Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Elementarity and Precocity in Lorde

(Standard disclaimer: I Am Not A Musician.)

Lorde's "brand" is her precocity, and I must say that I am a sucker for it. I'm basically in total agreement with Anne Helen Peterson when she observes that Lorde's public image is both highly constructed and highly appealing.
It’s clear that Lorde is precocious. She’s smart, she’s uber-literate. But she’s not just reading the classics, and she’s not checked out of popular culture. ... Many of her teen fans may not know who Laura Mulvey is, but whooo boy does a certain swath of her adult fans.

I'm rarely able to listen to music I actually want to listen to unless I'm driving. I'm easily distracted by music and work better without it.* So, like the elderly person that I am, I listen to actual CDs straight through in my car. Driving to Philly this week I was listening to Lorde's album Pure Heroine again and thought again about something that struck me the first time I heard it: the album's relentlessly moderate tempos. Quick things happen in these songs, but always within a heavily emphasized temporal grid that, to my ear, cannot possibly be more than 120 bpm and is usually closer to 90. I looked at my watch for ten bars of "Royals" and came up with 86 bpm, although that's admittedly not the fastest song on the album. (On the other hand, it is the album's biggest single.) I am comfortable saying that moderate tempo is a Lorde tic. Not slow, but not too fast.

And I started thinking about what this might have to tell us about her precocity (acknowledging that this precocity, as we know it, is constructed). What are some other Lorde tics? Arpeggios. Parallel thirds. Simple, repetitive melodies, not just simple and repetitive in accordance the conventions of pop music, but in a way that is almost studiously elementary. If we are honest, we will notice that the refrain of "Royals" sounds approximately like what a group of six-year-olds gets up to at their Suzuki violin recital. (Even the F sharp.)

It's not just simplicity of the melody, an inverted D major triad, but also the rhythm: unsyncopated, square, neat subdivisions of time into eighth and sixteenth notes, like an exercise, announcing practice, announcing studenthood. I think Lorde's moderato is part of this elementarity, as are the self-conscious lyrical allusions to Mom and Dad, school, riding the bus, and "my first plane." As the complexity of some moments attests (I think especially of "Buzzcut Season"), Lorde does not have to be simple. But there's a formal insistence on simplicity that speaks not only to the image of authenticity that Annie points out, but also to precocity: you cannot be prococious just by being good; you have to be too young to be that good, too.

*I started playing the album when I started writing this post, then realized I needed to turn it off if I was going to write words. Argh.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

All sorts of asses ‘love’ poetry. Why not? It confirms them in the assininity of their deepest beliefs. It underlies the racial laziness, the unwillingness to think, the satisfaction of feeling oneself part of the race and of having all posterity behind one in proneness and stupidity. This is what is inherent in most ‘love’ of poetry.

A smooth, lying meter that nostalgically carries them back to sleep is what they want. That’s why for a living, changing people only the new poetry is truly safe, truly worth reading. And that is why it is opposed by the best people—the intellectually deepest bogged—as if it were the devil himself.

     —William Carlos Williams, “Note: The American Language and the New Poetry, so called” (1931?)

Monday, January 20, 2014

By what process of logical accretion was this slight 'personality.' the mere slim shade of an intelligent but presumptuous girl, to find itself endowed with the high attributes of a Subject?—and indeed by what thinness, at the best, would such a subject not be vitiated? Millions of presumptuous girls, intelligent or not inteligent, daily affront their destiny, and what is it open to their destiny to be, at the most, that we should make an ado about it?

     —Henry James, preface to The Portrait of a Lady, 1907

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


My essay "A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" is out today in The New Inquiry's issue 24, "Bloodsport." Since The New Inquiry doesn't take footnotes, I am putting my footnotes here, sans context. Gotta cite those works.

Update 1/31/2014: My attention was recently brought to Daniel Goldberg's useful article "Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, the U. S. National Football League, and the Manufacture of Doubt: An Ethical, Legal, and Historical Analysis," which also uses a Geertzian framework for understanding the NFL's management of evidence.
Lindsey adds this.

1. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth (New York: Crown Books, 2013), 13.

2. Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” Daedalus 101, no. 1 (January 1, 1972): 1–37.

3. Geertz, “Deep Play,” 27-8.

4. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (Simon and Schuster, 1926), 136.

5. Geertz, “Deep Play,” 5.

6. Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru, League of Denial, 13–4.

7. The joke’s on us if we compare football to war. In Stephen Crane’s iconic tale of scrambling toward masculinity, “[h]e ducked his head low like a football player.” Setting aside that the comparison is already anachronistic—American football was a post-Reconstruction Era phenomenon—as Bill Brown, like Geertz, suggests, play is conventionally a structuring metaphor for war rather than the reverse. In 2011, Bennet Omalu would connect CTE, the condition he diagnosed in former Steeler Mike Webster, to post-traumatic stress disorder in military veterans. Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, and Other Stories, ed. Pascal Covici (New York: Penguin, 1991), 110; Bill Brown, The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane and the Economies of Play (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1996), 2; Bennet Omalu et al., “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in an Iraqi War Veteran with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Who Committed Suicide,” Neurosurgical Focus 31, no. 5 (November 2011): E3, doi:10.3171/2011.9.FOCUS11178.

8. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011); cf. Donna Jeanne Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge, 1997).

9. Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump, 66.

10. Claude Bernard, Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale (Baillière, 1865).

11. Ira R. Casson, Elliot J. Pellman, and David C. Viano, “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player (letter),” Neurosurgery 58, no. 5 (May 2006): E1003, doi:10.1227/01.NEY.0000217313.15590.C5.

12. See e.g. Robert Proctor and Londa L. Schiebinger, eds., Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2008). See especially Part II: Lost Knowledge, Lost Worlds.

13. In the book, Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru make a strong distinction between Omalu’s reception and McKee’s; indeed, “BU’s researchers [McKee among them] literally kept a file on what they alleged were Omalu’s exaggerations”; in the book, Omalu is widely characterized as prone to overinterpretation (epistemological immodesty). Yet the distinction is also strongly associated with Omalu’s lack of social fit—his “inappropriate” inability or unwillingness to modify his academic presentation style for a room full of football players and family members, his lack of investment in football as a cultural phenomenon, and, indeed, his foreignness. “I think [his swift sidelining from scientific discourse was] because he’s a black man, I honestly believe that,” the former linebacker Harry Carson states. “And he’s not an American black man; he’s from Africa.” McKee, in contrast, is represented as a nearly ideal figure, “with blond hair and blue eyes, a Green Bay Packers nut from Appleton, Wisconsin, with a girlish giggle and a knack for making the brain accessible and fun.” Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru, League of Denial, 290–3; 255.

14. Gregg Rosenthal, “Michael Vick: I Lied to My Mom About Dogfighting,” NFL.com, July 18, 2012, http://www.nfl.com/news/story/09000d5d82aa29a5/article/michael-vick-i-lied-to-my-mom-about-dogfighting.

15. It doesn’t end there. Vick is unpopular with “casual” fans, due to his dogfighting scandal, according to polling, but he is appreciated by “hardcore fans”—those, we might say, who “love the game.” Tom Van Riper, “The NFL’s Most-Disliked Players,” Forbes, October 21, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/tomvanriper/2013/10/21/the-nfls-most-disliked-players-2/.

16. Rosenthal, “Michael Vick”; Dan Hanzus, “Michael Vick’s Book Reveals QB’s Dogfighting Mindset,” NFL.com, July 16, 2012, http://www.nfl.com/news/story/09000d5d82a99b17/article/michael-vicks-book-reveals-qbs-dogfighting-mindset.

17. Perfetto’s occupation is mentioned in neither the documentary nor the book. Alan Schwarz, “Ralph Wenzel, Whose Dementia Led to Debate on Football Safety, Dies at 69,” The New York Times, June 22, 2012, sec. Sports / Pro Football, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/23/sports/football/ralph-wenzel-whose-dementia-led-to-debate-on-football-safety-dies-at-69.html; Alan Schwarz, “Wives United by Husbands’ Post-N.F.L. Trauma,” The New York Times, March 14, 2007, sec. Sports / Pro Football, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/14/sports/football/14wives.html.

