Oct 30, 2010

Oct 29, 2010

A space in which to write

Is Zadie Smith the Barack Obama of literature?
Eminem finds four rhymes that rhyme with orange
Amiri Baraka rereads "somebody blew up America"
The problem with Sufjan Steven's Age of Adz
The withering death of rejection letters
So you want to get a PhD in humanities
100 years of NY subway photography
Reimagining the Gettysburg address
44 ways of looking at marginalia
Vonneguts and bi-polar disorder
Fetish for non-digital writing
Rejection is hard tee shirts
Is Annie Lebowitz an artist?
The chapbook is illuminated
Edger Allen Poe and Eminem
Barthes by Barthes by Bart
Ben Franklin's death mask
Malcolm Gladwell's hair
Roget Ebert on Playboy
Your handwritten font
Jane Austen in Oregon
Talking to Gay Talese
Becoming Thoreau
Poetry as murder
Teaching Anselm
Animating Howl
Oxford comma
Iraq war logs
NYTime's war logs
Peeing is political
On how to be dogmatic
40 years of Doonesbury
Trudeau's best works
Renegade: visual poetry
The Giants old ballgame
Gloves of the World Series
Triumph of the cyborg composer
Conservatives and "sublime" war
Seymour Hersh on the online threat
Can conservatism be rational again?
For sale: 70-ton map of California
Tattoos protected by First Amendment
Zizek and Milbank: A missed encounter
Sony Walkman tape player discontinued
We already had a gay president: Lincoln.
Greil Marcus and Sean Wilentz talk Bob Dylan
Cory Doctorow's adventures in self publishing
The Salem murder that inspired Hawthorne and Poe
Robert Alter's new translation of the Hebrew Bible
Why Doc Brown is the real villain of Back to the Future
Robert Ebert readers take down a take down of the critic
Considering the importance of NPR and radio after Ira Glass
If God wanted to destroy New Atheism, getting this book written was a good start

Oct 28, 2010

Ambition all by itself

Melville worries that his ambition will fail, that his picture of the whale will “remain unpainted at the last.” He is always aware he’s always on the verge of the whole thing breaking down, but the ambition is there. Beating underneath. It acts as the will to will it onward, the drive to make it work, a promise to try to do something great, the stakes that are high enough to make it worth while even if the whole thing fails.

Ambition, all by itself, makes the work a thing of value.

Put it this way: If I read a single poem and it’s no good, all I can say, I think, is it’s no good. If I read Louis Zukofsky’s “A” and I hate it, at least I can say he was trying to do something important.

Read the complete essay, Trying to do something, @ TheThe.

Oct 27, 2010

Wittgenstein on Wednesdays 005

Auf Deutch:
2.026 Nur wenn es Gegenstände gibt, kann es eine fest Form der Welt geben.
2.027 Das Feste, das Bestehende und der Gegenstand sind Eins.
2.03 Im Sachverhald hangen die Gegenstände ineinander, wie die Glieder einer Kette.
2.031 Im Sachverhalt hangen die Gegenstände bestimmter Art und Weise zueinander.
2.032 Die Art und Weise, wie die Gegenstände im Sachverhalt zusammenhängen, ist die Struktur des Sachverhaltes.

2.026 Only if there are objects can the world have a fixed shape.
2.027 The shape, the existing, and the object are one.
2.03 In the states of affairs the objects hang in one other, as the links on a chain.
2.031 In the states of affairs the objects hang in a certain manner and measure to each other.
2.032 The manner and measure, as the objects in the state of affairs hang together, is the structure of the state of affairs.

  • Bestehende -- I still question whether, in the context of philosophy, "existing" is the best translation. It seems so philosophical, I don't know that it's not broken by the weight of it. On the other hand, during the children's church segment of church at Jacobus Gemeinde last weekend, the children held up paper letters spelling the word "DASEIN." To me, that was like old man Heidegger sitting on their backs, though I know that it was just the children's lesson.*
  • Ineinander/zueinander -- The subtlety here is difficult to parse. How is the one different from the other? It's the matter of a preposition. With another writer, I would think, perhaps, it was only an issue of style, but Wittgenstein is complicated. He's exacting with his words. But the style counts too.
  • Art und Weise -- These both translate as, basically, the same. Both can mean "manner" or "mode," though "Weise" also can mean "melody" or "way" or "wise" or "wise man," and "Art" can also mean "style" or "nature" or "disposition" and also, in an archaic form, "wise."

Philosophy is not supposed to be a thing of style. But it is. Socratic method is also Socratic philosophy. Cartesian thought experiments are form as well as content. Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Levinas, Buber, Zizek, all of them are shaped by their style, their thoughts formed in the way they're formed because of the form in which they write.

