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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

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 Joseph Kugelmass

Joseph Kugelmass blogs at The Kugelmass Episodes. He is a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine. He joined the Valve in September, 2006.

Email Address: kugelmass@me.com
Website: http://kugelmass.wordpress.com/


Posts by Joseph Kugelmass

Monday, November 21, 2011

Does Jonathan Franzen’s Nature Have Better Angels?

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 11/21/11 at 03:15 PM

(x-posted to no effexor for franzen)

I’ll say this for Jonathan Franzen. At least his novels aren’t being invaded by five-year olds, and at least they don’t take us on an Important Odyssey through the major events of 20th Century European history. Also, they don’t play around with surreal versions of current events or probable versions of near-future events. In the past few weeks, I’ve read The Imperfectionists, The Ask, A Visit From The Goon Squad, and countless book reviews, and several things have become startlingly apparent to me.

Continue reading "Does Jonathan Franzen’s Nature Have Better Angels?"

Thursday, February 04, 2010

On Meditation As A Western Practice

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 02/04/10 at 05:07 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

Many of the people I know, myself included, have tried meditating at some point in their lives. I know some people who have gone to meditation retreats for days or weeks. I don’t currently meditate, but I have been considering starting up again. I’m finding it hard to begin again, though, because I fundamentally don’t know what meditating means.

Now, of course, it may not be necessary to know what meditating means. It is relaxing, it is supposed to clear the mind, and that is perhaps sufficient. Yet I am uneasy about the fact that Westerners who meditate do so in a widely divergent manner, and that there is no consensus on how one should meditate or about its nature as a discipline. Furthermore, meditating is almost universally considered a healthy practice, in the same way as “getting exercise.” If I told you that I sat in a warm bath for fifteen minutes a day, you might not have much reaction at all, or you might consider me a bit self-indulgent. However, if I announce that I meditate for fifteen minutes every day, most people will act as though I’ve admitted to great willpower and good sense. 

Continue reading "On Meditation As A Western Practice"

Saturday, January 16, 2010

I Don’t Care What The Critics Say, I Love Mad Men (and the Sopranos and the Hills)

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 01/16/10 at 03:29 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

I’ve just finished Scott Kaufman’s very enjoyable post, “Don Draper as an unraptured Emma Bovary,” and feel moved to respond.

Scott observes, quite insightfully, that the difference between Don Draper and other, younger characters on the show, including Pete Campbell and Peggy Olson, is that Draper is stuck in a single historical moment, that of Advertising’s Golden Age. Even as history takes place around him, ushering in a new age of research-driven ads and social upheaval, Don remains a rock. For Scott, this turns Draper into something of a fiction. Other character show a realistic tendency to move with the zeitgeist, making him less real, and in fact it is his unreality that allows us to forgive his misdeeds—unlike the sins of Pete Campbell, which we “revile” because they are all too familiar, Draper’s lapses seem to take place in an aesthetic otherworld where all is permitted. There are no sins inside the gates of Eden.

Scott has done a beautiful job pinpointing Don’s relation to “history,” as the show understands it; he has also used Draper as a convenient poster boy for a set of attitudes about aesthetic self-fashioning with which I must take issue. Pete Campbell is not more “real” than Don; on the contrary, he is far less real to us, as I will show with a little help from Entourage, The Sopranos and The Hills.

Continue reading "I Don’t Care What The Critics Say, I Love Mad Men (and the Sopranos and the Hills)"

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mary Karr: Writing in the Absence of Truth

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 01/13/10 at 12:57 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

I’ve just finished Mary Karr’s new memoir, Lit, about her young adulthood. I read it for a lot of reasons: it was one of the NY Times’s best books of the year, it is about a young writer and academic, and it narrates a journey from bohemianism, to alcoholism, to Karr’s conversion to Catholicism.

It’s a fine book, and one that tries for honesty. It’s well-written and often fascinating. Yet I found it extremely disturbing by the end, because it presents us with a personality who will literally believe anything that makes her feel better. Lit is a book about living without the slightest regard for truth. For people like myself, who try to think about truth pragmatically, Karr ought to be something like a hero. She has truly made truth work for her. So why does the triumph ring so hollow?

