Saturday, July 31, 2010

It seems to me that the popular mistrust of critics, especially when they write using specialized language, is structurally similar to popular mistrust of difficult writers like Gertrude Stein. Like that of Stein, the critic's status as a worker is always in question, and the critic's claim to cultural legitimacy is therefore always threatened.

We need to revisit the structures of feeling around work.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Written, extruded

Here's the journalist Janet Malcolm on Gertrude Stein, chiming in with a long, woman-hating tradition (on which see DeKoven and Stimpson) of describing Stein's writing as a kind of bodily effluvium:
Her literary enterprise was itself almost entirely work-free. Mabel Dodge’s four-volume autobiography, “Intimate Memories,” begun in 1924 (after her fourth marriage, when she became Mabel Dodge Luhan), gives us a rare glimpse of Stein at her desk during the long visit she and Toklas made to the Villa Curonia in 1912. It was late at night, and Stein was “writing automatically in a long weak handwriting—four or five lines to the page—letting it ooze up from deep down inside her, down onto the paper with the least possible physical effort; she would cover a few pages so and leave them there and go to bed, and in the morning Alice would gather them up.” Stein never, or hardly ever, revised (a rare false start to “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” exists among Stein’s papers), and in “Everybody’s Autobiography”she said that she never wrote much more than half an hour a day (but added significantly, “To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day”). Stein didn’t even type her work; she just oozed into her notebooks and Toklas did the rest.

First of all, whuh? Really, we're going to just take Mabel Dodge Luhan at her word?

Ok, now that that's out of the way, I'm struck (and plain irritated) by the judgmental tone that Malcolm takes when it comes to Stein's writing. Lazy!, Malcolm scolds. "Work-free." It's as though Stein isn't writing so much as pooping. "Stein didn’t even type her work; she just oozed into her notebooks and Toklas did the rest."

There's a strange Protestant ethic running through the passage that suggests that there's something reprehensible about not doing your own typing (that is, if you're a woman!). Malcolm's Stein is indolent, lazy, not a worker but a sort of repulsive literary Jabba the Hutt (on which, again, see Stimpson).* Underlying this tone of revulsion is a sharp distinction, particularly inappropriate in Stein's case, between work and rest. If it's work, Malcolm seems to suggest, it's imbued with intention, attention, and is therefore art--and if it is not (as Stein might say), then not.

Where does Malcolm's work ethic get us in understanding Stein's actual writing?

Not very far, I think. Rather, I tend to think it gets us further in understanding a twinned horror of female literary accomplishment and the female body, which persists even at this late date.

*Full disclosure: Stimpson does not actually use the words "literary Jabba the Hutt." Probably to her credit.

I pretty much think Marjorie Perloff's review of Two Lives is right on, especially this part:
But then Malcolm—and this is what makes her book finally so unsatisfactory—has no use for the bulk of Stein's writing. She dismisses it early in Two Lives as "unreadable," making a sharp distinction between the "experimental writing" of Tender Buttons or the Portraits and nonfiction of the twenties and "conventional" work, like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written in the thirties to attract a larger public. I find this distinction dubious: even Alice B. Toklas uses a panoply of modernist devices, and certainly it has little or no plot or "rounded" characters. (94)

DeKoven, Marianne. "Introduction: Transformations of Gertrude Stein." Gertrude Stein. Spec. issue of Modern Fiction Studies 42.3 (1996). 469-483. Project Muse. Web. 25 July 2010.

Malcolm, Janet. "Gertrude Stein's War: The Years in Occupied France." The New Yorker (2 June 2003). The New Yorker. Web. 25 July 2010. This is an excerpt from her book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (2007).

Perloff, Marjorie. Rev. of Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm. Common Knowledge 15.1 (Winter 2009). Project Muse. Web. 29 July 2010.

Stimpson, Catharine R. "The Somagrams of Gertrude Stein." The Female Body in Western Culture: Semiotic Perspectives. Spec. issue of Poetics Today 6.1/2 (1985) 67-80. JSTOR. Web. 18 April 2008.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

It is difficult not to suppose something like this scattered condition of mind to be the usual state of brutes when not actively engaged in some pursuit. Fatigue, monotonous mechanical occupations that end by being automatically carried on, tend to produce it in men. It is not sleep; and yet when aroused from such a state, a person will hardly be able to say what he has been thinking about.

James, William. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt, 1890. 404. Google Books. Web. 29 July 2010.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

In poetry in English, pyrrhics are not a real thing.

