Jun 30, 2010

Like the queen of a month forgotten

Dwight Armstrong, who bombed a college building in 1970s, died on June 20 at 58. May he rest in peace.
Glenn Beck's 'faction' book should be judged by it's incitement
Every man in this village is a liar: an education in war
Artificial intelligences is about understanding speech
Neil Gaiman's call for stories, not just literature
Glen Beck's new book incoherent and badly written
Wendell Berry takes papers back from U. Kentucky
Failed posings in the work of Bret Easton Ellis
What's wrong with the media: wonk's fallacy
Recognize it: soccer is an American game
The irony in Glenn Beck's best seller
The two-fisted films of Sam Fuller
When Lincoln fired generals
Remembering the Korean war
Andy Warhol's last supper
15 of the longest novels
Andy Warhol's art orgy
Rolling Stone revived
The last firing squad
When New York swung
The Kagan hearings
Quantum tools
Politicians eating
Gorilla psychologists
Staring down a muppet
Steinbeck market sluggish
The people vs. George Lucas
Fiction is dead, again. Or - no.
A Christian hipster's bookshelf
Nanobots assemble themselves
3 questions for David Petraeus
DC floats on a river of aspersion
Results of American time use survey
Robert Byrd's redemptive journey
Quiet the oceans, darken the sky
New frontiers of pain compliance
A weekend of gun rights in Chicago
Brando Skyhorse's rules for writing
Republicans attack Thurgood Marshall
When original intent is evolving intent
What happened to the black literary canon
Ted Olson's closing argument for gay marriage
The Wizard did it: a new way to explain explanation
The 8 coolest things about the alleged Russian spy ring
Supreme Court ruling could set corrupt politicians free
"Smarter than you think": reading and misreading David Foster Wallace

Jun 29, 2010

The grim so what

I woke up one morning last week, or the week before, and there was the question, clear and just there -- is any of this even worth it?

I've been circling that sinkhole on and off for a while for weeks. And I guess, I'm always there, sailing near despair, feeling like my work is nothing, amounts to nothing, isn't enough, and none of it matters. Even if I'm proud of the work I've done, it feels insignificant afterwards, like throwing rocks into a pond. There's a splash and then nothing. And then the question, so what?

I had an editor who used to call this "the grim."

It was encouraging, then, yesterday morning, to read of Slavoj Žižek feeling the same way:
"He opens a copy of Living in the End Times, and finds the contents page. 'I will tell you the truth now,' he says, pointing to the first chapter, then the second. 'Bullshit. Some more bullshit. Blah, blah, blah.' He flicks furiously through the pages. 'Chapter 3, where I try to read Marx anew, is maybe OK. I like this part where I analyse Kafka's last story and here where I use the community of outcasts in the TV series Heroes as a model for the communist collective. But, this section, the Architectural Parallax, this is pure bluff. Also the part where I analyse Avatar, the movie, that is also pure bluff. When I wrote it, I had not even seen the film.'"
Which, self loathing, perfectionism, bluff and wanting to be called on it and despair, is pretty much how it feels to me.

Jun 28, 2010

What happens when we reassess

There's a bit of a revolution going on in Cotton Mather studies right now. In part this is due to a project one of the Americanists at Tübingen has helped make happen, the publication of Mather's magnum opus, which has never been published before, and a publication of accompanying commentary and reassessment. Part of it, too, is that it's time, and there's been a lot of work on Jonathan Edwards in the last decades and some of the work and some of the claims (like Edwards was America's first theologian) naturally lead to questions about Cotton Mather.

The revolution means -- and maybe starts with -- reassessment. Mather has been done wrong for so long, characterized as the archetypal, stereotypical Puritan, repressed and pinched and personally presiding over witch burnings, or as the first one who thought of "America" as an idea (since he used the word so often in his titles), or (and also especially and) as a cipher through whom the whole idea of America at its beginning, at its foundation, could be understood, that a reassessment is absolutely due. There's a lot of libel that's been accepted as history. He is, after all, the only colonial-era figure who's made an appearance in a comic book, where he was, of course, a villain fighting Spider-Man.

What happens, though, when the reassessment undermines exactly the things that make the subject important to us, or seem worthwhile for what we want to do or know? The reasons we dismissed Mather were the same reasons why he was important -- reassess those and there is the question, left over, of "so what?" What is left when what has to be reassessed is also precisely the reason that he seemed important to reassess? If Mather isn't a major figure in the witch trials, and isn't our caricature of religiously intolerant Puritan, if he saw himself as a New Englander and didn't and couldn't even conceive of himself as an "American," and if he isn't or really shouldn't be a cipher for us, then why do we study him? What do we stand to gain?

