About Scott Eric Kaufman
Scott Eric Kaufman is an English graduate student at the University of California, Irvine. He earned his B.A. from Louisiana State University and hopes to earn his Ph.D. sometime before his funding evaporates. He had one fancy title: Senior Instructor of Literary Journalism. He is currently working tirelessly on his dissertation. His scholarly interests include everything—and he means everything—pertaining to American literature and appropriations of evolutionary theory c. 1890-1910. His blather can also be read on The Valve.
Posts by Scott Eric Kaufman
Monday, May 25, 2009
Book Event: Jenny Davidson’s Breeding
Beginning tomorrow, The Valve will be hosting a book event on Jenny Davidson‘s Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century. Peter Gay has already reviewed the book for Bookforum, which is rather remarkable when you consider this was an academic book published by a university press—then again, it’s a rather remarkable book.
The introduction and first two chapters are available online.
Sunday, May 03, 2009
BREAKING NEWS: John Cheever not remotely like a character in a John Cheever story, actually.
From “How Cheever Really Felt About Living in Suburbia,” published in today’s Times:
[His] writings suggest that he seemed to take a jaundiced view of so manicured and lovely a setting.
But there is evidence in a new biography of Cheever that he relished his life as a suburban burgher and did not disdain his fellow suburbanites as a class. Cheever was “crazy about the suburbs,” said Blake Bailey, whose book, Cheever: A Life, published in March by Knopf, was written with apparently unrivaled access to Cheever’s journals.
“He loved the natural beauty of the Hudson Valley,” Mr. Bailey said. “He loved walking through the woods along the Croton Aqueduct. He liked his neighbors.”
I’m not sure how someone can have “unrivaled” access to materials held by Harvard and The New York Public Library, but that’s neither here nor there. This article—from the hard-hitting Connecticut desk—is a full-scale assault on the body of Cheever’s work by people who insist that, in truth, they were all quite normal, thank you very much. Cheever himself was a conventionally quaint exurban alcoholic:
Mrs. Cheever casually took care to point out that her husband wrote only in the mornings because by the afternoon he was often drunk on gin.
“In those days, people did drink ever so much more than they do now,” Mrs. Cheever said with a chuckle. “It sounds shocking now, but it was not shocking then.”
Not to mention boyish and civic-minded:
“He once got to drive the fire truck, and that was a big thrill,” Mrs. Cheever said.
His family were old-fashioned:
“We were old-fashioned,” she said. “We were brought up in private schools.”
He was old-fashioned:
“He was that old-fashioned,” she said.
He was utterly unlike a character in a John Cheever novel, except when he wasn’t:
Yet at the same time, Cheever could say in ["The Housebreaker of Shady Hill"], “If you work in the city and have children to raise, I can’t think of a better place.”
Note that “say” there. Cheever didn’t write that sentence, because if he had, it’d be a sentence written about a character in a Cheever story and we can’t have that, now can we? It would be inaccurate in the way all the unhappiness Cheever wrote is and will forever be inaccurate.
How deeply pathetic is it that the Times tries to deny Cheever ownership of his insight by doing to him what he undid to his characters? It was all very fine, the Times implies, like in that famous story of his that ends:
The place was dark. Was it so late that they had all gone to bed? Had Lucinda stayed at the Westerhazys’ for supper? Had the girls joined her there or gone someplace else? Hadn’t they agreed, as they usually did on Sunday, to regret all their invitations and stay at home? He tried the garage doors to see what cars were in but the doors were locked and rust came off the handles onto his hands. Going toward the house, he saw that the force of the thunderstorm had knocked one of the rain gutters loose. It hung down over the front door like an umbrella rib, but it could be fixed in the morning. The house was locked, and he thought that the stupid cook or the stupid maid must have locked the place up until he remembered that it had been some time since they had employed a maid or a cook. He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty.
Then everyone yelled, “Surprise, Neddy Merrill! It is your birthday and the place looked empty because we cleared the room so we could dance!” Neddy’s daughters approached him, one after another, and planted a kiss on his cheek and a tie to his chest. “I love these ties,” Neddy exclaimed. Everyone at the party drank judiciously and no one died on the way home. It was the best day of Neddy’s life.
