Feb 27, 2010

All the bands we could begin

Feb 26, 2010

Negotiating grammar

As it is for the canon, for the great books, so it is for grammar: important, but also deeply, structurally repressive; useful and valuable, but also powerful forces for the status quo repression, for disabling and dis-empowering people.

And teaching is about enabling and empowering. And it is also about giving one access to the tools of power. So: we are careful. We navigate, negotiate, trying to find some space between anarchy and fascism.

Feb 25, 2010

Weight of details

Immediately after they sit down to take their test -- immediately -- some percentage of students turn splotchy red.

Every job I've ever had has had little things like this that I've collected in my head. These are details that, for some reason, I find important, even though they don't seem to mean anything and when I say them out loud there are often responses of deep disinterest.

A detail like this I find I will often say several times to different people, getting no response, or silence, or an awkward look or um hmmm and a change of subject. I don't know what sort of response I want, though the ones I'm getting make me wonder if I'm not a horribly awkward person who makes everyone uncomfortable all the time and just no one's been mean enough to mention it. But I think these details are interesting. I notice them and collect them: what is smells like under a mobile home and the way bark adheres to different trees, the way some Ohio farm accents deepen for talking about certain subjects, the ways people carry themselves in courtrooms and how bees fly different in different weather, how homeowners look at heavy equipment, how sprinklers are sunk into lawns, and what people's hands feel like when you give them change. Maybe, actually, everyone notices these things and it's not the act of noting that makes me different but the value I invest in them. It's not like I can account for why it matters or how, or if or what it says about being human.

For me, too, these things are interesting, even apart from a narrative or a point or a claim to a frame of poetry. They're important for themselves. A point, in fact, would be besides the point.

It also seems, at least somewhat, that these details are more obviously or viscerally worth something when written, though maybe they're just less awkward because no response is required or expected, and it's normal to get no comment. Or maybe it's the act of writing that lends weight to the detail, making it important, like some sort of discovery of phenomenological truth. E.g.:

They turn red immediately, not before the test and not later, when it's hard, but right as they enter into the room and sit down. It's a flush of panic, a chest squeeze of stress. Some of them are red in the cheeks and look like little kid in the cold, others, their noses light up, and they look like caricatures of drunks. Some of the girls get splotches that are symmetrical, others irregular, hand-sized patches on their cheeks and necks and chests.

Feb 24, 2010

The questions implicit in an obit

Some of the obit writers seemed saddened by the obits they wrote for Alexander Haig. All of them lead with or played high up the lowest moment in the late man's life, the sound bite, the misstep, the mistake that was taken to illustrate something deeper, the famous ill-considered and not-thought-out line, and then seemed sorry that they had to do it. They seemed to want to say that wasn't really what he should be remembered for and wasn't really fair as a final epitaph, and yet, as Haig's most famous moment, as the thing he was known for, what were they going to do?

So they put it there -- "As of now, I am in control here, in the White House" -- and then they tried to pivot, to play it from where it was and use it as point for a fuller explanation. This is a problem not of the politics of obit writers nor of the American social custom of always saying nice things about the dead (even if the dead was a grasper and schemer and did seem to stage a sort of coup), but more of the limits and internal contradictions of the form of obit.

An obit has to do two things: It has to tell us why this person is famous, to put up there why we know this man and what he's meant as a public figure, what his function has been and how his name or face has been a cipher for something, and also it has to explain, to give us more, to tell us what we did not know and did not understand, to serve as a full or a fuller interpretation. There's a tension there though. The two don't always go in the same direction. Normally the obit writers try to construct a narrative that stretches from the one point to the larger point about the meaning of the deceased's life, so the story for Ted Kennedy goes from Chappaquidick to Liberal Lion who worked out his own redemption, or the story for George Wallace goes from standing in front of a school house door to wheel-chair bound apologies and failed, feeble attempts at redemption, but the strain is often evident in the stretching.

