From Cividale
. . .

"He's sincere." "Well, that's the main thing."

Theoretically speaking, I agree: Good works count more than good faith. After all, dead men don't speak sincerely in fact, judging from what mediums tell us, they're terrible liers and authors, by definition, are dead.

Practically speaking, I agree, too. Anyone who can be amusing or thought-provoking or typo-correcting is jake (or johnemerson) by me.

But. (And this is a very skinny but.) I do (and will continue to) take an active interlocutor's lack of good faith, or an active interlocutor's obvious assumption of bad faith in myself, as freeing me from any ethical obligation to respond to the S.O.B.

First, so long as they're active, they're not dead. Therefore they're not authors. Therefore a critic has nothing to say about them.

Second, a devil's advocate serves no purpose unless we're in a debate club or trial. What I do participate in conversation or its simulation only comes to an end when we're willing to shut up and think about things for a while. Someone who arbitrarily chops and shuffles words in pursuit of the sneerable can extend his "Now your turn" game long after my "Seeking mutual understanding" game's played out.

Third, people drastically overestimate their ability to maintain detachment or insincerity. Rationalists are (to quote Lee Marvin rather than myself) really quite... emotional. Most self-pronounced tricksters turn out to be a bellicose drunk under a lampshade droning about alimony. This is the sort of job that should be done whole-assed or not at all.

Fourth, humanity is fallen, and so there's a limit to how good our good works get. Even Heidegger didn't always write perfectly clearly. Past a certain point as instanced when I have my Valve Face on trying to block all possibility of misunderstanding or misstatement reduces us to incoherent trivia. (Or: Why I Am Not an Analytic Philosopher, Again.) This doesn't mean you have to listen respectfully to a neo-Nazi; just it's nice not to have to waste time wondering why what the guy is saying happens to make him sound so much like a neo-Nazi. If you're an overbearing bore, I'd certainly appreciate your letting me know that before we strike up a conversation, and I'm sure you appreciate the same from me.

Fifth, didn't I liberate myself from all this "ethical obligation" crap once we decided to devote ourselves to the pure play of signifiers what don't signify? OK, then, my chosen signifiers are "Oh dear, look at the time, I really must be going."

Finally, what do I hear in Daniel Johnston's best songs? Conviction. The kitty's fed and something's at stake. "What say let's make this game interesting?"

By the way, this shouldn't need saying, but you never know, so I better gotta say Joseph Kugelmass, despite not wanting extra credit for it, seems like someone speaking in good faith. As the poet sang, "Keep punching Joe."


Happy Valventine's Day to you too!

Kugelmass wins this hand.

. . .

The Sacred and Profane Masochism Tango

What can you possibly do with more love? Smokey Robinson lost in ecstatic contemplation of his hundred lifetimes:

"Live it down.... Wear it down.... Tear it down...."

Elvis Presley's lascivious staccato:

"Punch it. Kick it. You can never win. You know you can't lick it."


From the great Elvis LP, "South of the Border".
Add another one - Bop It Extreme 2 - Bop it! Spin it! Twist it! Pull it!

. . .

An Intellectual Situation

I'm a subscriber, and so there's nothing altruistic in this: I wish n+1 the best. Surprisingly, however, despite its unhurried schedule and its editorial board, it is not always at its best. And its worst, like the worst blogging, merely apes what it promised to supplant.

Tellingly, "The Blog Reflex" exemplifies its worst.

Here's the pivotal sentence:

"But those things didn't happen, at least not often enough."

When a critic surveys a genre or medium, the difference between "didn't" and "didn't usually," between "none" and "some," is not minor, and the difference between "some" and "not enough" depends on whether we know where to find "more and better." For example, when I say "The New Yorker doesn't publish nearly enough interesting poetry," I might silently be comparing it to Jacket. If there is any literary blogging whose material seems both worthwhile and unlikely to become accessible through any other avenue, then what's the comparison point for "not often enough"?

