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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 Last Night
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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.

Email Address: scotterickaufman@gmail.com
Website: http://acephalous.typepad.com


Posts by Scott Eric Kaufman

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The stigma of sessional work

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 12/02/08 at 10:50 PM

Given how lovely the market is this year, I wonder how faculty who earned tenure in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s will respond to up-and-coming scholars who slummed as adjuncts or lecturers during the Great Recession of the December 2007 and Counting.  Will they convince themselves they marketed their wares when the state of the nation was equally bleak? 

Jonathan Culler of Boston prepares to return home after successfully landing a job at MLA 1974.

Or will they admit that the prospects for the current crop of newly-minted doctorates are sufficiently dim that the ban on hiring anyone who deigned to take a position because he liked food and needed shelter should be lifted?

Friday, November 21, 2008

How not to use Theory’s Empire

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/21/08 at 06:49 AM

Scanning through the critical literature on Kafka—the dissertation finished, I’m free to pursue old ideas—I run into an essay which uses Theory’s Empire in the very manner the anthology’s critics assumed everyone would.  I will, however, Google-proof my exasperation by replacing all mentions of Derrida and things Derridean with cognates of the word carrot.  The essay begins:

The 2005 volume includes major reassessments of poststructuralist theory, notably [The Carrot’s] . . . . The emphasis on “undecidability” in Kafka can be viewed as symptomatic of the influence of [Carrot] Theory embraced by the American literary academy in the 1970s and 1980s . . . . But [lowercase-c carrot’s] skeptical effect undermined the certitude that Kafka was a politically important novelist. For its detractors, the [carrotist] view that there is “nothing outside of the text” ignores that texts like Kafka’s have shaped human lives and human history.

Reductive enough for you?  No?  How about this?

Wellek, who helped to introduce [Carrot] theory to American literature departments, now asserts that [carrots] have destroyed literary studies, while Frederick Crews argues that “[the Carrot’s] judgment that ‘there is nothing outside the text’ automatically precludes recourse to evidence.” In Crews’s view, “both [the Carrot] and his myriad followers think nothing of appropriating and denaturing propositions from systems of thought whose premises they have already rejected.” Thomas Nagel goes further in condemning “post-modern relativism” as a “quick fix” which puts reason to sleep. In Theory’s Empire, [the Carrot]’s language is described as a “maze,” a “prison house of language,” a “limbo of combined attention and nonassertion."

These assessments appeal to raw authority.  Crews and Nagel hate on [the Carrot] and rightly so.  Why?  Because [the Carrot’s] language is as empty and invidious as that of Kafka’s bureaucrats:

[T]o what degree do [the Carrot’s] rhetorical devices and ingenious language games resemble the language of the Courtiers who torture Joseph K.?

Care to guess what conclusion the author draws?  I take comfort in the thought that everyone will admit this is an awful appropriation of the thought forwarded in Theory’s Empire—that it is to academic argument what posts on Kos are to nuanced political thought—but remember that this sort of anti-intellectual response is exactly what the anthology’s detractors warned would follow if it ever gained traction.  While I think this falls under “the abuses” instead of “the uses” of the collection, I still feel the queasy creep of wrongness starting to settle in . . . .

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bolaño’s 2666, Part I: “They supplied the stamp of ultraconcrete canonical literature . . .”

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/20/08 at 01:20 AM

So submits Roberto Bolaño, in the universally praised 2666, about scholars like me.  He falls prey here to the Robertson Davies’ romance of academic life, in which even minor disagreements are elevated to shrieks against creed as red in claw as they are long in the tooth.  Scholars like myself and Bolaño’s “insignificant Serbian critic” argue passionately but ultimately purposelessly, for the “ideas, assertions, denials, [and] doubts” we don’t have are

free of any intent to serve as guide, [are] neither pro nor con, just an eye seeking out the tangible elements, not judging them but simply displaying them coldly, archaeology of the facsimile, and, by the same token, of the photocopier. (55)

That Bolaño flips Benjamin the finger here is obvious enough.  A work of art emancipated from “its parasitical dependence on ritual“ bobs on the restless and relentless tide of technological progress, degraded first by facsimile, later by photocopier, today by scanner, by email, tomorrow by technologies of reproduction yet to be invented. 

His academics drift aimlessly, a cult without a leader, dependent upon the ritual of reading Benno von Archimboldi (the author whose biography is as mysterious as his novels are spectacular) but incomplete without personal, unmediated contact with the him.

