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. . . 2003-05-09

What is that usage known to all men?

My infatuation with this chart continues.

Partly it's the typical charm of Fowler's: a wealth of arbitrary and idiosyncratic declaration blandly presented as "usage." Such a lovely word, "usage": humble and extrovert and wise. How I used to love reading through that book! Science fiction poetry at its best.

Particularly, it's its use as (as Hector suggests) a guide. You pick your preferred (or required) sets of "MOTIVE" or "PROVINCE" or "METHOD," and then you trace a greasy line across the monitor to find your techniques. It's like consulting a dietician before going to the grocery store! Or a psychiatrist before having sex! So that way you know who you are and who you aren't and what you shouldn't waste time on and why you would just be wasting someone else's time if you tried to talk to them.

To get a full span, I had to add a couple of rows:



Confusion Coherency Parody Nobody


Confirmation Hopes and dreams Defeatism Depressives


Fellowship Criticism Obscure referentiality Clones


Disruption Communication Idiocy Clowns

Which provides a final benefit, that of determining my ideal audience and definitively answering that question asked so long ago by David Auerbach:

Given my chosen techniques, motives, provinces, and methods, my target audience is the intersection of depressives, clowns, an inner circle, my clones, my self, and nobody.

Time to start rounding up advertisers!

. . . 2003-05-10

Just like medicine

I have two friends who, like me, have derived serious pleasure from poststructuralist writings. We three are easily told apart, and in terms of relative accomplishment I'm easily at the bottom. But I think we would all agree, more or less enthusiastically, with any of the following assertions:
  Un altro elleboro nero

Instead, we commonly enounter the assertion: And being all three of us sworn to defend our pleasures to our deaths, up goes the dander, flying goes the fur.

But I've finally come to realize that such a reaction replenishes the venom sacs of the poisoners I find most fearsome: canons and labels.

  Elleboro bianco
A kiss-off to the abstract blob game, then:

The only commonality I can find in my personal poststructuralism reading list is a tendency to complicate thought (if not necessarily writing; Delany and the sorely-missed Jardine write perfectly lucid American prose): to split hairs and splinter branches and seed beams with termites and combine bicker with blather.

My friends and I have little enough in common ourselves. But I think I can say that for all of us, the appeal wasn't a matter of being frozen, or being seduced, or being betrayed, or having our deepest beliefs called into question, or even being particularly influenced.

More a relief at seeing what we'd already sensed receive acknowledgment and elaboration. Self-conscious complexity is the net that's saved us all from drowning. ("Drowning," figuratively. "Dying," not.) In the nineteenth century, we would've been Kantians; in the eighteenth, what, Viconians maybe? Wherever was foggiest, that's where we'd be. In the fog with a lantern, searching for more fog.

None of us would've been Swift. I think you need to assume a certain height and distance before you can speak down like Swift.

When the world is known to be foundationless, it's pleasant to see that foundationlessness mirrored and elaborated, just like when we ache with anger and disappointment, it's pleasant to see a George Romero movie. But for anyone to force that on someone else for personal aggrandizement or gain, or to wave it as a liberating banner or as a pass card to an exclusive club -- yes, that would be monstrous.

That fucking pharmakon again.

. . .

In May 2009, Josh Lukin responded:

Seems to me that there's a big area in which a critic can "prove" something: the game of refuting sweeping generalizations. Girard asserted that "Every novel has all of these features"; Toril Moi "proved" that some don't. Now, I personally would not use that verb, opting instead for "Moi's convincing challenge to Girard . . . " But if I had to edit a submission claiming that she'd proven him wrong, I don't see how I'd argue that it was an infelicitous construction.

Girard: "Well, then, those are not a novel." But yeah, counter-evidence is something criticism can handle very well. Sometimes I think it's all that criticism's good for.

. . . 2003-05-11

Ante Modernism

Since our latest serial completed, Zukofskymania has been sweeping the nation. And wherever there's sweeping to be done, a Dovetonsils is sure to be found listlessly smearing the same bit of dirt back and forth before asking for spare change.

So it was no surprise to get this postcard from Anselm Dovetonsils during his recent two-week stand as laureate of Paris (Las Vegas):


A Texas Hold'em table
Lower limit two hundred dollars
Upper limit four hundred dollars

Stand pat, Dovetonsils! Stand pat!

. . . 2003-05-14

Salon's IPO lies a-moulderin' in the grave but its soul goes marching on

A newspaper points to good online literary writing.

How do they know it's good?

Because it's just like what you find in newspapers!

