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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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About John Holbo

John Holbo is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He works on philosophy of literature and literary theory; Wittgenstein and Nietzsche; also, science fiction, fantasy, film, comics; also, more highbrow literary stuff. He blogs at Crooked Timber and John & Belle Have A Blog. Some of his writings are here. The Valve is pretty much his baby, and he's pretty much Editor-in-Chief.

Email Address: jholbo@mac.com
Website: http://examinedlife.typepad.com/johnbelle/


Posts by John Holbo

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Adaptive Traits

Posted by John Holbo on 05/29/05 at 12:20 PM

Terry Teachout posts about film adaptations. "Ought a critic to be responsible for examining the source material of the films he reviews?" What do you think?

Continue reading "Adaptive Traits"

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The moon fairy waved her wand and the dictionary opened and read to wisen the evening

Posted by John Holbo on 05/25/05 at 01:49 AM

Maud links to a Village Voice article about Lee Tandy Schwartzman, 7-year old author of Crippled Detectives, or The War of the Red Romer, from which I extract my favorite sentence and title this post accordingly. (I’ve posted about this before.) Like the Village Voice author, I wondered what became of Schwartzman. Sad story, turns out. I do recommend the novel, which is free and complete online. It is howlingly funny and eerily beautiful. 

Monday, May 23, 2005

Does Darwin Hate Iguanas? Does Melville Hate Librarians?

Posted by John Holbo on 05/23/05 at 11:55 PM

Acephalous has a whole bunch of great posts up. Funny + clever + long + I agree. First, he links to this site, containing illustrations for every. single. page. of Gravity's Rainbow. [Crikey.] And don't miss this moving and pathetic dialogue:

Iguana #2: Good Heavens! What are you... (thrown into ocean by Darwin)
Iguana #2: Why I nev... (thrown into ocean by Darwin)
Iguana #2: My Good Man! Why do you insist on throwing me in the ocean? How have I offen... (thrown into ocean by Darwin)

Continue reading "Does Darwin Hate Iguanas? Does Melville Hate Librarians?"

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Jurgen of Authenticity

Posted by John Holbo on 05/22/05 at 12:59 PM

Couple days ago I read Stephen Cox, "Representing Isabel Paterson" [Project MUSE required] on Ray's recommendation. I didn't know who Isabel Paterson was. Now I know a little.

Continue reading "The Jurgen of Authenticity"

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Wittgenstein Reads Empson

Posted by John Holbo on 05/21/05 at 12:44 PM

Just put the finishing touches on a review of The Literary Wittgenstein for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, nice little online outfit. No, you can't see it yet. Check back in 6 weeks. Re: our Wittgenstein book event, I think we are delaying it until the book comes back in existence. July or August. So my review will come out, if the Notre Dame people like it. Then our event. We'll work it out.

One point I make in the review is that 'the literary Wittgenstein' is a worthy subject, but some people have gotten a little too comfortable with the very idea of it. You come to regard Wittgenstein as a sort of 'strayed poet' (per the title of a poem I.A. Richards wrote about him), misunderstood by all the analytic philosophers hemming him in. (In my dissertation I kept tripping over this and finally set it aside as "the myth of Wittgensteinian captivity".) You tend to lose track of the fact that if he'd gone to live with a bunch of literary types he would have felt just as misunderstood by them, probably more so. Being an analytic philosopher and all. Anyway, one way I illustrate the point is by quoting from F.R. Leavis' "Memories of Wittgenstein". Leavis was acquainted with Wittgenstein - not a close friend, but they met and talked. Leavis admired his character, acknowledged his brilliance, his deep ethical seriousness and high culture. But: "cultivated as he was, his interest in literature had remained rudimentary ... It may of course be that in German the range and quality of his literary culture were more impressive, but I can't give any great weight to that possibility." There is a footnote from the editor, Rush Rhees, consisting of a single exclamation point of sheer incredulity. [Did Donna Haraway ever get that efficient, Ray?] Leavis is obviously totally mistaken, and lots of people have tut-tutted at his piece for this reason. But it seems to me useful to remind ourselves that Leavis wasn't exactly a blind idiot. Yes, we have Culture and Value today, and he didn't; so we can read things like: "philosophy is mostly a working on yourself ... on your own interpretations"; and: "I think I summed up my position when I said: philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry."  But he also gave lectures that started with remarks like: "The nimbus of philosophy has been lost. For we now have a method of doing philosophy, and can speak of skilful philosophers. Compare the difference between alchemy and chemistry: chemistry has a method and we can speak of skilful chemists. But once a method has been found the opportunities for the expression of personality are correspondingly restricted." Sounds like a narrow-minded positivist, doesn't he? No wonder Leavis figured he was on the other side of the fence, regarding the Two Cultures. At least with respect to his philosophy.

