. . . Free and direct discourse

. . .

Free and direct discourse: The polarization of academic diction aligns up neat enough against the polarization of mundane diction to plunge us into utter obscurity.

+ + +

In one way, it's true that everything is text. But in another way it's true that everything is a TV game show hosted by Richard Dawson.

. . .

Free and direct discourse: I cherish the memory of telling my college professors who Derrida was, but sometimes I wonder how the guy who introduced Hitler to Nietszche felt.

. . .

Postliteracy in Millennial Chicago:

Please - we no longer allow writing
(courtesy of Bench 6 in Pizzeria Due)

. . .

Chip Morningstar's Postmodern Adventure (via Cardhouse) is the best geeks-look-at-gobbledegook piece I've seen. But the peculiarities of the contemporary American academy have confused his take on the French origins of poststructuralist style: Derrida, for example, is a professional philosopher, not a critic; his work is interesting as philosophy (and, depending on one's taste, as literature), not as lit-crit. And Morningstar doesn't go far enough in his paralleling of the two communities. If I may demonstrate:

Academic Post-Structuralists Computer Programmers
Supposed Goal Improved understanding of artifacts Improved efficiency of tasks
Actual Goal Career in kinship group Career in kinship group
Problem-Solving Approach Jargon-constricted language with unnatural syntax Jargon-constricted language with unnatural syntax
Water-Muddying Foreign Disciplines of Record Philosophy, psychology Engineering, mathematics
Real Water-Muddiers Obsessive-compulsive egocentricity Obsessive-compulsive egocentricity
Destructive Kinship Rite Crossreferencing Long hours
Result of Kinship Rite Smugness / paranoia about obviously unfinished work Smugness / paranoia about obviously unfinished work
Most Hilariously Unfulfilled Promise Social justice Ease of use

. . .

Last year, the Comics Journal split its double-sized hundredth issue between Chris Ware (proprietor of the well-griefed Acme Novelty Library) and Charles Schulz (still the sole artist on Peanuts). Critical wisdom, repeated several times in the course of the magazine, is that this provocative pairing works for only the first half of Schulz's career, and that by the mid-1970s the final sparks of viciousness and bitterness were leached from Peanuts, leaving it a thin collection of very soft gags.

Well, it's true that Schulz doesn't kick Charlie Brown around much any more. But there's still plenty of crummy mood left in the old guy, and for the last couple of decades, it's been channeled through a character left unmentioned by the Comics Journal: Spike, the beagle hermit who looks a little like Dashiell Hammett.

Only a week or two ago, he featured in a downright Warean moment: a single-panel strip of a desert thunderstorm, with Spike, small and centered, braced against a cactus and accompanied only by the thought-balloon "Mom!" (Or, as Ware would've put it, "M-m-mom?")

And my favoritest Peanuts of all time ever was a 1980s Sunday Spike -- I paraphrase from memory so's not to stir up the lawyers:

(Spike looks at cactus) "Did you ever hear how it was that I moved to the desert? When I was very young, almost a puppy, I lived in a house with a family. One day the family had a birthday party in their yard. A guest saw a rabbit and told me to chase it. And then everyone was shouting for me to chase it. I was excited and wanted to do the right thing, and so I chased the rabbit. The rabbit ran into the street and was run over. And so I came here, where I can never hurt anyone again." (Pause) "I've never told anyone that story." (Looks at cactus) "I guess I still haven't."
I think of that punchline a lot... it seems like it's hit something essential about fiction, and criticism, and autobiography -- maybe about all writing for publication.... "I've never told anyone that story. I guess I still haven't."

. . .

UC Berkeley Art History Department Fight Song

In this paper I will argue.
      Won't you argue now with me?
Everybody likes to argue;
      No one likes to disagree.

In this paper I have proven
      What somebody else has shown
Was maintained and demonstrated
      Citing yet another drone.

. . .

Free and direct discourse Krazy's diary

Was writing, considered as external memory storage, truly a revolutionary leap in cognitive evolution?

It was an advance in shopping list technology, sure. But, considered as very long-term external memory storage, writing relies on the kindness of strangers almost as much as that other external memory storage, oral culture, does. Look at how few "immortal masterworks" since the invention of writing have survived to reach us. Whether kept in the noggin or kept on parchment or kept busily transferring from one mechnically-interpreted-medium-of-the-decade to the next, words' persistence and accessibility are almost completely dependent on interested individuals. Parchment just has an edge as far as dumb luck goes.

