Archives | May 2006
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
And next week’s ‘contra’ will be called ‘Contra Con. Art’ and the one after that ‘Contra Contra’. And then, unless I can think of any more anagrams for ‘contra’, I may have to give the series a rest.
And all that remains now is to find some way of filling a slot by using my high-school maths to tangle with Georg Cantor, one of the very greatest mathematicians of the nineteenth century. Yeah. That’s going to work.
Permit me to slide up to this sideways, not so much contra Cantor, of whom you have heard; but contra a couple of more modern thinkers of whom you may not have done, but who have written a very interesting book about the cosmos, infinity, the existence of God and other things. So let’s talk about proofs for the existence of God. That’s always fun.Continue reading "Contra Cantor"
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
You, Yeah You, You’re Not Doing Anyone Any Favors
Alternate Title: And People Think Our Comment Threads Are Nasty?
They are, at times—we’re working on it, we’re working on it—but they’re never so vicious as what I’ve seen on the political blogs this week. (Yes, that’s correct, I’ve sunk to reading political blogs in addition to comic books. But hey, it’s been a rough week, and this is my “Get Out of Jail Free” card.) As I was saying, the debates on political blogs are uncivil in the extreme, the sky is blue, George W. Bush is President and you’re holding up two, no, three fingers. One of the blogs I stumbled across was Jeff Goldstein’s Protein Wisdom.
Needless to say, Jeff and I find ourselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum. As an historicist with a fondness for Walter Benn Michaels, I’m an “academic conservative,” a phrase which signifies someone who identifies with the Old Left instead of the New, and with pragmatic, coalitional politics above their symbolic counterparts. (No, I don’t want to have that conversation again and I can live without rehashing this one too.) My point is that I’m on the “far right” of the far left, which still places me far left-of-center and not likely to agree with Goldstein’s on matters of substance.
However, check out his exchange with “Thersites“ and tell me what you think. Down there, beneath the overt politics, there’s a discussion not unlike those we’ve had in the past about matters of interpretation and intentionality.
Goldstein, it seems to me, is the academic left’s nightmare of what Michaelsian thought can produce. Only the tone of “Thersites” responses; the factual errors he and his hammer in order to discredit Goldstein’s argument; and when they can be bothered to address it, the pish-posh, flip-of-the-hand with which they dismiss intentionalist arguments which do, despite Thersites’ condescension, have some traction in contemporary literary studies—all of it disgusts me. (Not to mention the profanity which passes for wit over there. “Fucking clown”? You’re an English professor, Thersites. Surely you can muster a more literate, less profane insult. Maybe even one with some teeth, you know, something mildly cutting. “Fucking clown” demeans all those who love true insult.)
Note: I’m not claiming solidarity with Goldstein’s politics here. Only I find the lazy correspondence—between an intentionalist position and Goldstein’s conservative politics—Thersites and his lot consider commonplace inaccurate, offensive and intellectually dishonest. Where’s the necessary connection? Where’s the proof of the inherent fascism of the intentionalist stance? Certainly not here:
Literature is a case in point, indeed THE case in point for, well, literary analysis. JG says he is talking about “interpretation in general, and applying general principles to literary texts as well as any other text.” This is exactly the problem. As I said, this approach “elides the entire history of how literature came to be constitued as a unique social field explicable by the specific rules (descriptive more than prescriptive) that in fact define it.” Literary texts are NOT “any other text."
Intentionalism doesn’t hold because literature is special? Goldstein “oversimplifies” intentionality? Is that why Thersites refuted, point-by-point, Goldstein’s defense of intentionalism? Nevermind, he hasn’t. What intrigues me about this debate is how neatly it maps onto other non-engagements with the intentionalist argument. Do I see more at play here than the rest of you? Am I reading too much into this “exchange”? I don’t think I am, but I can’t deny the power of an argument which makes mention of my (arguably) concussed logic. (But if you make that argument, I insist you make that argument instead of dismissing me, outright, as an “academic conservative” or “Old Lefty.")
[Finally, I recognize that some of Goldstein’s commenters are, for lack of a better word, partisan brutes. Then again, so are some of Thersites’. It’s the nature of the beast. That said, some comments are beyond reprehensible, below even the low, low standards of contemporary political discourse. But Goldstein can no more be held accountable for such speech than John or I can be for, say, The Troll of Sorrow’s. I know the counterargument: Goldstein’s trolls agree with him, whereas ours insanely and inanely don’t. Fair enough. But a troll is a troll is a troll in my book.]
