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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

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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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 Last Night
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About Ray Davis

Ray Davis was a Valve contributor through May 2006. He continues to publish his own and others' work at pseudopodium.org.

Email Address: raydavis@pseudopodium.org
Website: http://www.pseudopodium.org/


Posts by Ray Davis

Saturday, January 17, 2009

True Enough

Posted by Ray Davis on 01/17/09 at 07:15 PM

The Social Misconstruction of Reality by Richard F. Hamilton, 1996

Hamilton gives us a polemic and a series of debunkings which ascend from trivial observation to war-cry:

  1. Wellington cared nothing for the playing fields of Eton.
  2. Mozart didn’t die neglected and rejected.
  3. Weber couldn’t connect Calvinism to capitalism.
  4. Hitler wasn’t elected into power by benighted shopkeepers.
  5. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault lied! lied! lied!

Debunkings are always fun, don’t you think? And since sociologists, like economists, advertise empirically-derived generalizations while under unrelenting pressure to justify policies which benefit specific parties, I’m sure the debunkers among them will continue to feel both vitally necessary and desperately beleaguered.

The polemic’s more problematic. Hamilton wants to fix the social sciences and humanities. His diagnosis is gullibility; his posited causes are group-think and authority worship; his posited cure is individual contrariness.

Hamilton nets most of his gulls from journalism (particularly book reviews), introductory textbooks (particularly sociology), and interdisciplinary citations. Within the errors’ overlapping discipline of history, only once did Hamilton himself blow the first whistle, and that was a case of simultaneous discovery. As corrective scholarship goes, the record compares well to “harder” sciences: physics theories can be elaborated for decades before finding confirmatory evidence, and the social impact of slanted pharmaceutical papers dwarfs any of Hamilton’s examples.

Regarding journalism, anyone appalled by reviews lauding Weber’s or Foucault’s “meticulous” research must not have opened many “poetic,” “masterful,” or “shattering” novels or examined the similarly meticulous research of popular science writers. And I don’t know from introductory textbooks. So let’s move on to the interdisciplinary mash-ups of philosophy and literary studies and so forth.

Now, I grant that an abstract argument founded on a false premise, although possibly charming in other ways, won’t advance the great Sherman’s March of scientific knowledge. But the equivalence of citations with logical premises is itself an assumption in need of examination.

As empirical ice-breaker, I took the top hundred returns from a Project MUSE search for “Foucault” and “Discipline and Punish,” along with a dozen or so Google Book results and a few examples from my general reading over the past few months. In that sample I noticed only one argument which would have been invalidated by refuting Foucault. The vast majority of citations either occurred in studies of Foucault himself (a filter which would catch Hamilton as well) or were… well, here are some examples:

Continue reading "True Enough"

Sunday, May 07, 2006

All My Communities Are Hermitages

Posted by Ray Davis on 05/07/06 at 11:07 PM

(The bulk of an earlier version of this entry began as a private email message, and it should have stayed that way. Posting it was the worst mistake I can remember making in my years of offline and online publishing, and my having made such a mistake here may serve as proem to the portion that remains.)

... But you see the irony, right? Both parties caught in a more-unseeable-than-thou standoff; both trying to play God with Clifton Webb's voice and James Joyce's nailfile?

Continue reading "All My Communities Are Hermitages"

Sunday, April 30, 2006

La vita nuova e nuova e nuova

Posted by Ray Davis on 04/30/06 at 12:07 AM

Ah, the old critical exercise: Does a hard science fiction story become unreadable once the science is invalidated? Is a historical novel worthless once the evidence refutes it?

Not being a Whig historian, what interests me more than those questions are the contextual nuances around them. For example, it seems to matter whether the invalidation took place prior to or after the writing's writing there's a visceral difference between Troilus & Cressida and The Da Vinci Code. It also strikes me that both high-risk species developed in tandem with safer alternatives: fantasy and realism. Realism's deployment of contemporary setting and free indirect discourse block any charges of perjury: "You weren't there! And besides you never saw me do it!" And it also strikes me that in this, as in so much of what's exercised the twentieth century and the century that remains, Flaubert got there firstest and mostest with an onion-skin-fictional account of serial invalidation.