Those who are serving life sentences sometimes ask the question, how would you like to be judged based only on the worst thing you've ever done?

Of course, felons aren't the only ones who live with this sort of standard. Public life often works like that, and Ted Haggard and Jimmy Swaggart, Gary Hart and Richard Nixon all know this. And maybe that's how it should be. The predominate religious traditions in America believe in judgment. And redemption. Or at least the possibility of redemption, but also especially the need of it. The belief is that all of us will be judged for the worst thing we've done, and the worst thing we've thought, judged as harshly as if we'd killed children and raped God, blasphemed mothers and betrayed friends, judged like spiders by a God who gets angry at spiders, unless we somehow say the right words, find the right way to offer an apology. But of course even those who ascribe to the most fire-breathing tenets of American religion don't breath fire and often there's a confusion about when judgment comes and when grace comes, and in what measure.

These are the tensions raised by obits, the contradiction that sometimes makes us mad and sometimes saddens us. All of us, reading an obit, have to wrestle with or at least take an attitude towards the question Iggy Pop once asked in an interview: "If people don't forgive you for your problems, what the ... I mean ... what?"

These are the question implicit in an obit:

Do we believe in condemnation?

Do we believe in grace?

It what way and in what measure?

What do you say about Alexander Haig?

Feb 23, 2010

The evidence of photos

"The events are in part designed to be photographed. The grin is a grin for the camera. There would be something missing if, after stacking the naked men, you couldn't take a picture of them”

-- Susan Sontag

This should be a crucial case for study in any of the ongoing discussions and considerations of truth and manipulation in digital photography. Many commentators on and students of the subject seem to want to believe that there is always a clear and easy distinction to be made between true and false, real and fake, perhaps because they still want photography to adhere to a standard that’s at least something like the “myth of photographic truth.” A consideration of the Abu Ghraib pictures shows some of the intense complications in making these distinctions, or using these terms. It seems obscene to say that, because the scenes pictured were designed, organized and constructed, that the photos are somehow fake, and yet, there is a good argument to be made that, following Sontag, the scenes pictured would not have existed apart from the presence of the camera.

Feb 18, 2010

Close Enough

Feb 17, 2010

For Ash Wednesday

"The sand smells like rotting flesh.

"At Abu Ghraib everywhere we dug -- and we dug four or five times -- everywhere we dug we found human remains. I dug once to try and build a garden. We dug to build a shower, which ended up being the morgue. We dug to put in fences, to put cables down ... Every time we dug, we found human remains. Every time. The prison is built on a mound of human remains ....

"Plus, before they built the prison it was a landfill."

-- Riley Sharbonno

Feb 16, 2010

In conclusion
The final speech for the last day of class for Language & Use

On the very first day of class I asked you to raise your standards and raise your sights, to consider what you could accomplish in learning English. I said you weren't just visiting the language, but could actually live there, that you didn't need to just borrow or rent this language: you could buy it. If you want it it's yours. I told you you could own English.

Of course, when you buy something sometimes there's buyer's remorse. There's a feeling of regret you get as soon as you drive out of the parking lot with the brand new car. You think, crap!, I'm stuck with this thing. I don't know that I like this car and now I have to drive it and make payments on it for years. I know you've all had those moments of regret this semester. Why didn't I do French? Man! I should have stuck with math. Especially when we've gotten bogged down in grammar and those little, picky, painful parts of English, you've asked, Why does it even matter?

I want to take a few moments -- our last few moments -- to give you my answer to that question.

On Sunday, my wife and I went to a cafe in the Altstadt. It was very nice. It was quiet and we drank coffee and did some reading and it was very nice. One of the things I like about Germany is how quiet it can be, especially for me, since I can kind of tune out or shut out German. I don't hear it unless I'm concentrating. So everyone was quietly talking or working and it was peaceful and I could think.

But then an American girl walked in.

And she was loud.

And she was stupid.