They coagulate into a cult and embrace its trappings, its curdled factions, apostasies, anathemas, the evidences of intellectual combat in extremis.   Their soft solid masses attend conferences devoted to German literature, chair panels in which their opponents counter their “festive, Dionysian vision of ultimate carnival” by “[speaking] of suffering . . . civic duty . . . [and] humor” (12). 

They do this often, eleven times by my count, across a Europe overteeming with conferences devoted to high modernist literature about which Bolaño only speaks of obliquely through a critical language emptied of everything but the academic clichés, brood references to solitary men and their signal women. 

When this sullen lot “[meets] their Moses” (23), a Swabbian journalist who once spoke directly to their absent father, Archimboldi, they discombobulate like jealous underlings: Pelletier (male) and Espinoza (male) bed Norton (female), ignore Morini (cripple), contemplate polyamory and redirect their incestuous agresssion away from their totemized father and toward the hapless Pakistani cabbie disgusted by the frankness of the conversation.  The cabbie confessed

that London was such a labyrinth, he really had lost his bearings. 

Which led Espinoza [male] to remark that he’d be damned if the cabbie hadn’t just quoted Borges, who once said London was like a labyrinth—unintentionally, of course.  To which Norton [female] replied that Dickens and Stevenson had used the same trope long before Borges in their descriptions of London.  This seemed to set the driver off, for he burst out that as a Pakistani he might not know this Borges, and he might not have read the famous Dickens and Stevenson either, and he might not even know London and its streets as well as he should, that’s why he’d said they were a labyrinth, but he knew very well what decency and dignity were, and by what he had heard, the woman here present, in other words Norton, was lacking in decency and dignity, and in his country there was a word for what she was, the same word they had for it in London as it happened, and that word was bitch or slut or pig, and the gentlemen here present, gentlemen who, to judge by their accents, weren’t English, also had a name in his county and that name was pimp or hustler or whoremonger.  (73)

Had but the cabbie been aware that these well-dressed gentlemen were Freudian primitives he might have been prepared for the violence of their ugly surprise,

the hail of Iberian kicks that proceeded to rain down on him, kicks delivered at first by Espinoza [male] alone, but then by Pelletier [male] too, when Espinoza flagged, despite Norton’s [female] shouts at them to stop, despite Norton’s objections that that violence didn’t solve anything, that in fact after this beating the Pakistani would hate the English even more, something that apparently mattered little to Pelletier, who wasn’t English, and even less to Espinoza, both of whom nevertheless insulted the Pakistani in English as they kicked him, without caring in the least that he was down, curled into a ball on the ground, as they delivered kick after kick, shove Islam up your ass, which is where it belongs, this one is for Salman Rushdie (an author neither of them happened to think was much good but whose mentioned seemed pertinent), this one is for the feminists of Paris (will you fucking stop, Norton was shouting), this one is for the feminists of New York (you’re going to kill him, shouted Norton), this one is for the ghost of Valerie Solanas, you son of a bitch, and on and on, until he was unconscious and bleeding from every orafice in the head, except the eyes. (74)

Here my sad parody collapses before the force of Bolaño’s prose.  The slack parenthetical screams would sound forced or tinny were they deployed inexpertly or paced differently or not so damn distanced from the bloodied, beating immigrant body sprawled dumbly before character and reader alike. 

Not that Bolaño nails acadmic life, what with his hammer being fixated on imaginary prey, and what with his romantic obsession with authenticity and unmeddled communion of artist and critic, but a complaint about how he depicts the chill aftermath of Espinoza and Pelletier’s outburst must be lodged by actual academics, the ones whose breath is caught and heart broken with every blow, because if I beat some ignorant fuck near to death I tell you now it wouldn’t matter how ignorant or much of a fuck he was, it would take two  hands and a foot to count the decades before I could return to my “labors as fresh as daisies” or begin “writing and attending conferences again with uncommon energy” (85).  

