pseudopodium
. . . journalism

. . .

I guess it's been worth living here for over eight goddamn years just so's I could reap full enjoyment from this week's San Francisco Bay Guardian....

I can practical guarantee it!

. . .

Reuters brings us this uniquely reassuring analysis:

Russian authorities have said the vast nation will not suffer computer chaos after the clock strikes midnight on December 31, promising that citizens would experience only small changes in their lives.

"Russia already lives in a situation which Western experts have described as the most deplorable results of the 'Problem 2000'," Andrei Barkin, project manager at the Y2K resource center of government agency USAID, told a news conference.

Many Russians already battle with an unreliable telephone system in which calls often fail, while power cuts and hot water shortages are common in some far-flung regions.

These are the type of problems which many other governments are trying to prevent after December 31 when the millennium bug might strike, scrambling systems that cannot read the two final zeros [sic] when the date changes to 2000.

"Y2K is a civilized problem, meaning that if a country is more civilized it poses more of a problem," Barkin said.

. . .

Everyone has bumped into a news story that touches on one of their own areas of expertise only to discover that it's absurdly wrong. What I've never understood is how so few of us draw the logical conclusion about the trustworthiness of news stories that aren't in our areas of expertise.

Anyway, these kids are starting early. And what an area of expertise to start with: the mental stability of the leading American presidential candidate.

"They fixed how they misquoted him, but they didn't tell the whole story," commented Lindsey Roy, another Concord High junior.

+ + +

In more "I would've gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids" news (via Berkeley High School alum Juliet Clark):

. . .

Sharp as mud

Life decreases logical entropy while increasing thermal entropy: local hotbeds of organization become more complexly organized by expending energy into the tepidbed.

Intelligence and free will can be defined as those forces which introduce randomness into an otherwise predictable system. The number of possibilities increases, and so does apparent logical entropy.

For example, when intelligence creates a new conceptualization of a phenomenon, the existing phenomenon is not erased and continued misunderstandings of that phenomenon are not prevented. On the contrary, a new opportunity for misunderstanding is opened up: to wit, misunderstanding of the new concept.

To put it in terms of information theory: The amount of available information can only be increased by increasing the amount of possible confusion. Thus the main by-product of the evolution of intelligence is stupidity, and, as intelligence continues its work through the millennia, the gross amount of stupidity increases. Intelligence is life's little atonement for its sin against disorder, a back-door way to increase logical entropy after all.

And The Hotsy Totsy Club is proud to be part of this effort.

. . .

Special Anniversary Narcissism Week! (resumed): Audience

From the email interview with Mark Frauenfelder: How popular is your weblog?

Beats me. I've tried to not pay much attention since the hit counts passed those of my two ancient Yahoo!-linked pages.

Unless you're advertising, popularity doesn't matter on the web. That's the whole point of the web as a medium: wide distribution is cheap, and therefore not dependent on things like popularity. I know the readers who'd enjoy my crypto-cornpone style are a small minority. I just want as many of that minority as possible to get a chance to enjoy it.

I used to tell my web design students that they should count success by the amount of nice email they got. I've gotten some nice email for the Hotsy Totsy Club.

To Paul Perry:
Perhaps I'm overoptimistic, but I think the distinction between community and incest is easily maintained with a little conscious exogamy. As Aquinas says, incest is sinful because its cramming together of multiple social relations "would hinder a man from having many friends." To share an interest in a form is one thing, and a nice thing. To share all the applications of that form would be incestuous if consensual; simple plagiarism if not. Which doesn't appear to be a problem in the ontogroup you've posited -- I doubt that you and I have ever had a link or a line in common, for example -- probably due to the very things that interest us in the form....
Answering David Auerbach: My question to you, about writing on the web: how do you react to the choice/imposition of a very imminent and particular real audience that trumps any thought of an ideal audience?
I recognize the words you're using, but I would've used them to describe my issues with print publication. The painfully particularized audience who happens to be subscribing to a particular magazine during my particular appearance or to have bought a particular anthology containing my particular story is (precisely because it's the target audience of the publications) more than likely to be bored or annoyed by my work.

Web publishing, on the other hand, is only "ideal audience." There are no promises, no presuppositions in those fluffy network-diagram clouds; anyone might bump into anything. No "ideal audience" right away? Well, put the pages into the search engines and wait. No "ideal audience" ever? Well, at least it was cheap. On the web, the non-ideal audience will simply not bother reading what I've written; that is, it doesn't exist as an audience.

The biggest problem I have with web publishing has to do with that very fluffiness -- the lack of antagonism and risk means fewer itchy stimuli to respond to, less friction to push off against, less lying but more solipsism -- which is where I'm hoping that crosslinking, email, and public discussion can help....

Although it seems to make sense that conventional publishing should lead to more topical and less personal discourse, that hasn't been my experience. In the shorter forms of paper-publishing, anyway, public commentary tends to be driven by professional feuds and personal friendships, and private commentary restricts itself to messages like "Would you write something similar for my publication?"

Books are available to a more diverse readership and thus receive more diverse reactions, but book publishing is much more big-businessy than magazine publishing, and its barriers seem well-nigh insurmountable to the easily discouraged or stubbornly erratic.

I've gotten many more direct and diverse and therefore useful responses from web publication, partly because search engines don't worry about enforcing an editorial tone, thus allowing for more startle effect, and partly because email makes it easy to send responses.

As for the cult of personality, I'd be happy to admit that I think it's impossible to separate "voice" from "content" -- at least for the kind of content and the kind of voice I have. What journalism and academia might describe as the "privileging of content" or as "self-discipline," I hear as "mendacious (if useful) voice of authority," and it makes me sick with hypocrisy when I mimic it. Scholarly and commercial venues would be accessible if I could stick to the point, and hip venues if I could stick to aggressive role-playing; but when de-emphasizing the performative and the off-putting is required for writing, then I simply don't write. And since I still seem to want to write, I make the working assumption that it's not required.

. . .

"The more likely truth is that, by the time he was halfway through Ulysses, Joyce's mind was too far gone to be anywhere near capable of moral judgement - or, indeed, much else." -- Conrad Jameson
You poor poet, you!
Wow, that takes me back... the last time anyone came up with the "James Joyce was just psychotic" theory was probably William Empson fifty years ago....

Nostalgia isn't all that attracts me to this buffoonery. There's my ongoing holy war against journalism (that is, slanderous lies) and biography (that is, self-righteous gossip) to consider: The only way to pull such a delusion over one's readers' eyes is through deliberate obfuscation and deliberate plays on presumed ignorance.

For instance by claiming that a conspiracy of "the so-called New Critics" was responsible for inflating Crazy Jamie's reputation when in fact Empson was entirely typical of the New Critics in his dislike for Joyce. It wasn't academics and critics and journalists but writers and artists and amateurs who stoked the pre-1970 Joyce industrial forges.

".... he emerges as a man of great causes, an anti-colonialist, a pacifist and a feminist who, in Bloom, heralds the new womanly man. As it turned out, none of the things that either set of critics had said about Joyce was true...."
"As it turns out," it's demonstratedly true that Joyce was, albeit passively, a pacifist (and a socialist as well, though the New Statesman seems leery of that awful label) and an anti-colonialist and an anti-anti-Semite (not to be confused with a non-anti-Semite; that category didn't exist at the time): he said so quite openly, and others said it, whether insultingly or approvingly, about him. The "feminist" label I'll grant would be a stretch, but in typical journalistic "I don't need a man, I've got straw, thank you" fashion, Conrad Jameson ignores the hostile reception that Joyce has therefore received from many feminists. (I should know; I've argued with 'em.) What he was not was a propagandist, which is what's driven many a propagandistic writer to fury.

Anyway, the writer's job is precisely to seem better and wiser and wittier than the writer is. When the writer doesn't succeed -- when the writer is, say, Oliver St. John Gogarty -- the writer will be remembered as a character rather than a writer. (And despite Jameson's calumny, characters are the ones who're sustained through imitation and emulation rather than the comparatively depressing and colorless writers: emulating the writers would be too much work for the payback.) If Joyce's writing can convince anyone that he was a feminist, it's as much to his writing's credit as it is to Shakespeare's when readers convince themselves that Shakespeare must've been a lawyer or a doctor or a Duke of Earl. "Mme. Bovary, c'est moi" is a boast, not a confession.

