May 31, 2010

A very short and sketchy history of America as seen through her eschatologies
"[M]illennialism grounds the transcendent promise of salvation for the elected few on the word of God and projects it onto a particular social group in history."

-- Jan Stievermann, "The Discursive Construction of American Identity in Millennialist Tracts during the War of 1812." Millennialists Thought in America.
1630s - 1700s -- New England theologians assert that New England will, indeed, be involved in the millennial kingdom (against old world theologians who say that American territory is not mentioned in Bible's prophetic promises), and some even argue New England will have a central role.

1730s, '40s -- Revival is seen as sign of coming kingdom. Increased attention to church and theology, to the point of ignoring work and politics, seen as sign of revival. Jonathan Edwards says the millennium will probably "begin in America."

1750s, '60s -- Millennial hopes are connected to political and esp. military events, and millennial tropes are common in sermons raising anti-Catholic sentiment in support of the French and Indian War.

1770s - 1800s -- America is understood as the "wilderness" to which the church retreats in Revelation. Revolution explained in eschatological terms; eschatology explained in terms of recent history.

1810s, '20s -- Whig and Republican ministers offer alternative accounts of millennium, which connect to their understanding (quasi-aristocratic/Puritan and democratic/Jeffersonian, respectively) of what "America" means, and their political positions on the war.

1831 -- Eschatological visions inspire Nat Turner to lead a slave rebellion.

1830s, '40s -- Second Great Awakening puts emphasis on "simple" theology and "plain" readings of scripture. Alexander Campbell says kingdom will come with return to "primitive" faith, while Andrew Jackson wins election as a common man who was born in a log cabin and Henry David Thoreau attempts to reclaim simplicity in woods.

1840s, '50s -- Mainstream church generally eschatologically optimistic. Kingdom thought to come through gradual social progress and reform. At the same time, marginal groups such as the Millerites, Mormons, Shakers, etc., gather masses of socially dislocated peoples into new religions with starker millennial prophecies.

1860s -- Meteor shower starts Civil War. Churches splinter. Pessimism prevails.

1870s - 1900s -- Dispensationalism is developed and popularized by C.I. Scofield, southern veteran and convicted forger who was converted in prison. D.L. Moody promotes idea that world is sinking ship, Jesus is lifeboat. Labor movement criticizes Christians for eschatology of "pie in the sky bye and bye."

1900s - '20s -- Mainline churches adopt social gospel with reform movements (women's suffer age, prohibition), expect gradual, progressive perfection of world leading to kingdom. Previous version of this idea ended with Civil War, and this one ends with WWI.

Interwar period -- Dispensationalism continues, with attendant general detachment from politics. Focus generally shifts from end of times to beginning, as evangelicals and fundamentalists put their efforts into opposing evolution, which they connect to the decadence of Europe that lead to the war, and atheism that lead to communism.

1940s -- Eschatology resurges with worries about WWII. If A=100, B=101, etc., HITLER=666. Mussolini is man most often identified with Antichrist.

1950s, '60s -- Wholly secular apocalyptic emerges around fears and iconography of the nuclear bomb, and increased anxiety of Cold War. Continues into the '70s and '80s in science fiction.

1970s, '80s -- Fundamentalists abandon separatism with the rise of the Religious Right, and eschatology is increasingly aggressively political, incorporating nuclear war, the Cold War, Israel, OPEC, pollution, race riots, assassinations, drugs, the student movement, homosexuality, feminism, abortion and other issues into End Times expectations and interpretations.

1990s, 2000s -- Eschatology is marginalized/downplayed, but persists. Evangelical millennialists downplay and/or avoid explicitly eschatological interpretations of events, such as war in the Middle East, the rise of the internet, the turn of the millennium, and homosexual marriage, at least in public, though the commitments and inclinations continue.

May 30, 2010

There’s a Dixieland jazz band at the beer garden, which recently reopened after remodeling, and they’re doing covers of what sounds like Sinatra. You can hear them up and down the sunny street and Tuebingen’s big bridge where the buses stop and along the river where the boats go, practicing for Stocherkahn and passing up and down with paddling tourists.

Our neighbors, old Italians, have been out in their garden, working the dirt. The man never wears his shirt. His skin is starting to get leathery and brown, but not like it will be in a few months more, more months of mowing and gardening and soaking in the sun we didn’t see for so long but which now seems not to set, out still at 9, 10, deepening to soft dusk slowly.

Read more about life in Tuebingen @ Because of course.

