Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Children dressed as animals dressed as children (or, The Meaning of Christmas)

Cuteness, I have argued, often rests on a double mimesis. It's not that the child is dressed as an animal so much as that the child is dressed as an already anthropomorphized animal.

Lee Edelman's No Future famously repudiates the politics of "for the children," a politics that imagines a capital-C Child that "marks the fetishistic fixation of heteronormativity: an erotically charged investment in the rigid sameness of identity that is central to the compulsory narrative of reproductive futurism" (21). In what Heather Love has called Edelman's "star turn as Milton's Satan" (an absolutely right-on description), the unthinkable call to arms is absolute:
Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we're collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kid on the Net; fuck Laws both with capital ls and with small; fuck the whole network of Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop. (29)
Against the Child and reproductive futurism, Edelman counterposes a sinthomosexual figure, which he describes first of all in the character of Charles Dickens's unrepentant Ebenezer Scrooge. The sinthomosexual is not quite gay, although he (usually he)* is certainly queer. Sinthomosexuality is not an identity but a function, the kernel of unreasoning negativity without which we have no Symbolic order. In A Christmas Carol, Christmas is a festival of reproductivity in the name of the Child, in which all children (innocent Victorian ones) are subsumed under the sign of the Christ-child.

[It will surprise no one that the processional for the King's College Advent service, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols,** is always "Once in Royal David's City." The first verse is sung by a soprano choirboy (never a woman, of course!), and it is itself a Victorian children's hymn, first published in the 1848 Hymns for Little Children. The third verse is especially pointed in this regard:
And through all his wondrous childhood
He would honor and obey,
Love, and watch the lowly maiden
In whose gentle arms he lay.
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as he.
Theologically, the song is rather remarkable. But I digress.]

Scrooge's rejection of Christmas is merely a particularly recognizable subset of a broader rejection of reproductive futurism, and is for that reason depicted as monstrous. Who could hate Christmas? It's queer, unthinkable, and must be corrected—at least in the novel.

Thus, as Edelman writes, Scrooge is "converted to futurism through his life-changing vision of a futureless future," and thus "is granted the very gift of life he gives to Tiny Tim. But granted it only insofar as he gives that life to Tiny Tim, becoming a 'second father' to the boy by renouncing the intolerable narcissism that futurism projects onto those who will not mirror back its own Imaginary form" (50).

As early as 1993, Eve Sedgwick had already sketched out some of the consequences for queer theory of the ideology surrounding American Christmas, in which religion, capital, state, and "family" merge in a unison chorus of "'tis the season."***

What’s “queer?” Here’s one train of thought about it. The depressing thing about the Christmas season—isn’t it?—is that it’s the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice. The Church says what the Church says. But the State says the same thing: maybe not (in some ways it hardly matters) in the language of theology, but in the language the State talks: legal holidays, long school hiatus, special postage stamps, and all. And the language of commerce more than chimes in, as consumer purchasing is organized ever more narrowly around the final weeks of the calendar year, the Dow Jones aquiver over Americans’ “holiday mood.” The media, in turn, fall in triumphally behind the Christmas phalanx: ad-swollen magazines have oozing turkeys on the cover, while for the news industry every question turns into the Christmas question—Will hostages be free for Christmas? What did that flash flood or mass murder (umpty-ump people killed and maimed) do to those families’ Christmas? And meanwhile, the pairing “families/Christmas” becomes increasingly tautological, as families more and more constitute themselves according to the schedule, and in the endlessly iterated image, of the holiday itself constituted in the image of ‘the’ family.

The thing hasn’t, finally, so much to do with propaganda for Christianity as with propaganda for Christmas itself. They all—religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy—line up with each other so neatly once a year, and the monolith so created is a thing one can come to view with unhappy eyes. What if instead there were a practice of valuing the ways in which meanings and institutions can be at loose ends with each other? What if the richest junctures weren’t the ones where everything means the same thing? (5-6)

Christmas is about capitalism—of course; everyone knows that, albeit usually in the context of bemoaning it. Sedgwick's insight is that Christmas's univocality allows each of these sites of power—capital, the state, "the" (heteronormative, reproductive) family, religion—to stand in as a metonym for all the rest. You buy Christmas presents because you love your family because the Christ-child loves you because you love the Child because the Child is the future of the nation, and round and round. Christmas has meaning, we are continually assured, and it is all the same meaning—the single, univocal meaning that the unmeaning sinthome both opposes and makes possible. If Christmas is about "meaning," then a purely negative Scrooge is the reason for the season.

What's missing from Edelman's account, of course, is any serious consideration of the actual child— not Annie or the waif from Les Mis or Tiny Tim, but the real children whose debt-burdened future is illogically invoked as a reason to cut public school funding, for instance.**** This is a perspective that Kathryn Bond Stockton takes up in The Queer Child (2009), and a place where the relation between children and animals returns.*****

Why are children so cute when dressed up as animals? I keep returning to this question. Here is Ralphie in A Christmas Story (1983), dressed as an animal as part of the same ritual of gift-giving that will eventually unite him with the toy gun he so desires.

Ralphie's abject, miserable cuteness is inseparable from the ritual of gift-giving; indeed, it assures that the queerly gender-bending aunt who sends him the bunny suit (she believes that he is "perpetually four years old [and] also a girl") is domesticated into "the" family. With Ralphie's appearance on the stairs, the aunt's failure to respect gender norms and her likely spinsterhood are recuperated by the forces of Family and Christmas present. Cuteness overcomes queerness, and must do so at any cost to the child's dignity, for example.

Of course, you know what's coming after all this queer theory is a YouTube clip of an Old Navy commercial.

This is one of those tiny artifacts that one comes across, that's so overdetermined it leaves one nearly speechless. My first reaction was really "CHILDREN DRESSED AS ANIMALS DRESSED AS CHILDREN. SCROOGES." And I can't say I've progressed much beyond that. The ad is for something you are supposed to buy for a child, presumably as a Christmas present: "critter hats," which deck the child in bits of an anthropomorphized animal. We are meant to buy them for Christmas in more than one sense: they make great presents, but they also convert "the holiday's Scroogiest Scrooges" with their cuteness. Scrooge here is not a literary reference, not a character, not a person. A "Scrooge" is a function—the sinthomosexual who poses a threat to Christmas and to the child, who must be converted in order for Christmas to be saved.