Jameson's least mendacious attack on Joyce is purely personal and based on a very slim selection from Joyce's private letters and biography. There's no point in taking a defensive stand on that slim selection: a careful pinching out of details from anyone's private life (much less a writer's, since anyone who decides to write instead of taking a sensible job has got to be more than half crazy to begin with) would make them sound committable. (Yes, even George Bernard Shaw. Even, I suppose, the swollen parasite at hand.)

But, except in the most blatant miscarriages of justice, commitment papers aren't signed based on selected details but on how one's life is viewed in the context of one's place and time. In Joyce's place and time he might not have been called cuddly but neither was he ever called psychotic. As Virginia Woolf proved, there are more direct routes to self-destruction than neglecting one's health; as T. S. Eliot proved, there are worse attitudes toward one's spouse than brusqueness; as Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound proved, doubts about the later Joyce are not necessarily proof of good politics and coherent writing. And (to veer back to slander and lies for a moment), Pound, Eliot, and Woolf didn't take issues with Joyce's "insanity" so much as with his lack of class.

. . .

Doug Asherman queries: "Here's something probably no one cares about, but....is there a conspiracy to hide all the good music from us? And the good books? Are people in the arts laughing at us for buying their crap? And if so, what can we do about it?"

Meanwhile....

Disclaimer: Ray Davis is a paid contributor to The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors.
 
Despite my familiarity with Salon, I was surprised by the Reader's Guide. It's like stooping to pick up what looks like an ordinary mediocre valise only to find that it's been packed full of mediocre lead bricks. According to the official mission statement, "We decided to let our contributors' enthusiasm and curiosity be our guides." These guides would seem to share one enthusiasm (the New York Times Book Review), one curiosity (what's on the front page of the New York Times Book Review?), and one path (to the trade paperback table at Borders).

I'm hardly a specialist in late-twentieth-century fiction, but if I'd wanted to provide a service to readers I would've found room for Joanna Russ, Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, Carol Emshwiller, Jack Womack, Bob Gluck, Barbara Comyns, Thomas Disch, Alexander Trocchi, Wendy Walker, M. John Harrison, Pat Califia, John Crowley, would've asked someone to tell me more about Patrick O'Brian and Dorothy Dunnett....

In fact the book includes only two authors that really matter to me: Karen Joy Fowler (given a short entry) and Samuel R. Delany (a short entry). Broadening my selection to writers I merely respect would add Elmore Leonard (a short entry) and Toni Morrison (a long entry, because she publishes in the mainstream genre) to the overlap.

And it's not because I haven't heard of the book's choices, which are beautifully (if unintentionally) parodied by John Updike's inset guide to "Timeless Novels about Loving," apparently repurposed from TV Guide:
"Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert - A young bourgeois wife seeks spiritual and sexual fulfillment away from the marital bed and runs grievously into debt."

"The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - Among the Puritan pioneers of Boston, a promising clergyman falls afoul of a dark-haired protofeminist and her wizardly older husband."

Yeah, my list is idiosyncratic. An idiosyncratic list is what you'd expect to get from a serious pleasure reader. Whereas the Salon.com Guide is what you'd expect to get from a serious follower of publicity.

The depersonalized author selection ensembles beautifully with the reviewers' khaki prose. Dumbed down for ease of swallowing, it's the house style of virtually every free weekly paper: "authority" and "irreverence" and "wittiness" depilated of information or personality or humor. Journalistic blatherers used to flatter their readership by pretending it was full of good taste and morality while somehow simultaneously dumb as a stump. Nowadays the readership's still dumb as a stump yet somehow full of detached ironic wit.

Thus it makes sense that the only writer given full stylistic rein is "Pagliacci Dave" Eggers, who ends his celebrity roast of Kurt Vonnegut:

"So. Vonnegut is good. If you like books, and like to read them even if they are easy to read and frequently funny, you will like the work of Kurt Vonnegut, a writer. Also: He has a moustache."
Robert Benchley, move over! ... Or roll over. Do something, man! ... Guess he's dead.
Even John Clute, one of the most eccentric stylists ever to write a review, is sanded down to transparency here. Which is extra sad, since his argument against the tyranny of the "mainstream literary" genre lances so precisely the core of this book. Restricting yourself to mainstream fiction in the late twentieth century is like restricting yourself to heroic tragedy after 1650. The mainstream's just not where good writing is being done. Unless you crave watery flavorless writing.
How did this awful thing happen? One clue may be found in the opening of the entry for Angela Carter:
"Carter enjoyed little renown during her life, but after her death...."
"Little renown"? Say what? Angela Carter? The only way I can make sense of this is to translate it as "I wasn't assigned Carter in high school and I didn't read the New York Review of Books back then, but after I graduated...." An editor should've caught the gaffe, but since an editor wrote it, it was probably immune.
Someone on the staff did make time, though, to reduce my already undistinguished sentence:
"An early devotee of poststructuralist and feminist theory, Delany in 1979 began Return to Nevèrÿon, an archeological fantasy series that was to occupy him on and off through the 1980s."
to complete nonsense by deleting "in 1979." Maybe someone in the publishing business could clear this up for me: Are copyeditors paid more for adding lots of mistakes to a manuscript, like programmers whose productivity is measured by lines-of-code? Or do they fuck things up out of sheer gotta-leave-my-mark egotism, like programmers who work nights and weekends?
Another clue: from what I can gather, my topic was originally assigned to a friend of the editors who decided only when the deadline was nigh that it was too hard to finish the research. These aren't enthusiasts trying to communicate their enthusiams: they're a clique trying to act like grown-ups.

From the mission statement:
"We encouraged our contributors to think of you, the reader, as an intelligent, interested friend or relative who'd just asked, 'So tell me about John Updike. What are his books like?'"
I find it unlikely that your auntie would be asking you such a thing unless she was checking how well you'd learned your lessons.
What we got here is not just smugness, but downright noisy celebration of shared limited knowledge. It's like that guy in the museum painstakingly explaining every perfectly obvious thing to his wife. It's like my geeky friends parroting TV shows. It's what they teach you to do in school. And it's what makes a successful journalism career. Salon.dot critics are they who seek to enjoy, without incurring the Immense Debtorship for, a thought thunk.

See Also: Anyone who enjoys this crap should probably seek out the opinions of more journalists. Those intrigued by my crackpot theories can find them expressed more calmly in a 1998 response to Jonathan Lethem.

Ray Davis will be appearing with other contributors to The Salon.com Readers Guide to Contemporary Authors at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco, Thursday, September 14, 7:30pm.

. . .

My favorite story of the holiday season (from jamie.com) goes beautifully with my favorite email of the holiday season (from Douglas Hawes):

Dear Mr. Davis,

This morning while working in the front lobby of this Santa Clara hi tech firm, I checked out the site on Tuesday Weld. It took me a while to find out how to respond to the creator of the site, but I ultimately found your e-mail address...

I have been studying Tuesday Weld for about 12 years. Right now I am hoping to set up an interview with Ken Anger, who knew her intimately, through [...] the owner of the Silver Screen Hollywood memorabilia shop, which is located in Manhattan. He is a friend of Anger, and I have a friend in Santa Cruz who is an associate [...] And I happen to have a young niece who is an aspiring journalist who is transferring to New York University this spring semester, where she will study journalism...

Over the years I have met a number of people who were aware of the remarkable behind the scene aspects of Tuesday Weld's life and influence. The manner in which you present your information on your web site suggests that you are aware of some of these hidden things as well...