Haven't we hacked away, here, exactly the possibility of knowing the things we want to know? As if we have to choose between being wrong and knowing anything.

There's a sense -- and for me the problem is not about Mather at all -- that to save the subject is to lose it, to lose it is to save it, and to reassess it is to make it not worth reassessing. It's only worth reassessing if we don't reassess it, though of course if we don't it's not, again, and the "so what" slips, always away. What we study slips into this My Lai paradox and the question, "so what?" won't go away.

Relevant links:
Cotton Mather's Biblia Americana, America's first Bible commentary, is to be published soon; some of his other writings are readily available, but his major work was pretty much ignored; the work, the though, hasn't really had an impact on his reputation up to now.

Jun 27, 2010

Watching the World Cup 2

Chanting, celebrating, flag waving

Under the flag
A mangle-my-ear sentence

Sentences like this make me irrationally angry:

"Wheeler had walked into two Pittsburgh banks and attempted to rob them in broad daylight."
As opposed to when? The middle of the night? Skinny daylight? Dawn? It's such a stupid comment -- banks are almost always robbed in daylight and daylight is always goddamn broad.

I know to most people it doesn't matter and maybe they're right, but I feel like my ears are being mangled and like a sentence like that should only exist to beat someone with. It's a stupid sentence parading as something important -- oh wow, you're supposed to say, in broad daylight, my my my -- and it's grating and ingratiating and so stupid. It makes me homicidal. And, listen, I know sometimes when you write you're just not thinking and sometimes I write these sentences too, and I know, okay, it happens, and, okay, okay. But, , respect the language.

*deep breath*

It should be noted that the actual piece, Errol Morris' The Anosognosic's Dilemma, looks pretty good, despite that sentence, and, also, the last time a sentence made me mad, I wrote a rash and ridiculously aggressive e-mail to someone I consider a friend. Talk about stupid. I've apologized, but he really deserved better.

It really is irrational, but some sentences, maybe when they're not even important and even when they're fine-whatever ones, I just collaps into self-righteousness and rage.

Jun 25, 2010

What was revelead?

A hoax is not a lie. While they're both meant to mislead, they're different, even if only subtlety so. The difference is important, though. Or maybe it's not, but it seems so to me, and I find I'm fixed on it, bothered by it, working over exactly what the difference is and what the definitions are.

For one thing they're different because a lie is normally understood as a speech act, as a kind of text that doesn't tell the truth, where a hoax is an act or an action, and broader than just speech. A hoax is a performance. It's the same as street art, politics or terrorism or war - a not-necessarily verbal performance intended for interpretation - and also it doesn't always have the logic that a lie has to have. Consider that a lie or the possibility of a lie is logically necessary in any statement of truth. Truth requires the logical possibility of a lie: to say it one way only makes sense if it could have been said in another, if the predicate could be changed, if the truth content could have been the opposite. An orthodox creed can only be stated if blasphemy is possible, and saying the one means the other is possible, and a lie, even one that's never told, must exist as least as potential in order for the truth to exist as a statement, for every statement, every proposition, is either true or false and so to be true it had to have had the possibility of being false. It works with this binary code. The idea here is not that the situation of the world might have been different (quite possibly it couldn't have), but that the world might have been the same and the speech act different. Even the idea that a statement could in some sense accurately express some situation in the world implies it could have been inaccurate. Lies are logically necessary for truth. Even if Galileo didn't say, under his breath, "and yet it still moves," his orthodox statement about the fixed position of the earth contained within it, as if under the statement's breath, the counter claim, the heretical claim (which was in fact true), for truths and lies both contain within themselves the logic of their opposites.

A lie is a thing of speech -- and necessary, intertwined and tied up with the possibility of speech itself. This is why the idea of truth and lies you get in Gulliver's Travels, for example, with the race of horses who don't lie, can't lie, and don't understand why anyone would, is actually nonsensical. For if lies aren't possible than neither is speech.

