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Looking at Africa, Looking at Ourselves

September 8, 2014 - 11:48

I remember the sense of vertigo when, as a graduate student, I approached Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” For the text presented me with a new way of seeing Africa and literature. It was as if, like a traveler in front of a marvelous but intimidating vista, I was no longer sure of my footing.

Achebe’s essay seemed to arise from a tradition separate from the French poststructuralist criticism I was being introduced to. Here was a literary author who, without the daunting discourse of theory, forced me to rethink my understanding of the world. Having loved Conrad's Heart of Darkness as a student and having been dazzled by Francis Ford Coppola’s reworking of the film as “Apocalypse Now, I had to take to pause.

Until my encounter with Achebe’s essay, I, like many readers, interpreted Heart of Darkness from the perspective of the European protagonists, never having thought about the Africans in the novel or how Africans themselves might react to it. Achebe’s essay, originally given as a lecture at the University of Massachusetts in 1975, made me confront my own blindness.

Achebe revealed new landscapes. He showed that Conrad, though critical of colonialism, relied on formulaic portrayals of Africa that ended up dehumanizing the continent. He used Africa as a symbol of darkness devoid of real people working, living, and dying, while he employed Africa as a backdrop for the exploration of European metaphysical problems. As he argues, “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world’, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.” Achebe calls Conrad a racist and concludes his essay by referring to the novel “as an offensive and deplorable book,” so despicable that he can’t understand why it is celebrated in the West as a masterpiece in the English language.

As much as I learned from this essay, I was troubled by the easy association Achebe makes between the narrator in the novel and the author of the novel. Although Achebe acknowledges the double narration in the text and subtle ironies at play, he shows insufficient sensitivity to the ambivalence and contradictions at work in literature. The virtue of literary language is that it cannot be frozen in its signification. Novels – Heart of Darkness, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Passage to India, have a way of deconstructing what they are representing and cannot be easily reduced to racist tracts.

My initial misgivings were reinforced when I returned to the essay in May of this year as guest of the Department of Language and Literary Studies at Kwara State University, Ilorin, Nigeria. During my second encounter with Achebe’s essay I was able to identify more clearly something else that troubled me as a student – the potential this essay has to cordon off rather than promote literary communication. Achebe rightly points out that Conrad uses Africa as a “setting for the disintegration of the mind of Kurtz,” eliminating Africa as an actual place where people lead their lives, dehumanizing in this way an entire continent. But Achebe’s incisive criticism also puts into question the possibility of engaging with the Other, something that I was trying to do at the time.

During my month’s stay in Ilorin, I posted blogs ( I , II ) about my experiences and wrote long private reports to family and friends. Was I using Africa as a backdrop in my engagement with the people I met, institutions I encountered, and ideas introduced to? Does not all comparison begin with the self as the base? Can one write about another society without at the same time reflecting on the self? Is not all travel writing as much about the self as the place visited? It seems to me that when we write about a particular location we engage in a dialogue of self and other, turning that place into a reflection on the self and the other. I don’t know whether this can be avoided and whether this avoidance is even desirable. For true empathic understanding comes out of this dialectic.

Travelers, Achebe says, even those not blinkered by xenophobia, can be “astonishingly blind.” This is true in that we are all influenced by the societies we live in. It’s impossible otherwise. No one can escape historical circumstance.

In a brilliant reading of Things Fall Apart the eminent critic and comparatist Francis Abiola Irele shows that Achebe provides an image of Africa as a “living entity and in its historical circumstance,” one unprecedented in literature. Nevertheless Irele identities a disjunction between the tribal society of Umuofia Achebe portrays and the detached narration of the novel. Achebe’s western education and Christian upbringing determine a narrative point of view marked by aesthetic distance, in contrast, say, to the active engagement of a traditional storyteller. Achebe’s challenge is to use the novel as form and the English language to describe a society for non-Igbo readers. The same can be said of all writers who portray their own societies to an audience unfamiliar with them.