Most of all it strikes me, every hour on the hour for nigh on thirty years, that the very idea of "literature" presupposes the uncomfortable indigestible unjustifiable pseudo-experience of experiences which are not ours. Experiences of lust, anger, greed, delight, and, of course, certainty what experience could be more human than certainty? which don't squeeze into our newest still-pinching off-the-rack suit of self.

There, at that point a very precarious and contingent point topping an edifice of widespread literacy, fixed canon, and shifting culture that decadent liberal nervously Monie-in-the-Middle point there is where "literature" and "philosophy" (as opposed to advancing the right and burning the wrong) begin. Where we gain the opportunity to inhabit convictions (or truths, insofar as humans can determine truths) we don't share for reasons besides refutation.

For my own historically contingent reasons, I find the experience immeasurably because incommensurably valuable. This time is my time, I admit; and what's more I like it here.

Maybe I'm a Whig after all?

I'm sure not a Tory.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Sunday Snifter

Posted by Ray Davis on 03/26/06 at 09:05 PM

Lorine Niedecker of Black Hawk Island, Wisconsin, sent this advice:

To my small
electric pump


To sense
and sound
this world

look to
your snifter

take oil
and hum

Swirl, spirits, swirl....

Continue reading "The Sunday Snifter"

Friday, March 17, 2006

Emily Dickinson : The Poet as Selflorist

Posted by Ray Davis on 03/17/06 at 11:28 AM

Rhyme's easily defined so long as we ignore the evidence. As actually deployed, the device is slippery.

For example, people who read silently become confused about what's supposed to repeat: the terminal phonemes or the terminal graphemes? The latter is called "eye rhyme"; when it conflicts with "ear rhyme", it's a mistake. But because English spelling began to standardize before English pronunciation, many apparent blunders were perfectly fine ear-rhymes to their original writers.

Regional and class differences continue to play merry hell with terminal vowels and consonants, as in Bunker Hill's glorious coupling of "The road was muddy" with "My toe was hurting". And so, when poems are transmitted orally (or to a particularly meddlesome editor), adjustments get made. Generally, sound wins over sense, with some startling exceptions, such as the version of "Tam Lin" which rhymed "a snake" with "your baby's father." (The reptile started as "an adder," and that rhyme could have persisted if it had been passed to Allan Sherman.)

At any rate, given free rein, English prosody seems as contented by terminal assonance or slant-rhyme as by perfect dictionary rhyme.

Certainly, I am; and I'm also particularly attracted to ear-not-eye rhymes. Which brings me to an endnote of David C. Rubin's Memory in Oral Traditions.

Continue reading "Emily Dickinson : The Poet as Selflorist"

Saturday, March 11, 2006

What We Genrify When We Mean to Talk

Posted by Ray Davis on 03/11/06 at 04:57 PM

Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes
by David C. Rubin

I'm no blurbing brook I think all a publisher ever fished from me was "... courageous ..."— but I'm tired of writing about stuff I can't recommend, so here goes: Memory in Oral Traditions is as good as interdisciplinary scholarship gets. That is, Rubin has shown how the mysteries of one discipline mutually solve the mysteries of another. The peculiar traits of his three poetic forms explain how they were carried across time and space, which in turn explains how we come to find the peculiar traits. And he demonstrates this correlation with full self-deprecating awareness that the job of a historical scientist is not to manufacture just-so stories but to anticipate and meet objections.

Rubin's admirably cautious with the "E" word, but what he describes and documents (through folklore collections, Homeric scholarship, field recordings, surveys, and lab experiments) can be fairly compared to Darwinian selection. Given an initial varied population, a means of reproduction, and death, natural criteria predictably influence which variations survive into the next generations, leading to local pools of convergence.

Darwinian evolution doesn't winnow the biosphere down to a single perfect specimen of a single perfect species, and Rubinian evolution doesn't reduce oral culture to a canon of one unforgettable jingle. (Although the worldwide ascendency of "Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo" now seems to me one of the great achievements of the twentieth century.) There'll always be variation, outliers, imperfect local attractors and opportunity for competition.... And, as with reading Darwin, most of the pleasure of reading Rubin comes from seeing the traits and selectors described and watching the contraption's assembly.

