Monday, August 30, 2010

My mind goes in unfortunate places.

Oh dear FSM, did I really just make a mental comparison between a Mei-mei Berssenbrugge poem and Regretsy?

I guess I just did. And it's going to have to go here, because it is definitely not going in the article.

Berssenbrugge, from "Dressing Up Our Pets":
I sew a bright hood for my pet mouse.

I make holes for the eyes, the nose and ears.

I stand it on two legs and it stands on its own, a while.

My friend, the white mouse, is iridescent, not an image that began in my intuition as ready-found material.

I sew a hood for the rabbit, eye and nose holes, sheathed ears.



In case you can't tell, that's a photo of a baby chicken dressed in a hand-knitted...item.

Yes, I know it's wrong. But there's an element of embarrassment in the Berssenbrugge poem that's worth exploring, and let me tell you, the Regretsy comparison hits that particular nail right on the head.

Berssenbrugge, Mei-mei. "Dressing Up Our Pets." Nest. Berkeley: Kelsey St., 2003. Print.


from: Harry Le Grande, Vice Chancellor - Student Affairs (campuswide)
to: "Academic Senate Faculty, Staff, All Academic Titles, Students, Instructors,"
date: Mon, Aug 30, 2010 at 1:11 PM
subject: Time, Place, and Manner of Public Expression


Dear Faculty, Staff, and Students,

With the Fall semester's beginning, we write jointly to remind the university community that use of our common resources - our classrooms, labs, offices, and public spaces - is subject to rules aimed at upholding the Principles of Community. Rights of protest and demonstration are both protected and governed by rules of appropriate time, place, and manner, crafted collaboratively by faculty, students and administration, in accordance with First Amendment law. These rules will be enforced as we embark on a season of renewed discussion and debate concerning the path forward for Berkeley and higher education. We expect the full compliance of faculty, staff, and students.

The Campus Regulations Concerning the Time, Place, and Manner of Public Expression can be found at We highlight the following sections:

311. The University has a special obligation to protect free inquiry and free expression. On University grounds open to the public generally, all persons may exercise the constitutionally protected rights of free expression, speech and assembly. Such activities must not, however, interfere with the right of the University to conduct its affairs in an orderly manner and to maintain its property, nor may they interfere with the University's obligation to protect the rights of all to teach, study, and freely exchange ideas. These regulations purport to assure the right of free expression and advocacy on the Berkeley campus, to minimize conflict between the form of exercise of that right and the rights of others in the effective use of University facilities, and to minimize possible interference with the University's responsibilities as an educational institution.

312. These regulations provide authorization for certain uses of University facilities, and establish procedures for such authorized uses. Such uses must conform to these regulations, Berkeley campus and University policies, and state and federal laws that may protect or regulate matters of public expression on the Berkeley campus.

321. All individuals on University property or in attendance at an official University function assume an obligation to conduct themselves in a manner compatible with the University's responsibilities as an educational institution. This means that all persons are responsible for complying with applicable University and Berkeley campus policies, including but not limited to the listed prohibitions. No person on University property or at official University functions may:

(a) block entrances to or otherwise interfere with the free flow of traffic into and out of campus buildings;
(b) have unauthorized entry to, possession of, receipt of, or use of any University services; equipment; resources; or properties, including the University's name, insignia, or seal;
(c) engage in physical abuse including but not limited to sexual assault, sex offenses, and other physical assault; threats of violence; or other conduct that threatens the health or safety of any person;
(d) obstruct or disrupt teaching, research, administration, disciplinary procedures, or other University activities;
(e) engage in the production of amplified or non-amplified sound that disrupts campus activities;
(f) exhibit disorderly or lewd conduct;
(g) participate in a disturbance of the peace or unlawful assembly;
(j) possess, use, store, or manufacture explosives, firebombs, or other destructive devices;
(k) possess, use, store, or manufacture a firearm or other weapon;
(l) engage in the theft of, conversion of, destruction of, or damage to any property of the University, or any property of others while on University premises, or possession of any property when the individual had knowledge or reasonably should have had knowledge that it was stolen;
(m) fail to comply with the directions of a University official or other public official acting in the performance of his or her duties while on University property or at official University functions; or resisting or obstructing such University or other public officials in the performance of or the attempt to perform their duties;
(n) camp or lodge on University property other than in authorized facilities;
(o) climb up or rappel down any tree, building, or structure on University property.