Similarly, the contractual use of writing as external evidence of intent wasn't a revolutionary leap in social development. Forgeries can be made and denounced; libel is only slightly easier than slander; witness's depositions are just as unreliable as their oral testimony....

But writing's use as external object is another matter, and not one that gets mentioned much in the cognitive science texts.

Person-to-person, we use language to express and to manipulate. To have one's words be understood is an ambition that's hard to even describe without the assumption of distance. It's not the noisy-channel-between-transmitter-and-receiver described by information theory. It's a channel between transmitter and object, followed by a completely different group of channels between object and receivers, channels whose "success" can't be measured by eliminating the middleman and totting up the error rate because the middleman is the point. I'm not standing behind my words to guarantee them; I'm standing there because you're not supposed to see me. I'm no longer the "message source"; I've handed that status over to an inanimate object, and that object can't be queried as to the success of the transmission.

Signed Ignatz
We empty the bottle and stick a note in it. We toss the brick over the wall hoping for a kat. The most novel aspect of writing is its status as artifact, its separability from the inchoate author, our signature no more important than any other indexable aspect.

. . .

Free and direct discourse

Speaking of William Wegman, I heard a great story about a Video Arts class at MIT this year (MIT has lots of arts -- its museum is where I saw "Piss Christ," for example -- it was unbelievably pretty) which showed that fat-frat-boy-or-Dad trick where the camera is focused on his tubby torso and he pulls his belly in and out in time to a soundtrack to make it look like his navel is whistling and humming and so on. So this student starts laughing, right?, and the teacher, like, completely yells at her for desecrating Wegman's wispy sensibilities with her philistine ignorance! I don't remember the exact wording, and it's not like I was there in the first place, but she got some speech about Wegman's concern with The Body and how she's supposed to be there to learn.... I guess if Wegman asked the prof to pull his finger, it would be a meditation on mortality.

. . .

I started reading Derrida immediately after taking a class on Nagarjuna's masterwork, Codependent No More. It's always pleasant to fantasize that autobiographical accident somehow counts as critical insight, and so my rolling bloodshot eyes paused over Curtis White's latest confident assertion:

Anyone who has taken the trouble to understand Derrida will tell you that this putative incoherence was the discovery that the possibility for the Western metaphysics of presence was dependent on its impossibility, an insight that Derrida shared with Nietzsche, Hegel, and the Buddhist philosopher of sunyata, Nagarjuna, who wrote that being was emptiness and that emptiness was empty too.
And I don't care much what club is used to belabor Harold Bloom so long as he gets lumpier.... But White's unadorned Adorno is not much more palatable:
"Aesthetic experience is not genuine experience unless it becomes philosophy."
An ambitious mission if taken seriously, but a terrible guide if taken as Adorno does (i.e., "Art that is not easily explained by my philosophy does not count as art" -- if Adorno was doing philosophy of math, he'd declare that 5 wasn't an integer because it's not divisible by two). Aesthetics is empirical philosophy, and if pursued without attention to particulars, you quickly end up with nonsense like using a single-dimensional scale of "complexity" to ascertain "greatness." (Scientific attempts at researching "complexity" make for amusing reading, given the muddling ambiguity that attentiveness brings in, and the inevitable toppling over of increasing perceived complexity either into perceived organizational structure -- i.e., greater simplicity -- or into perceived noise -- i.e., greater simplicity.)

More pernicious, and indicative of why smart lads like Derrida avoid the whole question of "greatness," is White's contrast of a "simple folk tune" with what "a Bach or Beethoven will then make of this tune," the former being prima facie non-great and the latter being great. Note the indefinite article: we're now so far from particulars that we're not even sure how many Bachs or Beethovens there are.

And note the isolation of the tune, floating in space, divorced from performer or listener: no wonder the poor thing is simple. Why doesn't White contrast "a simple folk singer" with "a Beethoven" instead? How about with "an Aaron Copland"? Or with "a John Williams"? Is Skip James's 1964 studio performance of "Crow Jane" less complex and therefore less great than a slogging performance of an aria from "Fidelio"? How about if the former is given close attention and the latter only cursory? Is study of a printed orchestral score somehow more aesthetically valid a response to music than, say, dancing?

I'm pretty sure how Adorno would answer all those questions, to give the dickens his due. White, I think, would rather avoid them.

I owe 'im, though, for providing the following lovely quote from Viktor Shklovsky, which for some reason makes me think of The Butterfly Murders:

"Automization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war."
(The site also includes this less comic bit of Shklovsky.)

. . .

