Dec 31, 2010

The best of 2010
a personal list

1 offer to start a Ph.D.
1 wedding anniversary, which Beth and I spent in Vienna.
1 new book shelf.
1 thesis in the process of being written.
2 web sites used to pirate American TV in Germany.
2 years in Tuebingen.
2 siblings who visited me.
3 pictures of Kalyn, one of Beth's interns, that were most-viewed and most-favorited on my Flickr page.
3 times per day we prayed at Taize.
4 days at an academic conference in England, where I presented a paper for the first time, and tried to talk academically about one of the first murders I reported on.
4 direct mentions of Martin Heidegger in my writing.
5 "preachers who do not believe" in Daniel Dennett's study, which I wrote about for Killing the Buddha, which my doctor-father read before offering me a position studying with him.
5 articles published by online magazines, including a book review, and "It Sounds Weird," which I still really like.
5 countries I was in.
6 hours a week in a classroom teaching per semester.
6 English pre-tests given before the Winter semester started.
7 friends who came to see me in South Bend.
7 posts as a writer at TheThe poetry blog.
8 years of blogging.
11 Wittgenstein on Wednesdays, a translation and reading project.
17 World Cup games watched.
19 Weiherhaldenstrasse, where I lived with Beth.
31 pictures of windows.
33 days spent in America.
47 books read.
75 page paper on war photography.
80 percent -- about the average of what I understood of the sermons at Jacobus Gemeinde.
95 individual page views of last post on Wittgenstein.
98 students to teach grammar and academic paper-writing in the fall.
100 Wilhelmstrassee, which I think of as ein hundred, which is where Beth's campus ministry house is in Tuebingen.
117 -- The Delta flight from Stuttgart to Atlanta.
191 years since the birth of Walt Whitman, the poet I spent the summer working through and writing about.

Dec 29, 2010

Metaphysics before media studies

I quit reading Chris Hedges' book after the first section. It's possible that all the things that are wrong with Empire of Illusions are resolved or taken care of the other three sections, but I doubt it.

If you can go more than 50 pages without taking the time to define or even, apparently, think about the very key terms of your entire argument, then your book doesn't deserve to be read. Chris Hedges, for example, has no idea what he's talking about.

I should say that I found some of Hedges' work on war very helpful, last year, when I was working on a paper on war photography. His War is a Force That Gives us Meaning is an excellent book, expressing some things about the trauma of violence I haven't found clearly expressed anywhere else, and some of the work he's done for The Nation on the same topic is quite good. Now that he's branching out, though, he's writing things like Empire of Illusion, which is a social critique and also very much cultural studies through media, and this is a book that's total crap.

That's me being kind.

There's enough things wrong with this book that it could be a good case study about what's wrong with media studies and cultural studies as done on the popular level.
Window washer man

Dec 24, 2010

In-law Christmas

Census maps
Scripture sport
RIP writers of 2010
Zizek and Theology
A year in marginalia
God does not not exist
Wittgenstein after Norway
Laundromat literary project
Inhumane prison conditions for the wikileaker
The struggles of evangelical environmentalists
Sanatorum's long (long) shot for the White House
Seattle's grunge mascot poet, Steven Jay Bernstein
James Mann, who drafted Nixon impeachment, dies at 90. May he rest in peace.
How to write like an average undergraduate male
Claude-Levi Strauss's 1st English bio
Are prizes the real reason for poetry?
Translation as literary ambassador
The youngest successful religion
Writer's wives
Kant was right
Maud Newton
1st edition Pynchon
Struggling with Santa
Progressive heroes of 2010
Thinking w/ word processor
A short history of film title design
What the left still doesn’t get about rape
How the GOP lost on the new START treaty
The first Jewish-annotated New Testament
Santa: a brief history of brand management
Empowerment and the sacred, a call for papers
Black Swan, The Wrestler, and redemptive self-destruction
We can’t even imagine the end of the world without borrowing the past
The church of Assange, or what’s the difference between the man, idea and politics?
Republicans really really want you to call them racists
Pat Robertson supports decriminalizing pot
Jon Stewart takes cable news too seriously
Conservative heroes: always better dead?
Berlin gets 20th century art for Christmas
The space offered to public intellectuals
David Foster Wallace and Wittgenstein
Standing athwart history
Taboo in public
Yale’s iTunes U
Barthes lectures
The lost Canadians
Talking to Garry Kasparov
From Jefferson to Assange
Journalist's avoiding the conversion
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln
Franzen finally talks to Oprah, and oy!
Jesus in the sky, or, a theodicy problem
140 bears killed on the first day of New Jersey's bear hunt
Private Manning and the making of Wikileaks
The best argument against gay marriage (Robbie George's) is nothing new, and
fails

