Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A few more literature-in-the-media moments:

Paul Krugman writes in the NYT:
Economic data rarely inspire poetic thoughts. But as I was contemplating the latest set of numbers, I realized that I had William Butler Yeats running through my head: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”

The widening gyre, in this case, would be the feedback loops (so much for poetry) causing the financial crisis to spin ever further out of control. The hapless falconer would, I guess, be Henry Paulson, the Treasury secretary.
I cracked up when I read this -- perhaps because I'd just been grading. It's a good thing he's interpreting the economy and not Yeats.

* * *


More disturbingly, a New Republic article about David Axelrod, Barack Obama's consultant, pitches him as an expert in convincing white voters to accept black candidates. His recipe?
The self-described "keeper of the message" for Obama's presidential bid has taken the lessons he learned from his mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns and made them cohere into something that approaches a unified theory of how to elect a black candidate--emphasizing biography, using third-party authentication, attacking with an unconventional sideways approach, letting voters connect to the candidate by speaking to them directly in ads, and telling voters that supporting the black candidate puts them on the right side of history.
Ouch. I guess I have to give Axelrod credit -- it's tried and true. Really tried and true. For instance, in abolitionist slave narratives. (And as we keep hearing, Obama's memoirs are, as it were, "written by himself.") But it is painful to read that such a formula still seems necessary.

* * *


Stanley Fish, meanwhile, compares Barack Obama to Jesus in a way that only Fish can (or would), via Milton's Paradise Regained. I must admit to being amused.

* * *


And finally, according to a NYT article, some researchers in Massachusetts are using Thoreau's notes to study climate change.
Henry David Thoreau endorsed civil disobedience, opposed slavery and lived for two years in a hut in the woods here, an experience he described in “Walden.” Now he turns out to have another line in his résumé: climate researcher.
The profound weirdness of Walden, curiously, goes unmentioned in the article. The researchers also seem surprised that archives could, I don't know, matter.


Rock Hudson's Thoreau-quoting character in Douglas Sirk's 1955 All That Heaven Allows, sitting next to Jane Wyman

Friday, October 24, 2008

Avant-garde or nonsense?

Another way to phrase my students' dilemma is that they don't know whether to regard strange writing as ("deep") avant-garde literature or ("random") nonsense. It's a hard thing to figure out, especially if you're not much in the habit of reading poetry.

I was tickled to run into this video of the MSNBC pundit Rachel Maddow explaining dada:



Peter Bürger it's not; as Maddow admits, "art history class was a long time ago."

Maddow raises dada as a possible explanation for an incoherent John McCain ad: perhaps it's incoherent because he's trying to smash art as an institution. By identifying it as dada, we could file it in the "deep" category. Of course, Maddow is really trying to argue that it's not "deep" at all, but rather "random."

But Maddow's satire hinges on a (supposed) formal similarity. Both dada and this ad are identified as incoherent. That doesn't actually help my students tell them apart!

This is why we need better shorthands for avant-garde writing than "weird stuff."

In my dissertation I show that the mama of dada is really Nana.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Two scenarios of misreading

My students seem very concerned right now about two ways to misread that are intimately tied to value. I'm trying to puzzle out what's causing all this concern.

The first scenario is "not getting it"; the work is "deep" but the student cannot master it. I think the sense of mastery is key here; I think my students are uncomfortable with the idea of understanding partially. They are particularly uncomfortable with the idea that they can be responsible for material (say, a poem) that by its very nature cannot be "mastered" entirely. This is why many of them want to be given answers; they can master a reading of a poem quite easily. (This of course requires conflating the poem with the reading of the poem -- a problem.)

The second scenario is the "emperor has no clothes" scenario; they are wary of investing mental energy in something that might in fact be crap. If something at first seems not to make sense, cannot one simply dismiss it as so much garbage?

I did open this Pandora's box myself, since I've been encouraging them to examine their real opinions about poems. I've authorized them to feel that not every poem is a good poem, and to question how you know whether a poem is good. But, ever time-oriented, they raise a good question: is it ever worth reading bad poetry?

Either of these scenarios, the class seems to feel, would be terrible. Both involve the specter of investing time and not being rewarded. Of course, there is the extrinsic reward of knowing enough to pass the class, but this, I am happy to say, is not the issue.

Both of these scenarios involve a tension between, on one hand, the reader asserting her or his authority as a reader, which is in part the authority of judgment, and on the other hand, the reader giving the author due credit and suspending judgment until the author has been given a fair shot. The central question might be rephrased: how much of a shot is a fair shot? How much time do you have to invest in a poem before you can authoritatively deem it crap?

Both of these scenarios also envision a little nugget of truth that may lie in any given poem. The nugget, in these scenarios, is the important thing, rather than the searching. That is why it is so terrible to search in vain.

Bad poetry in these models is poetry that "has no point," or that "fails to get its point across." It's an information theory of poetry; the "point" is the information; everything else is noise.

