Friday, December 30, 2005
Whiplash (literary texts cited at the MLA)
MLA was fun this year; it was great to finally meet many Valve people in the flesh, as well as Clancy Ratliff, Charlie Bertsch (check out his pictures of Dupont Circle), Scott McLemee, and Michael Berube.
The following comments are full of non-sequiturs, digressions, and random bits. But that is the nature of MLA, a great whirlwind of schmoozing intermixed with seriousness.
(Incidentally, the following shouldn’t be taken as representative. I was only there for two of the four days, and made it to about eight panels—about 1 percent of the total panels occurring at the convention.)
--With regard to literature panels, let’s start at the end, with a paper on Sapper’s Bull-dog Drummond novels—British thrillers from the 1920s and 30s with a know-nothing hero. Listening to this paper on one of his novels, I tried—and failed—to see what is so interesting about “Sapper” or his Bull-Dog Drummond novels. What is Ian Fleming without the camp-factor, or Kipling without the weighty epigrams? Merely Sapper, it seems.
--Richard Wright’s Native Son was actually censored (editorially, not legally) upon its initial release. Sexually explicit passages were toned down, and a masturbation scene was entirely removed. You can get a sense of the kinds of changes made here (though the article, I’m afraid is not very good). Given the vulgarity of the uncensored passages, I almost prefer the censored version (but then, that was the version I first read, back in high school). And Wright did author the altered passages (which are not omissions, but actually totally different passages), so it’s probably not quite right to say whether the uncensored version is the ‘authoritative’ text.
Somewhat relatedly, I find I like the censored versions of rap songs on the radio more than the uncensored, ‘real’ songs. The popular rappers write songs knowing full well that certain words are going to be bleeped, and certain kinds of references disallowed. The bleeping is done by the producer himself, in studio, for the “clean” radio version released on the single. And the bleeps become part of the rhythm of the song; they add something extra—mystery, texture. But when I eventually hear the original song, I am inevitably disappointed: the unspeakable seven words are all too familiar and routine; hearing them, one realizes the true crude banality and redundancy of most popular rap on the radio. Censorship actually makes rap better...
But back to the MLA:
--I saw a paper on Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent, which made me resolve to finally sit down and read that novel. It’s a spy novel written in 1907, focusing on a group of leftist/anarchist terrorists. (The etext is here). A nice sample paragraph might be this one:
The knob of his stick and his legs shook together with passion, whilst the trunk, draped in the wings of the havelock, preserved his historic attitude of defiance. He seemed to sniff the tainted air of social cruelty, to strain his ear for its atrocious sounds. There was an extraordinary force of suggestion in this posturing. The all but moribund veteran of dynamite wars had been a great actor in his time - actor on platforms, in secret assemblies, in private interviews. The famous terrorist had never in his life raised personally as much as his little finger against the social edifice. He was no man of action; he was not even an orator of torrential eloquence, sweeping the masses along in the rushing noise and foam of a great enthusiasm. With a more subtle intention, he took the part of an insolent and venomous evoker of sinister impulses which lurk in the blind envy and exasperated vanity of ignorance, in the suffering and misery of poverty, in all the hopeful and noble illusions of righteous anger, pity, and revolt. The shadow of his evil gift clung to him yet like the smell of a deadly drug in an old vial of poison, emptied now, useless, ready to be thrown away upon the rubbish-heap of things that had served their time.
Conrad is at his best, I think, when characterizing people he loathes.
--At John Holbo’s “Zizek and Christianity” panel, the most oft-cited literary text was Brideshead Revisited, which might seem to be an improbable choice. But apparently Waugh’s novel is referenced by Zizek in On Belief as providing a powerful example of his neo-Christian-socialist Philosophy of the Act. The novel is full of passages like this one:
“But, my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
“But I do. That’s how I believe."
It’s hard to imagine how this is the basis of serious philosophical debate, but so it is.
--Avant-garde poets are using multimedia technology to transform the reading experience, and comment on the “materiality of the text.” An example is the “Cave” at Brown University (read the PDF white paper here). A well-known practitioner and critic of “new media poetry” is John Cayley; he was cited by two of the panelists at a panel I went to on New Media and Literary Theory. Check out John Cayley’s website; what do you think? Is there something to this?
--At the “Rethinking Rhyme" panel, literary as well as pop-culture allusions were falling fast and thick. Jonathan Culler recited lines from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues" to illustrates rhyme’s capacity to coordinate random images and bits of narrative.
Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
’cause the vandals took the handles
Culler also quoted John Hollander, as well as Robert Frost’s “On Desert Places":
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
In Culler’s view, the desolation of the image here is belied by Frost’s vaguely comical choice to rhyme “spaces” with “race is.” I tend to agree; it’s not one of Frost’s stronger efforts (but there are many problems with the poem).
In the same panel, David Caplan quoted quite a number of rhyming poets, including Missy Elliott ("Work it”: “Boy, lift it up, let’s make a toast-a /
Let’s get drunk, that’s gon’ bring us closer / Don’t I look like a Halle Berry poster?"), Harryette Mullen, and Justice Mike Akin of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court:
A groom must expect matrimonial pandemonium
when his spouse finds he’s given her a cubic zirconium
instead of a diamond in her engagement band,
the one he said was worth 21 grand.
This was the actual text of the judge’s dissenting opinion in a divorce case where a woman claimed the pre-nuptial agreement she had signed should be nullified because her ex-husband had earlier given her an engagement ring made of cubic zirconium. Why this is being quoted in a paper at MLA is a long story, but suffice it to say that all of Caplan’s references to rhyming poetry were well-justified and interesting—part of an argument about the ostensible decline in the respectability of rhyme, even as rhyme continues to play an important role in American popular culture.