P.S.  Not every post will fall to the thrall Bolaño’s prose quite so deep or earnestly.  I have a problem, I admit it, a desire to emulate clumsily what I read, but if I have any ear for tone, and I’m not saying that I do, it owes a blood debt to this compulsion.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Golden Notebook Project

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/11/08 at 12:47 AM

The Institute for the Future of the Book‘s Golden Notebook Project went live today.  Here’s the Institute’s Bob Stein on it:

On November 10th, The Institute for the Future of the Book kicks off an experiment in close reading. Seven women will read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and carry on a conversation in the margins. The idea for the project arose out of my experience re-reading the novel in the summer of 2007 just before Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature. The Golden Notebook was one of the two or three most influential books of my youth and I decided I wanted to “try it on” again after so many years. It turned out to be one of the most interesting reading experiences of my life. With an interval of thirty-seven years the lens of perception was so different; things that stood out the first-time around were now of lesser importance, and entire themes I missed the first time came front and center. When I told my younger colleagues what I was reading, I was surprised that not one of them had read it, not even the ones with degrees in English literature.  It occurred to me that it would be very interesting to eavesdrop on a conversation between two readers, one under thirty, one over fifty or sixty, in which they react to the book and to each other’s reactions. And then of course I realized that we now actually have the technology to do just that. Thanks to the efforts of Chris Meade, my colleague and director of if:book London, the Arts Council England enthusiastically and generously agreed to fund the project. Chris was also the link to Doris Lessing who through her publisher HarperCollins signed on with the rights to putting the entire text of the novel online. 

Fundamentally this is an experiment in how the web might be used as a space for collaborative close-reading. We don’t yet understand how to model a complex conversation in the web’s two-dimensional environment and we’re hoping this experiment will help us learn what’s necessary to make this sort of collaboration work as well as possible. In addition to making comments in the margin, we expect that the readers will also record their reactions to the process in a group blog. In the public forum, everyone who is reading along and following the conversation can post their comments on the book and the process itself.

I don’t believe the effort’s entirely unprecedented, but it’s the sort of endeavor (and meta-endeavor, if you will) that we can and should throw our weight behind.  I’ll say more as the project progresses, as the novel falls victim to the five year rule twice-over. 

Friday, November 07, 2008

“I have no literary interests; something else: I am made of literature.”

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/07/08 at 08:03 PM

So wrote Kafka on LF 304 and BrF 444.  No, I don’t know what those mean either.  Princeton only posted Stanley Corngold’s introduction to Franz Kafka: The Office Writings, so the citations function as cryptic references to private files collected, collated, duplicated and made available to people in the employ of a vast bureaucracy.* (Apt, ain’t it?) Corngold likes to pair the titular quotation with nonce word from Br 384 and L 333: Schriftstellersein, which he translates here as “the being of a writer,” but elsewhere [.pdf] as “the condition of being a writer."**

His intention, here as at that elsewhere, is to create a continuum between Kafka’s Schriftstellersein and his Beamtensein, or “official self,” that is, between the literature he scratched out between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. and the sanctioned documents he produced at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia.  Intuitively, this seems as sound as “Petition of the Toy Producers’ Association” sounds like it could adorn one of his short stories.  There’s a catch:

Kafka didn’t write “Petition of the Toy Producers’ Association,” but “Petition of the Toy Producers’ Association in Katharinaberg, Erzgebirge,” a title whose specificity ruins its effect.  It’s a document Kafka never distilled, never labored over as he did his literary work.  Not that he wasn’t an able lawyer: on 26 November 1912, he won a settlement of 4,500 kronen on behalf of the Institute, but he did so on a “maddening trip to Kratzau” (LF 64).  Why “maddening”?  Because it’d interrupted the proper composition of “The Metamorphosis”:

This kind of story should be written with no more than one interruption, in two ten-hour sessions; then it would have its natural spontaneous flow . . . . But I haven’t got twice ten hours at my disposal.  So one has to try to do the best one can, since the very best has been denied to one. (LF 64)

Obviously, Kafka’s emphasis is formal, not rhetorical here--the flow of the story shaped by experience of its composition--but that’s my point: when Kafka stood before the District Court of Kratzau in November 1912, he read a document he’d written to persuade the Court to settle in his favor.  It’s no more literary than the fifty-three letters he’d written Felice Bauer in November and December 1912 to persuade her that he would visit, couldn’t visit, wouldn’t visit, must visit, will visit never mind won’t visit her that Christmas.  (That’s undecidability in action, folks.***) Not that it isn’t important.  As an historicist, I value the documents in the same way I value the letters.  But I don’t understand the desire for equivalence here. 

Kafka may’ve written about and on behalf of bureaucracies, and there’s no small amount of interest in the intersection, but that’s no reason to collapse one into the other.  This isn’t like David Foster Wallace’s notes for The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, which are aimed at writers composed in his signature stylistic quirk.  Or is it?  Talk me down, people, lest I flatten every last bit of word by a genius intoThat way lies madness.


