pseudopodium
. . . Josh Lukin

. . .

Not Going to See the Movie Comment: I was too young to deal with Mansfield Park the first time I read it, and I can't picture a living commercial movie director who isn't. Maybe if Kubrick had been interested in women, he could've managed it instead of Barry Lyndon. Maybe the Hitchcock of Vertigo and The Wrong Man could've, if he didn't mind having another flop.

But probably it's best left to an uncommercial experimenter like Valeria Sarmiento, 'cause it's never going to be a popular story: it's too unpleasant to seem charming and too pleasant to seem important. And unless you maintain that sour-and-sweet balance between the character of poor fostered-cousin Fanny Price and the voice of Jane Austen, you might as well throw the book back onto the Unfilmable shelf.

And that's OK by me, since I like Fanny almost as much as the villains and the narrator do. But then I wouldn't be all that popular in movie theaters either....


2015-06-09 : Regarding the "narrowing of horizons," Josh Lukin adds a contender:

You'd be surprised at how many people think We Have Always Lived in the Castle ends happily (Although I guess Constance's horizons aren't broad at the start, however much she wants to imagine that they are).
And, following up:
I had in mind the feminist readings that say, Yay, productive community among women, for which one has to pretend that Constance likes where she ends up as much as does her sister, rather than having to relinquish all her hopes and become a '60s homemaker, as it were. Reflecting on it, I guess it's no surprise that some readers trust Merricat so much that they miss that part.

. . .

When we were children, my sisters and I were often ridiculed by our black schoolmates for "talking like white people" or "sounding white." Some of this was purely in jest, some was motivated by envy and some by sheer malice and ignorance, but whatever the cause, I could never reconcile myself to it. First, I was never trying to imitate a white person's speech. At the time, the only white people I knew well were the Italians who lived in the neighborhood, and I recoiled from their ethnic expressions as much as I recoiled from "talking colored." I was imitating the speech of my black schoolteachers, of movie stars like Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Woody Strode, and James Edwards. I had heard the so-called vernacular of actors like Hattie McDaniel, Willie Best, and Stepin Fetchit, and I wanted no part of that. Indeed, I thought black vernacular was an aberration: I assumed that most black people spoke standard English or wanted to. I heard James Baldwin give an interview on the radio and he spoke standard English. So did Martin Luther King and so did Malcolm X. I once yelled at some boys who were needling me for "talking white," "I don't know any white people who talk like this." That wasn't quite true, for like all the black people around me I watched television, and like all the black children around me I read comic books, and whatever one might say about the deficiencies of the literary quality of this genre, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and the like all spoke standard English. But what I said to those boys was very near the truth, for I was never inspired by any white person to use standard English. And I hated black vernacular speech, even though I could perfectly replicate it as a youth, when it suited my purposes to do so. I hated it because it reflected an experience that was narrow and provincial, because its vocabulary was so limited and so heavily reliant on profanity, particularly variations of the word "fuck." And, of course, the word "nigger" was used all the time by blacks, a word I utterly loathed. I hated the vernacular because it was a language with no ability to grow, a language that could not encompass what I felt, what I wanted to express, and I was as black and as poor as all the others in my neighborhood. Indeed, I was poorer than most of the black kids I grew up with. What good was this language to me, if it could not envision or accommodate my emotional or psychological existence? Here, I thought, even as a boy, was a language, this black vernacular, that was meant to be as limiting as the experiences that black people were permitted in this society, and what was even more defeating, more tragic, was that the people who spoke it exclusively had decided to accommodate themselves to those limitations. It was the language of oppression and accommodation. The vernacular could, in a meager but sometimes very affecting, even passionate way, convey anger, resentment, self-pity, the humor of cynicism, a spirituality mixed of hope and frustration, disappointment and hatred -- all the emotional preoccupations of the powerless and the confined. But it could not express the ideas of power or the power of ideas, the necessity of meaning, nor could it even express the idea of itself or of the meaning of itself. I knew instinctively why Davis spoke the way he did. I knew what drove him because some variation of that drove me, too....

.... Davis's speech was a kind of elegance and grace, a dignity, sometimes a bit forced and self-conscious, but all the more affecting for that, that said to me as a young black kid "English is my language, too" and "I may be other things but I'm as American as anybody else." As Davis knew, despite the racism in America, where else could he have had the outsized success he did except in America. I learned from Sammy Davis, Jr., that there was nothing wrong with a black wanting to be an American, with wanting to acknowledge that, with wanting to adopt white forbears and influences as well as black ones, with seeing oneself as interracial, not simply mixing with two races but as a link to bringing two races together. So his speech was not antidemocratic but the fullest personal expression of the democracy in which he lived and for which he tried to live. His speech was, to use a popular word of today, "inclusive."

- Gerald Early, from The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader

My memory is that the race-traitor routine kicks in solid during the junior high years. And that it was substantially more direct and heart-breakingly destructive than any gender divides introduced by puberty.

When they see themselves as a group, humans act as if their main job is to maintain the group, and, members of the group having consciousness and all, internal variations of behavior and thought are seen as a more present danger to group solidarity than any threats from the outside could be. It's an often demonstrated problem with few known solutions, 'cause for obvious reasons there's not a huge amount of pressure for it to be solved.

This particular variation, which has the desirable side-effect of keeping a underclass persistently under, isn't uncommon among colonized peoples. It's one of the complaints the more skeptical Irish made against Irish nationalists at the previous turn of a century, for example. There are many other examples.

The ray of hope for most colonized groups is the one that's directed back and down at the land behind them. There's always the dream of reclaimed soil, re-established traditions, and reborn language. Anti-assimilationist pressure is justified by hope for a regained (if mythical) glory.

What helps keep American racism such a stable system is African-Americans' near unique status as an imported colonized people: Europeans, finding North American natives more suited for extermination than colonization, kidnapped and relocated an entire nation's worth of labor. The backwards gaze is drowned in the Middle Passage. There's nowhere to retreat to but where we're at, and we're all in the same place. The only glory we can hope for is still, nerve-rackingly, to be sought in the future.

+ + +

2015-12-19 update from Josh Lukin:

"Hughes judged that if Zora Neale Hurston, 'with her feeling for the folk idiom,' had been its author, 'it would probably be a quite wonderful book.' Baldwin, however, 'over-writes and over-poeticizes in images way over the heads of the folks supposedly thinking them' in what finally was 'an "art" book about folks who aren't "art" folks.'"

. . .

Errata

A reader asked that I:

get down to it bobbers
And this I did not do.

Another requested:

the body of an american
But Dos Passos or MacGowan, I knew not which, and so I merely sat and mulled my whiskey straight.

And another would very much like please some:

tahitian vanilla.....
But who placed this order I do not know, although I suspect Clarence King.

Yet another informs me:

I spoke to a member of the loyal Naderite opposition in Boulder, and she told me after Allard's win she's focusing on her wedding plans, which involve avoiding all traditions of the "wedding-industrial complex."
And I could have suggested she register at Cut Loose and yet the draw came tardily upon my hand.

Josh Lukin testifies:

I thought of your entry on memorable and moving last lines the other day as I read "The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories" by Etgar Keret, who Justine Larbalestier thinks is the Kelly Link of Tel Aviv: "I tried to imagine my mother's uterus in the middle of a green, dew-covered field, floating in an ocean full of dolphins and tuna." "Or else, if the broad in the square wouldn't have had a boyfrined in the army and she'd given Tiran her phone number and we'd called Rabin Shalom, then he would have been run over anyway, but at least nobody would have got clobbered." A whole book chock full of heartbreaking final lines.
Still, several days hence I have not read Etgar Keret's prose collection nor even his comic book.

And when a final reader tells me of one who

was trying to remember the name of wealthbondage.com, and came up with "The Cruising Politician."
I can only wonder at the undeserved bounty of my days and on my head.

. . .

Josh Lukin joins our perplexity:

There has just *got* to be a story of the Lucy Clifford or E.T.A. Hoffman unheimlich school that does something with artificial hands, but damned if I can think of anything but J.M. Barrie, which would be quite a stretch to include . . . Southern's use of the image in Strangeglove, of course, has all kinds of post-Metropolis precendents among authors who can be classed with Southern as Black Humorists. West, as you note. Durrenmatt's The Visit. Highsmith's "The Great Cardhouse." And of course V., wherein at least two characters have that distinction.

Shelley Jackson would be the ideal person to ask about this, followed by the authors of Narrative Prosthesis.
For pre-Strangelove self-modifying crazy-ass scientists, we might also look into Bernard Wolfe's Limbo, but that doesn't help with my personal goal of finding a precursor to Metropolis. So far the closest I've come is Nuada, which is none too close. Maybe I should just get over it and admit that some Nazis had a flair with pulp.

By the way, those of you with access to the MLN should seek out Dr. Lukin's illuminating review of Dr. Larbalestier's The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction.

. . .

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.

. . .

Advertising Supplement

Jake Wilson resolves one old issue:

  I considered writing to you a couple of months ago when you were looking for sources of the Rotwang/Dr Strangelove archetype. I was going to suggest that one source might be the Poe tale The Man That Was Used Up, but then from your phrasing I wasn't sure if you'd already made that connection.
That damned phrasing stuff trips me up every time! I responded:

  That was, in fact, the grotesque that I vaguely thought might be Poe or (if post-Civil-War) Twain or even Crane. (When I browsed through Poe collections, I became distracted by "Maelzel's Chess-Player".)

And to balance things out, Jake Wilson introduces one new issue: Senses of Cinema No. 26, with excellent background on the Hong Kong woman warrior, a Stan Brakhage tribute appropriately split between formal and personal concerns, enticing overviews of Ned Kelly stories and Italian movies that I'd probably hate, a pointer to the near-future sf film None Shall Escape, and the usual much much more.

My other favorite web-based movie periodical, Bright Lights Film Journal, has also served up a fresh batch of fine reporting, reviews, and meditations. But would you think badly of me if I admitted that my favorite part was the Holly Woodlawn interview? 'Cause if you would, I admit nothing.

Elsewhere on the web, Dr. Justine Larbalestier has provided a preview of "A Buffy Confession," her spirited defense against (and equally spirited surrender to) nattering nay-Slayers. "For those who haven't seen the finale yet don't read the coda at the end."

And another of our favorite doctors, Josh Lukin, brings us the welcome news that paper-based periodical Paradoxa is finally unleashing FIFTIES FICTIONS: Chester Himes! Patricia Highsmith! E.C.! Richard Matheson! Samuel R. Delany! Judith Merril! People I don't even know! Get your order in early; you know how ephemeral paper-based periodicals are, and this looks like the best issue of Paradoxa yet. (I'd say "the best issue yet of any magazine ever," but I can't be sure till I track down a copy of that Vanity Fair with the picture of Tuesday Weld in the back. [Update: That Vanity Fair issue stunk.])

Yeah, I kid the academy (those nuts!), but when its component parts are given half a chance, the combination of publishing venues, deadlines, and job reviews can be mighty productive. Out here in the boonies, I've been blowing hot air about "doing something" on Highsmith for more than a dozen years; with sharp and decent folk like Lukin and Earl Jackson Jr. on the case, the world might live long enough to see some results.

. . .

In which a Slate writer comes this close to noticing that Karen Joy Fowler is better than The Onion

Anyhow, I'd like to end with the quote that summed up the book for me, and a question. Here is the quote.
"We had, most of us, also lost our mothers. We spent a moment missing them. The sun was blooming rosily in the west. The trees were in full leaf. The air was bright and soft and laced with the smells of grass, of coffee, of melted Brie. How our mothers would have loved it!"
Here is the question: Is this the bathetic, Windham Hill mishy-mosh I think it is? Or is it brilliantly satiric writing, of the quality of, say, the Onion?
(Slate via melymbrosia via Justine Larbalestier)

Ouch!

Although I found this stumblebum pas de deux painful to witness ("Such a relief to reveal my obtuseness publicly," one of them sighs near the end), it's fun to tip their lines into Fowler's compilation of Jane Austen reviews. In particular, their uneasiness with Fowler's apparent attempt to have her cake and eat it too would seem to disqualify them from enjoying not just Austen but any ambitious fiction from Cervantes (satire made chronicle) to Richardson (titillation made redemptive) and Fielding (mock-heroic made heroic), to Stendhal's and Flaubert's social tips from the clueless, and on towards Beckett's attenuated can't-go-on and the leftover genre hashes that intrigue John Holbo.

Oh foolish book clubbers, having the cake we eat's what fiction is for.

Responses

PF asks:
Also, speaking of Jane Austen, how do you feel about Clueless?

It and Persuasion are my favorite adaptations to date, although neither are a 100 Super Movie au maximum.

Josh Lukin kindly adds:

I wish this point could be seen by the thousands of people who argue over whether Keillor is mocking or celebrating the poor Lake Wobegonians.

. . .

"Critique & Proposals" by Chandler Davis

By far the best available introduction to the nonmathematical work of Chandler Davis is Josh Lukin's interview with him in Paradoxa 18. Among many enticing but unavailable texts, it mentions an informal piece of argumentation from 1949. Hearing of my curiosity, Dr. Lukin very kindly lent me a copy. And, hearing of my interest in sharing the work, Professor Davis very kindly lent me permission to publish it online. I thank them both.

You'll have your own reasons to find it interesting. Here are a few of mine:

Responses

Kip Manley notices:
You're back!

Which means I get to spend some time, at least, musing on how comics does something similar to SF (yet again)--

"From birth, science fiction has been defined (and bounded) by a community whose ambiguities of consumer, critic, and producer more resemble philosophical schools or high art movements than commercial publishing genres."

Though there's far more of a distrust of the critical enterprise in comics than in SF. --Artists, you know?

Anyway: there's as vibrant if more brief a history of APAs in comics, too. Scott McCloud lists his inventions in the field of comics, which include such notable creations as Five-Card Nancy and the 24-Hour Comic; he used to include the Frying Pan, a comics APA he founded back (I think) in the early '80s. But he doesn't anymore, because who knows from APAs?

I think he's still got them in a box somewhere in Thousand Oaks. At least I hope so: lots of comics history in there, in a raw, unfiltered form. But formalists are lousy packers, and they've moved a lot in the past few years.

I should feel ashamed that mere dayjob (backed up by a bit of illness and hardware trouble) kept me offline longer than a hurricane and homelessness have Tom Matrullo. But I'm too relieved to build up a good head of mea culpa.

Yes, the critical distinction is why I didn't mention comics myself. But it's true that American comics are another "commercial art" built on uneconomically passionate emulation and argument, with similar adolescent fans, similar reliance on self-publishing, and Dan Pussey as son of Jonathan Herovit. And I suppose one might make a case for some ambiguity even in the realm of criticism, albeit more among the pros than the fans or one could bring up the ambiguous role of the collector....

That ol' renegade Tom Parmenter is interested too, although I suspect he has stories of his own to tell. And I see that during my recent exile from good fellowship, The Mumpsimus appreciated Phil Klass.

The Happy Tutor reunifies compliment and complement.

David Auerbach returns, and very welcome he is, too:

I guess what I think of is how, with the regularly occurring exception (what comes to mind is that EC comics story where the astronaut takes off his helmet at the end and...he's black!!!) specifically designed to appeal to racial and cultural issues, science-fiction went for a casual universalism, at least in its "golden age." What I remember of reading old-style genre sf were characters with purposefully vague or unnatural names (Jermbo Xenthos, e.g.), which had little to no bearing on their position in the story. Since genre sf tended to revolve around the conceptualization of a single (usually recycled) idea, attendant aspects of character were incidental at best; I haven't read it in years, but I believe this even applies to the Asian protagonist of Delany's "Babel-17". Even something like Heinlein's racist "Fifth Column" is not "about" the race of its characters qua characters. The Asians might as well be aliens (and the story would have had slightly firmer scientific grounding if they had been).

With gender, it only partly applies. The same dichotomy--women are either indistinguishably "one of the guys" with their anatomy switched around, or else a brainless love interest whose role is determined wholly by their gender--usually applies, but the love interest is considerably more common and incidental because of the more common presence of a secondary love story. I remember thinking this when I read Asimov as a kid. It also seems that as male authors grow older, the ratio gradually tilts away from the former. I got more compelling portraits of, for instance, farmers (in Clifford Simak) and manic-depressives (in Theodore Sturgeon) from sf than I ever did of women or minorities.

This is evidently not what Davis wanted, as he says, but the failure of sf to meet his expectations seems more grounded in the agreed-upon restrictions of the genre rather than the failed imaginations of the authors. The generic restrictions of plot, character, and ideas would have made a socially progressive agenda stick out like a sore thumb. I always found "Stand on Zanzibar" very difficult to get through precisely because he approaches Davis's issues from the standpoint of problems to be solved through ideological architecture rather than areas meriting in-depth exploration. In the same way, you wouldn't go to Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" for a revelation of the social relations of the immigrant community. They're just too goal-directed.

Chandler Davis himself provides some additional thoughts:

I think it's true that the spirit of our APAs lives on electronically, without the health effects of inhaling hektograph solvent. As to my then simplified spelling, if that doesn't live on I won't mourn it.

My post mortem on my essay of 55 years ago is just what I told you I thought it would be: it's not all just what I would say today, but it was worth saying.

I don't think I told Josh or you one of the striking responses to my essay. Isaac Asimov remarked that when he wanted to make his character Preem Palver as harmless as possible (so that it would be a surprise when he turned out to be the most powerful guy in the galaxy), he gave him the accent & mannerisms of his father, an East European Jewish immigrant. (Didn't call him Jewish, though, I guess.)

. . .

The Launderer's Hand

Continuing the discussion:

As has been pointed out many times before, "genre" is not a simple compound, or even a clear formula, and its assorted aspects of publishing, writing, and reading are only loosely interdependent. Some writing, it's true, affirms generic coherency, snug and compact in a neatly labeled bundle. But much of what I'm drawn to seems badly wrapped, corners rubbing against frays and duct tape.

It always comes marked, however. No matter how much writer or reader idealizes invention from whole cloth, there'll be some natural discoloring, someone to see a pattern, and someone to apply a dye. Even the launderer's hand grows red with wringing.

To drop the metaphors:

  1. My favorite writing is sui generis.
  2. It was (and is) all published (more or less antagonistically) within a generic context.
  3. Assuming that one particular genre has special access to the sui generis greatly reduces the chance of actually finding it.

Which is why, as I wrote earlier, plowing cover-to-cover through some 19th century volumes of Blackwood's or Harper's, or High-Modernist-era New York Times book reviews or High-Hollywood-era movie reviews, would be salutary for most English and creative writing majors. Someone who refused to look at smut would have missed Lolita (fittingly, Nabokov himself first received Ulysses as an exemplar of smuttiness); someone who refused to look at sea stories (or flop gothics) would have missed Melville; someone who refused to look at cornpone humor would have missed Twain; and so on. And someone who refused to read academically canonized writing would miss all the same books now. For we who love to be astonished, it's worth attempting to read Hammett's and Thompson's (or Fitzgerald's and Faulkner's) prose the same way whether behind pulp covers or a Library of America dustjacket.

To take a limit case, there are (and have been) an astonishing number of readers who treat everything written by women as its own genre, resulting in a comedy of re-interpretation when misattributions are corrected and as the purported "genre" is denigrated or celebrated.

All this from publishers and readers. For a writer, genre may considered a conversational context, with one's social circle not necessarily restricted to one's neighbors, or even to the living. Since the literary mainstream's "discovery" of Patricia Highsmith began, I've seen a number of bemused references to the influence of Henry James, but this isn't an unusual phenomenon. The work itself is always more (or less, if truly "generic" work) than whatever genre it's in.

Carol Emshwiller, John Crowley, Karen Joy Fowler, Jack Womack, and Kelly Link write the sui generis they write and publish in whatever genre welcomes (or allows) them. But a contemporary may find it useful to learn that they all began publishing within the context of the science fiction genre, whether they themselves started as genre readers or not. And although I seek out Dalkey Archive and Sun & Moon Press spines in the bookstores, I enjoy knowing that the past decade of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has shown more lively variety than any university-sponsored or trust-funded fiction journal.

Responses

Lucius Shephard also

God, yes. There are, oh, let's not start feeling guilty about not mentioning M. John Harrison, there are lots more. And then all the great writers who are publishing mysteries, thrillers, romances, Y/As, and including, sure, the literary mainstream and the poetry presses, but all of them, now ignored or long forgotten or even deservedly noticed, should get more than just a for instance, and I just meant for instance.

A welcome update, fourteen years later, from Josh Lukin:

Well you know my fave bemused reference to the influence of Henry James . . . although I'm sure Baldwin's Jamesianity too incurred some bemusement (to say the least) in his day, of the "'Notes of a Native Son'? What does this guy think he is?" sort (I don't at the moment have the wherewithal to turn to my Marcus Klein and Maxwell Geismar and Irving Howe and see if that was among their beefs).

I've been reading some James stories and am struck by their reliance on Ideas (pace T.S. Eliot). And I mean Ideas in the way SF writers mean Ideas: premises that one can quickly pitch to an editor (or to a writer, if one is that kind of editor I did have a pair of cats named Horace* and Campbell). It's an unoriginal insight that post-Chekhovian litfic doesn't make for good log lines the way that older stuff does; but I wonder whether pitchability has an economic origin or not: did Maupassant**, whom James might have gotten it from, write for magazine editors?

*Horace is still with us, but he doesn't like me to read the New York Edition. He will plop himself on it or gently close it or try to eat "Daisy Miller." I had to get hold of the first book editions of the stories so he'd leave me alone.

**Did anybody else pan their influences as interestingly as James? Not Wilde, not Nabokov, not Alan Moore . . . the list isn't as long as Harold Bloom led me to believe . . .

. . .

Thinking of Cluny Brown: Part 1

[Revised & re-assembled & relocated to Senses of Cinema,]

Responses

J.D. would lead off with "deferantial".

Under the title "between thought and expression", Josh Lukin sent:

Well, according to some taxonomies of affect, what you're crediting Boyer with *is* expression --or one of the more interesting modes thereof. As Charles Altieri said last Wednesday, one of the categories which we can use to discuss affect if we aspire to a non-cognitivist take thereon is *mood* --moods are modes of feeling where the sense of subjectivity becomes diffuse; where influence pulls against resolving action --the subject of moods, poised between the active and the passive, can be seen as a contemplative agent or as a subject so large as to lack room for action. "Moods are forms of ontological weight in which we feel our dependency on external factors and don't resist, attending to the actual possibilities of relishing our embodiment. That's good --I wish I had written it down." Now, Altieri, to my mind, was being very abstract here and could have benefited from illustrating his point with, say, something from Emerson. Instead, he used the conclusion of "The Dead" as the climax of his whole riff on affect, suggesting that Joyce creates or invites a "generous irony" in which we do not have to repudiate all the intimacies the text has offered in the way that a more bitter irony would suggest, but we can still avoid the self-congratulation (something CA evidently knows about) that accompanies settling on an ethical identity of the self. Such a position insists that the intellect attuned to the aspect of lucidity allows, after one's expectations are chastened, for us to project a wary trust and allows affect as a challenge to the structures of belief and their rules. At which point one auditor suggested that Altieri's "irony" owed more to Frye than to Wellek, and that he was engaging in some rhetorical contortions to avoid invoking the cognitivist view that he associates with Nussbaum. "As Altieri spoke, my mind kept veering of into thoughts of René Girard and Francis Barker and all the other writers who'd addressed the same subjects far more interestingly," quoth a colleague. But heuristic tools are where you find them, and I find Altieri's schtik, my colleague's critique of it, and your description of Boyer mutually illuminating,

Me too, and I expect even more illumination as I fill the opsimathic blanks represented by those names. But oh, dear, I worried about the ambiguity of "expression", and you're right, I should've worried more. When Boyer's good, he's not affectless, or inexpressive in that sense (although when you start cataloging, it is remarkable just how few configurations his facial muscles support). He's not shy. He's just inactive.