A look at lies reveals part of the logic of language, and also any particular lie reveals a lot about the motivations and inclinations of the liar. They exist because they have to exist and also they're told for reasons that are entirely understandable. There's no mystery why people lie. It's often hard to tell that a lie is a lie, but never really, with a few exceptions, why a lie was told. People lie for all the normal reasons, for simple human reasons, because of all the standard human foibles and failings and desires. It's not subtle. You don't have to be Freudian. But hoaxes can be baffling. There is something about hoaxes that they'Re almost always pathological.

Sometimes, sure, they're simple, and you could see why someone did what they did, what benefit they thought they might stand to accrue, but other times hoaxes seem to come from the more mysterious regions of being human. Are they motivated by angst or boredom? Are they jokes -- and if so, why? Why would someone want to tell a joke to those they don't know, and won't see laugh? Sometimes they're simply absurd, and they appear as performance art, without pretensions to the importance of art, or as terrorism without terror or a political end.

Consider: the picture of the UFO hiding in the tail of the hale bop comet was a hoax, and 39 died, and what did we learn? What was revealed? What was the point?

Consider, more recently: a woman who worked for a weather organization hoaxed a video of a UFO, and lost her job, and now she says that it wasn't a hoax, but the hoax was a hoax, a cover-up. That sounds like a lie and makes sense as a lie, but why would she do the hoax in the first place?

There isn't a grand unified theory hoaxes and maybe their couldn't be. They're more mysterious than that -- even classifying them can be confusing, for there are hoaxes about hoaxes (like Michael Jackson isn't really dead), and hoaxes that are intended to entertain, but maybe they're not, and there are those that seem designed to make a point, though what point often isn't clear. And even the simple ones aren't always so simple. Even when we know what the motivation was, like a woman who lost her baby and can't bring herself to say that, why did someone, in that situation, reach for a hoax?

Sometimes, too, they seem like invocations to stand as in wonder before something more, or, exactly the opposite, to reveal that there's nothing more, and life is only like this, games and hoaxes all the down.

They act, actually, as revelations. But revealing what?

Relevant links to recent hoaxes:
Baby kidnapping was a hoax
Man convicted of making hoax mayday calls
Man charged for sending hoax terrorism letters to college
TheWeatherSpace.com's UFO spiral was a hoax
Michael Jackson tribute concert a hoax
iPad hoax snares USA Today
Man confesses murder claim was hoax
"What this country needs is a grand unified theory"
Sometimes people hoax themselves
General Mills investigation is a hoax
Australian cliffs are credited with more than one hoax death
San Diego UFO lights were a hoax

Jun 24, 2010

Watching the World Cup
Min. 91
American goal: minute 91


Jun 22, 2010

The gap in media studies

Susan Sontag's book On Photography is often shelved with the books on photography. This isn't wrong, but it looks wrong and feels strange, since it's the only book in that section that has no photographs. It's not an oversized book, not printed in color, and has no pictures except for the one on the cover. It doesn't seem like it fits.

The book doesn't mention Sontag's long-term relationship with the famous professional photographer Annie Leibovitz, which I think only started later, but Sontag does, if I remember right, say that she herself doesn't take pictures. On Photography, here, takes photography as an object, an artifact of culture, even though that might more naturally be thought of as On Photos, instead of On Photography, since the latter requires some kind of engagement with a camera, which is exactly what Sontag doesn't do. Analysis, for her, has this kind of distance.

Roland Barthes, I know, specifically says he doesn't know anything about actually taking pictures in his book about photography. He says it with the sort of old man grumpiness that's a kind of pride at not having adopted this new-fangled technology. He waves his hands a little in the middle of Camera Lucina, says he doesn't understand these things, and then, from there, there's this sliding-by argument that because he doesn't understand these things he can talk about them freely.

Which also isn't wrong, and isn't bad. Both books are good and have been helpful to me in thinking about photography, but both of them also get certain things wrong. Not huge, rattling things, but details. Technicalities, the kind which are not only technicalities but also important to anyone who cares about the subject. The kind you can only focus on if you know (and maybe the question of focus would be an example of a detail) and otherwise avoid with vague gestures.

On the other hand, I often find myself flipping through the other photography books, the ones with all the pictures, looking for the words. For the theory. And there are brief artists' statements, perhaps, but they're usually more feint than philosophy, more pose and coffee-cup quote and a little self-fashioning, all of which has it's place even if it frustrates me, but there's little thinking. Little working out or thinking through. There are many many books, too, on technical details, camera settings and exposures and how to shoot in low light, but almost never anything about why or what it means or any sort of serious analysis of photography.

