Saturday, August 28, 2004

I feel so.... published

I've had poems, stories, and even critical essays published before, everywhere from DIY zines to more respectable university press anthologies, but I'm particularly proud that my life as author has begun its second phase: my short paper "Modernism's Objects" has just been published in a special issue of the Journal of Modern Literature by Indiana University Press.

So this means that you can buy my book at Barnes & Noble, right? Not exactly. It's a four-page review-essay at the back of an academic journal, albeit a particularly prestigious one: a pretty good get for a not-yet-at-dissertation PhD student, but not exactly big headlines. If you have access to a good university library, you can find it (p. 207 of Fall 2003's Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 27.1). You can also find it on the web if you have access to Johns Hopkins's Project Muse database.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Settling Down

Forbes, hot off its chat-inducing list of the 40 best cities for singles, recently published a list of the top 60 cheap places to live -- smaller and lesser-known towns (populations less than 750,000) that provide the best bargains for people looking to start a career or business.

Each of these articles makes for a pretty good read, but the titles of the "community types" steal the show: "Porch-Swing, Happy Hootervilles, IQ Campuses, Steroid Cities, Bohemian Bargains, or Telecommuting Heavens."

Happy reminders of David Brooks at his very best, and proof that his brand of "comic sociology" is catching on -- at least in glossy magazines that prize catchword memorability over complicated analysis. (Of course, I think catchwords can be just as valuable as statistical regression: see my earlier post on knowledge shortcuts for more info.)

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Summoning Cassandra

A prediction: George W. Bush will win the 2004 presidential election. It won't be a landslide, but it won't be as close as 2000's toss-up between Bush and Gore.

The reason: Republicans have been moving towards the center much more deftly than their Democratic counterparts. Simply put, the Democrats are just getting outplayed.

Consider the recent flap over the Bush-connected Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear campaign against Kerry. Almost everyone agrees that these ads were personally nasty, probably misleading, and a prime example of the continued potency of soft money post-McCain-Feingold. Bush himself, along with his administration, have finally had to distance themselves from the ads, albeit indirectly, by railing against third-party political advertisements by "shadowy groups."

But consider the moves: Kerry wants to move away from his Massachusetts liberal image and capture some middle ground. He -- and the press, the party, everyone -- leans on his experience in Vietnam to do it. They bracket his anti-war activism, at least for mainstream audiences.

Conservative groups, ninja-like, use Kerry's military momentum against him. He wants to run as a Vietnam hero? Fine. They get some friendly people to kick up enough dirt to make things a little less clear-cut. (This is easy enough: Was anyone a clear-cut hero in Vietnam?) The Republican base, already ready to believe that Kerry was a coward, now has a mantra: Unfit For Command. Late-to-the-game centrist and independent voters, who hadn't known much about Kerry besides that he was a war hero, now aren't even sure about that.

Kerry's poll numbers drop. Now he has to humiliate himself and essentially admit that he's bleeding by publicly asking Bush to renounce the ads. After waiting for the ads to finish their course, Bush does denounce them, but only through denouncing all third-party ads. Not only doesn't he need to really give in, but he gets to put a sunny, centrist face on even this concession: mugging with John McCain and appearing to take his stance as a matter of principle.

It's not going to stop. Rudy Giuliani, Mike Bloomberg, George Pataki, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jeb's good-looking Latino son -- they're all going to be trotted out on New York's stage less than two months before the election. The protests by left-wing groups, always solipsistic, are likely to be counterproductive: they remind mainstream voters why they dislike and distrust the left in the first place. It's 1968 all over again.

I can see the GOP getting a big bounce from this convention, especially since Kerry hasn't been able to get any kind of traction. Unless voter turnout for Kerry goes through the roof, liberals could be weeping this November. And the kind of attacks Kerry's had to fend off aren't really designed to get voters to vote against Kerry -- they're designed to make them stay home.

Monday, August 23, 2004

How We Know What We Think We Know

One of the pseudo-buzzwords I've helped to coin is "indexical knowledge." Well, check out the always-nimble Louis Menand's New Yorker article on voters' decision-making. He doesn't bust out the phrase (otherwise, I'd have to sue) -- but what he's talking about, from soup to nuts, is indexical reasoning.

