Thursday, July 31, 2008

Top Docs

According to the International Documentary Association, the Top 25 documentaries of all time are:

1. "Hoop Dreams," directed by Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx
2. "The Thin Blue Line," directed by Errol Morris
3. "Bowling for Columbine," directed by Michael Moore
4. "Spellbound," directed by Jeffery Blitz
5. "Harlan County USA," directed by Barbara Kopple
6. "An Inconvenient Truth," directed by Davis Guggenheim
7. "Crumb," directed by Terry Zwigoff's Crumb
8. "Gimme Shelter," directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
9. "The Fog of War," directed by Errol Morris
10. "Roger and Me," directed by Michael Moore
11. "Super Size Me," directed by Morgan Spurlock
12. "Don't Look Back," directed by DA Pennebaker
13. "Salesman," directed by Albert and David Maysles
14. "Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance," directed by Godfrey Reggio
15. "Sherman's March," directed by Ross McElwee
16. "Grey Gardens," directed by Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer
17. "Capturing the Friedmans," directed by Andrew Jarecki
18. "Born into Brothels," directed by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski
19. "Titticut Follies," directed by Frederick Wiseman
20. "Buena Vista Social Club," directed by Wim Wenders
21. "Fahrenheit 9/11," directed by Michael Moore
22. "Winged Migration," directed by Jacques Perrin
23. "Grizzly Man," directed by Werner Herzog
24. "Night and Fog," directed by Alain Resnais
25. "Woodstock," directed by Michael Wadleigh
Astonishingly, I think I've seen all of these -- in most cases, several times. But it makes me wonder just how international the IDA really is. After all, Super Size Me is a very cute movie, but it's no La chagrin et la pitie, Berlin: A Symphony, or Man With A Movie Camera. Also, whatever you think about Ken Burns's later work, The Civil War is a masterpiece.

Via Kottke.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Um, what?


In a move that was conceived and completed in less than six hours, the Yankees acquired Rodríguez from the Detroit Tigers for reliever Kyle Farnsworth on Wednesday. Five years after leading the Florida Marlins to a title, and two years after lifting Detroit to a pennant, Rodríguez becomes the regular catcher for the Yankees.

“I came to the office today just thinking about the Oriole game, not necessarily making a blockbuster deal,” General Manager Brian Cashman said. “I’ve been dealing with LaTroy Hawkins being designated for assignment; I’ve got some activity there, and at some point I hoped to conclude something on him. But nothing like this.”

The Hawkins move could wait. That was obvious at 10 a.m., when Cashman received a call from Dave Dombrowski, the president of the Tigers. Cashman says he has always appreciated Dombrowski’s direct style, and Dombrowski hit him with a thunderbolt: he wanted Farnsworth for Rodríguez.

Rodríguez, a 14-time All-Star, is hitting .295 with 5 homers and 32 runs batted in. Farnsworth is 1-2 with a 3.65 earned run average and was leading the Yankees with 45 games pitched.

The Kindle of the Mind

Wyatt Mason:

As reading is said to be dying, at least by our latest and most trusted oracles, rereading must not be dying but surely should be, by now, dead. And yet, all reading is rereading, even when we read the book in our hands for the first time. Whereas, when we watch a work of cinematic art for the first time, we cannot, in a theater, pause to appreciate a particularly compelling moment, or ponder a movingly complex insight into the human condition. But from the first crack of its spine a book has the pause-and-rewind option available at all times. This is not a detail I would use to argue for the superiority of reading as a delivery device for narrative entertainment so much as I would suggest that it is a significant feature of the difference between such experiences...

For readers one of the great miseries is to find oneself trapped on a bus without a book, and one of the greater miseries is to be trapped on a bus with a bad book, or merely a book that one has no desire, at the moment, to read. As such, the Amazon Kindle has been, if only conceptually, much on my mind. I haven’t used one, much less seen one, much less actually done any research about what they do. For me the Kindle is like cold fusion–a terrific idea of the space age that I’d be all for, if it were to exist.

My hypothetical Kindle is a device upon which would reside all the books I’ve read and which I either reread or know I will reread. It waits weightless in my (hypothetical) carry-on that I take with me on my (nonexistent) frequent international flights. At 40,000 feet, 15 hours from my (imaginary) destination, I could, uninvolved by The Widows of Eastwick, dip back into Pale Fire or The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill or Tatlin!. My Kindle would be a device devoted not to the new but to the old, a portable library of greatest hits without a miss, an iPod of ideal literature. But, of course, I do not travel. Bookshelves suffice.


From Kottke comes a neologism coined by Danish physicist Tor Nørretranders: "exformation." From Wikipedia:

Exformation is a term meaning explicitly discarded information...

Effective communication depends on a shared body of knowledge between the persons communicating. In using words, sounds and gestures the speaker has deliberately thrown away a huge body of information, though it remains implied. This shared context is called exformation.

Exformation is everything we do not actually say but have in our heads when, or before, we say anything at all - whereas information is the measurable, demonstrable utterance we actually come out with.

If someone is talking about cows; what is said will be unintelligible unless the person listening has some prior idea what a cow is, what it is good for, and in what context one might encounter one. From the information content of a message alone, there is no way of measuring how much exformation it contains
I see at least two problems with this definition. The first is that there is already an agreed-upon linguistic term for the kind of information identified here as "exformation." It's called "given information," i.e. "information that is assumed by the speaker to be known to, assumed by, or inferable by the addressee at the time of the speaker's utterance, because it is common knowledge, part of the extralinguistic context, or previously established in the discourse."

The second is that the short definition -- "explicitly discarded information" -- doesn't seem to match the extended definition and examples offered here. Assuming that somebody knows something about cows and then neglecting to mention those things is not explicitly discarding it. It's precisely the opposite: implicitly assuming it. Unless you say to your conversation partner, "I know you know many things about cows, so I choose not to mention those things now."

A better sense of "explicitly discarded information" would be to look at part of the body of information that is generated but then cancelled before some final state -- say, a researcher's notes which aren't included in the paper, an idea or an argument you could make in conversation but choose not to -- in other words, the full background of information which potentially would be relevant and can not be assumed to be common knowledge but which is nevertheless absent or cancelled to give greater emphasis to the information with greater force or value. And I think this is what Kottke might be referring to when he says "the more exformation you generate, the better your writing, design, art, photography, or blogging will be."

If you write ten pages every day and keep only your best paragraphs, the rest is exformation. Knowing a great deal about higher mathematics while teaching high-school algebra is exformation. (Most of teaching and teacher education boils down to managing exformation.) It's separating the piths and the gists, the luminous particulars, from the stream of information. It's the part of the iceberg beneath the surface, the part that gives what's shown its power.

More Right Than I Knew

I was looking through Short Schrift's archives for something else, and turned up this old post from September 2004, "Elections and the Political Imagination," where I managed to predict both the 2004 and the 2008 Presidential elections.

The incumbent's advantage is always that he or she already has the job. This is why elections -- especially presidential elections -- often turn out to be a referendum on the current office holder's performance -- or, referencing Louis Menand and myself, the performance of the country, or even that of the voter themselves. When things have been going badly, the principle of hope offered by a political challenger, especially hope for positive change, can be a very powerful (and positive) thing. Or you could put the Nazis into power; it works both ways.

An incumbent, then, especially in difficult times, needs to conquer the imaginative space of the electorate. This is the best way of outflanking the challenge posed by an incumbent -- any incumbent. When tough times hit California, Gray Davis responded in a practical, no-nonsense fashion, raising taxes and cutting spending. Voters wanted someone, anyone else, and wound up picking the candidate who (to put it nicely) had the most to offer the imagination.

This is the mistake pundits made when trying to generalize the California recall to the 2004 presidential election. When times are tough, people don't turn to Republicans or throw out the incumbent. They pick the candidate who appeals to their imagination, to their hope that tomorrow might be a better day. They pick Reagan over Carter, Clinton over George H.W. Bush, and (probably) W over Kerry. For the Democrats, picking Kerry over Dean or Edwards was an isolated blip, a moment of self-doubt and misguided Puritan moderation. In the name of electability, they picked a man who lacked the imaginative appeal to ever be elected.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

HBO Analogies

This might be my new all-time favorite, from Barron YoungSmith at The Plank:

Ted Stevens predates the State of Alaska. In 1953, he drove to Alaska Territory in a Buick, and--like a modern Al Swearingen--he built himself into a local luminary, successfully lobbied Congress to make Alaska a state, and then used his position on the Senate Appropriations Committee to transform himself into a patronage-distributing warlord.
Another journalist quoted by YoungSmith calls Stevens "a frontier fertility god." YoungSmith also calls Stevens "a dying breed of primordial American, laid low by the encroachment of ethics, rules, and civilization."