This ad, which scores a point for capitalism (buy our hats!) by mobilizing child/animal cuteness against queer Scrooginess, seems indeed to belong to a broader genre of the Christmas conversion of the sinthomosexual. There is the text it literally cites, of course—A Christmas Carol. But where does the double animal/child mimesis of cuteness come from?

Exhibit C: How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The Grinch is the quintessential sinthomosexual; indeed, the song from the cartoon special that describes just how repulsive the Grinch is has become something of a holiday standard.

The Grinch himself is not cute; he can't be, despite being a cartoon figure. Comical, sometimes, yes, but not cute.
He is, however, accompanied by a long-suffering cute companion, his dog, made cuter in his more intense suffering when the Grinch straps some antlers to his head—an instance of animals dressed as other animals, which amounts to animals dressed as children dressed as animals. Before we ever encounter Whoville, the cute dog is the yardstick against which we may measure just how dreadful the Christmas-hating Grinch is; each of the Grinch's schemes is met with more of the dog's cute suffering.

But in the end it is Cindy Lou Who, an antennaed child, whose cute innocence is revealed as what is at stake.
This animal-child is not the direct cause of the Grinch's change of heart (just as Tiny Tim does not directly cause Scrooge's conversion), but she is of course the beneficiary. In a final scene, a reformed Grinch in a Santa suit carves the roast beast and paternally hands a slice to the antennaed girl, who in turn hands it to the antlered dog. The outsider Grinch is now part of the family, a family of innocents and cute animal-children in whose interest he must now think, and in contrast with his earlier abuse of the dog.

This is one way that animals are part of "the meaning of Christmas": they mobilize that apotheosis of Child-hood, cuteness—four out of five Scrooges agree.

This post and the Connelly citation are very much indebted to my sister Maria Cecire's dissertation chapter on the medieval "Christmas challenge," its adaptation in twentieth-century children's literature, and the Victorian construction of Christmas as a children's holiday.

[Added 12/29:] Thanks to Aaron, Gerry, Adam Kotsko, Mark Wood, and blckdgrd for links.

*Edelman rather pulls back on the question of the female sinthomosexual, seeing it as a complication that might dilute the force of his argument. Disgruntled as I am to see femininity once again treated as the deviant exception to the rule instead of half of humanity and therefore central to the question of what the rule really is, I must concede that I am swayed by No Future's formal brilliance (Edelman 165-6n10).

**And also the Emory University Lessons and Carols.

***See also this post at A Map of the Country, from which I cut and pasted the same Eve Sedgwick quotation (thanks!). The post addresses the pitting of gay people against Christmas in a campaign ad by Rick Perry. While to the average viewer, "gays in the military" and "war on Christmas" seem like a complete non-sequitur, Sedgwick observes that the national ritual of Christmas demands, above all else, affective uniformity, in which we all go shopping, we all "get in the spirit," and we all spend time with the heteronormative (and, as the my generation's bitter joke has it, homophobic) families that we all have and are exhorted to value above all other relationships. Queerness itself is a serious challenge to those univocal silver bells.

****Generally speaking, the language of what children owe and are owed is exceedingly strange.

*****Despite thinking that The Queer Child is overall a terribly compelling and smart book, I'm almost entirely unpersuaded by Stockton's account of "the interval of animal." The argument hinges on the fact that metaphor always includes a moment's delay, and that, I think, is too broad a phenomenon (not to mention difficult to document except by appeals to intuition) to account for the specific associations we see between animals and children.

Connelly, Mark. Christmas: A Social History. London: I.B. Tauris, 1999. Print.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2004. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. "Queer and Now." Tendencies. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993. Print.

Stockton, Kathryn Bond. The Queer Child: Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2009. Print.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Shorn of speech, incapable of standing upright, hesitating over the objects of its interest, not able to calculate its advantages, not sensitive to common reason, the child is eminently the human because its distress heralds and promises things possible. Its initial delay in humanity, which makes it the hostage of the adult community, is also what manifests to this community the lack of humanity it is suffering from, and which calls on it to become more human. (3-4)
—Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman (trans. Bennington and Bowlby)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Joe Díaz, an Emory philosophy grad student, was arrested outside the Woodruff Library the other night. Read his account.
Of all the Ryan Gosling Tumblrs (shout-out to medieval history), Feminist Ryan Gosling is still the funniest and best.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday, November 25, 2011

“It was important for the organization to be aware of the comments their students were making.” Jones-Sontag says. “It’s also important for students to recognize the power of social media, how lasting it is. It is on the Internet.”

N.b. the reasoning advanced by the KS governor's office—"it's important to be aware of the potential adverse consequences of doing things on the internet, so we will personally rain those consequences upon you in full"—is exactly the same reasoning advanced by trolls.

Via Anne Boyer.

On bibliography-dumping

A widespread form of feedback to a junior colleague is what I hereby name "bibliography-dumping."

This is the practice of naming books and articles that you think a junior colleague ought to read, usually in response to hearing about that junior colleague's work. (This occasionally happens with a peer, but it's much more common with a junior colleague or a student.) Sometimes we recommend just one or two books, but all too often it's several. It's an incredibly common practice, and for a long time I've thought nothing of it (an occasionally engaged in it), because I think it's generally well meant.

I've been on the receiving end of many a bibliography dump in the past, of course, especially in grad school. But it's only recently, as a witness to (and occasional inflicter of) bibliography-dumping, that I've started to see it as problematic. It's taken me a little time to figure out why the bibliography-dump isn't necessarily the helpful gesture it's meant to be, but after some pondering, I believe I've detected a reason or two.

When I bibliography-dump, I might think I am saying: "Hey, I am interested in your work; it reminds me of a bunch of things I read! Let me name some! Enthusiasm!"

But the student in question hears: "I, your senior colleague, very strongly suggest that you read ten books only tangentially related to your actual project."