Offered a chance to explore the new or even to encourage "those things" to happen a bit more often n+1's anonymous writer instead conforms to journalistic habit and resculpts the punditry deposited by more established print organs. Expressing disingenuous disappointment along the lines of the "surprise" I expressed in my first paragraph, it re-affirms the already not-known: Nothing to see here; really a shame; well, let's move on....

It's an eerily familiar process. During a public back-and-forth with Jonathan Lethem some years back, it turned out that his Village Voice piece "The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction" had originally been titled "Why Can't We All Just Live Together?" and had sprung from a desire to draw attention to Carol Emshiller's work. No matter our intentions as editor or author, the conventions of professional and semi-professional journalism pressure us to flatter ignorance, and, by so doing, snub the Ideal Reader of literature.

Which, among the bloggers I read, contributes much of the strange appeal of web self-publication.


SEK writes:

The non-hipster hip in "The Intellectual Scene" pieces has grown tired, but if you overlook the posturing, there's still some fine prose and sharp thought in there.

I even enjoy some of the posturing.

Perhaps 'not often enough' to justify the time blog-reading can swallow up.

. . .

"I told you I was sick."

Hypochondriacs are rarely as bad-off as they make themselves out to be but never as healthy as you'd expect. All those unnecessary diagnostics and treatments are in themselves damaging. And insisting on them indicates some sort of problem from the start, even if it's not the one hypothesized.

For spiritual hypochondriacs, that goes double.


you talkin' about ME??


You just hate God, is all.

Only when I'm trying to sleep.

Peli writes:

Plus, you know, every Hypochondriac gets to be right at least once. I find this comforting.
Hello. My compliments to a very nice website. I have a great time on your to see your lovely cat. Lots of succes in breeding.

. . .

More Triumphalism

As another indication of our growing academic legitimacy, a researcher at Radcliffe has produced a study of bloggers:

Type I. This consists mostly of girls who are found naturally in literature courses and men who are going in for law. The type is nervous, high-strung, very imaginative, has the capacity to be easily roused and intensely interested. Their attention is strongly and easily held by something that interests them, even to the extent quite commonly expressed of being oblivious to everything else. But, on the other hand, they find it hard to concentrate on anything that does not catch the attention and hold the interest.... I could never get them to write well unless I got them distracted by talking to them or making them talk to me. The more interested and excited they got the more their hands would write. Their results in writing were of two kinds: either they would be taught a movement and then hold it firmly until the next one was taught, or else, being taught one movement, they would stick to that resolutely, and it was not possible to draw them away from it. As soon as they stopped talking, or their interest flagged, there was a strong tendency for the movement to slow up and soon stop....

Type II is very different from Type I, is more varied, and gives more interesting results. In general, the individuals, often blonde and pale, are distinctly phlegmatic. If emotional, decidedly of a weakish sentimental order. They may be either large, healthy, rather heavy and lacking in vigor, or they may be what we call anemic and phlegmatic. Their power of concentrated attention is very small. They describe themselves as never being held by their work; they say that their minds wander easily; that they work on after they are tired and just keep pegging away. They are very apt to have premonitory conversations, they anticipate the words of their friends, they imagine whole conversations that afterward come true. The feeling of having been there before is very common with them; that is, they feel under given circumstances that they have had that identical experience before in all its details. They are often fatalistic in their ideas. They indulge in day-dreams, but not those of a very stirring nature. As a rule they don't seem to have bad tempers are rather sullen. Many of them are hopelessly self-conscious and rather morbid.

They write best as a class when they are quiet. The effort to explain something usually stops the hand. They get rather sleepy, the arm and hand get cold and occasionally go to sleep. As a rule they are highly suggestible and learn movements readily, but instead of getting a new movement and sticking to it, they often show great vacillation, a constant tendency to return to other movements taught some time before. And even when a new movement gets fixed, there is a constant tendency to outcroppings of an old movement in most unexpected places. [...] The sense of otherness, of something else pulling or setting the arm going, was a very common experience.

I might use this to organize my loglist.