And her voice -- she just kept talking and it was a knife stabbing my mind. And the things she said were grating and she just kept talking. She made me so mad: she was saying stupid things, like, "There are so many, like, words."

But, of course, there are. There are so many words. There are layers and layers of words and they surround us, they're all around us and we can feel them and taste their texture in our mouths. There are flocks of them, like birds. Schools of them, like fish. They say that when the Europeans first went to America there were so many birds they blacked out the sky. There were so many buffalo, the American bison, that they filled up the plains, as far as the eye could see -- these big beasts, shoulder to shoulder forever. And words are like that.

There are so many words.

But of course it's not just the number of words. Not just the amount. There's also this power they have. They can change us and move us, make us, shape us, find us and save us.

I have been saved by words.

When I was a child my father was a preacher. I know that in the European context a minister is sometimes understood as very formal, very stiff, a figure of sort-of sonorous authority. In the American context it's not like that (especially in my father's faith tradition). Preachers are expected to be dynamic and charismatic. Their words are supposed to be electric. My father, at one point, went on a preaching tour, where he gave the same sermon every night in a different church in a different town. The same sermon every time -- and he started, every time, with the words of the prophet Isaiah.

In the year that King Uzziah died, then I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up. And his train filled the temple.

I remember being mesmerized by those words, by the texture of them and the taste of them, but also the power. There's a magic to those words. A power. Words can connect us and reach out and touch us and they have a force to them. Of course Isaiah was a Jew, and the Jews believe that words are not just floating "out there" and they don't just lie on the page. They believe God used words to create the world. Words have the power to create. And in the story in that text when the king dies, the prophet actually receives words from God and they're so strong, they're so powerful, he says they're like fire. They burn his face.

I believe that about words. They can change you. They can make you and remake you and remake the world. So they're worth getting right.

When we spent weeks working on pronouns and prepositions and I'm criticizing your commas and you have to look up dependent and independent clauses and know the difference between subordinate and coordinate conjunctions, it's not because I just enjoy grammar so much. We do this because words are powerful and we need to respect that power. There are so many words and they're yours. You have them now, you own these flocks and herds of words. I want you to use them well.

That's why we're here.
Faces we make when we sing the songs we know

Strewn texts
Guantanamo child
The Routes of Man
You call that God?
Rebuilding Dresden
The pain of conversion
Wither the Whitmanites?
Judaism and polytheism
Books should offend you
The end of the space age
Faulkner's plantation diary
Some great PK Dick covers
And God created evolution
Tolstoy: Renunciation artist
The 7 Americas of facebook
Exploring California deserts
The MSM loves Sarah Palin
World Press Photos of 2010
Defending death row inmates
Germans anxious about the Euro
"We never ever went to the moon"
Typewriter sculpture robot woman
Editing posthumous Ralph Ellison
The Magnetic Field's new Realism
Towards a literature of the homeless
Silencing the very unpopular minority
Hobbes, Locke and the state of snow
The Center for Civil War photography
Derrida's post-deconstructive realism
The rise and fall of a '50s scandal rag
The weird reality of negative numbers
Literature that should be video games
The work of Toussaint: stabbing the olive
Salinger should have had the right to quit
Management secrets of the Grateful Dead
Twitter, technology and the lesson of craps
Thomas Lynch's "Apparitions & Late Fictions"
Slaughter-House Five now open to Vonnegut fans
Eric Holder and the politics of legal prosecution
The most controversial 89-year-old in New York
Paris philosopher's book cites fictional philosopher
When the student revolution burned history papers
Yosi Sergant, NEA, and the art of right wing hysteria
Forget about homosexuals, let's talk about gay men and lesbians
Charlie Wilson, rep. who funded Afghan rebels, dies at 76. May he rest in peace.
John Murtha, Pa. rep. who criticized war, dies at 77. May he rest in peace.
John Murtha was a dying breed, unapologetic district partisan
Descartes was murdered with a poison host!
95 years after "Birth of a Nation"
Bookshelves tumblr

Feb 15, 2010

You are and are not here

They needed a new map.