To forestall another confusion: Of course he acts, being a professional actor, but what he acts is someone who takes no action. He conveys high intelligence and high passion, those highnesses seem always to be in perfect accord, and yet they stay plunked together at the bar, commiserating and shrugging. Dedicating heart, mind, and soul to one true love, he doesn't fuck; hating his spouse, he doesn't strangle; and in a political cause well, there we have Confidential Agent and (less directly) Cluny Brown.

I think you're right to associate this ironic quality, made so attractive by Lubitsch, with Altieri's talk: he sounds smitten. But in Joycean terms it seems to me exemplified less by Gabriel's contagious swoon than by Giacomo's "Write it, damn you, write it!"; like most seductions, the results are problematic. Try challenging machine guns with affect and see how far it gets you. Heck, try challenging your boss with affect! In sneers begin life sentences.

Since, as a practical matter, narrative artists promote confusion of acting for action and affect for effect we can't be blamed much when we fall for it. But I think you're also right to suspect the motives of anyone so quick to celebrate their own enlightened generosity. That's Heaven Can Wait. We want Trouble in Paradise.

. . .

Baboon see, baboon do

Maybe belligerent democracies are just reactive by nature. Power struggles to balance intensity, not hue.

It's hard to realize nowadays the extent to which Sputnik incited support for scientific education and research in America. While the national enemy was secular and egalitarian, the United States achieved its rational and fair best. (Although, as Chandler Davis would remind us, that was nothing to write home about.)

And now that the national enemy is fundamentalist and plutocratic, we feel the need to close the intolerant billionaire gap.

Responses

A helpful reader recaps the story so far:

An amoeba in a tutu, with a little pink hat on its uppermost. Bikers re-enacting Lakota chest-piercings in disused pastures. Souls of the wronged lined up for miles at the window someone said they thought might be the place you go to state your case. At the end the weak ones turn around and go back through time, creating a tidal effect. It gives them an unassailable advantage, but it doesn't really go anywhere. Domestication and sophistication begin to merge. Everything gets stolen. SRI had these tests...

Ah, how I loved that tutu it gave me a waist....

Josh Lukin's mention of René Girard led me, a few hours too late, to this:

The error is always to reason within categories of "difference" when the root of all conflicts is rather "competition," mimetic rivalry between persons, countries, cultures. Competition is the desire to imitate the other in order to obtain the same thing he or she has, by violence if need be....

And, a half year later, the brilliant Narrow Shore starts from the same comparison and reaches a horribly beautifully complementary contrast:

The detonator in those planes was not a gadget but the absolute faith that allowed the human pilots to steer dead into the glass towers. There has been a Sputnik moment, but the tech and arms race embarked upon recognizes faith as the ultimate weapon, and the tactical goal seems be to out-believe the enemy.

This is very dangerous. Not that belief cannot be part of a very effective military technology. Clearly, it can. But the trigger mechanism (didn't anyone notice, in this Sputnik moment?) is suicide.

. . .

Affirmations

- in memoriam Karl Kraus, H. L. Mencken, Olive Moore
  1. Why I Read Such Benign Books: The single Nietzsche passage I think of most often is the one in which he's listened to Bizet's Carmen twenty times through and become a better person each time.
  2. Another reason: I believe Nietzsche's philosophical system was aphorism. Not his strategy, his system.
  3. There's no Sally Rand Truth to find behind the fans and bubbles. Take "fan" and "bubble" away, and away goes "Sally Rand", just as removal of "brick" and "jail" vanishes "kat".
  4. Before going to work, the aphorist pushes into long flopping shoes, and buttons, studs, ties, and cummberbunds into a monkey suit smelling of real monkey. The shoes expensively gleam and pinch; the suit is tailor-made. Still, the nature of the job is clear enough.
  5. Reading Heidegger on Nietzsche is like watching a snowed-in prospector twirl boiled bootlaces on a fork and chew and chew and chew and swallow them. Directed by G. W. Pabst, starring Gibson Gowland.
  6. Aphorists hate liberals for their earnest argument. Bible-thumpers hate liberals for their skepticism. But the enemy of the aphorist's enemy is not the aphorist's friend. The aphorist depends more directly on the existence of the comfortably tolerant than the bible-thumper depends on the existence of the heretic.
  7. Those who admire aphorists judge a tree by the tenacity of its branches. Wherefore by their thorns ye shall know them.
  8. I was too sickly to attend ag school, but I doubt you can sow fields with thorns.
  9. An aphorism is a scenic rest stop between an unsupported argument and an undesired consequence. On day trips, we wage slaves make it to the state park and turn back.

Responses

2. Only Nietzsche's? Or even moreso?

What strikes me is the blatancy with which Nietzsche's practice is ignored by his elucidators. But his work is hardly alone in that regard, you're right. Maybe if I started thinking of the process as something like Hollywood adaptations not pretending to get at any better understanding of the material, but at least publicizing it and occasionally providing entertainment of its own it wouldn't seem so odd to me....

they ALL ignore ALL the formally and methodologically and practically idiosyncratic writers' and thinkers' schticks. even when they don't ignore they don't ignore by writing monographs in which they don't ignore.

Whatever I'm selling, Turbulent Velvet's not buying.

And if you think he's wrong, look closer before you leave the shop. All aphorisms are nonrefundable.

Josh Lukin comments:

I always thought somebody must have been insisting on Nietzsche's system's aphoristicness for Thomas Mann to have worked so hard at challenging that view (in fifty years, people will be substituting "Wilde" and "Hitchens" for those names). Or am I missing your point?

And "Hollywood adaptation" criticism (beautiful analogy) can do a lot. Where would we be if Delany or Butler had understood Althusser correctly?

Plenty of unsystematic Nietzscheans and anti-Nietzscheans around, true. We aphorists don't pretend to novel insights, just to novel phrasings. My point or more accurately my initial motivation was to understand a certain shared limitation, or flaw, across a range of aphorists.

And of course I'm grateful to any scholar who will defend the use-value of misinterpretation.

. . .

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.

Responses

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....

. . .

Pull in Your Head - We're Coming to a Tunnel

I haven't read Theory's Empire, and I don't intend to at least until after I've read the Harry Potter novels. (I'm glad that Scott Eric Kaufman did, though.)

"Theory" isn't an empire. It has no army or navy. It's a loose and squabbling graph of autocratic-or-anarchistic city-states joined by a common dialect. In a society where more voters want creationism than evolution taught to their children and where publicly funded education has been abandoned after serial arson, "Theory" is a major problem only insofar as it becomes a major distraction.

Laughing at nonsense, mourning dullness, protesting insularity, mocking arrogant sycophants, and resisting a bullying mob all remain worthwhile exercises. But the extent to which such pleasures are initiated by the Franco-American brand as opposed to pseudo-free-market one-party-system-backed economics, religious orthodoxies, identity allegiances which reinforce the injustices that shaped them, the Great Books gated community, pop evolutionary psychology, or tin Stalins, for example seems strictly a local matter. As proven by some publications of our beloved ALSC, "Theory" is not a necessary condition for worthless blather. And, as proven by some "Theorists", humans sometimes find it possible to take ethical action even against group pressure.

For that matter closest at hand, most of the Theory-happy Long Sunday kids provide full as much entertainment value as the Valve or Crooked Timber teams. (I'll forebear pointing out the snoozier exceptions, 'cause you never know how kids might grow up, but I gotta say Lacan is the crappiest thing to hit ethical intellectuals since things happened that were worse.)

For that matter closest to my heart, some of my favorite books of the 1970s and 1980s came from writers later to be classified as canonical Theorists. And if their books' quality declined inversely to number of disciples and citations, well, couldn't as little be said of Goethe? And if the ones who didn't decline simply disappeared (Alice Jardine, where art thou?), hasn't that happened to other dedicated academics?

Although this supposedly imperializing "Theory" seems to me too amorphous to be defined any way but situationally, Holbo seems as a civilian, I'm sure I oversimplify to define it as a self-contradictory mutually-supporting set of incoherent arguments from indefensible premises. Now, dumb arguments come from all over, and Holbo's battle isn't so much against the specific absurdities of Freud, Lacan, or Baudrillard as against "Theory", so let me focus on the eclecticism.

Hopsy Pike puts on a brave face
"And now let us smile, and be as we were."

Argument is essential to human discourse, and argument which follows the rules of logic and evidence has often proven valuable in the long run, if less often profitable in the short term. Anyway, I'm a tight-ass and so that's the kind of argument I prefer.

However, the multiply dimensional world of human experience supports more logically consistent systems than one. The contemporary sciences have not been (and will not be) collapsed into subparticle physics; even contemporary mathematics is not a family of clones. One can skeptically agree there's more in heaven and earth than's covered by a single philosophy while remaining skeptical of professional mediums. The strong-stomached scholar may well find traces of argument-by-pun even in the work of such buttoned-down types as Holbo and myself.

If art could be completely subsumed by any system, it would no longer be recognizable as art. Being experience, art can become evidence or counter-evidence for arguments, but never become exactly equivalent to an argument. Therefore it's entirely to be expected and welcomed that multiple ambitious ornate abstract argumentative structures will be brought to bear on artifacts, and even that some aesthetic structure-bearers might carry more than one. But I agree with Holbo that insofar as these arguments are meant to be useful for anything but careers, it seems fair to insist that each must work on its own provisional terms. After all, a bad novel can't be redeemed by a preface in which the author says he really would have preferred to write a hit song, or Ebony White by Will Eisner's historicist explanation.

Which, by the way, I still find valuable when contemplating Ebony White.

* * *

Actually. You know? Fuck it. That's not all going on, and that's not all why I wouldn't review this.

I've had to think again today about a couple of people who fell for the shuck and suffered for that, and had to think again today about a couple of people who didn't fall for it and suffered for that. The fact of the shuck is that you need family money behind you in this great culture of ours if you're going to devote yourself to Great Culture and survive. That's the main thing teachers should be teaching any unfortunates who still manage, despite the increasing number and height of the obstacles, to make it through to high art. Why the fuck is that not the fucking point of this book? And of the books it attacks?

And before you even say it, every communist I've ever met had family money behind them. Yeah, I know it was different in the Thirties. In the Thirties we had the New Deal, too, and the communists hated it.

And I'm glad, I really honest to god am, that the people I admire who have that family support going for them do have that much. But, as wise singers have sung, it's a thin line between love and fuck. And if y'all really care about the little people, how about just marrying one or something?

In conclusion, I'm sure Theory's Empire is a very good book and I think people who inherit empires will enjoy it.

Responses

Ray Davis appends:
Having absented myself, I shouldn't be so shocked that this event is calling forth the best string of entries and links of the Valve's young life. I was skeptical and I was wrong.

Besides proving that no one should listen to me, this may say something about the value of outreach. Now if we can only get that many people to write something about Jack Spicer!

As usual, IMproPRieTies conveys more and pithier than I could.

Jane Dark writes:

"And before you even say it, every communist I've ever met had family money behind them."

Well you should meet me then. Solidly middle-class via the American magic where a tautological 60% qualify, I was raised by a single grad student, and paid my own way through college, as well as every rent check since I was sixteen, etc. Not the displaced or disempowered, by a long shot. But not a penny of family money, and none coming. But the funny thing is, I work with lots of folks, communists, anarchists, half-breeds, who're from poor families. Maybe yr hanging out with a bad crowd?

The trouble is that I never found better ones. But it's certainly possible that I gave up too quickly I can't pretend to have made it a life's goal. I thank you for the correction.

2005-08-02: Afterthoughts

In the least coherent and most controversial paragraph above, I now see that I cut off a critical intervention path with "before you even say it." How was I supposed to be brought past mere lack of personal experience if I refused to hear evidence?

I also confused matters by using the word "survive" when I more meant "survive with reasonable dignity and security."

What set off my tantrum, as I all-too-vaguely indicated, were several reminders of well-heeled "Theorists", "Buddhists", "feminists", "scholars", "artists", or, yes, "socialists" and "Marxists" treating their more skilled and harder working but less financed colleagues like scum, and several reminders of teachers, scholars, and artists still scrambling for bare subsistence after years of service. And please note that I'm not referring to differences in labeling I see no shortage of career opportunities for sexists, bigots, free marketeers, and thumpers of more traditional bibles, and if I did, I wouldn't call that a crisis. If I'd happened instead to be talking to the many, many colleagues and students bullied by well-heeled "libertarians", "free-market enconomists", "Christians", "entrepreneurs", "traditional American valuers", and so on, while simultaneously immersed in those bullies' rhetoric, I would have spewed bile at a completely different set of straw-stuffed targets.

What's that got to do with "Theory"?

Exactly!

Or, as I've been trying to write a bit more temperately in this fiery Valve thread, the "Theory" debates seem unresolvable because the terms in which they're coached ignore what motivates them: abuses of institutional power.

And of those mostly repressed issues, the one most thoroughly repressed (in the academic humanities as in the art worlds) is the economic class one starts from. A student from a wealthy family will have a far softer career in the humanities than a student from the genteel academic middle class, who in turn will have a far softer career than a student from any other class. The only person I've recently seen bring up this aspect of education and research is the ever-fresh Little Professor, and she's stayed out of the "Theory" brawls entirely.

In this very essay I replicated the mistake I deplore by restricting my attempt at rational analysis to non-economic issues, and then dissolving into Donald Duck diction under the fold.


While I wrote the above, Josh Lukin was preparing a deservedly scathing response, mostly to that one goddamn paragraph. Some excerpts:

I didn't find the claim about the personal experience terribly credible --more on that anon. But it set me off because it is such a dishonest way to frame an assertion that it tends to be a tool used by all kinds of bad actors [...] So I was brooding on that, and yes, I thought, even if the personal experience thing is true, why doesn't Ray think of the people he knows of from others, including two of the Buffalo folks above, whom I've described to him, and then I thought, my God, contact via electronic media counts as meeting. Where's the HCDavis family swag, Ray?

The previous paragraph: I don't get "devote yourself" and "make it through to high art." You don't, in the context you're using, seem to mean *produce* "high art" but rather to appreciate and consume it, and make it central to your life. There are, of course, many walks of life in which you can do that. Teaching college is not the best of them; a friend recently said to me, "Trollope had it right: civil service." Producing it, or being credentialed to publicly analyze it in an institutionalized milieu, is another thing.

"And if y'all really care about the little people . . . " Oy, this will, if unchecked, grow into James Morrow's "I consider myself unequivocally a man of the left, but I join Robert Hughes in wondering why the postmodern academy directed its energies toward unmasking gender politics in Little Dorrit while Communism fell in Eastern Europe." You're slamming the political efficacy of college teachers when it was only last year that you discovered there was such a discipline as rhet/comp and have very probably not read enough to determine what its ambitions are? Okay. There are people (mostly in the UC system) who make shamefully exaggerated claims about the political efficacy of what they do as academicians. There are a few people who do what Horowitz accuses everybody of, raising consciousness in the classroom, running courses out of which Libertarians come having decided to be civil rights attorneys or environmental activists or what have you. There are people who feel that their theoretical pursuits are worthwhile and devote some energy to defending themselves against Maoist prudes who think that their work is meaningless unless accompanied by praxis. And there are . . . back in my Youngstown days, I heard a fine English professor say, "I'm very proud of our Professional Writing and Editing program. It teaches skills that will enable our students to work in strata of society that would otherwise be closed to them." This was also where a sensation-seeking journalist asked an African American student if she minded learning African history from an Irish-American scholar--the reporter was disappointed to hear, "I don't need to be taught how to be black: I just want to take advantage of the knowledge [the professor's] expertise lets her teach me." Recalling such remarks as these in my first years as a teaching assistant, I entered the composition classroom determined to respect the wishes of students who come to the composition classroom to learn concrete principles of writing that will enable them to function in areas where such skills are regarded as standards. That's not "care about the little people"?

Plus, every Marxist professor I can think of (and I have some knowledge of the field) is an activist. [...]

We were brought up to understand that activites we took for granted here were political acts in the Soviet Union . . . you see where I'm going with this. Things that it woulda been ridiculous to frame as "acts of resistance" thirty years ago . . .

Your rant there would be an important dose of reality if it were true. Since it's not, its serves as an exorcism. A futilitarian performative. Writing "SURRENDER DOROTHY" across the sky (okay, it's a small sky. But it's a public medium, so I'll stick to my metaphor).

You cut me off in conversation once when I was trying to talk about Michaels' power and the damage he was doing, but I think it's serious, and now that he's making an intervention into jurisprudential discourse, even more disturbing. Holstun advised me once that "It's more important, I think, to figure out how we can help stop the killing and exploitation than to engage in slapping contests with the likes of Berube," but Senator Clinton was influenced by _The Nation_ to oppose Estrada, so it's worth paying attention to what has the potential to give tools to or affect opinions among the powerful (look at how the discourse of the Red Scare years operated). As Michaels demonstrates in his books, one can use the _Against Theory_ sophisms ("If, as you say," I asked Chip, "Theory gives one persmission to be as smart as possible about certain things, what does _Against Theory_ give one permission to do?") to pull the rug out from under claims concerning social justice, and to discredit the developments that Chip praises in his "Velocities of Change" essay. Let me reiterate that what gets taught to college students, as Horowitz understands, has real-world consequences.

(I can't believe I just constructed a defensive argument to justify my being passionate about issues central to my field of endeavor. When I saw "Why the fuck is that not the fucking point . . . " I realized that they'd got you too, O'Brien, but I didn't realize that my time among the reprobate would make *me* so fragile that I'd concede the need to defend what I do --Oh, I know: it's the barrier constructed by "earnestly committed to political strategizing by people without any influence whatsoever" that got to me. Schlessinger? Mary McCarthy? Judge Bazelon? The young Decter, Himmelfarb, and Etzioni, if you wunna count the possibility of rehearsal (It wasn't so long ago that the "without any influence" accusation could have been made of Atrios, or Lenin)? What does "political" mean to you people? Or is it "influence" that I'm misreading?)

I'm probably taking that argument too far. Maybe my sense that the stakes are serious here, and my frustration with much of the _Theory's Empire_-type discussions, just means that I feel it would be very nice to regard certain issues as settled and certain points as self-evident and go on from there (there's a *lot* to be gone on to), ignoring how much gets "forgotten" or ignored [...] Maybe I'm just unsettled by the parallels to what's happening on the political landscape, where to our dismay we discovered a couple of years ago that ancient, conservative Robert Byrd was the only Senator who believed that Congress should have the powers granted it by the Constitution and who disagreed with Gonzales and Yoo on the President's powers. When someone says that Searle decisively k.o.'d Derrida, I hear "Reagan defeated a Communist dictatorship in Nicaragua and brought down the Soviet Union." I think Berube's dismissive remarks on Michaels are probably the most appropriate level of seriousness with which to take Michaels' claims, but, as I say, one can't possibly take Dershowitz's arguments vis-a-vis human rights, history, etc. seriously, yet there they are, getting on tv and influencing people and everything.

I cut off at the '30s because I think a) that was the last time the fantasy of violent class revolt in the USA had any possible grounding (and as I've said before, I'm glad the New Deal averted a revolution: revolutions have a poor track record), and b) Stalin got to be sort of a problem for the legitimacy of Communist Parties all round.

Josh is right to note the incoherence of "high art"'s place. Am I talking about study, production, or both? My resentment comes from both, but its expression is impossibly vague: poisonous smoke protecting the sanctity of a poisonous flame.

In "care about the little people", I wasn't addressing Josh or anyone else ever likely to read the message. It was one of those awful "This poem is for Lyndon Baines Johnson, you bastard" moments.

If it sounds like I'm trying to "bait Reds" or "bash profs", I'm part of the problem, because these received concepts of what battles we're fighting only serve the interests of those who have most of the power, want all of the power, and would love our pelts hung on the wall to keep out the damp. Obviously I agree that otherwise politically inept intellectuals can (sometimes) be (slightly) useful or damaging by providing argumentative tools. But even that can't happen if you've gated yourself into a separatist community. Clinton wouldn't read The Nation if it was a Theoretical-Leninist journal.

Anyway, none of that has anything to do with what I'd set out to express, and botched.

After my attempt at clearer thinking, Josh sent me a link with the (only slightly less scathing) note:

Oh, wait, the authors and targets of Theory's Empire didn't have to write it, it's been done already.

The link goes to Jerry Herron's review of Day Late, Dollar Short: The Next Generation and the New Academy, edited by Peter C. Herman. Herron finishes his review by quoting Michael Bérubé and summarizing:

And that's the trick, isn't it? Thinking of all of us who work here, as somehow being embarked on a common mission, as being citizens of the same work, which is teaching.

That's how everybody else sees us as teachers first, often teachers who seem not very interested in their jobs, or else not particularly well prepared to do them, the jobs that our fellow citizens think they are hiring us to do when they pay our salaries. If we could give ourselves a gift, that would surely be it, "to see oursels as others see us": professors, stars, grad students, part-timers, all of us. Citizens. Teachers. And once we see ourselves that way, then we ought to act as if we believed what we saw. Because it is true. Because it is the only thing, the right thing to do. And that is why this collection in many ways incomplete, short-sighted, and unsatisfactory is nevertheless a valuable book. We all ought to read it. Together. Not because it solves our problems, but because it makes clear both intentionally and not why solutions are so much of the time unthinkable.

. . .

Addenda

I'm very pleased to announce a new (and nomenclaturally significant) addition to our Bellona Times Repress: a short biography of Samuel R. Delany by his pseudonymous third-person researcher, K. Leslie Steiner. My thanks go to Josh Lukin for bringing the document to my attention, and to Delany for permission to post it.

Elsewhere, the never-out-of-style Lisa Maira brings news of cultural rebirth:

The web is cool again. The orginal Mr. Edible Starchy Tuber Head is back.

That eminent researcher, writer, and producer Chris Albertson handles intros for the Boy! What a Girl combo:

Cast includes musicians Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis (tenor sax), Beryl Booker (piano), John Collins (guitar), and John Simmons (bass).

Responses

Renfrew Q. Hobblewort, a man either of or four or thirty-four days ahead of his time, wishes us all:

Happy 40th anniversary of the Velvets' Summit High debut gig! - RQH

Isn't it nice? We're number one and so forth.

Speaking of mysteries, another reader has reviewed the entirety of our web-published career and sums it up like so:

murderer

We regret any inconvenience.


2005-11-21 - Another piece of Delany history just went up: his 1967 radio drama, The Star-Pit. Enjoy!

. . .

Three Ways of Looking at a Blacklist

Chandler Davis, full time mathematician, sometime fiction writer, and lifelong political activist lost his career in American academia for the third quality. Dr. Josh Lukin kindly mailed me copies of two of Professor Davis's comments on that loss:

"... From an Exile", written in 1960
"Did the Red-hunt Win?", delivered in 1995

In turn, Professor Davis has kindly consented to my making them freely available online. Both are beautiful examples of "plain speaking" rhetoric and possibly of interest for other reasons as well.

UPDATE, 2005-12-03: I've just added a third piece by Professor Davis, "The Purge". A history rather than an exhortation, originally written for the American Mathematical Society's A Century of Mathematics in America, it provides many more details about the post-WWII attack on leftist American academics (and the resistance to that attack).

. . .

Good Books from the English Department

Book reviewing don't come natural to me, but the call of politeness sometimes vanquishes nature's. In gratitude for John Latta's pointer, here are two other recent publications which deserve talking up.

  1. Hart Crane : After His Lights by Brian M. Reed

    Beneath his bright candy coating, Hart Crane can be a tough nut to crack. This is the best appreciation-analysis I've seen. If Reed occasionally repeats himself or overstates his case, well, that may be pedagogically necessary. When we limit the force of our expressions to reflect their validity, most readers and listeners miss the point entirely; for the object to be noticed, the mirror must magnify.