When all of the journalistic references to The Sopranos are replaced by allusions to Deadwood or The Wire, then we'll know that we've turned a corner in our culture.

Taupe Like Me

Two good essays from The Root on multiracial identity. The Root is consistently a great read, if you're not on it already.

Monique Fields, "Black Like Mommy, White Like Me":

Simone snuggled up beside me and pointed to my face. "Mommy," she said, "is a black girl."

How observant, I thought, for a 3-year-old to make such a distinction. "Yes," I said, "Mommy is a black girl."

"Simone," she continued, "is a white girl." In all the time I had dreamed about being a mother and teaching my daughter about her African and European heritage, nothing had prepared me for a statement like this.

I demanded to know who had told her such a thing, but my question was met with silence.

"Well, you're a black girl," I said, knowing that I wasn't being any more accurate than she had been a few moments earlier.

Simone repeated her newfound knowledge to her father and added, "Daddy is a white boy."

He told her she was neither white nor black. "You have the best of both worlds," he said.

His explanation wasn't perfect, but it was certainly better than mine...

Back inside our Alabama home, I was uncomfortable, as if someone was watching our every move. I knew, by the way Ken and I reacted, that our latest dilemma was significant. If we flubbed this one, the one we had known was coming, how could we possibly be counted on to find the right things to say about boys, drugs, choosing the best college or any of those other tough parenting subjects?
David Swerdlick, "The Audacity of Taupe":
It's a word that makes a lot of people cringe—particularly those new-age parents that you see around town with light-brown children sporting fluffy, misshapen halfros. But it's also a lot catchier than the very clinical sounding "biracial," and a lot shorter than "blessed with a dual heritage," as my mother used to say. Don't blame us for turning a one-time insult into a three-syllable declaration of interdependence. After all, Spanish words frequently sound better than English words: "Señorita" is sexier than "Miss" and "huevos rancheros" flows easier than "Grand Slam Breakfast," so it stands to reason that "Mulatto" rolls off the tongue a lot smoother than "half breed" or "Strom Thurmond, Jr." If the lovely Rihanna and her island nation hadn't already laid claim to "Bajan," we might have gone with "Beige-an."

This is all about empowerment. My people have taken a word that originally marginalized us as plantation butlers and Huxtable daughters and turned it into a term of endearment. Sometimes, in passing, I query one of my brethren with, "What's up, M-word?" Or occasionally I chastise my sistren by saying, "M-word, please." They understand. They feel me. In a certain patois that some have called "Mubonics," they know that all I'm really saying is something like "Guten morgen, meine freunde!" or "Bitte, baby." And when people ask me why it's OK for us to use the M-word when they can't, I have to tell them that it's a biracial thing...they wouldn't understand...
The other day I pulled up to the Starbucks drive-through window, ordered an iced coffee, and naturally I asked the barista to add half-and-half. When she asked how much I wanted, I couldn't resist telling her to "make it 'Obama,'" and I'm happy to report that she got it just right. With any luck, a craze for venti, half-caff, low-fat Obama coffees will sweep the nation. This could be the breakthrough we've been waiting for. It's a nice, safe way for everybody, regardless of race, creed, color or roast to show their solidarity with Generation M.
For readers who don't know, my son is a light-skinned, red-headed, curly-haired, blue-eyed multi-culti cutie, with a brown-skinned mom and a translucently white dad. So this is something that we think about -- or more often encounter -- a lot.

Makes You Feel Like A Man

The Onion, "Girls = Boys In Math."

The Card Catalog

Walter Benjamin, "One Way Street":

The card index marks the conquest of three-dimensional writing, and so presents an astonishing counterpoint to the three-dimensionality of script in its original form as rune or knot notation. (And today the book is already, as the present mode of scholarly production demonstrates, an outdated mediation between two different filing systems. For everything that matters is to be found in the card box of the researcher who wrote it, and the scholar studying it assimilates it into his own card index.
Kevin Kelly, "One Dead Media":
Edge-notched cards were invented in 1896. These are index cards with holes on their edges, which can be selectively slotted to indicate traits or categories, or in our language today, to act as a field. Before the advent of computers were one of the few ways you could sort large databases for more than one term at once. In computer science terms, you could do a "logical OR" operation. This ability of the system to sort and link prompted Douglas Engelbart in 1962 to suggest these cards could impliement part of the Memex vision of hypertext.

The "unit records" here, unlike those in the Memex example, are generally scraps of typed or handwritten text on IBM-card sized edge-notchable cards. These represent little "kernels" of data, thought, fact, consideration concepts, ideas, worries, etc., that are relevant to a given problem... Each such specific problem area has its notecards kept in a separate deck, and for each such deck there is a master card with descriptors associated with individual holes about the periphery of the card. There is a field of holes reserved for notch coding the serial number of a reference from which the note on a card may have been taken, or the serial number corresponding to an individual from whom the information came directly (including a code for myself, for self-generated thoughts).

In the US these cards were sold as McBee Keysort Cards and InDecks Information Retrieval cards. McBee cards were often used in libraries to keep track of books in interlibrary loan programs.
Two examples of card catalog art, via somebody. (I know I didn't trip on these two all on my own, but NetNewsWire isn't talking.)

Post Card Swap


Abstracts of Nicholson Baker's classics "The Author vs. The Library" and "Discards":
ANNALS OF SCHOLARSHIP about the scrapping of library card catalogues and replacing them with computerized systems. Tells how various libraries, including the New York Public Library, Harvard, and others, have discarded their index card files and replaced them with inferior on-line systems. Tells about the Online Computer Library Center, which computerizes card catalogues. On-line catalogues are wonderful things in principle. Without on-line catalogues and the circulation and acquisition modules of software with which on-line catalogues are linked, libraries would simply not have been able to process all the books and journals that were arriving on their loading docks. Tells about the history of card catalogues, beginning in 1791 with the French Revolution, when the government asked for names of books confiscated and stated that information should be written on playing cards and returned to the central government. In January of 1901, the Library of Congress began printing its catalogue cards in quantity and selling them in sets to any library that wanted them. Writer visits OCLC. The cost of computer technology now consumes nearly 30 per cent of the typical American library's budget, according to one estimate, forcing it to cut book purchases, reference staff, and skilled cataloguers. The technology that libraries are actually buying turns out to remedial software meant to correct the hash that earlier technologies have made of information once safely stored on paper. Tells how some librarians are saving their paper card catalogues and about artist Tom Johnson, who is saving Harvard's discarded Widener library cards. Maybe the riskiest, most thought-provoking piece of conceptual art that anyone could create out of these found materials is the original card catalogue, enclosed in its own cabinets, sitting undisturbed somewhere within the library it once described.
P.S.: I figured out where the card catalog art came from -- this NYT/Paper Cuts post by Gregory Cowles on the greatness and (mostly) shortcomings of the Dewey Decimal system. The first comment, extolling the Library of Congress system, is mine.

Monday, July 28, 2008

You've Been Waiting With Bated Breath

... to find out the latest news about Darwinian Literary Criticism! You remember. Half-baked "evolutionary" readings of texts that read like Herbert Spencer but without the nuance? "Madame Bovary's Ovaries"? Science without the science? Self-flagellations about the sad state of literary studies and the persecution of the only folks with the answer?

You got it. There aren't really any new ideas in this Chronicle piece, because the hucksters peddling self-styled "Darwinian" criticism don't have any. But somebody in the credulous academic media got around to asking people doing legitimate work straddling literary criticism and science what they thought about this stuff. Here's the verdict:

  • F. Elizabeth Hart: "throwing the baby out with the bathwater. … It's somewhat ridiculous to say that scientific method can help us to shed light on all of the questions that literary theory has been engaged with."
  • Franco Moretti: "If Literary Darwinism manages to improve the way to understand and explain literary form, then it will be a great step forward, but if it eludes form, or just doesn't 'see' it, then it will mean exactly nothing."
  • Joseph P. Tabbi: "If you're interested in questions of sexism, you need to look at more than expressions of stereotypes; you need to look at the way that the narrative is shaped; you need to look at questions of closure in narrative, questions of sequence, and questions that fall into the category of narratology. I'm not sure that by taking samples and doing statistical processing that you're going to get very far."
  • Alan Richardson: the work he's seen from the evolutionary literary theorists "is riddled with basic errors in study design and methodology."
  • David Miall: "what you've got is just another way of coming up with interpretations of texts, and I'm not sure we need that, so urgently … unless they really have something new to tell us about the nature of the text. And if there is something new, there should be a way of validating it empirically. So in that sense, their resistance to doing empirical studies seems to be a real disability. It's disappointing that they don't go to that next stage."
  • And: "many in the group have no background in statistics or evolutionary biology, and they frequently work alone instead of in groups with scientists, unlike many of the cognitive theorists and empirical literary critics. (Carroll said that he recently gave himself 'a crash course' in statistical analysis, but neither he nor Gottschall has any official training.)"
Bad criticism, worse science. And surprise: "The scholars tend to see themselves as outsiders: denied jobs at prestigious universities, tenured positions, and grant money because of the iconoclastic nature of their work. Gottschall is still an adjunct, and he says he believes that no one of a 'principally Darwinian bent' has tenure, except for those who originally started down a more-traditional path."