The friend of mine in Santa Cruz [...] talked at length with Ken Anger at the Silver Screen years ago about Tuesday Weld's hidden influence in the realm of underground occult activities. Another figure I know, a New Age teacher (now deceased) with widespread Sufi/Masonic/Rosicrucian contacts told me that Tuesday was involved in the promotion of a certain grand master to the leadership of the AMORC Rosicrucian order in San Jose back in the eighties... A Vietnam veteran I knew in Santa Cruz who was a political activist said he had attended a ritual in the Santa Cruz mountains in which Weld officiated (it didn't involve anything scandalous). He once got up in a political meeting I attended in Santa Cruz and said that Weld was doing all she could to help the cause....

I could tell other stories as well... The hidden life of Tuesday Weld has largely been undisclosed in the media, and remains one of the great undisclosed stories of the sixties and seventies. The only major reference to her that discloses her occult connections, but only in a discreet way, is a long forgotten book, "Popular Witchcraft," which was published by Bowling Green University Press in 1972. In it Anton LaVey in an interview says that his book "The Satanic Bible" was partially dedicated to Tuesday because "she was the embodiment of the goddess," and was "part of the ritual." LaVey's remarks reflect a close personal acquaintanceship with Weld, and hints heavily on her involvement in his ritual activities. So why the coverup?

Anyway, I await your response.

You Do It To Them

My response:

Pants Off Thanks for the note -- I'm glad you're enjoying the site.

I'm sure you know much more about Weld-the-person than I do, and you're bound to know still more much after dipping into Kenneth Anger's pool -- everything I've learned has been through letters and packages sent to me by kind readers of my initial essay. Her biography turned out (very unusually for an actor!) to be a suggestive match to my critical interests, and so I've been glad to pass the second-hand knowledge along to my web audience. But I can't claim to have been thoroughly taken by the biographical impulse myself.

Similarly, my only personal interest in the occult is as a distance-and-direction-estimating narrative-generating parallel to other ineffective-yet-compelling pursuits, such as art-making and emotional outbursts, that I feel closer to.

But if you find the idea of a dilettante leech appealing, please feel free to pass your findings along!

. . .

Weblogs and journalism (see also jill/txt)

At a friend's birthday party the other night, someone told me about an airplane flight where they didn't get any sleep because they sat next to a girl who was obsessing about a very difficult decision; see, she had this box of jewelry from Barney's (this one right here) that her boyfriend, the Wired editor, had given her, but he was originally from the Midwest and so he was undergoing psychotherapy now because of an adolescent trauma that he'd admitted to her, to wit having sex with chickens, and she just couldn't stop thinking about that, so she broke up with him, but she still didn't know whether that meant she had to take back Barney's jewelry.

. . .

Celebrate

Today Samuel R. Delany is 60 years old.

Delany more than any other writer of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century is truly dedicated to and efficacious in building better American citizens, and so this should really be a national holiday and Delany himself subsidized as a national treasure -- with a PBS documentary series, and statues in every city, and appropriate selections publicly taught at each grade level -- it's not like he would stop writing; on the contrary, he would be able to write much more -- but the USA doesn't tend to do such things, so I recommend in default that everyone who reads this go to their nearest bookstore and buy as many Samuel R. Delany books as they can afford and, should they be a Hollywood producer, also buy a good many Samuel R. Delany film rights, and that way maybe he would still be able to write much more. (ATTN Will Smith's agent: The Motion of Light in Water is the EPIC SAGA of a GENERATION shown via the TRUE STORY of a GENIUS who TRIUMPHANTLY OVERCOMES a NERVOUS BREAKDOWN! OSCAR OSCAR OSCAR)

I wanted to find a good summation statement from Delany's out-of-print work to stick here, but even when pressed he tends not to waste time summing up his own work, so here's what I wrote for The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors, although editorial requirements forced me to sorely constrict myself on the nonfiction and the mainstream fiction and actually pretty much on everything:

An ambitious autodidact in the grand tradition, Samuel R. Delany has been called the "most individual of America's individualist writers." For four decades and in a half-dozen genres, Delany has outraged and comforted readers with formally innovative, determinedly eclectic, and uniquely heartfelt work.

Kathy Acker described his fiction as "a conversation between you and Samuel Delany about the possibilities of being human." Unlike many exploiters of "transgression," Delany seems driven by the desire to honestly communicate previously unspoken human experience; even his grungiest material is surprisingly warm in tone. As William Gibson wrote, "I remember being simply and frequently grateful to Delany for so powerfully confirming that certain states had ever been experienced at all, by anyone."

Delany's early work exuberantly cross-bred space opera conventions with linguistic theory, female starship commanders, sexual triads, sword-wielding Orphic avatars, artist-criminals, pop culture, and the emotional complexities of sadomasochism. This phase ended in 1968 with the publication of his super-science swashbuckler Nova and the writing of his first pornographic novel, the Grand Guignol fantasy Equinox.

After a long silence, Delany re-emerged in the mid-1970s with three startling novels: Hogg (unpublished until 1995), a clear-eyed depiction of professional rapists and sexual exploitation of children, and perhaps the most effectively offensive work in American literature; Dhalgren, the portrait of a bisexual drifter in a late 1960s city, and a massive hybrid of era-summarizing ambition, hyper-naturalist technique, science fictional motifs, poetics, urban gangs, and structuralist theory; and Trouble on Triton, an "ambiguous heterotopia" which seamlessly blends interplanetary warfare, Jamesian character-determined prose, and feminist satire while describing a blond hetero hero's imagined victories and true defeats.

An early devotee of poststructuralist and feminist theory, Delany published in 1979 the first volume of his archeological fantasy series Return to Nevèrÿon, a "Child's Garden of Semiotics" (complete with slave revolts,women warriors, dragons, bondage, an alternative Genesis, and the invention of writing) that was to occupy him on and off through the next ten years. The disarmingly straightforward approach of the series contrasted with 1984's rococo Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a tragedy of intercultural-interspecies communication and sexuality which remains to date Delany's last science fiction novel.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Delany devoted himself to criticism, autobiography, and studies of interracial and interclass urban relations. Often the strains are intertwined, as in The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction in the East Village, a beautiful and moving account of the early 1960s. The effect of AIDS on the sexual cultures and industries of Manhattan became a focal point in Delany's writing with the fantasy-journalism layering of "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals," and continuing in his pornographic mystery The Mad Man (in which a young African-American scholar finds true love with a homeless redneck and true satisfaction with a considerably wider range of partners), and in a forthcoming book on Times Square.

. . .

On a certain tendency of journalism

"News" is what's just now being talked about, and "balanced news" concerns what's arguable (or pretends to be). "Old news" isn't news, no matter how essential the old news is, and no matter how little it was reported when new.

We saw that turned to use in the 2000 election, when early reports of undebatable problems in Florida (voters illegally turned away; grossly misprinted ballots; Republican party stalwarts counting votes) were drowned in a comic muddle over debatably bad UI design.

And here we go again, into a muddle over the relative vagueness or exactitude of pre-September-11 warnings.

Cheney's cautious avoidance of commercial airlines is amusingly characteristic, but the hypocrisy and cowardice of our current Executive branch has already been well established, and one new example is unlikely to change anyone's opinion.

What's important news now has been important news since last November (and arguably since the previous November): the Bush adminstration's favoritism towards its private business interests, including antagonism towards whatever might offend the Saudi royal family.

"Would the hijackings have occurred if Bush hadn't called off investigators?" is an obviously unanswerable question, but it's just as obvious that they weren't made more difficult. There's no need to prove some unthinkably vile conspiracy's "responsibility" for those thousands of deaths; Bush's, Cheney's, and Ashcroft's patent irresponsibility is damnation enough.

"Did they know?" is equally undecidable. What is decidable is that they didn't want to know.

Almost immediately upon taking power, Bush placed his familial, financial, and political ties above considerations of national safety. (All part of reducing big government and keeping business strong!) Just like Ashcroft placed his personal bigotries and religious beliefs above such considerations. (All part of saving Christianity!)

That seems more enduringly to the point than whether Bush was told in August 2001 that airplanes were capable of crashing into things. But, although it was a cause of news, and will be a cause of news to come, I have to admit that it's not news.

See also Avedon Carol's Sideshow....