At the same panel, J. Paul Hunter cited Alexander Pope:
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance,
‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some rocks’ vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow
Read that aloud to yourself a couple of times, if you will. Note how Pope’s use of sounds (rhyme, but also consonant clusters and vowels) illustrates exactly the point he’s trying to make. This website calls it “Pope’s mimetic precept.” I hadn’t heard the term before (and the speaker didn’t use the term), but it seems like a useful way of describing this kind of self-instantiating argument. (As I say that I concede that I am no expert on Pope, and this might be very old hat to eighteenth-century poetry people.)
--Finally, I saw Frances Ferguson enthusiastically reference Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. I’m not quite sure I followed the substance of her argument (about the role of the news-media in mass-culture, and the interaction between journalistic truth and the conventions of narrative fiction), but her talk certainly made me want to read Mailer’s book.
I also came across an interesting short essay by Ferguson on the contemporary mass-media here. Some of the points she makes there rhyme with what she was saying in her talk (see the references to Nikolas Luhmann).
[x-comment] Clive James on Bull-dog Drummond.
Executioner’s Song is a great book, Amardeep. Damn, I wish I’d made it to that panel, as I’d planned. What did Ferguson have to say?
As I mention, I missed some of her talk, but a chunk of it sounded quite similar to the argument she makes in the short essay I linked to above, especially the part spinning out of Luhmann:
As Niklas Luhmann argues in The Reality of the Mass Media, we are well past a time in which it is possible to think that distributing more information more widely will lead to a story like the one we have told ourselves about Vietnam—that television coverage destroyed America’s appetite for war. Both information and opinion have been disabled by multiplication, as seemed bizarrely apparent in the New York Times’s recent editorial reveling in a blizzard that had “brought the East Coast to a near-standstill.” Even the Times seemed to be acknowledging the irrelevance of the information and opinion that it, however inadequately, distributes: “The powerful snowstorm . . . . was an event that had nothing to do with human will. . . . [It] overshadowed the war against terrorism and the escalating crisis with Iraq[,] . . . and replaced [free-floating dread] by free-floating flurries.” The storm created a time in which “to slow down and remember, once again, that human life can be lived only within the frame of nature.”
The Times’s moral of the weather—that we should acknowledge the power of nature—isn’t, I think, particularly apt, but the editorial’s paean to a storm that interrupted the sense of infinite busy attentiveness to the world is instructive. A storm that made people pause in their searches for more duct tape and plastic sheeting in response to the recent advisory from Tom Ridge in Homeland Security had the effect, if only temporarily, of creating a space in which to ask different questions from those that the administration has ceaselessly been posing. For the Bush administration has, from the time of the September 11 assaults on the World Trade Center, treated the terrorist threat as a threat to “our Amuhruhcan way of life” and has acted as though a way of life could be thought of as a system that could be isolated and defined as if it were almost a patentable product.
I take her to be developing an analysis of the mass-media that is more textured than Baudrillard’s thin (and overblown) “simulacrum.” I think the keyword in the first paragraph above is “multiplication,” which is a very Luhmann-ish idea (see the discussion of doubling in the first few pages of The Reality of the Mass Media).
There were also arguments about the emphasis on immediacy in mass-culture (and here she referenced Richardson’s epistolary novels), as well as the generic blurring between fiction and reality in Mailer’s novel. She called the latter “postmodern,” which I found surprising.
Sorry, I know that’s a bit paltry!
Thanks, Amardeep. I wish I’d gone to the panel, as I’d planned before exhaustion, lethargy, and the shuttle bus distracted me. I don’t think I really understand what she’s getting at. I wouldn’t myself have a problem with thinking of Mailer’s book as metafictional and to that extent po-mo--or with the thought that it self-consciously dramatizes a conflict between the heroic insight of the writer and the false immediacy of mass culture (which, I suppose, since the book was a bestseller published by a media multinational can itself be seen as a product of the mass media). That seems to fit pretty well with the self-understanding of the New Journalism: that the self-conscious blurring of the boundaries of fact and fiction allows one to convey more valuable insight than does the false objectivity of the mass media. If Ferguson’s point is that this is both an alluring view and one that itself needs to be regarded critically, that seems like a good, but I think pretty evident point. Really, if we ever believed television destroyed America’s appetite for war, we were believing a very bad theory.
Looking at the Luhmann, I have the sensation I always have reading that stuff--that there’s something there, but I’m not sure it’s worth going after. This passage, for instance:
Communication only comes about when someone watches, listens, reads—and understands to the extent that more communication could follow on. The mere act of uttering something, then, does not, in and of itself, constitute communication. On the other hand, it is difficult in the case of the mass media (in contrast to interaction among those co-present) to determine the target group involved in each instance. This is especially true if the process of turning comprehension/mis-comprehension into further communication within or outside the system of mass media is also to be taken into account. However, this gap in competence does have the advantage that recursive loops do not get drawn too tightly, that communication does not immediately become blocked by failures and contradictions and that, instead, it is able to seek out a willing audience and to experiment with possibilities.
I just can’t follow the connections. How is “the other hand” alternative to the first hand? Why does the fact that communication can be passed on make the difficulty in determining target groups especially true? In what way is the vagueness of audience a gap in competence? I think I see what he’s getting at, but I’m not sure the point isn’t pretty banal.