But prior to any notion of variation or selection, the contraption depends on reproduction and death.

Continue reading "What We Genrify When We Mean to Talk"

Friday, February 17, 2006

“… our solemnities.”

Posted by Ray Davis on 02/17/06 at 12:31 PM

I confess that, aside from watching Jesus try to decide if he looked better with a beard, my last clear memory from last night is reading these two pieces by the Reverend Doctor Jonathan Swift:

December 27, 1733

I waked at two this morning with the two above lines in my head, which I had made in my sleep, and I wrote them down in the dark, lest I should forget them. But as the original words being writ in the dark, may possibly be mistaken by a careless or unskilful transcriber, I shall give them a fairer copy, that two such precious lines may not be lost to posterity.

I walk before no man, a hawk in his fist;
Nor, am I a brilliant, whenever I list.


Continue reading "“… our solemnities.”"

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Paid with Interest

Posted by Ray Davis on 02/05/06 at 06:56 PM

For those with (or with friends with) online access, a new issue of American Literary History is available.

In “The Post-Welfare State University", Jeffrey J. Williams “follows the money trail” to capsulize American higher education:

The features of mass attendance, of federal and foundation funding, of technological development, and of faculty provenance directly articulate with the welfare state; and, in turn, they define our horizon of expectation of the university. Our present dismay at the state of the university has a good deal to do with our tacit expectation of the postwar university, which is the horizon on which we judge current events, rather than on the full and mixed history of American universities (for instance, when academic freedom as we know it did not exist). [...] Like most other social institutions over the past two decades, the university has seen the erasure of the legacy of the New Deal and its vestiges—notably, socialized tuition and the goal of full employment.

He ends with a cause I’d gladly rally to:

The death of the humanities and the disciplines that promote “thought"—the majors in which have declined in real terms to less than 10% of college majors, with business expanding to 22%—results not from a loss of interest in the humanities but from the material interests that confront students.
The policy of debt is a pernicious social policy because it places a heavy tax on those who wish a franchise in the normal channels of contemporary American life. It is also pernicious because it is counterproductive in the long term, cutting off many possibilities and domains of human production. Finally, it is a pernicious social policy because it perverts the aims of education, from enlightenment to constraint. Especially as teachers who have a special obligation to our students, debt is a policy that we cannot abide.

In “The Virtues of Heartlessness", Deborah Nelson describes the curious affinity of Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt as a (strictly coincidently) shared commitment to Paying Attention: the ethical practice of aesthetics in an anti-sentimental politics of particularity.

[McCarthy] explored the problem of newspapers in the following passage from a BBC broadcast, which was excised from the later essay based on these comments: “Newspapers, which appear every day, seemed to be the repositories of ‘everydayness’.... This, in fact, is not true; neither a tabloid like the Daily News nor a dignified paper like The New York Times gives a faithful picture of the life of the average person in New York (still less, the Parisian newspapers of Paris), and the reliance on the newspapers imparted to realism, very early, a curiously sensational flavor, slightly canned-tasting misery, a flavor of crime and low life and disease.” [...] In its uniformity and blandness, canned misery indicates not the necessary disruptiveness of the fact but the reassuring predictability of statistical reality. [...] “Where destiny is no more than average probability, it appears inescapable in a peculiarly depressing way. This is because any element in it can be replaced by a substitute without changing the outcome."


The element of chance is, therefore, a component of her optimism, rescuing the possibility of change in even the most “realistic” view of history. In her view, like Arendt’s, one had to tolerate, even embrace, the pain of unpredictability in order to preserve one’s optimism. If optimism grounded in uncertainty seems rather feeble, it is helpful to remember that when many of their fellow New York Intellectuals retreated from political engagement in the 1960s, McCarthy and Arendt remained involved in political battles to the end of their lives. They understood that a just world was also a painful world, though always painful in new ways.