"Content is never more than an extension of form," the poet Robert Creeley said. Or was it "Form is never more than an extension of content"?

We accept and even expect a certain, intricate interconnectedness of form and content in poetry, in literature, when words are art, but that same inter-relation can be unsettling in philosophy. In philosophy there's an expectation that the words will be transparent containers for the ideas, an almost invisible medium through which the ideas can come, like light through ether rather than waves through water.

It doesn't work like that though. Words don't work like that and ideas don't either. The one is always entangled with the other. Wittgenstein, perhaps more than any of the philosophers, knows this. He knows that style cannot be bracketed off from substance, that forms of writing are not neutral, and making decisions about how something is written -- even and maybe especially making decisions in an unanalyzed way -- means making decisions about what is being written about. Every act of writing involves constraints, though only some of them are as acknowledged as acts of Oulipo.

In 2.03, 2.031 and 2.032, Wittgenstein could easily be taken as writing about the form of his writing: What he writes is, oddly and fantastically, a model of what he's writing about. When he says, "In the states of affairs the objects hang in one other, as the links on a chain," and "In the states of affairs the objects hang in a certain manner and measure to each other," and "The manner and measure, as the objects in the state of affairs hang together, is the structure of the state of affairs," those sentences themselves are prime examples of what he's talking about.

This leaves us with surprisingly self-reflexive philosophical prose, though. Only a little removed from the modernist poetry of, say, Gertrude Stein's, "Why do they apply. This to that." which carries it's own philosophical heft.

These sentences are models of the world as Wittgenstein envisions it. They are, or he wants them to be, the most perfect sentences ever written, expressing exactly the world in content and exactly in perfect form.

The problem quickly comes, though, that while we know they're true about themselves, we know they are accurate statements about the aesthetic structure of the work itself, we don't know and how could we know that they're true of "states of affairs." The main thing that seems to recommend them is their aesthetic perfection.

Another philosopher perhaps would just disavow the form of the writing as just a form, but Wittgenstein seems committed to something more than that. He's committed to the form, and to the form as the idea, and to the idea as the form. For him the one thing interlocks with the other, like links on a chain.

*Upon further reflection, it occurs to me they were probably holding up "DA SEIN," not "DASEIN," the space being rather irregular when it's little children, but rather important for understanding the point, as "DA SEIN," would mean something like "be there," rather than "DASEIN," which is like big-B Being. I read it as significantly more existential than it was probably intended.

Oct 23, 2010


They knew each other. They didn’t.

There was a bet, or a robbery, a dis or a partnership or maybe money owed. Someone said a drug deal.


He lied. He didn’t lie. Part of it was and part wasn’t. Was it self-serving? He told the truth, allegedly.

One of the main difficulties covering crime for a paper is the deep ambiguity that can afflict a narrative. Sometimes a story goes in one direction with one narrative for weeks — the break-in and homicide was a robbery, out of hand — and then that explanation is just dropped, abandoned, and another narrative is given. By the time the case gets to the courthouse there are usually two competing versions of events, but before that, in the first days of the investigation and in the process of questioning and interrogating, there are often multitudes. There are layers of lies, layers of truths. There are justifications and explanations, prevarications and machinations and which is which? And what do you believe?

When it finally comes down to two stories, one for the prosecution, one for the defense, I am sitting in the courthouse pews, taking notes and doodles and thinking of other possible explanations. Other versions of motivations. Other narratives. Thinking of ambiguities.

Read the rest of the essay, There is more than one version of this, @ catapult magazine.

Oct 21, 2010

Ethics in writing and Edna Buchanan

As a crime reporter, there were two things I learned from Edna Buchanan.

One was to cover every single homicide. You might think that if that's your job, writing about crime, that that would be obvious, but many news outlets actually don't cover a case just because there is a corpse. There has to be something else, something "special." Buchanan took that as an insult not just to the dead, but to humanity. Reporting a murder, for her, was the only ethical thing to do.

The second thing was that a lead, those first few sentences of a story, could deliver the existential jolt of a defibrillator. Because of her, I believed those first few sentences could carry ethical force, could communicate, in toto, humanity and grotesquery and our fallen state. My leads weren't her leads, but it was because of her, for example, I wrote:

Alfonso Mason saw his face on television. It was an older picture, so his glasses weren’t as thick and his hair wasn’t as gray, but it was him.

The 56-year-old was in an extended-stay motel in DeKalb County. All he did all day was sleep and watch TV and when he saw his face and saw he was wanted by the Clayton County Police for the murder of a motel maid, the armed robbery of Stockbridge’s Suburban Lodge and the car-jacking of the assistant manager’s car, he decided to turn himself in.