*Sometimes I play coy.  So shoot me, but then consult--if you can brave the German--Briefe an Felice, ed. Erich Heller and Jurgen Born.  (Cowards can try their hand at Letters to Felice, trans. James Stern and Elizabeth Duckworth.)

**A distinction of interest to hardcore Heideggerians, no doubt, but me not so much.

***Not really.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

So I fared, dragging all precepts, judgments, maxims, creeds, like culprits to the bar.

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/05/08 at 11:11 PM

Rick Brookhiser thinks he can fool us.  He quotes a bit from Book XI of The Prelude so that American conservatives might better understand how their liberal counterparts feel tonight.  Here’s some of the Wordsworth he cherry-picked:

O pleasant exercise of hope and  joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, us who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that  dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven! O  times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding  ways               
Of custom, law, and statute, took at  once
The attraction of a country in romance!

Superficial readers of Great Books make this sort of mistake all the time.  They half-remember some passage from their undergraduate Brit Lit survey and feel wicked clever.  They think:  "’The attraction of a country in romance’?  Sounds like Obama.  The world must know that I once read a Lake Poet.  To the internet!"  Then they post a passage from The Prelude in which Wordsworth mocks his younger self for the optimism he felt during the first days of the French Revolution.  So what does Brookhiser think it’s like to be a liberal in America today? 

It’s like being an old goat who’s spent decades rewriting an epic poem about his intellectual development while he’s deriding the only moment in his entire life in which he allowed optimism to enter his black heart.  For a second I thought he might’ve claimed this on purpose, so that when liberals are fed up with an inadequately leftist Obama he can link to that post and say, "I told you!  You didn’t realize it at the time, you uneducated twunts, but I told you!"  Then he’ll insert the ellipsed bits:

In the main outline, such it might be said
Was my condition, till with open war
Britain opposed the liberties of France.
This threw me first out of the pale of love;
Soured and corrupted, upwards to the source,
My sentiments; was not, as hitherto,
A swallowing up of lesser things in great,            
But change of them into their contraries;
And thus a way was opened for mistakes
And false conclusions, in degree as gross,
In kind more dangerous. What had been a pride,
Was now a shame . . .

He’ll claim: "I told them they would be disappointed in someone new!  Did they listen?  Of course not!"  Once our "events brought less encouragement" and were "[w]orn out in greatness, stripped of novelty," Brookhiser’ll pop from the bushes and shock us with his erudite ellision and we’ll be forced to admit we’d been punked by a Joe Sixpack who happened to graduate from Yale. 

Then I remembered the sort of mind I was dealing with and drew a bath. 


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

“This Sandworm anon let flee a fart, as gret as it hadde ben a thundir dent.”

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/08/08 at 10:42 PM

On this day in 1920, Frank Herbert Jr. was born.  Herbert devoted six years to “researching” what would become the most popular science fiction novel of all time. I’ve always wondered what counts as “research” when writing a novel.  I can understand the need for writers of hard science fiction to familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of a particular field, but for someone like Herbert, wouldn’t “world-building” more accurately describe his efforts?  I say this because Herbert describes a world in which the mysticism and magic have replaced science and technology.

This time I am lifting from Adam Robert‘s excellent History of Science Fiction, in which he claims “one of the book’s greatest strengths is its detailed and plausible rendering of the political context” (236).  What Herbert spent six years “researching,” then, was the complex political environs of the interplanetary empire he’d invented because Dune‘s reputation as an environmental novel is undeserved.  The overgrown extremophiles who inhabit Arrakis are humans from Earth, but somehow survive on a planet with no viable means to create or sustain an atmosphere.  As Roberts writes:

We may wonder, for instance, how Dune’s atmosphere is oxygenated in the absence of planetary vegetation.  In later books Herbert suggests that the sandworms fart oxygen, which hardly address the problem. [Edited to reflect my poor editorial skills, not Adam’s.]