This has been a PSA.
In three minutes, U of Minnesota professor Eva von Dassow lays out to her own regents why budget cuts that target the liberal arts especially are economically dishonest and intellectually indefensible:

From the article at Inside Higher Ed:
Specifically, she said that "those programs engaged in the production of knowledge that is readily turned into the money are the targets of investment while the rest are to be downsized into an efficient credit and degree factory." She cited liberal arts programs losing faculty slots while there is money for new biomedical research professors (taking care to say that biomedical research is indeed valuable and that she was questioning only the idea that other programs aren't worthy based on their lack of financial payoff).

See also Historiann on excellence without money.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Dresses/Objects Project

It's a little annoying of me to blog something that is no longer on display, but I was busy, so there it is. A little over a week ago I went to see Katrina Rodabaugh's Dresses/Objects Project in San Francisco, an installation in response to Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons.

Rodabaugh is a printmaker, among other things. In the Dresses/Objects Project, she provided a number of women artists with fabric printed with three poems from Tender Buttons, all addressing the textile arts.

Of the project, Rodabaugh writes:
I created the The Dresses/ Objects Project as a collaborative, multidisciplinary project in collaboration with over 30 women artists from across the US, though most are based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Phase one of the project started in 2007 when I printed poems from Gertrude Stein’s book, Tender Buttons, on to recycled fabric with a letterpress. Then I sent the fabric prints to reputable artists and designers to craft into dresses and wearable objects. Phase two of the project consisted of a fashion photo shoot with various artists collaborating as dress models. The third and final phase of the project will include an installation of the dresses and photographs in an exhibition complete with multiple live performances.

The poems in question are:


     What is the current that makes machinery, that
makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a
long line and a necessary waist. What is this current.
     What is the wind, what is it.
     Where is the serene length, it is there and a dark
place is not a dark place, only a white and red are
black, only a yellow and green are blue, a pink is
scarlet, a bow is every color. A line distinguishes it.
A line just distinguishes it.


A blue coat is guided guided away, guided and guided away, that is the particular color that is used for that length and not any width not even more than a shadow.


A light white, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charm.

I've always liked these particular poems, and once lectured at some length about "A Long Dress" for a twentieth century lit survey, and of course, that wonderful final gesture, "[a] line just distinguishes it," is the epigraph to my chapter on presence and the line in Paterson.

The dressmakers make a good deal of use of patchwork and pins, as if to emphasize the almost architectural constructedness of these pieces.

"A Long Dress" dwells on the seam, the "serene length" that is in itself technically nothing, merely the site where two pieces of fabric meet, and yet which also constitutes the dress both visually and structurally.

The seam likewise comes to the fore in these pieces, sometimes with jarring color juxtapositions, and sometimes with pins -- the most precarious and temporary seams are sealed not with thread but with metal.

Seams, stitching, and fabric also become a way to edit the poems:

In the above semi-erasure, much of the poem is veiled, though still faintly visible, a "rosy charm" peeking through. Three lines remain not only exposed but separated from the rest of the poem by firm boxes of stitching:


     What is the wind, what is it.

A line just distinguishes it.

Erasure is a not uncommon contemporary poetic gesture, and here the veiled presence of most of the poem resembles the cover of Janet Holmes's erasure The ms of m y kin.

But whereas on Holmes's cover the retained letters are merely brought into relief by color contrast, in the quiltlike object above, the stitched borders around the exposed text seems to isolate it from its original context, as if casting it out, making the lines, once a part of an energetic "current" of words, into a series of framed objects.

This rather Steinian dress likewise edits with seams and pleats:

This is not, in fact, a "long dress," but rather a stumpy and slightly masculine outfit reminiscent of Stein's favored and much-maligned gender-bending vests.

But whereas Stein was often accused of being frumpy and careless of her appearance, this boxy, masculine dress is incredibly fastidious, constructed of innumerable pleats and seams, as if to advertise the deliberateness and care that go into the performance.

The lines of "A Long Dress" (and "A Blue Coat") are thus revised by the lines of the short dress to overlap one another and stand head to toe, lines of the text always running parallel to but never in semantic harmony with the lines formed by the seams and pleats, the lines that "distinguish it."

The queer commentary of this vest-and-tie outfit seemed to me to be perhaps the strongest element of the installation, with its parallel lines of text and visual lines in an ambivalent pas de deux.

The installation was a pleasurable play on three Stein poems that I love, though the artist's statement and ultimately the installation itself left me dissatisfied. In the end, I couldn't help feeling that something had been phoned in. Something feminist.