Trying to explain the election and the state of the nation and, as with any map, answer the question, Where are we?, the political pundits and TV commentators felt like the map they had wasn't enough. In addition to the traditional cartography of land mass and jurisdictional lines, they charted the country again according to color-coded political preference, and suddenly we were all red and blue. As a map, it wasn't much, but it did show us a new way to think of ourselves, and did give us a way to represent what we already knew, already felt.

Of course that didn't quite work either. Each map has its own errors. Each map has its own confusions and misrepresentations and ways of misleading.

In the second season of West Wing, there's an episode where the White House Press Secretary, C.J. Cregg, meets with a group complaining about the biases of the world map. Even judged by how it measures what it's supposed to measure, the map has problems. France, the socially-concerned cartographer says, isn't as big as you think it is, and it isn't even where you think it is. Also, why is up up? The orientation is arbitrary, but that doesn't mean it doesn't matter.

Maps are always flawed. Always biased. They always, in attempting representation, contain certain structural, intrinsic errors. We use them, though, not because of their truth, but because of their usefulness, because they help us construct a scheme of coordinates, a complex of relationships and place names that help us understand our relationships and where we are.

But the errors and misrepresentations remain. And we always need new maps. And the errors are also there.

For every map is imaginary, and every map, in saying You Are Here, puts each of us in two or more places at once, and every map always leaves some things out. But maybe it's by paying attention to these spaces, the virtual places, the multi-places and the no-places, that we can more fully ask the question of where we are and understand the answers we give.

Feb 12, 2010

Writing advice to put on a 3x5 card

Raymond Carver said to write everyday without hope or despair. I wish I could do that. I wish I could know what that means. I do write every day and all the time and have written that way for a long time now, in the morning and at night, while cooking and in class and on the bus.

But this has always been about hope or despair.

Or sometimes both.

Feb 11, 2010

Uses and policies for pictures of dead men

In 2005, eight Army soldiers stationed at one base in Afghanistan were demoted and denied some pay because of “trophy photos” they took, which included photos of themselves pointing guns at the heads of "detainees" and photos of dead Afghan men. It is not quite clear, though, that the act of taking such photos or having such photos is, in itself, against the rules. It seems that the military reserves the right to approve all soldiers’ photos, and the so-called trophy photos violated the policy of the process, not any specific regulation regarding the contents of pictures.

The military and U.S. government have, at least in some cases, wanted photos of the dead and made use of them. In 2001, for example, a Bush administration, counter terrorism adviser told CIA covert operatives being deployed to fight al-Queada in Afghanistan, “I want to see photos of their heads on pikes." This might have been a bit hyperbolic, but that was the tone in the early part of that administration and, when it came to certain corpses in Iraq, this was actually the policy. Pictures of Sadaam Hussein’s dead sons were released by the military and promoted as part of a propaganda effort in 2003. In 2006, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an insurgent leader believed responsible for hundreds of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq, was killed, a photo of his lifeless head was distributed and put out by military officials, and, in at least one press conference, the military increased the size of the picture of the dead man’s face so it was larger than life. The argument for the publication of the photos was basically the same in both cases: first, the photos served as proof of death, and second, Bush administration officials believed and specifically said the photos of the dead men might cause Iraqis to be demoralized and give up insurgent fighting against Americans, or the photos could perhaps even motivate some to switch sides.

The same was apparently not thought to be true of the photos taken of tortured prisoners in Abu Grahib or the photos of the dead lying in the streets in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Feb 10, 2010

"This was July, and July dirt tasted even more like sweetened metal than the dirt of June or May. Something in the growing crops unleashed a metallic life that only began to dissipate in mid-August, and by harvest time that life would be gone altogether, replaced by a sour moldiness he associated with the coming of fall and winter, the end of a relationship he had begun with the first taste of dirt back in March, before the first hard spring rain."