Indeed, without an atmospheric density in the neighborhood of 1.2 kg/m³ it wouldn’t matter what element those sandworms farted--it would’ve drifted up and away.  And where did all that sand come from anyway?  The most efficient means of producing sand is wave action, but even if Herbert wanted to be inefficient, a little research would’ve taught him that sand requires big rocks and weathering processes.  The geological history of a planet consisting entirely of sand is--will you let me get my geology geek on, please?  The opportunities to do so are few and very far between.  Fine then.  I’ll be mysterious.*

I don’t mean to diminish Herbert’s accomplishments in Dune.  So long as he was alive, the series educated science types about the nuances and niceties of medieval politics.  (The process, if not the history.) That said, I always found Herbert’s forecast of future history more than a little pessimistic.  Like the Terminator and Battlestar Galactica franchises, the Dune sextet pivots on a war between man and formerly enslaved machine, the result of which was a return to a pre-computational society.  The mentats are bred--"Fancy meeting you here, dissertation.  Please GO AWAY."--they are bred to be mathematical savants, and spice mystically allows for interstellar travel sans star-charts.  So, no computers needed.  However, Herbert’s novels seem to argue that a rejection of the modern technology entails a rejection of modern political systems--as if dispensing with the convenience of a calculator is the first sign of feudalism’s revival.

Besides the obvious problem with this--somehow those Athenians managed to be quasi-democratic before the Age of Apple--and despite Herbert’s obvious critique of hierarchy and messianic thought, I can’t help but think the novels engender a nostalgia for certainty in their readers.  We might not know how spice works, but Our Dear God-Emperor surely does.  (Despite having personally and purposely evolved into a human-sandworm hybrid--about which plot-point my dissertation rears its head like Giant Putin over unsuspecting Alaska.  So I’ll stop now lest I invite insanity in, slap it on the back, and offer it a brew--which is, yes, how a body feels about a dissertation recently completed.  I hear tell this subsides in time, but so far I’ve felt none of it.)


*By which I don’t mean anything like “I sat here trying to think what would have to happen for such a planet to come about--including, but not limited to, a cessation of mountain-building after a period of intense weathering by something other than water, since water poisons the marvelous beasts who produce the spice melange and whose evolution would’ve spanned untold eons.” I don’t mean anything like that.  I know the answer, I’m simply not in the mood to share.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

When am I not reading early modern poetry?

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/02/08 at 03:22 PM

Am I the only one who thinks Glenn Reynolds only knew this quotation because it’s the name of a popular science fiction trilogy?  Because it certainly doesn’t mean what he thinks it means, as William Graham Sumner—one of the three people on whom the label "social Darwinist" can be pinned in good faith—noted in 1877:

Fluctuations in the measure of value are as inconvenient and fatal as fluctuations in the measure of length and bulk . . . . Business is turned into a guess, or a game of hazard, where the prevailing anarchy is overruled by accident:—

                                  "Chaos umpire sits
And by decision more embroils the fray
By which he reigns; next him high arbiter
Chance governs all."

In such a condition of things the gamblers have the advantage.  The stock exchange becomes little better than a faro bank . . . . The temptation of excessive gains leads from the beaten path of business.  Speculation without money takes the place of honest industry, extending from the stock exchange everywhere . . . . Honesty ceases to be even a policy.  (Works 472)

This is not to say Reynolds is interested in honesty, merely that he doesn’t seem to know what words mean.


Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Conference Announcement: Public Spheres, Blogospheres

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/30/08 at 09:25 AM

Presented by HumaniTech and the UCI Humanities Center on Friday, 24 October 2008 in 135 HIB.  The whole day looks fascinating, but this panel should be a thing of great and terrible profundity:

(10:45) Blogging and the Academy

Eszter Hargittai, Crooked Timber
Tedra Osell, Bitch Ph.D.
Scott Kaufman, Acephalous/The Valve

Moderator: Catherine Lui, UC Irvine

Before you ask: Tedra and I are indeed a package deal.  (I considered getting the band back together and asking Bérubé and Holbo to join us, but Singapore’s far away and Bérubé’s not a blogger anymore.) My edgier side would’ve been listed, but Eric and Ari’s didn’t consider margins when they christened this place.