Curtis White has pointed out (quite correctly) that his Context piece didn't dwell on "greatness" and "complexity" to the extent that I implied. In context, both concepts play fairly minor roles (and are therefore left unargued with) in what's basically a worthy protest against Harold Bloom's vision of art as a narrow lineage of antagonistic wankers and a worthy defense of the notion that art serves a social purpose which is also irreducibly aesthetic.

But just as constellations can be picked out of the teensiest weensiest stars, those minor points sparkled out with some others (the unargued-with citation of Adorno, Bloom's unargued-with dismissal of "the race-class-gender axis," and White's opening hook: the unargued-with "tautology" that "the great works" are (particularly) "great")1 into an arrangement of negative space that I found irresistibly arguable. (The problem with hooks is people get caught on them.... An awful lot of Rushmore viewers never understood that the movie had opened with a dream sequence, and kept wondering why this supergenius kid had such crummy grades.)

Which just goes to show again that even if art isn't often produced by willfully antagonistic wankers, criticism often is.

1. Addendum on those other minor points, bearing in mind that I'm not arguing against White's piece so much as arguing against what it didn't choose to argue with:

Shklovsky's notion of "recognition" helps to explain how the notion of a canon is destructive -- canonized art is automatized art -- and why works from uncanonized points of view deserve to be pushed forward -- unfamiliar expressers are likely to provide unfamiliar expressions.

To put it another way, the problem with the "dead white male" canon is not that the works are all mediocre (although many seem so to me), but that to be trained exclusively in any established canon is to join a club with easily parroted and not very strenuous rules, including rules for "complexity." If the same set of "complex" formulas is repeatedly used, they become through habit not so very complex any more (viz. John Updike). A whirlpool bath is complex but also somnific.

. . .

The Blasted Stumps of Academe

Lawrence L. White simultaneously kicks off our end-of-school special and continues our previous thread in high style:

I spent several days composing a response to your comments re Curtis White, but couldn't make sense in my own head. As Adorno also says, the aesthetic is inarticulate. Though he claims philosophy is necessary, he recognizes that the artwork always withholds its best part. It's a perfect marriage: one party claims the other can't live without them, the other party knows it.

One of the few ideas that have made sense to me in this dreadful canon debate is John Guillory's suggestion that instead of thinking of canons we should think of syllabi. It's an inescapable fact: only so many books can be assigned for the term, or, for those who have survived their educations still reading, only so many books can be read. (Mr. Bloom acts as if he has read everything, which is his claim to greatness, 'cause none of the ideas he's had about these books amount to squat.) You have to make choices, though you don't have to, or may not be able to, explain them.

Just as there is are Great Works syllabi out there, so too are there Race-Class-Gender syllabi. & both can be automatized. Try to get an American Studies PhD w/out reading Uncle Tom's Cabin. & try to read any of this stuff the way someone like Spicer would read. I bet my copy of Aesthetic Theory (w/marginal notes throughout to prove I read the whole thing) someone out there is doing a Race-Class-Gender critique of Updike, & is thorougly kicking old Johnny-boy's ass. Yes, he deserves it, but aren't there better things to do w/your time?

I want to read books that are smarter, truer, more beautiful (&, as Adorno & Stein point out, beautiful can be ugly) than I am. Criticism that's superior to its object is masturbation. & as my pa told me, beating off is a fine hobby but you don't want to make it your life's work. One of my fellow students did a master's thesis on Fern Gully. Kicked its ass up one side & down the other, undoubtedly. (Which reminds me: Derrida can avoid the topic of greatness because it goes w/out question in France. The question on the bac is about Rimbaud, not Asterix.)

The example of Spicer's reading -- wide, idiosyncratic, passionate -- shames me when I think of all the time I have wasted in graduate school.

  Bent over the old volume

. . .

Speak nothing and lack a big stick Bang

After his classmates ratted on an eleven year old boy who'd made some drawings of weapons, he was expelled from Oldsmar Elementary School in handcuffs. (via Obscure Store) The principal explained "We just need to get it through kids' heads that there are certain things you don't say and there are certain things you don't draw."

"... although you should continue to buy them," adds consumer advocate Juliet Clark.

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In other Obscure educational news, Norwich High School for some reason thought it would be a good idea to maintain a course on "feminist literature" (no elucidating link available) in a community whose standards don't allow explaining the term "phallic" to a 17-year-old. Teacher Richard Bernstein gets a $3000 fine and a formal reprimand, courtesy of the school's principal and the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court. (If he'd been a loyal Kokonino reader, he'd've known that the only correct answer to such queries is "Ask your mama.")

