Friday, May 29, 2009

Joseph Marshall Flint to Florence Sabin, two of Gertrude Stein's classmates at the Johns Hopkins Medical School, on The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas:
My dear Dr. Sabin, have you seen the enclosed? What is it? Perhaps evidence that, after all, G.S. does react to the subconscious! [...] Curious person. She has contributed much to the bunk of the postwar decades, but this autobiography is well written. Critics say, 'only posterity can explain her.' I rather fancy, as in the case of Joyce, posterity will never take the trouble. (1933)

qtd. in Lynn M. Morgan. "The Embryography of Alice B. Toklas." Comparative Studies in Society and History 50.1 (2008): 304-25. Cambridge Journals. 26 May 2009. Web.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

I have that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you add A Room of One's Own to a syllabus.

* * *

I like much of what Neil Verma has to say about the defensive The Humanities Are Dead essay. He admits near the end, though, that he doesn't know what the alternative is yet. May I propose Humanities!: The Musical?

* * *

Oh, dear. Alma mater, could you please stop doing so many embarrassing things?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

We are told that Gertrude Stein tried to publish some research when she was in medical school, that the journal rejected the work, and that the two editors argued about it.

The two people arguing about it were called Dr. Barker and Dr. Knower.

Barker and Knower? Seriously?

Also: Knower won the argument.
Excellent google search string of the day: "students who feel that their classes are boring or useless." Hah!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Being understood/being believed

There are many interesting statements of feminist poetics at Delirious Hem.

It is not enough that you understand me. I would rather be believed. Imagine a kind of love that has no Greek word for it and then imagine that we could make a system in which all connections are made of this. Imagine a human system like culture that could make the public private and the private okay. I do not know what to do with the powerful except try to offer them some things to look at that they were trained not to see. Bernadette Mayer wrote “I hate power, except the power I have to show you something.” On this and many other things I require your attention, also your advice.
    -- Anne Boyer
I like Boyer's distinction between being understood and being believed. There's such a long history of "woman" being an object of investigation, as Woolf describes in A Room of One's Own:
One went to the counter; one took a slip of paper; one opened a volume of the catalogue, and the five dots here indicate five separate minutes of stupefaction, wonder and bewilderment. Have you any notion of how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?
To say "I understand her" places the speaker in the position of knowing; whether the woman knows anything is left very much in doubt; perhaps it is only the woman herself, as object, that is being understood. To say "I believe her," on the other hand, places the woman in the position of knowing. It is a position of power, i.e. "to show you something." To be a poet is first of all to be capable of knowledge.

(Via Silliman and his amazing technicolor Google alerts.)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Most General Fault of the A. O. U. Check-List

Mark Twain thought it would be a really cool idea to have a newspaper called The Back Number, composed entirely of old newspaper articles. Like Twain, I have a magpie mind, and so I completely agree.

Recent events have had me reading articles from The Auk, the publication of the American Ornithologists' Union, circa 1900. Just listen to Elliott Coues wax decorously indignant about the A.O.U. Check-List:
This is a serious matter which I have hitherto refrained from bringing up, partly on account of its hopelessness, in the present arrangement and numbering of the species, partly because it is to some extent a question of ornithological expertness regarding which opinions may reason[a]bly differ. But now, having occasion to retraverse the whole ground of North American ornithology, in the preparation of the Fifth Edition of my 'Key,' the blemish I shall point out obtrudes itself continually upon my attention; I cannot longer maintain the reticence I have hitherto preserved without seeming to condone the impropriety by tacit acquiescence; and I desire to put myself upon record in the matter, lest my silence be imputed to unrighteousness. This is the first general protest I make public on certain subjects concerning which I was often found in a more or less respectable minority of one or two, when various questions were put to vote for the official decision of the Committee over which I had for so many years the honor to preside.
Yes, that's his preamble right there. He hasn't yet actually said what's wrong with the A.O.U. Check-List (it will turn out to be that the order in which orders and families are listed is inconsistent with the order in which genera and species are listed).

Notice the language of speech and reticence, of repose and assault. Coues isn't writing this article because he wants to; he's writing it because he has to. The inconsistency in the Check-List has intruded on his quiet repose and forced his hand. Had the Check-List's inconsistency not "obtrude[d] itself ... upon [his] attention," Coues might have gone on quietly, as he always hoped to do, but the obtrusion makes his tact into "tacit acquiescence," altering the meaning of silence; indeed, concerning a problem so glaring, silence itself is speech.

Thus as Coues represents it, his complaint is not uncivil, tactless, improper, or unrighteous; rather, it is the only way he can avoid being those things.

And, clearly, it is very important that he avoid being those things.

* * *

I have yet to pick up the medieval bestiary I requested from NRLF, but I will definitely let on if there is a roc in there, or any EXTREME MAMMALS.