The other panels:

(9:15) Public Spheres, Reason and Rationality in the 18th Century

Sean Greenberg, UC Irvine
John Smith, UC Irvine

Moderator: Ann Van Sant, UC Irvine

(2:00) The Transnational Public: China and Iran

Kenneth Pomeranz, The China Beat
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, The China Beat
Elham Gheytanchi, Huffington Post

Moderator: Alison Brysk, UC Irvine

(3:45) Election 2008

Ezra Klein, The American Prospect
Kevin Roderick, LA Observed
John Wiener, UC Irvine

Moderator: Amy Wilentz, Huffington Post

(5:15) Wrap-up, Round Table, & Reception

Thursday, September 25, 2008

My “reading” list for the Fall Quarter

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/25/08 at 06:58 AM

  1. Batman Begins
  2. Detective Comics #47
  3. "The Myth of Superman," Umberto Eco
  4. Superman Returns
  5. Action Comics #1
  6. Planetary #10
  7. Watchmen
  8. Stan Lee’s Watchmen
  9. "The World Ozymandias Made," Matthew Wolf-Meyer
  10. "The Zeppo"
  11. Supreme

Before you hoist pitchfork, carefully consider the following points:

  1. I’m teaching a composition course on rhetoric.  The point is not to have them read literature, but understand rhetoric.  Given the dominance of visual rhetoric today, my emphasis on visual literacy should be understandable. 
  2. This course is writing intensive.  Some teachers prefer to teach texts that model the sort of prose they want their students to produce.  But study after study has shown that having undergraduates read Emerson has no effect on the quality of their prose.  (Or the effect may be wholly deleterious, as when students who can’t nest clauses come to believe their teachers expect them to write like Emerson.)  By shifting the time-intensiveness of the course from the consumption of rhetorically-loaded works to the production and refinement of rhetorical analyses, I think I’ll have a better chance to improve the quality of their writing in the 10 weeks I have with them.
  3. Spandex.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

hey is yr cours required?*

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/24/08 at 09:25 PM


im in yor thurs class (9 am) and thats earlier so y is it this class is requirment?  hears how i see it: im lookin to start my own detailin bizness and i already know how to order parts n shit its not they asks for formal invititations for 23 inches u make sur they get paid and thats it.  like i told my boy the other day

This is the first generation of college students for whom familiarity with alternative modes of literacy may be essential to their success in the marketplace of ideas.  While the conventional definition of literacy still holds sway among educators and the old business elite, digital literacy—the very modes of communication disdained by the current arbiters of professional decorum—will confer upon the next generation of business executives a competitive advantage their forebears cannot even imagine.

so yeah like i said it may be competitionly to my advantages to focus maybe on digital thoughts instead a stringing words one after another to impres the likes of u?  i mean do u even care about yr rims.  whut u drive yo?

*Being an object lesson for my composition class tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A David Foster Wallace Syllabus

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/23/08 at 08:09 PM

(via UD.)

One of David Foster Wallace’s students posted the syllabus to his “Literary Interpretation” course.  Before anyone accuses me of taking a morbid interest in the recently deceased, let me say this: people who write syllabi appreciate a fine syllabi, and this is a fine syllabi.  Here’s the “BASIC COURSE SPIEL”:

The goals of this section of E67 are to survey certain important forms of modern literature—short stories, novels, poems—and to introduce you to some techniques for achieving a critical appreciation of literary art.  “Critical appreciation” means having smart, sophisticated reasons for liking whatever literature you like, and being able to articulate those reasons to other people, especially in writing.  Vital for critical appreciation is the ability to “interpret” a piece of literature, which basically means coming up with a cogent, interesting account of what a piece of lit means, what it’s trying to do to/for the reader, what technical choices the author’s made in order to achieve the effects she wants, and so on.  As you can probably anticipate, the whole thing gets very complicated and abstract and hard, which is one reason why entire college departments are devoted to studying and interpreting literature.

From the “Caveat Emptor Page”:

(2) Your instructor has taught intro lit courses before, but not for several years, and never before at a college this selective. The upshot is that there may be a certain pedagogical clunkiness about this section of English 67. You will, in effect, be helping me learn how to teach this class. The level of our discussions may have to be adjusted up, or down, depending on how well-prepared you guys are and how quickly you catch on to the concepts and techniques of “close reading.” Certain approaches might turn out to be a waste of time. There may be abrupt changes in the syllabus. Extra work may be added. Let me say that again: Extra work may be added.