This is a gap I keep coming to in media studies. Those who have experience often have no theory at all (or, worse, a weak grasp of very old theory, which they naively think isn't theory at all) and those who can think theoretically are unfamiliar with the actual details of what they want to talk about.

Sometimes this is amazing for me, finding this wide space, and I find, for instance, that Niklas Luhman is wrong about something about media, but that if that's corrected his point is even more interesting, or that the thing about memory that the political reporters were bothered by in the campaign coverage of the '70s is actually explained and thought out clearly in lit. theory, or the theorists are groping for an explanation of something that's explained in beginning journalism classes, and journalists are struggling with a question covered in philosophy 400 years ago.

Other times, though, I just look at the gap and wonder why it's there. I guess maybe too there's a fear, sometimes, that maybe it's not as easy to get back and forth between media theory and practice as I think and I might just fall into that gaping space, and be stuck.

Jun 19, 2010

The danger of literature

One of the foreign but fascinating things about Roberto Bolaño, I think, is the idea, recurrent in his novels, that poetry is dangerous. In Distant Star, for example, which I just started reading, a Chilean poet is also a Pinochet-allied assassin, and the idea is that this is not some entirely separate, strange thing, but that his politics is part of his poetics. Or perhaps the other way around. The two are intertwined. It's not unheard of, of course, for a poet to claim that his (almost always his) poetry is revolutionary, and will have an impact not just on poetry but all of life, but I don't know anyone who quite makes Bolaño's point that poetry can actually be counterrevolutionary, reactionary, dangerous and not just in a good way, a force for suppression and oppression.

In By Night in Chile, for example, the conservative critics and poets, associated with Opus Dei, are a cover, quite literally but also aesthetically, for the brutal regime and its torture. It is the poetry and the type of poetry that allows for deliberate ignorance, for systems of feigning, and not knowing or pretending not to know that when the lights flicker while you're watching TV, it's because some one's getting shocked repeatedly in the basement. For Bolaño this isn't just incidental, it's not historical accident, and what we're talking about, here, is the substance of literature:
"While I was driving back to Santiago, I thought about what she had said. That is how literature is made in Chile, but not just in Chile, in Argentina and Mexico too, in Guatemala and Uruguay, in Spain and France and Germany, in green England and carefree Italy. That is how literature is made. Or at least what we call literature, to keep ourselves from falling into the rubbish dump. Then I started singing to myself again: The Judas Tree, the Judas Tree ..."
I don't know I'd identify this as a main point or project of Bolaño's. It comes up repeatedly, yes, and he wants to argue against certain schools of poetry in the Spanish-speaking world, but it feels, to me, like Bolaño is working out how, and the idea that poetry is dangerous, "that literature is basically a dangerous occupation," is an assumption that, for him, seems obvious.

I'm trying to think of what it would be like if a group in the US took poetry this seriously.

Relevant links:
Bolaño's speech on writer's homelands and passports; on literature and sickness; a Bolaño syllabus; reviews of Distant Star; a review by Jonathan Letham.

Jun 18, 2010

I can hear the singing from here. I’m up on the sixth floor of the humanities building at the university, with the window towards the street slightly open, here for my two Friday afternoon office hours, and I can hear from here the cheering, down the street, and the fight songs, and the one-note horn’s fat, celebratory squawk.

The Germans are playing Serbia right now, down a goal, and they keep driving in, driving for a shot, an attempt, a try. They cross the ball and kick, but catch the corner or it’s high, or it’s stopped, and the German’s down the street, a crowd of a hundered or so, shout in hope and ohhhhhh! and there’s that horn again: Whaaa!

Read more about life in Tübingen @ Because of course.

Jun 16, 2010

It's supposed to be sad

There's a moment in Jon Ronson's book, The Men Who Stare at Goats, where the story he's been following and pushing and trying to tell gets picked up, gets real attention, and is instantaneously turned into a joke.

He reports on torture, and when his piece gets picked up on national TV it's a 30-second spot about, ha-ha, the horribleness of the Barney song. Then it's over.

That scene keeps troubling me.

Relevant links:
Ronson's website; his articles at the Guardian; his stories at This American Life; the Barney song.

Jun 15, 2010

Where are we going, Walt Whitman?

Walt Whitman's critics and fans for the most part agree that he writes without form. There's this idea, which he himself supports and encourages, that his poetry is naive, au naturel, barbaric and raw. In the main, everyone accepts this, and then they take sides over whether it's a good thing or not.

