualistic ethos, of course, is one of the motors of capitalism, which explains why none of the "serious" candidates (in the estimation of the MSM) dare to propose the economic reforms that would overturn the neoliberal policies that have concentrated wealth in the hands of a privileged few.

One final question: Is the current Administration craftier than their bumbling figurehead, who, of course, has always sold himself as a man of integrity, would lead us to believe? That is, what if their ultimate agenda was not the neoconservative dream of establishing US hegemony in the Middle East but rather to promote the personal interests of a select group of insiders who have benefited from the instability in Iraq and the Middle East, the rising oil prices, the weakened dollar, etc.?

Sunday, December 09, 2007


In Rainbows is Radiohead's best record in years, though it's their only release I've not bought. I feel slightly guilty about my gratis download, as the band's pay-what-you-want, online-distribution experiment deserves support. One would like to see musicians be able to sell recordings "directly" to listeners and eliminate, as much as possible, the record companies that, historically, have deprived so many artists of royalties for their labor.

Regretfully, living hand to mouth precludes any purchases that aren't absolute necessities. (I'm sure Radiohead, as class-conscious Oxford lads, have read their Jude and would understand.) Even if I had "disposable" income, it would go first to books I want to read that aren't absolutely vital for my research. But when I finally land that tenure-track job I've promised to buy tickets to see Radiohead live. I take it on faith that neither securing a job nor securing Radiohead tix is a pipe dream, however horrendous the queue for both might be.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Paul Chan: Mixing Materialism and Activism

I met Paul Chan a few years ago in NYC when I was working for the Electronic Literature Organization and he was a finalist for one of the two awards. Paul impressed me with his dynamism, and I wish I could get back to the States to attend his production of Waiting for Godot.

From a literary perspective, the move from producing morphing e-texts to staging Beckett in a New Orleans neighborhood left for dead makes complete sense. In both instances, there's a savvy literalism at work. A literalism that doesn't function, as some critics have argued, by nihilistically destroying meaning; rather, this literalism insists that although we ordinarily overlook meaning's material supports,it's senseless, and ultimately impossible, to remain always blind to the ecosystems in which meanings are enacted.

As I argue in "Senseless Resistances," the manuscript on which I'm presently working, the material resistances in the composition and the systems with which it comes into contact impede communication, generate affect, and catalyze the cognitive work required to bring the composition to life as a significant entity.

To those who would claim that such a materialist approach to literature and art is formalist, I would agree. To those who would claim that formalist approaches are inherently apolitical, I'd point to Beckett's involvement in the French Resistance or Chan's antiwar activism. Chan makes a distinction between politics (collaborative and goal specific) and art (individually produced, resistant to instrumentalized uses) that is worth retaining, if only to remind us that our lives are multi-faceted and engaging in one activity doesn't preclude another.

On a side note: Glad to see Paul rockin' the Nebraska cap, particularly after my beloved Huskers experienced such an awful football season. (The University of Nebraska Press continues to release quality books in literary studies, e.g., Nicholas Spencer's After Utopia and Marco Abel's Violent Affect, both of whom are
faculty members in UNL's English Department. If only they'd publish them in paperback.)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Puncturing the Pinhead Pundits (Who Promote Faux Patriotism)

Bill Maher mocks the ostentatious display of patriotic symbols on the grounds that these accessories simply provide cover to faux patriots, people eager to give the illusion that they're supporting the country, the troops, the military, etc. but who would prefer not to make an actual sacrifice.

Kudos to Maher for his spirited defense of Barack Obama's explanation for not wearing an American flag lapel pin (the pins have become a "substitute for true patriotism") and for calling the mainstream media, including ABC's Claire Shipman, for its blantant hypocrisy and for manufacturing faux news events. The punditocracy promotes the notion that political candidates should be judged according to nebulous and subjective criteria such as "authenticity" and "character" and candidates who don't spout the predictable platitudes the pundits and their handlers want to hear are quickly deemed "unelectable."

Thanks to Jim for e-mailing me this article. On the one hand, I'm glad to get some breathing room here in Sweden from the moronic press coverage of the US presidential race. The vacuousness of the discourse is especially apparent when you're outside looking in to the fishbowl. On the other hand, I'm fascinated by the techniques used to depoliticize the public sphere by diverting attention away from real problems that the government leaders need to confront, e.g., the rotting infrastructure, the health-care crisis, the declining standard of living, the rising debt, etc. And these are just a few of the domestic issues.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Ralph Ellison's Endless Revisions

Ralph Ellison's failure to publish a finished follow-up novel to Invisible Man during his lifetime has baffled critics and scholars of American literature. While a posthumous text, larger than Juneteenth, is imminent, the scholars who edited Ellison's volumes of writing into the forthcoming book to be published by the Modern Library suggest that Ellison's embrace of word-processing technology led Ellison to revise, repeatedly, already well-crafted sentences. Anyone fascinated as I am about how how technologies, particular the digital computer, alter the way we think and write will want to read The Invisible Manuscript, which contains something of a cautionary tale about writing with word-processing software: Computers make it easier to rework your writing, yes. But avoid the temptation to revise pepetually. Writers, particularly those with perfectionist tendencies, can get lost in syntactic detail and lose track of the larger project.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Summer Reading (ENGL 105: English & American Fiction)

A list of what we'll be reading in my English and American Fiction course this summer: Books for ENGL 105, Summer 2007

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Connected Composers: Making Music and Money Online

Clive Tompson's "Sex, Drugs and Updating Your Blog" describes how blogs are changing the dynamic between musicians and their listeners. Blogs provide musicians a way to find an audience for their tunes, but fans are coming to expect more from them. Fans don't simply want music to be readily available for downloading; they want the musicians to be available for chit chat; they want the musicians to be their "friends."