18. As Perfetto notes, this dementia is often characterized by violent episodes, which are especially dangerous coming from exceptionally large men who are not yet old or even necessarily middle-aged. See Schwarz, “Wives United by Husbands’ Post-N.F.L. Trauma.”

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Humanities scholarship is incredibly relevant, and that makes people sad.

Man, two of them today, one in 3am Magazine (h/t Robin James) and one in the relentlessly regressive WSJ (remember this guy, whose cranky pan of the Cambridge History of the American Novel is a classic of this genre?), h/t Noel Jackson.

Don't bother clicking; you've already read it a hundred times. It's the article titled "The Humanities Are Relevant and I Hate That."

The humanities are often represented as an irrelevant, moribund, and merely preservationist field, passing on old knowledge of old things without producing anything new. That's why it keeps having to be "defended" by people saying, "no! old shit matters too!" (It does—witness one chapter from Washington Irving's 1819-20 Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. getting rebooted yet again, this time as a goofy paranormal procedural—but this already accepts a basic misrepresentation of humanities scholarship.)

Yet it’s precisely the production of new knowledge in the humanities that powerfully influences the everyday lives of Americans, and which leads to pearl-clutching by those who insist on the humanities’ irrelevance. David Brooks, for example, is very sad that the humanities have failed to be stagnant. He claims that humanities enrollments have substantially declined (factually untrue) since the rise of critical theory and its concurrent attention to race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability in the 1980s. But the humanities didn’t just turn to these categories for kicks (still less because it was “fashionable,” as culture-wars critics like Alan Sokal have claimed); turning to them was the result of research. Through research, scholars found out that these categories were complicated, powerful, and important for understanding culture. Brooks seems to suppose that doing research that has a broad impact makes your field irrelevant. This is deranged.*

Do you know a black child who grew up knowing about America’s great traditions in African American literature, visual art, music, and film? Are you glad Their Eyes Were Watching God and Cane are in print? Then thank the scholars, artists, and activists who have recovered that work—often obscured by a racist publishing culture and by an academy that didn’t think it was important at the time. There’s a reason that students protested and sat in to fight for the establishment of ethnic studies and women’s studies departments in the 1960s and 70s. It wasn’t a fashion statement: serious formal engagement with the cultural contributions of women and ethnic minorities was urgently needed. No one can credibly say in public that women cannot be great authors anymore, for example, and when the writer V.S. Naipaul tried in 2011 (and David Gilmour in 2013), everybody knew how ridiculously wrong he was. How did they know? Thank the humanities. Thank those horrible feminist critics from the '80s who allegedly ruined literary scholarship. They worked like hell to change the language, and most of them never got famous.

Why does my cousin complain about her high heels as a way of bonding with other women?** Why does the criminal justice system so routinely view black minors not only as criminal but also as non-children? Why do gender and sexual categories like “male,” “female,” “gay,” “straight,” or “trans” have such an outsized effect on the way that you and I experience public space? The humanities address the questions, big and small, that we urgently want answered. Answers often lie in the history of the way that we’ve mediated these problems, in cultural artifacts like novels, poems, newspapers, visual art, music, and film. Sorting through, analyzing, and theorizing those artifacts is the business of the humanities.

