Jul 30, 2010

Indiana in the morning (welcome back to America)

Indiana in the morning (welcome back to America).

Jul 29, 2010

Whitman and the birds

When Whitman says, as he often did, that his poetry and his life or his poems and his body are the same, it should probably be understood in light of his comparison of himself with birds. The idea of the relationship between the bird and the bird's song is the same one Whitman is trying to convey about the relationship between him and his poetry. When he said, as he did to the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1876, "more than all I determined from the beginning to put a whole living man in the expression of a poem" and, as he did in "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads," a statement summing up and explaining all of Leaves of Grass, that the poem that was his life's work was "an attempt, from first to last, to put a Person, a human being (myself, in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, in America,) freely, fully and truly on record," what those somewhat strange statement's mean might best be understood by consideration of how a bird's life and song are inseparable. Birds don't sing to express some sentiment, there is no gap, for them, between sign and signified. Their songs are, essentially, the same as being alive. In the same way a motor's hum is the same as it being on, a bird sings because it's a bird, because it's alive. In this way it's quite literal to say to the bird, "If thou wast not granted to sing thou would'st surely die." This is a prime example of what Whitman's talking about when he talks about "vivification," "the glows and glories and final illustriousness which belong to every real thing, and to real things only," which, for Whitman, is what language is supposed to be, and what poets are supposed to make happen, how they save the language. It's not incidental that he compares himself so constantly to birds; it is, in fact, an integral part of his understanding of poetry.

Whitman isn't just offering the bird's song as an analogy for poetry. As presented in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," birds are actually the originators of the poetry Whitman wants to practice, and they are the ones who taught it to him. In a way, he understands himself to be of the bird's school of poetry. It is from them that "A thousand warbling echoes have started to life with me, never to die" and from that experience that Whitman's "own songs awakened." The poem acts as a coming-of-age story, an autobiographical account of how little Walt became a poet, how the poet went into the wilderness and found his poet's voice. He starts on Paumanok, "Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves" (19) and reminiscences about being a child there, remembering the beginning, his beginning, moved by tears to remember that moment of origin, when the poet became the poet:

Once Paumanok,
When the lilac-scent was in the air and the Fifth-month grass was growing
Up this seashore in some briers,
Two feather'd guests from Alabama, two together,
And their next, and four light-green eggs spotted with brown,
And ever day the he-bird to and fro near at hand,
And every day the she-bird crouch'd on her nest, silent, with bright eyes,
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them,
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.

There is, here, a standard coming-of-age story about a childhood experience where one is exposed to the facts of sex and death, yet Whitman is also fixed on the form of these revelations, the bird's singing. "I," he writes, "with bare feet, a child, the wafting my hair, / Listen'd long and long" and "treasur'd every note." While he's certainly interested and moved by the subjects of which he perceives the bird to be singing, it is the singing itself that acts as the revelation. It is the song that awakens the boy, transforms him from boy to poet. It is the song to which he, like a child coming forward for conversion at the end of an impassioned tent revival, commits himself for forever. It is not the subject of the singing that changes the boy into the poet, but the singing itself. Whitman even suggests that the song wasn't really about what it was about, but was intended, actually, for him and for the purposes of his revelation of poetry. He uses what could be taken as religious conversion language to describe how he heard the song, "For I, that was a child, my tongue's use sleeping, now I have heard you, / Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake." It is the song, specifically, which awakened him, and the song, specifically, to which he commits himself, saying, "never more shall I cease perpetuating you." This is why, when Whitman identifies with birds and compares himself to birds, it's not just a nature-loving analogy, but is, in fact, for Whitman, a very serious move.

Jul 28, 2010

Nothing underneath it all

An odd thing: even foundations, literal foundations, aren't foundational in the sense that foundationalists want foundations to be. Philosophers often tend to forget that metaphors are metaphors, analogies, analogies, but in this case it's particularly odd because the metaphor itself is just wrong.

The idea is that ideas, understandings of the world, knowledge, etc. must be based on something, it must have a foundation, there be something solid underneath. Pretty much everything, though, starts from an assumption, or tautological definition, a founding axiom that, itself, doesn't have a foundation. An example is the idea that everything, in principle, can be proven to be true or false. But how, if you accept that, would you prove that idea to be true or false?

It only works as an assumption, or a trivial, definitional claim.

The foundationalists' question, though, kind of gives itself over to infinite regress, even though, ostensibly, that's what they're trying to avoid. The stock story is the one (Hindu?) of the question of "what holds up the world?" And the answer is "elephants." "But what holds up the elephants?" And the answer is "turtles." "And what holds up the turtles?" "More turtles." That this is nonsense is the nightmare of foundationalists, but what answer could they get? What answer did they did think they would get? What would be taken or could be taken as foundational? That is, what answer could possibly be given that wouldn't elicit the question again?