Sunday, May 28, 2006
The Two Cultures?
Something inside Adam Kotsko broke, in response to the strain of this - admittedly completely absurd - J&B thread. So I can sympathize with the spirit. Still, I have to say the words don’t make any sense to me. I’m tempted to say that what Adam is groping for is the (surely self-evident) truth that Socrates would have been a great blogger and Hegel would have been just terrible at it. (He would have had a comment policy that read something like: you are not allowed to leave any comments until I have written my last post, in the light of which you will see that your objections to my earlier posts were mistaken.) What Adam actually says is that there are certain things “that cannot be profitably done on a blog”, and that the main one is: making arguments.
Once a conversation devolves into a quest for rock-solid arguments or evidence, it becomes abusive - of the blog-form, and of the participants. A conversation that becomes a quasi-debate - always “quasi” because it cannot really be pulled off in a satisfactory way - tends inevitably toward the point where someone, in order to prove his (and let’s be honest, usually “his") point, will have to do some serious extra-blogospheric work. Either he does it, and proves himself to be an idiot (objectively speaking - who writes a dissertation to win a bar bet?), or else he doesn’t, and his opponents get to gloat over his failure to provide evidence for his statements.
But surely blogs are fine for making arguments. They’re great for it, in fact. Much possibility for negotiating one’s position. Give and take. Blog posts are short, but obviously no one thinks there are no arguments worth making at less than a thousand words. Many arguments are best if constructed and negotiated out of post-sized bits and pieces. And there are, as well, long posts, if you care to write them. I think what Adam is really saying - which his hint that quests for evidence are just ‘devolved’ conversations suggests - is that he doesn’t WANT to be making arguments of a certain sort. Which is perfectly understandable. Not because he’s a big girl’s blouse (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase) when it comes to exhibiting the manly virtues of kicking the other fellow’s argument when it’s down. Rather, because he wants a certain sort of conversation. So he doesn’t like it when the conversation takes a certain sort of turn. But that’s no reason to go and say it is a wrong turn, much less to wishfully construe the turn as some sort of sheer impossibility for the form. Also, I think this must be very wrong, whatever one’s point of view: “When one’s intellectual project becomes involved in any serious way, the intellectual project on which one’s career depends, then conversation simply cannot profitably happen anymore.” Man, that’s just not healthy. Also, I think it’s important to admit that neither side is more competitive, or prideful, or careerist than the other. That’s not the relevant axis of difference.
I’m serious about the Hegel point, more or less. But it probably needs development. I’ve been far too busy making lovely little slideshows of old cartoons for Crooked Timber.
It looks like this year’s SAT results dipped significantly from last year’s. Here’s an AP story on preliminary findings, which come from university admissions offices. A full picture won’t appear for a few weeks, but some schools report a serious decline in the cumulative numbers. The UC system, for instance, tallied a 15-point slide.
The last time verbal scores dipped significantly, in 2002, one researcher at the organization that administers the test suggested that the cause lay in an increasing portion of high school English classes being devoted to visual materials. BUt we had a rise the following year, and 2004 NAEP data indicated that the amount of reading assigned to 8th- and 12th-graders was rising. At the same time, however, the leisure reading by the same group dipped significantly. In fact, the correlation between trends in leisure reading matched NAEP scores more closely than did trends in in-class reading. And yet, in addressing the issue of reading scores, educators, researchers, and journalists rarely talk about trends in leisure reading habits.
Saturday, May 27, 2006
Virtue is of so little regard in these times that true valor is turned bear-herd
I have a question about the history of the English language. When did ‘virtue’ - the word - retire from the broad field of usage it still enjoys in, say, Shakespeare, so that it never appears outside lady’s bedrooms? And when did it start having to fight to keep itself from being silly? I am sure that someone has written well about this - and not just in a Bill Bennett-y way. And obviously I know there is a thing called virtue ethics, for example. That’s sort of why I’m interested. I understand that bedroom farce, once it gets the upperhand, is a harsh semantic mistress. Still, it was once such a useful word; you’d think it could fight back. It meant so many things, allowed so many useful conflations of goodness/excellence/power, not to mention all the philosophy. Following up on Sean’s post, management consultants could use the hell out of it if didn’t make them sound like some hand-wringing vicar, lecturing young ladies about premarital sex. See this J&B post for minor visual inspiration.