I do not like the idea that I am going in for law.
I have recently visited Berkelely, and am pleased to report that the "there" is there, possibly on the other side of a fault line from Oakland. I suspect Type I lives on one side of the fault, and Type II on the other.
Type II sounds about right for me.
She was ahead of her time.

Or perpendicular, maybe?

what is the null hypothesis?


Ooh, seeing that reminds me: I'm reading The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. 3: 1476-1776, and the only part that's made me sadder than I already was is that we don't still call "?" "the asker" and "!" "the wonderer".


. . .

Jeepers, Creepers, and Peepers

"The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde" by Sianne Ngai,
Critical Inquiry Summer 2005, Vol. 31, Issue 4

Aesthetic theorists and researchers traditionally start from the Beautiful and Sublime. Having tangled questions of taste with investigations of experience, they then traditonally fall face-first into complete muddle.

So, as simultan kindly surmised I would, I like what Ngai's doing with Minor Aesthetic Categories. All I have to add to her essay relates to what it specifically isn't about. I mean, it says "the Avant-Garde" right in the title; I can't complain I was misled. But I think its High Art focus leads it to romanticize, overstate the centrality of, and miss some distinctions in cute-directed violence.

* * *

Impugning sincerity is tricky business. Goths genuinely are cute, and I'm sure as many kids go to art school because they're goths as the other way round. Nevertheless, sincere or not, there's no challenge when a contemporary fine-artist brutalizes the cute, or pretends it's a menace. In some cases, as Ngai kind of admits, it's macho-brat kicking against being perceived as trivial. In a lot of cases, it's just a cut-rate version of surrealism's habitual degradation of the desired. In all cases, it's easier to market "edgy" than "adorable".

In contrast, I admire Joe Brainard and Frank O'Hara for the conviction of their cuteness for refusing to buckle under fear of what the guys would say.

There are other artists, true, some inside, some outside high art circles, that I admire for the conviction with which they beat cuteness up. These come in two flavors.

  1. Kids who torture and maim their own toys. There's a lot of self-loathing in the play. Two obvious (and contrasting) examples from underground comix would be Vaughn Bodé and Rory Hayes.
  2. Kids who torture and maim other kids' toys. Here resentment is more important than identification: Tex Avery's sympathies didn't lie with the Disneyesque Sammy Squirrel. Although partly inspired by a photo of the director as an ugly baby, I have to believe similar hostility fueled the most hideous of all cuteness desecrations: Bob Clampett's original Tweety Bird. With its huge eyes and feet, sticky nakedness, and horrid leer, the creature's regressed past fluffy chick to fertilized egg: NEOTENY GONE TOO FAR.
Lizard About to Blow Balls Off at Flower: Vaughn Bode
Type 1
Shit-Eating Grin: Bob Clampett unit
Type 2

* * *

cute, a. 2. (orig. U.S. colloq. and Schoolboy slang.) Used of things in same way as CUNNING a. 6.

Gertrude Stein's book answered the riddle "What's cuter than a button?" Minima Moralia, on the other hand, I'd call cunning.

As those near synonyms (and as shithouse rats) indicate, "acute"'s move to "cute" was aphetic but not antonymic. (Speaking of etyomology, a scholar who keeps the OED so close as Ngai does will, I hope, be entertained to learn that "till" is not a shortening of "until".) The cutey-pie's wide eyes and soft skin signal receptivity and resilience.

Cute Eugene the Jeep is quiet, sure, but also indestructible and omniscient. Doghouse Reilly is notoriously cute. Young John Wayne is by no means harmless, but he's observant, non-judgmental, and cute, whereas old John Wayne is damaged, vindictive, and decidedly not cute. When Charlie Chaplin shambles on broken at the end of City Lights, he's definitely harmless, but he's no longer cute.

In nineteenth century North America, where both usages began, I suppose an infant might've seemed "cunning" in its sheer makedness: the extent to which the infant manages to resemble a perfectly engineered doll. "What a piece of work is a baby!" But the OED's "acute" citations seem to instead point towards "sensitive to impressions" and "having nice or quick discernment."