Academic humanities scholars do this very well, but non-university-affiliated people engage in humanistic work all the time. (Let's NOT give all the credit for the above to academics—many of whom are still firmly in the crankypan/ts camp and hold great influence. A great deal of this work was led by activists and non-academics—but that's my point: the academic humanities are not hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world in the way that some believe, or that David Brooks and Heather Mac Donald would like.) If you're a "completist" who has to watch every Eric Rohmer film you can, you’re doing humanities. When you decide you need to watch every single episode of every single Star Trek franchise, and when you decide to write about it on a blog or in a forum, you’re still doing humanities. You’re doing humanities if you write Harry Potter fanfiction to reinterpret the world of Hogwarts as a place where gay romances can flourish, or where characters of color aren’t relegated to supporting roles. (Humanities scholars study fanfiction, too. Cue the pearl-clutching about the decline of Standards.) Sometimes books by academics are difficult to read, because they’re specialized and technical and reference a lot of things you haven’t read. That’s fine; it’s harder to read an academic science journal than it is to read National Geographic, too. We may not always notice the ways that academic concepts are circulated and reinterpreted in popular culture, but that's because we live and breathe it every day. Just like scientific research, humanities research constantly crosses in and out of the academy, and it’s so much a part of everyday life that most of the time we don’t even bother to think of it as “humanities.”

The interpretation of culture and of cultural artifacts is everywhere, whether we’re deciding whether a book or television show is appropriate for a child, parsing an ambiguous email from someone we love, or trying to understand out a falling out among friends. The academic humanities are the serious, formal study of such interpretation. And that interpretation fundamentally—not incidentally—involves the conceptual categories that shape everyday life, including race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability. Interpretation is social. It's political.

My hunch is that some people would rather that the humanities weren’t as relevant as they are, and have projected a distorted image of a self-involved, isolated profession in order to justify defunding the very research that makes the humanities so important. “Pay no attention to the research that’s going on here! It’s irrelevant!,” they insist. They wish that instead of doing new research on under-studied archives, bringing public attention to hidden histories, or offering new and challenging ways to think about the categories that most shape politics and everyday life, that we’d pipe down and eternally reproduce old, unchanging narratives about the usual suspects. They wish not only that we’d keep teaching about Thomas Jefferson (which we do, happily), but also that we’d keep teaching him the same way, forever, never bringing to light new historical evidence (Sally Hemings, anyone?***) or reinterpreting his writing through theoretical frameworks that bring new insight [Duke journals paywall]. They wish it were mere faddishness causing the humanities to do this kind of work. Sorry, guys: it’s evidence.

They stereotype us as standing up in front of a classroom and teaching the same old syllabus in the form of lectures that remain the same from year to year. But they only wish that were true. In reality, humanities scholars continually rethink their syllabi, taking into account recent research in the field, new approaches in our own research, and successes and failures in our previous teaching, which rarely takes the form of lectures. That’s because at the university level, the humanities, like every other field, is a field in the making. New knowledge is being created all the time, and that’s a good thing.

It seems to me that when pundits deride the humanities as irrelevant, it’s because we aren’t, and that poses a threat. Yes, studies in the humanities do raise uncomfortable questions, like when Susan Reverby, a women’s studies professor at Wellesley, documented a series of horrific unethical medical experiments that the U.S. Government performed on Guatemalan prisoners in the 1940s. They do make you change your textbooks. They challenge firmly held beliefs about culture, and offer evidence to back it up. People who want humanities research to be "timeless" do not believe that it can or should be timely. They are wrong.


Many thanks to Tressie McMillan Cottom for comments on an earlier version of this post.

*Yes, I violated my #neverclick rule. For you, dear readers.
**Not a real cousin.
***Historical research on Sally Hemings actually comes up in the aforementioned goofy paranormal procedural yes I admit I have watched it. It was all the tweets about the show using Middle English that drew me in. (By the way: Middle English in the 1590s? Wtf?) The point is: time-traveling eighteenth-century Ichabod (yeah, very loose adaptation) doesn't know about Sally Hemings but EVERYBODY in the present day does. THANK YOU, ANNETTE GORDON-REED.

I wish I could have a "BEYONCE as Bildung" symposium with all my students from last semester. I know they would rock it.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Why is it that at the “same time” capital grows more virtual and abstract in its daily operations, cultural critique grows increasingly positivistic and empirical, veering away from the methods best suited for the analysis of its proliferation? (300)

     —Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings


Hello, new year.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Won't somebody let this child into the cage?

Cross-posted to the course blog for my junior seminar Modernism and Childhood.