The narrator of Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek uses a cool, remote discourse to depict the peasants of a Cretan village as ruled by chthonic passions, ritual murder, laments, and, vendettas. This discourse makes the peasants understandable to American students but to Greeks they seem ethnographic portrayals. Turkish critics tell me that Orhan Pamuk employs the techniques of postmodernism to represent political Islam as aesthetically comprehensible to western publics.

So the question I would like to pose is whether one can represent the Other to an outside audience while avoiding the charge of exoticism? I confronted this issue myself in the reception of my Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture. Inventing National Literature. After its publication in 1991 there appeared an angry article in the Athenian mass-circulation daily, To Vima, which accused me of offering a superficial and untrue picture of Greece for the benefit of western readers.

Does this mean we should not attempt to portray the Other or enter in a conversation with those beyond our doorstep because someone may find this portrayal strange and “false”? Achebe was pressed on this by Caryl Phillips who asked if he meant that “outsiders should not write about other cultures.” No, Achebe insisted. “We should welcome the rendering of our stories by others, because a visitor can sometime see what the owner of the house has ignored.” But he added, “they must come with respect and not be concerned with the color of skin or the shape of the nose.”

Fair enough. We should be mindful of the egregious misrepresentations of the past, which converted other societies into symbols with extraordinary explanatory power. But we should not let these past attempts to portray the Other stop us from entering someone else’s home and initiating a dialogue with its owner. Obviously we will know less of the place than its inhabitants. But how else can we understand each other and appreciate perspectives different from our own other than by risking a conversation?

Tags: AfricaChinua AchebeNigeriaThings Fall ApartRepresentationthe OtherSocial Network: Picture description: 

Photo Gregory Jusdanis 

Back to School with Anne Campbell

August 26, 2014 - 15:38

A little less than a year back, I wrote about Edgar Guest, the longtime poet of the Detroit Free Press who published a poem in that paper seven days a week for thirty years. The national syndication of his verse made Guest a household name, got him dubbed the “people’s poet,” turned him into a popular speaker, and made him a very rich man even if it didn’t secure him a place in scholarly histories of American poetry. Indeed, after mentioning Guest as part of a Modernist Studies Association panel a few years back, I happened to run into a prominent poet-critic in the airport and, in making small talk about the panel while we waited for our flights, he confessed that until my talk he’d never even heard of Guest. By contrast, my mother-in-law owned several of Guest’s books before she moved out of the family house and into a retirement home; when I was helping her move and opened them, other poems by Guest that she’d clipped from newspapers and magazines and stored between the pages came fluttering out.

If the poet-critic I just mentioned had never heard of Guest, it’s probably safe to say that he’s never heard of Anne Campbell either—the poet whom the Detroit News hired in 1922 to better compete with the Free Press. Called “Eddie Guest’s Rival” by Time and “The Poet of the Home” by her publicity agents, Campbell would go on to write a poem a day six days a week for twenty-five years, producing over 7,500 poems whose international syndication reportedly earned her up to $10,000 per year (that’s about $140,000 adjusted for inflation, folks), becoming a popular speaker in her own right, and proving that neither the Free Press nor Guest could corner the market on popular poetry. Indeed, a 1947 event marking her silver anniversary at the News drew fifteen hundred fans including Detroit’s mayor and the president of Wayne State University.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Campbell lately. For starters, I’ve been working on an essay about women’s poetry and popular culture for the Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century American Women’s Poetry, and Campbell’s clearly a central part of that history. Then I had the excellent good fortune of meeting Campbell’s granddaughter, who’s been very helpful in sketching out some of the details of Campbell’s life for me. Anne was born in rural Michigan on June 19, 1888, possibly finished high school, married the Detroit News writer and future Detroit city historian George W. Stark when she was twenty-seven, had three children, performed and recorded regularly with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra doing readings during intermissions in the 1930s, read on local and national radio, was active with the March of Dimes, and with George was a fixture of Detroit’s cultural life and friends, of course, with Guest. She published her first poem (where else, right?) in the Free Press when she was ten, won a state prize for a Memorial Day story and poem when she was fourteen, was first paid for her poetry when she was seventeen, gave a popular talk called “Everyday Poetry” on the Lyceum circuit, and published at least five books of poetry, one co-written with George. (For a bunch of blurbs and publicity materials about her, check out the pamphlets here and here.) She died in 1984.