The most surefire "Awwww!" shot in movies is the one which shows an audience of children spellbound by a movie. And here's Chris summarizing a recent study of folk comparative psychology:

The baby scored really high on experience (higher, in fact, than the adult humans, including "you"), but really low on agency. This seems to imply that people feel like babies are experiencing everything, but have no will. I'm not exactly sure what to make of that.

More than just the viewers' vulnerability associates aesthetic response with cuteness.


I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can, and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use silence, exile, and cute.

. . .

Pubblica o perisce: Frammenti di una stazione di benzina

Amateur amanuensis Renfrew Q. Hobblewort writes:

I am still trying to work out a proper interpretation, but I believe he has become disenchanted with the whole 'publish or perish' ratrace of academia (the obvious reference to the meta-cultural world of criticism in the first line, followed by the sarcastic anticipation of the critical response in the second) and has decided on some form of action (real, or pretended?) including perhaps an embrace of the suicide bomber as a technique. Or, he was vacationing in Italia and needed to fill up. I'm torn...

(Unofficial name ascribed by its discoverer: "la poesia dell'anarchismo: pubblica o perisce: frammenti di una stazione di benzina")

One thing you can say for Anselm Dovetonsils's verse: it's free. But does this mean it's gone radical, too?


- To insert the notes aligned to the right in any verse
- To wait the accreditation in the display
- To select the wanted bomb
- Out to the spy of the select bomb,
to take the supplier

The Italians have a saying: To read Dovetonsils is to die a little. Doctors recommend five to eight servings per day of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables.

. . .

Pictures & Voids

Jaka's Story (1988-1990) is the name of a volume of Dave Sim's Cerebus comic and the name of a prose narrative interspersed through it. As Scott Eric Kaufman points out, the inset text carries peculiar authority, given that it's a sub-Beerbohm parody of Oscar Wilde written by a Mort-Drucker-y caricature of Oscar Wilde.

It inherited that authority from two generic ancestors:

Sim started fully exploiting this heritage in High Society (1981-1983). The book begins with a traditional caption:


Moves on to the self-captioning of the simply sensational Moon Roach:


And then inserts typeset excerpts from The Six Crises, a political memoir/analysis of High Society's time:

seemed to essentially evolve from the discontent felt by the emerging splinter parties mentioned in the previous chapter.

Which becomes surprisingly, movingly embodied in Sim's book when Crises' author appears as a character on both books' shared last page.

What a MERELY MAGNIFICENT find! Embedded prose pastiche gave Sim an ENTIRELY NEW WAY to exploit / indulge his uniquely confounding / exhilarating gift / curse for obscuring / hinting-at the "real world" using "purely conventional" devices!

Then, as often happens, the creative breakthrough became a strangulating hernia.

See, I'm not one of those nice people who started worrying when Sim dedicated his life to the Gospel of the Lockhorns. I consume plenty of work by unpleasant cranks. (Some acquaintances would say I produce it, too.)

No, I'm one of those shallow people who hate to read. Even sliced and garnished, I got sick of the taste of Cod Oscar. And I gave up on Cerebus when I opened the phone books and they still looked like phone books. Just as clearly and graphically as Lord Julius depicts "Groucho", those flat slabs of text seemed to depict "Diminishing Returns".



The impeccable Mr. Waggish:

Always surprised how often people fall back on Sim's skills as a parodist to justify his talent. Most of his parodic strength lies in his *wacky lettering*, not in his prose. Sans the PT Bridgeport emphases, the typeset text is fatal almost immediately.

His wacky speech and thought balloons are awfully nice, too. (As further proof of my shallowness, I think of the Regency Elf dialogues first.)

. . .

Nothing Personal, 1

A discipline's bad conscience shows in its insults. When programmers accuse each other of inefficiency or rock critics accuse each other of being uncool, the verdict's always "You're both right!"