    Polemic and expository, Part One mimics the form and mocks the spirit of those "And here's how a feminist talks about Wordsworth" menangeries by showing how both the attractions and screw-ups of Crane's work and life refuse to fit any theoretical structure, academic trend by trend.

    Part Two spins a more idiosyncratic yarn, drawing Crane's lyric and then epic work from his "undertheorized" peculiarities. For instance, he may have been the first writer capable of appending a playlist to each publication. Sure, competitors like Pound, Eliot, and Zukofsky liked to compare their major undertakings to music. But by "music" they didn't mean "The Moon Shines on the Moonshine" at top volume on infinite repeat. (You can get a good taste of this part from "Hart Crane's Victrola" if you have access to Project MUSE or know someone who does.)

    Part Three moves into influence studies less profitably, partly because there's less profit to be had and partly because Reed wants to include lack of influence as a topic. (Non-influence studies could become a horrifically growing field.) Still, it gives him an excuse to get off some good ones about Frank O'Hara.

  2. Why We Read Fiction : Theory of Mind and the Novel by Lisa Zunshine

    As I've noted before, one reason to get older is so instead of dying sad about what we couldn't accomplish we can die happy about someone else accomplishing them. ("Then you can do the work for me," as the poet sang.) For almost as long as I've wanted to write a fantasy epic starring Jack Spicer, I've wanted to write a series of pieces called "Fiction Science" where tidbits from the cognitive sciences (social and developmental psychology as well as the neurosciences) would seed literary speculation. And here's an ex-Russian named Zunshine taking care of it!

    She doesn't include much science, but a little goes a long way with case studies.

    The little she takes are our human need and capacity to track attribution and reliability, and our mammalian impulse to play with our needs and capacities. Those are enough to explain much of the appeal of fiction, particularly written fiction.

    As a professionally literary reader, Zunshine tends to dwell on edge cases. S'OK; she acknowledges them as such, makes their edginess part of the point, and chooses contrasting edges: The first half of the volume looks at attribution games that many readers find too difficult to follow (the heroes of Clarissa and Lolita); the second half at attribution games that many readers find too artificial to care about (the detective mystery genre).

    It's a short book (with an even shorter version online). And despite its comically overblown title, she wrote it without the lookit-me handwaving of Franco Moretti's or Nancy Armstrong's recent loud-and-skinnies in fact, she writes as well as a good blogger.

    By which I don't mean me. Making complicated things seem simple's not a skill I possess, just a skill I respect.

Responses

Simultan kindly forwarded from the TLS a brief demonstration that chatty application of a few easily digested ideas to some engaging particulars will not satisfy a seeker of rigorously theoretical manifestos. Fair enough. For myself, I hope there's room in criticism for both, and more.

(I don't suppose the TLS much less the NYRB or the NYTBR will take any notice of the Hart Crane book, since it's neither a biography nor a lament that nobody reads poetry any more.)

Josh Lukin inquires:

Ian Matthews was a poet?

Inspired by what inspires poets, anyway. "Silver moon sail up and silver moonshine..."

Paul Kerschen breaks the curse of silence:

Just wanted to thank the good people at pseudopodium.org for the heads-up on the Hart Crane book; I requisitioned it from the library this past week and found it a real treat to read, especially the middle section. I admit that I zipped pretty quickly through the final influence-studies part, but the back-and-forth from scansion and syntax to the poetics of the Victrola was a real bravura performance. Among other things, it made me feel rather better about the possibility of writing that kind of book for a living. (And if Swinburne's never gonna be one of my favorite poets, I'm still glad to see that not everyone followed up on Eliot's excommunication of him.)

In Philosophy and Literature 30.2 (2006), Brian Boyd has published a much better dissing of Zunshine than the TLS managed. Regarding my own more positive response, I can only point to the influence of low expectations. (Maybe another reason I mentioned "good bloggers"?)

. . .

World Wide W. E. B.

For the Happy Tutor & Luther Blissett 7

Color & Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual
by Ross Posnock

Posnock opens by claiming that the first and paradigmatic "public intellectuals" in America were black.

Good hook, but it doesn't land square. His examples aren't like Zola and Sartre, Sontag and Mailer, high-falutin' forthright four-steely-eyed heroes swooping down from atop the editorial page to right a wrong and then move on. Instead, he tells and re-tells the story of African-American aesthetes and scholars not given a choice about going public. Maintaining any intellectual existence at all meant (was forced to mean) either taking a stand as a public intellectual or being posed that way.

This could be thought of as the high-culture special case of racism's general rule and fuel, selective attention. No matter what you do, it "reflects on the race," because race is what the polarized mirror shades let through. You take a seat, you're making a statement; you play golf, you're making a statement; you publish a book, you're making a statement.... Very tiring, very OK I get it I get it here you go then.

Or you could think of it as the American special case of a more general type of public intellectual. Not the Zola or Sontag type, though more the GarcĂ­a Lorca or Mayakovsky type. In a totalitarian state, if you take a seat, you're making a statement, and if you're unwilling to make a statement yourself, the nearest cop will volunteer one. Hell, sometimes even if you do try to make it yourself! That's what Nabokov really hated about the USSR: It wouldn't allow nuance to the poet or naturalist; you had to live with coarse distinctions like dissident or collaborationist.... And that's what he really loved about the USA: It didn't care!

About white Russians, anyway. But for a specially selected, near-exlusive clientele, the USA has always offered add-on totalitarian services.

Aside from the odd depression or civil war, the tactic's worked out pretty well. Black-and-white racism, guaranteeing a permanent yet permeable underclass, grounded our economic class system. Meanwhile, the donnybrook everlasting of more transient bigotries (occasionally freshened by immigrants) resisted high-voltage demagoguery.

With full globalization, though, there's no work for our working class, and a single coast-to-coast church professes a universal creed of selfish self-righteousness.

And so the colorfully corroded spaghetti-wired and chewing-gum-soldered circuit shorts. Smear tank by Diebold machine, gerrymander by gerrymander, state by state, the fuses pop and leave a dim red light behind. Newspaper by radio station by cable network, vouchered school by grant-grubbing school, we lose what Du Bois and Benjamin lost before us: the right to be harmless.

It was our greatest privilege.

Responses

Could you summarize what you're trying to say here? I'm having a hard time understanding.

Me too. But if you summarize your misunderstanding maybe we can get somewhere. Working this out is like rock climbing, I think.

Not that I've ever rock clumb. It's like something that can paralyze you, anyway.

That one hurt.

The Tutor will be so proud!

The Tutor hisself, and hisself again:

Yes, I am proud. You have given up your right to be harmless, what you say has and will be used against you. Fortunately you have mastered the art of writing in riddles, parables, jests, aphorism and conspicuous irrelevancies. You will go, but not in the first wave.

And the plaudits continue to spit:

a thousand mile journey begins with
This is so confusing. Its literally mind-blowing!

"Not since the Necronomicon has a piece of writing so reduced me to gibbering insanity!"

Of course, given my compositional methods, the real miracle is that any (deaf as a) post ever manages to communicate any meaning at all, intended or not. Still, when particular posts particularly irritate readers, I can't help but want to make up for it somehow. Could it be that a few sentences of rococo metaphor weren't enough to clearly convey both an unfamiliar theory of American political-economic stability and a diagnosis of destabilization? Must we drudge through something longer and more conventionally expository?

In the meanwhile, readers offer a few diagnoses of their own:

The man who fears his shadow learns to hate the light
I'm still harmless.
It did care! It did, America, then, care. It liked that, it felt validated, confirmed, its ideals upheld etc. Who cares what happens next, said America, that wall's coming down! Nabokov being "just another brick" in. Which dangles a segue into Krazy Kat, but I'm running late.

And Tutor again, showing how to compress with clarity:

We lose the right, maybe, like loitering blacks in the old South, to be treated as harmless by the authorities until proven innocent. - The Happy Tutor

In January, 2011, Josh Lukin adds:

That's odd I found it perfectly intelligible and indeed familiar: June Jordan made a similar point several times. But she knew that Du Bois usually has a space in it, like Le Guin.

. . .

Ba-lue Mun-deii Ba-lues-Are

Trifles light as air.
"Carve Dat Possum"
by Sam Lucas
(with an assist from "Go Down, Moses")
(as performed by
Harry C. Browne & Peerless Quartet,
1917)
The possum meat am good to eat.
Carve him to the heart.
You'll always find him good and sweet.
Carve him to the heart.
My dog did bark and I went to see
Carve him to the heart.
And there was a possum up that tree.
Carve him to the heart.

I reached up for to pull him in.
Carve him to the heart.
The possum he begun to grin.
Carve him to the heart.
I carried him home and dressed him off.
Carve him to the heart.
I hung him that night in the frost.
Carve him to the heart.

The way to cook the possum sound:
Carve him to the heart.
First parboil him, then bake him brown.
Carve him to the heart.
Lay sweet potatoes in the pan.
Carve him to the heart.
The sweetest meat in all the land
Carve him to the heart.

Carve that possum,
Carve that possum, children.
Carve that possum,
Carve him to the heart.
Oh, carve that possum,
Carve that possum, children.
Carve that possum,
Carve him to the heart.

As environments grow harsher, biodiversity becomes chaff. It's winnowing time again. A good time to know one's species.

Couple years back, the Fantagraphics web site posted a recording of a Nixon-era on-stage interview with stogie-chompin' obscenity-tossin' 100%-pure-bitter Walt Kelly.

I recollect one moment in particular, when, after repeated attempts to get him to admit to harboring some last splinter of child-like wonder and hope, Kelly roared, "So what you're saying is I'm a fairy."

Having worked on Pinocchio, Kelly knew from fairies, so I guess we can take his word he wasn't one.

Me either. I'm more a Jiminy Cricket type, 'ceptin I remain one of those folks Jiminy bets don't believe that.

Riddle me, riddle me, rot-tot-tote.... Squirrels have been suggested as an avatar, but I feel no bond to the greedy beggars.

I admire the white bear, but my wagging jaws lack tenacity.

And The Man's best friend, like poor poopy Hitchens, uplifted from brick-dodging junkyard dog to yapping Corgi, I pity you. You can't beat them, so you join them. Once you join them, they beat you more. Now they beat in sport instead of in earnest, but still it's more.

Also "a deer in the headlights of history" I'm not. I'm not so decorative, nor so herbivorous, nor so ignorant of trucks.

Nor am I a pedigreed, primped, and tenured gerbil, exercising my wits against a bell and mirror and sleeping on a bed of shredded Marcus.

A scavenger of garbage, a hisser, a sulker, urbanized but un-urbanable....

When nuance becomes an established technique of sabotage, us quibblers feed the revolution only in the most literal sense. We try to play possum and find we're playing Shmoo.

But I got nowhere else to go, so still I go Pogo. It's what's for dinner.

Berkeley, California – Wien, Osterreich.
For Phil Cubeta.

Responses

I think it would fly as a rap: "I'm the real Walt Kelly / I really rock 'em / I'll shoot you dead / An' ya won't play possum" etc. - RQH

An old friend anonymously inquires:

But what about Daffy Duck?

"When have I last looked on the round dot eyes and the long wavering bodies of the little black ducks of the moon?"

Josh Lukin triangulates:

First time I read Swamp Thing 32, I cried for five days straight. But I would not have objected if anyone'd thought my lachrymosity had a different orientation.

Phil declines.

. . .

Soul on Ice

Josh Lukin told me someone at the MLA said prison writings are to contemporary America as slave narratives were to nineteenth-century America. I expressed skepticism. I mean, I wish it were true our two most distinctive national barbarities have enough in common but I don't believe the punitive system's raised anything close to abolitionist fervor yet. Unincarcerated people such as lit department academics will protest individual cases of injustice, but when it comes to extended indignation they prefer other issues.

But then I read this:

How things are with us asks about the state of our soul. We may not want to respond to such a question. We may doubt we have a life with enough radiance or enough despair to collect what senses are left to 'soul.' My reply: our soul is left in our sentences, if we can find ourselves there.
- Brett Bourbon, Finding a Replacement for the Soul:
Mind and Meaning in Literature and Philosophy
, 2004

Responses

Here is my soul. It's right here, in this sentence.

Jack Spicer, dead linguist, knows the feeling.

Josh Lukin wants more nuance in the set-ups:

What HBF said was (something like) that to study the contemporary U.S. while ignoring the institution, culture, and literature of incarceration was like studying the 19th-century U.S. and ignoring slavery. That statement protests against the current blindspots in our consciousness rather than making a claim that one would wish were true. He did speak of prison literature from Jack London on, noting that in their review of the 2,000-page 2006 Heath Anthology of American Literature, the NYT devoted a chunk of space to denouncing the fact that it contained 27 pages of prison lit.

I'd note that HBF and a few other people in the radical caucus (Bill Mullen comes to mind) are among the few academics in lit departments who do take issue with and publicly (to the extent that they have "public access") oppose/decry the carceral system as a whole, teaching prison literature *and* teaching prisoners all the time. Probably there are a few more such radicals in Horowitz's book. Manning Marable is very good on the issue as well, but is, I think, not a lit person.

I understand, but we differ as where the nuance should go. Ignoring contemporary incarceration is not like ignoring eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slavery insofar as that ignorance holds in the vast majority of literature classrooms (and the NYTBR, for that matter). The comparison's considerable rhetorical force comes from how it doesn't apply.

(More here.)

Kip Manley intuits correctly that my stupid joke was also triggered by the EXTRATERRITORIAL EXECUTION OF THE YEAR!. "So, y'know, I figure 'My country, right or wrong' will count as a preemptive plea bargain when the war crime trials start. Is that just me or what!?" [SILENCE] "Well, I wanna tell ya...."

LATER: Partly prompted by my rude burlesque, Josh has posted a fine summary of what sounds like a fine panel. See, rude burlesque can achieve great things! Indirectly.

. . .

Now with No Punchline!

A more exact way of putting the analogy would be "Ignoring the penal system now is like ignoring slavery then." Which is why in literary discussions (as distinguished from political, historical, or economic discussions), I've usually raised it when meeting questions like "How dast Jane Austen not protest the slave trade?" and "How could rakes maintain a class-based definition of rape?"

But don't I wish a contemporary "abolitionist" movement could grow the clout of more middle-class-ish interest groups? Don't I want future readers and viewers to regard us with Whiggish contempt? Of course.

Don't I think ear-catching statements in the prophetic declarative at the MLA make a good move in that direction? Beats me. I understand effective activism about as well as I understand the weather, or knitting.

Responses

Josh Lukin provides evidence that the answer to my final question should have been "Yes."

. . .

Hard-on in the Cathedral

Oh, I suppose I must realize having been told often enough that the music of late Beethoven and Schoenberg and Webern, like vermouth and Campari and orange bitters, were in some sense concocted to seem medicinal. But so help me Panurge I swear I consume them all with pure hedonistic intent, solely to wallow in flavors otherwise unattainable, and you can call my taste "academic" when you pry it from my cold dead tongue.

And so, alongside the usual populist reactions against Adorno, I have this: he mistakes erections for mortification of the flesh. (Literally so when he writes of Garbo.)

The task, I suppose, would be to learn to appreciate our mutual disdain as an otherwise unattainable flavor of its own. Is that how Benjamin coped?

Responses

Josh Lukin kindly answers my question:

Yeh, probably. When I or my roommate (in my second and third year of college) came home groaning, "Jesus. Jesusjesusjesus. Lord. Jesus," the other one of us would join the first in his frustration, saying much the same thing. For either to articulate the *source* of the frustration and despair would have risked turning commiseration into disagreement.

Sherlock Jr. corrected my spelling, but not before it led one reader on a fruitful web search:

Compari? --Oh!
All late Beethoven is, is music for grownups. But the music industry specifically, and people generally, don't want to grow up.

Really? In the world as I know it, between job(s) and commute and dealing with the kids, few grown-ups can spare enough time or focus to listen to late Beethoven.

All the grown-ups that surround me love Beethoven. They worship him and celebrate his birthday with huge festivities.

Plus the Great Pumpkin arrives night after next!

That well-read well-spoken gentleman atem cites:

"Had Mr. Hardy discovered the pernicious truth that whereas children can only take their powders in jam, the strenuous British public cannot be induced to devour their jam unless convinced that it contains some strange and nauseous powder?"

Havelock Ellis reviewing Jude the Obscure, 1896

. . .

Interviewer: I'm reminded of Casanova's famous expression that "the best moment of love is when one is climbing the stairs." One can hardly imagine a homosexual today making such a remark.

MF: Exactly. Rather, he would say something like, "the best moment of love is when the lover leaves in the taxi." [....] It is when the act is over and the boy is gone that one begins to dream about the warmth of his body, the quality of his smile, the tone of his voice. This is why the great homosexual writers of our culture (Cocteau, Genet, Burroughs) can write so elegantly about the sexual act itself, because the homosexual imagination is for the most part concerned with reminiscing about the act rather than anticipating it. And, as I said earlier, this is all due to very concrete and practical considerations and says nothing about the intrinsic nature of homosexuality.

- Michel Foucault, "Sexual Choice, Sexual Act."

Sex is a perfidious intellectual digression into physical reminiscences.

- Laura Riding, "The Damned Thing"

Plenty of homosexual men are goal-driven, and there's also the boy in the taxi to consider. And some women and heterosexual men are nostalgic sensualists; even so stereotypically straight a guy as Fellini detested Casanova.

Well, it's an interview; Foucault speaks loosely, drops a crumb from his pastry, it's easily brushed away, it's all due to very concrete and practical considerations. This is, in short, an uninteresting disagreement.

The main point, that some such contrast of sexual imagination can be found, I agree with. It's a thought I've often had, in words no more exact than Foucault's, thought and rethought till the shoddy material's gray and gummy with handling. Foucault gives no relief: his formulation lacks the secure snap that would let me stow the thought away and the crafted surface that would make it pleasant to take down again. Our mere coincidence of mind might be taken as reassuring, but really, even I'm not that emotionally needy.

Riding's formulation is nothing but snap. I can't say whether I agree or not acknowledgment seems the most liberty she'd permit but this I can predict: every time I morosely chew the reheated canned spinach of my and Foucault's thought, Riding's grain of grit will be there.

Responses

Josh Lukin:
Damn right Foucault speaks loosely, and it's disturbing how his highly experimental ideas and his most casual remarks have been solidified into dogmas.

Case in point: what the often-admirable Halperin and the pedagogically gifted Zizek have made of an offhand speculation or perhaps wisecrack of Foucault's on the subject of fisting. MF would offer some choice words on amateur philosophers.

Yeah for example, I'm pretty confident he could tear me a new one without much effort....

. . .

How I Am Not an Analytic Philospher

I find it surprising that you are so sweepingly dismissive of philosophy, as a discipline, frankly. Wittgenstein, Austin, Searle, Dennett, Putnam, Kripke, Davidson, lord knows I can rattle on if you get me started [...] it's all crap, or arid twiddling, you assume? You are, of course, entitled to your opinion. I'm not offended, or anything, but I'm a bit surprised. It's a fairly unusual attitude for someone to take, unless they are either 1) John Emerson; 2) strongly committed to continental philosophy, from which perspective all the analytic stuff looks crap; 3) opposed to interdisciplinarity, per se.
- John Holbo, in a comment thread
I have sometimes characterized the opposition between German-French philosophizing and English-American philosophizing by speaking of opposite myths of reading, remarking that the former thinks of itself as beginning by having read everything essential (Heidegger seems a clear case here) while the latter thinks of itself as beginning by having essentially read nothing (Wittgenstein seems a case here). [...] our ability to speak to one another as human beings should neither be faked nor be postponed by uncontested metaphysics, and [...] since the overcoming of the split within philosophy, and that between philosophy and what Hegel calls unphilosophy, is not to be anticipated, what we have to say to one another must be said in the meantime.
- Stanley Cavell, "In the Meantime"

I should acknowledge that John's question wasn't addressed to me. Also, that I'm no philosopher. I begin by having read a little, which makes me an essayist or, professionally speaking, an office worker who essays. I'm going to appropriate John's question, though, because some of the little I've read is philosophy and because essaying an answer may comb out some tangles.

Restricting myself to your menu of choices, John, I pick column 2, with a side of clarification: Although that menu may indicate a snob avoiding an unfashionable ingredient, it's as likely the chef developed an allergy and was forced to seek new dishes. I wasn't drawn to the colorful chokeberry shrubs of "continental tradition" (and then the interdisciplinary slap-and-tickle of the cognitive sciences) until after turning away from "philosophy, as a discipline." Before that turn, I was perfectly content to take Bertrand Russell's word on such quaint but perfidious nonsense.

In fact I came close to being an analytic philosopher or rather, given that I'd end up working in an office no matter what, being someone with a degree from an analytic philosophy department. On matriculation I wanted coursework which would prod my interest in abstract analysis, having made the (warranted) assumption that my literary interests needed no such prodding. The most obviously abstractly-analytical majors available to me were mathematics-from-anywhere or anglophilic Bryn Mawr's logic-heavy philosophy degree. As one might expect from a teenage hick, my eventual choice of math was based on surface impressions. The shabby mournfulness of Bryn Mawr's department head discouraged me, and, given access for the first time to disciplinary journals, I found an "ordinary language" denatured of everything that made language worth the study. In contrast, the Merz-like opacity of math journals seemed to promise an indefinitely extending vista of potentially humiliating peaks.

Having veered from Bryn Mawr's mainstream major, my detour into Haverford's eclectic, political, and theologically-engaged philosophy department was purely a matter of convenience one which, as conveniences sometimes do, forever corrupted. I left off the high path of truth: Abstract logic fit abstractions best: natural language brought all of (human) nature with it. As I wrote in email a few years ago, it seemed to me the tradition took a wrong turn by concentrating on certainty to the exclusion of that other philosophical problem: community.

* * *

I'd guess, though, that besides expressing curiosity your query's meant to tweak the answerer's conscience.

At any rate, it successfully tweaked mine. To paraphrase Hopsy Pike, a boy of eighteen is practically an idiot anyway; continuing to restrict one's options to what attracted him would be absurd.

I don't mean I'll finally obtain that Ph. B., any more than I ever became a continental completist. No, I just think my inner jiminy might be assuaged if I gathered some personal canon from the twentieth-century Anglo-American academic tradition.

Cavell, instantly simpatico, will likely be included, but one's not much of a canon. By hearsay Donald Davidson seemed a good risk, and recently a very kind and myriadminded friend lent me his immaculate copy of Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective.

Davidson's voice was likable, and I was glad to see him acknowledge that language is social. But I was sorry he needed to labor so to get to that point. And then as the same point was wheeled about and brought to the joust again and again, it began to dull and the old melancholy came upon me once more. Could these wannabe phantoms ever face the horrible truth that we're made of meat?

With perseverance I might have broken through that shallow reaction, but I didn't want to risk breaking the spine of my friend's book to do it. I put it aside.

And then, John, you tweaked my conscience again:

If you just want a reference to post-Wittgensteinian analytic philosophers who think language is a collective phenomenon and who are generally not solipsists, that's easy: post-Wittgensteinian analytic philosophy as a whole.

Because, of course, my shallow reaction to the Davidson sample might well be expressed as "My god, they're all still such solipsists."

* * *

I remember one other "Farewell to all that" in my intellectual life. At age eight, I gave up superhero comic books.

The rejection was well-timed. I'd experienced Ditko and Kirby at their best; I'd seen the Silver Surfer swoop through "how did he draw that?" backgrounds I didn't realize were collaged. After '67, it would've been downhill.

But eventually, in adulthood, I guilt-tripped back again.