We're nerds; we relate to one another by talking about books. And it's usually in the spirit of bonding that we start naming books that a colleague's work reminded us of. So we're having a good time free-associating about media theory (or whatever) and at the same time patting ourselves on the backs for being so helpful, while our students frantically scribble down the titles we're spouting off.

But let's be real: most of the time, we're not helping. The truth is that it doesn't take that much work to suggest books; suggesting books is basically an associative process. It doesn't require deep engagement in the way that a truly good question does. So when we start naming books, it may be well meant, but it's actually a little insulting if we're doing it in lieu of taking our colleague's argument head on.

Of course, it is helpful to name relevant books. But the operative word there is "relevant." But do I, having just sat through my junior colleague's formal or informal presentation, have a good enough sense of the project to know what's relevant? Related is not the same thing as relevant. It's easy to find books that are related. It's hard to find books that are relevant. And nobody needs help doing their very basic, first-pass, the-keyword-is-in-the-title research. If I think I understand the project well enough to name resources that are relevant, then I should understand it well enough to ask an actual question. So, y'know, I could try that.

I can think of two situations in which the bibliography-dump is actually useful.

1. The person giving the presentation is actively looking for resources on [X]. Sometimes, despite diligence and all our catalogue-fu, it can take a lucky break to strike the article or bibliography that will let you into the world you're looking for. Usually such a need will be made apparent through the use of sentences like "I am looking for resources on [X]." By the way, if there is any feminist scholarship on the creepy oeuvre of Anne Geddes, I wish to enter that dark underworld, so tip me off.

2. You need to save the presenter from ignorance of a resource so foundational that your failure to mention it would be scandalously irresponsible. For instance: someone writing about feminist approaches to objectivity who has never heard of Sandra Harding.

If either of these two situations presents itself, we should go for it. Otherwise, by bibliography-dumping, we are only contributing to student angst and scope creep, while failing to really interrogate the project at hand.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Martha Goodwin was single, and well along into the thin years. She lived with her married sister in Whilomville. She performed nearly all the house-work in exchange for the privilege of existence. Every one tacitly recognized her labor as a form of penance for the early end of her betrothed, who had died of small-pox, which he had not caught from her. (432)

—Stephen Crane, The Monster

Monday, November 14, 2011

From a land toward which their faces were bent came a continuous boom of artillery fire. It was sounding in regular measures like the beating of a colossal clock—a clock that was counting the seconds in the lives of the stars, and men had time to die between the ticks. Solemn, oracular, inexorable, the great seconds tolled over the hills as if God fronted this dial rimmed by the horizon. (945)

—Stephen Crane, "Death and the Child" (1897), in Prose and Poetry, ed. J. C. Levenson (New York: Library of America, 1984)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Nobody has occupied Emory. These days I see protests at Cal on YouTube instead of out my office window, or in front of my face.

I recommend:

Aaron Bady, "The Grass Is Closed"
Rei Terada,"'Not Non-Violent Civil Disobedience'"
Rei Terada, "Another Reality" (Remarks at UC Irvine protest, 11/09/2011)

From Aaron's post, a video taken on 11/9:

The first woman pulled by the hair by police is Celeste Langan.

UPDATE: Celeste has written rather wonderfully about her arrest here:
Students are so concerned about their economic futures that they sometimes feel constrained in their choice of courses and majors, too anxious about acquiring the proper credentials for employment to explore areas of intellectual inquiry that might interest them but don't appear to have an instrumental value. When I was teaching Walden last month, I couldn't help but notice how incisively Thoreau diagnoses the effect of "insolvency" on the capacity to think and live freely; the time people spend reading and thinking, he suggests, is increasingly regarded as time "stolen" and "borrowed" from wage-earning.

I note the same narrowly pragmatic thinking in the haste with which the police acted and Chancellor Birgeneau's justification for his decision to authorize the police action: "We simply cannot afford to spend our precious resources and, in particular, student tuition, on costly and avoidable expenses associated with violence or vandalism." No one wishes to "waste" resources in this climate. Yet if one follows this logic one can see the looming threat: lawful assembly, peaceful dissent, and free inquiry—even so-called “breadth requirements”--can all entail some cost. They interfere with “getting and spending.”
Such blogging fail. I am now just posting Twitter conversations wholesale. But hey, Storify's interface is a lot better than it used to be!

The conversation below is based on Patrick Murray-John's post "Theory, DH, and Noticing," which enlarges on ideas in this comment.

Friday, November 4, 2011

I really want to engage in the smart conversations that are going on here and elsewhere, and in particular I owe Jean Bauer a comment, not to mention responses to comments on previous posts here. But OMG, I need to work on my book! Hoping to get to everything this weekend.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

American nerds go to THATCamp

[TL;DR: Ed Finn is smart; nerdiness warrants contamination by the real; here's a Google Doc for THATCamp Theory.]

* * *

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending (Arcade blogger!) Ed Finn's very smart talk, "American Networks, American Nerds" at the new Emory Library Digital Scholarship Commons (DiSC). In the talk, Ed described the networks among different books in Amazon's recommendation algorithm and reader reviews, as well as in professional reviews.
Emory DiSC gives these out at talks. Yes, they really do.
Image shamelessly stolen from Miriam Posner's Twitter feed.

(It's worth noting that here "books" mainly meant novels, but really were, in the end, books, in the sense of physical widgets that Amazon ships to you, or teleports or whatever to your Kindle. The analysis that Ed did on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Junot Díaz's Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao could not have been done with, say, Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art.")

Ed argued (in part) that these networks substantiated each author's claims to a form of "nerdiness" that manifests as specialized knowledge, and in particular a specialized lexicon and set of cultural references. In Wallace's case, nerdiness manifested in a "difficult" style that led readers and Amazon to continually refer readers of Wallace to more Wallace, who supplied a stylistic "crack that readers couldn't get anywhere else." (I'm paraphrasing, but I'm pretty sure the word "crack" came up.) For Díaz, nerdiness manifested in the persistence of network associations with names like "Tolkien" and "The Fantastic Four."