Monday, April 27, 2009
Concerning the inherent superiority of printed text to irresponsible online drivel.
Is it absolutely necessary for the image gracing the cover of the most recent issue of the official mouthpiece of my professional organization to depict something that, when seen on my desk by a colleague from another department, compelled her to ask where a viper fish would even get a detachable penis to whack off against a shrimp-wielding toucan? Do other departments not laugh at us enough already?
Why does this same issue contain a write-up of a forum from the 2007 MLA convention? Did it really take two years and change to transform that panel into something print-worthy? So I take it the first sentence is supposed to read:
In contributions to this 2007 panel of the division on Comparative Studies in Romanticism and the Nineteenth Century, titled “Untiming the Nineteenth-Century: Temporality and Periodization,” periodization, a venerable mainstay of comparative literarature safeguarded by its apparent neutrality, is critically arraigned.
Lest you think I’m mocking the author of this sentence, Emily Apter, let me make this absolutely clear: Apter’s introduction is lively and interesting—historicists like myself tend to be interested in arguments about or against periodization even when we disagree with them—but how well is her intellectual project of two years previous served by appearing so belatedly? How well is her intellectual integrity represented by an error so basic only a typesetter could have made it? These are the standards against which necessarily inconsequential (because) online conversations should be judged?
Maybe I’m still in a foul mood, but I don’t think so.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Because, of course, Jack London sucks harder than many comics, Part II
(My commenters wrote my first response to Bill’s post for me. They nailed it so accurately posting what I’d originally written seems unnecessary. I’m neither kidding nor, it seems, necessary. So in the [likely] event of a [hilariously hi-jinxed] tragedy, Acephalous can [and should] live on.)
Let me start with a statement that will annoy everyone: if a close-reading reveals that a work flirts with the formal elements of its genre or genres—whatever they may be—that work should be canonized. Not that works that fail to engage the formal limitations of their genre are uncanonizable, mind you, but works that succeed both as an example and a critique of a given genre deserve canonization.
But canonization into what?
In an age of inexpensive and practically limitless storage, the question of canonization need not be hidebound to the idea of preservation. Within its first month of operation, Google digitized the 99 percent of the Western Canon, and even though some of those works are too recent to be viewed, they’ll all eventually be released as copyright expiration rolls forward. When I began my Mark Twain chapter in late 2005, for example, only the 1894 edition of Pudd’nhead Wilson was available through Google Book Search; by the time I began revising the chapter in the summer of 2008, I could track revisions of the novel over the span of two decades. Because Twain is culturally significant and canonical, the saturation of Google Books with variant editions of his most important works was inevitable.
When I began working on The Youth of Washington (1904), I had to order it through interlibrary loan. It took three months to arrive. Henry Cabot Lodge’s George Washington (1889), Paul Ford’s The True George Washington (1896), Woodrow Wilson’s George Washington (1896), Worthington Chauncey Ford’s George Washington (1900) and Norman Hapgood’s George Washington: A Biography (1901) trickled in. Had I held off on writing my chapter until I’d looked over all 140 of the novels of English Colonial or Revolutionary America published between 1895 and 1908, I’d still be waiting for interlibrary loan. Now all those Washington biographies are available, as are most of the historical novels I wanted to read for deep background.
Are those novels good? No. Do they deserve canonization? No. Is it significant that as tensions between Spain and America strained and Americans became uncomfortable with the imperial pretensions of their leader, an appetite for works relating to Revolutionary figures or set in the Revolutionary period become incredibly popular? Might that not have something important to say about what Americans thought it meant to be American at the time? Is that not a viable object of study? Do I not ask a shitload of rhetorical questions when I get polemical?
For a few of generations, English professors claimed that cultural knowledge was the provenance of the literary (what with perceptiveness being the core feature of literary sensibility). So when a scholar wanted to know how things stood between America and Europe at a given time, they would not turn to any of the countless travel narratives written by Americans in Europe and Europeans in America, but to the most acutely literary accounts of the current state affairs. To wit:
The problem with Lucy’s account of the canon and cultural knowledge should be obvious: however you define the literary, it is not the same thing as cultural knowledge. An alternate canon, based on how a text registers and reflects the conventions of its time, is required; a subset of that canon would include texts that fought against their cultural constraints in order to articulate something convention had difficulty accommodating. No matter what you call those texts, they are the ones deserving of close-reading.