Continue reading "Mary Karr: Writing in the Absence of Truth"

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Avatar: The Film That’s Good For Somebody Else

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 01/05/10 at 03:57 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

A lot has already been written, at the speed of the Internet, about Avatar, and much of it has been great. I was very impressed by Aaron Bady and Gerry Canavan’s posts for the Valve, and you should go there if you want polished, whip-smart criticism of the film’s infantile racism (Bady) and its creeping, well-disguised hopelessness (Canavan).

I would add that Avatar is an excellent example of a strange phenomenon within our culture; namely, the idea of pieces of popular culture that are good for other people, others younger or less enlightened than yourself. This connects both to the silly idea that Avatar is somehow important because it is in 3D, as well as to the ideological paradoxes that keep end-of-history capitalism running smoothly in the United States. We find ourselves back at Slavoj Zizek’s favorite joke, about the physicist with the rabbit’s foot: whether you believe in Avatar or not, it still works. Or, as Shawn Levy put it, writing for the Portland Oregonian: “Is it a great movie? Maybe not. But it is a great step forward in moviemaking. Shrug it off if that makes you feel better, but starting today you live in a post-Avatar movie world.”

Continue reading "Avatar: The Film That’s Good For Somebody Else"

Monday, September 28, 2009

Don’t Know Much About Politics: Tough Questions About The UC Walkout and the Cultural Studies Debate

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 09/28/09 at 06:03 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

In the course of a single week, we have seen academics making noise on several different fronts related to politics. First of all, here in California, there has been a large-scale effort to protest against the drastic budget cuts affecting students, workers, and faculty at University of California campuses. All sorts of mainstream media covered the story: some classes were cancelled, some classes were converted into teach-ins, most campuses held rallies attracting hundreds to thousands, and the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) went on strike. It is now Monday; the main lingering protest appears to be the occupation of the Graduate Student Commons by students at UC Santa Cruz, who Marc Bousquet interviewed here.

Meanwhile, Michael Berube was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education to the effect that cultural studies has not been a powerful enough political force in the university and the society at large. Berube argues that cultural studies has not produced much change in the way that the humanities are taught, nor has it been much of an ally for progressive political causes. His article incited some bloggers to write passionate retorts, while others, like the Valve’s Andrew Seal, took a more moderate and reflective approach.

Both of these highly visible controversies concern the relationship between politics and the academy, and more specifically between politics and the humanities, since humanities departments will be hardest hit by the cutbacks at the UCs. They are natural outgrowths of assumptions in place for decades now—namely, that the study of the humanities ought to be a political endeavor, and that because (at its best) it is political work, it makes students and faculty politically knowledgeable and effective.

There is no doubt in my mind about the first thesis. Work in the humanities is political; all knowledge work is, by its nature, inextricably bound up with ideological positions that bear on political issues. I have been, however, greatly disappointed by the fruits of this week’s labor. The protests were—are, in the case of the UCSC occupation—ineffectual. The discussion around cultural studies has been muddled. This is because of a failure to distinguish the differences between political activism and the dissemination of knowledge. Until we academics recognize and navigate this (seemingly obvious) difference, we will not be politically effective. We will not even have earned the right to claim a deep understanding of “the political.” We have to ask tough questions not only of UC President Mark Yudof but of ourselves, and this is not being done. 

Continue reading "Don’t Know Much About Politics: Tough Questions About The UC Walkout and the Cultural Studies Debate"

Bathos on the Big Screen: Jurassic Park and Sons of Anarchy

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 09/28/09 at 01:15 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

Years ago, I remember my father saying that he had managed to watch Pulp Fiction because it was a “comic book.” I hadn’t been able to make it all the way through, because I was sickened—I mean physically, not in some abstract moral sense—by the violence and cruelty. My father pointed out that when Uma Thurman is revived from her drug overdose, and hears somebody ask her to “say something,” she says: “Something.” In other words, at one of the most dramatic and visceral moments in the film, a line of dialogue is inserted to prove that it’s all pretty much a laugh.

Dramatically, this device is known as bathos, a term Alexander Pope invented and which applies to his own writing, above all to his wonderful poem “The Rape of the Lock.” Without wishing to dwell on too many different examples, I would suggest that contemporary film and television are deeply, continually bathetic. Why should this be the case? In what unexpected ways does it reveal cracks and faultlines in our own relationship, as individuals, to our society?

Continue reading "Bathos on the Big Screen: Jurassic Park and Sons of Anarchy"

Monday, June 01, 2009

A Dream I Had After Watching Star Trek

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 06/01/09 at 07:07 PM

In this scene, young James Kirk is fighting, wenching, and drinking his way across Iowa, when suddenly...