I’ve also been thinking about Campbell because it’s back-to-school season, and, along with a new Trapper Keeper, I just purchased the card pictured here, which features Campbell’s poem “Visitin’ the School” and is identified as “A Souvenir of Anne Campbell’s Visit to Your School, Compliments of The Detroit News.” (The back of the card is blank, by the way, but it has glue marks on its four corners, suggesting that someone saved it in his or her poetry scrapbook; in fact, I've seen poetry scrapbooks dedicated entirely to collecting Campbell's poems.) Here’s “Visitin’ the School”:

Oh, dear, I feel like sich a fool

When folks come visitin’ the school.

I never git my problems well,

An’ jist can’t read an’ write and spell.


When teacher asts me to recite,

Although I try with all my might,

I feel the red burn in my cheek,

An’ my throat swells so I can’t speak.


My both knees shake an’ sweat rolls down.

An’ nen when I see teacher’s frown,

I git so scared, I wish fur fair

That I was any place but there.


When I git big an’ have a boy

I’ goin’ to make his life all joy.

No matter what the teacher’s rule,

I’ll not go visitin’ the school!

It’s an odd little poem, isn’t it? It's kitschy in a way that Daniel Tiffany’s recent book My Silver Planet: A Secret History of Poetry and Kitsch can help us to understand, and although the second and third stanzas don’t disclose the exact content of the recitation, they nevertheless call most readily to my mind the history of poetry memorization and recitation that Catherine Robson takes up in Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem; seen this way, “Visitin’ the School” is thus a poem about poetry.

But under the cover of innocence—the kitchiness, the schoolroom, the slightly baby-talk language, the rudimentary rhymes, etc.—I think Campbell's poem’s got something more going on. Noteworthy for how it doesn’t assign a gender to teacher, student, or classroom visitor (thus making a role in the child’s predicament available to all students, teachers, and classroom visitors), “Visitin’ the School” is super concerned with the subject of reproduction: whether or not the child’s oral expression can be reproduced in print; whether or not the child can faithfully reproduce what “teacher asts me to recite”; how the child will “git big an’ have a boy”; and, ultimately, how the child vows to not reproduce the cultural practice of “visitin’ the school.”

Locating a voice of protest and dissent in the child—the weak, scared, young, and nearly voiceless (“my throat swells so I can’t speak”) subject put under pressure by multiple forms of surveillance—Campbell’s poem becomes unexpectedly politicized, questioning, rather than confirming, the legitimacy of normative educational practices. If we do not hear this protest, it’s not because it’s not there, but because we who teach and visit classrooms at all levels fail to afford its apparently rudimentary poetic expression—by someone who “jist can’t read an’ write and spell”—the seriousness it deserves. As school begins, and as many of us may feel moved to lament the poor writing skills our students bring with them, that’s a lesson worth keeping in mind.

Tags: Anne CampbellModernist Studiespoetrypopular cultureSocial Network: Picture description: 

Publicity Brochure c. 1931

Poor Russians, or Putin's Complaint (An August Meditation II)