--Edward P. Jones, The Known World
The shape of fear

Hitchcock said he wanted to make us too afraid to go to the bathroom. There's a very American tradition of this kind of fear in art -- the American gothic, the American horror story, the story where the "thing," the site of our fear, isn't strange or unheard of but common, mundane, normal, and absolutely terrifying. It is a tradition that follows from Poe, and has pretty good representations in genre fiction and literary fiction and, for that matter, in consumer reports and recalls and panics that make everyone throw out their spinach. Obviously, Hitchcock is one of the masters, even though he's British.

Another Brit who makes American movies, Guy Richie has a bathroom-death scene in Sherlock Holmes that starts out like something that might make us afraid of the tub -- the bathtub seems to not just be the place of the crime, not just the weapon, but also the bubbling, boiling killer -- but then the very tall bad guy walks in, apparently to take credit for the killing and leave a clue for Holmes, and also to take the audience's horror away from the tub and focus it on the strange, obviously-evil, evil-personified "thing," who of course is really a pretty standard movie villain and isn't a site for our fear at all.

Richie's response to the too-intense horror of the inanimate object, this way of looking away, is poorer, artistically, but seems to be the shift that happens all the time, culturally. People who fear fluoride in the water don't fear the water but some conspiracy. People who fear computers and the dominance of technology in their lives shift the fear to Y2K, or the powers behind facebook. People who fear credit cards shift that fear to credit card companies or connect it to other, larger end times theories. Focusing on the object is so painful it can be artistically perfect, but it's not what we do.

But then, neither Hitchcock nor Ritchie get us anywhere near the inside of the fear that has nightmares of Obama as a secret outsider set on destroying our country. Or the fear that inspired letters to Chicago politicians in '66 saying Martin Luther King Jr. was "a dark-skinned Hitler." Or the fear of Communist take-over, populists and demagogues and no-knowing uprisings, the bomb, urban riots, immigration, AIDs, or any of the mass fears we've been taken by in the last 100 years.

These are real fears, continuing fears, and these are the kinds of fears that seem to shape the culture, as opposed to the anxieties and plot-devices that make, respectively, artistic and popular movies.

What art do we have, though, that shows us this kind of public fear, mass fear that feeds itself and conspiracies and politicians who shape the direction of panic. This is, isn't it, the kind of fear that defines a nation and changes the future? So where's the art that describes and gives shape or even just shows this kind of fear?

Feb 9, 2010

What good is systems theory?

I have two questions about systems theory (Luhmann et al):

First, it seems like a pretty good post-ontology ontology, a good description or accounting for the world that doesn't get stuck in essentialisms or attempting to talk about what is, in some Platonic way, but instead uses an evolution metaphor and talks about how the world functions and how it means. But, as a literary theory, how does it help us read?

Second, when we talk about what counts as a "system," don't we walk right into a real tangle of taxonomies? The definition seems clear and laid out -- emerges and differentiates itself from the environment, has boundaries against a boundless totality, "observes" itself, relates to itself, etc. -- but when we start identifying and naming systems, it gets confusing and impractical and a little bit crazy. Like, music is a system, and within that pop music is a system, and then Chuck Berry's music would be a system and Lady Gaga's and Billy Joel's. But then it seems like "love song" would also be a system -- it meets the definition for what counts, I think -- and that system would include some parts and not others. And doesn't our taxonomy then turn into a zoo? Wouldn't any art about love be a system, and all non-liner narratives, and all words with the letter "e"? I just don't see how the systems remain clear, or relate to each other, but maybe all of this is worked out with the "poly" of polysystemic or with the kind-of-awful description of "inter-penetration"?

This seems like a problem, unless it's just going to be a good metaphor for how the world works semantically. Maybe this has all been explained, though. Is there something of Luhmann's I should read?