Friday, May 26, 2006
Jane Smiley, Michael Cunningham, Stephen Metcalf & Morris Dickstein “Group Blogging”
Call it “an occasional blog.” The conversation—which starts, in true blog style, at the bottom—addresses the article on “The Single Best Work of American Fiction Published in the Past 25 Years” Jonathan posted last week. According to Jane Smiley, the creation of the list is a “male game”:
At the same time, I did have qualms, and when Greg asked me to join the blog-session about the list, the first question I asked was about the gender break-down of the responders, and he said that 69% of the responders were men, though requests had been sent out to men and women equally. I had thought of not responding, not playing the game, as it were, so that statistic intrigued me. It does seem to me to be a male game. Here we have the final four, and here were have the champion. Maybe the women novelists who didn’t respond did feel that one novel could be chosen as “best."
Smiley admits to being “a Roth virgin.” She hadn’t read Roth since Portnoy’s Complaint, a “failure” she rectified by taking American Pastoral with her on a book tour of England. (She provides periodic impressions of AP as she moves through it.) As Metcalf notes:
A Roth virgin might not do well to start with “American Pastoral.” The gateway drug for the later Roth, in my estimation, remains the exquisite “Ghostwriter,” in which Roth pioneers the technique of Zuckerman, already his double, creating an alternate reality into which he projects himself. Roth, we should mention, is the real “winner” of the survey, with several titles winning several votes; had he not split the vote with himself, he would have won by a considerable margin.
Given how unsurprised assurance of most commenters (myself included) that Beloved deserved the top spot, the irony that Roth defeated himself doubly amuses me. He would do that, wouldn’t he?
Much of the discussion concerns issues I raised in the Crouch thread below. The difference? They discuss coherently, and with force, the issues I “dance” around.
The True Story of Ramo Samee, the Indian Juggler (w/quotes from Hazlitt)
I was browsing William Makepeace Thackeray's wonderful and strange The Book of Snobs (1848), and I came across the following odd passage in the midst of a rant about a lady-friend's poor table manners:
I have seen, I say, the Hereditary Princess of Potztausend-Donnerwetter (that serenely-beautiful woman) use her knife in lieu of a fork or spoon; I have seen her almost swallow it, by Jove! like Ramo Samee, the Indian juggler. And did I blench? Did my estimation for the Princess diminish? No, lovely Amalia!
But, my dear fellow, who precisely is "Ramo Samee, the Indian juggler"? It turns out he was a real person, who came to England around 1819, and lived there with his wife (identified only as "Mrs. Samee") until his death in 1851. The juggling history website I looked at also speculates he may have gone to the U.S. and performed as "Sena Sama," in 1817, though that's only speculation. Ramo Samee is considered by some the first modern professional juggler in England, and he was far and away the most famous practitioner of the art in his era. He inspired royalty, journalists, and famous essayists like William Hazlitt. And yet, when Ramo Samee died he was so poor that his wife needed to advertise for financial assistance just to have him buried (cremation, I suspect, was probably not an option). Today he is, aside from the appreciation he gets from a handful of juggling history websites, completely forgotten.
Needless to say, I am pretty ambivalent about Ramo Samee (or "Ramaswamy," probably the more accurate spelling), just as I am about Sabu, Dean Mahomed, and scores of other Indian artists and hustling "Gurus" who work "exotic" stereotypes for western applause. In the African-American tradition this type of performance is called minstrelsy, and it is seen as a shameful kind of pandering to other people's stereotypes.
But Ramo Samee might be a slightly different case at least in the sense that the kind of sword-swallowing and juggling he did is in fact a real historical profession in India, which goes back hundreds of years. So while clearly part of Ramo Samee's appeal was his exotic otherness, he was doing what he did best -- what he had been raised to do. And observers like Hazlitt really did find him to be a performer of astonishing skill. So even if one can't exactly celebrate Ramo Samee's life as a triumph, he is nevertheless an interesting figure to learn about and consider.Continue reading "The True Story of Ramo Samee, the Indian Juggler (w/quotes from Hazlitt)"
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Déjà Vu All Over Again
The recognition that . . . [x] theory is a sadly neglected subdiscipline of philosophy began with an experience of déjà vu. As I plowed through my shelfload of bad . . . [x] books, I beheld a discipline that consists mainly of unverifiable propositions and cryptic anecdotes, is rarely if ever held accountable, and produces an inordinate number of catastrophically bad writers. It was all too familiar. There are, however, at least two crucial differences between philosophers and their wayward cousins. The first and most important is that philosophers are much better at knowing what they don’t know. The second is . . .Continue reading "Déjà Vu All Over Again"
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Infamous Liar Kaufman Proven Truthiful! Story at 10.