August 13, 2014 - 11:25
Poor Russia! Look how Russia has been humiliated by the West when NATO expanded to include its erstwhile Warsaw Pact allies and its former Baltic possessions, not to mention the promise to bring Ukraine into the EU, thereby threatening the 1500 mile-long border Russia shares with Ukraine. Isn’t Russia vulnerable enough already! Besides, shouldn’t a former empire – 63% of Russians believe Russia is a “great power” – be  able to exercise its influence over the territory it used to control while an empire? How can the Americans and the Europeans be so callous with such a peace-loving, cooperative, exceedingly friendly – and great – nation? How could Russia not feel vulnerable and threatened by the rich and powerful West? Doesn't the West understand that Russia has been on its knees far too long and now must rise again? Besides, who can take Ukraine seriously as an independent state, especially with a third of its population speaking Russian?   These are, in a nutshell, the sentiments of those both outside and inside Russia who advocate humoring Vladimir Putin with regard to Ukraine. For home consumption, the Kremlin and its media toss out red meat about the Nazi takeover of Ukraine and, in the words of the Speaker of the State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin, “the genocide of the Russian people” there.[1] The campaign for the dehumanization of the Ukrainians (“fascists,” “Nazis”) has been going on for months, including the WWI-style favorite propaganda myth of the Ukrainian soldiers crucifying a Russian child in Slaviansk. The report appeared on Channel 1 on July 12 and is still there.   Much of this rhetoric is predicated on the alleged deep, unbridgeable antagonism between Russia and the West. But first of all, Russia v. the West is a false dichotomy and Russia v. the EU, even more so. None of the EU member nations, separately or together, are interested in territorial expansion into Eurasia, nor NATO whose primary function has been to guarantee Europe’s post-WWII borders, nor its leading member, the United States. Putin himself has repeatedly proclaimed Russia to be a European power and seemed committed to this 300-year-old vision until he began to pivot towards Russian nationalism in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq. Still, the ambiguity persisted with profound political and economic implications. The difficulties the EU has been having with the sanctions in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea shows the high degree of Russia's integration into the web of EU economic and cultural relations. Visa-free travel for Russians to the EU was about to be negotiated when the Crimea debacle put everything on hold. Indeed, by historical reckoning, Russia's integration into the West since the fall of communism has been truly fast-track and, as it appeared, perhaps, a little too fast-track for the EU, given its long hesitation in responding to Russia’s blunt aggression in Ukraine.  

  But what about the issue of NATO expansion? When I was in Moscow in June, a die-hard Putin opponent told me he was sure that US and/or NATO had been planning to establish a military base in the Crimea and Russia’s take-over of the peninsula was meant to prevent it. I did my research. Apparently, the US requested a few years ago to be integrated into the old Soviet early warning system for missile defense against Iranian ballistic missiles. It is this request that has been morphed by the Russian propaganda machine into a menacing American plan to establish a military base on the Crimean peninsula. I have no doubt that a satisfactory arrangement could have been reached to allay Russia’s fears that the anti-missile defense system, still in the works, targeted at Iran, was “dual-use” and could have been pointed at Russia.

  But what about the more general argument that seems intuitively right: Shouldn’t Russia feel legitimately threatened, as it is surrounded by NATO members? Seen from the United States (except through Sarah Palin’s windows), Russia may not loom too large (compare the 2013 US military budget of $640 billion to Russia’s $88 billion); however, seen from Western Europe, Russia’s might is far more menacing (Russia spends about twice as much on the military as do France, the UK, or Germany). Russia, in fact, is the unrivalled European superpower in the military, nuclear, and, increasingly important, the hydro-carbon sense. Such a high-profile military posture is pretty hard to maintain while standing on one’s knees. Furthermore, let us not forget that for half a century following WWII, when the Russians – or, rather, their leaders – held their heads high (under Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko), Russia’s legal antecedent, the USSR, oppressed its citizens and turned the countries of East-Central Europe into de-facto colonies. Who can, then, blame Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, as well as the Baltic states that had been occupied by the Soviets under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, for scrambling to assert their national sovereignty at the first historical opportunity and securing their statehood by joining NATO and the EU? Is there any rational reason for Russia to think that these nations are poised to start nibbling at Russia’s territory?

  That there is no NATO threat to Russia should have become obvious even to the most thick-headed analyst in the wake of the Georgia War of August 2008. Resulting in loss of territory for Georgia, this conflict demonstrated that no outside power had the inclination (some say the ability) to challenge Russia in Russia’s own back yard, Senator McCain’s hollow saber rattling notwithstanding. In fact, the opposite argument has been legitimately made: the West’s demure reaction to Russia’s shenanigans in Georgia was realistic -- and a singular factor in Putin’s calculation when he decided to move into Crimea.  Today, according to NATO’s internal documents, disclosed in Der Spiegel on 19 May 2014, NATO lacks the ability to defend its members among the Baltic states, should Russia choose to invade them.