Another one for the "government and cuteness" theme:

Think about this photo again when we read Curious George.

What does the tweeter—journalist Alex Fitzpatrick—seem to think is the rhetorical force of this photo?

It's "sad"; the toddler is sad; the toddler loves animals, as evidenced by her or his indeterminate animal-ears hood, and wants into the zoo; the toddler can't go in because of the government shutdown.

Of course, it's completely plausible to think that a toddler loves animals. You should see my niece looking at a turtle; she could not be more psyched.

But back up. Why would wearing an animal-ear hood translate into evidence of loving animals? After all, the toddler didn't wobble down to Baby Gap and pick it out him- or herself. It was an adult who decided that this child's love of animals should be manifested as an identification with the animal.

The child is trying to get into the zoo. To see animals? Or to be an animal?

The striking iconography of metal bars here makes the child look caged, citing what we know a zoo to be: a place where animals are kept in cages. The cages are carefully designed and controlled environments meant to emulate the animals' natural habitats and keep them happy, but they are cages all the same. The child is dressed as an animal. The child wants in, and the bars are keeping her or him out. The child cannot read the sign, prominent on the right, that explains why. For that matter, the child cannot vote for members of Congress.

The sadness of this image is the same as its cuteness: the child's desire is frustrated by the same adult forces that iconographically stage her helplessness and her kinship with the animals she is trying to see.

Friday, September 20, 2013

This is a far too long response to a post by Adeline Koh.


I agree with Ted's point that DH is a social category more than anything else, but, as he acknowledges, such social categories are consequential. I've argued before that the search for "the most digital digital" is basically intellectually doomed. But I don't think that's the question Adeline was asking—I think she was already asking the social question. (Matt Kirschenbaum gave a social answer.)

In most cases in the humanities, there isn't that much disciplinary boundary-policing; people usually care more about whether the work is good (for what it is) than whether it's "modernist" or "eighteenth century" (a century reputed to be quite long!) or, to use Ted's examples, Marxist or New-Critical. Thus "[t]he ideal PMLA essay exemplifies the best of its kind, whatever the kind." To the question of "what kind of scholarship is this?" PMLA literally says "whatever"!*

Weirdly, though, when it comes to digital humanities, the digitalness (how digital?) matters a lot. In some quite consequential institutional settings (hiring, fellowships and grants, tenure), what kind? matters for things marked "digital" where, for other things, the operative question would be how good? (for widely varying definitions of "good," of course).** It's nice to say, "focus on the scholarship, not on whether it's DH" (#4 above). But there's a reason people focus on whether it's DH: largely through the urging of digital humanists themselves, digital work has come to be seen as warranting an entirely different evaluative system from "traditional" scholarship, so that the question of how good? depends on the question of what kind? in the first place. So in practical terms, "how digital?"—philosophically incoherent as the question is—often serves as a proxy for "how good?," and even if we think it shouldn't matter we've set it up so that it does (and not entirely without reason).

Matt's social answer to the "how digital?" question—tautological or recursive, depending on how we prefer to read it—is that "It is DH if it assumes value within a community of practice that 'does' DH."

But Adeline's question was posed in the specific context of putting together an introduction to DH for people who need one—who have heard of this "digital humanities" thing, do not [think they] do it, and would like to. If they're in "a community of practice that 'does' DH," they're not aware of it. Adeline's task is to inform them of how they might create or join such a community of practice. Under what circumstances would creating an online journal constitute such a thing?

So I think Ted's right; it's a social question. But it's a social question that matters for social reasons that can't, I think, be disavowed without abdicating responsibility for the institutionalization that was so ardently fought for (resulting in an "eternal September" or "DH II" that long-time practitioners are now declaring uncomfortable—y'all, what did you think was going to happen?).

Is an online journal "DH"?

I think Matt's social answer to this social question probably comes closest to the mark. But I also think what he's describing is unfortunate. It would be better, I think, to examine why the social question—how digital?—keeps mattering, so we can figure out how to make it matter less.