. . .

Since the biggest problem with biographies are the biographers, why not just get rid of 'em?

In an email message a while ago, Jessie Ferguson fantasized one approach to erasure: "I still want to write a biography that passes no judgments at all and raises no questions it isn't equipped to answer." And I imagine something like the "Chronology" in a Collected Works, except busting out all over with source documents like a microwaved popcorn bag....

That sounds nice.

An easier approach, which could be said to be even more honest, being even less interpretive, is just stringing the blatantly heterogeneous source material together, like in The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader, 500 pages of Gerald Early's selections from memoirs, interviews, and journalism.

Which is nice.

Having an actual example brings on a couple of new thoughts, though, which just goes to show that examples are worthwhile:

  1. If you don't rush into things, secondary sources eventually turn into primary sources. Back in the 1950s, the astonishingly nasty Confidential pieces were just destructive gossip; now they're essential to understanding what the heck was going on.

  2. There's an awful lot of repetition. With variation. Me, I enjoy tracing slight changes from one retelling of an anecdote to another as it rots into accepted history, but I don't know how many others share that rarefied pleasure.

  3. To quote Jessie Ferguson again, "you can't apply the work-as-mirror-of-life analysis to someone whose life is lost to history, that being the negative lesson to take from the case of Emily Bronte."

    You need a fairly wide variety of voices and publication genres for a biographical compilation to work; else all you've got is a reprint of someone else's book (not that there's anything wrong with reprinting someone else's book). For some biographical subjects, you might be able to get sufficient variety out of letters and diaries. Outside such knitting-brow circles, the approach will skew you towards the kind of people who get talked about in memoirs, interviews, and journalism: that is, to show-biz celebrities. And performers just don't tend to be very interesting. Their work can be interesting, but as people, with few exceptions, they fall within a pretty narrow range of affection-craving self-dramatizing technique-obsessed personalities.

    Sure, there are noticeable differences between performers. Those more-or-less unique aspects are what passes for interest in memoirs, interviews, and journalism, and what incited Early's hard work on Sammy Davis, Jr. But there are even more similarities between performers, and the constant background noise of those shared aspects starts (to me, anyway) to get numbing after a while.

  4. All theoretical speculation aside and against, a highlight of the book is Early's still-young-enough-to-be-a-secondary-source introductory essay:

. . .

Right String Baby But the Wrong Yo-Yo

Once again, a large portion of the writers I follow are astir over their popularity relative to everyone else. I know we've been submerged in winner-take-all propaganda from birth, but I'm still always astonished by how eager we are to misapply competitive structures. Explanation trumps [link via OLDaily] truth every time.

Even Jonathan Delacour only almost gets it:

"My instinct is that the real innovations in blogging will be made by those of us in limbo: without the pressures of producing for mainstream tastes but with the ambition to do more than chat amongst a tiny number of friends."
Whenever I hear the word "innovation," I reach for my Catullus. But replace "innovations" with "worth," and that seems fine for how far it goes. It's still not going far enough because it's still accepting an implied hierarchy at odds with the matter at hand.

Despite some promising research, the technology of the web is hostile to mass popularity, as anyone who's been on the receiving end of a Slashdotting can testify. Only the Pyrite Rush years of web advertising made it seem otherwise, and those years are gone.

Delacour's "limbo" is in fact what the web was built for; the extremes of the hit-count scale are just gravy, not very well served. Commercial broadcasting and journalism are set up to handle high traffic and wide popularity. Email and bulletin boards are set up to handle friendly conversation. The niche markets and the midlists are what the web's low cost and wide distribution custom-tailor.

For the type of webloggers I read, the comparison that matters -- the comparison that decides the value of what they're doing -- isn't their hit count vs. the largest hit count on the web. What matters is their hit count vs. the number of readers they would have if they printed on paper (or not at all).

To take the biggest print-world celebrity on my regular rounds, Ron Silliman's Demo to Ink seems more worthwhile to me at Amazon sales rank 886,274 than Crash Profits at 3 or Atkins for Life at 7. His self-published and determinedly insular weblog may have reached more readers in four months than his manifesto-proffering The New Sentence (Amazon sales rank 452,995) has in fifteen years.

And Silliman is unusual in having so many books remain in print once printed. For those whose work appears mostly in journals, the summed hit count available through paper publication rarely matches a single week of a middling weblog.

. . .

Anchorites

"again pondering time and date stamping. It seems such triviality but has a strong presence in the weblog." - nqpaofu
Speaking of ponderous, during an anti-PDF frenzy the other day, I gained some insight into the appeal of the permalink after my hapless audience pointed out that print-mimicry at least makes it easier to write proper academic citations....

It's understood well enough nowadays that web-browser-targeted writing and reading tends to steer us in a different direction than book-targeted, pulp-magazine-targeted, or glossy-journalism-targeted writing and reading. But the legacy voculabulary used to jerryrig this jalopy tends to veer us into the ditch.

If a website is a book, then a page would be... a page? Thus early punditry decreed a web page should be at most "one screen" long. As we also understand well enough these days, this was awful advice. The paper page and the HTML page only coincide for the publisher of short poems.

Weblogging fulfilled the promise of web self-publishing because it was the first form whose conventions directly supported the natural tendencies of web-browser-targeted writing and reading. Here, the web page is more of a "chapter" or a "topical discussion" than anything a prose writer might call a printed page.

Which makes the web page unsatisfactory both as bog paper and as a way to point to a more-or-less arbitrary manageably constrained span of source material in its original context.

Permalinks were accordingly welcomed as a natural replacement for the convention of page numbers. And I can't deny that we publish serially, or that references to serial publications generally include the date, or that a single-author serial publication generally won't release an unwieldy span of source material on a single day.

But, as Jouke indicates, there's something creepy about it. Dates carry connotations outside the realm of publishing, whereas I'm unlikely to feel a pang of remorse or nostalgia when someone mentions page 1062.

. . .

This Is Hard But This Is Easy
The Glorious Fourth

Apologies in advance. I sometimes geta meta about this time.

Although elaborated and confirmed by 1980s poststructuralism and 1990s cognitive science, my metaphysics struck around 1981 and stuck.

The difficulty has been deriving a practice. Or a praxis, for those of you who don't have to work for a living.

It might better be called an "ethics" or "aesthetics," but those words too easily slide into mere judging, even though making an ethical judgment is no more ethics than making an aesthetic judgment is art. Taste isn't a recipe, much less a cook or a cow. Life is not necessarily synonymous with habits of consumption.

Not that that's a bad slope to slip down. For nigh on a decade, I found grace as a middle-class consumer. The great American dream. And I do in fact believe in its greatness, or at least the possibility of its goodness. But down-down-downedy-down-down-*thump*! the bottom.

Then I struggled with print publication -- especially fiction, which I especially respected -- but I lack sufficient impulse. Too much ethic and aesthetic, not enough praxis.

So this is where I strive at present & for four years now & for the foreseeable future. And these are my Goals & Nongoals:

  1. Never supplant; always supplement.
  2. Explain; remain at odds. Don't argue.
  3. Ignore numbers. Respond to individuals.
  4. Trust the ephemeral, the trivial, the pompous, the pretentious, the clownish, the pedantic. Salvation behind and beneath the rock.
  5. Revise with abandon. Contradict myself. Apologize. Never delete. (My one deleted entry was one which became unexpectedly personal [as opposed to sincere] within an hour or two of its posting. Should it eventually become impersonal enough to regain sincerity, it'll be back.)
  6. Refuse compulsion. Refuse journalism.
  7. Truth to Turnips; Quack to Questions.
  8. When possible, cite and recite rather than write and rewrite.
  9. Erraticism equals discipline over the long haul.

. . .

What I Learned from Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller by Jackie Wullschlager

  1. I knew the fairy tales weren't Andersen's first publication. I'd somehow assumed, not really thinking about it, that he'd bummed along more clearly marked literary routes and got run off each by their rent-a-cops before being forced down this low-prestige path.

