Monday, February 28, 2011

Moacir's #JamesFrancoFacts are funny in general, but the one about getting Blackboard to work properly has to be the most hyperbolic, and therefore the funniest.

I should add that, reaffirming that it's not facts but questions that are really important, Ladysquires's James Franco questions are equally funny, and insightful to boot.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Double double

There's an uncanny (yeah, I went there) degree of consonance between my research and teaching lately. I'm currently working on an article on the animals and children (and feral children), and one of the things I'm writing about is that there's usually a double mimesis at work in instances of the cute and the uncanny. For instance, in Sianne Ngai's example of a cute, "anthropomorphic" frog sponge, the sponge isn't just anthropomorphized. Instead, the sponge is made to look like a frog that has in turn been anthropomorphized. Likewise, these poor pets are animals that have been dressed up to look like children dressed as animals. Mimicry is thought to be the particular domain of children and animals. (This is why we always fear that kids will do exactly what they see on TV. I mean, sometimes they do tie a bath towel around their necks and try to fly. Mimics!) It seems that, faced with one another, children and animals just go the whole hog and mimic doubly.

Now a student rightly notes the same dynamic at work in Andrew Lloyd Webber's CATS, of which we watched a clip in class (since I am the meanest teacher). My student writes:
As I mentioned in class, I think maybe the core of the problem is that when I see Cats the Musical, I don’t see cats; I see people acting like cats.

After Tuesday’s discussion, I realized that the creepiness is actually one level deeper than that. It’s not just people pretending to be cats, it’s people pretending be cats pretending to be people. The reason why Mr. Mistoffelees gets a song/poem is that he does magic like a human magician. He hunts mice and whatnot, but he also does tricks with dice and cards, which require opposable thumbs (and...wit), which we have and cats do not.

I've had research and teaching converge before, but this is really kind of amazing. (It helps to have great students.)

(Posts related to the article in progress: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

Ngai, Sianne. "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde." Critical Inquiry 31.4 (Summer 2005): 811-47. Print.

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

CFP: Automating Love's Labors (MLA 2012, Seattle)

300-word abstracts and brief bios to by March 15, 2011.
“[A] woman stunts her intelligence to become childlike, turns away from individual identity to become an anonymous biological robot in a docile mass. She becomes less than human...”

     —Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

When Adam requires a companion to alleviate his loneliness, God fashions him one out of a spare bone; if Christ, of whom Adam is the prefiguration, is “begotten, not made,” Eve is pointedly the reverse. Thus when Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam envisions an Ève future (1886), it is perhaps no surprise that this ideal helpmeet should be a machine: she perfects the machinic quality of the original Eve. While a prevalent discourse of the machine age marks out the robotic and the automatic as the cold inverse of real human (often female) affection, British and American texts of the modernist period, broadly conceived, stage the robotic and the automatic as inquiries into the relations between modernity, labor, affect, and gender. From L’Ève future and Metropolis to The Feminine Mystique and Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, modernist and mid-century narratives have taken up developments such as Christine Frederick’s domestic Taylorism, advertising’s construction of the credulous female shopper, and the advent of domestic appliances. This panel draws on recent work by Michael North, Jennifer L. Fleissner, Bill Brown, Sianne Ngai, and Minsoo Kang, among others, to inquire into the remarkably tight relationship between the always gendered labors of care--what Eva Feder Kittay has called “love’s labor”--and discourses of automatism in industrial and early postindustrial culture, as they are staged in literary and theoretical interventions in the British and American contexts. By giving new historical groundings to fictions and manifestos that examine the profoundly feminized domain of domestic and affective labor between the 1900s and the 1960s, the papers in this panel also hope to attain a stronger purchase on the broader role of “love’s labor” in more recent decades, from the centrality of affective labor in the postindustrial economy (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Arlie Russell Hochschild), to the cultural and political consequences of Donna Haraway’s cyborgs, Cynthia Breazeal’s “Personal Robots” project, and the Roomba. Moreover, we contend that a focus on the literatures of gendered affective labor can renew scholarly understandings of feminist and vernacular modernisms, feminist forms of liberation, literary stagings of labor and repetition, and a feminist ethic of care.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Q. Is Eve Sedgwick the best?
A. Yes.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Am I the meanest teacher? Maybe. I think I'm about to get a really terrible song stuck in my students' heads. But it's for Learning!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The timbre of sincerity

Just to be clear: Lady Gaga is about (primarily visual) spectacle, not about music per se. That's not to say that her spectacle is necessarily immersive in the sense in which we classically think about spectacle. (By "we" I mean people who sit around thinking about panoramas and wax museums and are very fond of the work of Alison Griffiths and Vanessa Schwartz and spend rainy weekend afternoons leafing through The Arcades Project, which is to say all of us.) Her videos are not made for IMAX; they're made for YouTube. They are miniatures in their bigness.

To me the canonical Lady Gaga video remains "Bad Romance." I haven't even heard her new single; there's no video yet, so what's the point?

Notwithstanding the primacy of the visual in Lady Gaga, there's something that continues to fascinate me about the sound of "Bad Romance." I'm sure the observation has been made better elsewhere, but I'm still trying to figure it out. There is something about Gaga's vocal timbre that sometimes conveys irony, sometimes sincerity. Compare "love, love, love" at 0:55, 1:12, 2:16, and especially 2:32 to "I don't want to be friends" at 3:50 and especially at 4:05.