Disingenuous Journalism

Okay, I think this is downright funny. The NYT's campaign blog The Caucus covers Barack Obama's speech at the Unity Journalists of Color Convention in Chicago. Whoever wrote the headline can't think of anything to describe what the story's about, so it's titled "Obama At Convention For Journalists." The URL title, "Obama at Unity Convention" seems just fine to me. "Obama At Convention For Journalists of Color" isn't exactly artful, but at least it's descriptive.

Then, before getting into any of the content of the conference or the speech, the story spends nine paragraphs wondering out loud whether journalists of color can actually be objective towards Obama. It doesn't actually answer the question of whether the attendees seemed to act professionally. It just kinda floats it out there.

Imagine this lede:

TUCSON – Senator John McCain of Arizona addressed a convention of thousands of white veterans and servicemen here Sunday, mixing foreign policy analysis with his views on topics like affirmative action and immigration in an environment that was closely watched for signs of favoritism toward the presumptive Republican candidate.
Now that would be pretty ridiculous. It's clear that journalists have standards of objectivity and professionalism that they need to hold and be held to. But so do soldiers, especially towards their future commander-in-chief. It would be slanderous to 1) demand that servicemen and servicewomen show no political preferences at all and 2) broadly impugn their ability to act as professionals towards whomever might be elected President.

Moreover, you would expect that in Arizona, in an audience of white servicemen and veterans, that John McCain would be hugely popular. Why would it be uncouth if an audience largely made up of college-educated, politically aware men and women of color, in Chicago of all places, was enthusiastic towards Obama? And why is that the story, rather than the questions that were asked and the answers that were given, which might help the reader actually make up his or her mind about whether these reporters were lobbing Obama softballs?

The message is that we can't trust black or Latino or Native American reporters to be honest about Obama, neither in their coverage, nor even in their own attitudes. Remember Derrick Bell's first rule of racial standing:
The law grants litigants standing to come into court based on their having sufficient personal interest and involvement in the issue to justify judicial congnizance. Black people (while they may be able to get into court) are denied such standing legitimacy in the world generally when they discuss their negative experiences with racism or even when they attempt to give a positive evaluation of another black person or of his work. No matter what their experience or expertise, blacks’ statements involving race are deemed ’special pleading’ and thus not entitled to serious consideration.
They're in the tank for Obama. And the old white guys, the deans of Washington, and the kids who swoon for McCain? They're just imbued with the same urge for straight talk. That's why Tom Brokaw can spend an hour with Barack Obama reading David Brooks's columns at him, and why white opinion-makers, liberal and conservative, are falling over themselves parsing every word of Obama's to convince themselves that he might roll back raced-based affirmative action.
THIRD RULE: Few blacks avoid diminishment of racial standing, most of their statements about racial conditions being diluted and their recommendations of other blacks taken with a grain of salt. The ususal exception to this rule is the black person who publicly disparages or criticizes other blacks who are speaking or acting in ways that upset whites. Instantly, such statements are granted ‘enhanced standing’ even when the speaker has no special expertise or experience in the subject he or she is criticizing.
Legitimacy. Who has it, and why?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Getting Medieval

Snap! J.J. Cohen, "Why Stanley Fish would not cut it as a medievalist."

Fish: Strategic fatigue sets in whenever I enter a museum (when I saw that the display case containing the Book of Kells was surrounded by other tourists I didn’t have the strength to push myself forward) or when I approach an ancient site (at Clonmacnoise, the location of an ancient abbey, I retreated immediately to the coffee shop and never saw the ruin) or when the possibility of getting out of the car to enjoy a scenic view presented itself (I protested that it would take too much time, or that we needed gas, or something equally feeble).

Cohen: Its funny, for me strategic fatigue sets in when I read this regular column by Stanley Fish. I did make it to the "What’s wrong with me?" paragraph (#7!) before I gave up, though. It's not like I stepped out of queue to see the Book of Kells or anything ...
So say we all, Prof Cohen. So say we all.

Kiss of Death, Embrace of Life

Television, "Marquee Moon" [Alternate Take; 1977]

Your Source For All Things Benjamin

Where to get the latest texts from Walter Benjamin, dead these sixty-plus years? Why, it's not from me, but from the New Left Review, who've just posted Benjamin's letter to the Institute for Social Research's Max Horkheimer (one-half of the duo who, among other things, brought you the Dialectic of Enlightenment) detailing literary and intellectual activity in France c. 1940. An excerpt:

Michel Leiris’s book, Manhood, is also based on the biography of the author. [2] But what a different biography this is! Before going further, I would like to draw out what it has in common with other recent Surrealist publications. Particularly notable is a decline in the power of bluff: a power that was one of the glories of Surrealist actions from the beginning. This drop is accompanied by a weakening of internal structure and an unwonted textual transparency. This is due, in part, to the grip that Freudianism exerts over these authors.

Leiris is in his mid-thirties. He was a member of the Collège de Sociologie, which I wrote to you about at the time of its foundation. In civilian life he is an ethnologist with the Musée de l’Homme, at the Trocadéro. As for the personal impression he makes, you met him yourself in 1934 or 35, at a soirée at Landsberg’s. [3] It would be no exaggeration to claim that his book would have been the greatest success of the literary season if the War had not intervened. I think certain pages of his autobiography might interest you and will take the liberty of sending you the volume.

You will not suspect me of an excessive tenderness, either for the milieu from which this production emerges, or for the literary genre (‘true confessions’) to which it belongs. In fact the book rather reminded me of Chaplin’s well-known gag where, playing the part of a pawnshop employee dealing with a customer who wants to pawn an alarm clock, he examines the object with distrust, then, to make sure, carefully takes the mechanism to pieces, finally putting all the parts in the customer’s hat and explaining that he cannot see his way to granting a loan on such an object. I have been told that, when Polgar saw this film, he exclaimed: ‘That’s psychoanalysis, the spitting image!’ [4] Leiris’s book, which the author explains was written after psychoanalytic treatment, may well trigger the same remark. It seems unlikely that a man who has been brought to list his mental assets so scrupulously can hope to produce future works. Leiris explains this clearly enough: ‘It is as though the fallacious constructions on which my life was based had been undermined at their foundations, without my being given anything that could replace them. The result is that I certainly act more sagaciously; but the emptiness in which I dwell is all the more acute’ (p. 167).
The Collège de Sociologie, which both Leiris and Benjamin (only briefly) participated in, was totally awesome. Disaffected Surrealists reading and writing about anthropology and theories of the sacred. What more do you need?

The New Left Review also has links to these Benjamin essays which are way, way better than his letter to Horkheimer: "Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia" and "Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century." Alas, they're both firewalled! But if you can finagle your way around it or find them from another source, read them. You won't be wasting your time.

How Google Could Make Google Books Better

It's easy, really, and I've posted on aspects of it before. It also has the side effect of improving everything about a university's digital experience, from learning to teaching to research.

  1. Purchase Blackboard, the ubiquitous, inept, and monopolistic course-management software company. Inherit its contracts and junk its lousy software. Replace it with a new interface integrating Google Search, Docs, Chat, Mail, Books, Blogger, Scholar, und so weiter.
  2. In particular, use this interface -- which you would need a login ID and password from the university to access -- to offer full digital access to everything in Google Books and Google Scholar, or at least everything already offered by the library (permissions permitting). Google could also offer a special university-optimized browser toolbar, providing push-button access to the university's electronic resources. If Google wants to launch an encylopedic rival to Wikipedia, this would be the best platform for it: both for soliciting contributions and for driving use. If Wikipedia is the open encyclopedia anybody can use and edit, Googlepedia (or whatever they're calling it these days) would be the open encyclopedia used and edited by the best minds in the world. (Among others.)
  3. Potential criticism of this would be familiar: a closed monopoly on electronic access. But it's no more closed or monopolizing than Blackboard already is, and would actually add value both for university users and the broader public. The walls are already there; tearing them down can be a separate discussion. The other (and I would argue, the primary) goal is to try to make the information both inside and outside of them as valuable as possible.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Fetish of Presence

Via University Diaries, a Chronicle essay denounced distance learning and the e-classroom:

[O]nline courses are just a substitute for traditional education because a classroom full of bodies is quite literally full of real, living matter. In other words, it’s the real thing.