May 28, 2010

"THE GENERAL feeling of dread,
the repressed awareness of the historical and the potential fusions of the
autonomous logic of technology with the murderous irrationality of genocide, is
crucial to an understanding of the narrative fictions of the post war years; and
that the cultural and spiritual crisis resulting from an awareness of the
genuine potential of technology is intimately related to the growth of the mass
media. For the development of new media technologies not only served to make us
aware of our apocalyptic predicament but also served as the most visible daily
sign of technology's power ... Thus, it is hardly surprising that the media came
to occupy an important role in our millennial dreams and nightmares."

-- Stephen D. O'Leary,
"Apocalypticism in American Popular Culture."

May 27, 2010

Ceding the assumption

The problem with "literalist" End Times prophecy is not that it's not literal. It couldn't be literal.

Literalism, as fundamentalists mean it, is impossible (and makes no sense), but some of the arguments against it can't seem to quite focus on the philosophical aspect here, and end up inadvertantly accepting it in order to go after a specific exmaple. A literalism instead of literalism.

Attacking it on the grounds of hypocrisy might seem to work initially -- like wildly racking up points in a pin ball game -- but unless you make the subsequent point that literalism is, in itself, incoherent, impossible, and a silly standard, then you have, in the process of attacking literalists for not successfully being literal, actually served to support literalism as a right standard.

This is what John Wiley Nelson does in "The Apocalyptic Vision in American Popular Culture," when he lays into Hal Lindsey for Lindsey's inconsistency on "plain" and "literal" readings of Revelation. Nelson's right, of course, and this is fine as far as it goes, but a literalist reading isn't even possible, and by attacking a specific literalist reading on the grounds that it falls short, Nelson ends up ceding the assumption of literalism.

It's like they say about the battle and the war.

There are a lot of ways to twhack End Times writers, but they're not all good. End Times writers are wrong, and their literalism is wrong, but the problem is not (just) that it's not literal.

May 25, 2010

Re-imagination vs realization

Society can't be re-imagined from the center; it can't be changed from the fringe.

Fringe political parties and religious movements both occupy the same social space in America, that of radical re-imagining, and both are internally divided, split at the heart, over the desire to remain pure and true to the imagined, and the desire to realize that re-imagination in society.

This was true for the Communist Party USA, perhaps in a more important way than whatever external pressures it faced, as was apparently aptly explained in Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's 1981 thesis, and also in Pentecostalism, Seventh Day Adventism and Mormonism, and also in libertarianism, as was seen when the newly-elected Rand Paul spectacularly failed to negotiate that gap, repeating what is a standard point in the libertarian's re-conception of America1 in the context of a non-theoretical, world-as-it-is conversation.

Libertarians are kind of famous for not knowing how to negotiate this split, for being completly deaf to how wild and wrong and horrible their ideas sound to the center they would (should) want as allies. Many take recourse to criticism, which is a way they can tentatively engage without compromising their conception, but any actual change requires the application of solutions, which is messy.

Unless it's dues ex machina, change requires a process, and process isn't ideological, isn't theoretical. It's messy, while the re-imagining is clean. I admire those who create a system of ideology -- who, can, in their minds, sweep us clean and start over -- but that doesn't mean I don't oppose them in practical terms.

1 One of the best counter arguments to this point about a "free" market response to institutionalized racial segregation, which also works as a basic explanation of why libertarians fails, can be found in Charles Lane's "On Civil Rights, no cheers for Rand Paul."

May 24, 2010

Notes on the writing of Joan Didion

"A waterfall is a self-correction maladjustment of stream to structure, and so, for all I know, is technique."

-- Joan Didion
1. Sentence fragments are easy enough, common enough, but Didion's are better and she uses comma splices too, and to great effect. She opens Democracy with a complete sentence that then echos in fragments that cascade off of the original statement, the altered iterations expanding outwards.

"The light at dawn during those Pacific tests was something to see.
Something to behold.
Something that could almost make you think you saw God, he said.
He said to her.
Jack Lovett said to Inez Victor.
Inez Victor who was born Inez Christian.
He said: The sky was this pink ... "
Then, in crescendo, she lets this sentence that both is and isn't in the voice of Jack Lovett take off and just go. It's a description of the pink of the Pacific island sky after the blast of a test bomb and it starts with a cliche and unravels from there, a description that tells us more about the man than the sky described, and then as it almost falls apart she puts a comma and a complete sentence, as if everything should be ignored and this is the thing. He comma splices communicate this need to re-state or re-phrase, which both captures the problem of the moment of these two characters and the whole novel's expression of an ennui that isn't boredom but an inability to exactly say.

"The sky was this pink and the air was wet from the night rain, soft and wet and smelling like flowers, smelling like those flowers you used to pin in your hair when you drove out to Schofield, gardenias, the air in the morning smelled like gardenias, never mind there were not too many flowers around those shot islands."
What strikes me as amazing about Didion's grammar, here, is how it's not a new a thing, but a very old and common thing brilliantly done.