    He certainly started with a diet of humiliations. Crow for breakfast, crow for tea, crow for in-betweens. Maybe a few early worms in season, you know, while hunting crow.

    But in fact he didn't take the risk till he had something to lose. He waited till he had an internationally successful inspirational poem anyone can be inspired, the real money's in inspiringand an internationally successful mainstream inspirational novel before he started writing oblique colloquial self-defeating stories whose only excuse were they were for kids.

    And the critics disapproved right off. Waste of talent.

    "It is not meaningless convention that one does not put words together in print in the same disordered manner as one may do quite acceptably in oral speech."

    It's as if after winning the National Book Critics Circle Award Jonathan Lethem began scripting superhero comics. Or if after attaining some stability in academia, Samuel R. Delany started writing niche-market porn.

    The fucker had guts.

    "Of course I shan't enjoy the experience in this world."
  2. Andersen had to meet Dickens; Dickens had to meet Andersen. In the newspapers, they were twin urchins of different dead mothers. Smile on their lips, tear in their eye, lectures in their circuit, and the kids love 'em.

    The meeting was excruciating. Much worse than Proust meets Joyce. Neither Proust nor Joyce were clingers.

    Andersen was a poet who wanted to be a dancer; Dickens was a pro who wanted to be a pro. Andersen was sentimental; Dickens deployed sentiment. A Dickens reading was scripted; an Andersen reading was the original recreated. Andersen was a drama queeen spaz; Dickens was a charming smoothie. Andersen didn't realize how annoying he'd been till Dickens stopped answering his letters.

    You know who Andersen really should've met in England, though? John Keats. Keats was nine years older, but they were equally enthused by an ideal of aesthetic community, and when they found it gated, they shared public abuse for their pretensions and developed similarly perverse attempts at guardedness.

    The only hitch would be that Keats died age 25, and Andersen hit his stride age 30. But if Keats had lived to hit his own stride, and then lived a decade or two more, I bet they would've gotten along real good.

Responses

Kierkegaard got his start jumping on HC Andersen, and I can't find it on the web, but there's a marvellous grovelling letter extant from A to K thanking him for not attacking him as much as he might have or not attacking him in some later publication, I forget which. -- PF

"Grovelling" seems a little strong, if we're thinking about the same thing. Some years after Kierkegaard attacked his novel, when the younger man was a little better established, Andersen sent him a newly published volume of fairy tales with the note:

"Either you like my little ones Or you do not, but they come without Fear and Trembling, and that in itself is something."

Looking back at what I wrote, a couple of clarifications might be useful:

  • I at first avoided reading Wullschlager's book because the reviews and auxiliary journalism led me to think it committed the contemptible and common sin of contempt for its subject. Instead I found an intelligent and scrupulous biography which incorporated the best Andersen criticism I've seen.
  • Pretty much any characterization I've applied to Andersen might also apply to myself, aside from the ones relating to courage and genius.

* * *

A strong misweeding of Negative Capability Brown

Whether meant as brickbat or bouquet, I thank you.

Grovelling may have been strong, or I am misremembering completely - I do have in mind something like dear mr kierk thank you so much that my little thingums are not chewed up by you and spat out again that was so nice. I read it years ago of course and so can't quite remember right.

. . .

The Spasmodic Gap

(Written for The Valve)

In mid-nineteenth-century Great Britain, a group of left-wing lower-class poets publish autobiographical free verse epic dramas. Critics name them the Spasmodics.

It sounds like a Howard Waldrop premise. Could the Winter 2004 issue of Victorian Poetry be hoaxing us?

For a while, my answer was "Baby, I don't care." Editors Charles Laporte and Jason R. Rudy select well and structure novelistically. First, Herbert F. Tucker begins with a high overhead shot of exposition, a lightly satiric, lightly sympathetic tone to draw us into the story. Then, with admirably ethical opportunism, a series of contributors apply varied professional interests to bring out aspects of Spasmodic characters and times. Details and depth accumulate. Finally, Florence Saunders Boos, openly partisan, fully engaged, describes the movement's catastrophe, with heroes ambiguously vanquished and villains ambiguously triumphant, leaving the signature effect of alternate history: an exhilarating sense of possibility; a melancholy sense of possibility foreclosed.

When curiosity won, though, I found confirmation (if not texts) easily enough.

"But, by a certain gorgeousness or intricacy of language, by a scrupulous avoidance of the apparent commonplace in subject; by more or less elaborately hinted or expressed unorthodoxy in religion or philosophy; and, above all, by a neurotic sentimentalism which would be passion if it could, and, sometimes, is not absolutely far from it, though it is in constant danger of turning to the ridiculous or of tearing its own flimsiness to tatters by all these things and others they struggled to avoid the obvious and achieve poetic strangeness."
- George Saintsbury, Cambridge History of English and American Literature

How to excuse, or at least explain, my ignorance?

When I search my memory for verse of the 1840s and 1850s, I find Poe smouldering at one end of a long flat expanse of Tennyson, broken by a few Brownings, between the issueless extravagance of the late Romantics and the parentless extravagance of Swinburne and Whitman.

That bare spot is where the Spasmodic impulse once grew. Insofar as the Spasmodics could be construed as a group, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh is what's left of them. Kirstie Blair points out that, for once, reactionaries had reason to welcome a major work by a woman. Despite its provocations, Leigh's redemption ("Oh, wait did I say Art was the most important thing? Sorry, I meant Marriage.") provided a reassuring ending all round. Domestication was what the Spasmodics most infuriatingly lacked.

+ + +

"A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. [...] USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!"
- Charles Olson, "Projectivist Verse"
"Words rhythmically combined affect the feelings of the poetic hearer or utterer in the same way as the fact they represent: and thus by a reflex action the fact is reproduced in the imagination" ... "Depend on it, whatever is to live on paper, must have lived in flesh and blood." ... "certain rhythms and measures are metaphors of ideas and feelings" ... "the word of Man made flesh and dwelling amongst us."
- Sydney Dobell
(quoted in "Rhythmic Intimacy, Spasmodic Epistemology" by Jason R. Rudy)

+ + +

Pace (not really) Ron Silliman, the School of Quietude sometimes wins. Not by being remembered, but by making sure its competitors are forgotten first. (Silliman, for example, seems as ignorant of Whitman's Spasmodic interests as I was.)

The literary canon, like other institutions, bases its authority on a set of fragile contingencies. And literary justice, like other justice, usually depends on a few outspoken individuals who refuse to let an injustice go. I'm not sure all English majors realize how unlikely their access to Melville or Dickinson really is. (Most of the creative writing MFAs I've met could certainly benefit by deeper meditation on the subject.) In my own lifetime, Zukofsky and the other Objectivists might have stayed out of reach if weren't for Robert Creeley.

John Keats barely made it through the gates into the immortality of persistent reprinting. Thirty years after his death, plenty of authorities still wished he hadn't and wanted to ensure that it didn't happen again.

+ + +

"Take yourself, and make eyes at it in the glass until you think it looks like Keats, or the 'Boy Chatterton.' Then take an infinite yearning to be a poet, and a profound conviction that you never can be one, and try to stifle the latter. This you will not be able to do."
- W. H. Mallock, "How to Make a Spasmodic Poem"
(quoted in "Glandular Omnism and Beyond" by Herbert F. Tucker)
"What a brute you were to tell me to read Keats's Letters... What harm he has done to English Poetry. [...] But what perplexity Keats Tennyson et id genus omne must occasion to young writers of the όπλίτης [hoplite] sort; yes & those d-d Elizabethan poets generally. Those who cannot read Gk shld read nothing but Milton & parts of Wordsworth: the state should see to it...."
- Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough, 1848
(partially quoted in "Victorian Culture Wars" by Antony H. Harrison)

+ + +

In this case was literary injustice done?

It depends. (See, that's what sucks about justice.)

Like George Saintsbury, the Victorian Poetry essayists admit more or less kindly that the core Spasmodic works aren't great. Although I've only found excerpts so far, they certainly don't seem to my own taste.