Lyric poetry: a crafted yet sincere voice talking to itself in order to be overheard and found to be everyone else's voice, too.

With that set-up, try to escape a charge of insular self-aggrandizement. It's built in. (It might even be what makes the thing run.) Being so conveniently on one's person, it's the first missile chucked when neighboring tribes threaten.

* * *

Customers demand Emotion Recollected in Tranquility. But that's a recipe for Dirty Bathwater Consommé, and, come the health inspectors, what's the chef gonna say? Canny neurotics long ago learned the value of (a pretense of) depersonalization, from Yeats's Hallowe'en masks and Eliot's "It's Trad, Dad!" through Berryman's minstrel show to Merrill's Weejee board and Forché's Hollywood foreign correspondent. Still, their weak point should be pretty obvious.

Although I confess in my teens, and even into legal drinking age, I completely bought into "shit for propulsion, form for lift" propaganda; tried to read the APR and everything. It wasn't until after causing a fair amount of collateral damage myself that I realized Marilyn Hacker must enter into relationships more or less anticipating their outcomes.

But similar ghouls show up in every group, Post-Avant or Pre-: Prometheus-wannabes vulturing their own livers.

Even stuff which has been attacked as too heartless or defended as just heartless enough will, sooner or later, be found (or made) to be taken personally. Zukofsky's sexless domesticity? W. C. Williams's scavenging of private letters and private practice? Feminist scholars long ago got to that one, and to Stein's referent bleach-job. The Language Poets' critical stodginess obscures just how autobiographical or self-dramatizing their most popular work has been, while their dullest reads like rock tour diaries. As for Found Poetry, isn't the job of any artistic technique to produce the sort of thing the producer finds interesting? Well, then, what's the issue? A web search can tell a lot about a person.

. . .

Why I Am Not an Analytic Philosopher, Again

I'd rather be right than President. Disappointingly, that entails admitting that presidents matter much more than right people.

. . .

The Lie of the Last Minstrel

Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel
by Lennard J. Davis, 1983 (2nd ed. 1996)

Both Tom Jones's hero and genre were mysterious bastards. Unlike the hero, the genre's parentage remained open to question, and, in '83, Davis ambitiously aimed to prune classical romances (and even the mock-heroic anti-romance) from its family tree.

In place of that noble lineage, he proposed a three-act structure:

  1. Set-Up: The literate public happily consumes crime-and-punishment ballads and monstrous-birth broadsheets which claim without scruples to be both true and improved, wondrously new yet mostly recycled.
  2. Crisis: Economic competition, diversified political power, and new libel laws forcefully direct the attention of writers and readers towards previously unproblematic distinctions like timely/timeless and provable/interesting....
  3. Resolution: ... which reconfigure more stably in (verifiable yet evanescent) journalism and (undeniable yet false) realism.

In his own storytelling, Davis sometimes stumbled most painfully, he blew the punchline and I wished he'd included a chapter on "secret histories", whose length, legal issues, and formatting (memoirs, correspondence, oddly well-informed third-person narrators) all seem to make them at least as germane as ballads. Most of all, without broad quantitative analysis to back them up, such ventures can always be suspected of cherry-picking the evidence.

But I'm an irresponsibly speculative collagist myself, and these cherries are delicious. I already understood how framing narratives relieve pressure, how they establish both authenticity and deniability: "I don't know, but I been told." But I hadn't realized how often pre-fictional writers had felt the need for such relief. Not having read a life of Daniel Defoe, I hadn't known how brazenly he forged even his own letters. And, speaking of letters, I hadn't read Samuel Richardson's flip-flops on the question of his real-world sources.

The sheer number of examples convinces us that something was shifting uncomfortably, tangled in the sheets of the zeitgeist. How else explain, across decades and forms and class boundaries, this increasingly vexed compulsion to face the old question head on, like a custard pie?

And by the end of the book, we still haven't found fully satisfying answers; the process continues. Recently and orally, for example, our impulse to simultaneously avow and disavow narrative discovered a felicitous formula in the adverbial interjections "like" and "all like".