Anyway, that's not what I wanted to write about tonight. I want to write about how Wittgenstein and Leavis read Empson together. Just so a day doesn't go by without an Empson post. Leavis writes:

"He said to me once (it must have been soon after his return to Cambridge): 'Do you know a man called Empson?' 'I replied: 'No, but I've just come on him in Cambridge Poetry 1929, which I've reviewed for the Cambridge Review.' 'Is he any good.' 'It's surprising,' I said, 'but there are six poems of his in the book, and they are all poems and very distinctive.' 'What are they like?' asked Wittgenstein. I replied that there was little point in my describing them, since he didn't know enough about English poetry. 'If you like them,' he said, 'you can describe them.' So I started: 'You know Donne?' No, he didn't know Donne. [This sort of kills the explanation. Cut to Wittgenstein visiting Leavis to see the book.] 'Where's that anthology? Read me his best poem.' The book was handy; opening it, I said, with 'Legal Fictions' before my eyes. 'I don't know whether this is his best poem, but it will do.' When I had read it, Wittgenstein said, 'Explain it!' So I began to do so, taking the first line first. 'Oh! I understand that,' he interrupted, and, looking over my arm at the text, 'but what does this mean?' He pointed two or three lines on. At the third or fourth interruption of the same kind I shut the book, and said, 'I'm not playing.' 'It's perfectly plain that you don't understand the poem in the least,' he said. 'Give me the book.' I complied, and sure enough, without any difficulty, he went through the poem, explaining the analogical structure that I should have explained myself, if he had allowed me."

Continue reading "Wittgenstein Reads Empson"

Friday, May 20, 2005

Who reads this stuff?

Posted by John Holbo on 05/20/05 at 09:54 AM

I just for the first time got some detailed visitor stats from our esteemed webmaster, Chris; it's sort of interesting. Turns out we have some wossname, Urchin, that gathers much data. Example. Every time you visit it sends a 'cookie' that crawls through your 'browser', into your 'keyboard', pricks your finger, gathers DNA and analyzes it. On the basis of hit patterns we've already isolated a gene for contemptsmanship. Tomorrow's culture war will be hi-tech, you see, so this is very exciting. Military applications. Genetically engineered culture warrior blog readers grown in vats, like weebles, with tremulous digits only for for clicking, clicking, typing, typing. (As Myles writes somewhere: give a man food, drink and the prospect of scoring points off his enemies and he will ask for no more.) Of course, it would be very 'unethical' to release this data, but rest assured we have our eyes on you, unbeknownst to you.

Continue reading "Who reads this stuff?"

Thursday, May 19, 2005


Posted by John Holbo on 05/19/05 at 10:50 AM

I'm reading Gregory Maguire, Wicked, the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which - 150 pages in - is good.