Note Book Monsters: Geoff

Feb 8, 2010

Closer, clearer, no sir, nearer

"Because I always feel like running. Not away. Because there's no such place. Because if there was I would've found it by now .... Because the thing I fear cannot be escaped, eluded, avoided, hidden from, protected from, gotten away from, not without showing the fear as I see it now. Because closer, clearer, no sir, nearer. Because of you. And because of that nice that you quietly, quickly, be causing."

-- Gil Scott-Heron, Running

Gil Scott-Heron has been noted, when he's noted, as the godfather or forefather of rap. It's a title that belongs to him as obviously and fully as it belongs to anyone -- there's certainly a certain point when or where his voice, his tones and patterns and political spirit and even his actual words overlap with those of Public Enemy's Chuck D. and others. But Gil Scott-Heron's voice also has connections the other way. There's something in his voice, in his poetry, the rhythm of what he's saying, that can and ought to be related backwards not just to the obvious, like Langston Hughes, like black goes back to black, but also related and connected to Kerouac, especially the way Kerouac read when he read out loud in that bop way he had, and farther back, all the way to Walt Whitman.

Scott-Heron's voice is only a breath away from Whitman's -- just compare "Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich, Perennial with the Earth" and "escaped, eluded, avoided, hidden from, protected from, gotten away from, not without showing the fear." The similarities and sheer common Americanness of their voices belies the distance of the century between them.


Roberto Bolaño's "William Burns"
38 years of Super Bowl commercials
Rules for (not) reading in Texas prisons
A celebration of David Foster Wallace (reg. req.)
David Foster Wallace and imagining moral fiction
Gil Scott-Heron back; revolution still won't be televised
Imari Obadele, Black separatist, dies at 79 in Atl. May he rest in peace.
The semi-colon: the most dangerous punctuation on earth
Don McCullen, Brit war photographer, in his own words
Retired NYPD officials question crime data integrity
Polygamous Mormon's wet prairie dress contest
Bolaño and the pose of sentimental tough guy
The making of a modern evangelical heretic
Defacing books: effluence of engagement
The deckle edge in the age of the e-book
The man who led the move to dump LBJ
David Foster Wallace 10-part interview
Religion and Google's autofill function
Architecture of the parking garage
Denis Lehane as a graphic novel
Children of CIA agents left to wonder
Court, the gay-marriage classroom
Bill O'Reily interviews Jon Stewart
JD Salinger's Quaker-like silence
When culture becomes ideology
Scorcese's idea of entertainment
Don DeLillo makes it all unreal
Don DeLillo in the art gallery
Illustrators' favorite authors
Sex offender shanty town
"They're all so secular"
Foodie history of humanity
Answering machine poetry
Recycled car dealerships
The deceptive cadence
TC Boyle's Wild Child
Disappear for $10k
Is context context?
Is Indie dead?

Feb 5, 2010

Take me to the general store

After the Bigfoot hoax I would, with some regularity, get these calls asking for help or information for someone doing a big story. Almost without exception the idea for the story seemed to be rooted in a deep misunderstanding.

The worst was from a documentary film maker with an accent who'd won some award he was wielding like a codpiece. He wanted me to help him in exchange for some percentage of points in his system, which he couldn't quite explain and which seemed vaguely ponzi-like. He kept presuming I would help him and would be honored to work with him. Like a salesman pitching hard, he went straight to trying to set up my meeting with his advance man, Fabio. Fabio was going to get some preliminary footage to sell the idea of the documentary to investors and I was gonna be the guide.

The man who'd won the award kept asking questions like could I take Fabio to the woods, so we could see the woods where the men found Bigfoot.

And I would say, "we don't really have woods," but he didn't seem dissuaded.

"The general store," he said, "you take Fabio to the general store ..."

"This is metro Atlanta. We don't really have a general store."

"... and you interview the villagers. We get the villagers, we ask them about Bigfoot," he said.

"I don't think you understand."

"... the villagers, they have seen this thing? They think they have seen this Bigfoot ..."