There aren't enough urban weeklies and Sunday supplements and soft-spoken NPR shows and Eggers publications to contain all the English majors who've realized that they can easily mimic the non-reportage of urban weeklies and Sunday supplements and soft-spoken NPR shows and Eggers publications. But having been given all the freedom in the world, we're able to play columnist just as if we were fortunate enough to have real editors asking us to dumb material down for a pathetic amount of money which gets sent tardily.

And what else would anyone do, given all the freedom in the world?

+ + +


Dr. Justine Larbalestier takes us to task:

Uninteresting thinkers can be pretty meglomaniacal crap teachers too. Though I know I'm doing a non telendus est (or however the fuck you spell that one).

. . . 2003-05-15

Three Reputations

What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.

Paul de Man as Jesus, academics as the Pharisees, webloggers as Pilate? Enough to make even an unbeliever squirm.

Flipping through the racks, I may have found something more suitable:

Jesus stooped down, & with his finger wrote on the ground. And while they continued asking him, he lifted himself up, & said unto them: let him that is among you without sin cast the first stone at her. And again he stooped down & wrote on the ground.
And even closer fits might tempt elsewhere, since it's far from clear whether de Man would be playing the woman taken in advoutry or a guy with a rock in his hand. I'm only confident that his part doesn't include a line like: Hath no man condemned thee? Neither do I condemn thee.

. . .

Postscript, 2009: This series began as a response to a thought-provoking post by Tom Matrullo. In 2004, Dave Winer destroyed Tom's and hundreds of others' blogs without warning. Winer also ensured that the Wayback Machine doesn't have a copy of the relevant page. What is truth? said the web, and would not let the question stay.

. . . 2003-05-16

Three Reputations, cont.

What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.

Although Francis Bacon's essay is dedicated to the truth, it delineates the lie as lasciviously as Nietzsche or Strauss ever would:

Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond, or carbuncle, that showeth best in varied lights. A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure. Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men's minds, vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds, of a number of men, poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?

He understood the use-value of secrecy, too. Bacon lived in esoteric times. At the Tudor court, as at Stalin's, few public intellectuals died of old age.

13. The first chapter of a book of the same argument written in Latin and destined to be separate and not public.

A guy could get killed. Some of his own guys did. And he helped kill some of them.

He compromised, but for a higher goal. (He had a higher goal, but he compromised.) A collaborator who feared companionship, he flamed a vision of truth, a prophetic vision even, and he had to find funding, and protection, and still somehow smuggle the word out. Pprrpffrrppffff.

But truth is contrary, and that time is like a river which carrieth down things which are light and blown up, and sinketh and drowneth that which is sad and weighty. For howsoever governments have several forms, sometimes one governing, sometimes few, sometimes the multitude; yet the state of knowledge is ever a Democratie, and that prevaileth which is most agreeable to the senses and conceits of people.

That the cautels and devices put in practice in the delivery of knowledge for the covering and palliating of ignorance, and the gracing and overvaluing of that they utter, are without number; but none more bold and more hurtful than two; the one that men have used of a few observations upon any subject to make a solemn and formal art, by filling it up with discourse, accommodating it with some circumstances and directions to practice, and digesting it into method, whereby men grow satisfied and secure, as if no more inquiry were to be made of that matter; the other, that men have used to discharge ignorance with credit, in defining all those effects which they cannot attain unto to be out of the compass of art and human endeavour.

That the very styles and forms of utterance are so many characters of imposture, some choosing a style of pugnacity and contention, some of satire and reprehension, some of plausible and tempting similitudes and examples, some of great words and high discourse, some of short and dark sentences, some of exactness of method, all of positive affirmation, without disclosing the true motives and proofs of their opinions, or free confessing their ignorance or doubts, except it be now and then for a grace, and in cunning to win the more credit in the rest, and not in good faith.

That although men be free from these errors and incumbrances in the will and affection, yet it is not a thing so easy as is conceived to convey the conceit of one man's mind into the mind of another without loss or mistaking, specially in notions new and differing from those that are received.

That the discretion anciently observed, though by the precedent of many vain persons and deceivers disgraced, of publishing part, and reserving part to a private succession, and of publishing in a manner whereby it shall not be to the capacity nor taste of all, but shall as it were single and adopt his reader, is not to be laid aside, both for the avoiding of abuse in the excluded, and the stregthening of affection in the admitted.