Elliott Coues. "The Most General Fault of the A. O. U. Check-List." The Auk 14.2 (April 1897): 229-31. JSTOR. 18 May 2009. Web.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Marianne Moore on Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
There was a young lady named Liz
Who made writing poems her biz
But when she met Bob
She gave up the job
It took all her time to read his

RML 1250/1, qtd. in Cristanne Miller, Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1995. 268n46. Print.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


I had my students this past semester read a chapter from Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison's 2007 study Objectivity. My students had a rough time wrapping their heads around the idea that "objectivity" and "science" are not the same thing, or that "subjective" and "bullshit" were not the same thing. When they saw the images that Daston and Galison used to emblematize truth-to-nature and mechanical objectivity, their first impulse was to say that the first image, an engraving of Campanula foliis hastatis dentatis, was "subjective," therefore unscientific and probably bad, while the photograph of a snowflake was "objective," therefore scientific and good.

Here is the true-to-nature image that Daston and Galison use, from Linnaeus's Hortus Cliffortianus (1737). The artist is Georg Dionysius Ehret; the engraver is Jan Wandelaar. As Daston and Galison write, "It is an image of the characteristic, the essential, the universal, the typical: truth-to-nature" (20).

Yesterday I saw some campanula growing outside the Women's Faculty Club and took some pictures with my cell phone camera. They may not be the same species as the one in the Wandelaar engraving -- IANAB (I am not a botanist).

My students greatly approved the snowflake photograph that Daston and Galison used to illustrate mechanical objectivity, "an attempt to capture nature with as little human intervention as possible" (20). A photograph is always more objective than a drawing, but my crappy cell phone pictures, precisely because there was so little human intervention (I couldn't control light or focus, for instance), show the drawbacks of objectivity. The photos are indistinct; it's hard to see what the leaves look like, for instance.

* * *

Semi-relatedly, here is a CBC radio series on How to Think about Science. Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison each have an episode! So do a lot of other brilliant science historians.

Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison. Objectivity. New York: Zone, 2007. Print.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"In the case of James Joyce as in the case of the zebra, a cross section will not suffice and the complete aspect is bewildering."

    -- Marianne Moore, "English Literature since 1914," The Marianne Moore Newsletter 4.2 (Fall 1980): 19. Print.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

You see, there really shouldn't be a cap on the number of library books you can check out...

...because sometimes you will find out that your library has a facsimile of a Catalan version of a Tuscan bestiary and you will just need it.

* * *

Update: it turns out we have a LOT of Catalan MSS, not just facsimiles but actual MSS, in the Bancroft. And a lot of them are scanned. JOY.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The curious phenomenon of your occipital horn

The American Museum of Natural History has a vast collection of mollusk specimens, both "dry" (shells) and preserved in fluid. We learn of these collections on a section of the web site dubbed "research"; naturalists who study mollusks might wish to consult the specimens at the museum and compare them to specimens that they themselves have observed. The pages there are practical and text-based. It is the land of the serious.

On the front page of the museum web site, on the other hand, we get something else:

That's right. Extreme mammals!

I like the link in the sidebar: "Extreme Extinction." Indeed.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Friday, May 15, 2009


Contractility is a virtue as modesty is a virtue. Snail spotted this morning on the sidewalk on Parker St.

I posted grades last night, so summer has officially begun. I have a research fellowship for this summer, which as you may imagine has me over the moon. I have big plans, people.

Of course, no semester ends but I ponder what went well and what didn't. In retrospect, I think my recent course, "Poetry and Science," may have asked students to digest too many ideas. In the review session, a student asked me how a chapter from Daston and Galison's Objectivity related to the rest of the course. I was a bit taken aback; the connections seemed clear to me, this was a student who tended to be on top of things, and in any case, isn't every word that Lorraine Daston writes applicable to everyone's daily life in myriad ways? It was a reminder that not everyone lives in grad-student-land, and that a bit more intellectual hand-holding (to use a dreadful metaphor) might not have gone amiss.

I also think I should have spent more time on writing practices--by which I mean writing affects. I'm never sure how much of this to do. It's essential to observe to college freshmen that we tend to take writing personally and treat it as part of ourselves, and that in order to improve or receive criticism productively, it's necessary to distinguish between self and writing. I do this every semester. I also often talk a bit about the affects of reading (what in an analytical essay produces pleasure for a reader, and why?). I usually talk about why "inspiration" is really code for "I want a mythical creature to write it for me," i.e. fantasy.

But I don't do any of these things in a sustained way. Should the affects of reading and writing be a distinguishable thread in my composition courses? Should I promulgate rules a bit more? "Have a professional attitude toward writing," I might counsel. "No drama."

I recoil in horror at teaching that smacks of moralism. I always hated it when writing teachers required one to outline, for instance. (I still think this is a bad practice, in fact; it supposes that students will be writing something so simple that they can envision its structure without doing any writing.) I am not sure that I want to instill any techniques of the self.