And think about actual foundations. What holds up a house? A foundation. And what holds up a foundation? Kind of nothing. There's dirt, but it isn't solid, which is why you need a foundation, which is big enough and solid enough to do the job, but the job is just supporting an edifice. It's not absolute or anything, and there's no foundation for the foundation, because that's not needed.

Jul 25, 2010

Not-quite-stories of things I saw while waiting for planes that didn't come

Waiting for planes, waiting for baggage, waiting

Swearing in his second language, it's fucking you to kidding me, a Croatian mad can't get what he wants and his baby, illegal now due to bureaucracy, cries and cries.

The airline agents form three lines -- a sieve to slow the flow of traffic. One woman, uniformed in friendly blue, alternatively in German and English, gets mad at people.

On the train they read serious books. In the airport, paperback thrillers.

Each time, the officers on rounds choose the same man to wake up off the benches. They ask, why would you go to Abu Dabi?

Politics or movies, they don't care what the answer is, the Austrians ask as Austrians always as ask: what do you think of Arnold Schwarzenegger? It is amazing story, they say, he started as this little farm boy and now he is the Governator in your country.

We knew he was trouble as soon as we saw the Oilers ball cap. Now he discourses on pot in America, parties in Europe, and himself, always himself.

She runs -- runs -- abandoning her bags and jumping on him. Later, they make out on the escalator.

For Dutch, call after 9:30.

Thank Jesus, the manic American says, getting on board on a stand-by ticket, ignoring the five people behind him who will wait in another airport, another day: God answers prayers. I want you to remember that -- he really does. It's the power of prayer. God answers prayers.

Jul 24, 2010

Incomplete and unworked-out thoughts while waiting for planes that didn't come

1. What if we think about America not as a nation of places, but of transportation? Places are cross roads, eddies, depots, rest stops within the thing, which is the system of movement. (Philip Fisher says, why is it we always say it feels like home?)

2. I think my favorite moment of Mad Men is this moment early on, where Don and Roger are drinking the office, and Roger says something snarky and old-manish about kids these days, and Don says, just flat, "well look who they have to look up to." The show is this infinite regress of male confusion. The only man on the whole show who's not bluffing is the grandpa withAlzheimer's.

3. For me, the trick of experimentalist novels is when the do not just present an experience or describe a situation, but create a situation where the reader must engage with the basic problem. They are, in this way, thought problems. And they can only really be read if one asks oneself the question "how do I read?"

4. Two ideas that seem to get positive responses, though I haven't worked them out beyond a thesis: One: The American aesthetic of simplicity emerges out of the Second Great Awakening's need for something to moderate between doctrine and experience, and Andrew Jackson presidential campaign, which empowered/created a populist class and a frontier experience, both of which reinforced or feed into each other; Two, the post-WWII boom of the suburbs shaped and formed American evangelicalism (as we know it today), and the other way around. I'm leaning towards the second one, essentially because I'm more interested in the 20th century.

5. Isn't one of the functions of reader response theory commonly to protect the author and/or work from criticism, and make whatever's objectionable the reader's fault?

6. I don't know that I particularly like maps themselves, but I find thinking about maps, and about how maps are a model of thinking, about how they work and also fundamentally don't, pretty fascinating. Recent examples: Thomas Jefferson's Cartesian land-plotting map,Jasper John'sMap, the way subway maps allocate distance, and a Pynchon quote:

"The ba-sic theory, is, that when given an unstruc-tyred stimulus, some shape-less blob of exper-ience, the subject, will seek to impose, struc-ture on it. How, he goes a-bout struc-turingthis blob, will reflect his needs, his hopes -- will provide us with clues, to his dreams,fan-tasies, the deepest re-gions of his mind."

Jul 22, 2010

Terrified by that sad song across rooftops
mingled with the lachrymose cries of the Salvation Army meeting
on the corner saying, "Satan is the cause of it all"

Now I'm transcontinental
3,000 miles from my home
I'm on the California Zephyr
watching America roll by