At the most basic level, to be a student has always meant actually dragging one’s exhausted body into class with readings in hand, being (more or less) awake, alert, listening, and ready to open one’s mouth. And to be a teacher, for me, means seeing the faces of the students and how their bodies reflect their thoughts and emotions, hearing the timbre of their voices or the lilts in their dialects, experiencing them before me in the rich mix of ideas.
Well, maybe to be a university student has usually meant that, but correspondence courses and independent study have actually been around and successful for a long time. There was a long time even in lecture or tutorial where teachers weren't at all interested in the faces of their students or hearing their voices, except in response to a direct question, and when bodies were in the classroom because they needed to be disciplined. And I've seen a lively discussion board bring out both students and ideas that otherwise go silent amid the sea of exhausted, passive eighteen-year-old faces. The point is, these things shift and change all the time, with technology, with generations, with changes in new ideas. Let's not fetishize a particular experience, whatever its advantages and appeal, as the wisdom of ages.

I think we also need to reject the idea that the student of an online class is sitting at home, sleeping in, skipping readings, and avoiding lecture in order to do precisely these things. It's an identical stereotype to that of the blogger in his/her pajamas, eating cheetos and spouting useless opinion. The distance-learning student I know best (my wife) works full-time, raises a ten-month-old infant, and lives over an hour away from her school's suburban campus. And she doesn't drive. Distance learning offers people in these circumstances the possibility of an education precluded people in similar circumstances "in the good old days." We should be applauding and encouraging them, as well as the teachers and institutions who try to reach them, instead of spouting useless opinion about how their learning isn't learning and why they aren't really students.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Books, Books, and Books (That Aren't Books)

  • Kevin Kelly, "The Fate of the Book." Partly cribbed from a 1995 Harper's forum with Kelly, John Barlow, Mark Slouka, and Sven Birkerts:
KELLY: [W]hat is going on now [1995] is more exciting than what was going on ten years ago [uh, c. 1985]. Look, computers are over. All the effects that we can imagine coming from standalone computers have already happened. What we're talking about now is not a computer revolution, it's a communications revolution. And communication is, of course, the basis of culture itself. The idea that this world we are building is somehow diminishing communication is all wrong. In fact, it's enhancing communication. It is allowing all kinds of new language. Sven, there's this idea in your book that reading is the highest way in which the soul can discover and deepen its own nature. But there is nothing I've seen in online experience that excludes that. In fact, when I was reading your book I had a very interesting epiphany. At one point, in an essay on the experience of reading, you ask the question, "Where am I when I am involved in a book?" Well, here's the real answer: you're in cyberspace. That's exactly where you are. You're in the same place you are when you're in a movie theater, you're in the same place you are when you're on the phone, you're in the same place you are when you're on-line.
KELLY: Here you are wrong. If you hung out online, you'd find out that the language is not, in fact, flattening; it's flourishing. At this point in history, most of the evolution of language, most of the richness in language, is happening in this space that we are creating. It's not happening in novels.

BIRKERTS: I wish some of this marvelous prose could be downloaded and shown to me.

KELLY: You can't download it. That's the whole point. You want to download it so that you can read it like a book. But that's precisely what it can't be. You want it to be data, but it's experience. And it's an experience that you have to have there. When you go on-line, you're not going to have a book experience.

BIRKERTS: Well, I want a book experience.

KELLY: You think that somehow a book is the height of human achievement. It is not.

  • Robert Darnton, "The Library in the New Age." About a month and a half old, and I may have even linked to it already, but still good. There are four great transformations in the history of writing: 1) hieroglyphs --> alphabet; 2) scroll --> codex; 3) script --> print/type; 4) mechanical --> electronic.
DARNTON: Each change in the technology has transformed the information landscape, and the speed-up has continued at such a rate as to seem both unstoppable and incomprehensible. In the long view—what French historians call la longue durée—the general picture looks quite clear—or, rather, dizzying. But by aligning the facts in this manner, I have made them lead to an excessively dramatic conclusion. Historians, American as well as French, often play such tricks. By rearranging the evidence, it is possible to arrive at a different picture, one that emphasizes continuity instead of change. The continuity I have in mind has to do with the nature of information itself or, to put it differently, the inherent instability of texts. In place of the long-term view of technological transformations, which underlies the common notion that we have just entered a new era, the information age, I want to argue that every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that information has always been unstable.


DARNTON: I used to be a newspaper reporter myself. I got my basic training as a college kid covering police headquarters in Newark in 1959. Although I had worked on school newspapers, I did not know what news was—that is, what events would make a story and what combination of words would make it into print after passing muster with the night city editor. When events reached headquarters, they normally took the form of "squeal sheets" or typed reports of calls received at the central switchboard. Squeal sheets concerned everything from stray dogs to murders, and they accumulated at a rate of a dozen every half hour. My job was to collect them from a lieutenant on the second floor, go through them for anything that might be news, and announce the potential news to the veteran reporters from a dozen papers playing poker in the press room on the ground floor. The poker game acted as a filter for the news. One of the reporters would say if something I selected would be worth checking out. I did the checking, usually by phone calls to key offices like the homicide squad. If the information was good enough, I would tell the poker game, whose members would phone it in to their city desks. But it had to be really good—that is, what ordinary people would consider bad—to warrant interrupting the never-ending game. Poker was everyone's main interest—everyone but me: I could not afford to play (cards cost a dollar ante, a lot of money in those days), and I needed to develop a nose for news.

I soon learned to disregard DOAs (dead on arrival, meaning ordinary deaths) and robberies of gas stations, but it took time for me to spot something really "good," like a holdup in a respectable store or a water main break at a central location. One day I found a squeal sheet that was so good —it combined rape and murder—that I went straight to the homicide squad instead of reporting first to the poker game. When I showed it to the lieutenant on duty, he looked at me in disgust: "Don't you see this, kid?" he said, pointing to a B in parentheses after the names of the victim and the suspect. Only then did I notice that every name was followed by a B or a W. I did not know that crimes involving black people did not qualify as news.
TONKIN: The French alternative [to Google Books] – Gallica 2 – went live in March, but with a tiny database of 62,000 volumes. Elsewhere, from Bavaria to Barcelona, destination libraries have begun to fall under the Google spell. Three years ago, I watched Jens Redmer, head of Google Book Search in Europe, mesmerise a bunch of publishers at a conference in a suitably James Bond-ish resort hotel in Greece. Ernst Stavro Blofeld himself could not have chilled them more. "There's no evil masterplan behind this," Redmer assured us. The literary custodians of Old Europe clearly suspected there was, even if they reacted to the promise (or threat) of mass digitisation with all the resolve of a chicken coop when Mr Fox calls.

Now even France has started to succumb. The municipal library in Lyon – the second largest in the land – has signed up with Google Book Search to digitise half a million titles already in the public domain. Gérard Collomb, the mayor of Lyon (and a Socialist, by the way), enthuses that internet access "allows us to open our doors to the rest of the world". Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin could not have put it more succinctly.

Obama's Prayer

Obama's prayer inserted into Jerusalem's Western Wall -- photographed by a Yeshiva student who was at the Wall at the time and published by the Israeli newspaper Maariv (an act condemned by the rabbi of the Western Wall):


Protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins and help me guard against pride and despair.

Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just.

And make me an instrument of your will.

Dramatic Irony All Around Us

Publius at Obsidian Wings on Obama's Berlin speech:

The interesting part about dramatic irony is that the audience knows something the characters don’t. Because the audience knows more, the characters’ actions often resonate with the viewer in interesting ways. For instance, in the John Adams HBO series, the early friendship of Adams and Jefferson has a bittersweet tragic undertone even at its warmest moments because we the audience know what eventually happens. They the characters don’t...

In other words, knowing the ultimate outcome gives those moments a different kind of meaning. Big “H” History was on the move – and these moments were snapshots and symbols of its march. They foreshadowed the rise. The poor ignorant characters couldn't recognize that at the time – but we know, because we’ve seen the ending.

That’s what I mean when I say that Obama makes us briefly aware of dramatic irony around us. Living in the present, we are the ignorant contemporary audience, unaware of the ending. But sometimes during Obama’s speeches – in brief fleeting moments – we get the weird sense that we’ve actually seen the ending too.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Heroes With Limits

A.O. Scott muses about the limitations of the superhero film:

The disappointment [of films like The Dark Knight] comes from the way the picture spells out lofty, serious themes and then ... spells them out again. What kind of hero do we need? Where is the line between justice and vengeance? How much autonomy should we sacrifice in the name of security? Is the taking of innocent life ever justified? These are all fascinating, even urgent questions, but stating them, as nearly every character in “The Dark Knight” does, sooner of later, is not the same as exploring them.