If you write crime -- this is true of all writing, but with writing about violence I think it's especially true -- you have to decide why you're writing and what response you're trying to evoke by force of words. Buchanan showed me writing about crime didn't have to be about the joke, or just horror, or simple luridness, but could be about attempting to induce ethical moments.

There are, of course, other things to learn from Buchanan's reporting. For me, those were the lessons, though. I still use her lead "Gary Robinson died hungry," when I teach writing, to talk about introductions, and what they do and are supposed to do.

Longform.org points, today, to an '86 profile of Edna Buchanan they did at the New Yorker. It includes an interesting digression on the jolting force of a short sentence:

... snapping the reader back in his chair with an abbreviated sentence that is used like a blunt instrument. One student of the form at the Herald refers to that device as the Miller Chop. The reference is to Gene Miller, now a Herald editor, who, in a remarkable reporting career that concentrated on the felonious, won the Pulitzer Prize twice for stories that resulted in the release of people in prison for murder. Miller likes short sentences in general—it is sometimes said at the Herald that he writes as if he were paid by the period—and he particularly likes to use a short sentence after a couple of rather long ones. Some years ago, Gene Miller and Edna Buchanan did a story together on the murder of a high-living Miami lawyer who was shot to death on a day he had planned to while away on the golf course of La Gorce Country Club, and the lead said, ". . . he had his golf clubs in the trunk of his Cadillac. Wednesday looked like an easy day. He figured he might pick up a game later with Eddie Arcaro, the jockey. He didn't."

These days, Miller sometimes edits the longer pieces that Edna Buchanan does for the Herald, and she often uses the Miller Chop—as in a piece about a lovers' spat: "The man she loved slapped her face. Furious, she says she told him never, ever to do that again. 'What are you going to do, kill me?' he asked, and handed her a gun. 'Here, kill me,' he challenged. She did."

That chop, of course, the short-sentence punch, can be just a joke -- that's how it's used most often, for example, in noir -- but it can work, like all good writing works, to demand something from the reader. To demand, in an ethical moment, that one wake up and look.

Oct 20, 2010

Wittgenstein on Wednesdays 004

The Wittgenstein family

The Wittgenstein family, circa Summer 1917, Vienna, Ludwig at far right

Auf Deutsch:
2.0201 Jede Aussage über Komplexe lässt sich in eine Aussage über deren Bestandteile und in diejenigen Sätze zerlegen, welche die Komplexe vollständig beschreiben.
2.021 Die Gegenstände bilden in Substanz der Welt. Darum können sie nicht zusammengesetzt sein.
2.022 Es ist offenbar, dass auch eine von der wirklichen noch so verschieden gedachte Welt Etwas -- eine Form -- mit der wirklichen gemein haben muss.
2.023 Diese feste Form besteht eben aus den Gegenständen.
2.024 Die Substanz ist das, was unabhängig von dem, was der Fall ist, besteht.
2.025 Sie ist Form und Inhalt.
2.0251 Raum, Zeit und Farbe (Färbigkeit) sind Formen der Gegenstände.

2.0201 Every statement about complexes allows itself in a statement about the constituent parts and in those atomized phrases, the complexes are completely described.
2.021 The objects constitute the substance of the world. This is why they can not be composite.
2.022 It is obvious that however different from the actual a fictitious world is, it must have something -- the shape -- in common with the actual world.
2.o23 This fixed shape exists just in the object.
2.024 The substance is that which, independent of what is the case, exists.
2.025 They are the shape and content.
2.0251 Space, time and color (chromaticity) are shapes of objects.


  • zerlegen -- Here we actually do get to a word that has something to do with "atomic."
  • Sätze -- This is the plural of "Satz," which is normally either translated as "sentence" or "phrase." I went with "phrase," since it doesn't imply the certain grammatical rules that "sentence" does and I don't want to tie Wittgenstein's "statement about constituent parts" down to the rules of the sentence, but maybe that would be right, maybe that would get at how language and world are all wrapped up in each other even in early Wittgenstein.
  • wirklichen -- I originally translated this as "real," as in "the real world." I didn't like the way that gave it ontological overtones, though, so I went with actual. That's not perfect either, but this is just tricky ground full of philosophical gopher holes.
  • feste -- This is one of those words that goes a million different ways. "Solid" seems to be common, though I'm not entirely happen with the phrase that leaves me, "this solid shape." There's something off about that. It does seem to collocate, though, in a way that has another sense, as in "feste Regel" (hard rule), "fest Kosten" (fixed cost), and "feste Aches" (fixed axle). This idea -- unmoving -- seems to work better with the theory here.
  • besteht -- This translates just as "exist," but I always think of it more as "persists" or "remains." "Exist" is such an abstract, ontological word, and maybe "bestehen" is like that too, but I hear it, almost as a false friend, as "be staying," which I think is better than "exists."
  • Färbigkeit -- Not the kind of word you learn in an introductory German class -- or even an advanced one, LEO.org translates this as "chromaticity." A more standard philosophical word would probably be "coloredness," but I like the more technical, less philosophical word here.

