Monday, October 31, 2011

What's so eerie about Stephen Crane's Black Riders (1894) is that it's full of love poems, and they're seriously cheesy.

Most of the book is stark, ironic, cosmic, and to some degree these elements enter into the love poems. But whereas the other poems are full of twists and turns that are witty in the same measure that they are cruel, in the context of the love poems the same twists and cruelties seem bathetic. And whereas the book's formalized, ritualistic language usually renders the poems mysterious and darkly comic, in the love poems it's embarrassing.

In poem 31, for instance, a group of workers builds something large out of stone. While they're admiring their handiwork, the edifice falls down and squishes them. And that's the end of the poem. It's like ra-ee-ain on your wedding day, and it's kind of funny.

But what to do with something like poem 40?








That repetition, that breaking off—that's classic Crane. But the repeated demands for love and on love's behalf are, weirdly, classic Crane too, and they're difficult to square with the acceptance, elsewhere, of cosmic ironies in which love and sentiment are entirely—often comically—beside the point. (Think of the woman who weeps for a drowned lover in poem 38—her grief mirrored by that of the king of the seas, who is seriously sick of having corpses rained upon him. Both would stop the deaths if they could.)

Even a poem like the one above has its moments. I'm struck by "the noise of tearing," for example. The second speaker (the coward) speaks into being a metaphorical veil that comes to have such material presence that it may tear, producing a noise, and it's the noise of tearing that the coward must avoid.

But aren't such subtleties rather steamrollered by "YOU LOVE ME?"

It's not sentimentalism exactly, but something like it continually punctures Black Riders. What a curious book.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


I've been wanting to do some Atlanta blogging lately, but I never seem to have time. This morning Bart and Colleen and I went to the Atlanta Cyclorama, which was as awesome as you might expect (i.e. super awesome). The painting itself is of course cheesy, and the voiceover that they do for the tour does a little of that Confederate nostalgia thing, but they didn't lay it on as thick as I expected they would (I grew up in Virginia, so). The Clark-Gable-as-dead-Union-soldier figurine in the front? Amazing. I was surprised to learn that all the tchotchkes at the base of the painting were added in the 1930s, since such effects are sort of classically 1890s. But the painting was on tour in the 1890s, so I guess that makes sense. And it's a reminder of the unevenness of the way we periodize media—Frederick A. Lucas talks a lot about cycloramas in his 1920s pamphlet on the AMNH dioramas, for example. It was also, shall we say, sociologically interesting to observe the people who were on this cyclorama tour.

Sooner or later I want to write up something about the High Museum, which currently has some cool stuff on loan from MoMA, but I guess that isn't going to be today.

I may as well throw out the obligatory Americanist point, though: the High Museum has a building called the Wieland Pavilion. Seriously!

In case of fire, people, stop, drop, and roll.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

When DH Was in Vogue; or, THATCamp Theory

"More hack, less yack," they say. I understand the impulse, and to some degree admire the rough-and-tumble attitude of those in digital humanities whose first priority is Gettin' Shit Done. Hell, I like Gettin' Shit Done.

But as I've mentioned before, I cannot agree with the distinction between theory* and practice that this sets up, nor the zero-sum logic that it implies (i.e. in order to do more you must speak less).

I've long found the complete domination of THATCamp Bootcamps by technical skills from the CS side curious to the point of illogical. (It turns out that this post is an elaboration of my THATCamp SF post of about a year ago.)

We seem to have a tendency to think that the "humanities" part of DH is stable, that we sort of already have it squared away, while the tech skills are what we need to gain.

But the whole reason DH is theoretically consequential is that the use of technical methods and tools should be making us rethink the humanities.

In The Big Sea, Langston Hughes retrospectively snarks on those at the center of the Harlem Renaissance who "thought the race problem had at last been solved through Art plus Gladys Bentley" (228). In the same way, "when DH was in vogue," there's a temptation to believe that the academia problem has at last been solved through the New Criticism plus TEI.

It's the "plus" that makes Hughes's comment so snarky: he puts his finger on the merely paratactic, additive concatenation that we're tempted to make of what can and should be a much more paradigmatic change. In other words, we do not have the humanities part squared away. Nor, for that matter, can the digital be imported wholesale.
Gladys Bentley

And so I think it's time we insisted a little more strongly on theorizing all that hacking. There are some theoretical keywords for DH that get used in woefully unrigorous ways—keywords like "archive"; "labor"; "biopower"; "embodiment"; "disability" and "access"; "map"; "narrative"; "identity"; "author." You show up at a THATCamp and suddenly folks are talking about separating content and form as if that were, like, a real thing you could do. It makes the head spin.