But tastes differ. I also dislike the Beats, hippie shamans, declaimed celebrations of groupthink, and most attempts at lyric confession. That hasn't stripped them from bookstores and libraries.

And tastes change. The Spasmodics don't sound more embarrassing than the self-pitying concept albums of 1970s AOR. Or more embarrassing than I was back then, a teenage cracker in an isolated farming town writing imitations of John Berryman and arguing the relative merits of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson with my best friend, soon to become a born-again journalism major. A year or two later, for a few months during an alcoholic nervous breakdown, I even liked Charles Bukowski. For me, as for so many overweeners, Keats's defiant blush has always been a beacon.

At the very least, if I'd heard of them, my college band would have been named the New Spasmodics.

Most pertinently, authors can change if they're given the chance. Victorian Poetry essayists describe most Spasmodic targets as first volumes from beginning writers, not outrageously weaker than the first volumes from their better remembered peers, and usually more interesting than any volumes from their most hostile enemies. If there was a Spasmodic "school", it was shut down before the students matriculated. I was able to read this academic journal as alternate history partly because it so often emphasizes their lost potential.

Their pop-scientific poetics anticipated twentieth century avant-gardes. Their class diversity anticipated the GI-Billed New American Poetry. Their sprawling yet motionless epics of young writers struggling to produce sprawling epics anticipated the Thomas Wolfe subtype of the Great American Novel. Their shameless invocation of neuraesthenia as muse should have interested Eliot and the poet-professor crowd. That poor sap R. H. Horne anticipated the New Directions paperback with his one-farthing-cheap Orion. The young Alexander Smith was advised to produce one long poem rather than a collection of short ones, and that's a fairly early example of narrative trumping lyric.

Smith chose to embed his lyrics in an autobiographical fantasy epic drama, since that's what everyone else seemed to be doing. And it did indeed attract attention. It got him and his advisor whacked by viciously conservative William Edmondstoune Aytoun, first from the sniper tower of Blackwood's, and then in a book-length parody, Firmilian.

"Other 'spasmodic' impulses migrated into fiction, most conspicuously the 'sensation fiction' of the 1860s, but the shadow-movement's preoccupations with romantic populism, formal experimentation, and unguarded honesty endured. Aytoun played successfully to a receptive claque, but subsequent generations have largely consigned his sensibilities to a literary and political backwater. Then as now, it was easier to be a clever critic than it was to write a memorable poem.

"More disspiriting were the enduring triumphs of the iron laws of class and education that Aytoun exploited. No acknowledged 'major' poet of Victorian Britain came from working- or lower-middle-class origins, and none of the 'spasmodists' is likely to gain more than token entry into any twenty-first-century anthologies. Even here, however, Dobell, Smith and the others might have found a measure of vindication in the vast palette of subsequent generations' preoccupations with despair, recovery, aberrance, marginality, and self-examination a palette they helped, in the face of withering critical abuse, to configure."

- Florence Saunders Boos, "'Spasm' and Class"

Snobs produce memorable satires and parodies because reactionaries depend on reaction. Without venom, their tongues go dry. Without a victim to strangle, they lie limp and tangled, a heap of parasitic ivy. Having deadened the nervous impulse that gave it life, even Aytoun's Firmilian vanished from collections: an Acme-brand hole slapped onto the cliff face, and then peeled off and thrown away.

+ + +

"The calm philosophy of poetry, in its addresses to the understanding and the domestic affections, now holds the ascendancy; but as the fresh and energetic spirit of the present age advances, a contest is certain to take place in the fields of Literature on the above questions. The sooner, therefore, the battle is fought out, the better; and to this end, the poetical antagonisms shall at once be brought into collision."
- Richard H. Horne, A New Spirit of the Age, 1844
(quoted in "Editorial Introduction: Spasmodic Poetry and Poetics" by Charles Laporte & Jason R. Rudy)
"... and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
- Hunter S. Thompson, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas

Responses

i am still suspicious of a hoax.

Apparently, if you happen to have university library privileges and can get away from your job and family for a bit, you can see for yourself.

an elaborate hoax.
The word "hawk" begins in the air and ends with talon in the heart

'At's a good one, boss. Now I tell one: What's high in the middle and round on both ends?

Minnesota

Right! (I was gonna guess "E-40", myself.)

. . .

Straight "A"s in Love

(Written for The Valve)

From "Representing Isabel Paterson" by Stephen Cox:

While I was writing about Paterson, academic friends asked me, "What thesis do you want to prove?" I learned to answer, "None." A thesis is expected to be "cutting-edge," but I didn't want to cut anything. I wanted access to the longest circuit of books and ideas. I began to think that we might learn more about literature if we spent less time using literature to prove a point.

Of course, you may have a real point to prove. But if your list of Works Cited is generated only by the recent history of theoretical debate, then you're short-circuiting your access to everything else, even if your thesis is meant to assert "the pleasure of the text." Theories of representation stop being helpful at the point where the tools start choosing the work to be done. If you read only what's amenable to your theory, or embarrassing to someone else's, you may be reading such a narrow range of literature that your theory is, basically, just representing itself an obvious short circuit. You need to do more browsing in the stacks. I should have been enjoying the exquisite realism of Ruth Suckow's stories long before I encountered her in Paterson's columns, but as a professional student of literature I was no longer aimlessly browsing, as I was when I found Never Ask the End on my parents' bookshelf. I entered the library already knowing what to look for. And too often I was simply looking for a fight with someone else's theory. That's what my professional position encouraged me to do. But a walk through the neighborhood is generally more informative than a police report.

These reflections led me to notice that although our job as teachers and writers is to represent books and authors in some way, nowhere in the MLA Job List does one find "a wide acquaintance with literature" stated as a qualification. Yet even Pound, blessed and cursed with a highly individual point of view, whispered to the shade of Walt Whitman, "I have detested you long enough /...Let there be commerce between us". Paterson would have liked the word commerce. People engage in commerce to find new pleasures, not to obliterate the strange and unpredictable sources of pleasure.

I nod, smugly. (And lately I need all the smugness I can get.) Yes, I know this one. Academic practice is not precisely at one with either the practice of criticism or the practice of reading. Oversensitive, maybe, to that discrepancy, unlike my fellow Valvists, I never considered pursuing literature through the classroom.

To be fair, though, neither is writing criticism precisely at one with pleasurable reading. Many books leave me with nothing to say but "Give this a chance," just like normal folks do.

Criticism is an individual's response to an artifact, yes. It's also part of a conversation between an individual and an artifact. And here's the rubbed-raw patch it's also part of a conversation between individuals.

An educational institution must lay particular emphasis on that final aspect if it's to avoid fraudulence. But the rules by which one joins a conversation no interrupting; engage the established context; don't mix diction levels oppose the pleasures of the surprising artifact. We enthusiasts deservedly have a poor reputation in polite society.

Rather than attempting to reform the academy, it may be wiser for the weary academic to borrow a concept from a different set of vilified maladepts and gafiate.

(But don't expect relief in the corporate world. A similar ambiguity poisons "commerce".)

Responses

Don't tease the cobra libre:

this is good, ray, but, ahem, the first link requires journal access

Yep. That's probably going to be happening more with the Valvestuff. I should make those links a different color or something.

Anyway, I tried to quote the oomphy part. The only other things I noted were the Isabel Paterson novels that sounded most interesting: The Golden Vanity, The Shadow Riders, and The Magpie's Nest.

. . .

Op-Edge: inanis et vacua

One can surely imagine the fall of the current kings of the shining city on the dunghill—indeed, one can predict their fall with some confidence—but the removal of one mad prince isn’t going to restore the Republic because democracy doesn’t go very well with a declining empire.
Posted by: James / 12:58 PM

An economy's exchange medium purportedly abstracts something other than the medium itself. Although we play the game of equivalency, rupture maybe a begrudging "Oh, yeah, I guess so" glance away from the stock report, maybe a crisis that drives us out of the game altogether remains a possibility.

How much of a possibility?

  1. Links were invented to go somewhere. A determined tracer of bloglife might conclude that its most desired ends were the most insipid products of commercial journalism: editorial page, movie reviews, gossip column, books section....