2. I can't quite describe Didion's fictional female characters in Democracy and Play It As It Lays. They seem to float -- not that they're spacey or ditzy, but they're detached. They're, I want to say, not ethereal, but airy.

There are parts of both characters and some descriptions that seem to be or border on being misogynistic, but even in those places I couldn't imagine these descriptions coming from a man.

3. Both Didion and Anne Proulx are intensely minimalistic. This might, in part, be a reaction against the stereotype of florid women writers, of women as overwriters. Or maybe that's only why I like them. For men, this minimalism would normally mean a macho pose -- writer as tough guy -- but Didion and Proulx do it differently, with a sort of deftness I find endlessly fascinating. It's interesting how different they are, though, despite their similarities. I imagine if the two women went to a party, they'd act much the same. They are both small women known for wanting to be left alone. They're both conservative, but in odd ways. Both independent and isolated, though perhaps there's a class difference in how. It's hard to imagine them describing the same party, though. If they did it'd be completely different. They both describe land a lot, but completely differently. Proulx is concrete where Didion drifts off or away. Where Proulx likes hands and skin, horses and trucks, Didion returns to descriptions of weather, wind, water and sky:
"Kona means leeward, and this particular wind comes off the leeward side of the island, muddying the reef, littering the beaches with orange peels and prophylactics and bits of Styrofoam cups, knocking blossoms from the plumeria trees and dry fonds from the palms. The sea goes milky. Termites swarm on the wooden roofs. The temperature has changed only slightly, but only tourists swim. At the edge of the known world there is only water, water as a definite presence, water as the end to which even the island will eventually come, and a certain restlessness prevails."

May 23, 2010

When I wanted Pentecost

I cried when I tried to receive the spirit. But nothing happened. The brothers came and shouted, Je-ZUSS!, and they prayed for me with heavy hands. They shouted up to God the Son and said stern words to me. There was popcorn on the counter in the kitchen. Chips in bowls. Chips in bags. Salsa.

The floor where the prayer meeting was was brown and beige, geometric. The light above left lines of yellowed white on the floor intersecting the flooring patterns, although the lines kept moving and moved when I moved, with me, because of me and where I was, the intersections shifting. God keeps his promises. He does not lie, they said.

They said to me and again to God above us.

If you ask, they said, we know He's faithful. I rocked my body and prayed and rocked. Please and Lord, and Lord Lordlord. Somewhere in the back my father prayed. He had a language no one knew. I prayed and cried and tried until I shook, and the Lord's out la la . The brothers conferred to say and decide -- was this a stammer or the spirit come?

I tried to read their mouths as they moved, but only saw hands on heavy beards.

May 21, 2010

Thinking neo-Ludditely

The problem is always the lines. Where to draw them. Any argument against technology always ends up not really being anything other than a game of parsings. Unlike, say, vegetarians, who can use the easy and already-there distinctions between meat and not-meat, animal and non-animal, local or not-local, Luddites have to make up these lines, and they always seem arbitrary. The Luddite ends up arguing for the lines and why they are where they are and what falls on which side, instead of about the argument against technology.

As I asked my students, are buttons technology? Shoes? Houses? Cooked food? Words?

But, then, the thing I never liked about vegetarianism was the lines. It seems like it is or at least can be a way to make it so you won't have to think about food. You don't have to consider or be careful, or thoughtful, but just follow the program and know you're okay. The arbitrariness of any lines in a position against technology is precisely, for me, what makes it interesting. That's what makes it worth while, ethically.1

There's a sort of "neo-Luddite" position I like where you don't actually argue against anything, but you worry. You never reach a point where you're done and you know you did it right, but instead you keep asking questions, coming up with problems, and trying to answer. You try to be thoughtful. You try to be careful and conscientious and mindful. It's open-ended and ongoing and you're never sure that you're right, in any sort of final way, but you take the position it's better to ask and be aware than to just accept.

I love this cartoon illustration of this, which James Strum drew in his series of articles on Slate, Life Without the Web:

The traditionally-dressed Jewish man isn't chucking the little robot up against a wall or into a river, but examining it. He kneels down, uncomfortably, to look closely and ask it questions. I don't know why the man's Jewish -- Strum says something about Jewish identity -- but it reminds me of the anti-Semitic slur that Derrida and other post modernists reclaimed, that Jewish thought is only commentary, all footnotes and questions. Parsings. If you read that onto the picture, and take the robot to represent technology, it's a perfect representation of the project of neo-Ludditism. It's all questions and ethical concern, self-reflexive and skeptical instead of dogmatic, open-ended and ongoing -- a conversation more than a theory.