I think the first time I actually heard about philosophy was from my uncle, my mother's brother. We hadn't seen him in 9 or 10 years when he came up to the mountains where we were living for one Thanksgiving. He made a rue with butter and flour, that weekend, and he taught us how to pan for gold, which was what he was doing for a living in Jamestown, California, up until he died.

The job was mostly working as a guide, as he explained it, part teacher, part performer, and also he was always doing researching and gold searching on his own. There hasn't been serious gold in California for a long time, but he said there was still enough if you got lucky it could be worth your time.

He's also been taking some classes, then, at the community college. One of them was introduction to philosophy. It was one of the nights that weekend after Thanksgiving we stayed up late talking, he and my mom talked about being kids and about what had happened since and what they were doing now, that he told us about the class he was taking. I remember being confused as to what "philosophy" was, and he explained it, and he was excited about the solution he'd come up with to the old, old question of the one and the many. I didn't understand the problem of the one and the many at the time and don't remember how it was he'd come to the ingenious conclusion he'd come to, but I remember the conclusion like a punch line to a forgotten joke:

"There is the one, and there is the many, and there's the difference."

Wittgenstein, here, is trying to deal with that same question, the one and the many and the difference. It's one of the oldest philosophical questions. It got a number of philosophers into trouble over the years, including Zeno, who tried to come up with his paradox to prove that "all is one," and motion is impossible, and John Scotus Eriugena, who tried to use Catholic Neoplatonism to show how the one are the many and the many are the one, and ended up, accidentally, saying some very strange things about God and having Pope's condemn his work with an ugly metaphor (?) about worms.

Wittgenstein's answer to the problem seems to be using this idea of reciprocity in 2.0201. The idea is that the part is always a part of the whole, and the whole always exists in the part, but is also independent of the part.

I maybe be reading later Wittgenstein onto earlier Wittgenstein, here, but I think the analogy of a game is the best basic way to understand this: in a game where all the pieces move in different ways, e.g. chess, but also, maybe more loosely, a game like basketball, any statement about the whole game is also contained in a statement about a particular piece, and any description of or statement about a piece is also going to involve a statement about the whole game. If you say, for example, what the bishop (Auf deutsch: die Läufer) does in a game of chess, you say, in saying that, the whole game. And also the other way around: "Every statement about complexes allows itself in a statement about the constituent parts and in those atomized phrases, the complexes are completely described."

I'm not sure, but I think there might be a twist here, in that we're not supposed to think of the whole, though, as simply the sum of the parts. He does this move in 1.21, and I think it's valid here too. The whole is the parts, but in such a way that without any one part, the whole would still be the whole. I think. Like maybe chess, without the bishop, or without the queen, which historically is true in that the queen wasn't always the queen we have today, would still be chess. But maybe not, because it seems like there would be a hole in the whole -- I don't know. What if a rose had no name?

I don't know, also, honestly, 100 percent how Wittgenstein's answer works. Or if Wittgenstein's answer works. His solution to this in the Tractatus, how he works it out, is basically as cryptic to me as my uncle's statement was back before I had a degree in philosophy, back before I read all that I've read.

It's times like this when I wish Wittgenstein would do more work as a guide. There's power in what he says, and poetry, but I don't always know how to dig it out myself, following what he says, and I feel he just wants me to take it and accept it as right. I want Wittgenstein to be a guide here -- to teach, in part, and preform, in part -- but that's something he refuses to do. Wittgenstein, at this stage, only looks for gold on his own. Here he holds up the nuggets he has and says: look. But that is all.