Yet it seems productive to try and think systematically and rigorously about the affects of reading and writing. I wonder if there is a way to do this in a classroom context that isn't implicitly prescriptive.

(Meanwhile, the Chronicle reports that a Trinity College professor is teaching an entire course on diagramming sentences to great effect. I love it. Maybe I should do that.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

This isn't going to be news to anyone, but Inside Higher Ed points out that the tenure track is "disappearing."
"What was shocking to me, even though I think about this all the time, was that the percentage of tenure and tenure-track faculty has shrunk to almost a quarter," said Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, the AFT chapter at the City University of New York. "The deterioration of staffing has reached a crisis point when only a quarter are tenured or tenure-track."

National discussions about higher education have focused on issues of cost, and Bowen said that it was important to involve students and parents in looking at academic staffing and its impact on the quality of education. "Part-time faculty have done an amazing job, especially under the circumstances that they work," Bowen said. "But I think parents and students are beginning to see the difficulty when the part-time faculty member you loved for English 101 is no longer there for English 201, or to write a recommendation. You don't have that continuity."

Monday, May 11, 2009

I saw Sita Sings the Blues last night in San Francisco. It was very much worth watching on the big screen, but you can also watch it for free online.


There is a way to read this film as appropriation, which would be fair. To me the self-consciously collaged (collé?) stylistics of the film read more as mashup. What counts as fair game for mashup (or alternatively, what's the difference between mashup and appropriation -- what formal features define the moral shift) is a good question, but the film is in any case brilliantly crafted.

Also, Bergson was right: rigidity is funny.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The law, half sick of shadows

I have long wanted to post a photograph of this. It's Boalt Hall School of Law, festooned with an odd quotation from Oliver Wendell Holmes:
When I think ... of the law, I see a princess mightier than she who wrought at Bayeux, eternally weaving into her web dim figures of the ever-lengthening past – figures too dim to be noticed by the idle, too symbolic to be interpreted except by her pupils, but to the discerning eye disclosing every painful step and every world-shaking contest by which mankind has worked and fought its way from savage isolation to organic social life.
A Victorian medievalism subtends these interesting metaphors. The law is represented as feminine, and a weaver, a feminine-coded occupation. (The Bayeux tapestry is actually embroidered.) The law weaves a history, like the one represented in the Bayeux tapestry; in this sense the law is an observer and a recorder.

Calling the tapestry a "web" evokes, at least for me, the Lady of Shalott, who is bound to see the world only through a mirror, and weave the reflected images into her tapestry.
And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights
The reflected images are only "shadows" of course, hence removed from reality and "dim" like the images that Holmes describes. Curiously, Holmes makes much of that dimness; he mentions it twice. No matter how "might[y]" this princess, her web is by definition dim; the law is explicitly a recorder of shadows, and retired from the world. Tennyson focuses on the weaver:
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot;
Or when the Moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed.
"I am half sick of shadows," said
The Lady of Shalott.


She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look'd down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Holmes, on the other hand, cares more about the tapestry. There's no question for him of whether Princess Law likes weaving under a curse. Still, the "dim" occupation doesn't make the law sound any too jolly.

Notice, too, how "princess" is not a political label here, even when the princess is "might[y]." "Princess" is a bizarre term to use for the law in a democracy, since it at least superficially recalls monarchic law, but here "princess" is clearly only code for "classy woman constrained to weave forever in a tower." She is "might[y]," but not politically or even artistically mighty. It is a mere reflection, and thus mere fallen mimesis, calling on a whole discourse of women's reproductive work, as contrasted with masculine creation. Her weaving is not even excellently mimetic; it is "dim" and difficult to decipher because it is "symbolic." Her might as a weaver seems to lie in quantity; the tapestry goes on "eternally."

All this is to say: what a strange thing to quote on the front of a law school.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Today in hilarious non sequiturs

The sign reads, "Got the flu? Take necessary steps to prevent it!"

Thanks for that helpful tip, Temescal Walgreens. I think I'll buy twelve bottles of Clorox to wantonly spray everywhere. Doubtless this will help prevent the flu that I already have.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

I have recently learned that some of my own blood kin are on Twitter. Disturbing. Why can't they stick to something nice and old-fashioned, like a blog?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Reflecting on the Drucker article mentioned below reminded me of one more instance of a tool working well for some fields and not for others.

If you search the string "marianne moore" in Google Scholar, what you get is this:

That one book citation is the only reference to the poet Marianne Moore on the page. It is not the best.

Friday, May 1, 2009

"The design of digital tools for scholarship is an intellectual responsibility, not a technical task."