Note that I slipped from speaking of genres in the first paragraph to cultural conventions in the last. I did that on purpose. Genre focuses too intently on what a thing made from words looks like. ("My novella’s a long short story in 10-point Times Roman and a short novel in 14-point New Courier,” says the aspiring writer.) From the get-go, however, these things made from words contained stuff like this. Texts have always had visual components, and while those components are sometimes abstracts (as with the afore-marbled page), the introduction of visual representations of the world into the textual economy of a novel alerts readers to the presence of a realist ethos. But remember:
Verisimilitude is not an end. It is an always imperfect—because always filtered—means. What matters is not the presence of supplementary gestures of verisimilitude but the manner in which they interact with the text. For example, this comic sucks:
Sunday, April 19, 2009
How awful have these past few months been for contemporary letters?
Here’s a paragraph from the late David Foster Wallace’s review of the late, as of today, J.G. Ballard’s 1991 collection War Fever:
J.G. Ballard is not a great fiction writer, but he is an important one. If that seems like an inconsistent judgment, be advised that American readers who know Ballard only via his moving, Spielbergable memoir Empire of the Sun do not know the real J. G. Ballard. The real Ballard has since the early ‘60s been a pioneer of a certain sort of literary science fiction I like to call Psy-Fi. Psy-Fi, often parodic, surreal and grotesque, and almost always set in some near and recognizable future, seeks to explore the psychopathology of post-atomic life, stuff like high technology, mass-media, advertising, PR, totalitarianism, etc.
When he wrote this in 1991, Wallace himself had just started writing an “often parodic, surreal and grotesque” novel “set in [the] near and recognizable future” that sought “to explore the psychopathology of post-atomic life, stuff like high technology, mass-media, advertising, PR, totalitarianism,” and more than a little et cetera. I’d never considered my passion for both novelists related until I stumbled across this review a few months back. The coldness Wallace speaks of in Ballard’s prose is utterly unlike anything you find in Wallace’s own work. Even when his narrators speak, as he claimed Ballard’s do, in a “flat, scholarly narrative voice, [with] an air of lab technicians looking at stuff under glass,” the result never resembles the clipped, clinical speech of which Ballard was a master—for in Wallace, such disinterested precision is always affected. But without Ballard, there would have been no Wallace; in fact, without Ballard, contemporary literature would look very different.
A British friend once told me that Ballard was “Our [meaning English-speaking] Borges.” I’m not sure he was right, but I’m not about to argue that he was wrong.
Friday, April 17, 2009
“Things like severely beating men dressed as fetish bats are all that keep me sane, some days.”
I received an email in response to this comment on John’s latest post, but because my explanation required images, I decided to throw it online; however, because it contained so many images, it would take me hours to reformat it to display properly over here. So if you’re interested in how I teach a subject dear to my heart (historical context) in a rhetorical vein via a single funny book (Warren Ellis’s Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth), you can do so here.
(Title taken from the book. Be glad I didn’t go with an alternative.)
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
What’s wrong with Reading Comics? Quite a bit, actually.
Because late to the party is better than never, I’m reading Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics. When I’m not maybe being mocked, the book is a compelling read. This is a problem. Since tradition dictates picking nits with blurbs, I’ll start with the quotation from the Los Angeles Times printed on the cover:
Of all the Times blurbs to pick with nits, this one may not even be the best. From the back cover:
Everything is here.
If everything is there and there is deliciously quotable—but let me begin with the second blurb, because it concerns a minor point. No matter how you define “everything,” Reading Comics does not contain it all. Wolk periodically informs the reader of this fact:
There are . . . several very big names I’m barely mentioning or neglecting outright in the following pages: Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb . . . (137)
And we can ellipses away there because this is a book about comics that barely mentions or outright neglects Jack Kirby and Robert Crumb. Why the Times would make claims the author explicitly rejects I don’t know—but I suspect its decision relates to the tone of casual expertise Wolk displays throughout the book. Every reference I catch—about half of the ones Wolk drops—complements his argument; however, the way you wear your erudition lightly on the web differs from how you do it in print. The book’s delicious quotability is a byproduct of its learned chattiness, and if the medium is ever to attain academic respectability, its expositors will need to try a little harder than this:Continue reading "What’s wrong with Reading Comics? Quite a bit, actually."