This is a theory of poetry that is so foreign to me that I have a hard time not dismissing it outright, and yet since so many of my students hold it, I feel that I should examine it, at the very least in order to figure out how to offer alternatives.

Most poetry does fail under the information model, and perhaps this is why so few students seem to genuinely like poetry (I speak, of course, of non-majors). In fact, the poetry valued by academics almost by definition fails.

Whose problem is this?

Right now, I think it's my problem.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Update

I recently wrote a rather intemperate post chastising Rosemary Feal for suggesting that campus rape was caused by alcohol.

She has graciously responded:
I read your remarks on my column, and you are right, of course: alcohol does not cause rape. I see how my transition from one issue to the other could leave the impression I was saying so. What I was trying to say is that virtually all the instances of sexual assault that I heard about on the campuses where I taught had alcohol involved. Women arriving on campus need to hear that one of the prime dangers for them is sexual assault; and they are more vulnerable when intoxicated. I am sorry that I wasn't clearer, especially since it is a matter about which I care a great deal--and I find it is a topic that most professors don't discuss at all, which is also why I raised it. I don't think you and I differ here about what's important. Your point, and I share it, is that victimization and assault is something to which people are vulnerable, because there are victimizers-- in the case of rape, the men who commit the violence. Certain circumstances increase that vulnerability. This is not to blame victims, but rather to help women reduce their risk for being violated. It's crucial that all of us in the academic community continue to reflect on these issues.


I answered:

I continue to believe that linking sexual assault to alcohol unnecessarily obfuscates the real cause of rape, thus perhaps unintentionally opening the door to victim-blaming (i.e. the widely held position that women ought to maintain incredible ninja reflexes at all times in order to prevent their own rapes). But I believe that I understand your viewpoint, which is a practical one aimed at reducing assaults, and in that respect admirable.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Times are tough. Let the humanities help you.

A few weeks ago one of my friends was interviewed in a coffee shop about the crumbling economy. She was in that coffee shop working on her dissertation because she doesn’t have an office (neither does any grad student in my department). The reporter asked her how the stock crashes were affecting her. She responded that they didn’t affect her at all -- that she lived well below the poverty line, and did the reporter know what kind of money you have to have to get into the stock market?

Nonetheless, those who had anything to lose have lost it or are in the process of losing it. People want to point fingers.

The obvious people to blame are the people who somehow made money off of crazy meta-economic juggling and somehow made the rest of the economy depend on the aforementioned juggling.

But that’s boring. With our long-held Freudian taste for analysis, we’re moved to dig deeper, and by “dig deeper,” I mean “dig shallowly and pull up the first ready-made pat narrative you find.”

That narrative, of course, is the two cultures, for lo, it will not die.

Thus in yesterday’s New York Times, I find Maureen Dowd crowing that too much technocracy has gotten us into trouble and we must all go back to reading Latin so that we can learn from the Stoics that greed is bad. Capital is scarce: cultural capital is back!!

Then Op-Ed contributor Richard Dooling writes that “math and physics geeks” are raining destruction upon us, in the form of nuclear warfare and financial ruin.

And then there is Harold Bloom, who advocatesreading Emerson.

Let’s look for a moment at how Bloom quotes Emerson:
Pride, and Thrift, and Expediency, who jeered and chirped and were so well pleased with themselves, and made merry with the dream, as they termed it, of Philosophy and Love, — behold they are all flat, and here is the Soul erect and unconquered still.


“Pride,” “Thrift,” “Expediency”? That’s nineteenth-century talk for business school – which Dooling improbably aligns with physicists. In short, it’s all number-people collapsed together. “Philosophy and Love,” on the other hand -- the humanities.

So after hearing that the humanities are in crisis for basically the entire time I’ve been in the humanities, I’m starting to hear that this is our hour of glory.

The logic seems to go:

There are two cultures, numbers culture and humanities culture. Finance isn't part of the humanities, so it must be part of the numbers culture, which also includes, I don't know, botanists and the Maytag repair person. The soulless numbers culture, like the Republican party, squandered its period of dominance, and now the other party will rise to power. That would be the humanities. Here is the Soul erect and unconquered still!

That's where I'm balking. It takes some really confused categories (Dooling, I’m looking at you) to make nuclear physics, robot takeovers, and the world financial system into the same phenomenon. Physicists actually have nothing to do with the economic crisis. Correlation is not causation, and numbers per se do not create hubris.

It also takes some pretty confused categories to think of Latin, “philosophy and love,” or Emerson as the inverse of irresponsible economics. The economy is a mess, but Emerson is not going to come back into fashion. Latin is not going to come back either. The NYT editors will not suffer Dowd columns in Latin for long. People are not going to come flocking to the more decrepit buildings on campus beating their breasts and calling out, “Oh, literature professors! We were wrong! Sell us your academic monographs!”

The current economic situation is not about the two cultures. The two cultures are not real. The two cultures, as being invoked here, are an intellectually lazy binary that lets us point fingers without actually having to think about economics.