Linked on approval: “Emma Lazarus and the Golem of Liberty" by Max Cavitch.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Mystery Macintosh, My Darling

Posted by Ray Davis on 01/30/06 at 11:48 PM

"The M'Intosh Murder Mystery" by John Gordon,
Journal of Modern Literature 29.1 (2005) 1

All right-thinking people agree that The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism's most unconscionable omission was James Thurber's "The Macbeth Murder Mystery", and so I'm certain John Gordon is a right-thinking person.

Except in this case.

[For the non-Joyceans in our audience, here's the story so far.

Continue reading "Mystery Macintosh, My Darling"

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

I. “Graphs, Maps, Trees” by Franco Moretti

Posted by Ray Davis on 01/11/06 at 04:07 PM

Moretti sounds like a happy guy. And it's infectious. Why pledge allegiance to a groove and turn it into a rut? Get out of that stuffy coffee shop and into a cool refreshing stats lab. Live a little! (With the aid of twenty grad students.) An OuBelLetriPo is overdue. Let's pick a quantitative approach and a subject out of the hat: "Pie charts" and "Coming-out stories"—wait, um, I wasn't ready; can I try again? "Income distribution" and "Aphra Behn"? Perfect!

Will you end up with a demolished bit of received wisdom? A sociological footnote? Or just graphic representation of a critical triteness? You don't know! You think Perec knew the plot of La Disparation before he started?

Continue reading "I. “Graphs, Maps, Trees” by Franco Moretti"

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

“Always the cautious scholar, eh, Dr. Hunt?”

Posted by Ray Davis on 12/27/05 at 12:12 PM

The title doesn't leap with jaw-clenched dagger from hundreds of faking-the-funk post-Tromatic direct-to-videos. But Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is the real Cormanesque deal: an exploitation comedy that's genuinely funny.

Aside from the glaring absence of Queer Studies, its '80s-era academic and feminism jokes are knowing and affectionate. (I'm not going to spoil any of them here. The movie's fine for what it is, but it ain't inexhaustible.) For film scholars, there's an Immoral Mr. Teas reference. The performances are delightfully adequate, with Bill Maher standing out as Michael Douglas (or, in Time Out's phrase, "an ambulatory willy") and Adrienne Barbeau relishing her star turn as Dr. Kurtz. (And is that a long lost Kuchar brother heading up the male tribe?)

I first heard about CWitAJoD when it wowed a 1989 women's film festival in Portland. After fifteen years, my VHS copy's a bit bedraggled; happily, I was given the new DVD a few days ago. Very bare bones it screams for a bootleg commentary track but within an adjunct's travel budget. On your way to the MLA, pick up a copy as an interview icebreaker.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

What Goes On

Posted by Ray Davis on 12/24/05 at 05:49 PM

"It was exactly as if she had been there by the operation of my intelligence, or even by that in a still happier way of my feeling. My excitement, as I have called it, on seeing her, was assuredly emotion. Yet what was this feeling, really?"

The Sacred Fount made Henry James's friends fear for his sanity. (Henry Adams offered the cheery consolation that "most of the rest of us" would be institutionalized with him.) James himself seemed taken aback by the tumorous growth of the novel. It remained his most extreme experiment: a postmodernist parody of a country house mystery avant la lettre; a mad (social) scientist in a meet-cute(-and-go-nowhere) romantic thriller; a locked room containing the foully-played corpse of realism. (Possibly a suicidal frame-up.)

And it's my sentimental favorite. But I've never tried to work out a way to write about it. The Sacred Fount scares off analysis by example. Some critics express bafflement or disgust; others take short simple pleasure in their manifest superiority to James's first-person.

So I doff my Santa cap to Michael Wood for "The Museum of What Happens", a compact essay which takes the risk of taking the book's problems seriously, starting with the infamous unreliability of its narrator.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Three Ways of Looking at a Blacklist

Posted by Ray Davis on 12/01/05 at 10:15 PM

Chandler Davis, full time mathematician, sometime fiction writer, and lifelong political activist lost his career in American academia for the third quality. Dr. Josh Lukin kindly mailed me copies of two of Professor Davis's comments on that loss:

In turn, Professor Davis has kindly consented to my making them freely available online. Both are beautiful examples of "plain speaking" rhetoric and possibly of interest for other reasons as well.