    And for the past two years, the best I've read in the classic editorial mode has come from inanis et vacua: an idealized Citizen We speaking softly, rationally, passionately in a tone of unassailable common sense. Sometimes I gain a new insight; sometimes I gain a new formula; usually I gain some assurance that we're not crazy, or at least that if we're crazy we don't have to be incoherent about it.

  2. In a link economy, the volunteer of unremunerative labor is, by definition, invisible.

    But for the past two years, inanis et vacua has avoided linking to anyone who might conceivably link back.

And so here we have a lovely chance to inspect a conflict between value and exchange medium.

Results: Not much possibility.

In common with most remedies, advice is not a panacea; but it isn’t a placebo either and even placebos work.
Posted by: James / 11:26 AM

Responses

Reasons for things aren't always phototropic.

Or photogenic.

Your new knocker's gazabe opened a door to Franklin P. Adams (tho I also appreciate the Information Technology myrmidon).

Good ol' FPA. I had a weird obsession with him for a year or so when I was a kid.

. . .

An Intellectual Situation

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

Tellingly, "The Blog Reflex" exemplifies its worst.

Here's the pivotal sentence:

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

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

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

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

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

Responses

SEK writes:

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

I even enjoy some of the posturing.

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

. . .

The Lie of the Last Minstrel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

All novelists descend from Epimenides.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responses

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

. . .

Bathos : The Art of Thinking

Adam Tobin and Nick Piombino recently described this venture in extremely complimentary terms and conditions, the latter attached to a "Thinking Blogger Award." And as it happens, "Thinking" was already on my mind like a not-very-close friend you encounter thrice in one day.

First, the perennial question "Consciousness or What?" sprigged at a couple of online stops.

Then Joseph Kugelmass denounced IQ tests. Since those are the only tests I've ever done well at, I naturally share his disdain. But having someone agree with me naturally makes me rethink my position. By design the test is an equalizer not strongly determined by economic position or sex. Before we shout "IQ is dead!", shouldn't we have a replacement ready?

And finally, firstly, overwhelmingly, there's the dayjob, which is currently like being paid to wade knee-deep into a swimming pool filled with fleas a great advance from 2005 and 2006, when it was like being paid to swallow live caterpillars.

Geohistorically speaking, I'm lucky to have any dayjob at all. Unhealthy, impatient, clumsy, and ill-bred, I boast but one single talent: I easily (compulsively, even) exchange and extend abstract verbal models. This can make an amusing party trick, but until the advent of software engineering the only career it opened was that of heretic.

There are two essential feeds to the rattling jolting smoking metamachine in my head: a haze and an interruption. It ingests the interruption and reshapes the haze accordingly. Remove either component, and it stops. Thus I'm not a particularly observant person: perception stops being interruption when it becomes continuous, and when that happens I fall silent. Nor am I a particularly systematic person: I can develop a software application over several months with frequent checks against customer expectations and reactions, but I can't sit in a room by myself for a year and come out with an operating system.

Like my vocation, my avocation underwent a slow whittling down of possibilities. In poetry, fiction, reviewing a few pastiches and no more: the metamachine lost interest. Speculations, revised speculations, gags, counterexamples, juxtapositions are its natural products.

And serialized self-publication is its natural outlet. My early peers took this form as an adjunct or a preliminary to more "serious" work. For me, it was and remains central: a last resort in both senses (as seen in the major motion picture, Day of the Dead).

I mention all this to explain the difficulty of "writing a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think." I might've been able to come up with such a list in July 1999 it's easy to choose the top five finalists from a field of six contestants and that list would do you little good now, since from it only Geegaw is still active.

But with blogs abounding, a shared medium is no longer enough to establish a connection. (Music blogs being, still, a bit of an exception.) Instead I find clumped cross-linkings: clumps by profession; clumps of expertise or political opinion; clumps of wannabe for each subgenre of journalism; clumps of happenstance.

You can perhaps see why I prefer the last. Like browsing randomly across the library shelves, or like attending every film shown by MOMA, dipping into different weblog clumps increases the chance of "interruption", and thus of "thinking" as I experience it.

And so I'm reluctant to select five blogs myself. What if I include one of your clumps, dear reader? Wouldn't that be thoughtless of us?

Instead I ask that you pick five URLs which mean nothing to you at present from my daily checklist don't be afraid to scroll to the bottom follow them, and read at least one page from their archives. A few sites virtually all of you will know already, but unless you're Mark Woods (dear reader) it seems unlikely you know all the rest.

And to improve the odds, I've just added seven new ones.

Best,
Ray

Responses

You know, I was going to tap you in response to my being tapped, but never acknowledged my tap in the belief that you wouldn't acknowledge yours. Alas! My faith is shattered: Ray's (almost) been memed. - SEK

It (almost) happened once before. It's (almost) impossible to refuse anything to Messrs. Piombino and Waggish.

There's no meme, huh, there's just me-me.

Nick's the first to take up the challenge.

Kip Manley works it.

A few days after I posted this bit of self-analysis, Mark Dominus coincidentally pointed to an entertaining paper uncovering a solid predictor of programming success: the ability to assume and consistently maintain arbitrary conventions.

It now seems to us, although we are aware that at this point we do not have sufficient data, and so it must remain a speculation, that what distinguishes the three groups in the first test is their different attitudes to meaninglessness. Formal logical proofs, and therefore programs -- formal logical proofs that particular computations are possible, expressed in a formal system called a programming language -- are utterly meaningless. To write a computer program you have to come to terms with this, to accept that whatever you might want the program to mean, the machine will blindly follow its meaningless rules and come to some meaningless conclusion. In the test the consistent group showed a pre-acceptance of this fact: they are capable of seeing mathematical calculation problems in terms of rules, and can follow those rules wheresoever they may lead. The inconsistent group, on the other hand, looks for meaning where it is not. The blank group knows that it is looking at meaninglessness, and refuses to deal with it.

. . .

Reference Work, 1

For JL & JL
"NEVER MIND - ALL APOLOGIES"

Two artists in dudgeons, one low, one high:

And every single person in the real world looks at this, and that's why we make our films the way we do. Because you don't have the freedom, you don't have the integrity, you have to remake everything we've done anyway. I go to see Martin Scorsese, and I say, Don't you think I should tell you about the lenses? And he says, What do you mean? And I said, Well, you're remaking my film, which is Infernal Affairs. Infernal Affairs was probably written in one week, we shot it in a month and you're going to remake it! Ha ha, good luck! What the fuck is this about? I mean, come on. In other words, if you read The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, then you'd actually have a very clear idea [laughs] about what's really happening in the U.S. right now. So what do we do? You tell me. [...] If Martin Scorsese can make a piece of shit called The Aviator and then go on to remake a Hong Kong film, don't you think he's lost the plot? Think it through. "I need my Oscar, I need my fucking Oscar!" Are you crazy? There's not a single person in the Oscar voting department who's under 65 years old. They don't even know how to get online. They have no idea what the real world is about. They have no visual experience anymore. They have preoccupations. So why the fuck would a great filmmaker need to suck the dick of the Academy with a piece of shit called The Aviator? And now he has to remake our film? I mean this is bullshit. This is total bullshit. I love Marty, I think he's a great person. And the other one is Tarantino. Oh yeah, let's appropriate everything. Are you lost? Yes, you are lost.
- Chris Doyle
Let's see, if we chide the writer who makes reference to low-brow material, who appropriates cultural material because appropriations are a bit like sampling in rap, really borderline plagiarism, everyone knows this we'll have to roll back to T.S. Eliot. Oops, we have to throw Eliot on the scrap heap, too apparently he risked some high-low mixing, and some appropriations. Forget Joyce, of course. We'd better go even further back. Once you begin looking at the underlying premise a blanket attack on the methods that modernism uncovered the kind of bogus nostalgia for a pure, as opposed to an impure, literature, what you really discover is a discomfort with literature itself. [...] It's not about reading. That's the problem. It really is about I'm repeating myself class anxiety. Once you have an eye for this you spot it in odd places. I read a review in Book Forum where a critic, quite incidentally, in attacking Michel Houellebecq, said in an aside, "But then again, the French regard Hitchcock as art." Well, now, wait a minute! These battles were fought and won. These victories were decisive ones, fifty years ago. There's no rolling that back. Hitchcock is art. So if you pin Hitchcock's scalp to your belt: "Not only have I seen through Michel Houellebecq, the charlatan, but in fact I'm going to tell you that the auturists were wrong and Hitchcock is low-brow and unsavory," you've discredited yourself so absolutely that you deserve to read nothing but Trollope for the rest of your life.
- Jonathan Lethem

OK, first, Trollope worked a day job for the fucking post office, so let's leave Trollope out of this fight.