-- Jack Kerouac/Jay Farrar

Jul 21, 2010

Swinging on the swing in the park

Diagramming Lewis Carroll
History of canned laughter
The battle over left-over Kafka
Keroauc and Ginsberg's letters
Conversations with Harvey Pekar
Prais Review unaccepting poetry now
Dennis Lehane on the noir novel 'Galveston'
Interview with Gordon "Captain Fiction" Lish
Searching for journalism in an age of branding
Bret Easton Ellis disses David Foster Wallace
On reading
Howl trailer
Neil Gaiman 101
John Updike at work
What is a long poem?
The Pope's astronomer
Colons make a come-back
Math as performance art
No poets at the Tea Party
DeLillo at Yankee stadium
Roger Ebert on architecture
Sontag interviewed in 2000
Tarkovsky's films now online
What politics does to history
Karl Rove on his worst mistake
Journalism and dubious numbers
The indignation of Philip Roth
Faulkner as writer in residence
Preserved Polish prison tattoos
Attack on Iran back on the table
Video games come of critical age
Beautiful work of Penn and Teller
50 years after the Sot Weed Factor
Poem as moment of beauty and grace
Enter the secret world of wikileaks
Ta-Nehisi Coates on writing and rap
What's wrong with online journalism
What America should learn from Flint
New Vietnam War documents reveal lie
Bureaucracy meets art, delighting Christo
A Conservative's critique of the prison system
Minimalism, maximalism and architechture trends
An introductory appreciation of the Mountain Goats
Wendell Berry imagines a place he has always known
The origin of using typographical marks for curses
Born again Berkowitz and his evangelical assistants
Exhibit A for govt-run health care: Dick Cheney's heart
John Darnielle: the terms of your moral universe are lame
Making newspapers worth saving isn't the same as saving them
David Lynch on consciousness, creativity and Transcendental Meditation

Jul 19, 2010

The most important piece of newspaper journalism in a very long time:
"The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work."
Read it all @ Top Secret America: A Washington Post Investigation.
The web is like air we can't see

A professor said to me the other day he didn't think critics and academics understood the web and web 2.0 yet. "We keep writing about it," he said, "but I'm not convinced we actually know what we're talking about -- it's too amorphous."

Sometimes I think there's a generational gap on these things, so old models and outdated concerns keep getting applied to the subject, but then, too, when most people and even young people and even people who are younger than me and more digitally native than me talk about these technologies I tend to think they're asking the wrong questions. Even if I don't know quite what the right question is.

As an example, consider the similarities between the Old Spice campaign and State Department campaign.

In a way this is just a new type of advertising, with its focus excessively on brand identification -- possibly to the extent that other things are ignored -- but it's also, isn't it?, a new kind of text. And it's difficult, I think, to cut through the hoopla to say exactly what's happening here, and it's difficult, too, to get through the whiz-bang and whistles to say exactly what's important about it, and how one should read it to understand it to say what it says about us as a culture.

As with Neda, most of us seem to see what we want to see, and the content is content free, but filled with our projections, and talking about it means bringing in all of these assumptions about what "it" is, assumptions that, at this point, are not really a part of the conversation.

Jul 17, 2010

Whitman functions

It is easy when reading Walt Whitman, the Good Gray Poet, the crazy old man with a beard, to begin and end with the barbaric yawp. A significant part of what attracts students and scholars to Whitman’s work in the first place is this exuberance, the feeling of freedom, the reassurance of joy, the vibrancy of his verse that seems to burst forth, even unbidden, in a great, liberating gush.

This is the aspect of Whitman that really moves people, and really sells. It can be marketed to a mass audience, as was seen in 2009 when the scratchy recording of the poet reading “America,” played over scenes of indomitable, bare-shouldered youth and a climax of fireworks, was used to sell Levi’s blue jeans. It was also this life-loving, worry-free Whitman who appeared as an apparition in Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California.”

In the advertisement, Whitman serves as a voice of reassurance in anxious times, and in the poem, Whitman works as a contrast to Ginsberg’s own nervousness and dread. It’s Whitman’s joie de vivre that makes him into this figure we want to follow. He’s the funny old grandfather who, acting as liberated as a child, sets us free. He eats artichokes without paying, in Ginsberg’s poem, and doesn’t know or care that the doors are going to close in an hour. Hungry and having nothing in the neon store, Ginsberg dreams of Whitman's enumerations -- "What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!" -- and pleadingly asks, “Which way does your beard point tonight?”

It’s an anxious question which the scratchy voice on the Levi’s ad might rightly be understood to be answering with its assurance that America is “centre of equal daughters, equal sons, / All, all alike endear’d,” and “Perennial with the Earth.”

Whitman functions as an invitation to overcome anxiety and to come and yawp barbaric.

Jul 16, 2010

Summer semester ends
And so the semester ends, Summer 2010.

Jul 14, 2010

When Christopher Nolan is good -- and Inception looks like it could be very good -- he does, in a way, what Jonathan Letham does. That is, he takes genres that are, usually, cheap, and he takes them seriously (just because he actually does find them interesting) and gives them seriousness (just because he is serious), and ends up producing something that is really amazing.

Both Memento and Motherless Brooklyn, for example, start with a straightforward genre, add a formal element (the reversed narrative for Nolan, a narrator with Tourette's for Letham), and then tells a story. The formal element is a limitation that at first sounds like a stunt, sounds like it's going to be interesting but ultimately a cheap trick, and the genre just is what it is, but then they use those structures and the limitations of those structures to tell a really compelling, insightful and interesting story.