I don't mean to caricature, much less insult, DH scholarship. We all know of many DH scholars who do theoretically and historically rigorous work, and I think most DH scholars try to be fairly intentional, if not necessarily "theoretical," about their processes. And to be clear, I, too, routinely use Drupal content types with a field labeled "author." Sometimes you have to make a black box in order to build something bigger and more complicated on top of it; in fact, much of web programming now operates on that very principle ("modularity").

But—perhaps largely due to the recency of the field's entry into the mainstream—much of DH is still characterized by that "plus." Although it would be fair to object that there is undertheorized work in all fields, not just DH, I think the "more hack less yack" culture makes this tendency more widespread and more acceptable in DH than elsewhere; indeed, I occasionally get the sense that some see DH as a refuge from theory. The whole notion of "best practices," pervasive in tech and industry, lives uneasily with theoretical critique. And the pedagogical emphasis on quick entry into the field—and the incredible success with which THATCamps, DHSI, and other initiatives have brought huge numbers of humanities scholars meaningfully into the orbit of DH—is admirable, but comes with some costs that would bear mitigating.

I'm writing this post in part because, after a long conversation with my sister (Maria Cecire) about her first THATCamp experience, these issues have been on my mind. (I'll leave it to Maria to add her own comments, if she chooses.) And then, yesterday morning, I read Alexis Lothian's smart post on the LA Queer Theory conference and her upcoming ASA roundtable, which issued some timely challenges to the way we've been allowing DH to develop.

I was particularly struck by part of the ASA roundtable description, which, without accusing anyone of bad faith (and I agree; I don't think there is any), asks why the digital suddenly seems so congenial to the humanities just when ethnic studies departments and on-campus women's centers are getting axed (not to mention philosophy departments). The questions that roundtable poses get at what we stand to lose when we fail to theorize practice, or when we leave our theorizing implicit.
In an era of widespread budget cuts at universities across the United States, scholars in the digital humanities are gaining recognition in the institution through significant grants, awards, new departments and cluster hires. At the same time, ethnic studies departments are losing ground, facing deep cuts and even disbandment. Though the apparent rise of one and retrenchment of the other may be the result of anti-affirmative action, post-racial, and neoliberal rhetoric of recent decades and not related to any effect of one field on the other, digital humanities discussions do often elide the difficult and complex work of talking about racial, gendered, and economic materialities, which are at the forefront of ethnic and gender studies. Suddenly, the (raceless, sexless, genderless) technological seems the only aspect of the humanities that has a viable future.**
It is not so much that DH is gaining at the expense of these programs (there's no direct correlation) as that something is making it easier to fund DH just as it's getting harder to fund ethnic studies and queer studies. And so far, despite the best of intentions, DH has not done a good job of theorizing either that disciplinary shift or its political implications—let alone "what is an author." That's why I think we should probably get over that aversion to "yack." It doesn't have to replace "hack"; the two are not antithetical.

So now, a few questions.

First, what are the key theoretical ideas that DHers need to think about? I've proposed words like "narrative," "biopower," and "author." "Medium" seems like another obvious one. But I'm sure others would argue that different concepts lie at the heart of DH—or that, in fact, we need to be considering the non-obvious theoretical concepts.

And second, what might a THATCamp Theory look like? (Besides the obligatory black turtlenecks, obviously.) I've often thought we needed humanities-based bootcamps on (e.g.) narrative, time, and surveillance. But I could also imagine sessions that look at different mapping projects in light of critical theories of space, or or that consider the interstitiality of iPhone apps and Twitter in light of queer and feminist theorizations of time.

"Cecire," you might be thinking, "that sounds a hell of a lot like media studies, not DH." Fair. But perhaps that division itself is overdue for some repositioning. Perhaps a THATCamp Theory would take some of the theoretical questions posed by Alexis Lothian and her co-panelists, and lead to digital projects (the "building" that we are so fond of placing at the center of DH) shaped by those considerations. And as Maria observed to me backchannel, "this need not be for theory wonks only, but for anyone who can step back and get meta (which *should* be all of us - regardless of training)."

Over the last several months, I've found myself returning to the Harlem Renaissance as a metaphor for DH. In part it's because DH seems to have the same sorts of identity crises that the Harlem Renaissance did. "What is DH?" is the question we still constantly ask ourselves—not in the "I know it when I see it" way that we ask "what is modernism?" but sincerely.