Most of the time, the things we want to know -- whether we can trust someone, what the weather will be like tomorrow, whether the economy is doing well or not so well -- are things of which there is no simple measurement or even certain knowledge, even with a great deal of research and effort.

So we rely on an index -- a sign -- that gives us a quick and dirty way to get a maximum amount of information with a minimum amount of effort. We're expert at sizing people up quickly by their age, sex, race, dress, demeanor, and behavior; the best way to tell what the weather will be like in Detroit tomorrow is usually what it's like in Chicago today; and we have a variety of sophisticated and not-so-sophisticated economic "indicators" (GDP, per capita income, employment and unemployment, etc.) which provide simple, bullet-point headlines on the state of the union. None of these are 100% accurate, but that's not their virtue -- they act as a kind of shortcut (and shorthand) to find out what you want to know. This is especially helpful when more detailed or accurate knowledge is either unavailable or unproductive.

Why "index"? What characterizes an indexical sign is that it bears some sort of physical or empirical connection to its referent. "Where there's smoke, there's fire." (This cliché is actually about the value of indices -- their soundness, their generality, their ability to give protection from danger.) Linguistic signs don't have this kind of relationship -- they're arbitrary. Neither do icons -- pictures or copies of the referent. (Shot-out to C.S. Peirce, who, by inventing this terminology, invented semiotics.)

How does indexical reasoning work? Menand gives the example of picking out a stereo. We could spend hours poring over expert reviews, reading technical information, comparing prices, and so on. Or we could walk into Circuit City and pick the one that looks the coolest, as long as we recognize the brand name. I actually enjoy doing the first, but the odds are pretty good that the other guy's going to get nearly as good a deal, without spending nearly as much time doing it. Also, he doesn't believe that the time and investment in acquiring an object adds to its symbolic and psychological value. But let's not get started.

So how does this relate to politics? In two ways. Voters identify candidates they like and don't like through branding (political parties), aesthetics (Bush looks good in a flight suit, Dukakis looked dumb in a helmet), endorsements, and generally, gut judgments over ideology or information. In fact, the more information voters have, the more they need good indices in order to make sense of all of it. Sometimes these are personal touchstones (elites whom people trust or with whom they identify) and sometimes they're empirical but indirect: Florida voters have done pretty well over the past four years, so they're leaning Bush, but more Ohio voters have had it rough, so they're leaning Kerry. Who knows whether voting for Bush or Kerry will make things better or worse; some indices are better than others.

What's more, voters (elites and non-elites alike) need these indices in order to legitimate their choices on the one hand and to signal them to others on the other. We need quick figures,
clichés, and nonsense formulae ("I think Kerry seems presidential") just to be able to talk with our friends, families, neighbors, and co-workers.

In short, we need to make the metropolis (the grossstadt) more like the polis (the kleinstadt). We need to make the things of the electronic age sensible for the stone-age minds we carry around. But this isn't really what I want to say -- it just gives you the gist.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

The Sea and the Rhythm

Indie-rock trends are fickle, even compared to mainstream pop. For a while, everyone was interested in European-inspired, post-rock instrumentals. (Cf. Tortoise, Sigur Ros, Godspeed You Black Emperor!) The garage-rock revival was over almost before it started, collapsing under the weight of mainstream breakthroughs and second-rate imitation. (Cf. Jonathan Fire*Eater, The White Stripes, The Strokes.) Dancepunk sprung Phoenix-like from garage-rock's ashes, combining the same angular guitar attacks with 80's-new-wave-inspired keyboard flourishes and atmospherics. (Cf. Interpol, The Rapture, Franz Ferdinand.)

All this makes the newly emerging trend -- a return to folk music -- both refreshing and entirely expected. Iron & Wine's Our Endless Numbered Days, Sufjan Stevens's Greetings from Michigan and Seven Swans, Devendra Banhart's Rejoicing in the Hands, and Joanna Newsom's The Milk-Eyed Mender have all gathered attention and praise from the usual sources -- indie websites and zines, NPR, and critic's lists -- but unlike his hipster counterparts, it's hard to imagine the decidedly unphotogenic Sam Beam (above) on TRL anytime soon. As David Bazan of Pedro the Lion sings, "Bands with managers / are going places; / bands with messy hair / and snow-white faces." The lo-fi folk crowd isn't going anywhere, but they make great music about it.