(4) Your instructor has high standards for the written work you turn in. Take another close look at Course Rules & Procedures Items 4 and 7 on page 3 of the syllabus. I know that many professors say this kind of hard-ass stuff at the beginning of the term but don’t actually mean it or enforce it as the course wears on. I, however, do mean it, and I will enforce it—feel free to verify this with students who’ve taken other classes with me. If you want to improve your academic writing and are willing to put extra time and effort into it, I am a good teacher to have. But if you’re used to whipping off papers the night before they’re due, running them quickly through the computer’s Spellchecker, handing them in full of high-school errors and sentences that make no sense, and having the professor accept them “because the ideas are good” or something, please be informed that I draw no distinction between the quality of one’s ideas and the quality of those ideas’ verbal expression, and that I will not accept sloppy, rough-draftish, or semiliterate college writing. Again, I am absolutely not kidding.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Old concerns addressed anew: on academic reviewing then, now, and later

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/17/08 at 09:01 PM

As I mentioned yesterday, the new issue of American Literary History addresses the limitations of the modern academic book review.  To my mind, there are two fundamental problems with contemporary reviews.  The first is the form’s conceit:

[N]o one assumes any academic reviewer is without methodological bias.  There is no singular conception of quality to which an academic reviewer can pretend to measure a work against.  Despite this, most academic reviews are written as if there were[.]

What I’m about to propose won’t solve that problem, but it will begin to address the second one.  In his editorial note, Gordon Hutner makes a point that should sound very familiar to long-time readers:

Every scholarly book published in the humanities should be widely read, discussed and reviewed—should have it’s own lively blog comment box, not to put too fine a point on it. Because any scholarly book incapable of rousing a modest measure of sustained, considerate, intelligent chat from a few dozen souls who specialize in that area shouldn’t have been published as a book—i.e. after several years labor and an average production cost of $25,000. Turning the point around: any book worth that time and expense, that fails to be widely read, discussed and reviewed—that is not given it’s own blog comment box—has been dramatically failed by the academic culture in which it was so unfortunate as to be born.

That’s John, not Hutner, in The Valve‘s inaugural post.  Now here’s Hutner in ALH:

My idea was that too many books have been forgotten or reviewed badly, in the sense that reviewers might not have had the categories to appreciate their arguments, or that their achievements were misprized—or they had unjustifiably passed without pertinent comment at all.

His solution?

I asked . . . scholars to select books that they believed had been ill served. The authors’ only constraint was that ALH should not have already featured the book for review.  This volume provides a chance to catch up on titles that have proved exciting or that now excite further recognition. During ALH’s twentieth anniversary, I wanted the journal to register how the ongoing process of shaping our field might be ascertained through the way books have been reviewed over the last two decades. Such a set of reviews, taken together, might tell us more about the state of professing American literary studies. So I then asked three respected critic-scholars to weigh the record of our authors’ reassessments.

The intent’s laudable and the constraint understandable for a print journal—but The Valve is not a print journal.  Nor do we need to wait twenty minutes, much less twenty years, before we review monographs whose only impact has been the tap of their spines on the metal shelves of a university library.  We could have a weekly feature where contributors (and invited non-contributors) could discuss a book whose importance is poorly reflected in citation indexes. 

And so we will.  I’ve already put out a few feelers—I’d like authors to realize their work has been recognized and invited to respond—but I’d like to encourage other contributors (and non-contributors) to think about that book, you know, the one that was vital to their intellectual development, but whose lone citation seems to be in their unpublished dissertation.  Think of it as a labor of love with professional benefits.  If you have something in mind that you’d like to write up, drop me a line in the comments or by email. 

What I say for books applies to articles too—the unjustly interred deserve unearthing regardless of page-length—but I concentrated on book-length studies today because ALH did.  I want to discuss what the contributors to the ALH—including friends of The Valve like Michael Bérubé and Amanda Claybaugh—actually do in their respective articles, and tomorrow I will.  I don’t want the particularities of what ALH did to impact people’s impressions of what I want to do here. 

Monday, September 15, 2008

“How to Be an Asshole,” by John Ziegler*

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/15/08 at 11:30 PM

1. Use someone’s suicide to repeat cheap talking points:

I was neither as surprised, nor as upset by this tragedy as the many in the elite realm of reputable literature seemed to be.

2. Use someone’s suicide to assert your own importance:

I have a truly unique perspective on David Foster Wallace’s suicide.

3. Criticize someone for being polite and modest:

I found him to be more than a bit eccentric, but certainly nice enough not to be bothered too much by his presence.

4. Claim someone spent:

[A]t least two months following my every move before and during the broadcast of my show.

5. Then claim this person:

[H]ad intended to write a hit piece on talk radio and use me as the easy and naïve target.

6. Flaunt your ignorance:

I am embarrassed to say that I did not even know who David Foster Wallace was and I was too stupid or lazy to bother to simply “Google” him. It was only when the article was finally published that I realized what a “big deal” he was supposed to be.