Skg sent me this link to a very interesting article by Johanna Drucker. Drucker points out that even though humanities research depends on libraries and archives, faculty tend to take a bizarrely hands-off attitude toward the development of the library. Even as they are aware that print culture has changed and continues to change, they believe that librarians and other information specialists will take care of it -- and take care of it in a way that will suit scholars' needs.
The design of new environments for performing scholarly work cannot be left to the technical staff and to library professionals. The library is a crucial partner in planning and envisioning the future of preserving, using, even creating scholarly resources. So are the technology professionals. But in an analogy with building construction, they are the architects and the contractors. The creation of archives, analytic tools, and statistical analyses of aggregate data in the humanities (and in some other scholarly fields) requires the combined expertise of technical, professional, and scholarly personnel.
Just as problematic is the hand-waving approach so often taken toward technology: technology is the future; technology is magical; technology will fix things. It's as if the issue were whether to be pro-technology or anti-technology. But, as Drucker observes, different technologies do different things in different ways. The question is how will we use which technologies, and to what ends?

Robin G. Schulze makes a similar argument about textual editing in her bluntly titled essay "How Not to Edit: The Case of Marianne Moore" [Muse]. On one level, the article is a detailed critique of Grace Schulman's edition of Moore's poems (Viking, 2003). The edition has some virtues, but logic and accuracy are not among them. But Schulze is also sounding the alarm about the assumption that editing will take care of itself, that it is a merely technical task to be farmed out to publishing houses (even commercial houses like Penguin/Viking) rather than a scholarly intellectual task. Such an attitude has real practical consequences for literary criticism and teaching.
Scholars ... need to speak out and up on the matter of bad editions — the louder the better — because if they don't, bad things can happen. Indeed, Moore scholars now face a serious danger. In October of 2003, Publishers Weekly forecast that Schulman's edition would "supplant Moore's 1967 collection for course assignments, making for steady sales over the long run" (79). Thankfully, this prediction has not yet come to pass, in part because Moore scholars have been reluctant to bring the book into the classroom. Penguin, however, is the publisher of both the Complete Poems [Clive Driver and Patricia C. Willis's "final authorial intention" edition] and Schulman's edition. Eager to boost sales of the Schulman edition, Penguin could well discontinue the Complete Poems of Marianne Moore. If that happens, scholars will literally have no reliable classroom edition of Moore's poems from which to work—a sad day indeed for Moore's literary reputation.

Similarly, Drucker argues, if we fail to value, support, and require the intellectual labor of designing tools for digital scholarship, we risk making all our work more difficult, or worse, conforming our work to tools designed to meet the entirely different demands of the corporate world. We're all familiar with something like this already, with Microsoft Word's (irritatingly persistent) defaults apparently set explicitly to baffle MLA or Chicago style.
Many humanities principles developed in hard-fought critical battles of the last decades are absent in the design of digital contexts. Here is a short list: the subjectivity of interpretation, theoretical conceptions of texts as events (not things), cross-cultural perspectives that reveal the ideological workings of power, recognition of the fundamentally social nature of knowledge production, an intersubjective, mediated model of knowledge as something constituted, not just transmitted. For too long, the digital humanities, the advanced research arm of humanistic scholarly dialogue with computational methods, has taken its rules and cues from digital exigencies.


Unless scholars in the humanities help design and model the environments in which they will work, they will not be able to use them. Tools developed for PlayStation and PowerPoint, Word, and Excel will be as appropriate to our intellectual labors as a Playskool workbench is to the chores of a real plumber.

I think Drucker and Schulze are both right about the need to value (and promote, and fund) the intellectual work that must go into making texts accessible. Both Drucker and Schulze seem to propose that the way to do it is for academic departments to take over some of this work, I think rightly. But what's difficult about that solution is that departments have fewer and fewer tenure-track/tenured faculty, and thus barely have the resources to cover their current undergraduate courses. In other words, these articles could be misinterpreted as a call to shift resources away from existing specialties toward the editing and dissemination of text, when really departments need to hire -- and be authorized to hire -- scholars who specialize in these areas.

* * * * *

Another addendum to recent posts: Marc Bousquet's response to Mark Taylor is excellent:
But sure, you’re right. The problem is that we need to end tenure. When we end tenure, the market will insure that these folks are paid fairly, that persons with Ph.D.’s will be able to work for those wages.

Oh, crap, wait. As anyone actually paying attention has observed, we’ve ALREADY ended tenure. With the overwhelming majority of faculty off the tenure track, and most of teaching work being done by them, by students, and professional staff, tenured appointments are basically the privilege of a) a retiring generation b) grant-getters and c) the candidate pool for administration.

How’s that working out? Well, gee, we’re graduating a very poor percentage of students. Various literacies are kinda low. We don’t have a racially diverse faculty, and women, especially women with children, are far more likely to have the low-paying low-status faculty jobs.

Nice! Let’s get more of that!