OLD GUY WHO GETS THE BRAIN LEECHES LATER: We need you to be a starship trooper! Your standardized test scores are way off the charts!

JAMES KIRK: I don’t remember taking any standardized tests!

OLD GUY / BRAIN LEECHES: Of course not! You were totally drunk! But your noble, starship trooper blood sort of took them for you when you were passed out, thus proving to millions of teenagers—once again—that if they don’t perform well on the SATs, they should kill themselves!

JAMES KIRK: Are you saying that I have mitochondria in my blood, like Anakin and the annoying, nerdy kid from A Wrinkle in Time?


JIM KIRK: Well, that sounds kinda derivative, but...Wait a second, if I become a starship trooper, am I going to have to take that test designed by Spock? It’s totally unbeatable.

O.G. / B.L.: Don’t worry, you’ll kick that test’s ass!


O.G. / B.L.: By cheating.

JIM-BOB: Does that mean I cheated on the earlier standardized tests, too? Because cheating against Spock seems like a normal thing for a hot-blooded kid from Iowa to do. That Spock! He’s so crazy! The token woman/black person wants to have his baby! But on the other hand, cheating on these standardized tests from my mysterious past would pretty much just make me a cheater, which is sort of lame.

O.G. / B.L.: So let’s just assume that you only cheated when it was awesome to do so. Oh God! The brain leeches! I can feel them attaching themselves!

On Breeding, Post VII: In Which Our Hero Resolves the Nature vs. Nurture Question

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 06/01/09 at 04:53 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

Nature versus nurture, Lodge. Nature always wins.
--Secretary William Cleary, Wedding Crashers

Jenny Davidson’s new book of cultural criticism, entitled Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century, is one of the strangest and most elliptical works of its kind I’ve ever read. I say this because, unlike traditional works of historicist criticism, Breeding never makes an overt argument about how modern readers should feel about its subject, the nature vs. nurture debates of the 18th Century. It risks seeming purposeless in order to pit Steven Pinker, a contemporary researcher and author on matters of cognition and evolution, against William Godwin, a pedagogue and Romantic who died in 1836. This fundamental comparison seems to be more an effect of the text than something Davidson consciously intended; she spells out her intentions in the Introduction, citing W. G. Sebald and Roland Barthes as inspirations for a text that seeks only to explore the “grid” of an issue and to present its nuances in a tolerant, dispassionate fashion.

In so doing, however, the text is bound to leave us mildly disappointed. It is not that it lacks erudition or insight; in fact, as the great diversity of responses published on the Valve indicates, its plentiful supply of both encourages readers to enter this debate as one might a house preserved from that time, lingering over those artifacts that they, for their own reasons, find most compelling. But I think that, even despite ourselves, we come to a book like Breeding in the hopes that we might end up a little closer to answering those same raw and troubling questions that inspired Locke and Rousseau. That remains, in this case, the road not taken. Still, Davidson’s book suggests, if only by what it chooses to include, some important ways of cutting the Gordian knot of nature and nurture.

Continue reading "On Breeding, Post VII: In Which Our Hero Resolves the Nature vs. Nurture Question"

Saturday, May 02, 2009

A follow up: the university as it could be

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 05/02/09 at 12:14 PM

x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes

I thought I’d give us two glimpses of what higher learning might look like if we followed Mark Taylor’s excellent advice about “ending the university as we know it” in favor of a non-specialized, interdisciplinary series of collaborations. These are based on experiences from the past two days. In the first example, we have a situation that brings together business smarts, game theory, wellness, the study of ancient cultures, and an in-depth knowledge of the Federal bureaucracy. In the second example, we have an interdisciplinary conversation that calls upon history, psychology, “guerrilla marketing,” the World Wide Web, advanced strategy, economic modeling, and metaphysics.

Continue reading "A follow up: the university as it could be"

Friday, May 01, 2009

An op-ed so bad, we had to post on it twice

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 05/01/09 at 06:44 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

Dear readers: every time I try to get out, they keep pulling me back in. I don’t know why the New York Times published Mark Taylor’s op-ed on “ending the university.” If they hadn’t done so, I could have kept on with the work of figuring out how to write my dissertation without a teaching position, as UCI will probably not renew its TA contracts for seventh-year graduate students.