With iffy results, I'm afraid. I greatly admire Alan Moore's ingenuity, but that's the extent of his impact. Jay Stephen's and Mike Allred's nostalgic takes are fun, but I preferred Sin and Grafik Muzik. Honestly, the DC / Marvel / Likewise product I look at most often is Elektra: Assassin, and I look at it exactly as I look at Will Elder.

No matter how justly administered, repeated conscience tweaking is likely to call forth a defensive reaction. And so, John, my bruised ignorance mutters that Moore showed far less callousness than Davidson regarding the existential status of swamp-duplicates Davidson talks as if the poor creature's not even in the room with us! and wonders if AAA philosophers' attention to collective pheonomena might not parallel attempts to bring "maturity" to superhero comics:

"We've got gay superheroes being beaten to death! We've got female superheroes getting raped! We've got Thor visiting post-Katrina New Orleans! How can you say we're not mature?"

Because immaturity is built into the genre's structure.

Similarly, whatever it is I'm interpreting as microcultural folly might be the communally-built structure of academic philosophy, and leaving that behind would mean leaving the discipline as, I understand, Cavell's sometimes thought to have left?

Well, Davidson I'll return to. In the meantime, I bought an immaculate Mind and World of my own to try out. After all, any generic boundaries feel arbitrary at first, and, fanboy or not, I still own some superhero comic books....

Responses

Peli:

1) Wilfrid Sellars 2) Grant Morrison [the set is "practitioners who turns the fault of their framing genre into merits by seriously thinking about why they embrace them allowing this understanding to shape their practice"]

John Holbo sends a helpful response:

Quick read before I get on the bus. That comment you quote is a bit unfortunate because, in context, I wasn't actually complaining about Bill not studying philosophy as a discipline. I was objecting to his claim that there was nothing interesting about post-Wittgensteinian Anglo-American philosophy. It has nothing to say about language or mind or any of the other topics that interest Bill. It isn't even worth giving an eclectic look in, to borrow from, in an interdisciplinary spirit. Bill is an interdisciplinarian who makes a point of steering around the philosophy department - not even giving a look-in - when it comes to language, intentionality and mind. I find that combination of attitudes perverse. So rather than saying 'opposed to the discipline' - hell, I'M opposed to analytic philosophy as a discipline (how not?) - I should have typed: 'convinced that it is a giant lump of crap that does not even contain a few 14k bits of goldishness'. Bill and I were arguing about whether there might not be bright spots in post war Anglo-American philosophy. I said yes. He said he assumed not. (He assumes it must all just be solipsism, ergo not helpful.)

Another point. "Could these wannabe phantoms ever face the horrible truth that we're made of meat?" I think it's a wrong reading of various fussy, repetitive approaches to materialism and mind to assume that people are shuffling their feet because they are FEARFUL of letting go of, maybe, the ghost in the machine. Rather, they are caught up in various scholastic debates and are hunched down, porcupine-wise. They are anticipating numerous attacks, serious and foolish, pettifogging and precise. In Davidson's case it's always this dance with Quine and empiricism. (I could write you a song.) But shying away from the very idea that we're made of meat isn't it, spiritually speaking. This lot are fearless enough, at least where positions in philosophy of mind are concerned. They're just fussy. (Not that waddling along like a porcupine is any great shakes, probably. But it isn't exactly a fear reaction. It's the embodiment of an intellectual strategy.)

Is that a porcupine or a hedgehog, then.

Reckon it depends on whether you're American or Anglo.

I wish this was the conclusion of a review of The Gay Science, but it's just the conclusion of a review of In Kant's Wake: Philosophy in the Twentieth Century:

In the 100-year struggle for a philosophical place in the sun, analytic philosophy simply won out by the end of the twentieth century it was the dominant and normal style of philosophy pursued in the most prestigious departments of philosophy at the richest and most celebrated universities in the most economically and politically powerful countries in the world. [However] In Kant's Wake shows that there are some serious unresolved issues about the history of twentieth-century philosophy that every serious contemporary philosopher should be seriously interested in.

Always a pleasure to hear from Josh Lukin, here responding to Peli's comment:

Yeh, that's what's interesting about Morrison, for those of us who believe he succeeds at what he sets out to do: his self-reflexive attitude toward trotting out the Nietzsche and the Shelley and the Shakespeare to justify some old costumed claptrap. My clumsy undergraduate piece about that, "Childish Things: Guilt and Nostalgia in the Work of Grant Morrison," showed up in Comics Journal #176 and is cited here with more respect than it deserves.

Looking at comics with a maturity/immaturity axis in mind is great at explaining why Miller's Eighties work is more successful than Watchmen; but it has its limits, not least of which being that we've been down this road before in the superhero stories of Sturgeon, in PKD's (and H. Bruce Franklin's) critique of Heinlein, in Superduperman [find your own damn explanatory link, Ray [anyone who needs an explanatory link to Superduperman probably stopped reading me a long time ago. - RD]], etc. Like David Fiore, I find the Carlyle/Emerson axis (which, come to think of it, has its parallels in Heinlein vs. Sturgeon) to be more fruitful: are we talking fascist superhero stories or Enlightenment superhero stories and, if the former, does the aesthetic appeal of the fascist sublime outweigh the ethical horror?

. . .

Reference Work, 4

Ah ha, I can hear you saying, well I can tear the heart out of this pretty damned easily, I can smell its derivations from a mile away, in fact I need only open the book at random to find just what I want, just the right food for my article: I do not feel you have made the slightest critical effort to grapple with its form or its intentions. What you have actually succeeded in doing is to injure a fellow who feels himself to be a kindred spirit.
- Malcolm Lowry to Jacques Barzun, May 6, 1947
I have always been grateful to him for the tact he showed in refraining from reviewing any of my novels. We have had many exhilarating talks, have exchanged many frank letters. [...] In the present case, however, things have gone a little too far.
- Vladimir Nabokov to NYRB, August 26, 1965

Readers of our previous episode may have noticed that superhero comics aren't the only serialized genre with a weakness for apocalyptic conclusions.

And also that I never quite settled its central question. After all, my posited clash-of-values clashes high and low alike. Why should the low take special umbrage?

And Mister Wimpy is the referee
Our Hero

The answer's Purloined-Newspaper close at hand. Inveighing much more loudly than society painters or classical musicians, critics and teachers have traditionally raised the hackles who later come home to roost. To quote the powerful formula of the critic's mooching, pretentious, and despised name saint, "Let's you and him fight."

Nor was this the first time I might have found occasion to mention our own dear form. The "downward turn" marks the serious review as well as the serious novel it almost defines the subgenre.

What completely defines the entire genre is our naked dependency on reference. We obtain the product of someone else's hard work, usually for free, and then as our own hard work read, hear, or view it. From such moral low ground it's absurd for a TV critic to insult a novelist's interest in comic books or for a jazz critic to protest cultural "appropriation" and yet the pot still calls the kettle a minstrel show.

Working artists may feel ripped off by extra-generic not-quite-peers who haven't paid their dues, and peacemakers like Campbell and Lethem reasonably argue that the apparent deadbeat may well be paying dues to a different union. But opinions cost nothing. What respect is due the pure parasite?

Near-universally, the answer is zilch. I could cite Lou Reed on John Rockwell and Robert Christgau, but more subtly Eddie Campbell cites R G Collingwood:

Let all such artists as understand one another, therefore, plagiarize each other's work like men. Let each borrow his friends' best ideas, and try to improve on them. If A thinks himself a better poet than B, let him stop hinting it in the pages of an essay; let him re-write B's poems and publish his own improved version. If X is dissatisfied with Y's this-year Academy picture, let him paint one caricaturing it....

Clearly there's no place for critics in this practitioners' paradise but I can't help but add that philosophers would be banished as well: If R G C doesn't believe professional photographer N should protect all possible sources of income and credit, let him stop advising it from the pages of a book; let him open a studio and lead by example.

Greatest of sinners, we're distinguished only by the blatancy of our sinning. As Lethem and Campbell say, all art is referential art. Even when aesthetic experience is more "contrast" than "compare", it manifests against a web of associations.

And performing against that web we project similar illusions. Mainstream fiction writers aren't sensitive to every nuance of human nature, mystery writers can't track down criminals, and literary critics don't approach their prey with intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic. When we encounter such misconceptions among our readers we may be taken aback, but they arise naturally from formal demands. Certain narrative effects require trust and so a storyteller doesn't (usually) push against the audience's idea of plausibility. Similarly when our goal is to build a discursive structure we need only evidence enough to fasten the joints, and ignorance itself may find utility as a (hidden) dado.

Some of us exult in fraudulence as a windfall; some accept it as a mutually understood rule of the game, not worth further comment; some blazon our bad conscience on our pennons. "I find myself speaking about my adoption everywhere I go in this world."

* * *

Here we go, then:

I don't read much contemporary mainstream fiction.

Partly that's because I don't like much. Too often it tastes like watered-down soup, promising only an occasional fly. I've always been ungenerous and impatient towards DeLillo, for example, and I've got no interest in Franzen despite his being right about Peanuts.

Partly it's lack of urgency. At the moment I have easier access to exorbitantly priced academic publications than I ever expect again. Little magazines, comic books, and pulp fiction instantly drop out of print and out of sight. Whereas, much as I look forward to Chabon's big novels, I know I'll be able to find them later: few public libraries skimp on Pulitzer winners.

And I don't read for the sake of conversation, or at least not that sort of conversation: I care no more about the New York Times bestseller list than I do about the Super Bowl.

Although of course if I had a friend on a Super Bowl team I'd be very pleased for him, and maybe even inquire after the score....

The friend, in this case, being Jonathan Lethem.

We're not especially old or intimate friends no anecdotes of sex behind the drum kit and my position's not unique: Jonathan's at ease in a wide range of social settings, and dozens of people can claim closer acquaintance.

Instead it's been a familiar sort of intellectual friendship "a warm affection sometimes [invigorated] by exasperation." We approach very similar tastes and ideas with very different impulses from very different departure points. In particular, we share (and argue over) a stubborn antagonism to genre boundaries: I first met Jonathan while he was making his name as a writer of sf stories, but I first admired him as the editor of an artsy zine called Idiot Tooth.

As I gave up trying to write fiction and as Jonathan more often performed man-of-letters chores, a greater portion of our conversation took place in public, most concentratedly in what he called our Spy vs. Spy act for the New York Review of Science Fiction. In a way, this continues the act. But in another way....

* * *

In another way, I need to confess one more lie of omission, right at the beginning. It wasn't only the pressure of my day job that kept this essay unfinished in 2005 and 2006 and earlier this year. It was disgust at what the essay promised to become.

I write to gossip about artifacts, not about their authors. I've rarely felt conflicted when mentioning people I know. Just switching from first name to last is enough to do the trick.

Here, though, following Leonard's lead, I'd be dealing with some general issues but restricting specifics to Lethem's career that is, I'd use him as a very convenient whipping boy.

"Now look, Ray, when you found yourself with that book in your hand, what did you think about? Could it have been... 'consumption for use'?"

That's a poor reward for friendship. When Yvor Winters and Allen Tate publicly attacked The Bridge, they don't seem like courageous upholders of poetic standards. They seem like opportunistic back-stabbing creeps.

I can't say I escape a similar charge. But since I found myself unable, finally, to avoid setting up this ambush, I'm glad at least to be caught in the same crossfire. What else are friends for?

Responses

Josh Lukin writes:

"What respect is due the pure parasite?" I'm sorry to bring it up again, but that question reminded me of my feeling that this is somehow the exemplar of its genre (Farber would appreciate it, IMO).

If Ansible only had an "As We See Others" column . . .

"and yet the pot still calls the kettle a minstrel show." -- I know you don't aim for targets this low, but you have inadvertantly devised the perfect put-down for Mister Sasha Frere-Jones.

. . .

Curses!

Everywhere the special must be reduced to the personal and the personal to the substantial. The transformation of the species into a principle of identity and classification is the original sin of our culture, its most implacable apparatus [dispositivo]. Something is personalized is referred to as an identity at the cost of sacrificing its specialness. A being a face, a gesture, an event is special when, without resembling any other, it resembles all the others. Special being is delightful, because it offers itself eminently to common use, but it cannot be an object of personal property. But neither use nor enjoyment is possible with the personal; there can only be appropriation and jealousy.

The jealous confuse the special with the personal; the brutal confuse the personal with the special. The jeune fille is jealous of herself. The model wife brutalizes herself.

- Giorgio Agamben, "Special Being", Profanations

I kept that bit of Profanations because it fit some recent concerns of my own, but it's a fair sample. Agamben thinks in generalities, a long choo-choo of astractions loosely coupled. The closest he gets to cases is his feminine taxonomy, which I find not immediately graspable. (Maybe I'm not cool enough to have met that jeune fille.)

Otherwise, so long as he stays depressing, I can stretch to deposit concrete sense into his language. I can't be certain that the sense matches his or stays consistent on its own terms, but at least my reading doesn't quite collapse into "Words entail words only to encounter words." As with The Coming Community, I'm not thrown off until the puffabilly turns towards hope.

Agamben writes that our culture has replaced use value and labor value by exhibition value, has degraded everything sacred-or-secular to the bargain-basement level of throwaway-for-next-season's toys, and has made even profanation an empty gesture of nostalgia. But then, just when I expect him to join our House of Representatives in its War against the War on Christmas, he meta-emptily meta-nostalgically suggests as a next step that we find some way to start profaning again. Isn't that building castles in the sulfur dioxide?

Responses

By the "special," Agamben quite possibly means the literary, and that only makes us miss its presence, confronted with his offensive Hegelian versions of feminine suffering.

I belong to the Special People Club!

The profane is freed of sulfuric taint in the refining process.

Josh Lukin explains:

The passage makes a lot of sense if you've studied the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, and even more if you haven't read anything since that year.

. . .

"Trying to Say Something True"

With the kind permission and assistance of Josh Lukin, his "Paradoxa Interview with Chandler Davis" is now available in the Repress.

. . .

Kick him when you're down

Since I know some readers share my interest in the sub-subgenre of academic endnotes, I'd like to share the belated highlight of Lee Zimmerman's "Against Depression: Final Knowledge in Styron, Mairs, and Solomon", Biography 30.4 (2007):

17. Noonday Demon's website www.noondaydemon.com/biography announces it "has won . . . fourteen national awards, including the 2001 National Book Award, and is being published in 22 languages. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It has been on the New York Times bestseller list in both hardback and paperback; it has also been a bestseller in seven foreign countries. Among the honors garnered by The Noonday Demon are the Books for a Better Life Award, the Ken Award of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the QPB New Visions Award, the Voice of Mental Health award of the Jed Foundation and the National Mental Health Association, the Lammy for the best nonfiction of 2001, the Mind Book of the Year for Great Britain, the Prism Award of the NDMDA, the Charles T. Rubey LOSS award, the Silvano Arieti Award, the Dede Hirsch Community Service Award, and the Erasing The Stigma Leadership Award. It was chosen an American Library Association Notable Book of 2001 and a New York Times Notable Book. . . . Mr. Solomon has lectured on depression around the world, including recent stints at Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, and the Library of Congress." The collection of those offering high praise in book-jacket blurbs is especially high-powered: Styron, Harold Bloom, Louise Erdrich, Larry McMurtry, Naomi Wolf, Adam Gopnik, and Kay Redfield Jamison.

18. The book's claim to mastery has been widely accepted. In a New York Times book review, Richard Bernstein writes: "'The Noonday Demon' is one of those rare volumes that deserve the adjective 'definitive.'"

19. See, for example, works by J. B. Harley and by Jeremy Black.

20. It is tempting to regard this infliction upon the reader in light of what Solomon calls his "several episodes of violence" against other people (179). In one such episode, feeling "cruelly betrayed" by someone he "loved very much," Solomon "attacked him . . . threw him against a wall, and socked him repeatedly, breaking both his jaw and his nose. He was later hospitalized for loss of blood."

21. In considering Solomon's representation of antidepressant medication, I should make mention of an unusual circumstance that Solomon only hints at. He does acknowledge that "It is hard for me to write without bias about the pharmaceutical companies because my father has worked in the pharmaceutical field for most of my adult life," and that "His company, Forest Laboratories, is now the U.S. distributor of Celexa" (13). But such cautious phrasing omits significant information that would seem to bear on the question of possible "bias." Since 1977, Howard Solomon has been the CEO, and since 1998 the CEO and Chairman, of Forest Labs, and according to Business Week in May 2002, "since its U.S. launch in September, 1998, Celexa has come to account for almost 70% of Forest's overall sales about $1.6 billion in the fiscal year that ended on Mar. 31" (Berfield 74). (Forest now also produces another major antidepressant, Lexapro.) For 2005, the Forbes list of the most highly paid CEOs of American companies ranks him as fourth, with a compensation for that year of $92,115,000; for the five-year period ending that year, his compensation is listed as $294,895,000 ("Executive Pay").

(Should anyone now be nervously eyeing their melancholic loved ones, please be assured that bloody fisticuffs are not a typical symptom of depression although, as I recall, fury is a side-effect of some antidepressants....)

Responses

Well, it takes all kinds of affective disorders. Solomon sounds bipolar; I started on Lexapro to treat my own anxiety and found that it helped a little but was really effective in mitigating my anger problem. At least for the first twenty-two hours after my daily pill . . .

Dr. Josh Lukin cites:

Celebrity right-wing psychiatrist Paul McHugh, reviewing The Noonday Demon in Commentary, singled that passage out as exemplary of what's amiss in Solomon's thinking:
In one scene of this book, Solomon describes, and excuses, a vicious assault on one of his homosexual partners in which he broke the man's nose and jaw and sent him to the hospital in need of blood transfusions. Some of the physical sensations he felt as he delivered his bone-crushing blows were, he freely admits, pleasurable. More: even today, "part of me does not rue what happened, because I sincerely believe that [without it] I would have gone irretrievable crazy." And a bit later, he adds: "Engaging in violent acts is not a good way to treat depression. It is, however, effective. To deny the inbred curative power of violence would be a terrible mistake."

At least one admiring reviewer of The Noonday Demon paused to point out that these statements might appear to justify acts that were, well, criminal. They certainly do that, not to mention that they conjure up images of brownshirt thuggery. But they also happen to flow naturally from Solomon's conception of depression less as an illness than as a stage on which to enact a heroic drama of the self.

Sontag, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

Hey, when is it not a good time for Sontag to be living?

. . .

True Enough

The Social Misconstruction of Reality by Richard F. Hamilton, 1996

Hamilton gives us a polemic and a series of debunkings which ascend from trivial observation to war-cry:

  1. Wellington cared nothing for the playing fields of Eton.
  2. Mozart didn't die neglected and rejected.
  3. Weber couldn't connect Calvinism to capitalism.
  4. Hitler wasn't elected into power by benighted shopkeepers.
  5. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault lied! lied! lied!

Debunkings are always fun, don't you think? And since sociologists, like economists, advertise empirically-derived generalizations while under unrelenting pressure to justify policies which benefit specific parties, I'm sure the debunkers among them will continue to feel both vitally necessary and desperately beleaguered.

The polemic's more problematic. Hamilton wants to fix the social sciences and humanities. His diagnosis is gullibility; his posited causes are group-think and authority worship; his posited cure is individual contrariness.

Hamilton nets most of his gulls from journalism (particularly book reviews), introductory textbooks (particularly sociology), and interdisciplinary citations. Within the errors' overlapping discipline of history, only once did Hamilton himself blow the first whistle, and that was a case of simultaneous discovery. As corrective scholarship goes, the record compares well to "harder" sciences: physics theories can be elaborated for decades before finding confirmatory evidence, and the social impact of slanted pharmaceutical papers dwarfs any of Hamilton's examples.

Regarding journalism, anyone appalled by reviews lauding Weber's or Foucault's "meticulous" research must not have opened many "poetic," "masterful," or "shattering" novels or examined the similarly meticulous research of popular science writers. And I don't know from introductory textbooks. So let's move on to the interdisciplinary mash-ups of philosophy and literary studies and so forth.

Now, I grant that an abstract argument founded on a false premise, although possibly charming in other ways, won't advance the great Sherman's March of scientific knowledge. But the equivalence of citations with logical premises is itself an assumption in need of examination.

As empirical ice-breaker, I took the top hundred returns from a Project MUSE search for "Foucault" and "Discipline and Punish," along with a dozen or so Google Book results and a few examples from my general reading over the past few months. In that sample I noticed only one argument which would have been invalidated by refuting Foucault. The vast majority of citations either occurred in studies of Foucault himself (a filter which would catch Hamilton as well) or were... well, here are some examples:

For actor-network theory is all about power power as a (concealed or misrepresented) effect, rather than power as a set of causes. Here it is close to Foucault, but it is not simply Foucauldian for, eschewing the synchronic, it tells empirical stories about processes of translation.
Discipline and Punish thus suggests a principle that can be seen to underlie many recent studies of early modern disciplinary power: "bad" discipline drives out "good." I want to ask whether it should or must, whether a more positive view of discipline can be successfully defended. My test-case is a lyric poem, George Herbert's "Discipline."
In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of The Prison, Foucault describes four basic techniques of discipline, all of which are exemplified in Lowry's novel and, to varying degrees, in the other dystopian novels as well.
The institutional, patriarchal discipline that serves as the dominant force in Auster's fiction is largely identical to that described by Michel Foucault.
This makes Foucault's view of the professions as groups of pious experts devoted subconsciously to the establishment of narratives of knowledge, or "regimes of truth," for the propagation of their own power an intriguing line of investigation for those who are fascinated by the historic controlling and detached image of the librarian and by the discursive knowledge base of librarianship.
What we see here is a shift from the spectacular to the scopic, and the scopic gaze of surveillance is that of an anonymous "white stenographer," a gaze that is stamped by the phallic authority of whiteness as it arrests the black body in its divestiture. The scene suggests the emergence of a regime of discipline with a far more generalized and anonymous system of surveillance that does not draw attention to itself as spectacular.
What the reformers likely called the Fear of God may have seemed more like the Fear of the State to Foucault. Hawthorne, too, was wary of the state's power and skeptical about relying on its judgments for enforcing morality.
In understanding the power relations manifested in the parades of revolutionary Zanzibar, Foucault offers valuable insights.
Huckleberry Finn even more radically views subjectivity as enthrallment to convention and habit.
Jane [Eyre]'s first description of John Reed's abusive behaviour and of her reaction to his tyranny sets a pattern that continues throughout the novel and that exemplifies the responses to tyranny outlined by Foucault.

An intriguing subcategory argues against Foucault-citers in ways that parallel arguments against Foucault's own work:

A thorough empirical critique of this simplistic and mistaken application of the Panopticon metaphor to the call centre labour process will form the latter part of this article....
... even if one grants that panopticism may apply to the power relations represented within fictional worlds no less than to those enacted in the real world, serious problems are raised by its application to the formal relations that pertain between novelistic narrators and fictional characters.

And a few citers rival Foucault himself in the audacity of their applications:

Thus, Foucault shows us (1) that an emphasis on self-discipline and ritual conduct does not imply a lack of freedom in and of itself and (2) that self-discipline and ritual conduct can actually be used as the basis for practicing freedom deliberately, as was the case among the ancient Greeks and Romans. Similarly, Confucian codes of self-discipline and ritual behavior can become the basis for the active, participatory practices of the citizens of a modern society.

While reading Djuna Barnes' Consuming Fictions by Diane Warren, I encounter the sentence:

In effect, the rather random operation of censorship in the twenties effectively endowed critics with a kind of panoptic power, which could at any time lead to the invocation of the law.

And I look down to find an indisputable footnote:

The ever-present possibility of being watched, and the consequences that this has in terms of self-censorship have been theorised by Foucault (see Discipline and Punish).

Warren pretends no interest in the history of penology, and she introduces no "kind of" logical dependency between claims about censorship and claims about prison reform. What work's being performed here?