  The threat to Russia from the West, then, is literally a travesty: the reverse is true, if one understands “the West” as a stable political order that has governed European borders since WWII and, by mutual consent, since the collapse of communism. The "threat from the West" is nothing but a propaganda myth, a dusted-off  old Soviet saw about "capitalist encirclement" and the looming external enemy. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mikhail Gorbachev, Edward Shervadnadze and Alexander Yakovlev did a lot to demystify it but, apparently, not enough.

  Now, as under communism, this propaganda assault on the people, amplified by the craven, state-controlled Russian media (with very few digital media exceptions) is meant to shore up the legitimacy of the political class and its leader, who have proven incapable of setting their country on a course that would diminish its monumental corruption and narcotic dependency on the export of hydro-carbons. As a result, Putin and his United Russia Party, the political machine he jerry-rigged from the rubble of the Soviet one-party national-security state, are feeling vulnerable. The world has changed, and Russia’s new cosmopolitan elite, the so-called creative class, that has arisen since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has established itself economically in the prosperous oil-rich Russia, instinctively resists Putin’s authoritarian and increasingly ineffective rule. One common denominator of their protests was their sense of humiliation at the corrupt political process, a violation of their citizenship. After their protest demonstrations of 2011 and 2012, Putin turned away from this natural constituency for a modernizing leader, instead embracing the nationalism of the “silent majority” – populist, socially conservative, sanctimonious, and not infrequently chauvinistic. This must have been a desperate move on the part of the man who had previously condemned Russian chauvinism as a dangerous force that might lead to the break-up of the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional Russian Federation. A student of history, Putin has to be aware that the Russian empire of the Romanovs fell, in part, because of the autocracy’s embrace of exclusive Russian nationalism. Is today's Russia next?

  No need, then, to feel sorry for Russia or the Russians as victims of the powerful West. Rather, as throughout much of Russia’s history, Russians continue to be the victims – surely undeservedly – of their own government. True, there are many Russians, affected by the imperial visions of the Kremlin propaganda machine, who have been assiduously imagining themselves standing on their knees under the diktat of the evil West. Even under the best conditions of partnership, according to some of them, the West has treated Russia as a second-class citizen in the world community. This is what Tony Blair picked up during his friendship with Putin in the early 2000s: “Vladimir later came to believe that the Americans did not give him his due place (my italics, GF). Worse, he saw them circling Russia with Western-supporting 'democracies' who were going to be hostile to Russian interests.”[2] In a recent interview, Putin’s crony, billionaire Timchenko, echoed such sentiments and declared that his Western business partners had always treated him as “second league.” Complaints such as these, needless to say, involve what Max Weber called “the prestige of great powers,” ever hungry for self-aggrandizement and extra recognition, not the dignity of individual citizens. The former must have the pyramids and the most fearsome weapons; the latter, property and respect.

  Few will deny that the average middle-class Russian has been enjoying the best standard of living in all of Russia's history, replete with vacations abroad, separate apartments, country dachas, and late-model German, French, and Japanese automobiles. Aleksander Yakovlev used to say that Soviet citizens could not feel free because they did not own any property, for him the necessary condition of freedom. By this token, many of his compatriots may feel free these days and indeed they do hold their heads high. For years now, my undergraduate students at Stanford who have gone to Moscow to study alongside their Russian counterparts have complained that they felt a bit diminished by their colleagues’ off-campus spending habits. Yes, these are elite students, but I also remember my Stanford undergraduates traveling to study in Russia in the 1980s and telling me how shocked they were by the limited horizons and economic insecurity of their Russian counterparts. The 1980s are long gone! In my seven days of pounding the pavement in Moscow (after a twelve-year absence), I was able to spot only one Russian Zhiguli sedan, the most ubiquitous vehicle in Moscow circa 2002, but I noticed that Bentley has a  dealership in the, yes, Revolution Square next to the Kremlin (in case you are wondering, you can get one, slightly used, for just half a million dollars). Luxury cars aside, as individuals, middle-class Russians feel as proud and dignified as at any time since 1917, whatever their politics. It is the political class that runs the country and its leader Putin, a deeply corrupt regime, presiding over a profoundly corrupt bureaucracy, who feel the need to buck up their sagging prestige with a “little victorious war” while conjuring up the spectre of the big bad US and NATO and the “fascist” Ukraine.    Surely, there may be an occasional clash of interests over this or that tariff or import/export issues, but there has not been a fundamental antagonism between Russia and its Western partners. Quite the opposite. The new, post–Communist Russia was embraced by the West, cautiously, to be sure, but embraced nonetheless, as well as aided considerably by governments and NGOs as it struggled with the transition from Communism. It was the United States, to use just one example, that was the strongest supporter of Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization.