I get the impression, too, that both of them kind of do want to be pop, genre writers. A part of Letham wants to be Philip K. Dick. A part of Nolan wants to be Steven Speilberg. They love their genres, and aren't worried about being perceived as serious. They are serious, but not self-serious. They're not like Jonathan Franzen and M. Night Shyamalan (respectively), who seem to need to be thought of a certain way more than they need to produce art that they like. One gets the sense, and maybe this is wrong, that Nolan and Letham produce this kind of work because this is who they are, this is what they love. They seem comfortable with their work -- both the avant-garde, experimental aspects of it and the mass culture, entertainment industry aspects too -- and like they don't feel the need to justify themselves.

Jul 12, 2010

Harvey Pekar, rest in peace

Harvey Pekar is dead at 70. I realize there are several really critical ways to read his sadsack, lonely, pessimistic art, and I don't want to give the impression I read more than a little of his work, but I thought it was moving and honest. It had a sort of terrible but also shallow and slightly sour and metallic-tasing sadness that I knew. It's easy to take that kind of sadness though and try to heroize it. Make it romantic or something. Like you're better or more moral for your sadness. I didn't feel like Pekar did that, though. He didn't go for sappy. He made you feel like shit and like crying. May he rest in peace.
Assumptions of Narrative Ground

It's not like first and second semester students deploy every possible logical fallacy. They actually tend to stick with just a few: Straw man, slippery slope, and post hoc ergo propter hoc.

And they're not even mistakes qua mistakes -- as errors or accidents -- but as expressions, I think, deep expressions, of our assumptions and common presuppositions about the way the world works. Niklas Luhmann talks about the space of rationality, the span in speaking and in society where something is taken as or counted as rational, and says "logical" is defined, for example, but the outer limits of paradox and tautology, that is, the space between these two places, the limits where logic twists in on itself (warps, crumples, inwardly crushes or implodes, like under the forces of gravity, but with a spectrum similar to color) and it is still logic even then, but mangled, and a good border for the range of what we call logic. I think that's interesting in the context of common student essay errors, in that sometimes, actually, the reason this bit or that bit of logic is wrong is built exactly on the reason or the assumption or the belief that also leads to a right bit of logic being right.

Put it another way: If you dig down past the error, look past why, precisely, the claim in the third paragraph or that particular conclusion was wrong, and try to come up with why these fallacies are common and constant and sometimes seemingly intractable, you come to something common in all of us. I think you come to the same assumptions that give us any space of rationality at all.

Like straw man. Underneath, below the flawed abstraction of fake opposition, isn't the assumption that being right is connected (somehow) with being good? And isn't this an assumption we all make, and should make, and need to too -- the assumption that makes working to be right and trying to really think through and discern what's right seem important?

And slippery slope: Isn't the basic kernel of an idea that little bad things lead to big bad things, and small, theoretical errors lead to public and very actual disasters, and isn't that essentially right, and also essential for a functioning society? Isn't this an assumption I want people (like say, those who build oil drilling rigs in the ocean, or those who decide what can be sold and how on Wall Street) to make?

Those two fallacies are actually pretty easy to correct. Or, maybe what it is, is, it's not too hard to show the students how the correct assumption about reason can be separated pretty cleanly from the particular error of a lack of charity, or apocalyptic extrapolation. They seem to get that, once it's explained once or twice, and correct themselves and their arguments.

The third one is harder though. More insistent. And I wonder if that's because it's not so easily distinguished from the supposition I have to and need to make for the sake of reason and argument and rationality. It's true that too the Latin tends to intimidate. It can communicate threatening complexity and "you can't understand this." Probably I should call it something else, like the "lucky shirt fallacy", like begging the question seems easier to understand or feel like you understand than petitio principii, instead of just sticking with the long Latin name and translating it and trying to hammer hard the question to ask themselves, "how does this cause -- cause cause cause cause cause -- that?"

But isn't it, underneath and at root, an unanalyzed belief about narrative? Isn't it the basic idea that meaning unfolds in time? That previous and prior events cause and create and explain later ones? Note that no one makes the mistake of causally connecting co-occurant events. Or, they do, but only by asserting that the one happened first and then the other. In a really common example of the error, for example, you say "there's a woman with an umbrella, a dog, and then a dump truck, but did the woman cause the dog and the dump truck," which assumes a sequential relationship even in the effort to undermine the assumption of a sequential, causal relationship. The first time I heard post hoc ergo propter hoc explained (by a preacher on tape) it was with the example or peanut consumption in D.C. as the water level of the Potomac, which seem to have an inverse relationship, as every time sales of salted peanuts rises, the water in the Potomac drops, and when the sales slack off, the water rises again. Of course the connection is only incidental, and it's not that peanut-thirsty Washingtonians are drinking up the river, but that the river goes down in summer, when it's hot and doesn't rain, which is baseball weather, which is when the most peanuts are eaten in the nation's capitol. The error, here, can be conceived of almost entirely as a question of the misarrangement of events. The intuition that chronology equals causation, or, really, reason and order, which we take as causation, seems unshakable.