UPDATE, 2005-12-03: I've just added a third piece by Professor Davis, "The Purge". A history rather than an exhortation, originally written for the American Mathematical Society's A Century of Mathematics in America, it provides many more details about the post-WWII attack on leftist American academics (and the resistance to that attack).

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Salomé, What She Watched

Posted by Ray Davis on 11/27/05 at 12:25 PM

Fenitschka and Deviations by Lou Andreas-Salomé, tr. Dorothee Einstein Krahn
The Human Family (Menschenkinder) by Lou Andreas-Salomé, tr. Raleigh Whitinger
Looking Back by Lou Andreas-Salomé, ed. Ernst Pfeiffer, tr. Breon Mitchell

Two-and-a-half stories into Menschenkinder (timidly Englished as "The Human Family") and I'm pleasantly surprised by their oblique viewpoints, the suggestive opacity of their sweeping gestures. By eight-and-a-half, my cracked fingernails are pawing the door while I whimper for air, air....

The last book to dose me like this was No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 by Kenneth Goldsmith, three years' worth of noticed utterances ("found texts" understates its inclusiveness), sorted alphabetically and by number of syllables. Against the author's advice, I read it front to back. (Not at one sitting, but still.)

For all I remember, two-thirds of the way through someone in Goldsmith's circle discovered true love and a revitalizing formula for social progressivism. If so, the next two hundred pages of advertising, trash-talk, and D. H. Lawrence warhorse scribbled them away. Goldsmith's big white volume flattens all layers of a life that seems not to have been unduly dull, solitary, or settled into solid shallowness as far as the mechanically-aided eye can reach. No there there, or anywhere else either; no under; no outside. Nothing but an unbreakable but by no means scuff-free surface. The discursive universe as the wrong side of a jigsaw puzzle.

I wouldn't imply any aesthetic affinity between Lou Andreas-Salomé and Kenneth Goldsmith. But the horror conveyed by both is an emergent formal property whereby the self-traced boundaries of a free-range spirit are established as crushingly limited.

Twelve stories by Andreas-Salomé have been translated into English. All were originally published in 1898 and 1899 and probably written in the same two-year burst. About half the stories have a male point-of-view; about half a female; some split down the middle. Although some include long letters or soliloquies, only one is in the first person. Elements and settings and character types and plotlines appear and re-appear trains, hospitals, mountain walks, hotels; doctors, artists; older men, slightly less older men; seductions, spellbindings, disillusionments, untrustworthy re-affirmations in never exactly replicated configurations, with just enough variation to convince us that a solution won't be found.

The puzzle is constant: There's a singularly intelligent and beautiful woman. (The traits are inseparable in these stories.) And all human value is placed in slavish idealization of the (almost always) gender-defined Other. Whether it's a case of male worshipping female, female worshipping male, or (rarer, dismissable) female worshipping female, such idealization is shown as irresistable but unmaintainable, thrashing between the fetishized parties —"I must sacrifice all for you!" "No, I must sacrifice all for you!"— and usually snapped by a sexual outburst.

Continue reading "Salomé, What She Watched"

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Just Possibly Like So but Maybe Not So Much Stories

Posted by Ray Davis on 10/25/05 at 08:23 AM

The Transition to Language,
ed. Alison Wray, Oxford, 2002

If DNA analysis has secured the there-that's-settled end of the evolutionary biology spectrum, language origins lie in the ultra-speculative. As a species marker and, frankly, for personal reasons, language holds irresistable interest; unfortunately, spoken language doesn't leave a fossil record, and neither does the soft tissue that emits it. In her introduction, Alison Wray, while making no bones about the obstacles faced by the ethical researcher, suggests we use them as an excuse for a game of Twister.

Advanced Twister. Forget about stationary targets; the few points of consensus among Wray's contributors are negative ones:

The most solid lesson to take away from the book is a sense of possibility. Such as:

Continue reading "Just Possibly Like So but Maybe Not So Much Stories"
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