"She's a woman who prefers the company of other women," said the Scarecrow, sitting up. "She's the spurned lover of a married man." "She is a married man." The Witch was so stunned that she nearly lost her grip on the branch. The last thing she ever cared for was gossip. Yet she had been out of touch for so long that she was astonished at the vigorous opinions of these random nobodies.; "She's a despot. A dangerous despot," said the Lion, with conviction. The Tin Woodman pulled harder than was necessary on a lock of mane. "Everything's dangerous to you, you craven thing. I hear she's a champion of home rule for the so-called Winkies." "Whoever she is, she must surely be grieving the death of her sister," said the child, in a somber voice too rich, too sincere for one so young. The Witch's skin crawled.
Yeah, it's already a Broadway show, I hear, so I'm hardly first to the party. But it's an example of a genre that interests me, so I'm allowed to show up late and look around with an expression like I own the place. My expression is 'mock-pastoral', following Empson. See this post, for example. To explain briefly, a bit of blurb: "And then there is the little green-skinned girl named Elphaba, who will grow up to be the infamous Wicked Witch of the West, a smart, prickly and misunderstood creature who challenges all our pre-conceived notions about the nature of good and evil." Nononono. Or rather: yes, with 250 pages to go, who am I to say? Still, this seems pertinent: "Oh, what a world! What a world! Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?" Few of us are so naive as to suppose people actually talk this way. So, merely by complicating the moral situation, Wicked is hardly an eye-opener as to the realism and/or naturalism of L. Frank Baum's fiction, and its familiar filmic adaptation. The achievement, rather, is - Empson's formula - to compact 'the complex in the simple'. A simple, fairy tale structure is invested with a high degree of realism and naturalism - with adult psychology, chiefly. The obviously naive, morally idealized/stylized/simplified original serves as a sort of childish baseline, against which more sophisticated themes play off to effect. Obviously this happens all the time with parody and satire. You parody genre fiction most straightforwardly by afflicting its inhabitants with mundane complexities of life that genre stipulates away. Sex and politics and going to the bathroom and all that bodily function. So the naive moral framework of the original is shown up for the silly stuff it is. Fine and dandy way to fracture fairy tales, not much mystery to it. What I want from you tonight are, more specifically, non-parodic precedents for the sort of thing Wicked is. Because, although the passage above is funny, the book is not parody. That is not the primary mode. So what is the first work with this highly specific form: genre tale - fairy tale, heroic epic, children's story, romance - crammed with naturalism/realism (call it what you like)? But not primarily parody. (Presumably there will be at least a whiff.) That is, the simple original does not just come to pieces but remains intact under pressure of crammed in sordid adulthood and verismilitudishness. [Yes, I am aware that L. Frank Baum's originals hardly play it straight. We can talk about that. Also, realism/naturalism is just another genre, not the World Itself come to tea. Fine, fine. I wasn't born yesterday, y'know. These ideas don't shock me.] John Crowley's Little, Big has elements of this; this is one reason the device interests me, because it's maybe my favorite novel. John Gardner, Grendel [honestly, I haven't read it; just guessing]; Donald Barthelme, The King [parodic, but more than that.] A whole bunch of good comics. Quite a few fine fantasy novels. I would be rather surprised if there were pure cases earlier than the early 19th Century. Can you think why? But give me your clearest case. Then, additionally, feel free to give me all your other examples of 'the complex in the simple', genre-wise. I've got tons of my own, but it's fun so pour on. Still, I want the clear cases most. Stuff exactly like Wicked, if you please.

Sunday, May 15, 2005


Posted by John Holbo on 05/15/05 at 10:40 AM

Tim Burke is back! Easily Distracted has a new address here. Tim is nervous about Revenge of the Sith.

I’ll take this opportunity to set Levywatch bells ringing by passing on a discussion of continuity issues courtesy of Jacob. (Continuity issues in comics are an issue dear to my heart, he knows.) Jonathan raised the issue via this link in this thread just the other day.

Another quote courtesy of my steady passage through Theory’s Empire. From Roland Barthes, whose word for ‘fanboy’ is, apparently, ‘reader’:

The readerly is controlled by the principle of non-contradiction, but by multiplying solidarities, by stressing at every opportunity the compatible nature of circumstances, by attaching narrative events together with a kind of logical ‘paste,’ the discourse carries this principle to the point of obsession; it assumes the careful and suspicious mien of an individual afraid of being caught in some flagrant contradiction; it is always on the lookout and always, just in case, preparing its defense against the enemy that may force it to acknowledge the scandal of some illogicality, some disturbance of ‘common sense.’ (S/Z, p. 156)

Continue reading "Continuity"

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Of Flapdoodle

Posted by John Holbo on 05/14/05 at 11:43 AM

Two passages.

The first from Frederick Crews, "The Grand Academy of Theory", in Theory's Empire. (Serious discussion when the event happens. Jokes now.) He's discussing C.P. Snow's 'two cultures' as background bogey to Quentin Skinner's The Return of Grand Theory.