Tuesday, April 07, 2009
Justifying comics as legitimate objects of study, Part II: HELL STALKS ON FOUR PAWS!
I concluded the previous post with a nod to William Blake as someone who explored the word-picture relationship and I will get to that, but first I should clarify a few issues I raised without fully addressing yesterday:
- Vance rightly noted that titles of paintings were often left to benefactors and history, so putting that much interpretive weight on such thin ice might not be the best idea. I agree. I fully intend on leaving this series of posts immersed and hypothermic.
- JPool noted that treating paintings like panels could be a category error and Miriam and Gene implicitly agreed, suggesting I might be better served by a Hogarth or one of his ilk. I agree. But I chose to go with Caravaggio and Blake over Giotto and Hogarth because I wanted to focus attention on an individual image before I moved to discussing the interaction between multiple images arrayed in narrative.
- Andrew liked the arrows and will be disappointed with this post.
Now that I have well and cleared my throat, let us venture forward to William Blake and “The Tyger” from Songs of Experience (1794). It reads:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Where to start? Should I go full Keats and spend a day on each stanza? Probably . . . especially when you consider that 1) his manuscript looked like this:
Because 2) he spent tedious years perfecting the placement of every word on every line. Maybe I’ll declare next week Blake Week and do just that. But tonight I want to focus on the general impression of feline bad-assedness created by the text of the poem. What we have here is a TYGER! MADE OF FIRE FORGED BY DREAD HANDS AND SHARP TOOLS OF METALLURGY TO HAVE DREAD PAWS. So FEROCIOUS is this FIRE TYGER! that the poet cannot even imagine THE ABOMINABLE FOUNDRY in which SOME DEMENTED LORD created SO GRIM A BEAST.
TRIGGER WARNING: IF YOU ARE NOT PREPARED TO LOOK INTO THE BRUTAL MAW OF HELL ITSELF DO NOT CONTINUE READING THIS POST BECAUSE I AM ABOUT TO POST THE PICTURE OF THE FIRE TYGER! BLAKE INCLUDED WITH THE POEM. SERIOUSLY IT’S WAY TOO MUCH FOR YOU I MEAN YOU CAN BARELY EVEN WATCH R-RATED MOVIES THIS WILL BE TOO MUCH FOR YOU TURN AWAY I TELL YOU TURN AWAY!Continue reading "Justifying comics as legitimate objects of study, Part II: HELL STALKS ON FOUR PAWS!"
Sunday, April 05, 2009
Justifying comics as legitimate objects of study, Part I
Were I to muster a defense of comics as potentially serious objects of rhetorical analysis in, say, a textbook, I would begin by pointing out that while there may not be a ready-made critical apparatus for comics as a genre, there exists a robust tradition of analyzing visual narrative. Consider Caravaggio’s “Calling of St. Matthew”:
I present the whole painting here so you can see what occupies the center of the painting. (Many reproductions of “The Calling” crop the upper third off. I will too to save bandwidth below.) If we assume that the eye of the viewer is drawn to the center, it becomes evident that Caravaggio didn’t intend his static painting to be experienced as such. We light first on the boy’s eyes and follow them:Continue reading "Justifying comics as legitimate objects of study, Part I"
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Standards? Who needs them? Or, Thomas Urquhart & That Which Is Infinitely Superior to Cricket.