And yet stating such themes is as far as the current wave of superhero movies seems able or willing to go. The westerns of the 1940s and ’50s, obsessed with similar themes, were somehow able, at their best, as in John Ford’s “Searchers” and Howard Hawks’s “Rio Bravo,” to find ambiguities and tensions buried in their own rigid paradigms.

But the cowboys of old did not labor under the same burdens as their masked and caped descendants. Those poor, misunderstood crusaders must turn big profits on a global scale and satisfy an audience hungry for the thrill of novelty and the comforts of the familiar. Is it just me, or is the strain starting to show?
I love the comparison with Westerns, especially insofar as it suggests that superhero films are our own attempts to deal with the nature of civilization and savagery, and the myth of American origins. I can't wait thirty years to see a superhero picture as subversive and good as Unforgiven.

Note: my own preference for film titles is to italicize or underline them, just like book titles. Times style seems to dictate quotes, like for television series or poems. (Likewise, my own preference would be to italicize/underline TV show titles and put the titles of individual shows in quotes: i.e. "College" is the fifth episode of The Sopranos.) Also, we shouldn't drop articles or words willy-nilly: John Ford's film is The Searchers, not "Searchers." Can't we get this straightened out?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Long-Lost Images Of The Future

Trying to catch up on this, but it's still awesome news: twenty minutes of missing footage (in the form of a 16mm small-frame negative) of Metropolis (1927) discovered in a museum. Like all missing German émigrés, it was discovered in hiding in Argentina. This accounts for about 85% of the footage known to be missing from the original 210-minute version.

Obama, Berliner

Ross Douthat writes:
Yes, of course the Hitler comparisons are absurd, but I'd really like to know which genius on the Obama campaign thought it would be a good idea to have their candidate conduct a major campaign rally in Europe with three months to go till the election and their candidate, despite an incredibly favorable climate and a fumbling opponent, still clinging to a 2-4 point lead in the polls? Overall, the overseas tour has been good to Obama, both for the obvious reasons and because making joint appearances with foreign leaders is a solid-enough way to build up his credibility as a potential Commander-in-Chief. But photo ops are one thing, Beatlemania-style rallies are quite another - and having your candidate appear in front of tens of thousands of adoring European fans when your campaign's biggest problem, as John Judis puts it today, is that "Obama remains the 'mysterious stranger' rather than the 'American Adam' to too many voters who are put off rather than attracted by his race and exotic background" strikes me as the height of political folly. The Berlin rally probably won't hurt Obama - voters aren't really paying attention to anything election-related right about now, and it'll be forgotten by the time the fall campaign begins in earnest. But it could do some minor damage, and it certainly won't help him. (If he's counting on the expat vote to put him over the top, then he's in more trouble than anyone thinks.) Is it too late to call the whole thing off?
The Berlin rally won't help Obama if it's only a rally for his fans and a photo-opportunity back home. But Presidents (and by extension Presidential candidates) don't go to Berlin to be photographed with Germans. You go to Berlin to make major foreign policy speeches, about the future of American-European relationships, based on the common threats you face and the common values you share. That's what Kennedy did in 1963, and Reagan did in 1987.

I don't think it's likely that Obama is going to convene tens or hundreds of thousands of Berliners near the end of a tour of the Middle East and not give the foreign and domestic press something more to chew on than just the spectacle.

If you want to read the tea leaves, Samantha Power's review-essay in the NYRB ("The Democrats and National Security") is a good place to start:
• The New versus the Old. Democrats should argue that their foreign policy is particularly well suited to meeting today's unconventional threats —those that cross borders. Meeting such threats will sometimes entail using military force, but it will almost always require mustering global cooperation. Here the Democrats must point to the security consequences of the loss of respect for the United States around the world: the US requires the assistance of others to aid it in combating terrorism, halting nuclear proliferation, and reversing global warming. In scorning international law and public opinion abroad, Republicans have alienated those the US needs to share the burden of neutralizing threats that Americans deem the most pressing. Democrats for instance, will be more effective in securing the cooperation of intelligence and law enforcement officials in the eighty countries in which al-Qaeda is now active.

• Deeds versus Words. In his National Security Strategy for 2002, Bush used the words "liberty" eleven times, "freedom" forty-six times, and "dignity" nine times; yet people who live under oppression around the world have seen few benefits from President Bush's freedom doctrine. Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of state under Bush, put it best when he said, "Since 9/11 our principal export to the world has been our fear." The gulf between America's rights rhetoric and the abuses carried out against detainees in American custody has been fatal to American credibility. Obama needs to restore that credibility by ending those excesses, and by following through on his pledge to launch a foreign aid initiative rooted in Franklin Roosevelt's core democratic value: freedom from fear. The United States should invest in a long-term "rule of law" initiative that takes up the burden of helping other countries and international organizations to build workable legal systems in the developing world.

• Law versus Lawlessness. In arguing for closing down Guantánamo, ending extraordinary rendition, and returning to the Geneva Conventions, Democrats must remind voters of the national security consequences of being perceived as a lawbreaker. More terrorists take up arms against the United States, while fewer countries take up arms along with the United States. In stressing the importance of law, Democrats should also repudiate the extraordinary and illegitimate presidential power seized by Bush (and generally supported by McCain). As a constitutional lawyer, Obama is in a unique position to argue that as commander in chief, he will never hold himself or his advisers above the law.
Those all sound like themes that might play well to the audience in Berlin and the audience at home, and ones suitable to the historic frame that Obama's trying to capture. And with respect to the foreign policy failures of the Republicans, it mounts an attack with a lot more bite than going to Israel and tossing around references to Neville Chamberlain.

Plug Plug Plug Plug Plug

This is probably a ripe time to mention that I've started a new group blog, Counterfictionals, devoted to theories about and reimaginings of popular fiction and films.

Fictions already run counter to fact. Counterfactuals, in logic, philosophy, or history, imagine an alternative possible world, to test a theory, to prove an argument about contingency and necessity, or merely to explore the question, "What if?," like the Marvel comic book title.

The same approach can be taken to fiction, to imagine a book or a story where proper names still single out the same individuals but everything else is different. A book other than the book, a fictional fiction other than the fact of fiction. Fiction has its theories to be tested and other worlds to be explored.

So with counterfiction we ask "what if?" to our favorite stories, books, comics, and films, for fun and (non) profit. Some of our counterfictions we will write ourselves, and other entries will discuss counterfictions found in the wild. The point is to try to open up just a little more imaginative space in works of the imagination, and to make fiction live in fiction a little more brightly.
So far, it's a lot of stuff on superheroes and Star Wars, but my alternate ending for The Odyssey will make your head spin. So much better than Dante's.

Also, if you never downloaded and read my poetry chapbook The Bridge and The River, it's still available (for free! free! free!) from the awesome-if-infrequent Revelator Press.

Misserved By Privilege

Via Kottke, William Deresiewicz, "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education":

It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League dees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house...

I have a friend who went to an Ivy League college after graduating from a typically mediocre public high school. One of the values of going to such a school, she once said, is that it teaches you to relate to stupid people. Some people are smart in the elite-college way, some are smart in other ways, and some aren’t smart at all. It should be embarrassing not to know how to talk to any of them, if only because talking to people is the only real way of knowing them. Elite institutions are supposed to provide a humanistic education, but the first principle of humanism is Terence’s: “nothing human is alien to me.” The first disadvantage of an elite education is how very much of the human it alienates you from.
But this suggests that it isn't going to an Ivy League school that screws you up, or even becoming (gasp!) a professor. It's spending your entire life from cradle to grave in a self-sustained cocoon of privilege, thinking that you've been "taught.. to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me." I don't think you learned that lesson on your first day at Yale; as the South Pacific song goes, "you've got to be carefully taught," and that teaching started early.

It is, in other words, partly a function of what Deresiewicz calls "the mechanisms that get you there in the first place: the private and affluent public “feeder” schools, the ever-growing parastructure of tutors and test-prep courses and enrichment programs, the whole admissions frenzy and everything that leads up to and away from it," and partly a function of the rest of the institutions that support elite privilege that have nothing directly to do with an Ivy League education: the neighborhoods you live in, the clubs you belong to, the sports you play, the vacations you take, the friends you keep, what you read and watch and eat and talk about.