* But: as far as I know, PMLA is not set up to publish a database.

** I'm glossing over some local circumstances of boundary-policing—like, we all know that C19 has a vision of American lit scholarship that's different from ASA's or ALA's.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Wasting time on the internet: a syllabus

This is a syllabus in progress, imagined as part writing workshop, part American studies course on aesthetics. Comments and suggestions are welcome.

What I Did For Love: Taste, Evaluation, and Aesthetics in American Culture

“I don’t know art, but I know what I like,” goes the disclaimer. In this writing-intensive part-workshop, part-seminar, we will seek to unpack the relationship between “art” and “what I like” by examining a variety of cultural objects together with accounts of “taste.” What are the uses of an art that nobody likes? Could “annoyance” be an aesthetic principle? What is the role of money in taste? What are the ethics of aesthetics? Under what circumstances is an aesthetic pleasure “guilty”? When should the appreciation of art works be a matter of disinterested judgment, and when a matter of passionate engagement? Does “love” blind? What is the difference between a “fan” and a “critic”? What are the affordances and limits of the “formulaic” and the “generic”?

Four weeks of this course will be devoted to workshopping students’ critical writing, examining the roles of description, praise, blame, analysis, and enthusiasm in writing about culture. Students will also maintain a course blog. For the final assignment, students are encouraged to pitch their writing to an appropriately chosen publication.

Week 1

Introduction: Aesthetics
John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”
Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
Peter Coviello, “Talk, Talk”

Week 2

Beauty and the sublime
Immanuel Kant, from Critique of the Power of Judgment
Thomas Nagel, from The View from Nowhere
Short exercise: choose a cultural object to describe as plainly as possible. About 500 words.

Week 3

Taste and class
Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”
Pierre Bourdieu, from Distinction
Thorstein Veblen, from The Theory of the Leisure Class
Barbara Herrnstein Smith, from Contingencies of Value
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land; selections from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats
Andrew Lloyd Webber et al., selections from CATS

Week 4

Essay 1: Describe some piece of culture (novel, film, painting, poem, music video, etc.) that you love, and that you also think is good. (These are two different things.) Explain why it is that you love the piece, what it is that makes it good, and how you can tell the difference (and under what circumstances you can’t). Be sure to explain what it is that makes art good in general—you don’t need to advance a fully developed theory of aesthetics, but you do need to unpack your assumptions as much as you can. Have an argument. This should be around 3000 words.

Week 5

William Butler Yeats, “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”
Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Dissolving/vanishing (1951)
Marianne Moore, “An Octopus”
Sianne Ngai, “Merely Interesting”
Leonard Diepeveen, from The Difficulties of Modernism
Lawrence Levine, from Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America
Rosalind Krauss, “Grids”

Week 6

“Guilty pleasures,” pop culture, and authenticity
Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love (1997)
Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste
Sarah Blackwood, “Dance Dance Revelation: On So You Think You Can Dance
“I'm Not Here To Make Friends” supercut [YouTube video]
Mallory Ortberg, “Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman Probably Had Sex Once”
Abigail De Kosnik, “Fandom as Free Labor,” in The Internet as Playground and Factory, ed. Scholz

Week 7

Popular culture, popular criticism
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry”
Caleb Smith, “Say Hello to My Little Friend”
Mary Oliver, selected poems
Short exercise: write a piece of fanfiction, about 1000 words, in the setting of your choice.

Week 8

Gender and “the popular”
Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman”
Rebecca Black, “Friday” [YouTube video]
Dana Vachon, “Arms So Freezy: Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ as Radical Text”
Rae Armantrout, “Why Don’t Women Write Language-Centered Poetry?”
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Queer and Now”; "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl"
Eve Kosofsky, “Curl Up and Read” (Seventeen, 1964)

Short exercise: Make the case that some cultural object is a “remake” of another, earlier one (for example, that Pixar’s Toy Story is a remake of Disney’s Pinocchio). Be honest about the ways in which the claim does not hold up. In addition to noting similarities or lines of influence, you should explain what we gain from understanding the later object as a remake of the earlier one. 500–1,000 words.