This makes sense, I think, if you think all form is restrictive and reactionary, that there is such a thing as complete rejection of form, and you accept this fight, or (not the fight itself, but) that the 19th century sides of this fight fully understand their own positions. It makes sense if you understand it in the context of 19th century Romanticism and Victorianism. If you accept that "form" means traditional, old fashioned, restrictive forms.

It makes no sense at all, though, when you realize Whitman was pioneering a new form, opening up forms, pushing poetry in new directions, liberating language for new forms and experiments and becoming a model -- a challenging model -- for an entire branch of American poetry, the branch that specifically wants to think about and thinks it's important to think about form.

Which is why William Carlos Williams, taking normal/vulgar speech like "I'll kick yuh eye" and "atta boy!" and showing how it scanned and had it's own metrical sense and was, in fact, more formally interesting than the flattened speech of traditional poetic forms, is so important, and also perhaps why his insight into Whitman is so unique and invaluable.

Jun 14, 2010

Sometimes the colors got to change

Jun 13, 2010

Abutting the unknown

For a child, a very young child, anything in the world—anything that's here—can disappear. When a ball rolls behind a chair, it doesn't just pass out of view, but ceases to exist. The same for a mother's face in a game of peek-a-boo.

We are not born knowing the world. We have to learn it. It is not pre-established in our minds and we have to make maps and establish coordinates, feeling things and touching them, according to the theory of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, in order to come to know the world. We learn object permanence. We have to learn. We learn not to cross the road without looking both ways or to touch a stove when it's hot. We learn seasons and times, the lay of the land and what's safe, what's not.

But all that we know has edges; the known world everywhere abuts what we do not know, and so here, there's a choice.

There's a map on the wall of the sheriff's office in Edward P. Jones's novel, The Known World. It's eight feet by six feet, browned and yellow, a woodcut created three centuries before by a German who might have been a Russian who might have been a Jew: a map of the world. It hangs in the sheriff's jail in Jones's fictional Manchester County, Virginia, before the Civil War, even though the sheriff knows it's an outdated, inaccurate map. When he's offered a new map, a better one, he turns it down. "I'm happy with what I got," he says, and, after all, he assembled this world himself. "The map had come," the author writes, "in twelve parts, each weighing about three pounds, and [he] had had a time putting it together. He did it while Winifred and Minerva were away at Clara's, and when Winifred returned and told him she did not want it in her house, he had to dismantle it and reassemble it again in the jail."

This is a choice almost everyone faces in The Known World, the choice not of infants, who must construct a conception of things, but of adults, who see their constructions come apart.

Read the rest of the review of Edward P. Jones novel @ Cardus

Jun 11, 2010

So may she in summer wave

So, 28.

Jun 10, 2010

"... but, after all, poems are made out of words not ideas. [Walt Whitman]
never showed any evidence of knowing this and the unresolved forms consequent
upon his beginnings remained in the end just as he left them."

-- William Carlos Williams, "An Essay on Leaves of Grass"

Jun 9, 2010

They're not like that

Bigfooters and paranormalists are misrepresented in the media in even the most basic ways. Like, for example, they are not oblivious. In my experience they are acutely aware they have been seen as jokes, as drooling idiots and rednecks and spaced-out freakazoids, are acutely aware of how you see them, and work really carefully to craft an impression of themselves as reasonable, rational inquirers.

Whether you ultimately think they are or not, they are for the most part engaged with some kind of philosophy of science and are also aware of your awareness of them, which is more than I can say for the people who present them as oblivious freaked-out freaks who don't care what you think (you who are apparently unaware of their awareness of your awareness of them).

They do kind of carefully model themselves and want to appear as scientists -- which gets to another obvious misrepresentation. Bigfooters and paranormalists, in my experience, do not say that they believe. "Belief" is a religious word, and they don't want what they do to be a thing of faith, by which they mean detatched from reason, but of science. They would never say something (so inane as) like "I want to believe." They want to know, and if you ask them if they believe they'll go into a little discourse about evidence and science, but that's too much for TV. Or even the Washington Post, apparently.

Related links:
Although the story wasn't as much of a joke as it could have been, the fourth graph of the Washington Post's most recent bigfoot story pretty much illustrates my point exactly, but this rant kind of started when I was watching an old episode of NUMB3RS, where Sam Llyod plays the same character he plays on Scrubs, except he's a paranormalists, which is exactly what he did when he was on West Wing, and yes, that was a dig at the X-Files movie, but you could probably listen to Coast to Coast AM for hours without hearing the word "believe" and look at how the Bigfoot Field Research Organization presents itself.