Maybe the "game of parsings" is the only ethical game to play. Maybe we ought to seek out that situation where the questions are so difficult -- so critically important -- that they have to be asked again and again as long as we're alive, and there is no final answer.

Some of my students, analyzing the arguments in Nicholas Carr's essay, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, tried to argue that Carr doesn't really want to persuade us of an answer to the question, but just wants to get us to ask it. I don't know that that's a good reading of Carr, but that is the position I want to take. There is this beautiful, brilliant liberal arts moment in the essay where he directly addresses the reader and says, "So, yes, you should be skeptical of my skepticism." I really like this moment in the essay -- a neo-Luddite moment -- because, right there, the actual conclusions or eventual end of the conversation is disregarded, just put aside, and the conversation itself is held up as the prize. At least we should talk about it, he says. Whatever the conclusion, this is worthwhile. This makes us better people, the fact that we're thinking about these things.

Which of course means that one can be drawn into the neo-Luddite position without actually accepting any propositions, any thesis or platform or program. Because it's a conversation. It's thinking.

Thinking about technology doesn't mean drawing lines, but examining that which surrounds us and which, otherwise, would have been invisible. This is why I assigned the topic to a class on academic writing. The process of interrogating that which once seemed obvious is the process of thinking, which is the process of writing. This is what liberal arts and education are supposed to do. This is the basis of philosophy. This is reading. It can happen, too, for food and photography, culture and literature and politics, though too often, there, the positions so seem clear and the assumptions seem so obvious that they appear as truths, and it's hard to actually get to the questions about the assumptions. I don't care what position they take, or if they change their minds, or if the simply defend the technology they use, but I want them to see it, invisible all around them. I want them to wake up, and ask the world questions.

1 Peter Blum, the sociology prof. at Hillsdale who taught me continental philosophy and became a friend, makes a more sophisticated form of this argument in, I believe, his hopefully-soon-to-be-published book, For a Church to Come. He argues that it is precisely the arbitrariness of these lines, for Luddites like the Amish, that makes them important.

May 18, 2010

The social function of the boring bits of the news

Repetition serves a purpose.

Michael Kinsey, in Cut This Story!, argues that newspaper stories are too long, specifically, that the sort of background information that always goes into an article, sometimes high up, sometimes farther down, is stupid, repetitive, and unnecessary.

Part of the argument is that this information -- because it's already common knowledge -- is pointless. Kinsey calls it "this unnecessary stuff" "written to accommodate readers who have just emerged from a coma or a coal mine." While it's certainly true that some of the wordy conventions of journalistic style are outdated, and most newspaper writing badly needs to be whipped into shape, the argument also misses and maybe misunderstands the function of this information.

It's not just filler, even if it is boring or seems routine. It's not pointless, even if it feels that way.

The feeling is actually the effect that shows the function: the repetition works to establish what is known to be known.

Niklas Luhmann, the German sociologist who developed a theory of autopoietic social systems, argues that part of the function of media is to construct common reality -- memory -- the background against which we live and speak and act, the common, connective reality of what we all know to be true. "The social function of mass media is thus," according to Luhmann, "not to be found in the totality of information ... but in the memory generated by it," "the generation of a latent everyday culture."

The purpose of this background information in a news story is not, then, to inform or catch-up the coma-bound or coal-mine-trapped reader, but to separate us from them. The fact that we read these bits and already know them, so there's this structural boringness or paramnesia, establishes our common memory, that which Luhmann argues allows us "take certain assumptions about reality as given." The fact that we all respond to this information as fact, is what connects us into this common reality. That they're boring is a sign it's working, and is how I know I'm not a visitor from Mars.

For someone like Kinsey, this common culture, this agreed-upon reality, isn't constructed, but just exists. But isn't this reality exactly what's being lost with the fracturing of media? Without outlets operating to establish what neutral is and without this operation to construct the boring bits of what we all know, we're left with cults instead of culture.

Remember here Stephen Colbert's crack that "reality has a well-known liberal bias." Part of the reason this is true, and not just funny, is that American conservatives since Barry Goldwater and the "liberal consensus" that Lyndon Johnson inherited, have established alternative medias and sub-cultures, choosing, in the process of rejecting "main stream media," to opt out of common culture, make themselves a sub-culture, and, with radio and pamphlets and movement organs, to construct alternative realities. Which is why conservatives remember things differently and often clash with what's left of mainstream culture precisely on issues of what's obvious and what we "all know."

As Hans-Georg Moeller explains, in his book about Luhmann, "the mass media can be ascribed the general function of providing society with a universally available memory ... the mass media provide[s] society with that which is known to be known."