Oct 19, 2010

Out is up, up is air

City maps made of text
Maps and "trap streets"
John Huchra, whose maps altered ideas of universe, dies at 61. May he rest in peace.
Benoît B. Mandelbrot, mathematician who developed fractal geometry, dies at 85. May he rest in peace.
Benoît B. Mandelbrot talks about fractals and the art of roughness
Essential theology of the last 25 years
Death of God Theology within the Methodist Church
Searching for God in the 60s
How the Cold War changed protestantism
PBS's intersections of religion and public life in America
What does murder cost?
Murder as democratic past time
Off of death row, banished from Oklahoma
War photographer turns to ballet
Charles Manson's explanation
30 years of courtroom sketches
Michael Connelly's latest thriller
Tao Lin's awkward salad
What people are reading on New York subways
Behind the scene at the Booker Prize
Zadie Smith on having money
An unpublished David Foster Wallace story
David Foster Wallace and the dangers of meta
Neil Gaiman reads
Teaching the graphic novel
TS Eliot reads The Waste Land
Dylan's Witmark Demos
Mr. Strommy-strum tries a synth sound
Celebrating boom boxes
Talking to comic book legend Stan Lee:
'When I was young, doing what I do, I was
almost embarassed writing comics. I thought, there are people building bridges,
doing important things, and I'm writing these stupid stories.'

The scene from Psycho changed everything
Spotlight on Akira Kurosawa
Is Zizek good for the left?
Save Walter Benjamin from his followers
Clause Levi-Strauss in his labratory
Google's work with Wittgenstein
Wittgenstein chewed the rugs
Roland Barthes diary of mourning
Ron Paul isn't alone anymore
Corporate money and politics
The education of a president
The military publishing complex
Campaign finance law makes this 1972 all over again
Mitch Daniels tries grown up politics, probably can't become president now
Romney's book gets a boost in sales
Dinesh D'Souza's lunacy
The Tea Party's Cold War roots
1930sGermany: 'what we call self-mobilization society'
Germany's ugliest buildings

Oct 18, 2010

Bubble and froth and slobber and cream with language

After too much proofreading, too much editing and grading and marking mistakes, especially for someone like me, a descriptivist all the way down who sometimes suspects editing is his own Inferno-circle form of perverted punishment, a respite:

Hemingway's pencils & the problem with the Paris Review's quintessential question

William Styron didn’t write in notebooks. He tried notebooks, but they didn’t work for him. They do work for Paul Auster, though, so he writes in notebooks. He likes the ones with gridded lines, which he calls “quadrille lines — the little squares.” When Auster’s done with the notebooks he types everything up. He has a typewriter he bought in 1974.

What is that supposed to tell us? What does this reveal about Styron? What do we know or understand about Auster that we didn’t before?

Joseph Heller wrote stuff down on 3×5 cards he kept in his wallet, which he called a “billfold” in ’74. Gore Vidal writes fiction on yellow legal pads, but essays and plays on a typewriter. John Updike had a typewriter too and Jack Kerouac had two. Gay Talese wrote outlines in different colors of ink on the shirt boards he got when his clothes come back from the dry cleaners.

What if none of this information actually acts to reveal anything?

Read the complete essay, The Paris Review's implement fetish, @ TheThe.

Oct 16, 2010

'Yeah. That's right. Yeah. So I took it': Displaced characters in Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson is the master of displaced characters.

I was going to say morally ambiguous, but that's not right, not quite, and it can mean evil, and his characters are evil sometimes, and often amoral, but that's not what's so right about the way he writes them. They're displaced, or deceneted, or lost but in a particular sort of way; they're indefinite, though not ill defined, and the drift in the way men I have known, working class men and lower class men, really do drift.

Take Jimmy Luntz, the main character in Johnson's latest, Nobody Move. The book is basically a crime caper book -- it's like No Country for Old Men, but funny, or something by Elmore Leonard, but a little more literary. The blurb on the cover of the copy I have says the New Yorker says "So noir it's almost pitch-black," but that's not even close to right. I read it in one sitting, one train trip, which is pretty unusual for me, and I think it's a sharp, sharp book, even though it's not Johnson's best. Nobody Move follows Luntz, who owes money to some bad guys in Southern California and ends up on the run up the Central Valley and in the foothills and up into the Sierra Nevada mountains in the north of the state around Feather River. Luntz isn't a hero or even an anti-hero, but a kid. Sometimes he's confused, and sometimes impulsive, and he changes, a couple of times, the reasons for why he does what he does, and most of the time he's ambiguous to himself. It's not all thought through, which I like a lot and think is right, accurate: he looks at himself and he doesn't know.