But instead, I have to add to Marc Bousquet’s characteristically wonderful reaction piece my own observations about Taylor’s faddish and wrongheaded plan for academic “reform.” Thankfully, Bousquet has saved me the trouble of responding to Taylor’s calls for the end of tenure, and to his off-the-cuff, factually incorrect statements about the job market and probable compensation for so-called “contingent” faculty (who do not have tenure and are not on a tenure track).

I am throwing in my own two cents because still more of Taylor’s arguments compel a response: first, his proposal for re-inventing the dissertation; second, his ideas for re-designing the disciplines, ideas that are very subtly and very insidiously political.

Continue reading "An op-ed so bad, we had to post on it twice"

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Music Post: To Fix The Gash In Your Head

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 02/23/09 at 08:15 AM

(Cross-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes.)

You know when you get so tense and anxiety-ridden that all the nerves at the back of your neck snarl up into one burning ball? Well, if that gland could make music, it would sound like this album. –Lester Bangs, from “Monolith or Monotone? Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music

It took me a while, but finally, after dipping my toes in the water by attending a mash-up party, I gathered the courage to go to a rock show. I have been semi-avoiding rock shows literally for years, and the blame falls primarily on an indie rock group called Mates of State…

Continue reading "A Music Post: To Fix The Gash In Your Head"

Friday, February 20, 2009

I’m Simply Wild About That Sled

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 02/20/09 at 06:55 PM

(Cross-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes.)

So you know how Citizen Kane, over time, with the exception of that White Stripes song that quotes it, has slowly boiled down to the fact that “Rosebud” is the name of his sled?

Well, a friend referenced that fact today, and it struck me that the greatest spoiler in history is a lot darker than I had previously thought. I’d always intepreted the film pretty straightforwardly: Kane’s life of power drives him to madness and sorrow, and in his secret heart, he longs for the innocence of his childhood, an innocence symbolized by the sled.

But that doesn’t keep the revelation from being somewhat anti-climactic; whether or not you know in advance what’s coming, you do spend three hours getting there. It’s much ado about a sled. That, it seems to me, is precisely the point. The thing that is supposed to represent pastoral innocence is a thing, a fetishized object, not different in kind from all the objects that litter Kane’s private castle. In other words, the mystery of the sled, like the embellished memory of it that Kane constructs from within Xanadu, is there to convince you that Kane has undergone a fall, that his life is fundamentally tragic because of it, and therefore that it has the grandeur of tragedy. But in fact the bathos of the revelation confronts us with the triviality of his life, and with the fact that the sled is little more than wallpaper covering a gaping hole. He did not fall—Kane rose, as history records. The horror of his life was that there was actually no riddle to it at all, and into those flames, along with the riddle, goes any meaning, any permanence a life might contain.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Those Obscene Octuplets

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 02/03/09 at 12:56 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

Greetings from California, where, as is now very widely known, people do crazy things with the help of doctors, up to and including giving birth to children 7 through 14 at the same time.

Since most people’s interest in the Guinness Book of World Records begins to wane by age 11, it’s surprising to me that the Suleman octuplets have created such an enormous scandal. They are an inescapable subject across completely different workplaces, social settings, and social classes. The story has been told by nearly everyone, major media included, in an emotional register that goes all the way from outrage to very angry mockery.

How will she (Nadya) pay for the family? Why is she so “obsessed” with having children? Why would she have more children if it meant that her mother would speak disapprovingly of her? Why would a doctor assist with the process, despite having taken some kind of Greek oath early on? Where’s Dad?

At first, this story struck me as merely another case of something small getting a lot of media time, a category that also includes sensational murders and descriptions of how the First Family relaxes. That was my initial reaction; as I continued to bump into the story again and again, I was struck by the fact that it is really obscene, in the sense of an event or practice that attracts hatred and disgust exceeding any legitimate objection. Suleman certainly strikes me as foolish, but why does her decision strike so many Americans as obscene?

Continue reading "Those Obscene Octuplets"

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Rhet/Comp Article “At Least It’s An Ethos…” picked up by Inside Higher Ed

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 12/23/08 at 04:06 PM

I like my original title pretty well, but otherwise a much improved version of my recent post “At Least It’s An Ethos” is up at InsideHigherEd, along with an up-to-the-minute stream of commenters in various kinds of apoplectic states. God bless them, every one.

Many thanks to IHE for picking up the article, and for their invaluable editorial advice. Here’s the link.

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