Ed also noted, however, the prominence of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in Díaz's networks, in what Díaz calls a "contamination" of the nerdy by the real (and vice versa). Ed quoted Díaz as remarking that (I paraphrase), as much as the real resists nerdiness, nerdiness also strenuously resists contamination by the real. In Oscar Wao, however, Díaz disallows any boundary between nerd and "real" worlds. Even nerds have to live in reality, and reality likewise contains Tolkien fans.

Provocatively, Ed suggested that the "nerdiness" of Wallace and Díaz might have something to teach us about the nerdiness of digital humanities. Indeed, through his "middle ground" approach (as opposed to "close" or "distant" reading),Ed seemed in retrospect to have effected a rapprochement between the nerdy (network visualizations) and the real (the social practices of reading and writing).

The term "nerdy," of course, was ripe for questioning. As Ed had remarked in passing (and doubtless explores more deeply elsewhere), Wallace's and Díaz's respective nerdy networks were overwhelmingly male. And there's a way in which DH's identification with "nerdiness" taps very much into the version of nerd identity—seen also, if differently, in both Wallace and Díaz's nerdinesses—that manifests as wounded (and defensive) masculinity. I argued in a previous post that the defensive posture at times characterizes discussions of DH, which occasionally even seems to borrow the language of struggle and resistance traditionally used by queer activists, activists of color, disability rights activists, feminists, etc., even while, in many institutional settings, magically turning out to be disproportionately white and male.

In thinking about Wallace and Díaz's literary networks in the frame of "nerdiness," I couldn't help thinking about Kathleen Fitzpatrick's argument in The Anxiety of Obsolescence* that moral panic over the alleged decline of the novel in the face of television is in effect a "melodrama of beset (white) manhood," fueled by a sense of embattlement on the part of a "nerdy" class of white male authors whose cultural capital is diminishing, less due to television specifically than to the increased status of mass culture, as figured by women and people of color.

Ed's comparison between the nerdinesses of Wallace and Díaz and that of DH, then, raises the specter of (as Roger Whitson bluntly but accurately tweeted my phrasing of it during the Q & A) nerdiness as a place for white men to feel embattled. One of the key points that Bethany Nowviskie brings up in "What do Girls Dig?" is that the tropes and memes by which we describe DH bring connotations with them that can be unintentionally exclusionary or otherwise problematic. And it's not that we need to jettison them, necessarily; lots of people can get on board with the term "nerd."*** We just need to know that "nerd" also names a history. If we're going to be nerdy, let's make it a nerdy that's contaminated by the real.

* * *

I'm long overdue in responding to some smart and provocative posts that responded or linked to my THATCamp Theory post: Roger Whitson's "Hacking THATCamp Theory," Amanda Phillips's "#transformDH - A Call to Action Following ASA 2011", Ted Underwood's On transitive and intransitive uses of the word 'theorize,' and Ben Schmidt's "Theory First."

All of these posts warrant careful reading on their own, and in truth it would not be possible for me to engage all the issues they bring up this afternoon. But one concern continues to resurface in all of these posts, as well as in the Twitter conversation around my initial post, namely that theory, too, can be a site of power, one that has played all too well with the academic star system in the past, leaving people who now greatly benefit from DH (junior academics, people at teaching-oriented institutions, geographically peripheral institutions) in the cold. (As Ted put it, with that excellent Twitter bluntness, "capital-T Theory = power.") Now, the time when big-T Theory actually had power was my juice box days, so my appreciation of this fear of theory's power is purely conceptual. I started graduate school in the post-Theory, pre-DH era,**** when you couldn't swing a cat without hitting some senior scholar exhorting The Young to save the humanities with The Next Big Thing (and assume all the risks, of course).

Well, The Young (not me, but people like Ben and Amanda and Aditi Muralidharan) went and did it; they made the Next Big Thing, and a lot of the senior scholars who were already working in pre-mainstream DH frequently even had their backs while they did it, which is more than can be said of an earlier era, perhaps.

But the same critique that was once leveled at Theory (which should not be conflated with lower-case theory, and which has not always been entirely congenial to some of the very productive fields that built on it, e.g. critical race theory, queer theory, postcolonial theory, feminist theory, disability theory) has been, and is frequently, leveled at DH. Quantitative methods have long claimed a special epistemological priority—one of big-T Theory's great virtues was and remains its ability to interrogate the grounds of that priority—and they seem, now more than ever, to dominate a public sense of the real, as much on the moderate (i.e. liberal) left as on the corporate right.***** Only a radical faith in the reality of the quantitative could allow entirely fictive financial structures (their mathematical validity is the only real thing about them) to determine so much policy. Micha Cárdenas's observation of the parallels between the Last Big Thing and the Next Big Thing is right on point in this regard. The question is not who is more oppressed (a false question) but rather how, as all of the above-cited suggest, hack and yack can, like Captain Planet, combine powers for awesome. As Ben writes,
The digital humanities is perfectly poised at the moment to optimistically and beautifully affirm the world through all of history as it is now, full of progress and decentralized self-organizing networks and rational actors making free choices; or it might also try to take up what Adorno called the only responsible philosophy: to reveal the cracks and fissures of the world in all its contradictions with otherwordly light. That's the demand placed on DH by theory, and it needs to come first: all else is mere technique.

We've created quite a lot of yack on this topic, and I think that's a good thing. But it's increasingly obvious to me and many others that it's well past time to bring the hack. Today I registered the THATCamp Theory name on the central THATCamp site and set up thatcamptheory at gmail dot com and @THATCampTheory. I also made a Google Doc for those who want in on the planning (o please). Obviously I'm not "in charge" here (contra Ben I didn't "start" anything!—see the post by Alexis Lothian that started me starting). I'm just another ridiculous postdoc with a blog, so I hope to see THATCamp Theory build substantively on all the rich discussions that have been happening lately (and special shout-out to Patrick Murray-John's useful suggestions).

So come on in, nerds. Let's do it.

*Yes, the whole damn book is online. That's some classic KFitz awesomeness right there. (And you can also buy it.) Also? KFitz: writing about DH, even when she isn't.