There's a great scene where Luntz declares "I'm not a thug," and the woman who's with him, who's a bit older than him, responds, "You don't know what you are." And he doesn't, which is remarkable for a character in a book, but pretty accurate for most of the people I have met. Even when Luntz does figure out who he is, or thinks he figures it out, he articulates in such a way that his saying it undermines it at the moment it's said. For example, at one point when he thinks he might die and is talking too much, he tells this story:
"-- and this old guy moved in like three places down from us," Jimmy was
staying. "It was a trailer park. I think I was twelve. Dude told me he'd pay me
twenty dollars a day to clean up his trailer before he moved in. 'Clean up my
trailer, twenty bucks per day.' Gave me disinfectant and a bucket and all that
shit.' [...] Took me four and half days to get it like new. Never worked that
hard before or since. And at the end of this he explained the whole thing to me
carefully. [...] This dude -- I'd say he was sixty, maybe. Drawing disability,
periodic drunk, family gone, you know what I mean, just your typical solitary
human wreck. And he says, 'I've got ninety dollars for you. You sure earned it,
and I've got it. Or you can have this lottery ticket.' Out it comes. Yeah, big
old card in the palm of his hand. 'This ticket,' he says, 'cost a dollar fifty.
So if I pay you the ninety, you could find somebody to buy you sixty tickets
just like it. Or you can take this one. Just this one.' Yeah. That's right.
Yeah. So I took it.'"

Pennsylvania fields

Oct 12, 2010

The Pippen standard

In the middle of an odd article "in defense of naive reading" that seems at least partially designed as an attack on cultural studies, University of Chicago Prof. Robert B. Pippen writes:

"Clearly, poems and novels and paintings were not produced as objects for future academic study; there is no a priori reason to think that they could be suitable objects of 'research.'"

This strikes me as strange, and the more I think about it, the stranger is strikes me.

First of all, why should there be an a priori reason to think something's a suitable object of research? Part of researching, part of studying seems to me to be to answer the question of whether the study and the research is worthwhile. How could you know that before hand? Research definitionally starts with a provisional idea that something seems interesting or important, but nothing more than that.

Second of all, assuming Pippen's standard is a good standard, how would we or could we know that something was produced for the purposes of being studied?

And even if that was the reason and we could determine that it was, why would we think that's a good reason to study it? A lot of crappy anthologies and introductory texts and textbooks would seem to prove the standard wrong. And more than that, plain silly.

Why would Pippen claim this as a standard? I seriously don't know what he's talking about.

Third, the implication seems to be that this is a lack in literature, poems and novels, paintings, etc.; That is, that this is something different about literature. But that seems false: atoms, for example, and chemical compounds, and the pots of Pompei were not produced as objects for future academic research. Neither were languages. Neither was history, nor religions, nor diseases, nor any social or political practices.

Almost all of what we study, almost all of everything worth studying was produced for some other reason.

Maybe there're no a priori reasons to consider those subjects as subjects worth studying either, but really, is that the kind of reason we want?

In the article, he contrasts "vernacular" literature with classical Greek and Latin literature, and says vernacular literature was "produced for the pleasure and enlightenment of those who enjoyed them." But, then, is he arguing Homer, Virgil, et al, weren't produced for pleasure and enlightenment of those who enjoyed them? That they were produced for the purposes of being studied? It doesn't make any sense.

As far as I can tell, the only thing that fits Pippen's standard is secondary materials. Legal codes, for example, aren't produced as objects of research, but legal commentaries could maybe be thought of that way. By Pippen's standard, wars couldn't be assumed to be suitable objects of research, but research about those wars would be suitable for research.

The comment seems to just be silly. His eventual conclusion about reading isn't all wrong, I don't think, but this standard he throws out in the middle is bizarre. Pippen's standard doesn't seem to actually have anything to do with why anyone studies anything.

Oct 11, 2010

The narrative need for confessions

"My Law get me to say I did this but I did not do this I was not at that house that day went I tell my Law that it seen like Im not telling no one any thank. Be for I go up the road to jail for murder that I did not do I would want someone burn me on fire tell I die why I say I was in the house the police say they has proof to say we was in that Lady house ...."
-- Anthony Gray, wrongfully convicted of rape and murder, crimes to which he confessed, but did not commit.

"According to tapes and transcripts of the interrogation obtained by theWashington Post [the detectives] told Vasquez during this first 90-minute session that they had found his fingerprints at the crime scene. This was not true, according to the detectives' later testimony. They yelled at Vasquez when his answers did not fit the facts of the crime. They told him dozens of details about the crime, then encouraged him to restate them."
-- Dana Priest in the Washington Post, 1974.

An odd thing: juries believe confessions.

Which I take to mean: we believe in confessions.

When someone says for the camera or to the camera (not necessarily knowingly), I did it -- I did it, I murdered, I raped, I (fill in the blank) did it -- we believe them. Even when we shouldn't, we believe them. Even when there are reasons, sometimes lots of reasons, to think that maybe we shouldn't accept this confession, shouldn't trust it, still we do. There's something of a reflex to it.