Teaching composition exclusively leads to (1) a greater appreciation for the pedestrian complexity of correctly subordinated clauses and (2) a bone-tiredness for the unmerited praise of student peer reviews. As someone with a penchant for paragraph-length sentences, I find (1) wholly salutary; but (2) irks me endlessly. Why? In one of my undergraduate History of the English Language course, the professor handed out slips of paper on which he had written a single sentence and told everyone to decipher what it meant, because he wanted us to present the sentence and the paraphrase to the class in ten minutes. My sentence read:
Another thing there is that fixeth a grievous scandal upon that nation in matter of philargyrie, or love of money, and it is this: There hath been in London, and repairing to it, for these many years together, a knot of Scotish bankers, collybists, or coine-coursers, of traffickers in merchandise to and againe, and of men of other professions, who by hook and crook, fas et nefas, slight and might, (all being as fish their net could catch), having feathered their nests to some purpose, look so idolatrously upon their Dagon of wealth, and so closely, (like the earth’s dull center), hug all unto themselves, that for no respect of vertue, honour, kindred, patriotism, or whatever else, (be it never so recommendable), will they depart from so much as one single peny, whose emission doth not, without any hazard of loss, in a very short time superlucrate beyond all conscience an additionall increase to the heap of that stock which they so much adore; which churlish and tenacious humor hath made many that were not acquainted with any else of that country, to imagine all their compatriots infected with the same leprosie of a wretched peevishness, whereof those quomodocunquizing clusterfists and rapacious varlets have given of late such cannibal-like proofs, by their inhumanity and obdurate carriage towards some, (whose shoe-strings they are not worthy to unty), that were it not that a more able pen than mine will assuredly not faile to jerk them on all sides, in case, by their better demeanour for the future, they endeavour not to wipe off the blot wherewith their native country, by their sordid avarice and miserable baseness, hath been so foully stained, I would at this very instant blaze them out in their names and surnames, notwithstanding the vizard of Presbyterian zeal wherewith they maske themselves, that like so many wolves, foxes, or Athenian Timons, they might in all times coming be debarred the benefit of any honest conversation.
That would be from the EKΣKYBAΛAYPON of Thomas Urquhart, best known for his translations of Rabelais.* In Urquhart, Rabelais found less a translator than a kindred spirit; but in Urquhart’s prose, I found an unparaphraseable wall of words, before which I stood befuddled but impressed. Granted, I should have been impressed, so the analogy to peer reviews is imperfect; but my comprehension and subsequent paraphrase of Urquhart amounted to what I abhor in peer reviews: salivation at the sight of a dependent clause containing multiple polysyllabes and a “Good!” slapped in the margins—as if knowing big words and including them complex sentences means someone’s saying anything meaningful. But now that I teach composition exclusively, I see similar instances of unmerited praise everywhere:
When most former major leaguers write memoirs, you wonder why they bothered; with Ron Darling—Yale graduate, former New York Met and Oakland A, and current Mets broadcaster—you wonder why it took him so long. What other former athlete could write a sentence like this even with assistance from a professional writer (Daniel Paisner): “This right here [his legendary college pitching duel against St. Johns star Frank Viola**] was one of the great epiphanies for me as a competitive athlete, only it took a while for it to resonate.” Most former pitchers can’t resonate even with help.
Just so you know, my love of béisbol knows no limits; moreover, my love of the Mets generally, and Ron Darling in particular—both as a player and announcer—is unimpeachable. But for the San Fransisco Chronicle to praise a Yale graduate who double-majored in French and Southeast Asian history and who speaks both Chinese and French fluently—to praise him (if it was him and not his co-writer) for using the words “epiphany” and “resonate” makes me want to quodlibetificate into demission this clusterheaded intelligentry, the miserable baseness of whose expectations ought to debar them from the profession of letters.
*But who should be remembered for titling the second volume of his Logopandecteision; or an Introduction to the Universal Language thus: Chrestasebeia; or, Impious Dealing of Creditors Wherein the Severity of the Creditors of the Author’s Family is Desired to Be Removed, as a Main Impediment to the Production of this Universal Language, and Publication of Other No Less Considerable Treatises.
**The bracketed link takes you to 95 percent of Roger Angell’s “The Web of the Game,” a contender for the best essay about baseball ever written.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
271 notes (two hundred and seventy-one) from a novel I don’t remember reading.*
The resulting note wheel is as lovely as it is meaningless, because I remember absolutely nothing about The Damnation of Theron Ware. From my notes, I can almost reconstruct why I read it:
Theron enjoys the “primitive” pleasures of Catholic picnics; contrast to earlier (235-6) image of it as orderly machine; no, from sociological & intellectual perspective it’s orderly, from internal is primitive
If only I knew the antecedent of “it” I might be able to reconstruct my reason for reading the book. Am I the only one for whom the Five Year Rule applies? (And do I really want that question answered?)