In those days, we are reminded [by Skinner], the most prestigious general model of explanation was logical positivism, the view that the meaningfulness of a statement is vouchsafed by its testability. Judged by that criterion, much of what had long passed for important discourse had to be dismissed as vacuous. Consequently a generation of no-nonsense philosophers abandoned metaphysics for more modest pursuits, including, for example, clarification of the exact meaning of scientific terms. Social scientists, caught in the same wave, declared an "end of ideology" and steeled themselves to perceive only narrow empirical issues. And historians followed Sir Lewis Namier in rejecting all theoretical "flapdoodle," as he called it, and in fixing their attention on "the detailed manoevre of individual political actors at the centres of political power" (RGT, 3). Thus, while most academics may have been as scientifically illiterate as Snow alleged, their own work implicitly honored what they took to be the heart of science, namely, deference to the almighty fact.

The second passage from Stella Gibbons' foreword to Cold Comfort Farm:

And it is only because I have in mind all those thousands of persons, not unlike myself, who work in the vulgar and meaningless bustle of offices, shops and homes, and who are not always sure whether a sentence is Literature or whether it is just sheer flapdoodle, that I have adopted the method perfected by the late Herr Baedeker, and firmly marked what I consider the finer passages with one, two or three stars. In such a manner did the good man deal with cathedrals, hotels and paintings by men of genius. There seems no reason why it should not be applied to passages in novels.
It ought to help the reviewers, too.

Sir Namier sounds a veritable Flora Poste for cleaning up messes. Ms. Gibbons is groping - in her earnest way - for a literary counterpart to logical positivism's Protokollsätze. (The basic form: 'poetry-here-now', obviously. But the devil's in the details, I expect.) No reason I should have all the fun. You finish the post.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Literary Wittgenstein and Theory’s Empire

Posted by John Holbo on 05/12/05 at 04:48 AM

As mentioned a few days ago, I am planning a few Massive Multi-Thinker Online Reviews on the lines of the China Miéville event at CT. This post gives some advance detail, in case you want to do your homework early.

Continue reading "The Literary Wittgenstein and Theory’s Empire"

Monday, May 09, 2005


Posted by John Holbo on 05/09/05 at 10:06 AM

The Plotnitsky piece Jonathan links has come in for criticism as arrogant. More broadly, it seems to be contemptsmanship sweeps week here at the Valve. Is culture war, considered in its emotional aspect, more than recreational contempt?

Continue reading "Contemptsmanship"

Publishing, Popper, Piper

Posted by John Holbo on 05/09/05 at 12:28 AM

Take the weekend off and come back and there's flame inside and out. Ah, well. First, something I didn't anticipate: the Valve has been criticized for advertising itself as a 'little magazine' but really being a blog. I am sorry for confusion caused, if any, but the original post didn't say we were a little magazine, just that we hoped to serve the function Trilling said the little magazine served: namely, improving circulation for ideas when circulation is down. I take the contemporary academic humanities to have circulation problems. But, yes. We are a blog, as per our statement of purpose. I am sorry if I seem to have been concealing this fact from innocent readers.

Continue reading "Publishing, Popper, Piper"

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Hasty notes on Hartman’s Scars of the Spirit

Posted by John Holbo on 05/05/05 at 12:03 PM

I'm reading Geoffrey Hartman's Scars of the Spirit (Palgrave, 2002) for what are proving to be insufficient reasons. There is something odd. I'm not sure whether it means anything, but it seems related to this and this.

Continue reading "Hasty notes on Hartman’s Scars of the Spirit"

Monday, May 02, 2005

Empsonic Boom

Posted by John Holbo on 05/02/05 at 11:58 AM

Perhaps my title overstates the case.

But I am proud that an apparent side-effect of my frequent enthusings about Empson has been a few folks hauling off and reading him. This is an excellent thing to do in Empson’s case. So we get letters. Well, one. But it’s long. Before I get to that, A.Cephalous is just a prince among commenters. And you should visit his fine blog. Read, especially, his lavish praise of “Valve Culture, Valve Life”. But do not fail to read his series on How To Open An Academic Essay; part II; part II, part II. He has all the sauce and vinegar of a young Adam Kotsko.

As I was saying: letter, we get letter.