Scott Eric Kaufman boards a flight to Houston, TX. He stumbles into his aisle seat and opens his backpack. He pulls a stack of papers from it. Because he needs new glasses, the name “McCann” is emblazoned in 14 point font across the top of first page. Across the aisle sits a svelte young man clad all in black reading a Vintage International paperback. He glances at Scott, then at the stack, then returns to his book. The plane taxies down the runway and takes off.
Svelte Young Man: (leans into the aisle) What are you reading?
Scott: An essay a friend of mine sent me.
Svelte Young Man: What’s it about?
Scott: Getrude Stein, mostly, but it has a bit about evolutionary theory in it.
Svelte Young Man: ‘Cause I noticed it said “McCann” on it. Is it by Sean McCann?
Scott: Actually, it is.
Svelte Young Man: One of my professors told me to check out his work. Smart stuff. Did you know he writes for this online thing?
Svelte Young Man: It’s called “The Valve.” Smart stuff. I can give you the address. You should really look it up.
Scott: Actually, I write for the Valve too. My name’s Scott Kaufman. (offers hand)
Svelte Young Man: (stares blankly)
Scott: I’ve been writing there a while. Sean and I are friends.
Svelte Young Man: (continues to stare blankly)
Scott: (feeling like a busted liar) No, really, I do. Did you read the text adventure parody?
Svelte Young Man: Uh, no.
Scott: Any of the stuff about Darwin?
Svelte Young Man: (visibly uncomfortable) Not that I remember.
Scott: (feeling increasingly busted) I post there all the time.
Svelte Young Man: Well, I don’t read the comments...
It’s all downhill from there. Scott slowly withdraws his long outstretched hand. He never manages to get the guy’s name, but he does learn (albeit indirectly) that the recommendation to track Sean down came, in all likelihood, from Mark McGurl. He posts this in the hope that the anonymous guy who thinks Scott a liar will read this. Because really, I mean, most of y’all complain he posts too much, no?
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Beloved? Meh. It Could’ve Been Important.
The New Republic‘s "This Week in the Arts" mailer suggested that since "The New York Times recently proclaimed Toni Morrison’s Beloved to be ‘the single best work of American fiction published in the past 25 years,’" I should check out how TNR reviewed back in 1988. A quick dip in the archives and I was reading "Aunt Medea." It opens with a misguided slam of James Baldwin. In stunning prose, Baldwin claims
people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his efforts, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human like that no school on earth—and, indeed, no church—can teach.
Baldwin may not always be correct, but few sound so good being wrong. According to TNR‘s reviewer, with Baldwin
the claim to martyrdom, real or merely asserted, began to take on value. One on longer had to fear the charge of self-pity when detailing the suffering of one’s group. Catastrophic experience was elevated. Race became an industry. It spawned careers, studies, experts, college departments, films, laws, hairdos, name changes, federal programs, and so many books.
Then came the feminists. They exposed the patriarchial assumptions of black male protest literature.
But exposing the shortcomings in protest writing by black men didn’t automatically make writing by black women any better. Writers like Alice Walker revealed little more than their own inclination to melodrama, militant self-pity, guilt-mongering and pretensions to mystic wisdom.
Enter Toni Morrison:
With Song of Solomon, which appeared in 1979, she became a best-selling novelist, proving that the combination of poorly digested folk materials, feminist rhetoric, and a labored use of magic realism could pay off.
Beloved is no better:
Continue reading "Beloved? Meh. It Could’ve Been Important."
It is designed to placate sentimental feminist ideology, and to make sure that the vision of black woman as the most scorned and rebuked of the victims doesn’t weaken.
Craig Seligman on First Novels: George Eliot, Henry James, William Faulkner, William Burroughs
[Update: This post has been de-snarked, so the comments may not make perfect sense. -AS]
Craig Seligman has a long survey of first novels in Bookforum. The essay is more driven by local observations and insights than it is by a strong thesis, but it’s generally pretty agreeable reading to this blogger. Most of Seligman’s comments on the first novels by the authors above seem correct where I’ve read the novels in question, and suggestive where I haven’t. The essay is also pretty modular—you can pretty much just read his take on the authors you’re interested in. I think it’s a strong piece, but not so strong to prevent me from doing a little nitpicking below the fold.