**There are actually several registers of nerdiness at work here. There are the grammar fanatics and comic book enthusiasts on which Wallace and Díaz respectively draw—a lived and then represented nerdiness. There's the nerdiness represented by the genre of postmodern fiction to which Wallace and Díaz both belong, the register that Kathleen addresses in Anxiety. There's the nerdiness of the literary networks within which Infinite Jest and Brief Wondrous Life respectively live. And finally, there's the nerdiness of visualizing and analyzing those networks, the nerdiness of the digital humanist.

***Ed observed in his response to me that there's been a recent mainstreaming of nerdiness, especially of the "obsessive fan" variety (I know for sure I read an article by a nerd bemoaning the way the internet and Peter Jackson had lowered the bar for entering nerddom—William Gibson tweeted the link—but of course I can't for the life of me remember who wrote it now). This is indisputably true. But as far as I can tell, such mainstreaming has not appreciably led to the defusion of melodramas of beset manhood. Everyone remembers this, right? Also this?

****Apologies to Charles W. Chesnutt.

*****See, e.g.: Nate Silver; Freakonomics; the Harper's Index; the so-called "bikini graph." If I ever write Puerility (good Lord willin', creek don't rise, etc.) I will ideally have something more complete to say about this.

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.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Popcock!" said Gertrude Stein.

With this unusually lucid and brief remark the writer who has grown famous for her "a rose is a rose is a rose" style dismissed recent efforts of scientists to explain her work.

"Popcock is popcock is science is popcock," Miss Stein might have been expected to say. But she did not, according to her report. For once, she failed to repeat herself or to bewilder her hearers.

The scientific explanation is that her writing is done with her wrist and not with her mind. Automatic writing is the scientific term for it. Miss Stein not only disagrees, but takes the view that her writing does not need explaining.

If you have seen her play, "Four Saints in Three Acts," or have read ay of her other strange writings, you probably feel that she needs as much explaining as that other famous "stein"—Einstein—who also always draws a capacity crowd but whom hardly anyone in the audience understands.

    —Jane Stafford, "Gertrude Stein Explained," Science News-Letter, 2 March 1935

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Literary history is not really about priority, but about agency; not who did it first, but who coordinated doing with knowing, poetry with poetics. (210)

    —Jed Rasula, Syncopations

Monday, September 26, 2011

It is understood by this time that everything is the same except composition and time, composition and the time of the composition and the time in the composition. (526)

    —Gertrude Stein, "Composition as Explanation"

Sunday, September 25, 2011

It's not "the job market"; it's the profession (and it's your problem too)

I enjoyed Kathleen Fitzpatrick's recent piece in the Chronicle* on risk-taking and the responsibility of mentors to back up those junior scholars who are doing nontraditional work. The piece's key insight is that it's one thing to urge people to "innovate" and quite another to create the institutional frameworks that make innovation not only possible but consequential.**

Kathleen's observation comports with some ideas that have been floating around in my head lately, especially around "digital humanities." I and my Fox Center colleague Bart Brinkman were recently called upon to define digital humanities for the other fellows in residence, and in the process of talking it over with Bart, and during the discussion at the CHI, I've come to realize that I have some real pet peeves around the notion of the "job market" that come into relief specifically around the field of digital humanities.

It boils down to this: peeps, we're all connected.

The recent rise to prominence of digital humanities is indistinguishable from its new importance in "the job market" (I insist on those scare quotes); after all, digital humanities and its predecessor, humanities computing, have been active fields for decades. What's happening now is that they are institutionalizing in new ways. So when we talk about "digital humanities and the 'job market,'" we are not just talking about a young scholar's problem (or opportunity, depending on how you see it). We are talking about a shift in the institutional structures of the profession. And, senior scholars, this is not something that is happening to you. You are, after all, the ones on the hiring and t&p committees. It is a thing you are making—through choices that you make, and through choices that you decline to make.

There's something a little strange about the way that digital humanities gets promoted from the top down; it gets a lot of buzz in the New York Times; it's well known as dean-candy and so gets tacked onto requests for hires; digital humanities grant money seems to pour in (thanks, NEH!) even as philosophy departments across the country are getting shut down; university libraries start up initiatives to promote digital humanities among their faculty. I am waiting for the day when administrators and librarians descend upon the natural sciences faculty to promote history of science. No, I really am.

So it seems quite natural that there should be wariness and resistance to the growing presence of digital humanities. Perhaps there is some bitterness that you might get your new Americanist only on condition that her work involves a Google Maps mashup, because it was easy to persuade people that your department needed a new "digital humanist," whatever the hell that is, and it was not easy to persuade people that you needed somebody to teach Faulkner.

The situation is not improved by the confrontational attitudes of certain factions of the digital humanities establishment (such as it is), which are occasionally prone to snotty comments about how innovative DH is and how tired and intellectually bankrupt everybody else's work is. (Not so often, I find—but even a little is enough to be a problem.) Under those circumstances, DH seems clubby and not liberating; not a way of advocating the humanities but an attack on it, and specifically on the worth of that Faulkner seminar that you teach, and that non-digital research that you do. Why, an established scholar might reasonably ask, should I even deal with this "digital humanities" nonsense? Shouldn't I just keep teaching my Faulkner seminar, because somebody ought to do it, for Christ's sake?

Well, whatever else DH is, it is highly political, and it has political consequences. So, in short, no.

I'm persuaded that the widespread appeal of DH has much to do with the leveling fantasy it offers, a fantasy of meritocracy that is increasingly belied elsewhere in the professional humanities. As Tom Scheinfeldt points out in his useful "Stuff Digital Humanists Like,"
Innovation in digital humanities frequently comes from the edges of the scholarly community rather than from its center—small institutions and even individual actors with few resources are able to make important innovations. Institutions like George Mason, the University of Mary Washington, and CUNY and their staff members play totally out-sized roles in digital humanities when compared to their roles in higher ed more generally, and the community of digital humanities makes room for and values these contributions from the nodes.
This is true. Those involved in digital humanities have also seen the ways that THATCamps, blogs, and Twitter allow junior scholars and scholars at non-R1 institutions to cut geodesics across the profession, allowing them to spread their ideas, collaborate, and achieve a certain prominence that would have been impossible through traditional channels. I'm convinced that real possibilities lie here.