Continue reading "Empsonic Boom"

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Indirect Being

Posted by John Holbo on 04/28/05 at 11:16 AM

I just watched P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia. I thought it was pretty darn good. A genre question. The several-stories-intersecting-story is obviously a sort of story. Does this sub-genre have an accepted name or do you just call it an Altman-thingy, or an ‘it’s like Pulp Fiction‘ story? Or what? (I’ll bet it has a name.) It’s fairly definable: 4+ sub-plots, each with 2+ characters; all given approximately = dramatic/thematic/narrative weight (none is dominant); each sub-plot intersects with 1+ other, and all sub-plots intersect with every other in no more than 2 steps. This structure seems comparatively recent in origin. What are the pre-Nashville precedents? Is it indigenous to film? There are obvious reasons why it works in film. The camera can pass the eyeball from story to story very economically. You can provide the audience with a rich sense of the space of the action by weaving the threads together. But novelists are clever people, too. Did the novel get here first? (I have an itch in my toe that says I am forgetting something obvious.) The sub-genre has obvious connections with lots of older genres: reliance on coincidence makes a connection with picaresque and comedy. But it has tragic elements. Screwball tragedy. Tragedy might require a sense of fate, rather than accident. Tragedy should flow from character. But you finesse that by making it your fate - your character - to have accidents. Everyone is doomed to step on everyone else’s toes. This is a view of the human condition. Anderson plays with this ambiguity well: the more sheer the accident, the more it looks like no accident at all but a Portent, Sign or other means by which fate outwardly accessorizes; scuba diver in tree; rain of frogs. What does it mean? (Did you like the scene in which everyone is lip synching the Aimee Mann pop song in synch? “By now you know/It’s not going to stop/ It’s not going to stop/ It’s not going to stop/’Til you wise up” That was a risky thing, converting the cast into chorus for 3 minutes. If the film wasn’t working well at that point, it would have snapped in two. I think it worked.) The parallel stories make for a pathos like that of intergenerational tales, where similar things happen to different people over time. You just play the theme and variations across space. There is another thematic element (call it what you like): the ‘well, how did we get here?’ pathos of not being able to see either end of any of the causal chains of human interaction. This isn’t just a matter of accidentally killing dad at the crossroads. It’s a bit more modern. I’m reading Georg Simmel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Here’s the first paragraph of the book:

It is a paradox that all higher cultures of our type are structured so that the more they evolve the more we are forced, in order to reach our goals, to proceed along increasingly long and difficult paths, filled with stops and curves. Man is the indirect being and becomes more so the higher his cultural development. The will of animals and of uncultured humans reaches its goal, if that will is successful, in, so to speak, a straight line, that is, by simply reaching out or by using a small number of simple devices: the order of means and ends is easily observable. This simple triad of desire-means-end is excluded by the increasing multiplicity and complexity of higher life. Now the complex of means is itself turned into a multiplicity in which the most important means are constituted by other means and these again by others. So, in the practical life of our mature cultures our pursuits take on the character of chains, the coils of which cannot be grasped in a single vision.

Hence the appropriateness of the contrast between the hapless, aging William Macy quiz kid and Tom Cruise’s ‘seduce and destroy’ inspirational sessions. Macy is stuffed with useless, disconnected knowledge. “I used to be smart, but now I’m stupid.” He can’t make connections. “I’ve got a lot of love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.” Or whatever he says. Cruise is striving to get back to good old animal desire-means-ends.

This might make the theme sound peculiarly modern. (You might note Simmel’s similarity to Weber, due to their shared Nietzschean heritage; you might quote a few bits about disenchantment.) But Simmel sees ‘modernity’, in this sense - ‘mature’ culture - stretching back to “Greco-Roman culture, specifically at the outset of the Christian era. At that time the systems of living had become so complicated, the units of acting and thinking so complex, and the interests and movements of life so manifold and dependent on so many conditions ...” So it’s a little unclear why we had to wait so long for Robert Altman & co. I’m probably just not thinking straight. (It’s not like I’m saying that four stories interlocked is the greatest thing ever, and everyone ought to do it. But it is distinctive. And, yes, I did notice the film is about forgiveness, and the need for forgiveness, not about the evils of instrumental reason or anything like that. The fittingness of the forgiveness theme fits with what I’m saying, although rather loosely.)

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