Otherwise, it's a fight I felt like starting myself when I read this shallow attack on shallowness two years ago. (Why didn't I? Well, I work a day job, see....) For John Leonard, the difference between profundity and immaturity comes down to name-dropping:

Is it so unreasonable to want to know more of what he thinks about Julio Cortázar and less of how he feels about Obi-Wan Kenobi? [...] Superpowers are not what magic realism was about in Bulgakov, Kobo Abe, Salman Rushdie, or the Latin American flying carpets. That Michael Chabon and Paul Auster have gone graphic, that one Jonathan, Lethem, writes on and on about John Ford, while another Jonathan, Franzen, writes on and on about "Peanuts," even as Rick Moody confides to the Times Book Review that "comics are currently better at the sociology of the intimate gesture than literary fiction is," may just mean that the slick magazines with the scratch and sniff ads for vodka and opium [sic] are willing to pay a bundle for bombast about ephemera.

This approaches J. Jonah Jameson levels of wrong-headedness. As if Ulysses would've been improved by more of Lohengrin and less of "The Low-Backed Car". As if John Leonard ever actually took time to honor Alfred Bester for referencing Joyce or Patricia Highsmith for referencing James and Camus.

He asks me, "Do you care how many times I have seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or what's going on in my head while I watch Sara Evans sing 'Suds in the Bucket' on the country music cable channel?" And I answer: "No more than I care what's going on in your head while you watch Carol Burnett. I don't even care what you think about books. Moreover, if you were a movie critic or a music critic, I still wouldn't care about your renting a Demy video or your pseudo-ironic celebrations of Evans but you'd tell me all the same. What matters in our relationship isn't whether I care; all that matters is what the NYRB and New York Magazine will publish."

In Leonard's horror at public lapses of taste, this professional book-and-televison critic failed to notice that his subject is not a professional critic of anything and The Disappointment Artist is not a collection of criticism: it's a linked collection of autobiographical essays whose hooks happen to be American cultural artifacts. Lethem could hardly have been more explicit about it. In his long tribute to the The Searchers, the "critical" argument is confined to two paragraphs terminated by the sentence "Snore."

Sure, some generic ambiguity exists: there's that strain of criticism-as-New-Journalism which was domesticated down from mutants like Meltzer and Bangs into the cage-raised free weekly strains. But those conventions presume a like-minded community, whereas Lethem peddles his wares to a middlebrow camp unlikely to have any interest in his ostensible topics. Therefore the focus stays on Lethem-as-character.

So let's imagine our successful young novelist writing a similar autobiographical essay about reading Kafka or Cortázar:

"And suddenly I realized: I write fiction too. Just like him."

Yeah, there's news.

Equally newsworthy:

"Professional pundit publishes asinine remarks; bloggers rant."

But god damn it, I can't seem to let it rest at that. What irks me is the feeling that I share some aspect of some response with Leonard and, in a different way, or a different aspect, with Lethem, too. And again, Lethem's admirably blatant about it: he put Disappointment right there in the title for us.

... to be continued ...

Responses

Even if you don't care for my stuff, I recommend this essay by tomemos which starts from Leonard but goes in a very different direction.

Can't speak for Leonard but my celebrations of Evans are strickly appreciations of artistry.

My guess was that Leonard admired Evans but threw "the country music cable channel" in for distancing thus the "pseudo-" of his irony.

. . .

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....

. . .

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!

. . .

Movie Comment: The Underworld Story (1950)

A wallop's packed behind that bland title: dangerously hot scripting, fully engaged performers, and gorgeousness like unearned grace wherever it looks. This early composition reminded me of a Jess collage

Executive office at the newspaper of record

pressing history like headcheese into slices of vision; holding Infinity in a managing editor's office. Appropriate for a tribute to the sustaining intimacy (they work hard and they play hard) of wealth, racism, law, and journalism.

. . .

Bye, 2016; so long, all that

I loved my country my United States, headed by a well-funded and unabashedly ambitious federal government I loved my country about as much as any halfway sane person could love an unimaginably huge and amorphous institutional abstraction. Which seems only natural since it had rescued, fed, clothed, sheltered, educated, and boosted me and my brother after having rescued and supported our parents.

Of course (being halfway sane) I knew big government was frequently inept, hypocritical, and unjust to the point of murder. But it was also the only rival to and our only defense against the unimaginably huge and amorphous institutional abstractions of big business and big religion, both of which were at least as frequently inept, hypocritical, unjust, and murderous. And where big businesses and big churches could cheat, lie, embezzle, extort, and rape with virtual impunity, big government's pretense of public service left its miscreants nominally (and therefore sometimes actually) susceptible to public inspection and public penalty.

Even while I and my brother were swaddled by socialism, big business and big religion began negotiating an unholy alliance. As of the 1980 election, its success was no longer deniable. But I kept a sullen, resentful faith. My country had absorbed such body blows before and re-righted itself. Weren't the allegiances of evangelical with Jew around Zionism, and evangelical with Catholic around abortion, and church with plutocracy around ignorance inherently unstable?

After the 2000 election, "my country" suddenly looked less like world-as-is and more like a vulnerable blip. 2001 confirmed its vulnerability; the 2004 election guaranteed its loss. Seventy years, approximately the lifespan of the Third Republic.

You know how these things go, though. We understand our loved ones will die, and yet the day finds us unprepared. We understand that gambling is lucrative business; we noticed the casino staff repeatedly extract ever larger winnings and repeatedly produce ever colder decks. And yet when we blankly watch our chips, checks, bonds, mortgage, and IOUs squeegeed dry across the table, it's a shock.

A shock but no surprise.1 No need to waste weeks arguing over how we might have played that last card better. No infallibly winning card was left in this particular game. If we hadn't lost this deal, we would have lost the next one.

At least our razed territory holds plenty of company. Like successful totalitarians of the past, our new leaders didn't let themselves be distracted by the unpopularity of their goals; instead they focused on gaining power by any means at hand, and then guaranteeing continued power by any means at hand. This they interpret as a heroic win against overwhelmingly unfair odds by dint of their superior brilliance and talent.

They've recently attempted to adapt their self-justifications for a wider audience with spins like "saving our country from urban scum" or "defending America against California" or simply "making those fuckers squirm." And of course, as soon as their eminent domain's established they begin demolishing anything in the path of the propaganda superhighway notably the distasteful slums of reality-based journalism, education, and research. But for a brief while yet, our rulers remain a lunatic fringe who defy majority opinion on almost every policy, and we retain some belief that a democracy should at least vaguely represent its people. History suggests that's common ground enough to push from.

1   Well, one surprise, at least for me. I never anticipated Vladimir Putin as leader of a new Axis. Awfully exceptionalist of me. After "patriotism" lost any connotation of service or sacrifice (even the trivial financial sacrifice of taxes), and frankly selfish plutocrats could reach office without need of political stand-ins, who better to inspire them than the leading exponent of the globalized shakedown state? And whereas Stalin's, Hitler's, and Mussolini's attempts at foreign influence relied on native "thought-leaders" who never quite met spec, now misinformation and propaganda, like every other form of publishing, can bypass the middleman (unless, of course, the middleman is a national firewall), and Russia's greatest export, the bot-troll cyborg, can work from the comfort of home.

Responses

Thanks, Bo Diddley.

 

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.