And as traditional scholarly publishing becomes more and more constricted and humanities department budgets are slashed, the fiction of academic meritocracy becomes harder and harder to sustain. Perhaps on the web, we think, through lean DIY publishing and postprint review, meritocracy (or its semblance) can return to the academy. It seems at once a way forward and a way to return to a (fabled) time when people cared about scholarship for the sake of scholarship—not because they needed X number of well-placed articles or a line on the cv or a connection at Y institution without which their careers would disappear. Perhaps DH offers us a way out of the increasingly rationalized death-spiral of "impact scores" and credential inflation. Perhaps it will let us out-quantify the quantifiers, or sidestep them altogether.

Of course, the web always comes with liberatory rhetoric that usually turns out to mean little more than "what the market will bear," and the ostensible meritocracy of digital humanities in the present moment is really no more than a misalignment between its alternative (and potentially even more aggressively capitalistic) value systems and those of the institutionalized humanities more generally. It can be disturbingly easy for the genuinely progressive intentions of digital humanists to become assimilated to the vague libertarianisms of "information wants to be free" and "DIY U," and from there to Google Books and charter schools and the privatization of knowledge—an enclosure of the digital commons ironically in the name of openness. At the same time, the naming of the "alt-ac" "track" (it is generally not a track, of course, by definition) seems to provide new opportunities for young scholars even as it raises research expectations for staff and requires those on the "track" to subordinate their research interests to those of the institutional structure that employs them. Digital forms are exceptionally good at occluding labor. How to navigate those waters thoughtfully—to realize the real promise of DH—is a question to which we must all apply ourselves.

So you see what I mean when I say that "digital humanities and 'the job market'" as it now manifests isn't a narrow, merely administrative sliver of life of interest solely to junior academics who are still gravely listening to advice about how to "tailor" the teaching paragraphs in their cover letters. Digital humanities has become important to "the job market" exactly insofar as it is causing major shifts in the institutions of the profession. These shifts are political. And if you are in my profession, then they are your concern.

*I know, "enjoyed" and "Chronicle" in one sentence... mirabile dictu.

**As we all know, I have a complex relationship with the word "innovation" and do not consider it an unqualified good, nor a transhistorical value. For today, however, we will leave that particular word a black box.

Thanks to Bart and Colleen for sitting through a less-worked-out live version of this rant last week.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Saying hey

Via Ben Friedlander on Twitter, I was recently treated to Anne Boyer's "Damnatio Memoriae." Please read it--it's short and brilliant.

As Miriam Posner points out, it's oddly moving, not in spite of its repetition of the hilariously banal phrase "saying hey," but because of it. It serves as a subversively anti-dramatic counterpoint to the question, "Can the subaltern speak?" After all, here they are, saying hey. Only they're saying hey across the centuries, across the continents, "across deep time." These mysteries of the low register are the genius of flarf and the reason it's poetry, even if it's irritating poetry. Why does lameness sometimes flare out in the form of awesomeness?

[Better than Storify? Worse? I sometimes think Twitter conversations amount to more than the sum of their parts, but it can be difficult to render them usefully on a blog.]
Beddini (reading a telegram): 'Come ahead stop stop being a sap stop you can even bring Alberto stop my husband is stopping at your hotel stop when do you start stop.' I cannot understand who wrote this.

Dale: Sounds like Gertrude Stein.

    —Top Hat (1935)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Etta Cone offered to typewrite Three Lives and she began. Baltimore is famous for the delicate sensibilities and conscientiousness of its inhabitants. It suddenly occurred to Gertrude Stein that she had not told Etta Cone to read the manuscript before beginning to typewrite it. She went to see her and there indeed was Etta Cone faithfully copying the manuscript letter by letter so that she might not by any indiscretion become conscious of the meaning. (713)
    —The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
All you need to know, really.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Books that I appear to have lost in the move:
The Arcades Project
Jen Fleissner's Women, Compulsion, Modernity
Ugly Feelings
The Wings of the Dove
all of my Fredric Jameson (??--this was several volumes!)

So much bitterness.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Consensus and knowledge according to Colbert

I wonder what folks would think of teaching this Stephen Colbert clip (September 14, 2011) alongside Leviathan and the Air-Pump or Laboratory Life.

This clip brings the issues at stake in the notion of scientific consensus into rather stark relief, reflecting as it does on current public health policy. It also puts a brake on any too-quick readings of science studies that might construe the political nature of expertise as a debunking of expertise.

In the clip, Colbert mocks Rep. Michele Bachmann for presenting as truth an unnamed stranger's claim that the HPV vaccine (Gardasil) caused cognitive dysfunction in her daughter. The segment is funny, but it's also uncomfortable when we see how very flatly Colbert pits "the entire medical establishment" against "some lady." It's not a joke about method; it's a joke about authority, and who doesn't have it. Bachmann doesn't have very many people on her "team."

The clip forces us to confront the substantiveness of expertise as well as its political nature—its reliance on modest witnesses, on trustworthiness. Bachmann's statement genuinely doesn't hold up; it's about as epistemologically unsound a way to establish fact as we can imagine—it's no more than hearsay. But the reason it's hearsay to begin with is that we know so little about this woman or her daughter, about her methods, about her discernment. We don't have enough of those markers of trustworthiness.

Colbert is interesting when it comes to issues of consensus and knowledge. I've taught Colbert's segment on "Wikiality" before in the context of a media studies unit on wikis and citation. In it, Colbert pushes an extreme relativism that the bit is supposed to mock; the idea (contrary to the suggestion in the more recent clip about Michele Bachmann) is that reality is not determined by consensus, and a wiki encyclopedia is therefore an epistemologically untenable free-for-all.