Even when there's a good argument to be made, for example, about how a later event caused, or, more loosely, created or constructed an earlier event -- and since I identify with poststructuralism and as I've been reading some of the historography of Hayden White and the cultural studies of Stuart Hall, I think there is, in fact, a strong (though maybe limited) case to be made that the past is never the past as such, but is a construction and perception and an artifact of the present -- that seems so counter-intuitive as to require a kind of suspension of belief. It seems so wrong and obviously wrong that it serves as a caricature of silly postmodernists who reject capital-T Truth.

There's a moment in Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time where he suggests that time is connected with the expanding universe and that as that expansion might eventually slow down and pause and then reverse itself and start to collapse and contract, time might run in reverse. I'm pretty sure he suggests that time won't actually run in reverse but that that's a good metaphor for Big Bang cosmology expectations (or anyway that's how I understood in my freshman astrophysics class), and in the film there's a scene where everyday scenes are shown in reverse, so a smashed cup leaps back onto the table and reassembles itself. What's so freaky and sci fi about this of course is the idea of time in reverse, of meaning going backwards and causation going that way too.

And even the kind of language I've used here like "underneath" and "at root" participates in that same assumption of chronology and narrative, that idea (a reflex) that earlier events explain later ones.

I wonder if this doesn't mean, though, and if the intractability and commonality of the fallacy doesn't mean that narrative is logically "prior" to logic. Or that logic is always involved in a context of narrative. That logic itself isn't a kind of strange or strained version of narrative. The idea of meaning unfolding in time certainly asserts (itself) equally in the valid and invalid logical moves. So that "underneath" it all are narratives, and the form of narrative as explanation, as the form something has to take to count or be considered as an explanation. We treat this central space and this place where we operate as if it were the site of rationality and even, à la Jürgen Habermas, a consensus of reason and what will be considered as reasonable, but it seems that we can easily lose logic, we can shake it, as if it were an armature spy on our tail, but narrative and that form or framework sticks with us.

If logic is the space between tautology and paradox, isn't it true that both of those borders are still understood even if they are the outer edge of logic because they're still well within the space of narrative and those assumptions of the form that that's meaning? It's normally true, too, that what is called non-narrative or anti-narrative is still very much narrative (as my uncle said, even a sentence is the unfolding of meaning in time, and consider as an example the three narratives in the sentences in the line in Oz: "Medicine is not narrative. Blue trashed sky. Firemen on ladders into the smoking night.") This structure is pervasive and certainly pervades even our grammar, which is how I would explain, for example, hypotaxis.

This is, of course, an old point for me -- that we are embedded in stories. Which is not to say they're natural or formless or unconstructed, or that they can't be criticized or analyzed, but just that is there is no outside of narrative, there's no translation from this to something else, there is no encoding and decoding as there's no non-narrative code that we could know. Even within logic and when logic breaks down, the structures of story are still there. Logic is also embedded within the assumptions of narrative. Hayden White notes in Tropics of Discourse that "Our discourse always tends to slip away from our data towards the structures of consciousness with which we are trying to grasp them," which gets much more complicated when we realize that the "data" isn't free and floating separately from the structure either, and he note that tropes, for example, are fundamental even in valid syllogisms:

"The move from the major premise (All men are mortal) to the choice of the datum of to serve as the minor (Socrates is a man) is itself a tropological move, a "swerve" from the universal to the particular which logic cannot preside over, since it is logic itself that is being served by this move. Every applied syllogism contains an entheymemic element, this element consisting of nothing but the decision to move from the plane of universal propositions (themselves extended synecdoches) to that of singular existential statements (these being extended metonymies)" (italics original).
The idea is, then, that we are radically trapped within narratives, within that range of forms and those assumptions of meanings. Which isn't, I don't think, as bad as it might sound. We still, for example, can reject as wrong the errors of post hoc ergo propter hoc, but maybe it would work better if I was making the case not by an appeal to the rarified and limited space of logic, and instead tried to explain it in terms of the aesthetics of story.

I took off my shoes and stepped in. It was slightly slimy at the bottom — just a little film on the surface of the cold stone. The water came up to my calves and was cool and the fountain, all 18th century undulations and fat babies blowing horns, sprayed and spouted coolness. There was already a line of people with their feet in. There were some students, and some mothers and an Asian couple, he smoking a cigarette and she taking pictures. A boy and a girl splashed in the water. A little Turkish kid in a ball cap kept sticking his head under the falling water then acting surprised as it drenched him.