Hate the sinner, love the sin. As much as I dislike obscenity laws, I like the idea that exposure to Lacan can (who can? Lacan can!) be indefinitely postponed -- the guy bugs me, you know? If Lacan's "Phallus" [The proper page from Earl Jackson, Jr., has been purloined; the Google cache momentarily stops the gap] isn't to be construed as a weirdly and unnecessarily exclusionary and hierarchicizing penis, why didn't he just call it "the Object of Desire"? It's like turn-of-the-previous-century intellectuals who talked about "the Eternal Jew," always ready to point out (if, and only if, challenged) that they weren't referring to particular Jews; they were just using "Jew" as a convenient image.... Kids, images that seem to fit into an existing discourse that you don't trust and that require constant policing and clarification to prevent misuse are no convenience in the long run. (Except as branding, of course!)

I guess I should confess, though, that I wouldn't feel compelled to climb so high on my horse if he'd called the center of the symbolic order "Poontang" instead.

. . .

The Blasted Stumps of Academe, cont.

A great mystery of the past two decades is just how a bunch of European philosophers and psychologists ended up in the English Departments of the New World.

A minor mystery of the past two weeks is why the moral Vincent Leitch drew from his own story (to your right) was that "close readings" should be avoided rather than that English majors don't read enough.

Wouldn't it be nice if these mysteries solved each other?

Question from Stephen S. Power, MA, UFlorida:
Considering how completely removed literary theory has become from the criticism of actual literary works -- a consideration the composition of your anthology may harden into a given -- do you think someday theory may be removed from the English department entirely and put either in the philosophy department, the sociology department or a new one of its own, that of cultural philosophy?

Vincent Leitch:
Let me tell a story. I just finished teaching a course to graduating English majors which had 26 students. I asked them after I taught the essay by Achebe on Heart of Darkness how many students had read the novel. Eight of 26 students had read Heart of Darkness....

Well, as we know here in Kokonino Kounty, nice things are pretty much always the things that happen!

The English Department version of "post-structuralist theory" is to the insanely engaged work of the original theorists as the English Department version of "creative writing" is to the insanely engaged work of real novelists and poets. That's what permits the two groups to be departmental rivals at all: they're playing the same game.

It's true that Derrida makes for terrible Cliffs Notes. But the problem with Cliffs Notes isn't that they get in the way of primary sources -- no one cares about primary sources -- but that they make students play a different game than the professors, and thus keep the students from assisting the professors' careers.

. . .

Inspiring transitional paragraph of the day, from Nicole Loraux's The Children of Athens:

There may be a tragic way of making this point.

. . .

It was thought, therefore it was

Trio leaves no room for doubt. Whoever says: "The man has gone to town", must indicate in the form of the verb whether or not he saw the man going to town. If the speaker was not an eyewitness, he also needs to indicate whether he has understood this to be the case or whether he has indirect evidence.
A language that forbids the indefinite passive and the absent expounder has been much desired, and it's to be regretted that competitive pressures ensure its continued absence. [via Simcoe, whose prolonged sporadicness has much enfeebled the fighting spirit of the American people]

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Movie Comments Comment

So many folks boiling over with critical insight and political acumen! And post-movie Q&A sessions provide an irresistable opportunity to lance those boils.

  1. My Brother's Wedding at Pixar, Emeryville, CA

    Lots of great Qs here, including "Does the director know Martin Scorsese? Because [long demonstration that if you've never seen a Cassavetes movie, you'll think that anything with talkative city dwellers is ripping off Scorsese]" and the always popular "How much did it cost?" (Wrong answer, guessed at by the hapless host of the evening: "I'm not sure -- one point five million?" Right answer: $80,000.)

    Best of show:

    "You always hear about how African-Americans have absent fathers and single-parent families. But that didn't seem to be a problem in this film. So I can't help wondering: Just what is the real story here?"
    Which reminded me of someone at DEC who was talking about some political dispute in the news and concluded, "How can black people expect to get anywhere? They can't even agree on a candidate!" Except that guy at least had the excuse of being from New Hampshire and I at least got the relief of answering him. At Pixar, I was the guest of a nonprofit institution hoping to impress potential donors, so decorum was called for. And was maintained by my companion hustling me the fuck out of there.

  2. What Have I Done to Deserve This? at New Directors / New Films, NY, NY

    1985. Pedro Almodóvar's first movie in the States. Disgruntled director on stage, dressed to the nines and stoned to the gills. An extremely wealthy, old, and frail-looking lady in the audience, with a grandmotherly smile:

    "You wouldn't have been able to do this when General Franco was in charge, would you?"
    ... I have nothing to add to that.