Jun 7, 2010

What kind of culture is it?

The New York Times ran two different editorials on Woodstock, taking two different positions.

The first was what you'd expect from a serious, establishment paper-of-record commenting on the counterculture "happening." The editorial board saw mud and drugs and maybe a little music -- though surely the higher-ups at the Times weren't into Hendrix, Country Joe McDonald, Neil Young or The Paul Butterfield Blues Band -- and just condemned it. In the rhetorical-question style that makes editorials sometimes sound so strange, the 1969 Times noted how many of the kids at the concert seemed high and asked: "What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?"

The second one was different. Rick Perlstein, in his book Nixonland, suggests the shift was part of a quasi-concerted effort to domesticate the counterculture, make it safe, and maybe that's right, at least partially, though it doesn't explain what happened around the big editorial table in the Times building and it doesn't take into account the sometimes schizophrenic inconsistencies of newspapers. The second editorial was different, though, and, according to Perlstein, "redubbed Woodstock 'essentially a phenomenon of innocence.'"

What strikes me as wrong about Perlstein's presentation of the two editorials, and probably also about the editorials themselves, is the idea -- the assumption -- they're irreconcilably conflicted. That it has to be one way or the other. There's no necessary dichotomy.

Both statements seem true. Together, they could sum up the Nixon-hippie era: innocence and mess, phenomena and colossal and what kind of culture? Seems like that could have been asked about a lot of things; things, too, which were also somehow horrible because they we're expressions of our innocened, and expressions of our depravity. Maybe that question could sum up the whole American experience of the last 100 years.

But there's a tendency in political conversations, especially national political conversations, which is why it bothers me so much when everything is politicized, to think you can't have it both ways. There's a tendency to think everything's one way or the other, ideology all the way through, and simple. But that's just wrong. Sometimes our messes are our innocence, sometimes our innocence is like our amnesia, the psychosis of our guilt, and most of the time the phenomena of our culture are conflicted, complicated, contradictory, so we're not just one way or the other. We're all twisted up inside and beautiful.

Relevant links:
The New York Times still has trouble seeing that something could maybe be more than one way at a time, as my uncle points out in his review of the Banksy movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop; Arthur Brooks on The Daily Show is a good example of the befuddled nature of the politicized conversation; despite this post, Perlstein's book is actually really good; and there's awesome, not-quite-endless archive of Woodstock music online, and even though Woodstock-associated ephemera invokes the kind of simplistic response this post opposes, the music really is great.

"Maybe tabloids don't exist to disabuse us of our innocence regarding the
personalities they cover. Maybe, by presenting obvious-in-retrospect news—famous
people, like all people, drink too much, do drugs, cheat, and die alone—as
"shocking," they give us a little bit of our innocence back, allowing us, the
cynical readers numbed by a cynical age, to feel shocked (even though we're not)
the way horror movies (in which the zombies don't pose any actual threat) let us
feel scared."

-- Alex Pappademas, "All the Dirt That's Fit to Print"

Jun 4, 2010

A game in the afternoon
Imaginations of dragons, whores, suns and apocalyptic ends

"The conflation of sacred and secular metaphors mobilized intellectuals just as much as it did backwoods farmers who were tilling the stony glebe." -- Reiner Smolinski

"The quest for salvation provided imaginative participation in the last things." -- James H. Moorhead
The issue of apocalyptic imagination is interesting because these biblical texts and texts – even if they’re not fully worked out in any theological way into an eschatology, even if they have no theological effect or academic force – definitely provides an imaginative language and inspiration. The apocalyptic imagery is powerful, and moves people.

Look at the Timothy Dwight poem, "America," which had very secular function, a public, inaugural reading, I think, but deploys images -- the military metaphor, here, is exactly right -- straight out of St. John's end of the world: “Then, then a heavenly kingdom shall descend,/And savage nations at thy scepter bend” and “Till the last trump the slumbering dead inspire,/Shake the wide heavens, and set the world on fire.”

You see it too in the Nat Turner text, his Confession, though it’s not very theological, it’s not very worked out and there’s not an elaborate hermeneutical explanation of time lines or eschatological specificities, but the millennialism is a force, unstoppable, inspirational and elemental: “I had a vision – and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened – the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed down in steams.”