Read more about life in Tübingen @ Because of course.

Jul 9, 2010


Jul 8, 2010

Like the way the water shifts through dirt

The way it worked was, the water came up out of a pipe connected to a pump and into a sluice, an open-faced metal sluice going down to the wheel, which turned, as I remember, under the force of falling water, grinding the sorghum cane we feed into the guts of the gears.

The cane came out crushed and slightly sticky. The syrup was strained, filtered, and poured into jars. The water, after it pushed the wheel that crushed the cane, was done, and dribbled off through the dirt, the hard-packed and rocky dirt, splitting into a hundred little wormy water ways, each downhill a different direction until the soil softened and the water cut a trench, coming together again in a stream.

I was a kid and curious and someone tried to explain to me why the water ran the way it did, but I didn't really understand. He said the water wanted to run downhill, but, one, I couldn't see how the water could want and, two, that wasn't exactly what happened. Even if you assumed for explanatory purposes that the water had agency (which wasn't a word I knew) it still wasn't that simple, and what the water wanted didn't account for things. It didn't just run downhill, for example, it ran uphill in some places or seemed to, and all different ways. It split up in some, and dug down in others in the dirt.

The water had this ongoing interaction with dirt, and everything about the water was shaped and structured by that relationship. It wasn't like the dirt did anything (it did even less than the water), but you had to have the context, and couldn't just say the water wants to run down hill.

Alright, he said, as if I'd caught him, what the water does is it goes the easiest way. Through the dirt. It follows the path of least resistance.

There's a bridge I used to cross all the time -- twice a day at least. It's a long, concrete bridge, build in the '50s, spanning a tiny little trickle of water and a big broad wash of sand. The bridge bridged the arroyo, mainly, with the creek kind of incidental, except that it moved a few feet west every year. Every year it ran in the bed, a trickle, but also ate away at the brittle compressed sand on the one side (always that side) and shifted that way, persistently. I guess at one point they considered at least somewhat seriously the idea of laying down concrete to keep the creek from moving, turn it into a tiny canal, but the problem was you couldn't account for upstream, and as that shifted it wouldn't always align with the concrete bulwark and the bulwark might actually end up pushing the water out of the arroyo up to the road or under it.

So instead they built this extra long bridge. Which, if you think about it, was built over a series of creeks expected in the future, each one adjusted west a little farther like tree rings, an expected fan of not-quite parallel lines in time.

What always seemed strange to me, though, crossing the bridge, was the relationship between the creek and creek bed. Because the creek was contained by the bed, but also the bed was made by the creek. It wasn't like the one made the other, but they both made each other in some way. And which one directed which, if you were going to put it in those terms, for the direction was also errosion at the same time, an effacement and an interrelation, each one structured by the other, and just saying agency is too simple, and each one turns and transforms the other though at dirrent rates of change over time.

I think this is like what I'm thinking of when I'm thinking of the importance of discourse in understanding ideas.

Jul 6, 2010

"But so some E.T.A.s -- not just Hal Incandenza by any means -- are
involved with recreational substances, is the point. Like who isn't, at some
life-stage, in the U.S.A. and Interdependent regions, in these troubled times,
for the most part. Though a decent percentage of E.T.A. students aren't at all.
I.e. involved. Some persons can give themselves away to an ambitious pursuit and
have that be all the giving-themselves-away-to-something they need to do. Though
sometimes this changes as the players get older and the pursuit more
stress-fraught. American experience seems to suggest that people are virtually
unlimited in their need to give themselves away, on various levels. Some just
prefer to do it in secret."

-- David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Jul 5, 2010

We always think we know the real version

Privately, Senator Ted Kennedy would work with Republicans. He'd be cooperative, conciliatory, compromising, even tempered, and always eminently reasonable. Then, in public, according to Senator Lindsey Graham, Kennedy would lambaste the exact same Republicans he was working with. He might rip into them with a scalding speech, characterizing them as despicable and detestable, hard-hearted, cold-hearted and sub-humanly stupid and evil, i.e. Republicans.

Which would work to ensure they'd get re-elected back home in their conservative, Kennedy-hating states, despite extensively working with Kennedy. And also that he'd get credit with his own constituency for reaching that far across the aisle.

Now, there are two discourses going on here, and such a speech, apparently duplicitious, is designed to be read in different ways for different audiences, but the way Graham makes it sound, one is theater1 and meant to manipulate, and the other is "real." There's a tendency to do that, to take dual discourses and treat one of them as the Freudian2 slip of the other.