Nothing equivalent to technical vocabularies, which condense clearly agreed upon definitions. In the humanities, popular brands become stretched and baggy from overuse, and restoring them to bear a full load of meaning requires redefinition within the essay or book itself in which case no labor's been saved by their deployment. For instance, Michael Wheeler's Reconstructing the Cognitive World headlines a battle between Descartes and Heidegger, but then needs to explicate both philosophers in such elaborate detail that their names obscure the cognitive science he means to illuminate.

However, not all disciplines trade in generalizations about common nouns. Disciplines of particulars and proper names boast, if anything, a longer and more continuous history, reaching from Alexandria to the establishment and expansion of vernacular canons. What determines "scholarly value" within such disciplines isn't a correlative graph carefully sculpted from a half-hour test taken by twenty undergraduates for ten bucks each, but the prominent deployment of citations. The marking patterns of scholarship emerge from the talk of scholars, and this particular habit has nothing to do with detached analysis and everything to do with conversation: we begin each interjection with "Speaking of which..." or risk rudeness.

(Of course, political institutions which stabilize power imbalances may quickly make "politeness" indistinguishable from "coercion" and "obedience". See Bourdieu, Homo Academicus; Foucault, Discipline and Punish.)

In these examples, the citation is analogical and the cited author or text serves as a totum pro parte for some generality, or even some mood. Rather than a logical premise, it's an association, a hook, an inspiration, or an excuse. At its best, the arbitrary authority primes the essayist to genuinely novel insights. The middling browbeaten formula goes "I found this and was able to come up with something vaguely reminiscent in X." At its worst, "I went looking for something that would remind me of X and I found it," justifying pages of fond X reminiscence by one utterly unrewarding sentence's worth of application.

The pattern holds in primary sources as in secondary scholarship or, to put it another way, primary sources in one context (Foucault studies, say) began as secondary sources in another context. Freud's blunder about Leonardo's bird was a bit embarrassing, but a mistake holds only a little less truth value than references to fictions like "Hamlet" and "Oedipus Rex." And in fact, the original whistle-blower, back in the January 1923 issue of The Burlington Magazine, also complained about Freud using Dmitri Merejkowski's Romance of Leonardo Da Vinci. To which the editor responded:

[Freud] says: "This deduction of the psychological writer of romances is not capable of proof, but it can lay claim to so many inner probabilities, it agrees so well with everything we know besides about Leonardo's emotional activity that I cannot refrain from accepting it as correct." He gives his reasons for doing so very clearly. Mr. Maclagan plainly states that Freud did not even pretend to have any data beyond "the unsupported guess of a popular novelist." Freud refers to Merijkowski on other occasions as an example of how an imaginative writer may sometimes illuminate matters that remain obscure to the merely exact investigator. We have all experienced the truth of that.

Seventy-seven years later, references to Freud himself would be defended on similar grounds:

... his work loses little if some of his sources are doubtful, and if not every single hypothesis proves to be fertile. It is self evident that, after almost ninety years, most of Freud's answers should have been refuted. But the potential of his questions is not exhausted. He himself predicted that his essay would primarily be understood as "merely... a psychoanalytic novel," but he also guessed that it "was especially pleasing to a few knowledgeable people". Perhaps they understood that it was these poetic overtones that were able to direct art analysis away from dull scholarliness and away from emotionalist reveries.

In other words, Freud could have justified his ideas with any made-up shit and have achieved the same results. However, it's particularly helpful to invoke someone else's made-up shit to find a third party to interrupt, to incite, to provide some friction and spark in what might otherwise become a rather dull cocooning of the author-and-topic couple. The historical fiction of Leonardo worked as a hooky and ambiguously encouraging pretense for fantasy (which, appropriately enough, stabilized narcissism's role in Freudianism). And once Freud himself becomes primary cultural material, his historical errors matter almost as little as Shakespeare's.

(Although again ethics turn foggier and darker as we move outside a text-delimited community of equals to, say, the business of health care. See Foucault, Madness and Civilization. But let's leave that for another day; here I strive to understand the text-delimited community of equals.)

Since the history of referential scholarship is necessarily one of accumulation and fashion, reductionist threats of a firm theoretical foundation will always fall flat. For a long while after Discipline and Punish, most academics who wanted to talk about internally imposed constraints felt compelled to mention Foucault, if only so reviewers wouldn't criticize them for not knowing Foucault. At other times, the super-ego or false consciousness or the Harper Valley PTA might special-guest-star with very little modification to the central plot line. Some citations take the low common ground of a Nike T-shirt, while others are worn with the fervor of a team jersey during the World Cup. In the first edition of Factual Fictions, Lennard J. Davis namedropped Foucault as enthusiastically as a cafeteria chef shaking canned parmesan over a dish to make it "Italian."

There's a bit more to academic truth-value than just lack of rigor, though. The "scientific" heroism of Freud (and Foucault, and Nietzsche, and so on) didn't include careful transcription of sources, painstaking replication of results, or double-checked blind studies, but it did require expressing engaging and potentially unpleasant thoughts applicable across a range of enduringly interesting problems. Which is to say such humanities scholarship can be "true" or "false" somewhat as a novel or poem is true or false, with a truth-value that's utilitarian and context-dependent. The utilitarian side shows naked when defenders mock the barrenness of debunkers' "ideas": a flourishing brood of citations in itself proves the scholastic validity of the cited source.

Returning to the out-and-out errors reported by Hamilton, their longevity may spring from a few enduring mysteries:

  1. Why has an abomination like Eton not been razed to the ground?
  2. It sucks that we can't buy Mozart a beer.
  3. The New Testament condemns greed as straightforwardly as it does anything, and yet most European and North American plutocrats are Protestant. And they rule the world!
  4. Hitler's father was a civil servant and Goebbel's a factory clerk and Weimar Germany was a democracy, but normal people don't do such things.
  5. Despite the work of reformers, prisons don't seem particularly humane. Also, even though I've left home I feel kinda constrained instead of all liberated and shit.

The simplest explanations will probably remain the most stable in the face of argument. To take the three cases which exercise Hamilton most:

  1. Most people are hypocrites. And just wait a while.
  2. A representative electoral government can magnify minute shifts of popular advantage into unthinkably extreme results.
  3. Ethics, law, and the administration of justice are incoherent, shifting, and therefore inevitably clashing systems. Also, welcome to adulthood.

Unshakable though they might be, none of these snappy answers satisfy our perplexity. There must be more to it than that. A residue of an urge to explain will remain, and will be met by one plausible story or/and another.

But if I don't quite share Hamilton's high-colonic ideals, neither would I welcome the erasure of all distinctions between "Hamlet" as produced on Gilligan's Island and "Hamlet" as described by Stephen Greenblatt. The pretenses of a genre don't have to be air-tight (or thoroughly sincere) to be productive; the inevitable constructions of sociability and the "social misconstruction of reality" overlap but aren't identical. And there are other measures of scholarly worth besides citation volume Michael Baxandall, for example, seems worth emulating despite his low production of forever footnotable trademarks.

Moreover, quasi-refutations of quasi-premises hold their own context-sensitive utilitarian value. For example, as satisfying and useful as attacks on the fascistic aspects of your parents' milieu were if your middle-class youth occurred in 1950s or 1960s Western Europe, in the post-Vietnam United States it might have been wiser to recall that most of Hitler's support came from the wealthy and from rural Protestants, and that religion determined votes more reliably than economic class.

To my non-academic eye, any harm done by Discipline and Punish hasn't been to historiography but to the ability of non-historians to keep track of the world surrounding them, a bit closer every day. For the sheer directness of its display, I'll perhaps unfairly single out Janet Holtman's "Documentary Prison Films and the Production of Disciplinary Institutional 'Truth'," published in 2002 in Virginia, which pits Foucault, Deleuze, Jameson, and Bourdieu against all of two actual films: The Farm: Angola USA, which "merely acts as another social scientific node by which the disciplinary power of the prison functions," and Titicut Follies, which "may number among the many 'odd term[s] in relations of power... inscribed in the latter as an irreducible opposite.'"

As mentioned above, and for perhaps obvious reasons, the documentary prison film is a type of discourse that seems to offer particularly interesting possibilities for analysis in terms of Foucault's theories. It is perhaps here that one might look to find a discursive formation whose effects are clearly recognizable on Foucauldian terms; an analysis of this particular cultural production as a type of truth-production may evidence the ways in which filmic discourses perpetuate humanist values such as the movement toward prison reform, the continuation of the social construction of subjectivities such as "the delinquent," and the normalization and implementation of some of the social scientific technologies of discipline that Foucault describes, such as the examination and the case study. A key question here, in other words, is "what do documentary prison films do?"

A more pressing question here and now, I would think, is "what are prisons doing?" In this regard, recent anti-humanist academics fought an enemy that in most parts of the world (notably the USA) had already been thoroughly defeated by a common foe. It's wonderful that Foucault gave us a new way to talk about repression in a relatively comfortable material position which permits extraordinarily free movement and speech, but not insofar as that's distracted us from H. Bruce Franklin.

Responses

Josh Lukin:

H. Bruce Franklin has had extraordinarily free movement and speech, just not simultaneously. Back when he became the first tenured professor to be fired from Stanford for reasons other than moral turpitude, he lacked free speech; now that he's more safely tenured, he lacks free movement on accounta he's ol' (Possibly on a no-fly list too, with a history like his).

Peli Grietzer:

As for academic style, I think being an academic is a lot like being in a band that's trying to make commercially viable music (pardon if I drop the obligatory 'only not cool' etc.).

Oh, and -- I've this months for the first time really read Foucault more than in passing, and man, he can fake sources all he wants for all I care, the man is an analytic dynamo.

And Josh adds for very good measure:

Most of the first dozen uses of Foucault you quote are refreshing in their clarity and restraint: "Here's a nifty correspondence" generally beats Jamesonian or Bloomish grandiosity in my book. But you've persuaded me by the end that U.S. academics, with a few exceptions, are doing something, mutatis mutandis, like what James Holstun calls the fate of European philosophers whose "work has had a more productive history in Europe and Britain, where it actively engaged a lively humanist marxist tradition, than in the United States, where it rather quickly assimilated itself to regnant anticommunist ideologies." In the case of Foucault, himself an anticommunist, I guess you'd substitute something like "gay activist circles" for Europe and Britain and "the broader intellectual public sphere" for the United States. See, notwithstanding Halperin's fine demolition of it, Protocols of the Learned Elders of Sodom casts a shadow over every public discussion of Foucault, from the Right and the Left (Rée's "defense" of Foucault is about as helpful as Shaw's of Wilde or Struwwelpeter's of racial equality). Studying Seventies Foucault is fine, and a heartening number of cultural historians and literary scholars have made good use of his ideas without turning his highly experimental propositions into dogmas; but a look at, say, Chapter 16 of the Eribon biography shows Foucault spending two or three years doing work not only worthy of H. Bruce Franklin but being a kind of amalgam of Franklin, Bruce Jackson, and Clifford Levy: why doesn't "Foucauldian" connote work like what MF did in the Groupe d'Information sur les Prisons? Part of the answer, I fear, has to do with the replacement of the activist philosopher with the bogeyman Foucault Jim Miller's book gave us.

Juliet Clark noted that Holtman sets Titicut Follies inside a "Correctional Institution" without mentioning that it was a state hospital for the criminally insane, which lent at least a bit of surface plausibility to the censors' concerns about inmate privacy. (See Robson & Lewton, Bedlam,RKO, 1946.) The omission seems strange in an article so avowedly Foucauldian.

That voice on the phone

I have been remiss in not yet mentioning that this piece was guest-posted at the Valve (thanks, SEK) and will be reprinted in the next issue of J Bloglandia (thanks, Ginger).

. . .

More gossip about strangers

Increasingly I wonder if we wouldn't do better without biography. Of course we want to know other people's stories and to roll around in distant tragedy, but the pairing of talent and life too often suffers from banal, received assumptions based on ghastly popular psychology.... Perhaps it should be left to fiction to worry about why and how, because fiction has the possibility and the freedom to be original in a way that dogged biography doesn't.
- Jenny Diski, review of Nina Simone: The Biography

Good luck with that. So far in 2009, the London Review of Books has published more than forty reviews (summaries, retellings) of biographies, memoirs, diaries, and letters; this issue alone considers three biographies and a memoir. Even when the reviewer's not handed a biography, one may be given to us.

I read these pieces, of course; how else would I have encountered Diski's lament? (For that matter I just finished reading an 1100-page scrapbook of literary gossip very thinly disguised as a scholarly book about the birth of literary gossip.) Is it to my credit that I don't read the books themselves? Certainly it's to LRB's credit that its retellings tend to provide such a refreshing crunch and such easily compostable cores. "Nothing too taxing, but interesting enough to last to the end of the pint before someone starts the next story."

And if we can't avoid swallowing a bit of the delusion that we've learned something and a bit of the poisoned pseudo-intimacy of celebrity, if the tales aren't as blood-clearingly wholesome as those of Kharms or Kafka, if they don't completely escape the received assumptions and ghastly popular psychology that monopolize contemporary short stories and novels, still from these snatched anecdotes and curt demurrals we absorb at least a trace of the irreducible arbitrary. Enough to scrape by. As Silenus advised Plutarch, "Best to have no biographies at all, but second best keep them short."

Responses

and I can't for the life of me fathom autobiography

Josh Lukin writes:

Delmore Schwartz, whose great strength as an essayist was metacriticism, enabled me to appreciate Bunny Wilson by pointing out that Wilson never writes about the literariness of literature or the politicality of politics but is in essence a yente journalist, writing gossipy profiles of interesting authors. With the armor of this perspective riveted firmly on (sorry—too much Wodehouse), I was quite moved by a couple of the better profiles in The Triple Thinkers: pace the many good bits in Unacknowledged Legislation, Wilson rather outdoes his present-day admirers in the yente journalism genre.

I like Jenny Diski's work, so I'm pleased to report that Terry Eagleton's LRB review of a biography of Teddy Adorno easily managed less self-awareness and more obnoxiousness:

The English have always prized the lovably idiosyncratic individual over those arid entities known as ideas.... If they aren't able to extricate the man or woman 'behind' the work, they tend to feel a little cheated. Their fondness for biography, a superior version of what the media know as 'human interest', goes hand in hand with their philistinism. It is not surprising that Adorno himself detested the genre. It is too often a middle-class alternative to material history, one in which that supreme creation known as the individual may hold untrammelled sway. Discussing the prosody of Don Juan is all very well, but how on earth did Byron get to Sintra on a club foot? As far as such literary prurience goes, Claussen remains high-mindedly Teutonic. Beyond a discreet allusion to the fact that female students found him attractive, a fact the photographs of him provided in this volume do nothing to confirm, there is not a word about Adorno's notorious philandering....

. . .

Errata

Hotsy: "So the first thing at the top of the first page is this really weird blurb from John Leonard: 'Miss Hazzard writes as well as Stendhal.' What could that even mean?"

Totsy: "Is a comma missing after 'writes'?"

Responses

Josh Lukin illustrates:

My favorite missing comma. I knew Dr. Cosby would offer a simplistic solution to social problems; I didn't expect it to be so, er, Reichian.

. . .

Race to the bottom

People tell me Walter Benn Michaels is a good conversationalist, but you wouldn't know from his journalism.

"JESUS CHRIST, THE SUPREME COURT PULLED A COUP!"

"Stop talking about affirmative action!"

"HOLY MOTHER OF GOD, THE WORLD TRADE CENTER!"

"Stop talking about affirmative action!"

And so on, down to:

"Everything's fallen apart, the state's shutting down higher education, hospital bills would kill us, and our tax money's gone to the assholes who put us in this mess!"

"Stop talking about affirmative action!"

Well, we all have compulsions to support. (For example, mentally rehearsing the lyrics of "Speedo." Whup, there they go again.) It's not like I've been doing much myself to re-write the state constitution, so why be annoyed with something Michaels published way back in August?

I admit it: I have a horse in this race. Maybe more than one. All United States citizens do, which is where the "identity" in "identity politics" comes from, right? And all those millions of horses jammed together, slipping their harnesses, milling about, and excreting at will makes it "politics" instead of a nicely maintained track with a designated finish line and number of laps.

The odd thing is my horses look like they should be teamed with Michaels's. Once I was even accused of writing something that willfully ignored the color line.

The reader I'd offended, like most people I met in adulthood, always lived in environments where it was a safe bet (no bankruptcy on a loss) that Random Black Person would be from a lower economic or cultural class than Random White Person. Me, I was raised on integrated military bases in an enlisted man's family, then transplanted to an impoverished 100%-white (red necks permitted) town about 70 miles from Eminem's birthplace (my grandma shares her name with his great aunt), then scholarshipped to an upper-crust college on the Main Line. Until my mid-twenties, life seemed, as Michaels puts it, proportionately unequal.

Thus it's not news to me that:

In the US, one of the great uses of racism was (and is) to induce poor white people to feel a crucial and entirely specious fellowship with rich white people; one of the great uses of anti-racism is to make poor black people feel a crucial and equally specious fellowship with rich black people.

And by the authority invested in me by IDENTITY, I attest that's the use Michaels is put to. For whatever my non-activist uncredentialed social analysis might be worth, I agree with him that wide redistribution of wealth maybe even to, oh, 1950s curves can only be achieved by paying attention to wealth, and that talking about racism, sexism, homophobia, and snobbery is insufficient. So why does he keep talking about them? For that matter, why does his talk about them get published and publicized?

Not because it's the fastest way to bring about a proletariat revolution. (Where did we leave that proletariat, anyway? I'm sure it was here eighty years ago....) Its comfort lies in the old sweet song of resentment. Recognize this tune?

But, despite the helpful hint, the cop failed to recognize an essential truth about neoliberal America: it's no longer enough to kowtow to rich white people; now you have to kowtow to rich black people too.

At a grotesque extreme, I'm even familiar with this one:

So the African-American woman who cleans my office is supposed to feel not so bad about the fact that I make almost ten times as much money as she does because she can be confident that I'm not racist or sexist and that I respect her culture. And she's also supposed to feel pride because the dean of our college, who makes much more than ten times what she does, is African-American, like her. And since the chancellor of our university, who makes more than 15 times what she does, is not only African-American but a woman too (the fruits of both anti-racism and anti-sexism!), she can feel doubly good about her. But, and I acknowledge that this is the thinnest of anecdotal evidence, I somehow doubt she does. If the downside of the politics of anti-discrimination is that it now functions to legitimate the increasing disparities not produced by racism or sexism, the upside is the degree to which it makes visible the fact that the increase in those disparities does indeed have nothing to do with racism or sexism. A social analyst as clear-eyed as a University of Illinois cleaning woman would start from there.

So while Professor Michaels can't talk to the maintenance staff at UIC, he's able to directly channel their down-to-earth wisdom? That's not "anecdotal" evidence, it's fictional evidence. And that's another authority magically granted by IDENTITY, my brother.

When Philadelphia cops had carte blanche to bust black heads, they didn't guarantee safe passage to a long-haired cracker in a leather jacket; anything that makes a cop think twice before swinging is a plus in my book. When I walked into a room of people who were richer, more powerful, or more educated than me, it never put me at ease to find they were all heterosexual white men. To the contrary, the more cliquish the group, the less likely any outsider (or any sense) will catch a break: those are the kind of rooms where you hear guff about African-American women who clean offices. And I never resented any move that mussed their ("our") monopoly; it does me and mine no harm to mix up the ruling class while we await the revolution. (Where did we leave that revolution, anyway? I'm sure it was here eighty years ago....)

Responses

Reliable source Josh Lukin reminds me that Walter Benn Michaels treats his middle name "Carlos Williams" style not "Cabot Lodge" style. I must've been thinking of Abou Ben Adhem.

He adds:

I like the fact that Michaels points out the problem with "Don't bully black people, 'cause they might be powerful." Reminds me of the crew member on the set of Gentlemen's Agreement: "Now I know not to be mean to Jews, 'cause they might be Gentiles in disguise." There's some theories of justice that would be perfectly at ease with those statements.

And a link!

. . .

No Better than We Should Be, 2

Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James by J. Hillis Miller

Working at the top of his game, Miller explicates "beautifully," to use the Master's own term for such blends of caution and engagement. (Which is to say "carefully," if, unlike the Master, one prefers ambiguity to vagueness.) I happily recommend Miller's celebration to any non-Jamesians in the mood to understand what they're missing and to any Jamesians in the mood for intelligent companionship.

Even in our contested territory, Miller behaves with probity. When Martha Nussbaum delineates the ideal James reader (and by extension the ideal to which all citizens should aspire), she seems unaware how neatly her terms fit Fanny Assingham and The Sacred Fount's Nameless One. Miller meets both head-on:

We are not all that much better off than Maggie or than the narrator-participant of The Sacred Fount, except that we are permitted by the narrative voice to juxtapose several different perspectives. We have several different acts of reading the signs elaborately presented to us, most notably Fanny's and Maggie's. The Sacred Fount, however, focuses primarily on what is problematic and dismayingly unverifiable about the passive/active event of reading signs, making a global interpretation of a presented social scene, and then establishing a law of interpersonal exchange on that basis. The Golden Bowl focuses more on the way a reading of social signs can be performatively felicitous if others can be got to believe it or to act as if they believe it.

The book achieves its goals and cannot step outside them without rupturing genre boundaries. Miller must leave one strand dangling:

When her husband asks what will be his punishment, Fanny answers, somewhat contradictorily: "Nothing you're not worthy of any. One's punishment is in what one feels, and what will make ours effective is that we shall feel." ... If we are unimaginative readers, we can escape responsibility, but only by being grossly irresponsible. Either way we have had it, in a painful double bind that might lead one to conclude it would be better not to read The Golden Bowl at all.

I believe that conclusion should be taken seriously. For one thing, it reflects social reality: most people have not read The Golden Bowl at all. Even literate English-speakers of James's own time tended to leave James's novels unread; some did so with great vehemence. Is there anything to be said for someone (not our dear selves, I hasten to add) who refuses to become "the thoughtful reader of The Golden Bowl. I mean the reader who sees reading literature as James in the preface sees writing it, that is, as a particularly exigent and responsible part of 'the conduct of life'"?

Testimony isn't lacking should the unthoughtful reader seek it. James is dithering; James is timid; James would rather risk incoherence than risk coming to the point. James is a grotesquely pompous peeping-tom, unwilling to assume the responsibility of physical contact and unable to stop nosing around others' sex lives. James is an un-American sissy.

(That last would be Theodore Roosevelt's critique, and yes, I find it offensive. But given his offensive starting point, I can't argue with it any more than I can with the tastes of a later Roosevelt. Henry James and the Roosevelts aimed at different lives and different afterlives. They also serve who don't just stand and wait.)

Having admitted the possibility of refusal, let's tot up the benefits accruing to our own more enlightened status. We can begin with James himself; although he lacked Harlan Ellison reflexes, occasionally an attack did sting him into the indignity of self-defense. I've already had the pleasure of transcribing two examples; here's a very brief third, to his brother:

I’m always sorry when I hear of your reading anything of mine, and always hope you won't you seem to me so constitutionally unable to ‘enjoy’ it, and so condemned to look at it from a point of view remotely alien to mine in writing it, and to the conditions out of which, as mine, it has inevitably sprung.... And yet I can read you with rapture

Written to three very different skeptics, they all follow the same course: James points to his absolute certainty that he, Henry James, experiences life in a certain way and had no choice but to write what he wrote, that the only way for him to not do these things would be to not be Henry James, but that, as Henry James, he's not restricted to a diet of Henry James but delights even in the work of naysayers. Henry James was often sad and often disappointed, but Henry-James-ism was enough to provide inexhaustible and inextinguishable comfort:

If one acts from desire quite as one would from belief, it signifies little what name one gives to one's motive. By which term action I mean action of the mind, mean that I can encourage my consciousness to acquire that interest, to live in that elasticity and that affluence, which affect me as symptomatic and auspicious. I can't do less if I desire, but I shouldn't be able to do more if I believed. Just so I shouldn't be able to do more than cultivate belief; and it is exactly to cultivation that I subject my hopeful sense of the auspicious; with such success or at least with such intensity as to give me the splendid illusion of doing something myself for my prospect, or at all events for my own possibility, of immortality.