Of course Christimas is a myth. Thank God!
How will future critics read the cloud?
Malcolm Gladwell's reading for 2010
Wikileaks and language poetry
World's most expensive book
Homeschooling comes of age
Talking to Walter Mosley
Big Fucking Hit TV show
Translation ambassadors

Dec 23, 2010

Strip malls for forever

The thing I forget most about America, as different from what I miss most or least (which is what people ask about), is the strip malls.

Driving through Tennessee, this time, and North Georgia and both Carolinas, and through Indiana, last time, and Ohio and Pennsylvania, they're everywhere, endless and placeless. They stretch into the cities, with a few marks of urbanization or gentrification, a flicker against the never-ending same, and out again, through the suburbs with suburb markers and out along the rural interstates where they turn to country, but are still just strip malls, passing passing passing.

They all have names, all the strip malls, though no one knows them. Nondescript, generic names, they're real estate place-holders put up on signs no one reads.

And they go forever, all more or less the same, block after block and center after center, stores different but also the same, the same different ones than the ones that were there last time. They're hard to remember, mostly. They just sort of fade and we only notice them if they're somehow for a moment more -- an excess or an odd pair or a sign that's more wrong. One said, HAIR & WIGS, and I noticed. One said, WORLDS LARGEST FIREWORKS STORES, which I thought was odd, by chance to see, until I realized STORES was plural and this was a chain and there were more, and then I saw them at every stop and stretched out, scatter, through the state. But besides that, they just pass. Flickering by.

There are, I suppose, two aesthetic responses to the strip malls. One is to not see them. They are so ugly, so brutal and blunt in their normalization, their invisible naturalized state, that they have to not be seen to be what they are. The other is to hate them, despise them in their gaudy, horrible ugliness. To want something better. Which is right, I think, but is also, here, caught up in cultural distains and secret class distinctions hidden as taste, and that's a different set of invisible, naturalized ugliness to that.

A third response, that might be possible, would be to see the strip malls as Edward Hopper saw his cities. As slightly watery, melancholic spaces. Places against which we live, them dilapidated and faded, us, alone.

I don't know that I've seen anyone do that with strip malls. I don't know if anyone has taken those documentary photographs or written that story, set in or against the endless same that changes, slightly, with the rhythm of the flicker of lights through the slats when you cross a bridge, this place that isn't suburbia even, isn't a place, really, but goes on, on, on.

Dec 18, 2010

High voltage man kisses night to bring the light to those who need to hide their shadow-deed/ Seek electricity



Even Captain Beefheart's earliest music still sounds strange. Weird and experimental, deranged, mentally ill and freaking out and fantastic, even his early music, the stuff he did where you can still hear the sounds of what came before, where you can still hear him and his Magic Band as blues rock that's gone off-kilter careening, before the really critically acclaimed work, it still sounds that way. Like, What??? After more than 40 years.

I don't know whether to attribute that to a culture that doesn't appreciate art, regressive philistinan forces, etc. Or to Captain Beefheart's, aka Don Van Vliet's, incredible originality. Originality up to there.