"Look," I said, "this story didn't happen here. It happened on the internet."

"You take Fabio to see the villagers ..." he said.

It seems like such a simple fact, a straightforward thing -- where a story happens. But it's really not.

I was struck by the weirdness of this the first time I went to a murder victim's vigil, where the family and friends were holding candles and saying prayers. When I got there they were standing in a half circle. The other half of the circle was for an audience that wasn't there. There was me and one guy from TV, supposedly covering an event, witnessing something that was happening, but finding ourselves sort of making up half of the prayer vigil circle: barely filling the void but acting, in some way, to complete the event. Later, I looked at my pictures and watched the 30 or 40 seconds of the vigil that made it on to the nightly news, and there it just looked like a circle of people praying. We made the circle hole.

So where did it happen, this vigil? Where were the prayers prayed? What should the dateline on a story like that really read?

A lot of events you're assigned to cover at a newspaper feel like half events. Press conferences and political announcements especially have this feeling, like a stage is set for an audience that won't be coming. In the This American Life Story, "Politics," Michael Lewis says that when he had a camera with him during the Bob Dole campaign, on the Bob Dole plane, everything changed. Suddenly people were talking to him -- but not to him, but to the void where he stood, to the blank lens of the camera, to the second half of a dialog that was happening somewhere, but which felt, right there, like a one-sided conversation with an absence.

I guess this is the media equivalent of the fourth wall. And because the fourth wall can't be broken, we, in the audience, get to think of ourselves as just observers, and as passive. The fourth wall saves us, preserves us in our idea of our own passivity. We're just watching. This happens to journalists too, where you think you're just a witness, as if your presence didn't change things, as if the details would have been arranged the way they were arranged in your story even if you weren't there to pluck them up, seek them out, elicit them and make them narratively meaningful. We imagine this wall between us and what we see, but we're involved in the constitution of the stories -- not just as witnesses but also as authors, not just audiences but also participants, the other half, the ones necessary to complete the scene.

We are, in this way, our own villagers.

Feb 4, 2010

Drive 'til the rain stops; keep driving

In retrospect it seems amazing: the children of the Moral Majority: a whole generation born on the edge of a crisis of faith.

Feb 3, 2010

When the critique self-critiques

There's a moment when the critique is turned against itself. It becomes reflexive and the critique critiques the critique. This is often where people get frustrated with theory. For me, though, the discovery of the tool of Derrida's idea of "always-already" was amazing. The moment of self-reflexivity actually worked, I thought, to show with incredible clarity how the critiqued thing, e.g. violence or ideology, actually functioned. The critique of the critique allowed for a Pauline or Augustine-like move of confession and awareness. The "always-already" gave deconstruction its particular ethical force.

I don't find that same clarity when the critique of sexism or racism becomes self-reflexive. The "cultural turn" leaves me mostly confused, any point after the claim that racisim, sexism, etc., are important and should be paid attention. The critique turned against itself, though, doesn't seem to show how the critiqued thing functions. When I find the sexism in critiques of sexism or the racisim in racism (e.g. the sexism implicit in "the possibility of a specific female mode of writing," or the racism in "multicultural literature is good because it's a source of energy"), instead of understanding how it works always-already and having this available critical-confessional response, I find I'm stuck in endless loops of static. I feel like these theories are just repeatedly telling me I'm wrong, bad, and my thinking is trapped, and I want to say, "I know I am, but how?"
Downward eyes and a smile

Feb 2, 2010

A media of re-affirmation

The internet changed child pornography. Not by making it more available, though there was that. Nor primarily by giving more child pornographers more access to more images of more children in sexually explicit poses. Nor even by putting more children in harm's way, (for, actually, children have been vulnerable as long as there've been children, and most abusers are family members and trusted friends, not people lurking in ugly corners of the internet). Instead, the foremost effect of the internet on child pornography has been in the creation of communities of child pornographers.