Which is to say that your objections would vanish if you could become "that queer monster," Henry James.

Well! This is an admirably modest argument which establishes an enviable position. But it has one flaw: most of us will not become Henry James. And that may be just as well. A world full of Henry Jameses, or even a summer house full of Henry Jameses, sounds a bit stifling. As Paul Kerschen once said, you need at least one dangerously naive young lady as leaven.

Henry James himself, of course, had no choice but to speak exclusively for himself; he was too polite to subpoena character witnesses. The curious thing is that Miller's defense also occasionally relies on muddling just who's doing what: "the reader who sees reading literature as James in the preface sees writing it" will surely be disappointed by her royalty statements.

We'll encounter this muddle again, but for now let us instead assume that reading Henry James will not make us Henry James. How else might we be influenced?

We cannot successfully "be one of the people on whom nothing is lost" because there will always be something going on outside our focal range, and a good thing too. Instead, James suggests trying to be such a person; that is, attempting to lose nothing of our particular small slice of existence. As role models, Henry James's late protagonists do almost nothing but look at and think about occasions which have been carefully selected and arranged for their benefit. As role players who are reading Henry James, we will look at and think about James's pages, carefully selected and arranged for our benefit. Monkey see, monkey sit.

And so to the extent that an ethics is directly derivable from Henry James, it happens to be the ethics of academic criticism and academic philosophy. His novels lend the characteristic activity of scholarship the glamor of narrative. But when his reader is "put on trial," it's merely play. The ethical difficulties of fiction are to the ethical difficulties of life as Tabasco sauce is to firefighting.

Let's look up from our book and imagine a common everyday example of inaction like ignoring a crying child. We may be exhausted, resentful, and drunk. We may be an Objectivist who knows that indulging our sentimentality would bring disaster upon the adult-to-be and perhaps the world! We may be a devout Christian who believes it up to the Lord to decide the little angel's fate. We may be a novelist, finishing our thousand words for the day. Or we may be a critical pedagogue intent on settling questions like "Did Maggie do right? Did she act justly? Was her perjury an efficacious speech act? Was it 'felicitous'?"

Should one consider "conduct" not merely a matter of interpretive protocols but also a matter of how one behaves, one should go on to consider that the loudest champion of James's late work was Ezra Pound.

Responses

Josh Lukin writes:

"the indignity of self-defense" -- you mean, writing stuff like "Limited Inc a b c"? Derrida certainly had "Harlan Ellison reflexes," thanks no doubt to a similar background . . .

The translator must've left out the part about breaking Searle's kneecaps.

To misquote a prof of aesthetics, "Beware of ethicists, they always want to bend at the knee."

Wendy Walker writes:

I have always remembered the injunction "Try to be...." as "A writer is someone upon whom nothing is wasted." Either James wrote that somewhere else, or I have amended it in my very creative memory. I do remember his saying this in conjunction to the relation of a a scene from his childhood-- He was playing with a little girl who was a friend and her father came to get her and tell her it was time to go. She started to fuss and cry, because she wanted to keep on playing with little Henry. Her father admonished her strictly, "Lizzie (or whatever her name was), don't make a scene!" James dates his understanding of what "a scene" is from that moment.

The importance of this in the context of your essay rests upon the nuance of the word "lost"-- "wasted" implies recycling, whereas "lost" does not, and I do wonder if James didn't mean "lost" in the sense of "wasted" rather than in the sense in which you interpret it. It is one thing to use a book or experience to become a "better person" but quite another to use it to make another book. I have always assumed that he meant the latter.

Although my prose hopelessly obscures the point, I agree with you as to James's intent: he explicitly addressed the novice writer rather than the general public. My quarrel is not with James's words but with Nussbaum's and Miller's interpretations, which erase any such distinction.

2017-08-13: The always welcome Josh Lukin afterthinks:

A scholar of radical sympathies, bouleversé by a colleague's reverence for Nussbaum, once asked me, "Whom is she *talking* to?" "Uh, Richard Epstein and other Chicago Libertarians?" "And has she persuaded them yet?"

. . .

No Better than We Should Be, 5

And on a bright fall Saturday there we all were, sipping coffee, bitching under our collective breath, and ready to be indoctrinated in the company's much-vaunted QCEL managerial philosophy Quality, Creativity, Ethics and Leadership.... Several hundred phuds, most in the engineering and science fields and some with international reputations, marched through "creativity" sessions in which a trainer with a master's degree in creativity (no shit) inculcated them in the beauty of "convergent and divergent thinking." Or in which they were asked to work in teams to create that "best" paper airplane (i.e., Quality through teamwork, teamwork through Leadership). Or in which they were instructed in the importance of sound (business) ethics without being asked to consider (e.g.) the ethical impact of divorcing ethics from more bracing issues of morality or politics.
- Joe Amato, "Technical Ex-Communication"

Most people would probably agree that ethical judgments should take actions into account, and few witnesses mistake the actions of writing and reading. Mixing them sacrifices any chance to distinguish good-guy contextual "ethics" from bad-guy universalizing "morality": an artwork can be condemned as equally immoral in deed and in effect, but an artwork can only be referred to as unethical in its making. To say that an act of embezzling is unethical is to say "In these circumstances, you shouldn't have embezzled"; if after seeing a movie, I unethically embezzle, the shame is wholly mine. To say that a movie is unethical is not to say "I shouldn't have watched that movie" but "You shouldn't have made or distributed that movie." And it's hard to picture a good humble Derridean saying such a thing.

So why have we seen such consistent fusing of the two roles?

It could that a mere reader, listener, or viewer who sought to promote mere reading or listening or viewing as a powerfully "ethical" practice might sound a bit swell-headed. Replacing the finished artifact with a personal name allows for a narrative of continuous directed action "Ethical Joyce" and "Ethical James" rather than "Ethical Chants de Maldoror" or "Ethical 'Rape of the Lock.'" And replacing the audience with the artist downplays the none-too-heroic security of transient consumption in favor of drive and risk.

Despite its suspicious convenience, though, I doubt this superimposition was instigated by the ethical turn. It's more likely a matter of habit. Purely formal analysis is generally confined to the workshop; insofar as criticism is a conversation held outside the realm of practice, it includes ethical suppositions, judgments, and re-enactments, and "ethical criticism" so defined would include most of my own scroungy corpus, including the dump around us. ("Bless my soul! I've been writing ethical criticism for over forty years without knowing it, and I'm ever so grateful to you for teaching me that.")

This doesn't mean that artists ignore form or that our critical inventions are always supported by evidence. As we've mentioned before, very few writers or directors or musicians under oath would describe anything resembling the intentions we ascribe to "the author." No, it merely means that justification depends on the vocabulary of intent. I am (it seems to me) fully capable of feeling satisfaction, delight, sorrow, or disgust as self-sufficient experiences. But when my reactions are challenged by a skeptic, I grasp for and wield the intentions and effects of imagined creators, the intentions and effects of an imagined audience, my own intended effects....

* * *

Such analyses (except, of course, done much, much better) would find their proper home in an ethics of literary criticism.

In the stack of books and journals that fed this essay, my most pleasant surprise was "Jazz Improvisation and Ethical Interaction: A Sketch of the Connections" by philosopher-musician Garry Hagberg. Hagberg describes his experience of behaviors encouraged and discouraged within collaborative jazz performance, and then goes on to acknowledge some widely held ethical guidelines which do not apply in this particular sphere.

Pieces similar to Hagberg's could be written about any collaborative venture: migrant farming, garbage collection, a political campaign, whale hunting, a meal, a ballgame, a fuck, an execution. Each area of human endeavor holds characteristic blind spots and expectations. Studying its ethics isn't a matter of proving how much better it is than alternative endeavors but of understanding how it works.

Collaborative jazz performance is one fairly clearly delineated subcategory of artistic production. Is there anything that can be said about the ethics of artistic consumption, or of literature, in general?

As a self-described aesthete, I must suppose so. But after setting my blur-filter to maximum, I see only a message of gray relativism. Social context swamps all:

And so I immediately felt sympathetic to Derrida's appropriation of Levinas. No aesthete could hear a hail-alterity-well-met without thinking of our own oh-so-flexible oh-so-fascinatingly-varied pseudo-relations to artifacts.

But recognition is not identity wasn't that the point? and artifacts are not friends, family, tribe, or strangers: I may pointedly ignore a book for years at a time, lend it out, or hurl it across the room without damaging our relationship in the least. A proven utility of representation is to distance oneself from the thing represented. Last year around this time, the Panglossian researchers at OnFiction summarized and spun some other relevant results:

Djikic et al. (2009a) asked people to read either a Chekhov short story, or a version of the story in a non-fiction format, which was the same length, the same reading difficulty, and just as interesting. Readers of Chekhov's story (as compared with the version in non-fiction format) experienced changes in personality. These changes were small, and in different directions, particular to each reader. In a companion study, Djikic et al. (2009b) found that people who routinely avoid emotions in ordinary life experienced larger emotion changes as a result of reading the Chekhov story than those who did not usually avoid their emotions. We interpret these studies as indicating that fiction can be an occasion for transforming the self, albeit in small ways, and can also be a way of reaching those who tend to cut themselves off from their emotions.

Alternatively, it can be a way to help us continue cutting ourselves off from our emotions: I might prefer reading fiction and poetry and watching films to reading newspapers and watching TV because the former applies a cool damp cloth along my forehead while the latter makes me flush and sputter. It's been posited that sleep evolved as a way to keep mammals out of trouble, and art may anti-serve similar non-ends. The primal proponent of aestheticism in the Victorian imagination was "Mr. Rose," a bugaboo of harmlessness.

To cite a social practice treated with similar piety by practitioners, it's been shown that pet owning can teach responsibility, provide a safe route for caring impulses, and reduce loneliness. Nevertheless, maintaining six yapping dogs or twenty yowling cats has proven no guarantor of fairness, empathy, or even politeness towards members of our own species.

Responses

2017-08-15: Seven years later, my irresponsibility still shocks Josh Lukin:

Hey, I spent a lot of time teaching how Ursula and Ted and Octavia warned about the evils of empathy, and now you tell me (to say nothing of Paul Bloom) that it's neutral? It feels like I've been told that Jeff Sessions is a bold opponent of white supremac . . . oh. Oh dear.

Creators are always gonna outpace critics, but at least I got in my two cents before Bloom got in the New Yorker. (Isn't attacking empathy at TED carrying climate disaster to Newcastle?)

We* spend so much time rebutting prima facie nonsensical claims such as "Attention to literature makes you a better person" or "A text's meaning is its writer's intention" or "All grass is green," and we're left to hope that in the course of buttressing such theses as "omgno" we've illuminated some interesting connections or experiences, and that something more may come of this masquerade.

*"And how are we feeling today?"

. . .

Last Exit to the New Bloomusalem

Continued from ads without products commenting
on David Foster Wallace's Kenyon College commencement speech

Most of all, Wallace's goals and methodology resemble the little stories Mr. Bloom tells himself in Ulysses to self-medicate his choler (I use them for road-rage myself), or to win some illusion of control or contact, or simply as distraction.

They doesn't much resemble Ulysses, though. Joyce's preeminent quarries probably are having "the worst days of their lives," but they're embedded in so much stuff-of-life that it's difficult to keep that in mind (or even to see it clearly). To the continued consternation of readers who expect only a stylish makeover, the book snubs the epiphany-crazed heart of high-mainstream narrative.

And while that's all very entertaining it doesn't suggest any advice for the graduating class beyond "You might enjoy Ulysses."

Responses

Which one do you think was cooler? Ulysses or Infinite Jest?

"We're all pretty, Snow White."

Referring to my comment at ads, an eager researcher asks:

What breast-beating SF are you talking about?

Well, my use of the word "cliché" was meant to indicate that I didn't have a particular case in mind. I seem to remember empathy-overload scenes in Ellison, Silverberg, Sturgeon maybe, some short stories, some TV shows.... In And Chaos Died, Joanna Russ gave it a nasty twist, as was her wont.

Josh Lukin offers scholarly assistance:

The spectrum runs from Zooey Glass to Octavia Butler's heroines, with Dying Inside right in the middle. Sturgeon? I remember a Sturgeon story in which the telepaths can't cope with a kid who uses vocal communication, but that's not the same.

So how come Charles Xavier and Martian Manhunter are so jolly by comparison? Rhetorical question: I know questions of verisimilitude in Silver Age comics aren't your forte.

Power? Or rather, utilization of power? As when propagandists and con artists are jollier than Henry James?

Afterthought: Poor contrast there, since Henry James was comparatively jolly, everything considered, and attributed his comparative jollity to his vocation. Far more to the point is Alice James, that articulate witness to power denied expression. And I remember back in the 1970s deciding that Dying Inside allegorized writer's block so slavishly that it should have dropped the genre trappings.

. . .

Loin du Toronto

Long-time readers won't be surprised to learn that my day job began boiling over a couple of months ago. But long-time readers will also understand why I must attempt to draw the great world's attention to (finally!) a collection of Chandler Davis's fiction and essays. Go and do thou likewise, only better.

* * *

Update: And fast upon the book's heels comes the Chandler Davis Online Archive, also edited by Josh Lukin, with five essays and three short stories.

Chandler Davis

. . .

High, Low, & Lethem

Unprinted (with minor revisions) from Genre XLII (Fall/Winter 2009), edited by Joe Moffett and Josh Lukin, here's my first certified-academic publication: "High, Low, & Lethem" (with RTF for those who prefer their footnotes footed).

This post, like the previous one, owes its existence to the efforts of the good Doctor Lukin, who first suggested that I try submitting a piece to Genre, and who then helped guide me through a most pleasant peer review process. Although I doubt I'll make a habit of it, I hugely enjoyed updating and re-configuring 2007's blog serial for a discursive context which relies on the fiction of reasoned argument rather the fiction of friendly conversation.

. . .

A very special episode of Hee Haw

Two televisions and a police band scanner play continuously at my parents' home. Which is how I finally came to understand my unease around Jon Stewart's comedy stylings: he reminds me of the unsung hero who hosts America's Funniest Home Videos.

Which in turn reminds me of an earlier cross-cultural insight. Used to whenever I thought about "Rube" Goldberg, I'd wonder which boondock he hailed from to get a nickname like that. It only hit me well into middle age: the boy's probably Jewish!

Responses

Josh Lukin explains the history behind my mistake:

Reuben's not an especially Jewish name in U.S. history. The Protestant Reformation opened up the Hebrew Bible to Christian baby-naming, kind of like Commodore Perry opened up Japan to trade.

I believe the ambiguity was first brought to my attention by an early episode of All in the Family when Archie listed show-biz personalities who'd anglicized their last names but kept their first and Edith contributed Abe Lincoln.

My own family's names are marked by Appalachian-whimsy: Sadie, Orville, Ina Mae, Irving, Edna (pronounced "Ednie")....

. . .

The Male Feminist: Myth or Menace?

As one of the repelled colonizers of Bryn Mawr's Denbigh Hall in 1978, I can actually speak with authority on this question. It's a completely trivial and distracting question, but hey, you take what authority you can get.

"Feminist" is a label. A label is not essence, nor an equivalence function. Like all such social markers, it's meant to be applied when applicable, and applicability varies by context.

In contexts where the label is a contested object of desire (notably some blogs and some academic departments; I'm not sure women's folk festivals even exist anymore): No, a man cannot be a feminist. Proof by contradiction: To insist on the "feminist" label would help me override a woman's voice or take a woman's place.

Anyway, the self-applied label usually conveys little information beyond hope for a merit badge. Treating a woman as a sentient being should be a matter of common decency rather than a newsworthy achievement, and enjoying the company of women might indicate nothing more than heterosexuality.1 You shouldn't need to be acknowledged as a "feminist" to feel disgust at date-rape, or to argue with idiots,2 or to shut up and let others get a word in edgewise. Painstaking accounts of female suffering can sometimes be useful to feminism, but to produce them you need only find female suffering attractive as spectacle.3 You only need ears to appreciate Joanna Russ's prose. And you only need eyes and a brain to notice that Hollywood buddy comedies (like William S. Burroughs) posit an Earth populated by two species: male humans and female Borg.

In contexts where the label is used dismissively (notably most non-academic settings after 1985 or so): Yes, a man can be a feminist. Dismissive senses include "crazy people who take that crazy shit seriously" or "killjoys who bitch about gross power imbalances" or "perverts who don't mind leg hair" and so forth. And I am, in fact and undeniably, one of those crazy killjoy perverts and might as well fess up to it. Besides, how far am I really gonna lower the tone of a neighborhood consisting mostly of Daddy's-Girl feminists, Let's-Go-Shopping! feminists, and Rich-Republicans-Are-The-Real feminists?

1   Stendhal supported higher education for women on the grounds that it would make them even more fun to hang out with. I find this a convincing argument.

2   From a vanished comment at vanished UFO Breakfast:

I reserve the right to reveal this revelation at my own site or deathbed confession, but I discovered the American economic class system, cultural class system, and how fucked up the rest of my life was going to be on my first evening at the Quaker teaching-oriented financial-aid-guaranteed no-frat no-football college when the guys I was walking with talked about going to Villanova to seek stupid girls because only stupid girls would fuck you.

And I knew -- I knew from the bottom of my balls -- that this was evil and wrong. Because only smart girls knew where the local Planned Parenthood was.

3   From innumerable cites, I pluck Hitchcock.

Responses

Jessie Ferguson kindly pointed out that at least one of my attempted jokes ("indicates heterosexuality") was too compressed even for my intended audience, and that blogs provide a safer home than the academy for contemporary feminist discussion. I've quickly revised in the hope of clarity.

Josh Lukin points out more error:

"You only need ears"? What kind of ableist message is that?
Marge: Homer, didn't John seem a little... festive to you? Homer: Couldn't agree more. Happy as a clam. Marge: He prefers the company of men! Homer: Who doesn't?

And remember, chicks dig male feminists!

. . .

Cholly on Software : The Signifying Code Monkey

There are benefits non-financial, obviously to working for an institution of higher education. But in a 27-year career I remember only four people with whom I couldn't establish some sort of working relationship, and I met three of them after leaving what's oddly called "private industry." Similarly, two of the three pieces I've regretted publishing were written within the context of a (mostly) academic website. Maybe it's true that there's something peculiarly toxic about this environment? Or maybe this particular pachyderm happens to find my own blend of tones and pheromones peculiarly noxious? For whatever reason, I've spent a painful number of turns playing the wrong side of Whac-a-Mole.

Responses

Josh Lukin suggests another hypothesis:

The experiences you had in a milieu different from "private industry" occurred, as you note with your "after", at a time (in your life and that of our society) different from the era when you worked in that industry. That's not an insignificant parameter.

It occurred to me that I might have gotten crankier with age. But given the crankiness of my youth, that's hard to credit. What with one damned thing after another, though, you're right that I might be a bit clingier these days, a bit less likely to exit-stage-left at the earliest possible cue, and therefore a bit more handy for thumping.

Josh follows up:

Note the "that of our society": I wasn't so much focusing on (or at least, I wasn't only addressing) the "crankier with age" possibility. Maybe people are meaner. I just read a blog comment from a guy who left the U.S. in 1998 and says that every time he comes back to visit, he sees more anger. Scheler said ressentiment is greatest in societies that make false promises of equality (he was arguing in favor of feudal attitudes, I think, but still . . . )

Mr. Waggish kindly writes:

I think you said it yourself already. Academia tolerates and even fosters antisocial behavior in various forms, while the private sector is much more strict in its codes of behavior hewing to some practical norm. Coders who work in academic nonprofits tend to be those who were "too weird" for industry, by their own account. Much of this may have to do with the ultimate bottom line of the holy dollar asserting itself far more incessantly in the private sector. (The exceptions like Bell Labs, which also attracted the types of people you simply could not deal with, have gone under precisely because they would rather spend their time perfecting an IETF RFC than writing server monitoring scripts in Python or (god forbid) Perl. So given an insufferable, ambitious, and/or dogmatic person, that person will either have the good fortune to rise to a management position in the private sector that he (occasionally she, mostly he) will then use to attempt to realize his treasured, pure vision of paradise, and fail repeatedly; OR, that person will be thrown aside by the capitalist machinery and will seek refuge in locations where the almighty dollar holds less immediate sway. See Albert O. Hirschmann's "The Passions and the Interests" for what I genuinely believe is the dynamic at work.

And adds:

I see what you were talking about as an extension of this Delany letter you quoted long ago.

Hmm. Now that, I don't see. Maybe it's because all four of my impossible-relationships were with men, and fairly stereotypical men at that?

. . .

Embodied Visions: Evolution, Emotion, Culture and Film
by Torben Grodal, Oxford, 2009

I've been a season-ticket-holding fan of the cognitive sciences since 1993, but it's no secret that I've been disappointed by their aesthetic and critical applications. And I suppose no surprise, given how disappointed I was by applications of close reading, deconstruction, feminism, Marxism, evolutionary biology, and so forth. (Lacanian criticism had the great advantage of being disappointment-proof.) All these approaches snapped off their points while scribbling across a professionally sustainable territory, all in the same way: Mysteries do not survive levels of indirection.

Mortality is a mystery. Why Roger Ackroyd died is a different sort of mystery. Once we've assumed mortality, however, why Agatha Christie died is no sort of mystery at all: she died because people are mortal. Too often writers like Grodal and Kay Young inform us that Agatha Christie died because species propagation does not require individuals to survive long past childrearing age! And also Roger Ackroyd died! And also Henry VIII!

As if to underline the over-specification, much of what Grodal says about his chosen films apply equally well to their adapted sources:

Although love often leads to integration in the prevailing social order, just as often it leads to a conflict with the existing social order, as in Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet....

What can be gained by explaining Forrest Gump or Mansfield Park with what lies beneath human culture and history? At such removes, "mirror neurons" add nothing to the already biologically-marked "monkey-see-monkey-do." At any remove, "lizard brains" add nothing to anything besides lizards. Why not read David Bordwell straight? Grodal answers by pitting his truisms against the falsehoods of ad-absurdum Derrida, ad-absurdum Focault, ad-absurdum Mulvey, and ad-absurdum Barthes, just as earlier critical fads attacked an ad-absurdum T. S. Eliot. We could call these strawmen arguments, except that the strawmen demonstratively were made and sent out onto the field. Let's call it a battle of scarecrows.

Grodal, to his credit, is no scarecrow. He cites Ramachandran's discovery that the universal standard of feminine beauty is an anorexic with a boob job but immediately points out why it's false. He's noticed that genres are ambiguous and that evolution is not a particularly useful concept to apply to them. He doesn't insist that narratives need a narrator other than the audience. He doesn't always remember that a significant number of human beings are not heterosexually paired and reproducing, but he remembers it at least once.

Sadly for the cause of sanity, banishing arrant nonsense from his shop leaves Grodal without novelties to peddle and leaves the book's first half undermotivated. A professional scarecrow like David Brooks strews fallacy wherever he flails, but he achieves a recognizable goal: to grab attention.

The second half of Grodal's book is less Movie-Goers Guide to Consciousness and far more compelling. Now here, for example, is a first-order mystery: How can generic signals such as by-the-negative-numbers continuity flips, an unlikely proliferation of masochists, and long takes with nothin'-happenin'-at-all reliably induce sensations of depth and uncanniness and individuality among film-festival audiences when it's obvious that the auteur's just slapping Bresson patties and Godard cheese on the grill? (I should emphasize that this is my problem statement rather than Grodal's.)