Week 9

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition”; “The Raven”
Mark Twain, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”
Janice Radway, from Reading the Romance
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books reviews: "The RealDeal by Lucy Monroe”; Tell Me Lies by Jennifer Crusie”; Skies of Gold by Zoe Archer”
Tvtropes.org, “Elves versus Dwarves”; “As You Know”
Lili Loofbourow, “Just Another Princess Movie” [rev of Brave]
Christian Bök, Eunoia

Week 10

Essay 2: Choose a piece of art and viciously pan it. Your critique should be utterly devastating, which is to say that you should be able to persuade your reader that this piece is a blight on humanity, and not merely that you are a mean-spirited person. This will be more effective if you resist choosing an easy target. 2,000–3,000 words.

Week 11

Cuteness and commodification
Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde”
Gary Cross, from The Cute and the Cool
“Many too small boxes and Maru” [YouTube video]
“Nyan Cat [original]” [YouTube video]

Week 12

Essay 3: Review some piece of culture that was recently produced—say, since January 2012. Give your reader a fairly thickly textured sense of what this piece is like, and explain what its successes and failures are. Once again, be sure to unpack what it means for something to “succeed” (in any register). What is the historical, cultural, or aesthetic milieu in which this piece is ideally legible? Make a point. This should be around 3,000 words.

Week 13

William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
Alan Liu, from The Laws of Cool
Michael Szalay, from Hip Figures
Janelle Monáe, “Tightrope” [YouTube video]

Week 14

Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
Justine Larbalestier, “Ain’t That a Shame”
Fanlore Wiki: “Race and Fandom”
Mitali Perkins, “Straight Talk on Race: Challenging the Stereotypes in Kids’ Books
Malcolm Harris, “The White Market”
Nancy Sommers, “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers”

Week 15


Essay 4: Revise your review for publication in a venue of your choice. It may be print or online. When you submit this assignment to me, you should also submit a copy of the submission guidelines for this venue (to which your revised review should adhere) and a rationale (about 500 words) for choosing this publication. You are encouraged to actually submit the review to the publication you have chosen. (You might be interested in this.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

On DHThis and critiques thereof

This was turning into The Infinite Comment, so I am posting here instead of on Whitney Trettien's post on DHThis, which is very worth reading. The bulk of this post ends up being about what "self-promotion" means under neoliberalism's compulsory self-commodification, which is a complete tangent, so I guess that's another reason not to dump it at Whitney's.


I am in general agreement with Whitney's main point that a reddit-like system has the potential for serious problems, and that reliance on "the community" to self-regulate has not worked out terribly well in the past. Stephen Ramsay and Trevor Owens asked on Twitter why DHThis didn't just use the existing DH subreddit. The obvious answer is that reddit is a terrifying cesspool of misogyny, racism, and assholery, and that is a very good reason.

But the obvious question that raises is: what structural safeguards will prevent DHthis from becoming a terrifying cesspool of misogyny, racism, and assholery? I have great faith in Adeline and Roopsi and the DHthis team as stewards of the project, but it's an important question. When I had my own dismaying interaction with JDH (which was also, to be clear, in many ways also a very good interaction), the problem was precisely an overreliance on crowdsourcing. As Matthew Ciszek recently tweeted, "Crowdsourcing selection kills diversity. More diverse materials typically less popular." I'll look forward to seeing what procedures DHthis implements to maintain a safe, productive, and genuinely diverse space. It's early days, and there's time for this project to develop.

I would offer a few points of disagreement as well.

First, I disagree with the suggestion that recent debates have been "petty quarrels." They have stakes for someone, and deciding which quarrel is petty and which is substantive depends on one's sense of security vis-à-vis the point of contention.

And second, I question the "self promotion" description, for three reasons.

1. I really don't see how this project is any more self-promoting than any other project rollout—say, One Week One Tool. Even the inclusion of a DHPoco category doesn't seem heavily self-promoting to me. Maybe it should have been called "Postcolonialism" instead?