In general, the impulse and apparently ill-thought-out rush towards ever-shorter stories and ever-faster news cycles is wrongheaded. It's bad for us, and it makes news a thing of entertainment instead of understanding. Too often, these things start with a basic misunderstanding of media, and we're like passengers on an airplane throwing out the "useless bits" that, in fact, keep us airborne. The boring parts are often actually important. Even the repetition has its purpose.

May 17, 2010

The private answers of Treme

Treme: This time the city's really broken.

I don't know if David Simon could have done his new show if Katrina hadn't crushed New Orleans. Not only because the subsequent sympathy and interest allowed him to sell Treme to executives who didn't understand the pitch except for the name of the city, but also because, after the flood, New Orleans was a city broken in dramatically different way.

The Wire, as a show about a city, about the institutions of a city, had characters who were always trying to either make their peace and live with broken Baltimore or trying to fix one part of it, like the city was Neurath's boat. One of the interesting things about the show was watching how, whatever the characters did, whether they participated or dropped out, accepted the system or fought back, the brokenness just kept perpetuating. Whichever way you played, and whether you were Bodie or Bunk, Daniels or D'Angelo, Stringer or Colvin or Carcetti, the game always won.

Baltimore was broken in a way that ensures it would always go on. But in Treme, the city's even more broken than that. If David Simon had set a new show in any other American city -- Atlanta or Cincinnati, Oakland or Philadelphia, St. Paul or Seattle -- the story would have been different, but basically the same. With New Orleans, though, the city's so broken as to almost not exist, to serve as a blank spot in the story, and the characters are not so much responding to the institutions as the absence of them.

In the not-quite-anarchy of Treme, the characters face the question: what do you do when the institutions won't continue, when there isn't this self-perpetuation? Do you leave or stay? Do you invest or get out? Do you sell out and go play paying gig in Houston? Do you busk for disaster tourists? Get a job in an inn on Bourbon Street? Rage and sputter at the fucking fucks on YouTube? In this way, Treme is more interested in the personal, the private: the spaces and places where we respond with impotent rage or desperation, quiet determination or frustration, hope or despair.

"It's guys," David Simon said, "deciding what key they're going to play a song in, and what song they choose to play and why, and what they do after the song. It's drama in very small moments, on a human scale."

The private answers and spaces for answers we see at the start of the show are music and work, mostly, and it will be interesting to see if, as the show goes on, in a really radically broken city, these answers are presented as working.

May 14, 2010

Unchosen aesthetics

The old men sorted themselves out by inclination, aesthetic taste and preference. It wasn't like anyone told them what to carve or like they talked about it extensively, theorizing or writing manifestos. They just knew what they wanted to do.

Some men carved ducks, some songbirds. It wasn't necessarily that they liked or had liked birds, but when they began working with wood, their retirement hobby, this is what they did. Because birds required something -- precision and practice, delicate, detailed work -- and because there were standards and a way to know if you'd done it right. They were careful men, patient and perfectionist, and this mimetic aesthetic appealed to them and meant some certainty, some standard, and their art was the art of reaching for that perfect reproduction of the way the feathers lay on a folded wing.

Others, retired engineers or those with a mathematician's sense of beauty, chose chip carving, all clean cuts, straight lines and geometric patterns.

There were jokers, too, old men with knives who mostly guffawed and carved what they called characters, their jokes and cuts somewhat crude. There were would-be sculptors carving women meant to be tastefully nude, and Lutherans and Catholics careful with v-tools and finely-sharpened skews carving Christs or St. James or John. There were trick carvers, working on whittling tricks like wooden chains and balls in cages, and those who carved spirit faces in stumps and driftwood, or Indians and mountain men with beards that flowed in descending circles around a walking stick.

They all carved what they carved. They never acted like it was a choice. There aesthetic was what it was, and came from who they were, and their life and their work and what they didn't feel like they had. Or what they wanted more of. How they saw the world or would have wanted it to be. It was like it was an outworking of who they were.

Normally, we think of aesthetics like creeds, like something chosen and held, something believed. I'm not so sure it works like that.

May 13, 2010

The clown's coat
The openness of language and bodies

"It's a strange idea of the body, isn't it, which is we're ... it's essentially a prison house that cuts the selves off from ourselves. Phenomenologically speaking, the body, of course -- the body is a way of being present to other people. It is a way of being in the world, a way of of being among things. So that to inhabit a body (if that's the right term) is already, as it were, to be open to an outside -- just as, as it were, to inhabit a language is inherently and intrinsically to be open toward an outside.

Both body and language, understood properly, dismantle that rather dubious distinction between inside and outside."