People always say, when they write about Beefheart, that he's psychedelic blues or art house/post-punk music, the godfather of something, and his connection to Zappa and then on to Waits etc is clear, but it occurs to me that Beefheart most resembles and shares something with, not them, but Thelonius Monk. The illness and influenced art, the invention that's reinvention that's distortion that's interesting. The Americanness of a mind that's completely strange to America and so completely American, so you don't really which is the thing and which the fun house mirror reflection. He's like Monk, I think, most of all.

He's dead now. At 69. And may he rest in peace.

Links: An artist of "protean creation," Beefheart is dead, but then, he said, "I'm not even here," like he was a synthesis of the weird,or, as Lester Bangs said, a giant of music of the 20th century.

Dec 16, 2010

Teaching backwards

I wonder if cultural studies history shouldn't be done in reverse.

I know it's a slightly or more-than-slightly crazy idea, but teaching cultural history in chronological order (i.e. the normal way) has a couple of problems.

One is just practical: the further back one goes, the harder it is for the students to read. Beginning at the beginning means starting with the least familiar material. Classes already tend to be harder in the beginning and get easier as the class goes on -- as everyone becomes more familiar with the questions being asked, the methodological maneuvers, etc. -- and chronology exacerbates that.

The second is a little more theoretical: teaching in chronological order lends itself to presentism. The past is taught as a way of explaining the present, thought of only in how it explains the present, and it is warped in weird ways. Undue weight is given to some facets, and others are ignored. The present is given a kind of gravitational priority, made the center of the solar system around which everything else orbits. It's the logical and fated outcome of the past, and the past is seen as inextricably leading to the present (and nothing more).

A third but related problem is the tendency to mistake chronology for something more than it is. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, etc. Teachers and students both do this. We just kind of fall into it, assuming the conditions and causes suggested by chronology, instead of actually working them out.

It occurs to me, too, that it's really not all that unusual to learn history backwards. Don't we always know about our out time before what came before? Don't we know or understand what's happened in living memory before we go back "to the beginning," and know our era or age before the ones that came before?

Teaching backwards might be easier, actually, and might offer a bit of correction to some of the presentism problems. At very least, even if it isn't a fix for presentism and history-as-fate, it might make it better just by making it more explicit, which would mean we could try to be careful about it.

Would it be better to teach cultural studies history backwards, beside the fact that it's crazy?

Dec 15, 2010

The man on the plane

The man on the plane said he just doesn't understand novels.

"I get nothing from them. Nothing. What's the point? It's just a bunch of stuff someone made up. It has nothing to do with life. It doesn't tell me anything. There's nothing useful in novels."

The man on the plane said he doesn't really read books.

"I've read maybe 12 books in my whole life. I have a masters degree. I didn't need to read books for that. It's in public policy. I had this class called American literature? All of them were crazy -- what was that guy who wrote the poem, about grass? Walt Whitman! He was just on drugs. I knew this right away, before we even got to the part of the class where they talked about the Beats. What was his name? That guy? Ginsberg! And the other one. Kerock! All of them were on drugs. That's why they wrote like that. I knew that right away. Same as Walt Whitman. It's just stupid. I wrote a paper about how Whitman was like Ludacris because both of them wrote shit that makes no sense. The one had music and the other didn't was the only difference. It's stupid. The teacher thought it was interesting. And Emily Dickinson was a crazy bitch."

The man on the plane worked for the American government.

"Counter terrorism," he said, and he read his file folder of e-mail print-outs for the rest of the flight.

Dec 13, 2010

"Writing is -- you know. It's like being stuck in a phone booth with yourself."
-- Richard Price

Dec 11, 2010

Yes I am home / Home is when I'm in love with you

Dec 8, 2010

Wittgenstein on Wednesdays 011

ludwig12[1]

There's a tendency to pretty up Wittgenstein. To make him look nice.