These younger artists join an established base of indie legends, and continue their precedent of using band names for solo artists: Smog (aka Bill Callhan), The Mountain Goats (aka John Darnielle), Hayden (aka Hayden Desser), The Microphones/Mount Eerie (aka Phil Elvrum/Elverum) and Will Oldham -- who's recorded as Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, and lately, Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- among others.

We've had folk revivals in independent music before, with mixed results: Billy Bragg's resurrection of political folk, Ani DiFranco's personal/political singer-songwriter persona, Elliott Smith's haunting fusion of Nick Drake, classic pop, and grunge confessionalism, or the Gillian Welch-by way of-O Brother, Where Art Thou? rediscovery of traditional Americana. What distinguishes the new artists is their connection to the indie traditions of DIY, lo-fidelity recording on the one hand and their exploration of near-psychedelic abstraction on the other. (And, of course, a willingness to deviate from both of these generalizations, through surprisingly lush arrangements and personal content.)

Both Stevens's and Oldham's music has a deeply religious content: in Stevens's case, the spirituality is genuine, while in Oldham's, it's more a matter of establishing an alternate persona. Banhart, on the other hand, on the brilliant "Michigan State," joyously yelps "The salt keeps the sea from feeling sweet / And my toes have my favorite feet" -- referencing less Blood on the Tracks than the homespun whimsy of The Basement Tapes. Banhart's Mark Bolan impression grates on some, but his songs crystallize the new musical aesthetic, and herald a return to a much-neglected persona in indie and alternative music: the poetic loser.

Friday, August 20, 2004

"What's Right Is Right": A Brief Review of Goodfellas

I lost most of today to the new Goodfellas Special Edition DVD, part of the new Martin Scorsese 6-disc box set of his films with Warner Brothers. Scorsese's always been one of my favorite filmmakers, and this set has two of my all-time favorites (Goodfellas and Mean Streets) , plus three other films (Who's That Knocking At My Door, Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More, and After Hours) which have never been released on DVD.

The nineties maybe remembered as the decade when independent film triumphed, as arty, intelligent, violent films like Pulp Fiction won newfound critical acceptance and success at the box office. It's easy to connect this moment with that of the 1970s, when a similar group of young (and not-so-young), independent (and not-so-independent) directors emerged from the ashes of the studio system, making the films that the directors of the 90s saw as they came of age.

In the early 90s, however, before the independent boom, a few films appeared that directly connected the films, filmmakers, and stars of the 70s to those that would appear a few years later. Perhaps the two most striking are Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven -- another favorite of mine -- and the remarkable Goodfellas.

Scorsese is one of the rare directors who pleases both the theory-quoting critic and the cable-watching fan in me. He makes Fellini-quoting popcorn movies about existential dread. His photography, editing, and scoring always look and sound great -- he manages to do genuinely revolutionary things that don't seem particularly radical, or even unusual. Watching Goodfellas with the commentary track on and the regular sound off, I was surprised at how tightly framed and edited every shot and sequence is. Michael Ballhaus's camera is hardly ever stationary: there's always a nearly imperceptible pan or zoom to force the eye into motion and increase the tension of the scene.

Goodfellas refuses to let you sit still, and yet it rivets your attention to complicated dialogue and often mundane, relatively action-free sequences. One of the best scenes in the movie involves a coked-up Ray Liotta trying to fry veal cutlets in between looking out his window for police helicopters. Another where Liotta and Lorraine Bracco's character get a table at the Copacabana -- hardly exciting stuff in a movie filled with multiple murders, drugs, sex, and trials -- is perhaps in the top five scenes in the history of the medium. It's done in a single long steadicam shot (a special kind of camera that allows the operator a great range of movement without the jitters of a handheld) from the opening of the car door, walking across the street, down into the basement, through the kitchen, across the restaurant, where a table appears out of nowhere, closing on a shot of Henny Youngman (yes, the real Henny Youngman) telling a joke. All the while, The Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me" plays in the background. How this film lost the Best Picture Oscar to Kevin Costner's craptastic Dances With Wolves simply escapes me.