-- Terry Eagleton

May 12, 2010

Three abstracts
(Response to CFPs; on narrative structures; 1st draft)

1. Closure is Bullshit: The narratological problems of unclosed cases

James Ellroy, the brassy crime writer whose own mother was murdered, has said that if he could abolish one concept from the common parlance, it would be “closure.” He has often loudly proclaimed that “closure is bullshit.” “Closure” is not just a term bandied about in pop therapy, however. It’s also a key element of successful narratives, something that narratives of murder are supposed to provide, and it is one of the basic ways in which death is given structure and sense in modern society. Contemporary, common understandings of death, especially violent death, are shaped and given shape by the conventions of narrative, especially conclusions. The confusing, random and meaningless nature of murder is given form and, thus, coherence, by being shaped into a story. These constructs are terribly fragile, though, and only provide a paper-thin protection against the nonsensicalness of violent murder. Narrative gives a sense of understanding, without any actual understanding. With an eye to Niklas Luhmann’s argument against the consensus model of society and to Rene Girard’s theory of the founding function of scapegoats, this paper examines the way that fragility is exposed by the failure to find closure in three narrative presentations of “unclosed cases.” Considering James Ellroy’s autobiographical My Dark Places, David Fincher’s film Zodiac, and newspaper accounts of the 2006 identification of a woman four years after she was found dead in a lake, this paper argues it is only failed narratives that do justice to the complexity of murder in modern society.

2. The Other Answer: A reappraisal of New Journalism

There is a real alternative. There is another answer. Instead of the instant news cycle, the bloggers and twitters, the automated aggregators and commentators commenting on commentators, another form of journalism is possible. The time is right for a re-evaluation of the mostly-forgotten long-form journalists: Careful writers, craftsmen and women with two-, six- and ten-thousand-word pieces that are interesting, easy to read and – more! – worth reading even after a couple of days. This paper argues that New Journalism, that experimental reporting style of the 1960s and ’70s, is a viable alternative to current media trends. Using the author’s own experience as a newspaper reporter as well as making a careful consideration of relevant issues in literary theory and media criticism, this paper argues that the troubling trends of today are not just responses to market forces and technological changes, but also answers to a certain set of unarticulated questions. Those questions, almost rigorously avoided in current discussions of new media and new directions for media, go to the heart of journalism. Those questions, such as why one writes like this, and what news is actually for, can be made explicit by a comparison with New Journalism, which actually asked the questions, and then answered them in a dramatically different way. Contrasting the works of Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin and Hunter S. Thompson with current media stars such as Mike Allen, Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan, this paper elucidates the root questions of contemporary media choices, and demonstrates a viable alternative: the vibrant, thoughtful, innovative and informative media form that was mostly rejected, but is now ripe for reconsideration.

3. The Complicated Story of the Death of Carlnell Walker: One black-on-black crime and the construction of communal, African-American identity narratives

When Carlnell Walker was killed – beaten, kicked, stabbed and left in the trunk of a car to roast in the summer in the American south – his corpse lay at the intersection of a number of normally disguised divisions in the African-American community. African-American identity, both individually and communally, is normally presented, both by observers and by those inside, as homogenious and harmonious. Deaths, even tragic deaths, normally serve to reinforce these narratives of identity, and act as invitations to tell and re-tell identity-forming stories. With Carnell Walker’s death, however, the story was complicated. The manner of his death was unusual, the motivations for his murder were convoluted, and the ways in which various African-American communities – rich and poor, educated and ghetto, religious and secular, institutional and anti-authoritatian – could adequately respond to his death was unclear. His death revealed the seams of an identity sewn together, and responses to his death served to show the constructed, composite character of a community that is, in fact, communities. The only easy narratives belonged to the white racists and black conservatives; some black communities preferred not to speak of the death at all, responding with silence to a death could apparently only disrupted their communities. A narratological investigation based on the author’s own work as a newspaper reporter in Georgia, this paper will examine Carlnell Walker’s death, explicating the complications of his own narrative identity and the narrative identities of his four accused attackers, the intersecting community identities, the functions of competing, communal narratives, and the ultimate difficulty in any narrative understanding of the brutal killing.

May 11, 2010

Reading pathologies

Certain writers seem to always attract the wrong kind of attention -- the kind of attention that devalues their work and turns them into personalities, celebrities. They get this sort of following that isn't an appreciation of their work, per se, but an identification with a lifestyle. Which is fine, I guess, or, anyway, is what it is.

What is a problem is when critics and scholars seem so taken by the person (which is really a persona) or biography that they cannot comment on the work except as a way to shed light on the life. The artist as celebrity, and nothing more. There's this psychological reductionism -- only ever, it seems, done by amateur psychologists -- and really sloppy readings and loose, unfettered engagement with every imaginable fallacy.