You would think, at least, there's a Cretan's paradox here: the one who has confessed to whatever horrible thing should not, it seems, be taken as a reliable source of information. If we accept that a man is a murderer, then it would seem to be a safe assumption that we wouldn't or shouldn't trust this person. The confession itself ought to act to undermine whatever faith we'd place in this person's testimony, whatever standard trust we'd have, in a normal case, in someone's honesty, veracity, or reliability.

It doesn't work that way, though, with juries or with us. We believe people who say they're people who shouldn't believe. Call it the Miranda paradox, the paradox that we find no paradox here.

We believe confessions. Even when it seems like we shouldn't.

Oct 7, 2010

early october 007
The University of Tuebingen in early October, a few days before classes begin.

Oct 6, 2010

The right of repulsive speech

I'm really uncomfortable with Banned Book Week.

It seems like a Hallmark-ish celebration of self-congratulation. Just more than a little bit masturbatory.

This is the made up holiday where we, the literate, the enlightened, congratulate ourselves on our sophistication and taste. We, we tell ourselves for the week, are not like the rubes who won't read Twain or Vonnegut, the idiots offended by Harry Potter, the philistines who don't get the importance of Salinger, Sherman Alexie or Harper Lee. We are not like the tasteless, classless, bigoted and basically illiterate who don't like books, and aren't we proud?

It's good to fight against the banning of books, and it's good to promote reading. There really is a problem with banning books, even in America, even today, and it's worth while to call attention to the daily fight to defend the freedom of the press. Even if the week were just a gimmick to sell more copies of The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, God knows, the publishing industry could use the help, and I would consider the whole thing worth while.

Except that we might actually be hurting First Amendment freedoms.

Wittgenstein on Wednesdays 003

Attempting to translate and read

Auf Deutsch:
2.012 In der Logic ist nichts zufällig: Wenn das Ding im Sachverhalt vorkommen kann, so muss die Möglichkeit des Sachverhaltes im Ding bereits präjudiziert sein.
2.013 Jedes Ding ist, gleichsam, in einem Raume möglicher Sachverhalte. Diesen Raum kann ich mir leer denken, nicht aber das Ding ohne den Raum.
2.014 Die Gegenstände enthalten die Möglichkeit aller Sachlagen.
2.0141 Die Möglichkeit seines Vorkommens in Sachverhalten ist die Form des Gegenstandes.
2.02 Der Gegenstand is einfach.

2.012 In Logic nothing is by chance: When the thing can occur in the state of affairs, the possibility of the state of affairs must already be predisposed in the thing.
2.013 Every thing is, in the same way, in a space of possible state of affairs. This space I myself can think of as empty, but not the thing without the space.
2.014 The objects contain the possibility of all situations.
2.0141 The possbility of its occurance in a state of affairs is the shape of the objects.
2.02 The object is simple.


  • "vorkommen" -- Literally translates as "come forward." This can translate as "occur" or as "appear." I would ussualy go with "appear" -- I like the word and its limitations -- that would leave this looking like it was a matter of perception
  • "präjudiziert" -- The usual translation of this word would, I think, be "prejudged," but that implies an agency that isn't quite right here. "Prejudiced" would be a bold translation, but would require read oddly in English unless the sentece were reformed kind of drastically.
  • "enthalten" -- There are a lot of possible translations for this, and each English word has a slightly different and yet importantly different possible meaning in this sentence. This is one of those words where the Tractatus really does appear to be balanced on a knife's edge: even the breath of reading tips the meaning of this one way or another. Do we want to say, "contains"? "Consists"? "Is composed of"? "Embodies"? "Holds?" Each of those is dramatically different in connotation, and in the very spare prose of the Tractatus, how one reads leans the philosophy a different way.

Even just between two langauges, even between two European languages which have a lot in common and in which philosophy developed and is natural, the idea of trying to make one-to-one, representational, this=that moves is impossible.

You try, but it falls apart.

How much harder, then, to move back and forth like that between language and world.

With something as spare as the Tractatus, where there's not the discursive excess that explains and expounds, gives examples and works ideas out, we're left with words, sometimes single words, and the weight that they carry. The connotations they leave.

As I'm translating, I find I want to translate in a completely neutral way, for the translation itself to be opaque. I want reading to be a second step, the critical step that comes after the text has been rendered kind of quasi-mechanically into English. It's not working, though. I can't translate without reading, which means there's no part that comes before making judgements and interpretations.

Maybe if I were more fluent in German it wouldn't be a problem, but I don't think so. Even if it seems like translation is like that and can be like that with words like alles, buch, haben, und and wort, one must already be reading, already be doing philosophy with a word like Sachverhalten. Bulleted List

I wonder, though, if the trouble I'm having here isn't a smaller-scale version of the same problem Wittgenstein has with the whole project of writing out the world in the Tractatus.