That universities incline wits to sophistry and affectation, cloisters to fables and unprofitable subtilty, study at large to variety; and that it is hard to say, whether mixture of contemplations with an active life, or retiring wholly to contemplations, do disable and hinder the mind more.

So he trumpeted the real, worked alone, temporized and plotted, and was, of course, undone: brought low by both his politics and his science. All for the sake of humanity's future.

How did humanity's future react? "[THE REST WAS NOT PERFECTED.]"

God gave Adam free run of Eden excepting the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Bacon's interpretation, this is an injunction to pursue empirical research and leave ethical speculation alone. Morality is the original sin; to pass judgment is to usurp godhood. (As in Foolbert Sturgeon's retelling of the adulteress story -- Jesus: "Let he without sin cast the first stone." Abashed guy, handing a stone to Jesus: "I apologize, master; it was rude of us to start without you.")

This reconcilation of Genesis, the Gospels, and modern science is ingenious, and prescient ("never argue about religion or politics"), and (more clearly than Bacon might wish) dangerous, and (it turned out) unforgivable.

A survey of shelves and sites reveals a hodge-podge reputation, a headcheese of prim disapproval, idiotic hero-worship, occultism, and conspiracy theory: cold-blooded traitor, utopian technocrat, suck-up to a superstitious king, scientific methodist, positivist sinner (and, aesthete though I am, long may the methodists win out, 'cause I ain't no more healthy than the average aesthete and I need those pharmaceuticals), a sexual creature or beast....

In short, fate and fame supplied the customary reward of the skeptic speculator:

"What are thou that questions thus?"
"Men call me Bacon."

. . . 2003-05-18

Three Reputations, concluded

What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.

Bacon's melodious sentence is itself an example of the triumph of grace over truth. His personal experience of judgment halls may have overpowered his biblical studies -- or could he be foisting away a too-close kinship of philosophical inquisitors, so vehemently as to call attention to the resemblance he denies?

"I was the justes judge that was in England these fifty years; but it was the justes censure in Parliament that was these two hundred years."
What I asked was what most folks call a "rhetorical" or a "leading" question (and some folks call "proof"). I phrase it as a question so that you'll draw the answer up from your very own store of cleverness -- "Yes!", fist pumped up then inwards -- and then it's personal, you're committed, you've sworn your allegience.

But honestly turn the question back to me, and what can I say? I can try to answer it myself, losing my advantage. Or I could meet it with rhetorical silence, glaring as if dumbfounded by your rudeness or your clumsiness, and then let my more pliant disciples rip you apart while I approve them: a bullying technique of group enforcement favored in playground and classroom both. ("O, I say, here's a fellow says he speaks as a hegemonic subject!" "O, I say, here's a fellow says he doesn't speak as a hegemonic subject!")

Or I could do something I can't even picture. It's not like I have a lot of pictures.

At any rate, we chiefly emulate Pilate (uncredited) when we wash our hands of the whole affair, and chiefly criticize him (by name) for his question. Among English speakers, Pilate's reputation was made by Bacon's vivid tableau, even though the source gospel hardly bursts with japery:

Then led they Jesus from Cayphus into the hall of judgment. It was in the morning, and they themselves went not into the judgment hall lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the paschal lamb. Pilate then went out unto them & said: What accusation bring ye against this man? They answered and said onto him: If he were not an evil doer, we would not have delivered him onto thee. Then said Pilate to them: Take ye him, and judge him after your own law. Then the Jews said onto him: It is not lawful for us to put any man to death. That the words of Jesus might be fulfilled which he spake, signifiying what death he should die.

Then Pilate entered into the judgment hall again, & called Jesus, and said unto him: Art thou the king of the Jews? Jesus answered: Sayest thou that of thy self, or did other tell it thee of me? Pilate answered: Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and high priests have delivered thee unto me. What hast thou done? Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then would my ministers surely fight that I would not be delivered to the Jews, but now is my kingdom not from hence. Pilate said unto him: Art thou a king? Then Jesus answered: Thou sayest that I am a king. For this cause was I born, and for this cause came I into the world: that I should bear witness unto the truth. And all that are of the truth hear my voice. Pilate said to him: What thing is truth.

And when he had said that, he went out again onto the Jews and said onto them: I find in him no cause at all. Ye have a custom that I should deliver you one loose at Easter. Will ye that I loose onto you the king of the Jews? Then cried they all again saying: Not him but Barrabas.

That Barrabas was a robber.

If someone tells you that everyone who hears him knows the truth, and you don't actually feel much of anything when you hear him, is it really so wrong to ask him to elaborate?