By printing on fabric, Rodabaugh literalizes the text-as-textus pun with which we are all familiar, and by making that fabric into dresses, she explicitly appropriates a male medium for a female one. Now I, too, love me some Gilbert and Gubar, and part of the pleasure of this installation was a nostalgia for a 1980s feminism of difference, when we could embrace the madwoman in the attic and before we had gotten into deep gender trouble. It was a time when we could all just make fun of male writers for thinking the pen was "a metaphorical penis."

Yet that very nostalgia also sent up a red flag me. The feminism of this installation (like Stein's own all-too-attenuated feminism) was entirely latent and, it felt to me, unearned. The turn to dressmaking, fashion, and collaboration (between "over 30 women artists," as every bit of copy anywhere hastened to point out) as feminine domains, and consequently as signifiers of a feminist artistic discourse seemed to me to be a bit too quick, especially in the drapy, lacy, frilly and wispy dresses. Sure, these are "feminine," but does that make them feminist? When we resolve text back into textile, making it a matter of weaving and historically feminine arts, what is it exactly that we revise or challenge? Text as a medium? Text as a masculine medium? Or (butch, queer, self-proclaimed "genius," female) Stein's authority in that medium, as her words are scrambled and stitched and revised to resemble the "nonsense" that so many claimed her poetry already was? Or...?

Some of these are, of course, issues that Tender Buttons itself raises, and perhaps that's part of the point. But then, Tender Buttons was published nearly a hundred years ago.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1970. Print.

Holmes, Janet. The ms of my kin. Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2009. Print.

Rodabaugh, Katrina, et al. The Dresses/Objects Project. June 25-July 18, 2010. Z Space, San Francisco.

Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. New York: Claire Marie, 1914. Web. 24 July 2010. [Bancroft Library/CDL.]

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Attention and Length

In the midst of a satisfying rant about the recent NYT faux-forum on tenure, Aaron notes:
But the real problem is simply that this was never going to be a real discussion anyway; in 350 words, not much can be said about a complicated issue, and so it’s hardly surprising that not much was said. The NY Times’ decision to limit these contributions to such a microscopically small word count — in a virtual forum whose space is virtually infinite — illustrates that they were far more interested in the pretense of debate than an actual discussion (the same way grabbing onto a reliably orthodox leftist and two reliably orthodox conservatives demonstrates an interest in the pretense of balance, rather than the reality of actual discussion). Which is why, as irritating as this non-discussion is, it’s totally unsurprising.
Aaron complains about the shortness of the pieces, none of which respond to the others, because it prevents any depth of discussion. (Uh, MLA roundtable, anybody?)

What caught my eye in Aaron's statement was the point he makes about the cheapness of space on the web. The available space is, if not limitless, much more than anyone could possibly need. This is a point that digital humanists make all the time. This is just a true fact: space is cheap on the web. The capacity to store large texts is there.

Yet there's also a contrary notion, namely that, despite arbitrarily expandable space, the web is not the natural home of the long form but rather a "shallows," a place of soundbites and snippets and Hollywood movies illegally uploaded to YouTube in nine-minute chunks.

This is something less than a true fact, but something more than just a rumor. There is certainly a culture of the internet that privileges the short form, and culture is very, very strong.

Moreover, the web is not only virtual but also material, and while virtual space may be infinite, the ability of my wrists to withstand trackpad scrolling is not. Perhaps iPads and Kindles are more ergonomically sound than is my trusty MacBook (not perhaps: definitely), but there's still a physical limit to the amount of on-screen reading one can do. I don't think the internet makes people stupid, but I also don't think it's especially accommodating of long-form reading, at least not yet.

The web has two great strengths that lie in tension. One is the aforementioned availability of space. The other is ease of linkage: the web makes it very easy to travel around this vast space. (It's less good at marking stable places, keeping the ground from shifting.) So it's possible to stay in one place for a long, long time, because there are no technical obstacles to storing War and Peace online. But to do so mitigates against the other strong impulse of the web, transit -- what Anne Friedberg has pointed to as an arcade-evoking virtual motion through interconnected, visually captivating spaces.

The your-brain-on-teh-internets debates are very much reminiscent of modernist debates about distraction; there's that same fear that attention and the moral rectitude that it implies have been replaced by superficial and trashy pleasures, as Jonathan Crary has so persuasively documented. And yet, I recently had the pleasure of hearing my fourteen-year-old brother narrate the ins and outs of his most recent internet RP in excruciating detail, and it was I, the Ph.D., whose attention wandered (A LOT).* The internet narrative bested my attention span.