Frederick Douglass does this too, even though, basically, religion, for him, for the most part, has been another tool of slave masters. The most devotional have also been the most cruel, for him, but then he in a moment of need he breaks out in a quasi-apocalyptic prayer song: "Does a righteous God govern the universe? And for what does he hold the thunders in his right hand, if not to smite the oppressor?"

I think it’s worth noting, at least, sort of, parenthetically, that one of the functions of millennialism hasn’t been theological, and isn't explicitly interpretive, but rhetorical and inspirational and a force of the imagination.

Relevant links:
Timothy Dwight's wanted to write epic poems on and for America; Nat Turner said the "the Holy Ghost has revealed itself to me" and was inspired to kill whites; Douglass, the father of African-America oratory, tells his story in the form of a secular salvation narrative.

Jun 2, 2010

Making it up

Benjamin Franklin, in France, wore a fur cap, becoming a character in a story he told. Davey Crockett did the same thing when he went up to Congress a half century later.

This might be the most consistent thing about the American character. Not just sui generis, but again and again sui generis, springing up full formed, a new story, another story unlike the one before, a good one this time. Not the self-made man, but the re-made self-made man. But what if what's important about this story isn't the story, but the story about the story, i.e., what if we think of the audience for Franklin's construction as not being the French, fooled by their prejudice, but us, learning how it's done?

There's a first level, here, where Franklin tells stories, but a second where he's telling stories about telling stories, which vary with various situations, shift, revise, and spring up sui generis, spring up American.

"America" is, of course, an idea, a fiction, but what if, more than that, it's a fiction about fictions and the possibility of fictions, and the "frontier thesis" compounds, and what makes America America is not the construction, but the constructing, open-ended and ongoing?

What if the quintessential story isn't the P.T. Barnum con man story, about the showman and hoax-promoter making things up as he goes along, being whatever he wants to be and re-creating everything with every story, but instead is the story about the story about the P.T. Barnum con man?

We're aware of the con and construction, and we're inspired.

Jun 1, 2010

Notes on reading David Foster Wallace's short story "John Billy"

1. "John Billy," which begins, "Was me supposed to tell Simple Ranger how Chuck Nunn Junior done wronged the man that wronged him and fleen to parts unguessed," and is the fifth of 10 stories that appear in Girl with Curious Hair, strikes me as starkly different from most of Wallace's work. This is, for example, one of the very few of his short stories that feature or is focused on lower class characters. There is also the tailor in the story "Say Never," in Girl with Curious Hair, and the last piece in Oblivion involves some poor Midwesterners, though it's not about them, and there are some stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men where, it seems to me, it's ambiguous. But for the most part Wallace's world is made up of well-educated, gainfully employed, could-go-to-therapy-if-they-wanted, upper middle class whites. There is no one, for the most part, who mows the lawn, or stocks shelves at Wal-Mart, or drives a truck for a living. There is no one who would appear in a Raymond Carver story or in the worlds Cormac McCarthy writes about, but "John Billy" is an exception to that, and this story actually could have been told (differently, obviously) by either of them. From the moment it opens, "John Billy" is dramatically different.

2. In his later work, Wallace is primarily interested in ethics -- human relationships, solipsism, sadness, etc. -- and some of that comes through in Girl with Curious Hair, but in this story he seems primarily interested in language. "John Billy" most clearly owes a debt to McCarthy, who Wallace praised a number of times and in a number of places, my favorite being the three word recommendation/review of Blood Meridian that reads, in entirety, "Don't even ask." In an interview somewhere Wallace said he didn't know how McCarthy "gets away with it," and that's the part of McCarthy's project that Wallace focuses on here: how to make the anachronistical and anarchic, mythical, biblical, dirt poor, ungrammatical, spoken language work.
Some of it works and works amazingly well, like:

And was me told the table how except for the eyes, the jaw, and the pelvis, which to our community relief all healed up, prime face, in just weeks, leaving good luck bad luck Chuck Junior a sharper shot, wickeder dancer, nearer to handsome than before, how except for that, the major impact and damage from the accident had turned out to be to Nunn's head, mind and sensibility. How right there in the post-accidental car he suddenly got conscious but evil ...
Now the buzzards outside the Outside Minogue Oklahoma Bar was down, sitting row on straight and orderly row on the edge-of-Minogue land stretching off toward dirt. Appeared to us through the window like fat bad clerics, soft and plump, teetery, red-eyed, wrapped up tight in soft black coats of ecumenism and observation. Had orange beaks and claws. Was a good thousand orange beaks out there. Double on the claws. Lined up.
but other attempts seem to me to still be too far away and condescending, informed more by Deliverance than by any actual contact with poor whites, more bad joke than interesting use of language. An example is the title character's use of the phrase "interjaculated," for "interjected," which is funny, but in a snobby, snickering way, which is to say with the same attitude as The Jerry Springer Show. And Wallace is really better than that.