Periods of temps mort evoke a sense of higher meaning for two intertwined reasons. The first is that streams of perceptions are disembodied, insofar as they are isolated from any pragmatic concerns that might link them to action. Temps mort thus serves expressive and lyrical functions that give a feeling of permanence. The second reason is a special case of the first: since the viewer is unable to detect any narrative motivation for a given temps mort a given salient and expressive perceptual experience he or she may look for such motivation in his or her concept of the addresser, the filmmaker.... The perceptual present is ultimately transformed into the permanent perceptual past of the auteur's experience.
These excess features therefore activate particularly marked attention, switching on feelings and emotions which suggest that these features contain a meaning that the viewer cannot fully conceptualize. The viewer is therefore left with the sense that there must be some deep meaning embedded in these stylistic features, because the emotional motivation for making meaning out of salient features cannot be switched off. Style thus serves as an additional guarantee for some higher or deeper meaning, while at the same time giving rise to a feeling of permanence, since the perceptual, stylistic cues continue to trigger meaning-producing processes without reaching any final result.
...aspects of a film that are easily linked to the actions of one of the main characters are experienced as objective, but if there are no protagonists, or the characters' or viewers' action tendencies are blocked or impeded, this will lend a subjective toning to our experience of the film. This subjective toning expresses intuitive feelings of the action affordances of what we see: subjective experiences may be more intense and saturated but at the same time felt as being less real, because the feeling as to whether a given phenomenon is real depends on whether it offers the potential for action.
Subjectivity by default is much more obvious when it is cued in films than in real life. In real life, our attention is controlled mainly by our current interests. If we have exhausted our interest in one aspect of our surroundings, we turn our attention to something else. But when we watch a film, we are no longer able to focus our attention on the basis of our own interests because the camera prefocuses our attention. Provided that the film catches our attention by presenting us with a focused narrative or salient audiovisual information, this lack of control of our attention does not disturb us. Potential conflict over control of the viewer's attention surfaces only when the filmmaker confronts the viewer with images that do not cue focused propositions or that have no links to the protagonists' concerns. Most ordinary filmgoers shun such films, labeling them dull because they do not have the motivation or the skills necessary to enjoy what they see. More sophisticated viewers switch into a subjective-lyrical mode, seeking at the same time to unravel parts of the associative network to which the film gives rise.

Reviewing these sketches of frustrated drives, congested animal spirits, and spiritual afflatus, I'm not sure Grodal needs a scientific vocabulary younger than Nietzsche or William James. But if his solutions aren't quite as first-order as his mystery, they at least let me dismiss it for a while. Lunchtime!

Responses

fine thing, needling the haystack

Josh Lukin:

Reminds me of the election in the Buffalo English dept ten or twelve years ago, wherein there were something like eighteen votes for Professor Conte, twenty for Professor Bono, fifteen for Professor Dauber, and five for lunch.

The afore-and-oft-cited David Bordwell sketches how some individual quirks became genre markers.

. . .

The critic as necrophile

I performed legal services for the Institute for Social Research. At first I was a lawyer and wrote stories. Only afterwards did I concern myself with film. Horkheimer and Adorno did not take me seriously as an author. They said, "He is a first-rate lawyer, we like him and are friendly with him, but he just should not make films, and in no event should he write any stories." After Marcel Proust, one can no longer write stories any more. That was Adorno's opinion. He sent me to Fritz Lang in order to protect me from something worse, so that I wouldn't get the idea to write any books. If I were turned away, then I would ultimately do something more valuable, which was to continue to be legal counsel to the Institute for Social Research.... I handled their reparations claims, among other matters....

For his mother nothing was enough for him, and she protected him from his father's cheapness. Adorno became a very sensitive man who knew music but couldn't ride alone on a streetcar. He led the impractical life of a very protected child.... When he was waiting for a streetcar, he changed into Franz Kafka and believed that it would never come. His wife always had to drive him around. It was, among other things, because he had to travel, first in England and then later in the United States, that he got married.

... he had no knowledge of the production sphere. He did not deal with it. He was interested in what Marcel Proust did, with what music did. He never really saw a factory, and that is why he sees society as a factory. That is why I never believed Adorno's theories of film. He only knew Hollywood films. He went with Fritz Lang, Brecht, and Eisler together as friends to Hollywood. They offered scripts nobody wanted. Fritz Lang made Hangmen Also Die. He did not need Adorno for such a film.

- "On New German Cinema, Art, Enlightenment, and the Public Sphere:
An Interview with Alexander Kluge
"
by Stuart Liebman, October 46 (1988) (via Mubi)

There are two sides stretching from the frozen moment, two fears guttering our desire for the immobile:

The fear of loss, the hoarder's fear that the beloved will be wrested from us before we're done. And by choice we only desire what we can never be done with; anything less would be, what should we call it, a waste of time.

And the horror of process, that the Queen of Brobdingnag eats and Celia shits, that sausages are made even if one isn't completely sure how, that toys don't spring ex nihilo from Mother Christmas's hands.

(I suppose his injunction against new poetry is more quoted than his injunction against new fiction because fewer people want to read new poetry.)

Responses

George Clinton kindly writes from 1978:

Lunchmeataphobia: The fear of being eaten by a sandwich.

Josh Lukin kindly writes more recently:

Incidentally, I long associated noticing and critiquing the Horror of Process with radical arguments (Marxist, feminist, Tory, Raydavisian); but now the Oxford Internet Institute has set me straight.

Yorick Wilks, ladies & gents, and who sez they don't make Tories like they used to?

. . .

The imaginary is not formed in opposition to reality as its denial or compensation; it grows among signs, from book to book

We thank Dr. Josh Lukin for recommending The Prison and the American Imagination and related reading:

The Prison and the American Imagination offers a passionate and haunting critique of the very idea of solitude in American life. Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought: Wiley CPA Exam Review 2012, Financial Accounting and Reporting by O. Ray Whittington Paperback $40.95
Smith's book is remarkably inventive and wide-ranging with its close interweaving of literature and history, its refusal to rely slavishly on Foucault, its close reading, and its refreshingly lucid style. All the information you need to master the computerized CPA exam!

Responses

accelerated depreciation on my debt to society?

. . .

If on a springtime's blog a blatherer...

I've been thinking about two types of metafiction, or at least metafictional moments: the type we're all too familiar with in recent years, where the metafiction is the point, and the (what to call it?) target fiction is in its service, and another more common, more exhilarating type (as I have come to think), where metafictional moments are actually in service of the story itself....
- balaustion

As Balaustion's examples suggest, there is a history, a lifespan, to apparently unmediated narrative or lyric. Thackerey and Trollope notoriously lack that goal, Byron (and then Pushkin) contested its triumph, and by the time we reach Bouvard & Pécuchet and Huysmans it's devouring itself. The perplexing disruptions of Ulysses simmered down into a signature sauce for Beckett and O'Brien, and then dessicated into spice jars for postmodern fabulism and swingin'-sixties movies. If Nabokov is a chess problem and Perec is a jigsaw puzzle, John Barth and Robert Coover are search-a-word.

Even more specifically, the desire for unmediated narrative is linked to genre Mark Twain and William Dean Howells were contemporaries, after all and therefore self-congratulatory metafictionality is also linked to genre. When, back in 1976 or so, I sought goods fresher than those provisioned by the oxymoronic experimental mainstream, I found them labeled as science fiction or fantasy. And they included a generally more relaxed use of metafictionality. Not Dick, of course; Dick is Barth haloed by sweat-drops. But Disch and Russ in the 1970s, and then in the 1980s and so on M. John Harrison and Fowler and Emshwiller and Womack and so on.

What I really wanted to blather about, though, was a rare third type of metafiction, neither the recircling of an already-overworked puzzle, nor the matter-of-fact surfacing of one discursive mode in a cove of splishy-splashy discourse, but instead doing something an emotionally engaged and affectively effective metafictionality. I likely first encountered that possibility in Warner Bros. cartoons and Hans Christian Andersen. But a lot of Updike passed under the bridge before I reached Delany's Dhalgren: a unique three-decker in which every tool of realistic fiction attempts to portray structuralism from within. It's like Zola as Fabulist, or Sergei Bondarchuk's seven-hour adaptation of an original story by Frank Tashlin. And about fifteen years later, Crowley's Engine Summer delivered a similarly visceral charge by embodying romantic loss in a closed roman.

Responses

Josh Lukin differs:

Honestly, I think the sweaty Barth is Gaiman. Dick is, I dunno, Philip Rieff with a Crawdaddy subscription? Tough one.

And I think Gaiman is Mary-and-Charles-Lamb-going-to-a-Police-concert, so go figure.

. . .

Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?

Obama's crack economic team never seriously considered breaking up too-big-to-fail financial institutions, or otherwise slowing redistribution of wealth to their gambling joints, because (I quote from memory) that would've interfered with the only truly successful business America still boasted. Which, besides being a fine adaptation of "What drinking problem? I have plenty to drink," made me seriously consider a recent statement of my own.

The delusions of a Tom Ripley, a David Brent, a [NAME REDACTED], or a [NAME REDACTED] sometimes seem dismayingly familiar to me and my neurotic loved ones. But our grasp of them loosens in a tinnitus of second thoughts; we coil and recoil, we drop them, or anyway we try to drop them. We aren't highly motivated goal-driven visionaries. Highsmith's good at showing the difference between throwing oneself in and being pushed: Therese Belivet isn't a sociopath; she's just in love. Clarence Duhamell isn't a sociopath; he just chose the wrong career.

In a way, then, it's true that success depends on desire: not success at a job, but in a career. You can only gain entry to a community of sociopaths by wanting it bad enough. Instilling that desire is what basic training and analyst training programs and graduate school and Bimbo's initiation and Philip Carter's incarceration are all about. And within that community theater, you face notoriously little chance of "failure" no matter how poorly we outside the ranks might judge your performance. Your performance is not directed at us.

Responses

Josh Lukin related to John Shade's mother? Yrs, Dr Chas Kinbote (per Shade, "author of a remarkable book on surnames")

I'm better with elective affinity than with genealogy, and so I'll just confirm that Lukin's essay (linked to above, somewhere, somehow) really is worth a call to your local pirate (arrh).

. . .

An honest candidacy

Mitt Romney's every utterance was either lying or deluded. Yet in a sense he was the least deceitful presidential nominee of my lifetime: he truly represented his party's interests. No fake folksiness; no fake patriotism; no fake rage or compassion or erudition. Romney is a selfish, smug, willfully ignorant, well-maintained son of wealth who's devoted his life to pure consumption. He's the post-1980 equivalent of a fat guy in waistcoat, monocle, and top hat. For once, the captain played the figurehead and the face played the mask.

And so gullibility can't be what's the matter with Kansas (60%), Alabama (61%), Idaho (65%), Oklahoma (67%), or Wyoming (69%). At least fifty-seven million American voters genuinely admire plutocrats more than teachers, scholars, doctors, nurses, lawyers, or civil servants. They don't have to be tricked into abjection. They like it.

Responses

Josh Lukin:

Well, there's a possibility of liking abjection for the same reason Cocksucker likes it: one doesn't see any credible alternatives that are better. I mean, I don't personally believe that Rupert Murdoch is Hogg, but it's a coherent hypothesis.
Not so much genuinely admire more than, as despise and resent less

. . .

Why do you make me hit you?

But if Pat's affinity for Jewish dentists was yet another example of the subversive Miss Highsmith turning an ordinary exchange upside down i.e., the "German-identified" Pat being "gassed" by "Jewish dentists" (an idea so offensive that it might actually have appealed to Pat) she never said so.
- Joan Schenkar,
The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith
Gee, how clever you are to know about things that never happened.
- Joanna Russ, The Female Man

Against my better judgment, I read Schenkar's long dreadful book for the same reason I read Juliet Barker's similarly vindictive The Brontës: its compilation of primary sources. But Barker is a more controlled writer (or maybe benefited from a harder-working editor), and her intolerance closely resembles that of her chosen villain, lending the affair a certain meta-piquancy.

Schenkar, on the other hand, only resembles her own telling. She calls Highsmith's prose awkward and flat-footed, and she ladles out an Irish stew of purple clunkers. She snickers at Highsmith's pretensions, and she routinely overreaches:

By 1977, when Edith's Diary was published, rye had not been produced in the United States for at least twenty years.

She descries Highsmith's compulsive disruptions, and she's so full of redundant snark that she can't wait till a quote is finished before telling us what to think:

But she was "quite unable to do any creative work, though in my house there is always quite enough else to do. The mental fear needs a thousand words to describe. [But Pat did not provide them. [And neither does Joan.]] It as though death is right there suddenly and yet one feels no pain, one is talking in a calm voice to friends & doctors."

Schenkar's starting position may not be far from uncannily unmoved and unmoving witnesses like Found in the Street's Natalia or Inez from Those Who Walk Away. Here, though, their silent treatment bursts into a grossly extended middle-school poison-pen letter: "We just thought you should know: we don't like you." The best I can say is it gives Highsmith's paranoia, misogyny, and resentment a more flattering context than I could've conjured on my own.

Responses

Highsmith scholar Josh Lukin:

"When Pat Highsmith gave life to Ripley, she was exposing the black backside of her country's Zeitgeist" is more than a purple clunker: it's Tom Friedman on weed.

And Josh follows up:

But you know what'd be helpful in maintaining your youthful figure? Her recenter reminiscences of Stanley Hyman and Shirley Jackson, complete with critical comments by their kids in the comments dept.

A relatively restrained and respectful performance. Wall Street Journal's blog must have an editor.

. . .

New from the Repress: the Paradoxa Interview with William Tenn, AKA Philip Klass interviewed by Josh Lukin. We thank Dr. Lukin for the opportunity.

. . .

The Oxbridge Roots of Analytic Philosophy

Suppose we take it that the truth of moral judgments is relative, but that the truth of judgments about the objects and properties that populate the physical world is not. Then what are we to make of the following argument?

Grass is green or murder is not wrong. Murder is wrong.

Therefore, grass is green.

The argument is clearly valid. But it is not clear how it could be, since the second premise is only relatively true and the conclusion is absolutely true.

- Michael P. Lynch, "Truth Relativism and Truth Pluralism",
A Companion to Relativism, ed. Steven D. Hales (2011)

California summer lawn

Responses

Josh Lukin objects:

Wait, do logical disjuncts even work that way? I remember trying a clever move like that in my high school geometry class and being told that they did not.

I thought it was intended as an example of fallacious reasoning until I reached "clearly valid."

standard format for examples for critiquing classical logic (disjunctive syllogism) re problems with 'relevance' (e.g. connection of some kind between the disjuncts)

. . .

Thoughts worth repressing

I have seen a cluster of such attitudes far too often in the last few years: ..., increased attention to the valorization of women's behavior along with decreased attention to what we used to call the oppression of women, an "encouragement" of men to broaden their "roles" fancy anyone talking about racial roles or class roles!
- Joanna Russ, letter to The Women's Review of Books, Sep. 1986
(from The Country You Have Never Seen: Essays and Reviews)

Possible parallels between "male feminists" and "anti-elitist" American oligarchs?

(Left at "possible" because no way am I going to tease that out myself, you think I'm crazy?)

Responses

Josh Lukin:
I attended a WisCon panel on masculinities wherein people were getting all excited about the celebration of male sensitivity that was Iron Man III. So yeah, very very possible.

. . .

The Life of the Mind

The life of the mind is a sad, desperate affair compared to the life of the never-minding. But hey, you're there, it's there, what can you do? You can try drowning it or burying it but neighbors might complain and it's likely to just come back meaner.

So, you know, you try to keep it clean and fed and entertained, take it out for a walk if you have the time and it's not raining. It'll continue to vomit on your hardwood floor and scratch your guests and carry appalling diseases. Still, after a while you'll admit it's kind of cute in kind of an ugly worthless way. Sometimes it helps you pick up dates. People seem to miss it when it's gone.

Next: The Life of the Bowel!

Responses

The ever-mindful Josh Lukin writes:
Y'know the old cliché that the MLA convention is best encapsulated by a shot of John Goodman advancing down a flaming hotel corridor shouting, "I'LL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE MIND"? Now you got me visualizing a version revised to be about the life of the bowel. Colon shots and all, man.

My work here is done.

Unfortunately, my mortgage payments here continue.

special dispensations

Mr. Arthur Symons discriminates finely:

To unhappy men, thought, if it can be set at work on abstract questions, is the only substitute for happiness; if it has not strength to overleap the barrier which shuts one in upon oneself, it is the one unwearying torture.

. . .

Unpopular Man Seeks Popular Front

Aside from primate reliables like deceit and terror, divide-and-conquer is likely repression's most well established technique. Even when you know it's coming, it just works. So I understand I understand intimately how much easier and more gratifying it is to rip into those nearest to us than to fight a united-enough front of all three branches of the federal government, most state governments, and possibly City Hall.

Sadly, there are worse things than being wrong. There are even worse things than having to work with the annoyingly smug, the fanatically muddled, and the scandalously tunnel-visioned. Among those things would be accelerated transfer of all wealth to the wealthiest, illegalized abortion, destruction of Medicare and Social Security, ramped-up voter suppression, dropping consumer and financial and environmental regulations, valorizing the therapeutic use of violence and incarceration by the inexplicably timorous powerful, increased inundation by propaganda at school and home, decreased access to real information at school and home, absolute freedom to apply bigotry in whatever fashion can be reached or bought, and the frenzied sprint between total economic and total ecological collapse, along with whatever less predictable international scrapes we're dropped into.

Those seem like plenty enough problems to occupy our minds. An embarrassment of riches. Embarrassing enough to make me want to avert my eyes. I mean, who has the time? Given a chance to study ancient Greek, I'll spend an hour looking at Mary Beard tweets.

But when you're deported or abducted to a foreign land, I suppose you have to learn the language as best you can, no matter how badly that is. And I suppose I've got to bumble and thrash more-or-less towards what might be the right direction, and try not to get in the way too much.

ALL THAT SAID, this is an unusually well-earned rant by Kurt Eichenwald: "Start with this: The DNC, just like the Republican National Committee, is an impotent organization with very little power...."

Eichenwald is a reporter who focused on the election process itself, which may be why he doesn't mention what baffled me most about anyone-but-Clintonism: Bernie Sanders's one single issue wasn't something that Sanders or any other president could do much about. Taxes are determined by Congress, not by the executive branch, and there's no other path by which our democracy can restore the necessary redistribution of wealth. So long as greedy traitors control Congress, a President Sanders or a President Clinton, just like the post-2010 President Obama, could only act as a speed bump.

A speed bump or a drunken lead foot on the gas? That seemed like a simple enough choice. I forgot how 30% of Americans drive.

Responses

well, we know how to rip into each other, and we don't know how to fight the folks we need to fight. any ideas?

And then you can hear me run through the consonant declensions. Nah, I have no ideas; I'm looking to more sensible people for those. I do have words, plenty of words, but they're all unhelpfully self-obsessed and I'd rather not share them except as needed for friendship's sake.

For friendship's sake, I'll attempt a tl;dr: Whenever I engage in anything recognizable as "political action," my misery and ineptitude are such as to constitute sabotage.

More-sensible person Josh Lukin reminisces:

I guess my only comment on 9 November would have been "Hey, Mako! What the fuck happened!"

. . .

Movie Comment : All I Desire (1953)

In a post I persistently remember as "Dawn Powell for President," Roger Gathman noted Hillary Clinton's roots in conservative Chicago and asked, "But how about the Midwesterner who returns from the East Coast?"

For me, the question triggered a resurgence of survivor's guilt, resolving into the usual hysterical paralysis. But even as the Drama Queen express barreled away, another train of thought launched towards Hollywood's most peculiar specialist in Midwestern You-Can't-Go-Home-Again-or-Can-You parts: Brooklyn orphaned-and-abusively-bred Barbara Stanwyck.

Back in 1939, Remember the Night had dragged Stanwyck back to Indiana in the custody of killjoy D.A. Fred MacMurray (but this is a Mitchell Leisen picture so at least he's an attractive killjoy). There she's rejected by a shockingly real representative of the Heartland's evil-hearted 30%, meets warm welcomes from not-so-realistic representatives of the open-hearted 20%, sinks gratefully into the embrace of family and community, and is then rejected by them. Big romantic finish while the Breen Office chants "Lock Her Up!"

In All I Desire, Stanwyck's Naomi returns to Wisconsin under her own steam. This makes for a very different story, directed by a very different storyteller.

For some reason, The Film Dictionary of Received Ideas is considered particularly authoritative on "Sirk, Douglas," but Sirk was not a simplistic thinker. Instead of Sturges's-and-Leisen's rigid segregation of good and evil souls, here they're so thoroughly intermingled with the middling majority that, well, sometimes we almost can't tell them apart.

And embodiments of Naomi's original disgrace continue to walk the mean streets of Riverdale, although they seem to have slipped her mind during her busy years on the road: her extramarital lover remains a pillar of good ol' boy society and has assumed a pointedly paternal role towards her son the family's youngest child, born long after his two sisters and so closely to Naomi's escape that he may have precipitated it.

So Juliet Clark is certainly right to predict that "we can only feel relieved to be on the outside looking in" at this all-American home. But consider (as Stanwyck's character must) the alternative.

After ten years Naomi Murdoch's theatrical career has skidded midway down the music hall bill, with sour prospects ahead. (We'll never know how much talent she started with; she'd already borne three children, so she would have been trying to enter the profession at, let's say, age 28 or so?) Ostensibly, at least, she's seizing an opportunity to give her kid a thrill and pick up a little egoboo by way of a little fraudulence, after which she'll shed the pretense of stardom and return to her grind. But from the moment she struts off the train, she seems, so to speak, at home, which is to say on the stage, facing challenges, hitting her marks, sparking glee at each new win. She may not have been able to conquer Paris and London but this audience she can handle, and she'll surely find more opportunities to recite Shakespeare here than in burlesque.

The hometown hoaxer of Sturges's Hail the Conquering Hero is scabied by guilt; for the con-maiden of Sturges's The Lady Eve, the allure of sincerity goes foot-in-hand with the similarly vulnerable intimacy of full-frontal lust. In Riverdale, though, all self-expression is strictly utilitarian (albeit with none-too-well-thought-out motives); Naomi's just best at it.

The unrepentant criminal of Sturges's Remember the Night and the tempted ladies of Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow and All That Heaven Allows gladly lose their burden of selves in Good Clean Fun. But at no moment in All I Desire does Stanwyck convey pleasure untinted by performance. In Double Indemnity, what men mistake for sensuality is simply Mrs. Dietrichson's delight in manipulation; Mrs. Murdoch may have encountered similar confusion and may still.

(A few critics even predict that lechery will send Naomi back to the creep she nearly killed. I can't see it. Stanwyck was a magnificently wide-ranging movie star but one thing she could never play convincingly on-screen was being pushed around. If Naomi strays again, it'll be with someone of more practical use; Colonel Underwood, maybe.)

All I Desire's' "unhappy happy ending" is not all tragic and not all sacrifice. It's the role of a lifetime.

From which I conclude that if the Democratic party had shown the good sense to nominate a HUAC-supporting union-attacking self-martyring workaholic for president and relocated her to Illinois, she might have drawn a plurality of the state's votes.

(On the other hand, the original novel, screenplay, and directorial intent had Naomi opting again for self-exile, possibly after a bridge-burning public self-exposure, presumably to expiate her sins by someday dying in the traditional gutter. So maybe it really is just a crapshoot.)