322. (a) The University House is primarily a personal residence and is not open to the public. The use of University House is limited to the residence of the Chancellor's family and guests and the venue for periodic special University events hosted by the Chancellor. It is not open to the public, and is accessible by invitation only. The property is not a designated area for public expression. Rallies, demonstrations and other forms of public expression by members of the University community or the general public are not permitted at any time on the grounds of The University House. Given the nature of the University House as a residential home, any such assembly advocacy activity may not occur within 50 feet of the property boundaries between the hours of 10 pm and 7am daily.

331. The Sproul Plaza and Lower Sproul Plaza have traditionally been designated as areas for public expression. These areas are open to the public generally between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 12:00 midnight. Between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m., these areas are generally closed to all activities except coming and going to a University building or crossing the campus. During open hours, Sproul Plaza and Lower Sproul Plaza may be used without reservation for discussion or public expression which does not require or involve sound amplification equipment. Space in both areas may be reserved through the Center for Student Leadership for use by recognized campus organizations or non-University groups in accordance with facility use regulations and established office procedures. However, use of these areas for discussion or public expression may be limited when such use interferes with the orderly conduct of University business or authorized events.

Thank you for attention to this and best issues for a successful academic year.


Harry Le Grande, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs
Gibor Basri, Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion
Fiona Doyle, Chair, Academic Senate

I like the Freudian slip of the closing line.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

According to my sitemeter, while Mac OS X accounts for 10.9% of web use [dubious source], it constitutes 63.4% of traffic to this blog.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Roger Ebert and Mark Twain

Someone at UC Press, brilliantly, sent Roger Ebert the galleys to Vol. I of the new Twain Autobiography.

He tweets:

I start reading Twain's Autobiography at any page and don't want to stop, for the sheer voluptuous pleasure of the prose.

I am pretty sure that's also how Twain felt about the Autobiography.

I'm struck, first of all, by Ebert's observation that you can just drop in anywhere in the Autobiography. That's true. Twain rambles on and on about what he believes to be his own clever innovation, viz. to dictate whatever the hell he feels for a few hours a day, on any subject, past, present, or future, and call it an autobiography. So the Autobiography is arranged chronologically by date of dictation, not by the sequence of events in Twain's life.

And, second of all, it's interesting that Ebert's in love with the prose, because this is Twain's prose at its loosest. As Ebert elsewhere tweets, it's "MUCH longer than the 'Autobiography' we know!"

The editors at the MTP work very hard, but their aim is not to improve the Autobiography, but rather to retrieve the most authoritative possible text by looking at all the variant drafts, figuring out which notations are in Twain's hand and which were made by Albert Bigelow Paine or Clara (Clemens) Gabrilowisch, or some random editor at the North American Review. That means that this edition is pretty unabridged. There's no more of ABP's and CG's judicious (or cautious) cutting. It's full-on Twain, which isn't, stylistically speaking, always a good thing. Perhaps he would have written a shorter autobiography, but he ran out of time.

One of Twain's favorite syntactic forms was, "X was ADJECTIVE and ADJECTIVE and ADJECTIVE and ADJECTIVE." He really does get lost in his own descriptions, and he can't resist tacking just one more modifier on there.

He couldn't have a more sympathetic reader than Roger Ebert, it seems. I hope Ebert writes more about Twain; he doesn't have Twain's bitterness, but in a way they're kindred souls.

Also, I suspect that Twain, like Ebert, would have loved Twitter.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

New office!