Deresiewicz doesn't want to think of school in terms of careers, test scores, hot contacts, or any other kind of material or quantitative achievement -- what English professor would? -- and he's pushing a newfound kind of class consciousness to get that point across. But I don't think he actually realizes the extent to which he's caught up in a particular kind of privilege. After all, when you're not born into it, you actually do have to spend a remarkable amount of time worrying about money, and getting ahead, and making the best of your opportunities. And it seems like even if the self-enclosure of the elites is ultimately suffocating for some of them, the kinds of resources possessed and opportunities offered by top-flight schools serve students who begin by looking in from the outside remarkably well.

How Not To Drown In A Sea Of Empty Posturing

Via Racialicious, "How To Tell People They Sound Racist":

A few responses:

  1. Not only is separating "what you did" from "what you are" good strategy, I think it is actually closer to the truth. I wouldn't deny that there are living, breathing people who hate other people's guts because of what they are or perceive them to be, but most of the time, in everyday culture, when we're talking about racism or sexism or homophobia or whatever, that's not what we're talking about. Racism (and other attendant -isms) is something that you fall into, not necessarily something you bring with you. And anybody at any time is in danger of falling into it, no matter what you think or what you've done in your better moments. It's just that some people live there, and other people habitually stop by, while the rest of us usually do our best to try to avoid making a visit.
  2. How powerful is the empirical razor? It cuts through all of the "what is in your heart" arguments to return to the real. There should be a book, "The Everyday Metaphysics of Race" that explores all of the ways that the discourse of race departs from the empirical or the phenomenological and goes off into the la-la land of bad ontology.
  3. In case you can't tell, race is crazy on my mind these days.
  4. Bad conscience: The problem with a single-minded focus on "what you said" is that it encourages an already-existing perception that to be racist means that you say the wrong things (or rather, that saying the wrong things is a sign that you are racist) and that the way to avoid being racist is not to say the wrong things. What that leads to is an ever-enlarged list of Things That Cannot Be Said, with all the attendant loopholes and asterisks that largely depend on What You Are. It also leads to pushback, of the form "How am I supposed to teach my daughter that she can't say the N-word but black people can?" or the anti-PC "some people are so touchy, you can't say anything anymore." Again, racism is a diffuse, social phenomenon, not a substance in the heart or the brain, but it doesn't make sense to endow a specific set of words with magical racist power either. Ultimately, it's not enough to avoid being racist; you actually have to become anti-racist.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Half-Life Of Paper

Tonight I had occasion to look up Nicholson Baker's 2001 book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper on Amazon. The hardcover, as you might expect, is out of print, but I got a kick out of seeing that there's a version available for the Kindle for $7.96, a little better than half full retail of the new paperback. I would love to read the quintessential attack on digital/electronic preservation and defense of paper on a beautiful e-ink screen. So much better than going to the mall and buying a blogger's book.

Senior Black Correspondence

Cf. "Better Pictures".

New Haircut, Kids

Same old crooked glasses.

Post-Historical Potential

Saaret E. Yoseph, "Gen-Y and the Colorblind Lie":

Note: Knowing every line of a Lil' Wayne song does not mean you know the black experience. The black experience cannot be defined one-dimensionally, especially not in the lyrics of a single track. Neither can the Latino experience, or the Asian experience or the white experience. Yet, somehow my peers and I feel more comfortable skimming the surface rather than sitting down for an honest discussion about race.

Our predecessors are no less at fault for the confusion. Depicting Gen-Y as colorblind is essentially placing all the proverbial eggs in our basket. Not fair and definitely not plausible. Our youthful perspective may be wide-eyed and techno-colored, but it has also been affected by the perspectives of past generations.

Considering all that you went through, how can you expect so much from Gen-Y? You ask us to look beyond skin while demanding, again and again, that we check boxes to define our identity. You emphasize diversity and allow our classrooms to be monochromatic. You've told us to hold hands and love each others' differences, but we grew up watching you draw lines and hold-up picket signs (think O.J Simpson, Rodney King, The Bell Curve controversy, etc.). Understandably, our wires have gotten crossed.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Better Pictures

Flip through this slideshow of Barack Obama's visit to Afghanistan, or watch this video. I don't think I've ever seen so many photographs of black servicemen and servicewomen -- clearly excited about Obama. I certainly didn't see as many at events for Bush, McCain, or almost anyone else.

For the record, the army is about 16% black and 11% Hispanic. When you look past the officer corps into younger servicemen and servicewomen, the numbers are sharper: between 19 and 20% black.

By Popular Request

The Grief of Achilles:
So the men fought on like a mass of whirling fire
as swift Antilochus raced the message toward Achilles.
Sheltered under his curving, beaked ships he found him,
foreboding, deep down, all that had come to pass.
Agonizing now he probed his own great heart:
"Why, why? Our long-haired Achaeans routed again,
driven in terror off the plain to crowd the ships, but why?
Dear gods, don't bring to pass the grief that haunts my heart---
the prophecy that mother revealed to me one time...
she said the best of the Myrmidons---while I lived---
would fall at Trojan hands and leave the light of day.
And now he's dead, I know it. Menoetius' gallant son,
my headstrong friend! And I told Patroclus clearly,
'Once you have beaten off the lethal fire, quick,
come back to the ships---you must not battle Hector!' "

As such fears went churning through his mind
the warlord Nestor's son drew near him now,
streaming warm tears, to give the dreaded message:
"Ah son of royal Peleus, what you must hear from me!
What painful news---would to god it had never happened!
Patroclus has fallen. They're fighting over his corpse.
He's stripped, naked---Hector with that flashing helmet,
Hector has your arms!"
So the captain reported.
A black cloud of grief came shrouding over Achilles
Both hands clawing the ground for soot and filth,
he poured it over his head, fouled his handsome face
and black ashes settled onto his fresh clean war-shirt.
Overpowered in all his power, sprawled in the dust,
Achilles lay there, fallen...
tearing his hair, defiling it with his own hands.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

I've Been Silent

By music blog standards this song is old indeed, but I heard it again today, and I love it so much:

Dodos, "Fools."

The Problem of the Canon

Here's a throwaway sentence from Jonathan Chait's review of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine:

By the 1990s, Klein had come to realize, like some other campus activists, that off-campus there could be found worse depredations than the canonization of Shakespeare and other dead white males.
I like Jon Chait, and I haven't read Naomi Klein's book, so I have no opinion about it. But this reflects a pretty common trope in talk about 90s-era literary studies, so in my office as resident academic ethnographer, I think it needs to be explained.

Why do literary scholars care about canonization? Well, canonization as it's been (and continues to be) practiced determines what we write about and what we teach, what kinds of jobs are offered, what kind of books get published, who gets conferences devoted to them, and so on. And all of these considerations already suggest that canonization isn't just a process of aesthetic harmonization, where the very best writing rises to the top while the rest melts away, through a purely artistic process. It's a material one, governed by publication and anthologies and institutions. Part of the empirical/historical turn in literary studies of the past 30-odd years has meant that scholars are trying to be reflective about (and do real scholarly work detailing) how this process happens.

It has also meant that scholars are not interested just in analyzing works of eternal beauty and edification, especially when there are other important scholarly questions to be asked. Studying how Shakespeare's reception and publication history varied with interpretations, editorial practices, historical contingencies, etc., can tell us a lot about the Bard, but so can studying one of his "lesser" Elizabethan contemporaries. Amy Lowell's poetry is universally agreed to be worse than Ezra Pound's, but her historical importance and contemporary popularity in the public shaping of modernism might rival his and certainly trumps most of her other contemporaries.

Nobody is seriously arguing for offing Shakespeare from literary studies. (If they are, you need to name and quote them.) It is all about enlarging the field. Biologists wouldn't and shouldn't confine themselves to studying or even teaching just Darwin and Mendel and the problems they cared about. Likewise, literary scholars and historians won't and shouldn't confine themselves to what are really a handful of questions about a handful of texts -- drops in the bucket considering the vast range of literary matter that's been dumped year after year on the reading public. And when you look at the ideological criteria for preservation, "dead white males" is obviously reductive, but it clearly is one of the effects (and perhaps motivations) of this process of canonization.  All of the writers weren't white men. The bestsellers weren't white men. And it's pretty evident that the best writing wasn't done by white men either. Finally, once you add historical interest to the mix, we're no longer exclusively interested in individual, usually wealthy white men. So when you're trying to re-think the value of reading X alongside (or, quel horreur, instead of) Y, then race and gender and class are all worthwhile considerations to take into account.

This doesn't mean that the academy absents itself from questions of value: anthologies are still made, courses are still taught, reevaluations of "major" figures are plentiful, and new configurations are put forth, constantly. It just means that aesthetic value is not now -- nor has it ever been -- the sole province of literary history and criticism.

If you want someone to tell you how beautiful Shakespeare's sonnets are, you don't really need a tenured professor of English to do it. It's like hiring an engineer to plug in your computer. It's as close to self-evident as it gets.