Consider a fundamentalist such as Jerry Falwell: When he makes conciliatory statements to non-fundamentalists, to those not on the Christian right, and says, for instance, that homosexuals should not be denied their civil rights, and then in another context, in a discourse for fundamentalists and those "inside,"3 says that gays etc. are responsible for incurring God's wrath against America and are responsible for terrorist attacks, the former statement is taken as crafted and crafty, while the second is conceived of as a simple and true expression of Falwell's position.

To do that, though, is to take the one without context, as not a discourse at all. The "inside" discourse is still a discourse, though, and has to be understood, to be understood, as having a context, as crafted and also meant to move (and manipulate). It is no more "true" than the less offensive things Falwell has said. It's actually just as constructed, and only really taken as "true" because of the way it appears to conflict with how he would want to appear in public, that is, the way an "inside" discourse looks "outside"4. The statements directed to the "outside" are of course theater, but part of that theater is to convince those inside that there is an inside, that they have access to the unvarnished version, when really that conversation is just as fraught if not more with manipulation and half-hidden motivations, and is no less designed than any other discourse. It is also theater. Context is still necessary5. Politically active fundamentalists have, in fact, spent more time and energy attempting to politicize and politically mobilize fundamentalists, who have historically shied away from politics, than they have attempting to directly influence American culture, and sometimes a fundamentalist's rhetorical excesses and apparent extremism should rightly be understood as an attempt to scare/shock/move certain Christians, and shouldn't be taken as the simply true version.

Graham, likewise, seems to have taken Kennedy's performance as only meant for other people, missing exactly the part where it was a performance for him.

Which is exactly what we do all the time, analyzing the discourses directed at others in such a way as to ignore or not notice the ones we're involved in -- construing it so that somehow everyone else is wrapped in elaborate layers of context and modes of manipulation while we have access to the "real," missing or not knowing or choosing not to know that discourses are like double agents, who could also be triple or double-double agents, and there is, of course, no simply "real" version. It's discourses all the way down.

1. The New York Times is specific to what type of theater this is: Kabuki. As if other types of theater are somehow not enough of a metaphor ... but, actually, the whole analysis of different types of discourse, and how there's no "real" version, but there are versions meant to convince the recipients of other versions that there's is real version, could probably be done again with just the Time's use of this word.
2. One of the downsides of the success and broad acceptance of psychology is the way in which it allows us, as a culture, to take certain things as "real." Consider, for example, how racism is today commonly understood to mean something like the condition of one's heart, an internal reality, having nothing to do social definitions, cultural contexts, acts, etc. Which means, in practice, that no one's a racists. This is, of course, one of the ways Freudianisms have been used to protect us from responsibility, instead of moving us to accept it (cf Zizek's In Defense of Lost Causes, 225).
3. Perhaps Falwell's single most famous statement, made on Sept. 13, 2001: "The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'"
4. Think about why overheard comments appear to be true. The overheard comment is, of course, a common political tactic, but it can be both used and counter-used.
5. Of course, the giving of context should also be understood as part of a discourse and having context, as, for example, Rush Limbaugh posts a daily list of links to articles he talks about, and Glenn Beck has an appendix to his "faction" book. The context communicates something quite apart from the actual content of the context.

Jul 4, 2010

Water fight for the Fourth of July 2

What we recognize of Independence

I wouldn't recognize George the Third if I saw him on the street. I have no idea what he looks like. I could look him up, of course, but I have no internalized sense of his face, or how he looked, or how he carried himself and would stand. If George the Third stood next to me, I wouldn't know. I could give him directions or say hello without even with the slightest sense of trickling recognition, that sense of knowing without knowing why one knows, of trying to place a face in a context and connect it with something. None of it.

Washington I would know. Even without the wig and in modern clothes, I think. I would recognize him, his face and how he stands, how he holds himself. Lincoln, for sure. Young or old. However much he did or did not match the pictures that we have on the penny and the five -- Lincoln feels as familiar to me a brother, and I think I could see him walking from across a field or far away and at his pace I'd quicken mine.

Franklin's easy, of course. Jefferson would be harder, but still. But George the Third, no, I'd never know "the present King" if I saw him.

It'd odd to me, reading the Declaration of Independence again today, hearing it again today, how much of it is historically contingent. How much of it applies to no one but those who signed, to no time or situation but theirs, except by the wildest possible reading.

Their are those few lines, of course, at the beginning, that move despite their situatedness, their contingent context and the way they're crafted from the stuff of philosophy and politics, stuff that doesn't always age as well as it's supposed to, but so much of it is a list of things no one before nor since has recognized. It, like history, happened once.