I actually moved into this office weeks ago, but I just had a chance to snap some photos this morning. It's really lovely to have an office in this building, after seven years in the department. I have three officemates who have yet to show up to actually use the space, so in practice I have a huge office all to myself, at least for now.

It's crying out for a philodendron, isn't it?

I snagged the rickety wooden chair for my personal use. All the other chairs were those awful office chairs for giants, with armrests. One of the casters falls off the wooden chair sometimes, but it's still more comfortable to me than the padded monstrosities.

My desk is already cluttered in the way that I like--with pens, lists of call numbers, scratch paper covered with notes, marked-up drafts. I know where everything is.

Like all the fourth floor offices, this one has a balcony. Here's the view:

Yes, that's the Financial District of San Francisco back there, with requisite Bay haze:

Marin is also visible:

And here's the Eucalyptus Grove, which is blocking any view of the Golden Gate Bridge:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Fact #1. Mark Twain is a profoundly bad poet.

Fact #2. Mark Twain is always capable of saying something inappropriate. Always.

These facts have been brought to you by the Bancroft Library's Mark Twain Papers.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Puerile desire and the cuteness of "WHHHHY?"

[Welcome, readers from 33 1/3!]

There are a lot of f-bombs in this post. Just saying.

Puerility is a powerful mode for a number of the authors I study, so you can imagine my delight when the internets deposited the following gem before me:

We learn that there is going to be no claim to dignity from the very first line, even before the endlessly catchy refrain:
I see you driving 'round town with the girl I love, and I'm like, "Fuck you!"

"I'm like" lets us know before we even arrive that this will be no haughty drama; no grand passion; no cold, dignified rage. It acknowledges at once the immaturity of responding to heartbreak with "Fuck you!" The song subtly clues us into the conjectural status of the "gold-digger" theory of rejection as well: "I guess the change in my pocket wasn't enough." Translation: you must have rejected me because you're a venal, flat stereotype of a woman. Cee Lo indulges in the most simplistic of interpretations, the one that makes a rejection into something other than a real rejection. There's a vicious pleasure and satisfaction in facile interpretations (viz. cable news), and Cee Lo both embraces that pleasure and acknowledges it for what it is: puerility.

As Kevin points out, the song's "fuck you" is universal ("fuck you and fuck her too"--which is to say, fuck everybody). The song's first sentence lets us think the addressee is a competitor for a woman's affections, but it quickly slips back and forth between addressing the competitor and addressing the woman herself. Eventually the universe of the song expands to include an appeal to "Mamma," whereupon the singer is once again denied and handed off to "Dad," in a deft Freudian disciplinary gesture.

The song invokes a queer triangulation of desire (of the woman, of the competitor), but despite the proliferation of f-bombs, in the end it is not an adult song at all but a childish immersion in polymorphous desire. This is why it makes perfect sense that a key metaphor revolves around more or less awesome video game consoles ("Xbox" versus "Atari"), why it "ain't fair" seems like a valid complaint, and why the bridge devolves into explicit (and hilarious) whining, an actual tantrum. By the end of this bridge all pretense that the gold-digger theory could have actually been valid has been abandoned in favor of the open, raw howl of "WHHHHY?" He doesn't know why. It's all a free-flowing libidinal soup now.

The clever lyric video supports the polymorphous libido of the song by refusing distinctions between reasonable and unreasonable, important and unimportant, figure and ground. Every last word of the song is printed before our eyes, in time, including backup vocals and non-words like "OOO, OOO, OOOO" and "UH." (Follow the bouncing ball?)

This is perhaps the best use of puerility I've seen in a while, and like some of Mark Twain's funniest rants, it's characterized by an unusual energy, a full-fledgedness that's hilarious, in part, because it's so very cute--an impotent, multidirectional, adorable rage. This is how the song manages to be intense and light at the same time, angry and hilarious--like some of Twain's less sporting pot-shots at the literary lights of a previous generation. It's indulgent, childishly so, and that's what makes it appealing.