But I am pretty sure the current situation is actually about economics.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Quick notes on three recently-read children's books

Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, some Soup, and a Spool of Thread, 2003.

     In case you were wondering whether a fat working-class girl with a hearing impairment could be a princess, the answer is no.

Shannon Hale, Princess Academy, 2005.

     The Book of Esther meets Heidi. Yes, including Peter and the goats.

Blue Balliett, The Wright 3, 2006.

    Charming, as must be any book in which a major plot point revolves around the box of free books outside Powells. Interesting sensitive touch on the awkwardness of mixed-sex friendships in sixth grade. Alas for the "Bach symphony" moment, however. 

Why, Rosemary Feal?

I’m not an avid reader of the MLA Newsletter, but for some reason I skimmed the most recent one. Rosemary Feal’s back-to-school column covered some familiar topics: student financial aid, state university funding, full-time versus adjunct faculty, the reasons students take language and literature courses.

And then there was this:
I know that if I were returning to campus this year, I would be thinking about something else, too, and it has been on my mind since my first year at college, when I witnessed the spectacles of keg parties, frat welcome events, and the like: the effect of alcohol consumption by young people who are often living away from their families for the first time. [Paging Margaret Soltan’s red pen. --N] How many of you, I wonder, have heard the same stories I used to hear, year after year, about the (sometimes devastating) ill effects of a “few too many” on young lives? On several occasions distressed young women confided in me: they went to a party, they drank too much, they don’t remember much after that ... well, you know the rest, as I did before they concluded. I informed them of the resources available on campus and tried to assure them that they’d get through it.

Yes, I know the rest, and I’ll name it, since Feal so decorously declines to do so: rape.

Memo to Rosemary Feal: alcohol does not cause rape. Rapists cause rape. You can drink yourself unconscious, and if no rapist is in the vicinity, there will be no rape. Yes, drinking can impair a woman’s ability to fend off rapists. It also impairs people’s ability to operate heavy machinery, avoid being mugged, or avoid being hit by a truck. In fact, if you’re too drunk to remember things, you’re not in much of a position to avoid anything. Nobody acts as if drinking causes being hit by trucks -- rightly. But apparently the established procedure is to tell our college women that they’ll get through it, and sorry, but being raped is the price that uppity Ovary-Americans pay for thinking they can act like college students. Just a little reminder, by way of physical assault, that even if they earn more than 50% of degrees, they're still fundamentally outsiders in the university.

Yes, college-age drinking is a serious problem. But don’t you go writing in the MLA Newsletter that rape is an “effect of alcohol consumption.”

Note how that nominalization, "consumption," carefully elides agents.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Saturday, October 4, 2008

All I wanted were some books

Walking up College Avenue on my way to the library this morning, I was bewildered by all the blue and gold. I have been living in Berkeley for five years now, so I have learned to recognize the telltale signs of an athletic event going on. Lots of people wearing blue and gold means an athletic event. But this seemed different; it was earlier in the day and there seemed to be more people and more activity. I even spotted a woman in a blue sweater with the golden faces of bears knitted into it. Yes, bears, all over. I nearly collided with somebody toting a euphonium.

It was not until I arrived in the area near the library and saw all the balloons and whatnot that I remembered that this is technically called "homecoming weekend" -- not, as I had fixed it in my mind, "Mark Twain exhibit at the Bancroft weekend."

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Mark Twain exhibit at the Bancroft tomorrow

Mark Twain at Play
10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Friday, 3 October
free admission

from the web site:
How did Mark Twain spend his time when the “bread-and-butter element” was put aside and he was free to relax? His leisure pursuits, from amateur theatricals to yachting—and how his “play” influenced his “work”—are the subject of “Mark Twain at Play,” an exhibition at the Bancroft Library that brings together notebooks, photographs, and other rare artifacts from the Mark Twain Papers archive. The exhibition, the first in the new Bancroft Gallery, was curated by the editors of the Mark Twain Project and has been generously supported by a gift from Colleen and Robert Haas.

UC Press Book Sale

PSA:

The University of California Press is having an online sale right now, lasting until October 31.

(Princeton University Press is also having a sale, by the way. The titles on sale seem less exciting, however.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

FYI

AP: "Nobel literature head: US too insular to compete"

Bad news for American writers hoping for a Nobel Prize next week: the top member of the award jury believes the United States is too insular and ignorant to compete with Europe when it comes to great writing.

Counters the head of the U.S. National Book Foundation: "Put him in touch with me, and I'll send him a reading list."


Funny: The claim that American literature can't measure up to European writing.

Funnier: The indignation with which Americans quoted in the article greeted the announcement.

Funniest: Calling the aforementioned Americans (David Remnick of the New Yorker, Harold Augenbraum of the National Book Award) "literary officials." What, now we have literary officials? Are they by any chance part of this country's vast aesthetic-industrial complex?

I wonder if The Onion knows that Adorno and Horkheimer got there first.