And this, also, is what it is, and maybe it just has to be accepted as a fact of the world we live in, but it really is maddening when it's not just a fan, a reader, or a reviewer, not just someone who's conservatism doesn't actually allow for contemporary literary criticism, but someone who really ought to know better.

Exhibit A -- I was reading secondary work on Philip K. Dick, the other day, and came across Samuel J. Umland actually defending fallacious readings, arguing that the literary critics who came up with the fallacies were involved in grand, Dick-novel-like conspiracies. He cites William H. Epstein, and then says,

"the origin of the alleged critical 'fallacies' known as the 'biographical fallacy' as well as the 'persona fallacy' in the late 1940s and 1950s by literary scholars who were to become CIA employees ... allow[ed] the critics to authorize a critical interpretation by taking on an 'assumed identity.'"

On the one hand this is absurd -- they did what? why? -- and entirely ad hominen, but also, so what? The fallacies are still fallacies, and treating Dick's work only as evidence of his own, private pathologies is still a bad way to read.

May 10, 2010

Ride and colors

Longform journalism
Mike Allen: NewsCycle Man
How blogging matters where
Theology of Cool Hand Luke
Terry Eagleton on criticism
They too needed emancipation
David Petraeus: Professor of War
Gay Talese' non-fiction marriage
The disappearing languages of NYC
Walter Benjamin, the painful opera
Malcolm Gladwell: Pandora's suitcase
Michael Crichton: pop art collector
Drawing Moby-Dick, one page at a time
First they came for Hitler (parodies)
Twisting yoga to our own spiritual needs
Purvis Young, Miami folk artist, dies at 67. May he rest in peace.
How black Baltimore drug dealers used a right wing separatist legal defense
The insanity of an ultra-marathoner: The last days are marked by hallucinations: bears, wolves and aliens prowl the roadside; asphalt cracks rearrange themselves into coded messages.
Richard Zimmerman, last of the Idaho cavemen, dies at 94. May he rest in peace.
This is the story of the night Hannah was not official raped
What does it mean to beg the question? And should you do it?
Tolerance of ick and the right of free speech
The internet doesn't create political-media ghettos
Revisiting the "hacker" heroes, 25 years later
What color is this? Extensive survey results
Is conservatism helped or hurt by FOX news?
Detail's 1996 David Foster Wallace profile
Google Image search: a map of America
Obama to announce Supreme Court pick
Mark Twain: harsh marginalia critic
The next volcano could kill us all
Supreme Court closes the front door
Obama admin using Miranda loophole
James Earl Ray's stalking of MLK
Raw milk raids in Amish country
John Milbank, a blogging theory
The romance of the window seat
The Powells poetry pain index
Gordon Lish to teach in NYC
The lost state of Jefferson
What made Twain famous?
10 absurdist classics
Legacy of a war photo
The art in cadavers
The Whale

May 7, 2010

Slapping the suitcase of American mystery

When one of the members of April Smith’s band, the Great Picture Show, hauls a small suitcase up on the stage and turns it into a rhythm instrument, slapping it and hitting it with a tambourine, he connects the show to a whole tradition of American displacement and weirdness.

April Smith, whose recent single I can’t stop hearing in my head and whistling to myself, clearly falls into the sub genre of indie-inflected Billie Holiday followers, of young white women jazz singers, like Norah Jones, but there’s also a pop sensibility and, with the make-shift instrument, a connection to this other, reoccurring element of American music. We saw it a lot with the “freak folk” side of indie music, this injection of strangeness. Sometimes it was a weird voice, a weird look, weird religious references or references to secret histories, weird stage settings or costume design, though maybe the most common thing was the weird instrument. In some cases this is a common instrument that just isn’t used in pop music, like Bob Dylan’s recent use of the accordion or Joanna Newsome’s harp, and other times it’s stranger. Other times it’s like an instrument you might find moldering in the attic next to Civil War photos, somehow always known and never, historical and imaginary, familiar and so profoundly freakish.

Tom Waits specializes in exuberantly using strange instruments and strange things as instruments: the calliope! glockenspiel! harmonium and chromelodeon! chairs, brake drums and Indonesian seed pods, battery-operated bullhorns and pianos hit with 2×4s! He started doing this with the album Swordfishtrombones, which, obviously, is named for exactly the kind of instrument that doesn’t exist but which, if it did, would be found with owl-eaten mouse carcasses filling the horn end and covered in dust in the attic where the one-legged German immigrant and Union vet would have left it when the band broke up in 1884 and he had to skip town with the sister of one of his wives.