Is the internet the future of long-form publications, as the digital humanists would have it (because paper publishing is in the throes of death)? Or is it culturally and materially inimical to longer forms?

Perhaps on the internet the attention-distraction dialectic that Crary describes is simply operating in a way we're not yet used to discussing, offering us a new way to experience old anxieties about where an idle mind might go.

*While the RP itself bores me to tears, I absolutely love that my brother wanted to tell me all about it.

Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MITP, 1999. Print.

Image: Passage Jouffroy, Paris. Wikimedia.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The mid-drafting overhaul

For when you're halfway through a draft, realize the architecture of your essay is absolute nonsense, draw some diagrams in a notebook, and start a new Word doc.

Sometimes it's just the only way to proceed.


On the uses of multimedia files

One of my jobs at Arcade is to contact humanities centers about the possibility of cross-posting their audio and video recordings of events. Being the Transactions editor at Arcade has brought home a lot of facts about the use of multimedia in the research humanities.

First of all, nobody has settled on a standard way of handling multimedia. I mean--any standard ways of doing anything. File types (audio, video), file formats, presentation, venue (e.g. YouTube, iTunesU,, self-hosted), and even what to call these files or where to put them ("events," "library," "multimedia," "podcasts," "check it out!" etc.) vary widely across humanities centers. One humanities center that will remain nameless even streams its files using Real Video, hand to God. Nothing can surprise me now. So research humanities multimedia are a Wild West even logistically.

Here are some examples of humanities center web pages with multimedia files. All of the humanities centers shown below have good collections, arranged with some kind of logic that you can get behind when you think about it, but which are all completely different. Some use video; some use audio; some are all business; some have pretty pictures; some use highly portable file formats; some use proprietary formats.

UC Berkeley's Townsend Center links to separate landing pages for each talk, each of which contains an embedded YouTube video. They're termed "webcasts."

The Institute for the Humanities at Michigan has a number of good talks, but they're buried under a section called "Library." The actual videos are several clicks deep and use proprietary formats.

The University of Chicago's Franke Institute arranges its audio files by lecture series and by chronology. There's an excellent collection with attractive pictures, though no useful abstracts or keywords. They use a highly compatible format (mp3).

The University of Washington's Simpson Center has two lecture series for which it offers audio. The streaming audio player is right on the index page.

But part of the reason there's so much variation in how these files are handled is that nobody seems quite sure what role multimedia are supposed to be playing in the research humanities. There seems to be a sense that recording talks at humanities centers is a good thing, but nobody knows for what.

I think the general lack of strategy attending the posting of multimedia files is evidenced by that fact that, in many cases, the videos are not produced as videos. Instead, they pointedly announce their camera-in-the-back-of-the-room quality: they're an automatic transcription of a ninety-minute period, taken from one fixed point of view, artlessly and objectively. So styled, these videos efface their status as videos; they're faithful if paler representations of what happened in the room. They ostentatiously defer to the live event by being just like the live event, only non-interactive and with poorer sound quality.

I'm not saying this in order to casually denigrate humanities video recordings as such. After all, I'm the Transactions editor at Arcade, and video falls under my vast and evil domain. I am basically in favor of video. But it's a fact that the average humanities center recorded talk advertises itself as a slightly speckled photocopy of a real event that happened in time. What are the possible uses of a video that cedes its authority as video, that defers to a past event and announces its own insufficiency?

Just to be clear, I don't think it's necessarily a problem that humanities videos tend to announce their insufficiency and defer to the event. But this way of thinking about the video will produce certain uses for it, and it's by no means clear to me that these uses have been developed intentionally or strategically.

Offhand, I can think of two ways to use a video construed in this manner.

  1. The truth-function that always attends recording, evidence of activity. "We sometimes host awesome people: here's proof!" There certainly is some practical, if not necessarily intellectual, benefit to such a function.

  2. The archival impulse. People don't get to work in the humanities by wanting to forget things; they get there by being obsessive hoarders of documents, facts, memorabilia, ephemera, aura. Someone might need it for their research someday. I mean, right?

Both of these uses imagine the role of the video precisely as subordinate to the event. The archival impulse is particularly evinced by the near-total lack of curation or organization on humanities center websites. Multimedia files are (currently) almost always arranged by date, not by subject or name of speaker, and usually no browsing tools of any power (sort by name of speaker, search by keyword, etc.) are offered. The one advantage that the video indisputably offers over the live experience--freedom from the bounds of time--is denied, as the video is subordinated once again to a timeline.