The cultural relevance of Tao Lin

Girl off screen: I have a multi-faceted question. If it's OK. First of all, do you think that your writing is more accessible because it's culturally relevant? Do you think that young people are depressed now more than ever? Do you have a business card? And who is the most famous person in your cell phone's address book? You can answer in any order you want.
Tao Lin: Most famous person, um. I don't know. I could look.
Girl: OK.
Tao Lin: Should I?
Girl: Yeah.
Tao Lin: I just got this two months ago I think.
Girl: Cool.
Tao Lin: It's an iPhone.
Girl: Do you have Jonathan Franzen's phone number?
Tao Lin: Yeah.
Girl: Really?
Tao Lin: Yeah. He's the most famous.
Girl: Awesome.
Tao Lin: Yeah. We're friends.
Girl: Cool.
Tao Lin: There's no one more famous than him, right?

[Long pause]

Girl: Do you want to answer ....
Tao Lin: The other questions. Is my work .... what was the one about cultural relevance?
Girl: Do you think your writing is more accessible because it's culturally relevant ... or something like that.
Tao Lin: Hmmm. I don't think it's culturally relevant.

Oct 5, 2010

Oct 4, 2010

Looking at the Kid

There is no Kid in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Check Spelling

There's a kid. Who's the kid. And sometimes he's he or He, when punctuation demands it. He is the boy, in the book, and the boy who's the kid who's he (and is later the man) is locked in a struggle that seems like a fated struggle with the judge, who isn't, also, the Judge.

Mistaking the kid for the Kid is so common, though, in writing about Blood Meridian, that I wonder if there's not something more going on here than mere misreading. It's almost like a tic, or an optical trick: we look at one thing and think we see another.

Harold Bloom, with his permanent aura of venerability and in his role as authority and canon-maker, makes this mistake in the introduction to Modern Library edition of the book. He refers, throughout, to the Judge and the Kid. This has the weird effect of placing the error in the same book as the book, of making the misreading seem definitive. When you notice how he's turned the kid from a character into an archetype, too, it's hard not to read the introduction as if it's an introduction to some other story, some other book -- the statements seem authoritative, but can't be about Blood Meridian. Bloom says the "the novel turns always upon its two central characters, Judge Holden and the Kid," and the question comes: In what novel?

Oct 1, 2010

Chess makes you check your ignorance:
The Market Street Chess Players in their Own Words.
'Those are not the words': Walt Whitman's collapsing taxonomy of poetry

This anxiety Walt Whitman has about poetry emerges in the poem "Song of Myself," as Whitman seeks to establish a taxonomy of poetry, a system classifying what is good poetry, what bad, but the structure he establishes keeps collapsing.

The poem is one Whitman's fullest explanation of his theory of language and poetry, perhaps even more clear than the few prose pieces on the subject that bear his name, and it serves to show and highlight his theoretical conceptions, but also to show how his work pervaded by a fear, a deep anxiety about poetry that inflicts his poems.

He works out, in the poem, a three-tiered idea of poetry. The lowest tier, the first level, is the poetry of refinement, and death. It is the poetry that actually goes by the name "poetry" in the poem, and reflects Whitman's ideas about language, and how language can stagnate, separate from life and reality, and be dead. The second tier is the poetry of people as it's commonly used -- "speaking." In the poem Whitman praises speaking and, in accordance with his theory about the American people and the vitality of their everyday talk, which is reflected, for example, in his love of slang, place names, nicknames and technical terms, but speaking is still not entirely free and safe from the death that inflicts "poetry." "Speaking" has the life that Whitman wants, but it's not entirely stable, and it can be buried, it can be silenced, and it can die. This leads him to a third tier of poetic language, the one he calls "singing." "Singing" is vivified and revitalized language, language that's not convention and not a system of signifiers, but which truly is alive, is life, is reality. "Singing" is also the elevated from of common speech, the form that raises the life that exists in language as it is actually spoken by Americans to a new level, in a sense beautifying it. It liberates language. It is, then, the opposite of "poetry," for poetry takes common speech and refines it, strangles it, and kills the life it had. This means, of course, that "speech," though praised by Whitman, celebrated by him, is also the site of a certain anxiety, as it is fragile and in danger of dying. There's always the possibility it will be smothered.

Up to this point, of course, the account of poetry presented in "Song of Myself" doesn't create any problems. It fits quite nicely with the image of Whitman as great emancipator who begins and ends barbarically yawping. No sooner is the system constructed, though, then it begins to fall apart. It collapses, and deconstructs.