"Love, love, love" is gritty, a little nasal. It doesn't care. The air is contained; it's high in the throat; it's whatever air Gaga happens to have sitting around in her upper respiratory system. Nothing's being pushed. The quality of the sound tells us that "love, love, love" means something like a casual if ruthless desire.

In contrast, "I don't want to be friends" is open-throated. There is diaphragm involved, projection, technique. It is what they call "belting." It's a little Broadway, a stylized sincerity augmented by the reintroduction of the "unadorned" Gaga close-up.

"I don't want to be friends" is the video's emotional climax, the sticky moment of investment and utter, fixed attention in an otherwise brittle, aggressive performance. Compare. The video starts with Gaga covered in a metal façade, and ends with her character, accessorized by matching flamethrower and cigarette, absently reclining next to a charred corpse. Most of the time the Lady Gaga character isn't "all there," whether her eyes are hidden behind a variety of shades or masks or popping wide open in a head-lolling stupor.

In contrast, "I don't want to be friends"--that belting of air from the bottom of the lungs--physically performs focused, self-possessed, fully conscious desire. It constitutes a break, and it's a break that you hear. The thorough integration of vocal texture with narrative is part of what makes this video brilliant.

It took a highly creative extended reading by Jack Halberstam to get me at all interested in the "Telephone" video. But "Bad Romance" belts its artful construction very loudly.

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Howard Eiland, and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999. Print.

Griffiths, Alison. Shivers down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Print.

---. Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology & Turn-of-the-Century Visual Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Print.

Schwartz, Vanessa R. Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-De-Siècle Paris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Print.

Friday, February 18, 2011

We all saw the numbers put out by VIDA recently. (A propos, here's Pollitt pointedly noticing something about a position I happen to hold.) I would just like to add that Jim Behrle's recent series of profanity-laced attacks on the VIDA-named pubs is hilarious. That is all.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Name: ________________________________________ 2/17/2011

1. The author of “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is:

(a) T. S. Elliot

(b) T. S. Elliott

(c) T. S. Eliot

(d) I. A. Richards

2. His famous 1922 poem is titled

(a) The Wasteland

(b) The Waste Land

(c) “The Wasteland”

(d) “The Waste-Land”

3. April is:

(a) the coldest month

(b) a delicious cruller

(c) the cruelest month

(d) the cruellest month

4. The moral of this quiz is:

(a) It’s important to notice details.

(b) Your instructor is just a little compulsive.

(c) If you misspell a work’s title, or the name of its author, readers are unlikely to take you seriously.

(d) All of the above.

Monday, February 14, 2011

One reason that feral children are always partially fictive is that they instantiate the "forbidden experiment." To admit of the genuineness of any given case would be to outflank the prohibition.

Friday, February 11, 2011


On the night Barack Obama was elected president, Berkeley celebrated. You could hear car horns honking late into the night. Kids were celebrating in the street. It was as though winning the election were a revolution, the voice of the people heard at last.

This Al Jazeera video is instructive. It's a few seconds of Cairo celebrating an actual revolution, one that the Obama administration did not meaningfully support.

It puts things in perspective.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The fictiveness of wolf-children

The question surrounding wolf-children is always, are they even real? They are the stuff of myth: Romulus and Remus, etc. But in the nineteenth century the many cases of wolf-children that were documented, especially by British colonial officers in India, were constantly dogged (so to speak) by doubts of the stories' veracity, or, granting that the children themselves were real, doubts that they were in fact raised by wolves (as opposed to just living in the wild). Adriana S. Benzaquén notes that
In a "well-known London club," an argument over whether the story [of Amala and Kamala, the "wolf-girls of Midnapure"] was to be believed ended in a fist fight. A few months later, a writer regretted that the wolf girls' return to civilization had been "tragically unlike that of fortunate Mowgli, who throve alike among wolves and men." (225)
Wolf-children are always to some degree fictive, even when they are real.

This is due, in part, to the colonial notion that wolf-children were an Indian thing; thus William Crooke's Things Indian: Being Discursive Notes on Various Subjects Connected with India (1906) contained an entry on wolf-children (Benzaquén 224). Anything from India, "that land of rhetorical conceptions and of mental imagery," as one British doctor put it in 1927, was likely to be fabulous (qtd. in Benzaquén 225).

Benzaquén, Adriana S. Encounters with Wild Children: Temptation and Disappointment in the Study of Human Nature. Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2006. Print.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Better (than this): cuteness is a moment in the uncanny, the heimlich moment subject to reversal. The uncanny has a diachronic dimension that we tend to efface in our attention to it as a minor aesthetic category.

(By the way, Marilyn Ivy writes about the link between cuteness and the uncanny here [Muse], though I would go further than she does.)

I am sorry to gloat about the weather while everyone else is in a deep freeze, but it is just one of those perfect Bay Area weekends when you put on a chiffon skirt and you don't bother to dry your hair because it's warm out, and who cares if it's all frizzy and curly, it is spring, it is spring, and you go write grant applications in the glorious sunshine.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


1. The uncanny is the original minor aesthetic category.

2. Cuteness is a special (heimlich) case of the uncanny.

Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny.’" In Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmud Freud. Ed. James Strachey et al. Vol. XVII: An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works. 218-52. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1955. Print.

Ngai, Sianne. “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde.” Critical Inquiry 31.4 (Summer 2005): 811-47. Web. JSTOR. 5 February 2011.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Seriously, [name of press redacted]? Papyrus?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.