Nor is it all that clear (in translation, anyway) that Pilate terminated his laugh line by turning on his heel and exiting stage left to scattered applause. Later, the same gospel shows Jesus refusing to acknowledge another direct question:

We have a law, & by our law he ought to die: because he made himself the son of God. When Pilate heard that saying, he was the more afraid, & went again into the judgment hall, & said unto Jesus: Whence art thou? But Jesus gave him none answer. Then said Pilate unto him: Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, & have power to loose thee? Jesus answered: Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above. Therefore he that delivered me unto thee is more in sin. And from thenceforth sought Pilate means to loose him: but the Jews cried saying: If thou let him go, thou art not Caesar's friend. For whosoever maketh himself a king, is against Caesar.

Pilate's patience is remarkable. Like later totalitarian regimes, neither imperial Rome nor Tudor England held truck with silence; self-incrimination was their favorite evidence, and they had no scruples about getting it.

In fact, the reader can't help but be struck by the gospels' generosity toward Pontius Pilate, increasing over time as the early Jewish cult became more reliant on Roman gentiles for protection and converts. The Romans weren't going to take the fall for this one.

The Gospel of John, being written last, sketches an especially sympathetic portrait (elaborated by Bulgakov, among others), of a colonial bureaucrat hamstrung into damnation by politics, confusion, and self-fulfilling prophecy.

A final unanswered question, then: When Jesus said that Pilate's power was "given thee from above," just which authority was he talking about?

Further deponent saith not.

Quotes from the Gospell after Saynt Johan the Euangelyste
translated by William Tyndale, 1525

. . . 2003-05-23

The Weeds of Crime: The Killer Is Loose   
The Poole Shuffle

As we've seen, when lover and livelihood are simultaneously threatened, a member of my tribe (wimp, weirdo, faggot, loser, milquetoast, hennetaster -- meaning no disrespect to our sisters, the bluestocking skags) typically vanishes beneath the sulfuric waters of passibly organized crime, and typically surfaces reeking, rosy, and restored to romance and respectability.

And the love of a peculiar woman being their only earthly attachment, should that attachment be snipped by Atropos, what would happen to our drifting, bobbing, squeaking gasbags?

Erwin Trowbridge, fortunate beloved of Carol Hughes and Joan Blondell and the Muse, might, as poet, guzzle deep and rev up on his (or more precisely her) tragedy, bansheeing a new Hallmark line: "So you've finally gone to Hell!", "Congratulations, you're in Purgatory!", and so on.

Willie Harrington might very well never notice any change at all, hauling Una Merkel from room to shabby room, asking if she'd like more tea, ducking his head in shame, perhaps absent-mindedly stuffing her with sawdust some Sunday afternoon....

How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm?   But if our hero was a little less buoyant, a little emptier, a little limper by nature or breeding?

Having had his dripping round snout so forced down and wriggled into the material and social essence of the world, mightn't he enter into a more direct engagement with it, to the benefit of all parties?

"You don't know how important that is.
It's the difference between being dead and being alive."

. . . 2003-06-04

The Weeds of Crime:
The Killer Is Loose, cont.
Two bank tellers Foggy California
From its opening shot, the film captures America's new strip-mall look: flat, carpeted, stuccoed and plate-glassed; dull and glaring; perfumed by air-conditioning and tainted from birth. But down these bright sidewalks a man must go who is not himself bright, who is neither varnished nor unfrayed....

This is my TV, this is my gun   Take any setting, no matter how tidy, and any guy, no matter how timid, and let the guy get disheveled enough, and you get a creepy scene. Eyes cling, story shudders.

And once creeped by the crumbled surface, unbroken surfaces turn creepy too: the sullen bus, the locked liquor store, the oblivious taxi, the television betraying or blackened, even a bottle of cold refreshing milk -- as if we can only expiate the sin of having acknowledged the pariah by becoming equally invisible and powerless.

But who's creeping who in this scenario? Cinematographer Lucien Ballard, master of sweat and stubble; director Budd Boetticher, big bullfighter on campus -- these are tough guys, right?

Even while we're intimately learning (and re-learning, each time we're pissed on) its arbitrary and gang-erected nature, we're also taught to believe that manliness is a matter of balls: supposedly innate (although externalized) and readily apparent (although hidden). And wimp-made-good stories like Harold Lloyd's or Jim Carrey's reassure us: the other ball drops; the worm turns and stands up straight and tall....