3. There also, curiously, some sentences with cadences that could fit into a Bob Dylan song. The names all seem like something from Dylan -- T. Rex Minogue, Glory Joy duBoise, Simple Ranger -- and there are passages that could be narrated in his nasal, for example:

T. Rex Minogue was asking us to drink to his death.
We passed the jars around and unscrewed Minogue's bootleg lids.

We was silent at our table, expected T. Rex dead, or at least twisted, traumatized, Nunn-struck.

"Hi," he said.
4. Which -- 2) & 3) -- is not say this piece is in any way derivative or merely imitative. What is exciting here for me is precisely the way Wallace is experimenting and pushing himself and trying to use language with which he is unfamiliar. There are some parts of this, too, that are very traditional. For example, "John Billy" is told as a story being told, a style that goes back to Chaucer, was used by Conrad, and wasn't, in 1989, experimental. But Wallace finds ways within this form to experiment and does a number of things that seem to me to be original. For one, it's narrated as a story told to us about a story told about a story, which makes the traditional style more complicated, and, for two, Wallace starts introducing prosodic elements like line breaks into the prose narrative, which I've never seen anywhere else in fiction. For example:
How right there in the post-accidental car he suddenly got conscious but evil,

"evil," I emphasized, and there was shudders from civilians and Glory Joy,

and how a evil Chuck Nunn Junior fought and cussed and struggled against his spinal restraints, invected against everything from Prime Mobile to OU Norman's head football coach Mr. Barry B. Switzer hisself; how even slickered in blood, and eyes hanging ominous half out of their holes, Nunn'd laid out two paramedics and a deputy and shined up my personal chin when we tried to ease him into an ambulance ...
Or, with stranger punctuation:
She told how Nunn come more or less to, in his little wrap-around car, his torch-lit busted eyes in blood like bearings in deep oil;

"Remember the eyes of Nunn," I interjaculated, and Simple Ranger give me a watching look

; and as Glory Joy finished up communicating anger and justicelessness she felt, upon seeing T. Rex's brother V.V. Minogue, listing far to port up against the largely unharmed cab of his IH liquor truck, weepy, shitfaced, scratchless ...
5. Stylistically, there's something constant in Wallace's work, which can be found in his non-fiction and fiction pieces, which can be found here too, even when Wallace is writing in a voice that isn't the one that comes to him most naturally. I don't know exactly what it is called but it is a hyper-accurate, very technical language. The sense, which Wallace conveys with this almost-sometimes-stilted voice, is of someone struggling to express what's hard to express, what's delicate, struggling to do justice to the complication -- a very careful, cautious, circuitous way of speaking (common in therapy and the best of continental philosophy), which is sometimes criticized as obfuscationism but is, in fact, normally an attempt to be ethical verbally, to be fair to that which is not simple. To me it seems like it's the texture of Wallace's writing, but while this texture is vital to the kinds of questions Wallace asks in Oblivion's "Mister Squishy," or Brief Interview with Hideous Men's "The Depressed Person," it didn't have to happen here, in "John Billy," which points to this being something essential about Wallace and the way he writes. He has this ethico-linguistic texture, here, with his use of,
  • coordinating modifiers ("at an ominous and coincidental point in time")
  • compound nouns and modifiers ("a climactic and eternal chase-down-the-field and catch-from-behind" and "the runner-plus-interference problem," respectively)
  • extended and sometimes doubled non-defining relative clauses ("V.V., stepped in post-explosion guilt and self-loathing, plus not a little eau d'sweet potato, was speeding away")
  • very specific, technical or speciality-specific vocabulary ("near-gerunds confrontation," "vis a vis," "institutional-caring facility")
  • irregularly-used works, such as brand names as verbs ("to arrive and gawk and Kodak")
all of which express the kind of carefulness that emerges later, when Wallace returns to fiction, as explicitly ethical, and shows, even this early, the impulse towards writing as a kind of ethics.