Read the rest of the essay, It Sounds Weird, @ The Currator

May 6, 2010

"He's dead man"

May 5, 2010

With fastidious comma may she wave

The title sequence of John Adams is a camera lovingly lingering over an ill-lit flag, following the pieces of the snake that was, then, a re-occurring representation of America

Then the camera pulls out to show the whole flag, and every time I think, that's one thoroughly punctuated flag.

May 4, 2010

The history we forget

It's somewhat startling to see the extent to which Jefferson and Adams didn't agree.

It's not just that they disagreed, or that they became rivals and heads of opposing parties. It's not just that one of them was deeply committed to democracy, even embracing as honest the fickleness of the mob and the anarchic potential of the voice of the people, while the other distrusted the people and was always on the side of law and the rule of law, even accepting as right the need for power, the need for centralized power and suppressing force, with its potential for abuse or even tyranny. What's startling, and even unsettling, more than any of that, is how they didn't agree on what the Constitution or the Revolution meant.

It was, for them, disputable. It was ambiguous. They were fighting, in part, over the very interpretation of what now seems so clear.

John Adams, the HBO miniseries, is a brilliant piece of work. Paul Giamatti does a great job -- I especially enjoy the way he worries his wig as a prop, and the way he acts with his face. The director, Tom Hooper, manages to neither unduly reduce nor overextend the story. He manages, kind of amazingly, to get past the costumes and the style of speaking and seize a real vitality, avoiding the costumed artificiality and camp that the Revolution can become.

Hooper, interestingly, is British, and said somewhere he was surprised to find that this founding myth of America wasn't depicted and depicted and over depicted, but is almost ignored by art. We've forgotten more of it than we remember. When compared to the Civil War and WWII, the American Revolution, in art and popular telling, almost isn't a story but just a phrase, a fixed and unmovable idea.

It's a mere trope: the framers, the founding, the fathers.

In our political discourse, the right promotes a concept of strict construction, the idea of adhering to the intent which is held to be clear, to be obvious, and the left, with the idea the constitution is a living document, open to reinterpretation and reinterpretation, accepts, somewhat, that there was one original understanding, though it's open to change. But what Hooper does, in his interpretation of David McCullough's work, showing this debate and disagreement between "the north and south poles of the Revolution," is show the central ambiguity of America's original document. There wasn't this one idea, either fixed or open to reinterpretation, and the law, much like today's criticized legislation, was passed first, and understood only later.

Even the "spirit" of 1776 was an open question, with Jefferson saying the French Revolution, even with the violence and terror that Adams abhorred, was of the same essence, another eruption of insuppressible liberty.

What worries me, though, is not the ambiguity or even the fact that this certainty and clarity has been read backwards into history, but that it's startling. I worry there's a structure of amnesia in our history, so we spring fully formed and innocent onto the world stage with the Second World War. I worry about the ways we're constituted by our forgetfulness, the ways we are how we are because of how and what we've forgotten.

What we forget is as important as what we remember, but so much harder to pay attention to.

May 3, 2010

The problem with studying evangelicals

There's something the documents miss.

There's something the words -- sermons and speeches, articles, excerpts and pamphlets -- leave out. In all the apologetics and explanations, in all the arguments of evangelicalism, there's still some crucial vitality, some central reality not accounted for -- what it's actually like to be evangelical.

What's missing is the experience of it. Which is also the reason, the thing that moves people to believe the Bible should have this special place and should be read really only literally, or to believe that Jesus saves.

Faith, necessarily, is not just something one assents to, which means it's not something you can understand just by understanding the ideas, divorced, as they are, from the practice.

What's missing when, for example, an evangelical defends the evangelical understanding of the inspiration of the Bible and the absolute necessity of literal (and only literal) interpretation, is the account of how that Bible, conceived that way, touched people, moved people, and changed them. The defense is only ever post hoc -- constructed, actually, not for persuasion, and never having persuaded anyone, but for defense -- and the argument (and here's the problem) mistakes itself and is mistaken for the reason, where really the reason was, in the lives of those who agree, experiential.

We're trying to study American evangelicalism and are using the documents to do it. This seems right: it seems like an honest way to approach an understanding of a social group, a group which is, in part, not just an idea or a theory but also something that's lived, is through "their own words." The collections seem to be representative, too, and Barry Hankins' reader is well rounded and fair, but the documents themselves, the evangelicals' accounts of evangelicalism, seem all to be focused on the arguments and leave out the experience. They seem to miss or maybe mistake the central substance of what they're doing, who they are, perhaps distracted by their controversies and by the attacks on their more controversial points.

The question comes, then, how do you fairly study a group "in their own words" if they consistently misunderstand themselves, misinterpret the thing that makes them who they are?