Audience-artist interactivity is an interesting phenomenon, but I wonder whether the model is sustainable. Artists are often reclusive for a good reason: creation takes time and requires a level of attention that isn't possible when one must constantly check her e-mail or update her blog.

I've learned this lesson the hard way, through experience.

Questions this article raised for me: Are the Internet and e-networks making audience interaction necessary for artists and musicians who want to support themselves financially through their art? Will artists have the time both to communicate with the audience and to create quality compositions? To what extent will economic considerations - both financial and libidinal - shape the form of these compositions?

I know that my professional commitments - reading, writing, teaching, etc. - prevent me from blogging as much as I would like. Right now academia, at least the institution and the department in which I work, does not really provide the infrastructural resources to integrate blogging into the curriculum. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

While I love the convenience of networked discourse, electronic communication technologies can lead to hurried thoughts. Too often the aim is simply to hit send and make a connection. More time and thought must be given to the act of composition, to the creation of a message worth communicating.

As a teacher of literature, I devote much energy to making students more mindful readers: they need to be trained to slow down and pay attention to the workings of language, both their own and others's. I've found that electronic communications can distract students, who are no accustomed to being pereceptive observers of texts, or, for that matter, the world in which they live.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

La Mort de Jean Baudrillard

Aside from a short, superficial interview in the New York Times Magazine a few months ago, I hadn't read anything by Jean Baudrillard for several years. His post-911 pamphlet published on Verso, I suppose, which was dwarfed, for me, by Zizek's Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Last night, though, something compelled me to pull Cool Memories IV: 1995-2000 off the shelf. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his Zarathurstrian obervations on postmodernity, and found myself laughing aloud, quite loudly.

I need to return to Baudrillard, I thought. My favorite writers, mostly novelists and philosophers, are those who provoke this mad laughter, and I'd forgotten how deadpan hillarious Baudrillard can be. When I first read him in my early 20s, I took him too seriously, despite knowing that I shouldn't. Over the years I sort of lost track of Baudrillard. Perhaps unconsciously, I'd paid too much heed to those who decare Baudrillard's writing to be passe (and in making thinking into a fashion contribute to the implosion of meaning about which Baudrillard wrote so brilliantly...). Anyone who can't appreciate Baudrillard's aphorhisms from the abyss must be tone deaf.

Today, I recevied an e-mail informing me of "Le Mort de Jean Baudrillard." Dead at age 77.

Foucault, Lacan, Guattari, Deleuze, Lyotard, Derrida, now Baudrillard...

I'm still holding onto a small hope that Baudrillard's death will be revealed to be a simulation, the ultimate hoax by this brilliant sophist...

But, until that time, in Baudrillard's memory, a toast, and a few choice words. The first quote is exactly the right reply to the sense and thoughts of the uncanny news of Baudrillard's death provoked:

Thought is nothing but happy coincidence.

In the past, bad literature was made with high-flown sentiment; today, it is made with the unconscious.

Exess of information kills information; excess of meaning kills meaning, etc. But it seems that too much stupidity does not kill stupidity. Stupidity may be said, t hen, to be the only exponential phenomenon - one which even escapes the laws of physics. This is a miracle to rival perpetual motion.

The social order teaches you to keep quiet, it does not teach you silence.

Freedom is not as free as is generally thought: it produces antibodies which rebel against it. Truth, too, is threatened from within, like a state battling with its own police force. If values enjoyed total immunity, they would be as lethal as a scientific truth.

Current events are an incurable illness.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Oregon Orangutan Picks Bears

And don't dismiss her pick as animal instinct either. The analytic apes I've consulted have crunched the numbers and screened hours of game film. They're all picking da Bearz as well, in a nail-biter.

Friday, February 02, 2007


James Gibbons's survey of Paul Auster's career is respectful, but doesn't shy away from making severge critical judgements. It concludes with this devastating dismissal of Auster's latest novel: "Travels in the Scriptorium sucks out whatever life there is in Auster's invented universe, leaving a sterile vacuum of self-regard."

Other reviews of Travels , if I recall correctly, have been largely negative as well, though they haven't been so forceful in their assessments. Nor have Auster's critics been as clear about their reasons for finding this novel to be a metafictional failure when compared with Auster's acclaimed New York Trilogy. For Gibbons, Travels is too gimmicky. Its protagonist, a Mr. Blank, "has no real resonance" and remains a "stillborn creation," an intert thing to fill "the echo chamber that Auster has made of his career." Unlike Auster's best work, this book doesn't convey adequately "the self's vulnerability, the revelation that... we are little more than sentient ghosts."

Gibbons's gloss on Auster's Beckettian project in that last sentence is spot on. At his best Auster is adept at demonstrating the extent to which we are fragile subjects, "spectral ciphers" whose existence is precarious, supported by our fantasies about the Other, whom, it turns out, is virtual, the product of a consensual hallucination and thus as vulnerable as we are.

On a personal aside, I'm curious about what Gibbons thought of Leviathan. Presumably not much, since it's passed over in his survey. Leviathan is my personal favorite and the book of his that I know best. I've taught it a couple times and am doing so again this semester. I'm also writing about it in Senseless Resistance. What attracts me to Leviathan is the way it adapts self-reflexive elements from The Locked Room but opens itself to a world bigger than New York City. Auster dedicated Leviathan to Don DeLillo, and the book is in dialogue with Mao II. In order to adequately respond to Mao II's anxieties about authorship and violence in an era of media spectacle the book must beginning look at the State - America - and its role in the world at large.