As with Twain, there's a dark dimension to this humor as well. First, it depends on our willingness to take childish anguish lightly, and to laugh at what is intensely, if incoherently, felt. And second, puerility (that is, the tantrum of the male child) here becomes the humorous grounds for perpetuating a deeply misogynistic narrative. She isn't really a gold-digger, no, but Cee Lo gets to say she is, over and over, and we'll laugh at it, because puerility excuses it. Female desire is reduced to a cipher for our amusement. There's no resolving this, I don't think. Humor always has its undertow.

[Update as of 9/1/2010.]

I know this is absolutely pathological, but I'm a little bothered that the apostrophe in front of "round" is pointed in the wrong direction. Someone didn't override smart quotes?

Also, it strikes me as ingenious that the video emulates film stock, but I'm not sure why.

On cuteness:
Ngai, Sianne. "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde." Critical Inquiry 31.4 (Summer 2004): 811-47. Print.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

You might be thinking, "Hey, Natalia, are you still getting google hits for that Duns Scotus citation thing?"

The answer to that would be yes.

I hope that anonymous grad student has a book contract, is all I'm saying.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Okay, since Twitter has failed me: anyone want to recommend some good academic podcasts?

By "podcasts," I don't mean college courses that have been recorded and put on iTunesU, nor one-off lectures; I mean regular series like PoemTalk or Digital Campus.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Lila ♥ Foucault.

Yeah, it's a couple of gratuitous cat photos; what?
(Special thanks to Hillary for the photos.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Apropos of yesterday's sequence of stills: I can't believe I still haven't posted on Janelle Monáe. I mean, she has a disc titled Metropolis, for heaven's sake. I'm still hoping the much better Kevin Dettmar will post on her soon (and can I dream of a Jack Halberstam post?). Still, I have some thoughts to work out on her, and will do it one of these days.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Archival trepidations

I enjoyed Claire Potter's recent post on what to do with bits of private lives that show up in the archive.
Do I risk losing the trust of second-wave feminists now collaborating with me if I seem to have bad judgment? (I'm thinking the answer to this is yes.) Should you publish any document about a person of interest that you wouldn't want published about yourself? And yet, why did these women leave these love notes in their papers if they didn't want me to know?

I'm having a related problem with Twain, although it's not really a matter of professional ethics in this case. Some of Twain's papers are just, well, embarrassing. The Twain that's mourning Susy is just a little too raw, and when he needs to be raw, he turns to the conventional. I feel like I'm intruding, and the weirdest part is that I'm intruding on something that is, in a way, utterly boilerplate--and that's embarrassing, too.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

duCille, Ann. “The Short Happy Life of Black Feminist Theory.”
differences 21.1 (2010): 32-47. Duke Journals. Web. 31 March 2010.

My colleague Nilofar Gardezi has started up an informal black feminism reading group, which is giving me the opportunity to do some reading a little to the side of my current research projects.

In this essay, duCille uses a story that she regards as unassailably canonical, Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," as an occasion for revisiting the questions of what constitutes black feminist critique and where its rightful terrain lies. That duCille thought of the story as so canonically central was interesting to me and the other discussants, for whom the story was distinctly unimportant in our experiences of professionalization. Truth be told, Hemingway is a minor light in my personal map of modernism. Stein, on the other hand, looms large--as does Hurston. The work of scholars like duCille has had a hand in this.

This jarring sense of décalage was helpful in placing ourselves in relation to the article. DuCille's opening premise is that black feminist theory, as a thing, has sort of faded away; its day is past. It's always unnerving for a junior scholar to find out that a critical strain is "over" before one has even had a chance to read its foundational texts. But then, of course, black feminist theory isn't really "over," as duCille's article indicates; rather, it's entered a new phase, one in which certain obligations have already been carried out and certain battles have been, if not resolved, fought as long and as hard as they need to have been fought.