*Notation borrowed from a letter Joyce wrote to his mother after arriving in Paris: “Your order for 3s 4d of Tuesday last was very welcome as I had been without food for 42 hours (forty-two).” How’s that for passive-aggression?
Friday, March 13, 2009
You thought I was going to mock the title, didn’t you?
Via Savage Minds, I came across this article from the July 2008 edition of Qualitative Inquiry:
I know everyone wants to cry Sokal and loose the hounds of sense, but the title is what the title is. I’m more curious about this:
I was fortunate to be mentored by Corrine Glesne, an absolutely wonderful ethnographer (Busier et al., 1997; Glesne, 1989, 1998, 2003; Martin & Glesne, 2002).
Do my eyes deceive me, or are those citations meant to substantiate the absolute wonderfulness of Corrine Glesne? Is this a cheap scheme to up the number of times people are cited in professional indexes? If so, how is it nobody’s—wait a minute. I just had an idea.
Have I ever told you how awesome you are? I haven’t? Well then, it’s about time that I did. It is my professional opinion that you are awesome. By the authority invested in me by the University of California, I hereby declare that each and every one of you possess more awesomeness than anyone has any right to. You can quote me on that. In fact, I insist that you do. Every time you appeal to your academic ethos, I’d like to see some variation of “Lest you doubt my authority, remember that reputable scholars have attested to my awesomeness (Kaufman 2009).” Feel free to practice in the comments.
For obvious reasons, I will x-post this everywhere. The more citations I score, the more reputable I become; and the more reputable I become, the more my stamp of approval’s worth. I think we have ourselves a win-win scenario here. So what are you waiting for? Start practicing already!
Friday, March 06, 2009
I performed an experiment on myself and I do believe I failed.
A friend sent me the text of a recent WSJ editorial entitled “Will This Crisis Produce a ‘Gatsby’?” I’ll link to it later—for now I want to recreate my bad-faith reading experience in all its glory. My first reaction was to the title, even though I know authors never write their own titles. But this one seemed sufficiently troublesome to warrant criticism. I wrote:
You would think someone at the WSJ would know that enough about literature to know that The Great Gatsby was published in 1925. If you grant the title its premises, the question should be “Did Someone Write a ‘Gatsby’ in 2004 and If So Who Was He or She and What Was the Title of It?” But that’s not quite right.
The WSJ‘s infuriating decision to publish the titles of books in quotation marks means that we’re not even sure whether the current crisis will be producing a novel affectionately called Gatsby or a fictional Jew with class insecurities who meets an untimely end. Because we have umpteen examples of the latter—Curb Your Enthusiasm may even be a Gatsby-in-progress. Tune in next season to find out!
But even that’s not quite right. Given that The Great Gatsby preceded the financial crisis by more than half a decade, maybe the author wants to claim that Fitzgerald’s slim volume caused the Great Depression. In which case we must discover and burn all copies of the mysterious 2004 novel or unwrite the fictional Jew. Obama said we all needed to chip in. This is how we, as literary scholars, can do our part!
Then I started reading the text itself. The mention of Louis Adamic seemed promising, and the rest of the article built what I took to be a fairly solid case until the last few paragraphs:
John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath” made the Joad family’s flight from the dust bowl into an emblem of people coming together to remake their world. A similar image was implicit in the very title of Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor’s documentary book “An American Exodus.” Even works of light entertainment like the massively popular “Gone With the Wind” or John Ford’s landmark Western “Stagecoach” were in keeping with the prevailing message of the times. All these works told of epic journeys in which a group of people overcame destructive competition in their discovery of a common destiny. Each called for Americans to act collectively to remake a democratic society where opportunity would be open to all.
In effect, such declarations helped lay the cultural groundwork for the New Deal, providing the ideological infrastructure for the new governmental institutions created during the ‘30s.