Finally, to come back to Chait for a moment: we are not limited to the Hobson's choice between purely aesthetic appreciation of literary texts and the full immersion into "real world" politics. Life and art are never so purely divided. Literature scholars can and must continue to study literature, however you choose to construe that term. And we'll study it with the tools we have: reading books and archives and letters and watching movies and looking out for facts and for meaning and especially meaningful facts. But we have never done it in only one way or two, nor should we now.

Manual of Style Entry: "Teh Internets"

Virginia Heffernan:

I am stumped by how to excerpt the language on message boards and blogs... The Sanhedrins of style at newspapers are not so amused by the merry game of signification. (Derrida’s not big with real newspapermen.) Most of them seem to believe in standardizing spoken English — to a point. At The New York Times, using nonstandard spelling to reflect dialect — “he wuz a good friend” — is seen as a sketchy business, since no two writers do it the same way and since it can reflect bias. But rhetorical eccentricities ought to be preserved. “I’m friends with him 20 years,” for example, does not have to become, “I have been friends with him for 20 years.”

Some architects of Times style have proposed that communication on a message board should be treated like the text of a novel. As novels of sorts, message boards ought to be excerpted using the same protocols that newspaper critics use to quote from fiction. That is, we should go light on the academic sics, addition brackets and omission ellipses, which in a paper can come across as sneering, cluttered, pretentious or all three.

By contrast, when transcribing message-board posts, idiosyncrasies of language should be preserved as far as possible and taken as intentional, unless in context they are obviously evidence that the writer has innocently hit the wrong key (“teh,” “rihgt”). A “wuz” on the Internet remains “wuz” in the paper. In thorny cases, a critic or reporter can extenuate a passage outside of quotation marks. (“ ‘The soiled fish,’ writes Melville, conjuring an odd image with a ‘soiled’ where perhaps ‘coiled’ was intended.”)
But if there's a Derridean lesson here at all, it's that there isn't any such thing as "obvious evidence that the writer has innocently hit the wrong key." Words like "teh" that start as typos quickly become independent signs, even if they're ironic ones. It's just like Saussure's analysis of onomotopoeia: it may begin as noise, but it can't escape the logic of signification.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Mallarmé and the Book of Books

Mallarmé attempted to write an absolute
book, the quintessence of all literature and
all reality-the Total Book. The world exists
to arrive at a book, he said. This book
would be proclaimed by a sacred ceremony
of predetermined detail, a proof as well as
a communion.

The form of The Book can be described
briefly: four books, which can be ordered
as two pairs, make up The Book. Each book
is subdivided into five volumes (not only
interchangeable within each book, but also
from book to book). Thus, Mallarme envisions
the mixing and exchange of the volumes
of one book with those of another.
Each volume of each book is made up of
three groups of eight pages-24 pages in
all. Each page is discrete and may be further
broken down, having 18 lines of 12
words. Thus, words, lines, pages, pagegroups,
volumes, and books all may be
shuffled into new combinations. This disposition
offers a multitude of possible readings.

Mallarmé even proposes that each
page be read not only in the normal horizontal
way (within the page's verticality),
but backwards, or vertically, or in a selective
order of omissions, or diagonally.
Mallarmé imagines another important
structural inversion in the reading of the
total Book: the five volumes form a block.
The reader looks through the pages, and
reads according to depth. Each line of each
page helps form a new vertical page. Paging
is therefore three-dimensional. This
absolute integrity of the container implies
integral organization of the content.

Jacques Polieri, "Le Livre de Mallarmé: A Mise en Scène"

B-Story Blogging

Are there bloggers that you otherwise like who periodically write about stuff that you wish they wouldn't? I call this "B-story blogging." While the blog is 90% about one thing (or one kind of thing) the blogger periodically wedges in some other topic that he/she is personally interested in, but that they might not be all that qualified to write about.

For example, today Matt Yglesias writes:

I keep forgetting to blog about Denver's salary dump trade sending Marcus Camby to the Clippers even though the Center for American Progress primarily hired me because John Podesta felt they had to beef up their NBA coverage to prepare for the looming era of having a hoops fan in the White House.
Yglesias is poking fun at himself because he 1) likes basketball and 2) blogs about basketball even though 3) probably nobody but Matt's friends care what he thinks about basketball and 4) his blogging about basketball isn't really very good.

In another example, I actually like John Gruber's Stanley Kubrick obsession, Ron Silliman's movie reviews are often pretty good (but not nearly as good as his reviews/writings on poetry), and James Fallows's thoughts on the Olympics while he's living in China are always worth a read. In short, some bloggers handle their B-story blogging much better than others.

B-story blogging is often an aftereffect of a blog emerging from (or converging on) a personal diary. At its best, it's a window into the full set of preoccupations and assumptions of the author. At its worst, it's chatter.

What about you? Is there any category of post on Short Schrift you'd rather never see again?

Hector Père

From Robert Fagles's translation of the The Iliad:

In the same breath, shining Hector reached down
for his son—but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse's full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror—
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight,
and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms,
lifting a prayer to Zeus and the other deathless gods:
"Zeus, all you immortals! Grant this boy, my son,
may be like me, first in glory among the Trojans,
strong and brave like me, and rule all Troy in power
and one day let them say, ‘He is a better man than his father!'—
...So Hector prayed
and placed his son in the arms of his loving wife.
Andromache pressed the child to her scented breast,
smiling through her tears.
via Alberto Manguel, via Joseph Tartakovsky, via A&L Daily. More awesomeness from the same review:
Manguel, a critic, novelist, and translator born in Argentina and now living in France, writes with intelligence and curiosity. For a man of letters who has edited 23 anthologies and is reputed to possess a library of 30,000 volumes, he mostly avoids ostentation.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The End Of An -ism

This was a few days ago, but better late than never -- Olivia Judson's argument against "Darwinism":

I’d like to abolish the insidious terms Darwinism, Darwinist and Darwinian. They suggest a false narrowness to the field of modern evolutionary biology, as though it was the brainchild of a single person 150 years ago, rather than a vast, complex and evolving subject to which many other great figures have contributed. (The science would be in a sorry state if one man 150 years ago had, in fact, discovered everything there was to say.) Obsessively focusing on Darwin, perpetually asking whether he was right about this or that, implies that the discovery of something he didn’t think of or know about somehow undermines or threatens the whole enterprise of evolutionary biology today.

It does not. In the years ahead, I predict we will continue to refine our understanding of natural selection, and continue to discover new ways in which it can shape genes and genomes. Indeed, as genetic data continues to flood into the databanks, we will be able to ask questions about the detailed workings of evolution that it has not been possible to ask before.

Yet all too often, evolution — insofar as it is taught in biology classes at all — is taught as the story of Charles Darwin. Then the pages are turned, and everyone settles down to learn how the heart works, or how plants make energy from sunshine, or some other detail. The evolutionary concepts that unify biology, that allow us to frame questions and investigate the glorious diversity of life — these are ignored.
I think Judson is talking about high school evolution -- at my land-grant college I had a really great standard-ed BIO 103 that was all about contemporary theories of evolution, and relatively little about Darwin. (Thanks, Dr. Muzzall!) But the point is well taken.

I would venture that part of the problem is that Darwin is usually mistaken for/compared to a social program (e.g. "social Darwinism") or religious dogma -- more charitably, as a philosopher -- and in all of those cases, rightly or wrongly, you are reading for The Answer, and answers that are wrong or incomplete are taken for serious deficits.

Another part of the trouble is that most people think they understand what Darwin said and did and what evolution or natural selection means when they really do not. In this case, it's easier to just assign your beliefs to somebody else, rather than claiming to speak for a whole body of scientific work. (I just don't think Einstein gets this crap as often.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

How Does Obama Do It?

Part of the reason why some people in the progressive blogosphere were upset about, say, Obama's embrace of faith-based charities, is that they had convinced themselves that Obama agreed with them about everything. (The FISA bill is a separate issue; there Obama really did say he'd filibuster a bill with telecom immunity, and when the bill came, no filibuster and a yes vote.)

But generally, Obama seems to have an ability to make just about everyone think that he agrees with them, even when he doesn't. Conservatives like Andrew Sullivan think he's conservative, or at least "temperamentally conservative," which basically means "he's not a conservative, but I feel like he somehow gets it anyways," even though he's a liberal Democrat. Likewise, people to the left of Obama think that he is where they are, people who want to see radical change in race relations think he can single-handedly bring it about, and people who want a new bicycle think... you see where this is going.