A lot of this is done by the aestheticization of his genius. He is made to be daring, dashing, brilliant, and blindingly so, and so our response to his work is one of admiring a thing of beauty, but not, actually, taking it seriously.

By making him brilliant -- I mean, he is, but by taking him that way -- we make it safe not to not actually think seriously about what he's doing.

And how could we take it seriously?

How would we take, for instance, "We cannot think illogically," seriously?

Dec 7, 2010

What Daniel Dennet doesn't know

1. Cog (Dennett's artificial intelligence project) failed to achieve any of its goals and is already in a museum. But, as far as I know, neither Dennett nor anyone connected with the project has published an account of the failure and asked what mistaken assumptions underlay their absurd optimism.
-- Hubert L. Dreyfus

2. Even those sympathetic to the recent wave of evolutionary attacks on religion cannot help feeling that something is missing there: Dawkins and company lack a minimum of understanding of what religion is about, of how it works.
-- Slajov Zizek

3. There are many great Wittgensteins to choose from. My hero is the one who showed us new ways of being suspicious of our own convictions when confronting the mysteries of the mind.
-- Daniel Dennett

Dec 4, 2010

that I leave in early in the morning / and I won't be back till next year

Dec 2, 2010

& then we're told we're doomed

There should be a warning on the cover of Moby-Dick. Beware, it should say, reading this will require blood.

Fair warning would only be fair. As it is, the word of caution comes too late. Melville only mentions this cost, this culpability, when one is already hundreds of pages in. It’s only mentioned after we know to call him Ishmael, after we’ve followed, fascinated, behind Queequeg the face-tattooed harpooner who carries his god in his pocket, after we’ve sat through a scary sermon, heard a beggars warning, met the crazy Quaker shipping company owners and boarded the Pequod with Ishmael. It only happens after we’ve watched the waters for whales, watched while the water’s impossibly calm, and after we’ve learned the customs and social structures of whaling ships, after we’ve met everyone and after we’ve seen the one-legged captain with his thumping and his obsession.

Then we’re told we’re doomed.

The structure of this moment — this too-late announcement that one is irrevocably involved — is, of course, the same for the reader as it is for the characters in Moby-Dick. This is what happens in the novel and what happens, at the same time, to the reader of the novel. It’s a metafictional moment revealing one’s ethical responsibility, revealing it not as a choice, but as a sentence.

Read the rest of the essay, Moby-Dick and metafiction ethics, @ TheThe.

Dec 1, 2010

Wittgenstein on Wednesdays 010

Wittgenstein with his older brother

I tend to think of "logical" as something somewhat akin to "correct." Not "true," exactly, but supported. "Correct" as in "correctly thought" or "thoroughly thought." When I say "that's not logical," I mean the idea hasn't been put together quite right and will, under scrutiny, under pressure, fall apart.

Often, of course, "logical" and "true" are taken to be, if not the same thing, so directly and closely connected as to be all but indistinguishable. Logic is understood to act as a kind of insurance for, an ensurance of the truth of something. It's a guarantee. When, for example, philosophers talk about a "logical language," they imagine it as a kind of utopian language that, by being logical, will only allow for certain kinds of statements, where there is this guarantee.

Many, though, especially when they're working with logic and truth claims, work to clearly separate the two. I had a prof., for example, who regularly talked about "justified true beliefs," a turn of language that opens up the possibility and makes us aware of the possibility that one can have true beliefs that are unjustified, and justified beliefs that happen not to be true. It's an important distinction, and one I try to make, try to be aware of and try to teach -- it's necessary, for example, in the way that it forces one to move beyond just the claim of the truth of something, or the orthodoxy of something, or its general acceptance, and to actually have to think the idea through.

Done this way, though, "logic" is kind of defensive. It's a negative thing, a complicated thing, a kind of equation aimed at solving for the truth. When one asks "is it logical?", one is check to see if the idea will fall apart under pressure.

Wittgenstein does something different with the word, though.