7. Remind people of it:

[A]nyone who attempts to read the 23-page cover story is immediately struck by the use of many boxes off to the side of each page where Wallace shares his parenthetical thoughts/statements to his undisciplined telling of the story.

8. Once you’ve admitted surprise at the foonotes—thereby demonstrating you did no more research after you allowed him access than you did before—speak hard truths about his talent:

But I also believe that there is an equally fine line between real genius and just plain weirdness. In my experience, Wallace had very little of the former, so he exaggerated the latter.

9. Glory in the evaluative freedom your ignorance affords you:

It is therefore far better to be weird and thought, at worst, to be “too smart for the room,” than to play it straight and be revealed as a “one hit wonder” or even a total fraud.

10. Despite “absolutely no evidence to backup [sic] this assertion,” claim this fraud committed suicide for personal gain:

While I have absolutely no evidence to backup this assertion, I also think it is quite possible that he knew that killing himself in his “prime” and before he had been totally exposed as being a mere mortal in the literary realm would cement his status as a “genius” forever.

11. Be a talentless AM radio hack whose name no one will remember tomorrow and write this:

David Foster Wallace was an overrated writer in life. His suicide should not be used to elevate him even further beyond what he deserved, in death.

12. Acknowledge this:

I know that it is considered bad form, or worse, to speak ill of the newly dead[.]

13. Then do it anyway.

*Pardon my French, but sometimes—just sometimes—nothing less will do.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/15/08 at 02:11 PM

This place looks familiar.  But maybe it’s me.  Last time I was here, as Adam kindly noted, I was a bit different.  When I took my leave in May 2007, I wrote:

[T]his is the probably the last substantive post you’ll see from me here until sometime in 2008.  I’ve explained why over here, but I’m sure it’s no mystery why someone in the final push to finish his dissertation doesn’t have time to write formal posts.  I’ll still be blogging research notes and uninspired parodies over at Acephalous, however, so I hope you’ll stop by.  If not, I’ll see you when Battlestar Galactica returns.

Since it is 2008, I suppose I didn’t technically lie—but I did accept the editorial reins back in February and, if I’m not mistaken, tomorrow’s Halloween.  (As a friend recently told me, you’re three months from finishing your dissertation for two years, then you’re done.) Although I haven’t been around, I haven’t been absent either.  Joe and I have recruited new contributors; I’ve processed new memberships (for “people” whose email addresses don’t have Russian domains); I’ve moderated comments (by “people” who don’t offer deep discounts on sin); and I’ve arranged book events (like the Trilling one, which I arranged for someone else to moderate, and Rohan’s “Summer Reading Project” on Adam Bede, which I’m stealing credit for because it turned out so well people complained about the Trilling).

Let me pull that last bit from the parenthetical.  Having enjoyed the Eliot event, Sue G-J expressed disappointment in our choice of Trilling.  There are two ways to look at this—we can dwell on the fact that a reader wasn’t tickled by an upcoming event, or we can consider the fact that Rohan’s Adam Bede event was so beloved she raised our reader’s expectations about all future book events.  I’m not about to complain about a demanding, committed audience—but I will take a moment to remind members of it that The Valve can’t please all of its readers all of the time. 

The success of a book event isn’t defined by the number of comments it generates.  The Theory’s Empire event resulted in thousands upon thousands of comments, yet when John started sifting through them—correct me if I’m wrong here, John—so many were boilerplate articulations both reactionary and bland that he included very few in Framing Theory’s Empire.  Whereas with The Journey Abandoned event, there have been relatively few comments, because not that many people were familiar with Trilling (and many who were hadn’t had time to read The Journey Abandoned before the event).  I don’t want you to misunderstand me: we treasure comments.  But with an event like the Trilling one—that is, about the first edition of a recently-discovered novel by a towering intellect now only remembered, as someone I don’t particularly care for recently told me, as “that Columbian Jew”—the purpose of this type of book event isn’t to generate comments so much as start a conversation.  Ideally, the first result of a search for The Journey Abandoned will be Stephen Schryer’s introductory post, but if Google takes a curious soul to one of Geraldine Murphy’s generous responses, and she works her way back to Mark Shechner’s anti-post, I hope she recognizes that the quality of Shechner’s argument overwhelms its persuasiveness and adds The Valve to her RSS reader.

In short, The Journey Abandoned event was different by design—but it’s not the only design we have.  In the months to come, I’d like to:

I hope you stick around.

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