That Colbert fans rather persistently vandalized the "elephant" entry on Wikipedia just to prove his point shows both Wikipedia's limitations and its relative strength: most of the time such things don't happen on Wikipedia. Colbert's overstatement of the consensus narrative led most of my students to come to see consensus as a potentially epistemologically strong method, under some circumstances, i.e. more than a mere convention. More practically, it led many of them to understand Wikipedia as a tenable project—without, however, losing sight of its limitations. It made for a very productive discussion, and I suspect the more recent clip would too.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Modern Female Automatisms

I'm not teaching this semester, but my book list for next semester is due exceedingly soon. I think it'll have to be one of those late-nite activities, since looking up ISBNs doesn't take a lot of brain. ("Night," when preceded by "late-," is properly spelled "nite." True facts.)

I've done a poor job of articulating the course's interest and importance of late, mostly because I haven't been in the teaching zone, but it's about gender and the discourses of automatism circa 1900, and is in some degree related to the talk I'll be giving at MSA next month on Stein and repetition. Repetition structures normality and (as a "compulsion") pathology, habit and obsession; it's evidence of mechanicity and, in its ability to provoke laughter, also a site of evidence of the human. Butler brilliantly makes repetition the scene of gender.

We'll read/watch some of the classic Lady Robots texts of the Gilded Age and early C20—L'Ève future, Metropolis, "In the Cage," "Melanctha." We'll also look at some contemporary nonfiction theories of mechanicity and gender, like Otto Weininger's theory of variability, the biometrics of Lombroso and Berthillon, and of course Freud, contextualizing them in more recent work by Haraway, Oreskes, Kittler, Hayles, and Fleissner. I had sort of a lovely (that is, entertaining) Twitter conversation with Chris Forster, Jentery Sayers, and Stephen Ross (probably among others) a week or two ago about modernist humor and the role of gender in Michael North's Machine-Age Comedy, which is one of the problems I intend for the class to investigate.

Roughly, the course will use the rubric of "automatism" to look at female labor; the gendering of humor; affect and the human; objectivity and knowledge; psychopathology c. 1900; and biological determinisms.

Needless to say, I'm still in that grandiose, overly ambitious phase of syllabus-planning. I haven't done all the necessary cutting down, which will have to happen soon. I'm also contemplating some sort of introspective exercise (observing one's repetitions, or the like) that I haven't quite worked out yet. Suggestions welcome.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Not blogging as a way of blogging

Here is my advice to anyone who is thinking of firing off a peeved response to something someone else wrote about them on the internet:

Refrain and maintain.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Why, hello. Guess it's time for a new semester.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Via Rebekah Higgitt, a Tumblr on "The Art of Google Books." They're images that break the illusion that the books have been spiritually whooshed whole and entire into the ether.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

New stuff

I sure have been neglecting this blog lately, and all I have of late is a little linkspam.

First of all, Ryan Cordell writes on the overly-Facebooky-but-okay-I-guess Google+ about a cool project for people who want to get started in digital humanities but aren't sure where to begin:
Know someone who wants to get started in the digital humanities but doesn't know how to do so? They should apply for DHCommons' preconvention workshop at MLA 2012, cosponsored by NITLE and the Texas A&M Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture. Representatives from a range of prominent DH projects and centers will be on hand for training and consultation.

Apply here.

And second, we've finally launched Colloquies at Arcade! Here's my Ed Blog post introducing Colloquies, the Colloquies landing page, which will soon have more than one Colloquy on it (specifically, on September 1, when I release the next Colloquy), and our very first Colloquy, "The Contemporary Novel," introduced by the great Lee Konstantinou.

And, shhh, Arcade may also be seeing a long-awaited up-hay-ade-gray.

Oh, and I switched my California driver's license over to a Georgia one. Guess I'm a Georgian now.

Image: Peaches. Bryan Costin, 2005. CC NC-BY-SA 2.0.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Coffee in Atlanta

[A report, after four days of intensive investigation, punctuated here and there by "apartment-hunting."]

1. You can buy Blue Bottle beans at Star Provisions on Howell Mill Road. When I saw the Bella Donovan I nearly wept with relief.

2. Steady Hand on North Decatur (right by the Fox Center!) brews Intelligentia, which is respectable. I don't know what their funky apparatus is, but it produces a clean brew that does a good job of revealing the character of the bean.

3. Octane on Marietta brews Counter Culture, and I was favorably impressed; it is, like the coffee from Steady Hand, nuanced third-wave stuff. But they brew it in a French press, apparently with a finer grind than is really appropriate for a press, and the result is a rather muddy brew even after you've let it settle. Good coffee, but advantage goes to Steady Hand for texture.

4. I want to like the local roaster, Batdorf and Bronson, and they seem, you know, perfectly fine. But so far I'm not thrilled by it or ready to adopt it as my new local coffee. Aurora and the Bakeshop brew it and dispense it in an air pot—which is to say, it's morally okay to put this coffee in an air pot. This is, I would say, perfectly acceptable coffee, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it.

5. Urban Grind's coffee, I am sorry to say, is a disappointment.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Another question about G+ integration with other Google products: when will I be able to share a GDoc with a circle?

And: when that happens, will Google's total infiltration of the universe be scary/ier?

And: have cats weighed in on the issue?


Sunday, July 10, 2011

G+, briefly

I'm trying out Google Plus, because I'm a sucker like that, and also because Google already owns most of my life, so what's the loss? (Copies of my diss on GDocs, etc.)

Apart from a brief exploration of Facebook (which is ridiculous), I have hitherto confined my internet activities to the public: a blog with my name on it, a Twitter account with my name on it. This seems to me to be right and just. (Well, I am pseudonymous on one other social network that will remain nameless but which is by far the best designed and most useful social network I have ever seen.)

G+ offers the same temptations as Facebook: the walled garden, the ability to form little clubs. That's both the good news and the bad news, I guess.

I've heard it said (a lot) that big search is dying (because spammers and similar are so good at SEO) and social search is the future. That strikes me as likely. This changes the nature of the "publicness" that I've tried to maintain in my web presence, but I'm not sure how just yet.

It occurs to me that there may be a day when G+ has nicer integration with Blogger blogs than just the ugly "+1" button, since both are Google properties. (The social network that shall go nameless has fairly nontrivial integration with blogs.) Blogs are said to be an old new medium, but I still like them. They're a damn good place to put text.