I suspect it's time to rethink what it is that the research humanities actually has to do with online videos of talks, what we really want out of them. Do we have a good reason for posting these talks, or do we just have them because all the kids are posting to the YouTube and the Vimeo these days and we want to Keep Up With The Times?

The two uses I mentioned above aren't bad ones. It definitely helps to have visible evidence that you're Doing Stuff with your meager funding. And I, too, cling to the preservation fantasy that animates the archival impulse.

Yet I wonder how many downloads various centers are getting. I can see the stats at Arcade, and they're nontrivial even in light of the small collection we currently have, but truthfully these videos vary widely in quality, and I wonder how many are actually watched all the way through. We've all been to talks, yes? Some talks are frankly terrible. Must they all be recorded for posterity?

Well, yes and no, right? Suppose Professor Famous recycles a talk at three or four humanities centers; that's worthwhile in the flesh, because people who attend the talk can participate in a lively Q & A session, or use the opportunity to ambush their hard-to-pin-down advisors,* or cadge cheap departmental wine at the reception, or whatever. There are myriad goods that come out of a live talk for which the talk itself is but an excuse (and if the talk itself is good, so much the better). But every time, some underpaid humanities center staffer is wrangling files and paperwork and uploading that puppy to the web, usually in some unlikely and hard-to-find location. All we have is the talk itself, sans advisor, sans cheap wine. Are we adding to the body of knowledge, in that case? Or improving public access to it? I'm not sure.

I mention access advisedly, because within the archival impulse, there seems to be embedded a vague belief, or rather a hope, that posting these videos constitutes outreach in some sense, because it's the internet, and anyone (who has broadband) could find it and watch these videos. So, to summarize, outreach consists of: (1) taking a talk by a professional addressed to professionals (2) posting it three or four clicks deep on a humanities center website (or on Arcade). And that's...not really reasonable. If access is a real goal in posting these videos, we need something more strategic, and if it's not the goal, then we need to decide what is.

The "we do stuff" function of online videos is perfectly fine, I think. But I believe that we need to rethink the archival impulse, and also begin to consider what uses the videos have that live talks don't have--i.e. why they're good as videos.

That means curation. Talks that are good for ambushing your advisor are not necessarily talks that are good as talks. Talks that have a great Q&A are not necessarily talks that you want to watch on video. Somebody needs to be vetting this, and yes, this would take a good amount of time and a little moxy to boot.

Someone also needs to identify the intellectual content of these talks and organize them accordingly. You really might go to a live talk because it's at the Townsend Center this week. Time and place matter a lot with a live talk. Once the talk is on video, though, the specific content of the talk matters a lot more. People will rarely seek out the video of a talk because it was delivered at the Franklin Humanities Institute in Fall 2009. Yet that's exactly how most of these files are currently arranged--by date and by place rather than by speaker or subfield.

I'm hoping that the Arcade multimedia section can ultimately do some of that work, but it can't do all of it. Arcade has particular areas of interest (genre, translation, environmental humanities, to name a few), and we're almost exclusively collecting files that correspond with those areas of interest. Yet there's a sea of humanities multimedia files out there, assiduously recorded and uploaded but languishing in obscurity.

If the humanities are really going to engage productively with new media, then we need to be more strategic about how we use it. As far as I can tell, actual research in the digital humanities rarely deals with audio and video, for perfectly sound reasons. There's a disconnect between the way that "regular humanists" use new media and digital humanists and new media theorists** use them, and you'd think we'd be drawing on the expertise of people who actually think about these media for a living. These jobs can't really be farmed out to the work-study student, because they're substantive intellectual tasks. And isn't that, after all, a good thing?

*Standard disclaimer: my own co-chairs were and are lovely people, and I never had to resort to ambushing them at a talk.

**I recognize that digital humanities can't be conflated with new media studies.

Monday, July 12, 2010

"[H]e said this in joke, but I've no dought [sic] it was founded on truth."
    --Susy Clemens, aged fourteen, writing of her father Mark Twain something that could be applied to almost all of his utterances.

Clemens, Olivia Susan. Untitled biography of Mark Twain. Published as Papa: An Intimate Biography of Mark Twain, by Susy Clemens, New York: Doubleday, 1985, Print. MS at University of Virginia Barrett Collection. MS copy at Bancroft Library.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Empty nest

Spotted this morning.


He decidido que hay que escribir en español de vez en cuando. Ya sé que no lo hablo bien. Pero quería debilitar la noción que inglés sea el idioma "normal" aquí.

Thursday, July 1, 2010