What's more-or-less-comically threatening about these three stories is that their protagonists don't grow -- no, not even by two inches. And no matter what the fella says, they aren't "split personalities" either. They remain hermetically themselves. It's merely a change of setting that makes the world reassess their jewels.

That's a message which macho scions of the bourgeoisie like Raoul Walsh and Boetticher might find perturbing.

And so it's not surprising that Boetticher fans don't talk much about The Killer Is Loose, and it's not surprising that it's his best film.

  Remodelling the kitchen

. . . 2003-06-07

The Weeds of Crime: The Killer Is Loose, cont.

Wendell Corey abraded 1950s Hollywood like an imperious acne-scarred iguana: outstandingly inexplicable as The Furies' love interest -- Barbara Stanwyck should've spent more time studying that copy of Are Snakes Necessary? -- and delivering his Rear Window banter with such open contempt that I half-expected him to try to pin the murder on Jeffries's little trollop.

But Corey also landed at least two parts perfectly suited to his Republican alienation from the species: "Smiley" Coy and Leon Poole.

You shouldn't have done that
"I don't know why you'd do such a thing."

I'd say Corey's Poole was as indelible a performance as Perkins's Norman Bates or Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter, except that no one seems to remember it. It certainly seems more realistic (although I've only met, that I know of, one mad killer myself), much more someone about whom you'd say, "He always seemed like such a nice man" and still never want to befriend or even stand very close to.

My shame to admit it, I probably wouldn't have gotten palsy with John Payne or Tom Neal, either. As Juliet Clark pointed out to me, Poole is a film noir hero in a film noir villain's role. The Killer Is Loose crossbreeds three strains of thriller (with a suggestion of the big heist film in the background):

And Poole comes spinning out the top chute. When his old sergeant takes advantage of Poole's service industry position to nostalgically revive an old course of public humiliation, he maintains professional cool:
"Even the island boys, they'd say Corporal Foggy, he get lost again, he forget his rifle."
"Yes, I remember."

Kitchen with gun
"Yes, I remember."

Thus for the military. That other masculine bureaucracy, the police department, is equally dismissive:

"Worked himself into quite a stew, hasn't he?"
"Scared amateur -- bolted inside."
We want Poole to prove his worth and show up the bullies, ideally without undue show of ego, just as part of the dirty job what a man's gotta do....
"Don't you see how wrong it was to do that?
I'm certainly going to settle with you for it."
Which he does, kind of. Like later comic hero Travis Bickle would thwart the villains and get the girl, kind of.
"You said he wasn't crazy!"

Model prisoner
"What's more, you've demonstrated an earnest and sincere intention to pay your debt."
"I've tried to follow the rules, sir."

Although Poole remains self-possessed and hard-working, the clear-headed dignity of his first scenes proves anomalous. Unbenownst to us, he was being sustained by the love of a good woman. Love meaning:

"She never laughed at me once."
We never get to know this good woman, and, given the general run of pariah relationships, that might be just as well. But even if she had turned out to be Marie Windsor, the Pooles would've been sure to present a more appealing spectacle than the passive-aggressive whine festival offered by the movie's purported hero and heroine.

In Touch of Evil, Orson Welles mocked the narrative convention of the noble cop's good marriage with parody. The Killer Is Loose undercuts it more directly by collapsing that convention into the convention of the middle-class family who's never been tested by fire. By 1956, Joseph Cotten's schoolmarmishness had ripened into querulous old-maidhood, and his shallow bride (best known to noirists as Out of the Past's second-string femme fatale) makes his dithering dotage even more glaring.

The couple's domestic ineffectiveness seems catching, eventually spreading through the entire LAPD and squandering technology, time, and personnel in cross-purposed confusion.

"I think so, but I can't be sure."
"Is it a man or is it a woman?"
"I'm not sure."
"If it is Poole, what's he waiting for?"
"He's not sure it's Lila."
"That could be...."
  Ugliest broad in L.A.

While Poole advances unprofessionally, clumsily, obliquely, bumping into a police car, driving over the center line, limping through the rain, slumping, slopping....

Does he make it?

Silly question. Naturally the natural order prevails, depositing a foggy pool of drag on a neatly trimmed lawn, to be mopped up off-screen later by some equally discardable service industry peon.

That's the story we've been told we were being told, but it's not the only story we've heard.

There's the triumph of being the one who walks out of the last frames of the movie, and there's another type of triumph in defining them. There's the triumph of victory, and a triumph in having set the game. And even a triumph in refusing to acknowledge the existence of a game at all.

What would such uncompetitive types want with winning anyway?

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2003 Ray Davis.