First, an interesting bit on pseudonyms and gender. Here’s Seligman on Eliot, after Scenes from Clerical Life:
Dickens has written to the mysterious author: “The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of those stories, I have never seen the like of”; as for her pseudonym, “I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman." Clever man.
That is clever of Dickens; I’d be curious to know what made him think that. As a side note, maybe we can draw a connection here to the article on gender and anonymity BitchPhD is working on. (It would be interesting to play “guess the gender” with excerpts from lesser known works from non-canonical authors. Anyone interested?)
Seligman has nothing but love for Adam Bede itself:
Adam Bede goes on sale in February 1859 and is not only a tremendous success (the most popular of Eliot’s novels during her lifetime) but something more, something every first novelist aspires to (preposterously, crazily, but why else break your heart locking yourself away for years on such a dubious labor?): one of the glories of the form.
And here he is on the transition to modernism:
Now comes the Great Impatience: a century of putting the novel to uses—sometimes ingenious uses—that had never been envisioned for it, like a pharmaceutical developed to deal with one malady that turns out to have surprising applications in the treatment of another. Eliot and James, poised before the novel at the outset of their careers, are like Mozart and Beethoven before the symphony: The form is ideally suited to what they have to say, and what they have to say is all they really have to think about. Eventually, James, like Beethoven, realizes that what he has to say is about the form By the new century, novelists have begun striking the novel at odd angles to elicit new sounds, ringing ever-stranger notes from it. They are grappling with the form, and the form is either bending to their vision or stiffening, intransigent.
[Update: This post has been de-snarked, so the comments may not make perfect sense. -AS]
Monday, May 22, 2006
A friend asks: “How can you talk about women as objects of sacrifice without using Žižek?”
I don’t have an answer ready to hand. Do you?
Well, and assuming I don’t mind being over-obvious, this one really does write itself. Birkin and Ursula are in conversation. It’s Women in Love, Chapter 11:
“So you’d like everybody in the world destroyed?” said Ursula.
“I should indeed.”
“The world empty of people?”
“Yes truly. You yourself, don’t you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?”
The pleasant sincerity of his voice made Ursula pause to consider her own proposition. And really it was attractive: a clean, lovely, humanless world. It was the really desirable.
The appropriate critical response here, naturally, is a shouty ‘No! No! No!’. Or alternatively, and to adopt the idiom of that lanky and sarcastic house-doctor from Scrubs, a ‘dear God No PLEASE JUST STOP’.Continue reading "Contra Lawrence"
It’s like those poor kids on the milk cartons
Do you have a lost quote in need of finding? Some fraction of a Nietzschean aphorism you could cite in your paper, if only it were made whole; some bon hemi-demi-semi-mot, sitting there in the candy box of your mind, like a half-eaten bon-bon? Like one of those perfectly round beings Aristophanes speaks of so movingly in Symposium, sadly sliced down the middle, vainly seeking the rest of themselves ever after? If you will. Let’s help each other. Me first. I need a quote from André Gide. A rather sniffy critique of Shakespeare’s style: ‘one can learn neither right reason nor correct style from this ? stuff.’ My impression is that later Gide was more reconciled to the stuff in question, so even if you find him saying something different after W.W II it won’t follow that I’m wrong. But I haven’t a clue where to look. I’m pretty sure I just picked it up second-hand somewhere. Why do I need it? Because I do. That’s why.
What’s your example of a stupid quote you can’t remember/find/properly attribute/source?
UPDATE: And no one tell me google told you there’s a version of the quote, unsourced, on an old post at some blog called ‘John & Belle’. I know about that.
Sunday, May 21, 2006
The Mark Steyn Code
You’ve probably heard that Mark Steyn seems to have a plagiarism problem. If you haven’t, the Steyn piece is here. Geoffrey Pullum’s original languagelog posts are here and here. The case against Steyn is laid out here and here. Just the sort of thing that deserves to get linked around for all to see and consider on the merits.
At the risk of preaching a sermon to Buddha, allow me to draw attention to a linguistic peculiarity of the Steyn column not noted by the languagelog crew. Steyn writes:
Continue reading "The Mark Steyn Code"
The linguist Geoffrey Pullum - or linguist Geoffrey Pullum, as novelist Dan Brown would say - identifies this as the anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier, to which renowned novelist Dan Brown is unusually partial. In Deception Point, in what must count as a wild experiment in form for him, he holds off on the AONP until the second sentence:
“Death, in this forsaken place, could come in countless forms. Geologist Charles Brophy had endured the savage splendor of this terrain for years . . ."