If there’s one thing I learned writing my dissertation, it’s that you can’t throw words like “ideology” around like that—especially not when you’re claiming that a book published in 1939 laid the groundwork for the policies that were curtailed in 1939 by “Dr. Win-the-War.” If I’d tried to end-around history like that I would’ve—I don’t know what would’ve happened to me, actually, because I’d learned early in my graduate career to avoid situations in which I could be browbeaten by “the fact, man, the irrefragable fact!"
I continued blustering on—scrolling back up the article, snipping the bits that confirmed my claim of sloppy historicism and snarking mightily upon them—until I returned to those final paragraphs and hit the byline:
Sean McCann, a professor of English at Wesleyan University, is the author of “A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government."
At first I thought I’d been pranked. Then I realized I’d done it to myself: I’d read the article about as uncharitably as it could be read. I’d clipped the sections suggestive of causality . . . and ignored all those that spoke directly to the notion that the cultural output of the ‘30s reflected a growing disenchantment with the vision of social mobility that’d been aggressively asserted in the ‘20s. See Sean’s article for all the details.
Me? I’m off to go where they send half-cocked purveyors of online opinion when they misbehave: to The Corner. (Dunce cap not optional.)
Saturday, February 14, 2009
Infodumps or Constellations?
The infodump, as Todd VanDerWerff points out, may well be the single generic feature shared by all flavors of science fiction:
You might find some infodumping in a Western or in a period piece, but for the most part, we know the rules those genres play by because those genres take place in our reality, just in the past . . . . To a large degree, the division between hard and soft [science fiction] often hinges on things like infodumps. The hard [science fiction] is often for the people who are really, really interested in the science part of the science fiction equation. The soft stuff skews more toward the fiction end of things and isn’t particularly concerned with plausibility much of the time.
This strikes me as wrong in one crucial respect: the infodumps about which people complain occur at the outset of a work. They’re presented as the technological enablers of the narrative to follow. They are exposition before the fact—before readers have any emotional investment in the characters whose narratives are enabled by the infodumped technology. No surprise, then, that people whose primarily invest in character or narrative find the lengthy technological preambles of hard science fiction off-putting.
To label as infodump the exposition on the Battlestar Galactica episode “No Exit“ is to be a little too literal. “No Exit” did “dump” quite a bit of “info” on its audience, but the information was not intended to make the narrative work, because it already does. You cannot have an infodump four seasons into a series: you can only have a revelation. The argument should be whether too much information was revealed too quickly, but what else were the characters meant to do? Naming an episode after Sartre’s No Exit signals a forthcoming entrapment of the character’s own devising. Their Hell will be the other people they’re trapped with.
But that’s not where I’m headed with this post. I think the thematic parallels with Sartre’s play are important—certainly significant is the implication that this is a Hell of their own devising, one in which they remain not by force or compulsion, but through fear of the unknown. (That all the characters begin by talking about what happened on Earth, only to become increasingly occupied with their own infighting seems an important parallel, even if I am being a bit literal.) What I want to focus on the effect on a viewer when almost 70 hours of thin-streaming history are followed by one of torrential exposition.
On a certain type of reader/viewer, the result is little different than the cumulative effect reading Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest; namely, this person feels like the night sky yearns to snap into constellations—he feels like the heavens look down on, disappointed, because some personal failing prevents him from discovering the order they contain. So what does this person do?
If he’s reading Ulysses, he maps Joyce’s universe onto the tram-lines of William Martin Murphy in order to demonstrate that
[Stephen’s] attempts at upward mobility are futile, frustrated in large part by Murphy’s reluctance to lower the tramfare. However, were Murphy to lower the tramfare, the people riding the tramcars would no longer comprise a tram-riding elite, and Stephen’s desire to ride the tramlines might atrophy into little more than a timesaving utilitarian impulse. Understood in this manner, Stephen becomes a pathetic figure obsessed with belonging to a class he can only feign membership in on payday.
If he’s watching Battlestar Galactica, he writes the following post.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
How to teach [non-canonical] material responsibly in a composition class.
Since I seem to have started a series:
- How to teach film responsibly in a composition class (The Dark Knight)
- How to teach comics responsibly in a composition class (Watchmen)
TypePad generated the ugliest URL I’ve ever seen for that second link. (I only hope that doesn’t somehow reflect its content.)