The present King and the colonial relationship, the facts presented to a candid world, the King who refused his Assent to Laws and forbade his Governors to pass some Laws of pressing importance, who endeavoured to prevent the population of these/those States: it's all so far away now. And of course that's not how we read it. That's not how we have read it, read it or will read, and of course there was no "we" when it was originally written, not even the fictitious "we" I imagine now. We are far too far from the original intent to read it that way, even if such a thing was there once or could be reconstructed, could be named and posited somehow singularly to the 56 signers scattered across the 1,300, 1,400 miles from South Georgia to North New Hampshire.

Our readings are all misreadings. But that's what makes them relevant. That's how it is applied to us. What's brilliant about the Declaration of Independence is exactly the way it has been and can be appropriated, misread by slaves, misread by women, misread by the poor and the masses, misread by the Vietnamese and French farmers, by poets and presidents, immigrants and itinerants and preachers of diverse creeds. What's so powerful about the words is how they have been gloriously and liberatingly misread and misunderstood, de- and re-contextualized and recognized on streets where they didn't belong, in places and contexts where they weren't conceived, without their wigs and in clothes that they didn't wear.The power isn't in the reading, and isn't in the words, but in the rereading, the misreading, and the reading again:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that
they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among
these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these
rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from
the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes
destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish
it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles
and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to
effect their Safety and Happiness.

Jul 3, 2010

Sidekick Obama

I overheard some Americans, the other day, complaining Obama "just doesn't understand the world." They were citing some diplomatic gift-giving gaffe, and then applying it to foreign policy and especially issues of war (so, can't figure out a good gift for the Queen of England = doesn't know we should bomb the shit out of Iran/invade Russia to defend Georgia's oil pipelines/etc.).

What's so mad about the argument -- and mad in the sense of angry but also uncomfortable laughter that goes on too long -- is that it was only a little while ago that the same people were saying Obama was too comfortable abroad, and the fact that a sea of people came to hear him in Germany and that people in the Arabic-speaking world were interested in what he had to say was a reason he wasn't good for America. Maybe this is just more evidence of our everyday ability to hold incompatibile opinions, but I still find it confounding because, what would they really want Obama to do?

The answer, I think, is Don Cheadle's character in Iron Man 2. Wheras Robert Downey Jr. is the brash, don't-listen-to-anyone-because-you-know-what's-right, war-privatizing hero, Cheadle inadvertantly gets in his way with his caution and respect for the rule of law. Cheadle's character isn't bad, but doesn't understand. Then Cheadle's Iron Man suit is hijacked by the bad guys, so he does what they want without being able to stop himself, until Downey saves him and says, oh, okay, you can be my (black) sidekick. At one point Donwey almost exactly echoes the Americans I overheard, saying that, as an individual, he (Cheadle/Obama) is a good person but just doesn't really understand the way the world works.

Cheadle's character, of course, is refered to by a diminutive nickname that's homonymous with "roady," because he's good at helping out and carrying the bags, though he shouldn't misunderstand and think he's the main act.

I expect this from Robert Downey Jr. -- he's great, but not known for his thoughtfulness -- but kind of wonder what happened with Cheadle that he was somehow okay with this (not quite sub) subtext.

Relevant links:
Cheadle on wikipedia, talking about Iron Man 2, talking about racism in Hollywood, Inside the Actors Studio; what is the politics of Iron Man 2?; Obama in Berlin and criticism of Obama in Berlin and abroad.

Jul 1, 2010

Walt Whitman Presentation1

Introduction, context and background:
1. When Whitman died in the spring of 1892, the New York Herald reported, “A large majority condemn his writings as ‘beastly,’ as a ‘gathering of muck,’ and a ‘crazy outbreak of conceit and vulgarity,’” opposing his poetry on moral grounds, but also because it lacked form.

2. Early supporters of Whitman’s work actually supported him for the same reasons his detractors found fault: the absence form.
a. Hamlin Garland, who went to see Whitman as a very old man, wrote: “Formless as the book [Leaves of Grass] appeared, its deeply patriotic spirit, its wide sympathy with working men and women and especially its faith in the destiny of ‘these States’ exalted me.” (A move here from form to ideas).
b. Leonard Abbot, writing in defense of the so-called “New Poetry” in 1912, wrote: “The great value of Walt Whitman lies in his Influence as an emancipator … He was first of all a liberator in the art-form he adopted.”
c. Oscar Wilde, in 1889, wrote that “in his very rejection of art Walt Whitman is an artist.”

3. Whitman himself endorsed and encouraged this idea of his poetry as natural, organic, and almost a kind of “anti-poetry.”
a. He told the St. Louis Dispatch (in 1876), “The whole tendency of poetry has been toward refinement. I have felt that was not worthy of America. Something more vigorous, al fresco, was needed and then more than all I determined from the beginning to put a whole living man in the expression of a poem, without wincing.”

4. Whitman was wrong – or at least he had an understanding of what he was doing that was limited by his time and his Transcendentalism, and his account of what he did is not satisfactory.