  3. Prelinger Archives selections, and other movies, and songs, and books, and TV shows, and paintings, and photographs at PFA, Berkeley, CA, and other places

    A young academic male:

    "Paradoxically, though, I feel that [artifact] actually is subversive in a way, since [earnest explication of some detail of the artifact]..."
    This may be unheimlichly gauche of me to admit, but not all pleasures are, strictly speaking, subversive.

    For example, you know that warm feeling you get from someone agreeing with you? Or when you feel clever for working something out? Well, that's not actually called subversion.

    In fact, as a fellow comfortable guy, I'd say that the only context in which it makes sense for a comfortable guy to apply the word "subversive" to anything is when he's trying to have it banned.

. . .

The Secondary Source Review

Theorizing Backlash, ed. Superson & Cudd

"Theorizing" titles rarely entice. Fin-de-siècle academic mannerisms grow even uglier when synchronized in massed full-dress parade, and their drill sergeants are less convincing than most. Such weird contortions only make sense as a long-winded last-breath defense against otherwise fatally sheering forces.

However, the continuing campaigns against feminism seem complex, real, and fatal enough to require full-out Drunken Mistress technique. And so this particular title hooked me -- but this particular attempt to get a grip on biological research fumbled me back into the water to breed:

"There is either a difference between men and women, or there is not."
Yes, and there is either a difference between a man and another man, or there is not. There is either a difference between a woman and another woman, or there is not. There is either a difference between me at 18 and me at 43, or there is not.

It may be just as well that so many theoryheads spit over their shoulders and cross the street when they see science coming. Jacques's socks! You'd think a postobfuscationist would at least understand the problematic nature of "difference"!

  Compare and contrast

. . .

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.

. . .

O Felix Error!

(Written for The Valve)
In whom the dear errata column
Is the best page in all the volume!
Thomas Moore

Establishing the "real meaning" is one goal of the critic's game, but no one achieves a perfect final score, even when they live in the author's time and know the author intimately. (Sociologists estimate that I misunderstand approximately 82% of what I write myself.) Although Blake wasn't referring to the Industrial Revolution, the "dark Satanic mills" we read inevitably reek of coal.

Since it's unavoidable, we might as well celebrate the preservative and generative aspects of literary misinterpretation. Misreading Virgil as a Christian prophet benefitted both Virgil's work and Dante's.

But how about misattribution? What benefits do we gain from that?

Forgery's not nearly as lucrative for English majors as for art students, and so I can only think of one.

Much as Microsoft or Sony won't be content till all content is licensed from Microsoft or Sony, a canon drowns competition through sheer shelf-filling reproduction. Misattribution to a canonical author can carry a work into otherwise inaccessible environments. How likely is it that we'd have good copies of the Song of Solomon or the Revelation of St. John if they hadn't wandered into exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time?

In English, Bardolatry promotes misreadings of the Bard and ignorance of everyone else. But, at the cost of their authors' names, some lucky parasites have hitched onto the Swan's belly. I got my first access to the helpfully anonymous "Tom O'Bedlam's Song" that way.

Appropriately, those Bardolators who worship misattribution itself perform the greatest public service. "After God, the Earl of Oxford has created most" looneys distributed copies of George Gascoigne's collection long before the first widely available scholarly edition. Ronald B. McKerrow pretty much established contemporary editorial scruples with his wonderful Works of Thomas Nashe, but it was last in print in 1958, and, on the web, only the Collected DeVere takes up the slack.


Josh Lukin points out the "felicitous misattribution of the 'St. Anthony Divertimento'":
. . . and could Brahms' "Variations on a Theme by Haydn" have even come into being as "Variations on a Theme by Ignatz Pleyel"?

Thanks, Josh that's an interesting case: a popular melody known only because of Brahms, who knew it only because somebody stuck Haydn's name at the top of the page.

Other recent re-attributions from Haydn involve Haydn's sticking his own name at the top a more ambiguous case than I had in mind. Presumably Haydn saw himself not as a plagiarist but as a guarantor of Genuine Haydn Quality, much as the senior tenured professor subsumes the work of underlings and spouses. In the art world, of course, few successful careers have been single-person operations, much to the confusion of our more naive age.

The literary equivalent has an even more dubious reputation: the factories of "Dumas" or "Nancy Drew" novels, and, on a more intimate scale, the ghostwriters. The late career of "Ellery Queen" is an amiguous case: since the named author is a fictional character, the only thing that makes Sturgeon's, Davidson's, and Vance's volumes more "ghostwritten" is the relative openness of the secret.

And then there's Klaatu....


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.