2. Supposing we were to grant that the style of rollout was self-promoting (rather than project-promoting), what bearing would that have on the quality of the project? This, to me, is unclear. As a general rule, I think the question of intentions hinders evaluating effects.

3. There are a lot of mixed messages about self-promotion under neoliberalism, and women and people of color get them most of all. Like makeup ads that urge you to cover your face in allergens foundation to get that "natural glow," social media—which I think many people will agree have been central to recent DH formations—exhort an engagement that is "genuine," but which will also "get your voice out there"; ideally your internet presence will promote you through the effacement of its own promotional aspect. Merely having an internet presence is a form of "self-promotion"; yet it is also, importantly, a place of genuine (not just "genuine") engagement, a part of people's lives, and in many cases, not optional.

This critique has precisely been leveled at DH in recent years: that its webcentricity renders it "cliquish," even though blogs and Twitter are (mostly) public. Even for practitioners at the center of DH, the "second shift" of social media can be burdensome. The counterargument—not an empty one—is that these media offer a horizontal means of (genuine, not "genuine") engagement that cuts across existing hierarchies. Blogs and social media are currently central to DH, in part for the very good reason that digital publishing and pedagogy, through precisely some of these media (Tumblr and Twitter, but also Omeka and CommentPress) are a brave new terrain for DH (Stephen Ramsay's and David Golumbia's "DH II"), and have facilitated its recent expansion in all manner of ways. JDH and DHNow rely centrally on blogs and social media, which is why it never caught wind of #transformdh's important ASA panel on embodiment.

So who is "self-promoting"? Everyone probably remembers how, every time VIDA issues its count, editors from mainstream pubs wring their hands and say that women just don't pitch to them often enough; what can they doooo? Famously, the editors at Seal Press, a small feminist press, performed the same shopworn handwringing ritual about authors of color a few years ago. It was not impressive. Women and people of color are constantly admonished for failing to "put themselves out there" often enough. But when they do, all too often they are told that they are unbecomingly "self-promoting," and nobody should reward that! You kind of can't win.

I don't at all want to suggest that Whitney is proposing a double standard here, or singling the DHThis team out—I think most of us are turned off by what seems to be obvious self-promotion, wherever our thresholds for detecting it may lie. I myself have been known to zing people on the self-promotion front. But I do think that the question of self-promotion, in addition to being a language of intention that tends to confuse the issue (see 2 above), is a constantly moving target. For that reason, I don't think it's nearly as important a criterion as the central objection Whitney raised about the redditlike voting structure of DHThis.

I recognize the irony of spending an outsize amount of space on one of Whitney's avowedly lesser points, only to conclude that it is a lesser point! In a way, it's completely derailing of me to even bring it up. And yet, I also wanted to unpack the substance of my reservations about "self-promotion." Somehow its unimportance seems important.

I look forward to seeing how DHThis works, and how it will be shaped in the future by concerns like the ones Whitney raised.

Saturday, August 10, 2013


One thing I wish to observe about the UVa Scholars' Lab's upcoming "Speaking in Code" symposium is this.

A call for diverse participation rings hollow when the lineup of invited speakers is 100% white and cis male. I can think of some things besides "impostor syndrome" that might keep a developer from an underrepresented group from applying.

It is doubly problematic when "tacit knowledge" has been used in DH (idiosyncratically; see Collins and Polanyi) to represent software development as a minority culture imperiled by "dominant, extravagantly vocal and individualist verbal expressions." This is an ideological reversal of the fact that software development is a prestige domain both within DH and in contemporary U.S. culture at large and that, far from being a marginalized culture, it is marginalizing, insofar as it is structurally exclusionary of women and racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities.

Saying "you are welcome here" (as a student or participant but not as a leader or invited speaker) may ameliorate this structural exclusion, but not much.

I see the demystification of "tacit knowledge" as a salutary project, and I wish this symposium all success. But this is not a model for inclusivity. We can and should do better.


Collins, Harry M. Tacit and Explicit Knowledge. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

———. The Tacit Dimension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.