Similar to the Harlem Renaissance, too, is the compulsive self-listing, self-mapping, self-visualizing, and general boosterism of (e.g.) totting up the number of DH panels at this year's MSA, MLA, ASA, AHA, etc., comparing this year's number of DH panels to last year's, comparing the MLA to the AHA, und so weiter. It reminds me of Alain Locke's lists of black writers—look how many we have! Have we not arrived?

And apart from Hughes and a few others, we see in the Harlem Renaissance a good deal of the target of Hughes's satire, Art plus Gladys Bentley—painfully derivative capital-A Art, glued to some of that Harlem vogue.

The comparison breaks down, of course. DH is not historically or substantively similar to the Harlem Renaissance, and in particular lacks the moral and political force of the Harlem Renaissance's sometimes misguided but deeply consequential efforts. But the way that the comparison breaks down is perhaps as important as the ways in which it holds. For one thing, it makes it all the more surprising when "the (raceless, sexless, genderless) technological" is rather unselfconsciously represented as somehow beleaguered in just the same way that women, the working class, and minorities have been.***

To note the internal tensions that the Harlem Renaissance and DH share is to raise the question: why does DH as a disciplinary formation—incongruously—seem to have so many tics in common with the Harlem Renaissance? What is the moral and political force of DH—what are its cultural and institutional consequences? Are we content to suppose that it has no such force, or ought we not inquire?

Langston Hughes is right. Art plus Gladys Bentley is not going to get us where we're going, and the problem isn't Art, and it isn't (the queer black woman artist) Gladys Bentley; it's the plus.

It's time for THATCamp Theory.

UPDATE. There's nothing having a post retweeted to remind you that most conversation on the web does not happen via blog comments. Here are a number of related links:

Via Miriam Posner, Boone Gorges's G+ post "Dude ranchin' at THATCamp"

Matt Gold reminds us that his forthcoming edited collection Debates in the Digital Humanities takes up some of these concerns.

Jentery Sayers observes that THATCamp PNW (Social Justice) also seeks to address these issues. "Regarding DH convo about theory: #THATCamp PNW (Social Justice) will have 4 workshops blending cultural crit & tech practice. Details soon."

@THATCamp also points out the Theorizing the Web conference.

* * *

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. Introd. Arnold Rampersad. 1940; New York: Hill and Wang, 1993. Print.

Title: Hughes's "Art plus Gladys Bentley" line comes from a chapter in The Big Sea titled "When the Negro Was in Vogue." David Levering Lewis adapted the title for his 1989 history of the Harlem Renaissance, When Harlem Was in Vogue.

*I'm going to use the word "theory" a lot in this post. I mean it as a catch-all term for thinking through the philosophical and cultural consequences of things, rather than the 1980s theory wars caricature known as capital-T "Theory." I love me some Derrida, but that's not really the point.

**I, too, would rather be a cyborg than a goddess, but I can't help noticing from time to time that I am, in fact, a woman.

***The resonances here with what Tim Yu has called "the ethnicization of the avant-garde" are notable.

Thanks to Maria for a productive conversation on these subjects the other night. Thanks to Aaron for comments on an earlier draft of this post.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Best of

I finally bothered to put together a "Best of Works Cited" page. "Best" might be a misnomer, but there it is.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Kind of blue

I'm not at all a food blogger, for a number of reasons. Primarily, I cannot follow a recipe to save my life. Halfway through I always decide a recipe is really more like a guideline or a suggestion. As I've mentioned before, if I ever had a food blog it would have to be called "Whatever; It's Probably Fine."

But mostly, I'm just not very interested in writing about food. I prefer to eat it.

That said, there is something beguiling about the vast assortment of grains available at Your DeKalb Farmer's Market, the enormous and bizarre food purveyor in Decatur that is filling in the gap in my life where the Berkeley Bowl used to be. And it's autumn, so, in short, I've made some cookies.

Let's call them "Kind of blue" cookies, or "I am easily distracted by grains" for short. This makes a small batch, because, in addition to being easily distracted by grains, I live alone and never need a zillion cookies at a time. I imagine the recipe could be scaled up, although I haven't bothered to try.