But Marc Ambinder is the first to see that Obama's ability to make everyone think he agrees with them may first and foremost be a management strategy:

Obama was new to national politics, so new, in fact, that his circle of advisers and confidants hadn't yet fractured into competing camps with different philosophies. No factions means fewer leaks to the press.

As the campaign progressed, disagreements hardened and some advisers started to regularly ally with others against others, but Obama seems to have figured out a way to make sure that everyone in his inner circle felt empowered just enough; that they felt as if their views were being solicited and respected.

So -- no real factions, no leaks, little drama.

If there's a leadership lesson here, it's: cultivate productive disagreement by refusing to align yourself with any particular point of view; seek input from everyone; don't buy into the cult of the singular adviser or strategist.
Also see Ambinder's first post on "Management Secrets of Barack Obama": it's smart too.

Klein Schreiben

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Modernist Inventions

A short list of late-19th and early-20th century inventions that bear some relationship to modernist art and literature:

  1. The typewriter
  2. The sewing machine
  3. Pasteurization
  4. The bicycle
  5. Plastic
  6. The machine gun
  7. Dynamite
  8. Barbed wire
  9. The telephone
  10. The phonograph/gramophone
  11. The electric lightbulb
  12. Paper-strip photographic film
  13. The automobile
  14. The motion picture/cinema
  15. The zeppelin
  16. Carbon paper
  17. The vertical and lateral file
  18. Safety razors
  19. Radio
  20. The airplane
  21. Talkies (sound-synchronized motion pictures)
  22. The bra
  23. The zipper
  24. Television

This is partly for my own use, but I'd be interested to hear thoughts from others.

So Simple, So Smart

I just downloaded a little app for the Mac called LatinEdit that is just dang smart, even in version 0.1, all the more so because what it does is so simple. It's designed to transcribe and translate Latin documents from an image file into digital text. It has three fields: one where you can view the image, a second where you can type the Latin, and a third for your translation. It includes the LatinWords dictionary onboard; even a novice or hack Latinist (like me) can take a stab at translation.

What I like best are the little touches. For example, there's a "Poetry" menu, with commands to mark long and short stresses, feet and caesurae. (The caesura mark looks like this: ‖) You can add and modify kerns and ligatures. There's keyboard shortcuts for these too. You can also mark passages for later revision, and insert and export footnotes. You can detail your preferences for the dictionary as well: if you only want definitions, or you want additional examples, or words in context, etc., set it and forget it.

Essentially, it's a workflow management application, but it has a clear purpose and is well-integrated. The only deficiency I can see is that you can only work from one facsimilie at a time; there's no way to collect, sort, and manage a database of images (a la iTunes or iPhoto), which could make working on a longer document a drag.

But the principle is great. I could easily imagine a GreekEdit, ArabicEdit, GermanEdit, etc., performing the same tasks. And for modern texts, add OCR and you've got a scanning, correcting, translating platform that would be a digital humanist's dream.

Monday, July 14, 2008

For the Snarkmarket Commencement File

Over at Snarkmarket, they love commencement speeches, so I'll jump on this one in advance: Patton Oswalt's speech at his high school alma mater. It includes a great joke about commencement speeches:

So, 1987.    That’s when I got my diploma.   But I want to tell you something that happened the week before I graduated.   It was life-changing, it was profound, and it was deeper than I realized at the time.

The week before graduation I strangled a hobo.   Oh wait, that’s a different story.   That was college.   I’m speaking at my college later this month.  I’ve got both speeches here.    Let me sum up the college speech – always have a gallon of bleach in your trunk.
And some experience:
I’ve seen endless daylight and darkness in Alaska.   I’ve swum in volcanic craters in Hawaii and saw the mystical green flash when the sun sinks behind the Pacific.   I got ripped on absinthe in Prague and watched the sun rise over the synagogue where the Golem is supposedly locked in the attic.   I stood under the creepy shadow of Christchurch Spitafields, in London’s East End, and sank a pint next door at The Ten Bells, where two of Jack the Ripper’s victims were last seen drinking.   I’ve fed gulls at the harbor in Galway, Ireland.   I’ve done impromptu Bloomsday tours of Dublin.
And also some wisdom:
All of you have been given a harsh gift.  It’s the same gift the graduating class of 1917, and 1938, and 1968 and now you guys got – the chance to enter adulthood when the world teeters on the rim of the sphincter of oblivion.    You’re jumping into the deep end.   You have no choice but to be exceptional.

But please don’t mistake miles traveled, and money earned, and fame accumulated for who you are.   

Because now I understand how the miraculous, horrifying and memorable lurk everywhere.    But they’re hidden to the kind of person I was when I graduated high school.

all one / odor and mortal taste

Allen Ginsberg at the trial of the Chicago Eight:

WEINGLASS. At approximately 10:30 that evening what was happening in the park?

GINSBERG. There were several thousand young people gathered, waiting. It was dark; there were some bonfires burning in trash cans. Everybody was standing around not knowing what to do. Then, there was a sudden burst of light in the center of the park and a group of policemen moved in fast and kicked over the bonfires.

WEINGLASS. What did you do when you observed the police doing this?

GINSBERG. I started the chant “Ommmmm.”
Ginsberg was also asked to read some of his poetry:

GINSBERG. “The Night-Apple.”

Last night I dreamed
of one I loved
for seven long years,
but I saw no face,
only the familiar
presence of the body;
sweat skin eyes
feces urine sperm
saliva all one
odor and mortal taste.

FORAN. Could you explain to the jury, having said that, what the religious significance of that poem is?

GINSBERG. I could, if you would take a wet dream as a religious experience. It is a description of a wet dream, sir.

COURT. You are shouting at the Court.

KUNSTLER. Oh, Your Honor.

COURT. Shouting at the Court the way you do.

KUNSTLER. Everyone has shouted from time to time, including Your Honor. This is not a situation. …

COURT. Make a note of that. I have never. …

KUNSTLER. Voices have been raised.

COURT. I have never shouted at you during this trial.

KUNSTLER. Your Honor, your voice has been raised.

COURT. You have been disrespectful.

KUNSTLER. It is not disrespectful, Your Honor.

COURT. And sometimes worse than that.

GINSBERG. Ommmmmm.

The Obamas on The New Yorker

My first thought was, what’s with Michelle’s afro? Obama’s outfit and the Osama painting and even Michelle’s rifle and ammo clip all suggest a coherent (if toothless) theme: that the Obamas are secretly Muslim terrorists.
The Afro is, I guess, meant to suggest 70s-era black nationalism: a second “fear,” which is that the Obamas and particularly Michelle are black militants or Communists or otherwise “un-American.”
This cover is about blackness as much as it is about “terrorism” or any other purportedly race-neutral satirical point that can be made about it. And I think that’s where the fault line is: the smooth blending of blackness with terrorism, foreignness, and danger that lies beneath the “secret Muslim” whispers.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


I put on Star Wars today to 1) calm my son down and 2) distract myself. Then I watched Empire twice, because I love Star Wars/A New Hope so much, and Empire even more. So I got to thinking: what would I change about these movies? George Lucas seems to have thought that a few more digital animals, music sequences, and poorly executed additional expository scenes (that clarify nothing that need clarifying) make these movies perfect. But what if you were to rethink them in a much more serious way?

The best idea I came up with involves Han Solo. Harrison Ford famously argued with Lucas that Solo didn't need to return for the third movie: joining the Rebellion, winning Leia, and finally losing his life as a sacrifice for Luke completed his character arc.

And there's something to that. But I also think that Han's rescue from Jabba's palace is one of the best parts of the uneven (but still I think unfairly maligned) Return of the Jedi. So here's my solution: Luke, Leia, and co. still return to Tattoine to save Han, and the early scenes play out much the same as in Jedi. But instead of being rescued to play out the string (and Han really is a shadow of his former self in most of the rest of Jedi), he's killed, Von Ryan's Express-style, either during or just after the group's escape from Jabba's barge. If you really want to stoke the Star Wars fanboys, let Boba Fett kill him before he gets swallowed up.

Think of what that gets you in the story. The pit in your stomach from the end of Empire comes back with a vengeance. There's real jeopardy now -- no sense at all that the heroes can just fight their way out of whatever trouble they get into. Leia, filled with loss and anger, taps into a part of the force she's never felt before, startling Luke and Yoda. Now instead of convincing Leia that he can't run away from confronting Vader, he has to convince her that he can try to turn him back to the good side of the force, instead of destroying him, as Leia would wish. (Total parallel with Vader and the Emperor in Empire, where the Emperor wants to kill Luke, Vader wants to turn him.) Above all, the Emperor's threat to kill all of Luke's friends, and Vader's to turn Leia to the dark side, would both have real bite.

Anyways, that's the movie I would have made. Don't get me started on the prequels.