Scorsese is one of a handful of geniuses in American cinema, easily mentionable with D.W. Griffith and Orson Welles. He may even be the best director of his generation (the best in the history of cinema): better than Coppola, Spielberg, Altman, Eastwood, DePalma, Woody Allen, and Terence Malick. The box set is dirt-cheap ($40 for five movies) and the upgrade, especially for Goodfellas, is well worth it. (Goodfellas was originally released on DVD in the early ages of the medium: no extras, and you had to flip the disc halfway through the movie, like an old record.) It's well worth familiarizing or re-familiarizing yourself with this film, and with the possibility that the coarsest, fastest, and most violent of films can be the most profound and substantial.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Checking the Links

When I first advertised this blog to my friends, I asked any of them with HTML knowledge to help me add features to it. Well, my first modest experiment with HTML on my own reconnaissance is up and running: You'll see a new "Links" section on the sidebar, as well as a permanent link to yesterday's etymology-as-manifesto post.

These are links to sites I read regularly, which provide some sort of useful public information. (The less said about the other sites I frequent the better.)

I've grouped them into three categories: primary news sources (including two links to local news in Philadelphia), news and entertainment magazines, and entertainment and media sites.

The sites in the last category are often the most helpful. Keeping up with The New Yorker and the Times Op-Ed page might help your party talk become extra-splashy, but can tell you which all-weather tires or set of gourmet knives to buy. Chowhound is a great resource for finding restaurants and grocery stores in big metro areas, and Pitchfork keeps my CD collection (and indie rock credit) minty fresh.

I've noticed that many local news stations devote an inordinate amount of time to covering traffic and weather: local political intrigue could be getting hot national attention, but unless it's a full-blown sex-, corruption- and influence-peddling scandal (like with New Jersey Governor James McGreevey), most people are much more interested in how they'll get to work and whether they'll need to bring an umbrella.

This set of priorities can turn pernicious when people become so apolitical, disengaged, or anti-intellectual that they close themselves off to issues that are genuinely important and require their attention. (I'd much rather watch a good weather report than exposés of movie stars or political process stories -- at least on television.)

At its best, however, Americans' Franklinian pragmatism makes them shrewd, resistant to cant, and keenly attuned to their own interests. Likewise, I wouldn't feel my blog was worthwhile unless it gives its readers something they can use and enjoy. Ut docet, ut delectat, ut permovet.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Why's he spell "schrift" that way?

Nobody should have to share my nerdly preoccupations, especially with words in foreign languages, so I thought I should explain the title of my blog.

The English phrase "short shrift," meaning the indifferent brushing aside of someone's concerns, originally signified an abrupt, hasty confession, usually before death. "To shrive" meant to confess one's sins, perform penance, and ask for absolution. This is the sense of the phrase as found in Shakespeare's Richard III (the first recorded use in English): Richard Ratcliffe says to Hastings, “Make a short shrift; he longs to see your head.” In other words, make it snappy, because you're about to meet your maker. (Thanks to Michael Quinion for this origin story.)

Of course, "shrift" comes from the Latin scriptum by way of the German schrift, both of which mean writing or script. Kleinschrift is the German word for lower-case writing -- literally, "small script." (There's actually a German phrase, klein schreiben, meaning to make light of or set little store by -- almost exactly the contemprary English meaning of "short shrift.") But the semantics of klein and schrift, especially as they are typically compounded with other words, suggest that kleinschrift could also mean "short writing": a note, perhaps, or an essay, leaflet, or petition.

I chose "schrift" because I wanted a word that could signify all of these senses: writing, confession, essay -- even short, foul-tempered dismissal. I'm told that even my casual writings sometimes feel like reading assignments, but a weblog is no place to hem and haw and cover one's ass. If my writing here is going to be short and snappy, then I'll have to be a little short with and snap at people myself. And I can only do both of those if I think of the weblog entries as "short schrifts," scribbled post-it notes designed to open up a field of inquiry rather than exhaust it.

Finally, don't be surprised if my kleinschrift here soon becomes tied with the fortunes of my grossschrift: my dissertation in Comparative Literature, on which I begin work this fall.


This is my provisional attempt at a weblog. Expect discussions of news, art, music, popular culture, politics, and ideas big and small. And a snappier description.