We haven't even fully agreed to accept the terms of the problem. Remember those quaint easy-going characters in Lennard Davis's Act I? Believe it or not, living fossils of unperplexed truthiness roamed the Lost World of rural America during our lifetimes! My own grandmother sought out no journalism and no novels; she read only True Confessions and watched only her "stories" that is, soap operas, "just like real life" they were, another quotidian reconfiguration.

* * *

All novelists descend from Epimenides.

Well, OK, if you want to get technical about it, so do novel readers ("All Cretans know my belief is false"), and so does everyone else.

That's the problem with getting technical. (Or, Why I Am Not an Analytic Philosopher, Again.)

But what about memory retrieval??
In contrast to common past-future activity in the left hippocampus, the right hippocampus was differentially recruited by future event construction. This finding is notable, not only because others report right hippocampal activity to be common to both past and future events (Okuda et al., 2003) but also because it is surprising that future events engage a structure more than the very task it is thought to be crucial for: retrieval of past autobiographical events....
It does seem strange that no regions were more active for memory than for imagination. So memory doesn't differ from fiction? At the very least, it didn't result in greater brain activity than fiction, not in this particular study (an important point).
There was no evidence of any regions engaged uniquely by past events, not only in the PFC but across the entire brain. This outcome was unexpected in light of previous results (Okuda et al., 2003). Moreover, regions mediating retrieval processes (e.g., cue-specification, Fletcher et al., 1998) such right ventrolateral PFC (e.g., BA 47) should be engaged by a pure retrieval task (i.e., past events) more than a generation task (i.e., future events). More surprising was the finding that right BA47 showed more activity for future than past events, and that past events did not engage this region significantly more than control tasks.
- The Neurocritic, citing
Addis DR, Wong AT, Schacter DL. (2007)

(I should admit, even though that re-citation honestly conveys what's on my mind I happened to read it while writing this, and so there it is it doesn't honestly convey what I consider a strong argument. Like The Neurocritic, I'm skeptical about the functional neuroimaging fad; it seems too much like listening to a heart pound and deducing that's where emotion comes from. Reaching just a bit farther, then from my keyboard to my bookshelf....)

For researchers in the cognitive sciences, a narrative works like a narrative, whether fictional or not:

... with respect to the cognitive activities of readers, the experience of narratives is largely unaffected by their announced correspondence with reality. [...] This is exactly why readers need not learn any new "rules" (in Searle's sense) to experience language in narrative worlds: the informatives are well formed, and readers can treat them as such.
- Richard J. Gerrig, Experiencing Narrative Worlds

According to Davis, modern mainstream genres partly result from legal changes which forced propositionally ambiguous narratives to face courtroom standards of truth. I didn't find his evidence completely convincing, but there's something that felt right about his tale.

A narrative is not a proposition. When narrative is brought into a courtroom, interrogation attempts to smash it into propositional pieces.

But any hapless intellectual who's made a genuine effort to avoid perjury can testify how well that works. We don't normally judge narratives: we participate in them, even if only as what Gerrig calls (following H. H. Clark) a side-participant. If we restricted ourselves to "deciding to tell a lie" or "trying to tell the truth," there wouldn't be much discourse left. Depending on personal taste, you may consider that a worthwhile outcome; nevertheless, you have to admit it's not the outcome we have.

We've been bred in the meat to notice the Recognizable and the Wondrous. The True and the False are cultural afterthoughts: easily shaken off by some, a maddening itch for others, hard to pin down, and a pleasure to lay aside:

At the tone, it will not be midnight. In today's weather, it was not raining.


January 2009: Since I haven't found anyplace better to note it, I'll note here that the best academic book I read in 2008 (unless Victor Klemperer's The Language of the Third Reich counts) was Reading Fictions, 1660-1740: Deception in English Literary and Political Culture, by Kate Loveman, whose metanarrative convincingly allows for (and relies on) pre-"novel" hoaxes and satires while not erasing generic distinctions.

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