These are re-affirmative associations. So where it used to be that everyone a particular child pornographer knew thought child pornography and what a child pornographer might want to do was evil, sick and wrong, now all of the child pornographer's closest associations and all his conversations are and can be with people who affirm and encourage, endorse and legitimize. The media or form of media enabled the creation of what is essentially a society of affirmative feed-back loops. Shame was gone, with the internet. The need for secrecy, gone. There was a decrease in the internalization of critiques, which was one of the functions of society replaced by communities built around fantasies, and thus the child pornographers were loosed, in a way, allowed to escape, in their own minds, some social restraints.

The people I talked to about child pornography (a U.S. Attorney and his office, FBI agents and experts, and officers from a number of local departments involved in the controversial practice of basically baiting people into incriminating, online conversations), said the internet changed child pornographers so that what used to be cravings and impulses were, in a way, calcified into confirmed opinions and beliefs.

Of course, the internet has done this to all of us. This is the reality of the new media age. This is what happens when mass media is fractured, and communities are organized by self-selection. We occupy worlds built around ideas, our fantasies. There is a direct relationship between the multitude of media and each individuals' isolation from any information that would disagree with what one believes. The function, here, is not to broaden or educate but to re-affirm. We all live now in these loops of re-affirming feed-back, enabling us not to question ourselves, insulating us from critique, protecting us with cult-like repetitions of affirmations of our rightness. My media choices comfort me with sermons that praise me for my choices, for being chosen, for being right, always encouraging me to join and repeat again the prayer, I'm so glad I'm not like them.
"If we can just tar and feather Nixon, America will be America again, without everything loathsome and lawless that's crept in, without all this violence and malice and madness and hate. Put him in a cage, cage the crook, and we'll have our great country back the way it was."

-- The Swede's father, in John Updike's American Pastoral.

Feb 1, 2010


For the moment at least, and maybe for a couple, I'm going to try to turn this blog to a different purpose. I need it, right now, to be a place for notes in American studies, the beginnings of ideas of essays and pieces of papers -- a space where I can work out and keep track of some thinking. More along the lines of what was posted last week.

So we're taking a more critical, essayistic turn and tone.

I am not, by any means, stopping the other writing, the fiction and creative writing. I am trying to put those energies into longer-form efforts, and recently writing short-short fiction here was making more substantial efforts more difficult. I plan to push myself with the fiction, which of course you, my few readers, will know about as soon as there's some success to know about.

Thanks, always, for reading.
Gigged up

An attitude of language is the difference between crime writing and the "literary"
What happens when poets spend too much time fucking around on the internet
When David Foster Wallace was teaching assistant of the year
Derrida, Heidegger, Benjamin: guilty of philotyranny?
We have to remember the public in public works
Stalking George Plimpton: an essay in google maps
Fundamentalists and the atheists who love them
Martin Amis on not deciding to write
In defense of Carl Sandburg's nonsense
The late night distemper of our times
Kasparov on the chess computers
Testing the myths of profile pix
What we lost with Howard Zinn
Ruling on campaign finance law
So much for judicial minimalism
Kibbutz Zionism in the 60s
No maw New Yawk accent?
The Jihadist from Alabama
Representing motion
Age of asymmetry
Photographing Haiti
Steam tunnel music
When the author died
Clips of Howl, the movie
Thomas Lynch tries fiction
The president I always wanted
History of miscegenation laws
Iggy Pop and voice as weapon
Occult American: into the weird
The intellectual trend of unreality
Edward P. Jones: doomed to stories
Did Dashiell Hammett hate poetry?
Mathematic renderings of whale songs
Zadie Smith and the hysteric moment
Ulysses S. Grant was unjustly villified
Ross Douthat's idiosyncratic conservatism
Ways we've imagined the end of the world
Christian faith crisis in American rock and indie rock
Evolution within evolution: how to explain horizontal gene "inheritance"
Howard Zinn, author of U.S. "People's History," dies at 87. May he rest in peace.