DuCille closes the article with an intriguing gesture: after reviewing the debates of the last few decades, and having conclusively demonstrated that there is nothing in "The Short Happy Life," not even the dead lion, that has less subjectivity than the African porters, and that indeed Hemingway's heart of darkness is the very emblem of white civilization, she writes:
I want it, though. I want it in my critical canon. I love my literature, the texts of my black feminist familiar, but I want the texts of the white male other as well--all books, great and small. Criticism cannot be a ghetto of our own making. It's time to light out for other territories, because nothing--least of all the fictions of white male authors--should be beyond our reach or "shellacked"* against our critical gaze.(44)
This is a language not of duty (what should be fair game for a black feminist criticism) but of desire. And perhaps it's when junior scholars take for granted that every Americanist has read Their Eyes Were Watching God, but greet "The Short Happy Life" with "um, I think I read it in high school," that critical desire can take center stage. A short, happy life indeed.

*"Shellacked": duCille is alluding to Toni Morrison's caution, quoted in an epigraph, that "it would be a pity if the criticism of [white male] literature continued to shellac those texts, immobilizing their complexities and power and luminations just below its tight, reflecting surface."

Friday, August 6, 2010

I'm not a WordPress user, but I'm interested in Anthologize, the new plugin developed by a twelve-person team at CHNM in one week. The pedagogical uses mentioned on the most recent episode of Digital Campus seemed particularly interesting to me, although sadly, you can't use the tool with hosted blogs (which my most recent course blog was). With or without Anthologize, I like the idea of getting students to publish in some fashion.

[Coverage at The Atlantic.]

Thursday, August 5, 2010


The evidence at trial shows that marriage in the United States traditionally has not been open to same-sex couples. The evidence suggests many reasons for this tradition of exclusion, including gender roles mandated through coverture, FF 26-27, social disapproval of same-sex relationships, FF 74, and the reality that the vast majority of people are heterosexual and have had no reason to challenge the restriction, FF 43. The evidence shows that the movement of marriage away from a gendered institution and toward an institution free from state-mandated gender roles reflects an evolution in the understanding of gender rather than a change in marriage. The evidence did not show any historical purpose for excluding same-sex couples from marriage, as states have never required spouses to have an ability or willingness to procreate in order to marry. FF 21. Rather, the exclusion exists as an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and in marriage. That time has passed.


Rymenhild adds that "if you enjoy schadenfreude, Judge Walker's comprehensive demolishing of David Blankenhorn's status as self-declared expert, on pages 38-49, is a thing of beauty."

And yes, this is the import of the above-quoted passage, in my book.

Imagining communities

I've been thinking lately about the similarities between a blog comment thread and a classroom discussion. It was an odd comparison for me, at first, because I've often used the blog for teaching, as a supplement to and (for the shy students) a replacement for discussion in class.

But I was thinking lately about comment policies, and good commenters, and bad commenters, and what makes a commenting community good. Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic often writes about the high quality of the comments his blog receives. A guest blogger, G.D., recently wrote:
The commenters here have a rep of being smart and thoughtful. Rare is the internet cohort with whom you can thoughtfully chop it up about the Civil War, pro quarterbacking, and the finer points of beer.
This is true.

The canonical inverse of the good commenting community is YouTube, where a thousand ignoramuses bloom. Here are some comments on a randomly chosen video (random to me; promoted on YouTube's front page):

These comments are insubstantial, unthoughtful, etc. (Surprisingly, for YouTube, they are grammatical, however.)

When there's a good commenting community, there's inevitably someone invested in creating that commenting community. There's usually a commenting policy and pretty vigilant moderation. Coates has this; YouTube does not.

I think comment moderation might be controversial for (1) people who haven't thought much about it and (2) trolls, who inevitably call this "censorship." To me it's completely clear that ground rules have to be set and enforced in a commenting community, and that that enforcement is what enables high-level discussions. In this sense, it's like a classroom discussion.*

But there's also one more reason that people resist the notion of comment moderation, or certain forms of comment moderation, and that's due to the ideology (I use the word advisedly) of the democratic web. The web is thought of as a leveller, a place of "freedom," where "information wants to be free" in both senses of the word, where anyone can go anywhere or say anything. "Walled gardens" like Facebook and publications with paywalls are regarded as an affront to this principle.