A note on commentary through taxonomy:

One thing I love about Twitter that G+ doesn't have is hashtags. This is a feature of its nonpublicness. Tagging is one of the best things about the web; commentary through taxonomy has become standard, and this is a curious and lovely thing. So far you can't really do it with G+. But this is the internet, so I'm sure people will eventually find a way.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Sweet FSM. I packed one (1) box of books. It barely made a dent in my shelves, and I nearly died schlepping it down to the Elmwood post office.

This is going to be a trial.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Today is officially the last day of my appointment at Cal, although I'm around for a few more weeks. I'm still somewhat in denial of my impending move to Atlanta, where I'll be a fellow at the Fox Center at Emory for the next year. Part of that is my reluctance to leave the Bay Area (and my fantastic 1908 Leola Hall-designed Elmwood apartment); most of it is the enormous pain in the ass of a cross-country move.
Hall was known for her built-ins.

But I'm looking forward to the year's work, which will mainly be on my book, and to hanging out with my new Emory and ATL-area colleagues. I'll also teach an undergraduate course in the spring. (On lady robots? Undoubtedly.)

Including my postdoctoral year, I'll have spent nearly eight years in Berkeley. It's been a good run.

[Obligatory Georgia-related link. Come to think of it, I probably need a playlist if I'm going to get all this packing done. Suggestions welcome.]

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Such a doll

Everyone knows that Teen Talk Barbie never said, "Math is hard; let's go shopping!" It caught on nonetheless; there was something about the phrase that made people think that, yes, this is just what a talking Barbie would say.

Speech is one of those things that is supposed to set "the human" apart from "the inhuman," as what Anca Parvulescu describes as "one in a series of properties invoked as [the] minimal difference, a catalog that offers something to hold on to whenever the human risks contamination with the nonhuman" (4).* Animated dolls occupy a special place in western lore as objects that particularly challenge that distinction, though these minimal differences like (realistic) speech and (real) laughter are sticking points where the distinction is nonetheless upheld.

Still, dolls and automata are powerful figures for women in particular, or rather, the distinction between a woman and a doll has frequently seemed to be particularly easy to erase, from Galatea to Coppélia to the aestheticized-into-objecthood daughter Pansy in The Portrait of a Lady. Michael Taussig notes of a collection of eighteenth-century automata that the figures represented include "everything but the white male. There are negroes in top hats and tight breeches, the 'upside-down world clock' with a monkey playing the drum, ... and women—especially women" (213-4).

Women's propensity to be confused with dolls, and the triumph of artificiality in that confusion, is perhaps one of the sources of anxiety that has long surrounded the Barbie doll in particular as an "unrealistic model" for girls. Barbie's nonhuman appearance—her slender foot perpetually extended for the high-heeled glass slipper that would make of her a princess—registers not as uncanny but as ideal.

The talking Barbie's speech is therefore the place where the inanimate doll gets a chance to seem more "lifelike," and, by the same stroke, the place where it is feared that her "lifelike" quality will reveal the lifelike dimension itself (what women are "really like") to be, in essence, no more than the mechanical, unthinking doll with which women are so often conflated.

Enter "Math is hard; let's go shopping!" As Benjamin Zimmer documents in the LL post linked above, "math is hard; let's go shopping!" is an abbreviated pairing of two real phrases that Teen Talk Barbie originally played,"Math class is tough" and "Want to go shopping? Okay, meet me at the mall." The urban legend version stages an exchange; the newly more-lifelike (talking) Barbie eschews "hard," intellectually challenging math in favor of (pleasurable?) shopping.

The two things are of course gender-coded. But more importantly, they're gender-coded on precisely the grounds on which women are confused with dolls. The math signifies intellectual activity, which Teen Talk Barbie legendarily renounces because it is "hard"; at stake here is not only intellect but volition, the will to take on what is difficult and to engage in ("hard") work. At stake is the possibility of being all there. Teen Talk Barbie doesn't have it, of course. But it is perfectly believable that she can engage in shopping, which Rachel Bowlby has described as, at least in certain versions, a fully automatized leisure activity. The female shopper, as figured in the late nineteenth century, is devoid of volition and powerless before the commodity, seized by an insatiable desire not genuinely her own. (The classic portrayal is in Zola's novel Au Bonheur des dames.)** She is rendered an automaton before the bargain table.

For the patently unrealistic yet more-real-than-real-women Barbie to come alive by saying "Math is hard; let's go shopping!" is thus a bigger betrayal than just the usual reinforcement of gender stereotypes around STEM fields. The whole point of automata is for them to become self-aware, rise up, and shake off their oppressors (us). The betrayal of Teen Talk Barbie, succinctly rendered as "Math is hard; let's go shopping!," is that she uses her moment of speech not to become self-aware and subvert the inhuman decorativeness for which she was designed, but rather to reject cognition and embrace the doll-like automatism that is already attributed to real women. That is: inhuman Barbie is representative of real women, more representative than the real women are, and what she "says" goes.

The above image is a Creative Commons licensed Flickr image. The photographer's caption reproaches Barbie for, well, being a doll: "empty-headed." Tellingly, the sole comment to date reads, "i've met women with a gaze like that... scary indeed."
Whatever women may do to protest the untruths of Barbie is moot whenever Barbie, and dolls in general, are already posited as the truth of women.

* Parvulescu is alluding to laughter in this description--laughter being another candidate for that minimal difference.

** There is also a twentieth-century "savvy" female shopper—the two kinds of shopper always exist in tension, as Bowlby explains. Judging from ads, the volitionless shopper seems to buy chocolate and desserts, while the wily shopper buys cleaning supplies.

See also the "X is hard" Snowclones Database entry.

Bowlby, Rachel. Carried Away: The Invention of Modern Shopping. New York: Columbia UP, 2001. Print.

Parvulescu, Anca. Laughter: Notes on a Passion. Cambridge: MITP 2010. Print.

Taussig, Michael. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Image: Barbie. Pete Lounsbury, 2004. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.