Naomi's got the situation well in hand

Responses

Josh Lukin reflects on 1952:

Your HUAC reference got me thinkin' —the candidate who was uncritical of McCarthy (see Howe, Irving, Steady Work) managed to lose in his native Illinois during the McCarthy era. To be fair, he seems to have lost everywhere except in a handful of states where his running-mate was popular. And thank Heaven he did, 'cause where would we be without the four civil libertarians Ike put on the Court, right?

. . .

History Term Paper

If you say you want to transform a nominally representative government and your first reaction to a three-million-plus march is that they were the wrong people, you need to reassess your intent or your guidelines.

Virtually every Republican policy change has majority opinion against it. The union of those majorities is a larger majority. The intersection probably isn't a majority at all. But none of them will get anywhere unless the union pries power away from the extremists who currently hold it.

Responses

Josh Lukin gets first comment!

Ray, it suddenly occurred to me that the "you" might not refer to the President. But damned if I can figure out who it is. Maybe David Brooks?

Generally when I say "you," I mean "me." Might as well stick with that for now.

. . .

Assume the position

Assumption
by Percival Everett

Three police procedurals with a likably quirky and fallible protagonist and a shocking twist you won't believe!!

Or, hell, you probably will. Even if you never heard of Oedipus and didn't cut your genre teeth on Trent's Last Case and never saw Dark Angel on the late-late show, thirty years of blockbusters have established the good-guy-who's-really-bad as a convention which no more needs justifying than, say, a Tom Cruise love interest. Mystery readers who've reviewed Assumption felt satisfyingly tricked. Of the two academic papers on the book, one accepts the revised characterization at face-value and the other doesn't even mention it (which is a neat trick in itself).

I believed it, too, but my "it" was something stranger in reviewerly terms, if more familiar in fleshy ones. I took the ending at its word rather than at its face value:

"This is the way is is, Warren, simply the way it fucking is. Sad, sad, sad, sad, sad. Shitty, shitty, bang, bang. Nothing makes sense and that's the only way that any of it can make sense. Here I am, the way I am, not making any sense. Blood in the water. Blood on my shirt."

Generically, Assumption is a story series with the sort of showy dismount favored by writers whose ambitions reach past the commercial district. Back in the day, each novella could've appeared separately in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, with the third generating plenty of hate mail. For me, the insinuations which came increasingly (and maybe too abruptly) thick and heavy didn't (and don't) feel like clues laid to prop a backwards-reading; instead, they detoured us to structural collapse: solution by dissolved form.

The distinction partly comes down to reality effect. "Innocent" passages of the final story are detailed, individualized, and localized. Whereas the "guilty" intrusions are vague, off-the-shelf stuff, thudding the same "BOMM! BOMM! BOMM!" soundtrack used by every thriller trailer of the past, well, thirty years. The kind of bullshit which comforts juries but no one else.

I'd also been softened up (or simply concussed) by earlier apparently-realistic wholeheartedly-affective formal experiments. For reasons outside the immediate reading experience, I often find myself turning to Dhalgren:

"But thinking that live streets and windows are plotting and conniving to make you into something you're not, that's crazy, isn't it?"
I'm not a poet.
I'm not a hero.
But sometimes I think these people will distort reality in any way to make me one. And sometimes I think reality will distort me any way to make me appear one but that's insanity, isn't it? And I don't want to be crazy again.
I don't.

Most of all, my interpretive preference was swayed by hope for shared witness.

I sometimes hear shaming justified as punitive rehabilitation. A learning experience, so to speak, and I suppose it generally is, in one sense or another. It most often serves to exile (or confirm the pariahdom of) its target, strengthening the border between in-group and out-group, and confirming one's own claim to centrality. As evidence, those who consider themselves most securely in-group are notoriously shameless. Bullies (whether self-made or hammered-out) and their slaveys treat shame as weakness: the only thing that shames them is shame itself.

Censors are rarely fooled by the pretenses of the "cautionary tale"; they sense how easily the supposed warning becomes the irresistible script, a second-hand experience which your first-hand starts to grasp for.

BART: Wow. A drifter!

FUTURE BART: Lousy sheriff... Run me out of town... He's lost my vote...

BART: Cooool.

Shaming is a cautionary tale with an army and navy. Unless you have your own tribe to back you up, even if you're annoyed by the shamers' presumptions, you may later watch yourself act them out or remember having acted them out. At my lowest ebb, I recall the sudden relief of not bothering to argue with the world or myself, just doing the expected thing and waiting for the movie to be over instead of stretching it out to tedious length. If going with the flow sent me over the falls, well, I guess that's where I was meant to be.

Everett's decent-but-no-genius deputy sheriff is a black man in an overwhelmingly white-and-armed community. Wherever he goes, he's viewed with suspicion; should external reminders of bigotry be momentarily lacking, he can fill the void with memories of his father's jeremiads. He's got a place in the sheriff's department; he feels at home in a trout stream; he has to watch what he says in front of his mother.... It's not a lot to fall back on.

None of which is meant to insist that the last story's Big Kill was "really" done by anyone other than the guy who confessed to it. I don't think Assumption is a realistic story of false memory. Instead, I think it's a story that realism can't tell: the incomprehension of "Did I do that? I couldn't have done that, could I?" "Did he do that? He couldn't have done that..." "Did we do that? ..." The "No, not again" sensation of turning on the news and seeing another house idol, another icon we took as proof that life could escape that particular script Assumption freezes those final drowning moments of denial, the thing that catches in your throat even after you've begun to accept it as part of your throat....

Do I believe my own theory, as the man says? I'm not as certain of it as I am that, for example, Delany consciously embedded the funky clues that invalidate a Kid's-just-crazy interpretation of Dhalgren. The finales of both Erasure and Assumption felt rushed to me, which may betray readerly incompatibility. And in at least one interview, Everett seems to endorse the clever-clew-stringer take.

But I do feel a reasonable doubt, and the only menace I'd like to hang is the jury.

Responses

Eminent scholar Josh Lukin adds:

"Bullies (whether self-made or hammered-out) and their slaveys treat shame as weakness: the only thing that shames them is shame itself." That may be so IRL, but novels, often committed to the shaky premise that people have depth or the shakier conviction that bad behavior is a sign of that, may follow different rules. I blame Russian hacking.

You're right, I was thinking only of bullies I've witnessed or received witness of. Junior-high hallways, initiation rites, military indoctrination, and Norman Mailer all separated real-men from faggots with a crowbar by testing revulsion or scruples.

(Of course my personal canon shows close acquaintance with the appeal of insouciant transgression. But I would never mistake such refined tastes for manliness; I know the true standard of manhood is how much you can drink.)

As proven by domestic abusers and the Gorilla-Glass Tigers of 4channish doxxing, this bully-badge of courage rests easily alongside physical cowardice. And while such figures were conventional comic butts for Shakespeare's audience, bulliedom's most remarkable recent innovation has been open disavowal of bravery (as, I suppose, another convention in need of trampling). In present-day blancmange-with-a-gun America, completely irrational terror has become a surefire legal defense carrying no consequences whatsoever.

. . .

I Got a Right

The flip(-off) punk side of Imposture Syndrome Blues, genteely put by Stephen Greenblatt:

I was eager to expand my horizons, not to retreat into a defensive crouch. Prowling the stacks of Yale's vast library, I sometimes felt giddy with excitement. I had a right to all of it, or, at least, to as much of it as I could seize and chew upon.

Less giddily, there's my forever-adolescent fury at credential-based blockage. (Fifteen years of university dirt-shifting finally tunneled me behind those walls but what an absurd pretext!) And the disconcerting violence with which I met AB's and XZ's curiosity about why I follow John Crowley's career as closely as Jack Womack's, or why I should squander attention on sixteenth century literature and other hifalutin' highbrow longhair moldies when birthright entitled me to such a wealth of TV, junk food, ephemeral gadgets, and respectable edginess. The This-is-mine! snarl of a poorly disciplined cur.

Responses

Mememeister Josh Lukin fills me in:

Thanks for calling my attention to Greenblatt's sentimental essay. I like its atavism: one can imagine Howe or Fiedler or some other midcentury cosmopolitan recounting similar adventures and sentiments. Indeed, I expect Greenblatt's approach owes something to the novelists whom those Intellectuals influenced. My uncle would have enjoyed the piece, and I'm sure Greenblatt's friend Natalie ate it up.

Anent respectable edginess, the erstwhile Miss Spentyouth recently began a Facebook conversation that culminated in people discussing whether they were edgelords or edgevassals . . . I should have staked a claim for the nascent edgebourgoisie.

. . .

Prescribed Burns

Parietal Games: Critical Writings by & on M. John Harrison,
ed. Mark Bould & Michelle Reid

No admirer of artisanal butchery should be without the young-loud-and-snotty pieces M. John Harrison published beween 1969 and 1975. I was most impressed by his doomed berserker whirls against the incoming tide of Tolkien's fantasy ("By Tennyson Out of Disney")

... in any rural pub you can met Samwise Gamgee’s “Gaffer” swearing and spitting unpleasantly into the fire; and I once worked in a Warwickshire hunting stable with an amiable rustic character who beat up his dog so often it wet itself every time he went near it.

and against science-fiction's marching-morons-of-MENSA ("Filling Us Up"), which left a few nicks in my own carcass as well:

This is how thinking is done in sf: conversationally. Inevitable, then, that it should fall down all the holes that conversation is heir to side-tracking, argument from the wrong side of the analogy, rhetoric as a substitute for logic, the accidental modification of premises (or even subject matter). It is not rigorous. Its vocabulary consists almost wholly of terms like “granted” and “posit”, “given” and “for the sake of argument”; its grammar is punctuative, the oratorical “right?” and “agreed?” used as fish-glue to cement unrelated items; its impromptu syntax reflects its impromptu reasoning; it is a muck of colloquialisms and jargon words used outside their proper fields. [...]

In lieu of actual thought, Rackham and Coney offer brash, colloquial pontification, achieved through disembodied mouthpieces; Del Rey senses that “science” has something to do with careful reasoning, but embraces opinion instead; Maine bases his entire extrapolative argument on nothing more than a value-judgement, effectively bypassing the mouthpiece and presenting his cant direct.

Thought and prose cannot be considered as discrete states: the one modifies the other, to infinity. None of the above writers can make a precise, sensible prose, only a vague uncommunicative babble. Meanwhile, the IDEA! bulbs flash stroboscopically, and with each little explosion science fiction reels back, bemused by its own ability to think of things. With each brief illumination of the irresistible notion, the sense of its own importance grows.

Back at John Rackham’s table they’ve got the drinks in against closing time. The amateur sociologists and historians and technocrats are wiping foam off their lips. The pause that refreshes is over, and fragments of the eternal unformed rodomontade are drifting across the bar on a warm front of cigar smoke:

“We say - and we can prove... like the key principle in cybernation...”
“The energy of a finger movement on a switch can control millions of horsepower.”
“That is simply the logical extension of your postulate.”
“To a certain degree, everyone lives in a fantasy world...”
“You ivory tower boys can always make a good case.”

Who can complain? this is the style of the Seventies. The editorial toad has escaped from the centre pages; comment has eaten the news; punditry swallows both. The majority reveals itself as a broil of minorities, each convinced of its own indispensability and itself comprised of as many minorities as it has adherents. We speak, eventually, in private languages. Fiction isn’t art, is it?

Another great First for science fiction.

Which answers David Auerbach's unvoiced question. What draws big-capital big-bluster libertarian types to science fiction? The fatuous sound of men convincing themselves they're the smartest guys in the room.

After that initial blast of room clearing was done, after 1975, what lives of "M. John Harrison" is his fiction (and to some extent his interviews, although not the one included here). The genre overviews he provisioned in 1979 and 1980 are disengaged, distracted, throwing handfuls of ill-sorted proper names like pebbles against a window. From 1990 on, Harrison's byline occasionally appears on reliably professional man-of-letters book reviews in professional man-of-letters venues: perfectly fine; not where the action is. But the first third of this volume is where the action started.

Responses

Josh Lukin checks his watch:

Wait, Tiptree's sharp-faced man isn't the voice of the Seventies? Maybe he's the voice of the Eighties, then.

. . .

Things that scare me ha-ha

I used to describe Ruben Bolling as "Tom Tomorrow except funny." Now I view him through a more beatified glow, like a cross between Herblock and St. Cassian (except funny), the one public voice perceptive and honest enough to have frozen into a continuous throat-shredding scream of disbelief and horror. How better to enjoy Hallowe'en than with his remake of Gaslight?

Responses

But, as Dr. Josh Lukin knows, nothing scares me more than dissent:

And a voice said, Nah, nah! You thought it was good...

. . .

The Mechanical Jurk

Dear Hollywood, I sympathize, I know you must butter up for greased palms to trickle down; I know MBAs make the world go brown. But Hollywood, on behalf of those negligible folk who mean well yet are neither Forrest Gump nor Dexter, FYI:

Sociopaths are no more remarkably intelligent than they're remarkably ethical. They merely follow impulses which waste the time and ruin the lives of intelligent and ethical people around them. They're not master puzzlemakers laboring to gift us a masterpiece puzzle. They're white noise generators asking us to derive a signal.

Dr. Lecter, Professor Moriarty, Herr Gruber, Kevin Spacey how different from the home life of our own dear Queen, who learned everything he needed to know in kindergarten: "I'm rubber, you're glue" and Roy Cohn's phone number.

Responses

Josh Lukin advances the narrative:

This romanticization of sociopaths must be why the movies billed Parker, of all people, as "a thief with a unique moral code." Well, that and the inability to distinguish a moral code from a management strategy.

House Republicans been schooled:

Liar Liar Pants on Fire

. . .

Josh Lukin, August 18 1968 - July 25 2019

... a man of infinite patience and compassion, awesome learning, immense honesty, and almost grating humility, he represents to me the peak of what a scholar can be.
- from "Acknowledgments" in "A Literature of Suspicion: Critiques of 1950s Ideals in the American Roman Noir," a dissertation by Joshua Benjamin Lukin, 2003

Dick Macksey was the role model Josh mentioned most often to me, with H. Bruce Franklin a close second. I suppose what makes us think of someone as a "role model" or a "mentor" rather than simply "admirable" is validation-by-example of an ethos we would like to share once we've been assured that it's possible. And for those who succeed, descriptions of one's role model can conveniently be repurposed by others as a self-portrait.

Josh successfully lived as if the greatest of scholarly virtues, the primary impetus and guide which could not be sacrificed to convenience or time, was generosity. I'm told there are few higher-education jobs more draining than repeated first-year composition classes in an un-Ivied urban university, but year after year he gave his all to students. Almost half the longer pieces in his publications CV consist of interviews with non-canonical authors (and Josh Lukin was the Ernest Haller of interviewers). One of his two book credits comes from editing a collection of next-to-forgotten work from a writer better known as a mathematician; for the other, he edited a collection of essays about undercelebrated writings from an undercelebrated age. If he'd only labored over some first-time-into-English translations, he would have bullseyed every bullet point on the "Valuable Scholarly Work Which Will Not Advance Your Career" slide.

The virtue of "generosity" covers a wide and sometimes conflicting range, and its expressions are shaped by opportunity and need. (To put it more bluntly, Josh Lukin could not have reached into his shelves and handed anyone a first edition copy of Tristram Shandy although he could and did provide a year's worth of very welcome Donald Westlake recommendations.) In Josh's scholarly home turf of American studies (most often non-mainstream fiction, most often mid-20th-century), his characteristic expression turned away from both a Hermeneutics of Suspicion directed at naive-yet-safely-canonical Literature and the quietist or martial celebration of received wisdom, to demonstrate a Hermeneutics of Recovery and Acknowledgment which let suspicious Literature handle the Suspicion.

More broadly, he worked (and played) to break through the gated solipsism of those who conform to the hegemony du jour and the solitary confinement of those whose experiences or very existence have been denied:

But the taking of sides is not always the point: some of [Chandler] Davis's stories and essays rely on poetic force to evoke the understanding that to put it in propositional form “This state of feeling, or sequence of feelings, is possible and even common.’ A criterion for artistry and for radicalism in such a tactic is whether the statement is necessary and unusual: the pedagogy of feeling to which we are subjected every day by the clichéd and conservative discourse around us does not need more literature to reinforce it. Andrea Hairston has written, “Repetition is meaning. What we hear endlessly, goes without saying—is learned.” We need the tools to unlearn it, or to find affirmation of what we rarely hear validated; but we aren’t blessed with authoritative guides or methods for determining where poetic truth appears, or what manifestations of poetically shared feeling “further our understanding of ourselves and our society.” We must fall back upon our own rational faculties and our own moral imagination, with curiosity and compassion fueling our drive to connect with others.
- "Afterword: Alternatives to Reverence" from It Walks in Beautry
What artists, educators, performers, and historians can do for such movements is establish connections and continuities. If the hegemonic discourse reproduces itself by telling people with dissenting ideas that they are ridiculous, unhip, criminal, isolated, or mad, then any indication that they might be reasonable, aware, just, sane, and possessed of views that are shared by other people or were validated in other eras can help to build courage and conviction. Documenting what happens when shame is used as a mode of social control, when men are limited to a small repertoire of stereotypical roles, and when class is conflated with personal worth, the Literature of Suspicion can tell a receptive reader that a life such as his has been noticed or that her own suspicions that the dominant order's claims are false have been shared.
- "A Literature of Suspicion: Critiques of 1950s Ideals in the American Roman Noir"
Although I will in the remainder of this essay speak of having recognized familiar experiences in literature, I actually tend to feel that the text has recognized me rather than the reverse. And in being so recognized, I get, paradoxically, assured that responding, or having responded, with shame (or indeed with other intense affects) to past or ongoing experiences may not in fact be shameful.
- "Science Fiction, Affect, and Crip Self-Invention Or, How Philip K. Dick Made Me Disabled"

To my suggestion that Josh go public with his particularly acute critique of a then-trendy bit of poisonous rhetoric:

But right now, getting X *more* talked-about seems to me to be as desirable as a fistula (Asking Delany for his thoughts on the guy was a strategy for getting more Delanyan thinking into the world, not more reflections on X per se). You know me --I wunna call attention to as-yet insufficiently celebrated scholarship (among which I count Hoberek's book) or promote the creation of critical work that circumnavigates the Usual Cliches. Or, you know, get more sleep.
- correspondence, 2005
What's at stake here for me is that I would kind of like to say "These authors I have interviewed provide us with tools to rebut, or see through, or assert our dignity in the face of, or ignore, the toxic fantasies of X, Y, and Z" 'cause one is supposed to have a theory as to what theme holds one's work together. I hope my argument ends up having advantages beyond the fact that I know about irony. I'll have to engage Landy's "Nation of Bovarys," I guess; but surely we all see our own insufficiencies and plunge into bovarysm in order to escape the condemnation which, deep in our consciousness, we are the first and perhaps the only ones to make.
- correspondence, 2011

* * *

Present-day curators of American higher education in America set high value on "generosity" among the donor class but otherwise maybe not so much, and the freshly doctorated Josh Lukin duly became a contingent employee with a teaching load which discouraged extended research, writing, or publisher stalking. Chronically short on time, and showing caution appropriate to the academic precariat (as well as caution appropriate to the reader of Patricia Highsmith), Josh reduced his weblog to un-Waybackable ash long ago, and kept his Facebook account on lockdown more often than not. His latter-day academic publications include book reviews, reference-book entries, and a few historically-informed pedagogically-slanted close readings. All of them excellent jobs; all of them informative, convincing, and true to his own values. At least one of the reference entries has won an impressive citation list in its own right.

But such material requires some fading-into-the-background, and few hold much of Lukin's distinctive voice.

Most obviously (and understandably) missing are the puns. Josh perceived a world of whirling nimbuses of potential pun, where a quiver of displacement might at any moment discharge a cackling flash too loud and bright to ignore.

Then there was his affection for a mostly-vanished mode of mid-century secular American Jewishness; in one phone conversation with Josh, I would hear more Yiddish than from my year in Brooklyn. Like other drops from approved diction into "down home" idioms, it played a tutoyer role, and as such sometimes made a guest appearance in his interviews.

Most crucially, his academic publications muted the unique virtue of his wit, which somehow contrived to be engagingly genial even when furious or despairing. When he stung, he left a sting worth attending. You might gather some notion from his Chandler Davis afterword, and "Science Fiction, Affect, and Crip Self-Invention," and, less formally, from his Aqueduct Press self-bio. Although his dissertation is officially unpublished and (like virtually all contemporary literary-studies dissertations) modularized for easy cannibalization, and has in fact been partly cannibalized, it also coheres and builds, which makes me suspect that extended Lukin may be the best Lukin.

For that reason, I've kept close and frustrated track of the book-length projects he's mentioned over the years: a collection of his "interviews with feminist authors"; "Noir Recognitions, a study of identity in the 1950s novels of Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, and Philip Dick"; and, most intriguingly, "an unpublished draft of a memoir (Urgency: Growing Up with Crohn’s Disease)." Maybe someday, someday... well, a fan-boy can dream, can't he?

* * *

The Josh Lukin I knew was deeper, wider, and funnier than the academically-published Dr. Joshua B. Lukin, but still not quite Josh complet. I know from hearsay that he, like me, loved to eat, loved face-to-face conversation, and exhibited a disconcerting tendency to burst into song (myself in chants which echo Michael Hordern's, Josh [I imagine] in a Melchiorisch heldentenor accompanied by Segovian guitar). But residing 2800 miles apart and on very different career tracks, we (and Ann Keefer, his partner in all things) met only once in the flesh (being flesh, we of course immediately dined), and the late hours of our phone calls discouraged outbursts which might startle sleepy cats.

Still, it was Josh Lukin enough to fill a satisfying portion of my life. Long after the bulk of free-and-direct discourse retreated from the spooky public sphere into Mark'n'Jack's ClickLike Clubhouse, he continued to engage with an uncredentialed unknown non-academic who (true to form) could not conceivably advance anyone's career a whit. For sixteen years, through mutually inflicted bafflements, bruisings, and boosts, he was my most reliable correspondent, and for sixteen years he instigated my most extended and educational phone calls, punctuated by his signature placeholder, "What, can, I, say...," intoned with the delighted perplexity of a sated gourmet faced by another platter of amuse-bouches. Despite being given the advantage of a four-hour time difference, I'm such an early-rising geezer I sometimes found myself unable to even take notes during the last part of these calls, and wished I'd asked permission to record them for later listening.

(Timmi Duchamp maintained an even longer and closer epistolary/telephonic friendship. I wonder how many more of us are out there?)

Josh always suffered from greater or even-greater health problems, and they worsened this year, interfering not only with his work but with his and Ann's preparations to relocate. In mid-July he phoned to tell me that diagnostic progress had finally been made and a biopsy had been scheduled, and he figured I might be able to say something more than "We will keep you in our thoughts and prayers." I did so; he did so; we enjoyed ourselves but grew fatigued, as a sleepy old guy and a mortally ill guy will. Before we hung up I asked him to phone me again next week with the results of his biopsy, then thoughtlessly added, "We'll be thinking of you." I quickly apologized for violating our contract, at which he just as quickly chortled, "Like Oscar Wilde said, heh, the only thing worse than being thought about is not being thought about."

I didn't hear back from him the next week but wasn't surprised no matter what course of treatment he was prescribed, he and Ann would also be busy with their move.

Early on Sunday morning, July 28, I saw an obituary for Richard Macksey in the Washington Post, and sent a short email to Josh expressing condolences and asking about the biopsy. Late on Sunday night, I realized it had been a while since I checked on Facebook inhabitants, briefly logged in, and found that Josh had died two nights before.

He would've mocked my sentimentality with relish (with mustard, even), but Josh meant the world to me I know he did because the ground beneath me vanished when I read the news and free-fall makes me clingy. I hope this Sondheim number is sardonic enough to pass muster (and the mustard) with his memory.

 

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.