While the web does operate in ways that make openness advantageous (Twitter's openness, for instance, makes it a very focused social form, paradoxically), the many valences of "openness" and "freedom" are too often mistaken for one another. Since these concepts have very strong affective registers, people on the internet often seem ready to give their lives to defend another's right to troll. If there is one reasonable argument in support of the claim that the internet naturally tends toward shallow discussions, it lies herein. The ideology of openness in many cases encourages behaviors that prevent high-quality conversation.

For example, "openness" might dictate allowing commenters to ask basic questions about the topic under discussion. It's easy to see why. The ideology of openness would dictate that anyone operating in good faith should be allowed into the discussion, that no question is stupid, and that to demand a certain degree of familiarity with the topic up front smacks of elitism.

This attitude is pervasive among even the most thoughtful digital humanists, as evidenced in Dan Cohen's recent call for suggestions for a book title:
I’m crowdsourcing the title of my next book, which is about the way in which common web tech/methods should influence academia, rather than academia thinking it can impose its methods and genres on the web. The title should be a couplet like “The X and the Y” where X can be “Highbrow Humanities” “Elite Academia” “The Ivory Tower” “Deep/High Thought” [insert your idea] and Y can be “Lowbrow Web” “Common Web” “Vernacular Technology/Web” “Public Web” [insert your idea]. so possible titles are “The Highbrow Humanities and the Lowbrow Web” or “The Ivory Tower and the Wild Web” etc. What’s your choice? Thanks in advance for the help and suggestions.
Dan explicitly wants to leverage a distinction between an academia that is "highbrow," "elite," and closed (an "ivory tower") and a web that is by its very nature "lowbrow," "vernacular," and open ("wild"). Is that Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" I hear playing in the background?

It should be obvious that I think this is a false dichotomy and a false kind of openness, and a comparison to the classroom makes it obvious why this is so. In the classroom, we establish rules not to restrict conversation but to enable it. To fail to regulate a conversation is not to promote openness but to privilege certain voices for reasons other than their merit: loudness, lack of self-awareness, a superabundance of free time, and ignorance of the topic at hand, for instance.

Here are some things for which we routinely regulate a class discussion, which I think we should also regulate in online spaces designed for high-level discussions:

  • One voice dominating the discussion (as The Onion has so eloquently explained)

  • Irrelevant comments.

  • Counterproductive (as opposed to productive) questioning of fundamental premises. A course in evolutionary biology won't get very far when twenty minutes of every class are taken up by students disputing the legitimacy of the fossil record.

  • Ignorance inappropriate for the context: not having taken the prerequisite, not having done the assigned reading.

It might be argued that, since online discussions aren't bound in time and space is potentially infinite, there's plenty of room for de facto trolling in addition to on-point discussions. But as I've argued previously, even where space is infinite, attention is not. It isn't worth my time to hand-sort a comment thread that's 30 or 40 percent irrelevant, self-aggrandizing, self-linking, or otherwise trolliform comments. If we fail to regulate these voices, then the shy students will never be heard, and the smart students will be irritated and start doing crossword puzzles (or rather, defect to some better regulated blog). That's not openness.

So what would a truly productive online academic discussion require? Editing. Moderation. Curation. Someone empowered to make these calls, who is smart and cares--often somebody who is paid to be smart and to care, because this work takes time. Information may want to be free, but sometimes unless we pay for it, all we'll get is noise.

*I guess I should back up for a moment and note that this blog hardly has any commenting at all, and while I do get the occasional troll or spammer, they're deleted so swiftly and heatlessly that they're never a problem.

Also, since this blog rarely gets comments, I've come to know of various readers' existences in very unexpected ways. For instance, once a reader introduced himself to me in a coffee shop. Naturally I had no idea who he was, but the whole thing was charmingly uncanny. The issue of blog sociality might warrant a separate post. Or not.)