1/4 c softened unsalted butter (or salted; who cares?)
1/2 c white sugar
1 large egg

1/4 c each: coarse semolina; white flour
1/3 c blue cornmeal (or a little more)
1/4 tsp baking powder (I say this as if I measured it, but obviously I didn't; just dump a little in)
sea salt: use your judgment

If you care about form, use Standard Cookie Procedure: cream the sugar into the butter, add the egg, combine the dry ingredients in a separate bowl, then put the dry ingredients into the wet and stir until just combined. I think the butter/sugar step is the only one that really needs to be kept separate.

This does not call for a Kitchen-Aid.

Drop the dough onto parchment paper (trust me, I speak from bitter experience) with a spoon (use your judgment) and bake at 400F (or whatever) until they're, you know, done.

If you should happen to forget the salt and wind up sprinkling it on top of the cookies while they're in the oven, not that I have done this or anything, the results are, I think, intriguing in a good way.

Nobody cares if they're uneven. They're made of sugar, for God's sake.

N.b. there is no vanilla extract in this recipe. If you are one of those people who dumps vanilla in everything willy-nilly, well, go for it. I, however, am a believer in the flavor of flour and butter, and prefer to protect its purity. Long-time acquaintences will recognize in this philosophy the origins of the Scone Principle as well.

Monday, October 10, 2011

MSA 13

It seems that the era of liveblogging is over, at least for me. In fact I barely tweeted, thanks to my janky phone. But I had a blast at MSA, as usual; I particularly enjoyed a talk by Karen Leick on Gertrude Stein's reception in the 1960s (the whole panel was great, in fact) and Benjy Kahan's provocative talk on climate and temporary homosexuality.

I felt that my own panel, "Against Innovation," went very well, despite a minor a/v fail; Stephen Ross and Joel Burges gave rich and interesting talks—Stephen's a metacritical meditation on haunting in modernist studies in several registers, and Joel's a clever look at the formalization of obsolescence in Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox. Ted Martin was our panel chair and kept things moving along admirably, and the people who showed up to the panel asked smart and difficult questions.

Beyond all the talks, of course, it was wonderful to see old friends and meet new people. MSA always wisely supplies ample breaks between panels and free-flowing coffee, which make for great conversations. I'm coming away from this MSA with lots of energy for my book, new readers for some unbearably delayed work in progress, and the general excitement of being reminded that I'm not the only one interested in these things.

I also came to the decision over the weekend that I should make a habit of posting my conference talks to the web, which is something that lots of people already do. I haven't done it in the past for a variety of familiar reasons—not feeling as though the idea were well enough developed or the talk well enough written; or the thought that I might develop the talk into an article one day.

Well, I'm starting to think better of these fears (let's call a spade a spade). It's not going to shock anyone that twenty-minute conference talks tend to be a little undercooked, for one thing. It's true, my conference talks aren't always well wrought urns. I think I can live with this revelation about my scholarly practice being made public. (By the way, my conference talks are also intentionally informal in tone—I believe I use the phrase "random garbage" in this one, for instance. I consider this a feature, not a bug.)

And as for thinking I might develop an idea—sometimes I do and sometimes I don't—but mostly I don't. And in this particular case, I'm pretty sure I won't. I have an article in the works that's related to the talk I gave at this year's MSA, but quite different in focus.

So, in short, here's my MSA 13 talk: "The Time-Sense: On Stein's Repetition."

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression.

    —Henri Bergson, On Laughter

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My missing books!: a crucial update

So... it turns out that someone in New York (a poet, in fact) received twenty-two of my precious missing books in the mail, all jumbled up with books of hers. It wasn't all of my books (Arcades Project? still missing), and in addition she wound up with three books belonging to an unknown third party. But my copy of This Sex Which Is Not One was in there, along with my complete Plato, my Myra Jehlen (what, I needed it just yesterday) and my Gubar-annotated A Room of One's Own.

Now I'm starting to have hope that my other books may return to me through the magic of the internet. (Yup, she googled me.)

So IF YOU HAVE MY BOOKS!: I really miss them. Send them?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Look, I just have to put this out there after hearing this song piped into a few too many establishments this weekend. Adele's single "Someone Like You" is the worst. torch. song. ever.

Oh, it's pretty well constructed as a song. But the total abjection expressed in the pleading, self-abasing lyrics is just embarrassing. Come on, lyric I, have a little self-respect! Be less passive-aggressive! And get yourself a couple of backup singers going "sha-la-la" in the background! Contrast this with Amy Winehouse's textured, grown-up treatment of the same:

So much better. Public spaces of Atlanta, you are welcome to play Amy Winehouse as much as you like.

And now, back to Very Important Research.