  The benign international climate, perhaps, the most benign in all of Russia’s history, the absence of actual military threat from the West or elsewhere, and Russia’s deep integration into the EU seem to have been taken by Putin’s government for granted while Russia had a free hand in preventing a newly independent nation from electing the government it likes and the form of economic modernization it chooses. This is what happened in Ukraine (and before it, in Georgia). By some accounts, Putin's decision to annex Crimea was an intemperate reaction to the sudden resignation of Ukraine’s president after months and months of popular protests against him. A sly tactical move taking advantage of Ukraine’s weak care-taker government, the annexation of Crimea was strategically an irrational act: it produced the opposite effect of anything one could wish for one’s own country – it diminished rather than enhanced Russia’s security by turning the world’s most powerful nations, economically and militarily, against Russia. But above all, it united  against Putin the politically and ethically diverse, as well as historically fractious, Ukraine and forced the EU states, ever a quarrelsome lot, to step back and agree, at last, on some concerted action to raise the stakes for Putin in his “big game” and to force him to reconsider his policies. After all, who wants a super-power bully in the EU's own back yard, a bully on the scale of a Stalin or a Hitler? With Western support for Ukraine now assured, Putin's adventure is liable to result in continuing turmoil on Russia’s borders that Putin himself may not be able to control – and a substantial strengthening of NATO’s Eastern and Northern borders. Poland used to have about a dozen US soldiers stationed on its soil prior to the annexation of Crimea. There are now about 500 US and NATO troops there and more are coming.

  The analogy with Hitler's Germany and the 1930s has been surfacing repeatedly since the annexation of Crimea (first made on 1 March 2014 by Professor Andrei Zubov of the prestigious Moscow Institute of International Relations). Well, similarities stare us in the face. The Germans, some Germans, did feel sorry for themselves. To paraphrase the rhetoric of the day: Oh poor Germans! The Treaty of Versailles brought our proud nation to its knees! And now Germans must rise! Hitler saw to it. Germany got up and raised its head. This rising from the knees began in March 1936 with the re-militarization of the Rhineland in direct violation of the treaties of Versailles and Locarno. Putin’s annexation of Crimea invites itself as an analogy: he violated the solemn agreement made by Russia, Great Britain, and the United States with Ukraine which agreed to get rid of its nuclear weapons in exchange for the affirmation of the inviolability of its present borders (The Budapest Memorandum of December 1994). Back in 1936, no significant reaction followed from the international community, except for phony outrage while Hitler’s action merited an iron-fisted push-back. This was appeasement Act 1. Two years later, Hitler swallowed Austria. No reaction followed. That was appeasement Act 2. The analogy today would be the take-over of Eastern Ukraine by the Russian-sponsored irregulars, who have their sights set on a still larger chunk, the entire “Novorossia,” including Odessa. Act 3 was, of course, the Munich Agreement and the resulting fall of Czechoslovakia – the archetypal appeasement. Here we must gasp at the analogy: the Munich moment was followed by WWII; further appeasement of Putin raises the spectre of WIII.

  To be sure, analogies are imprecise, which is why they are analogies, not equivalences. Putin is no Hitler. In Putin's case, what seems to be driving his expansionist agenda is not so much the wounded pride of the son of a former Great Empire (there is that, too, and yes, it hurts), but his fear for his own position as a head of state with his apparent aspirations for a life-time tenure. Back in 2011-12, when he realized in the wake of the shamelessly rigged parliamentary elections that he no longer enjoyed political support among the professional and cultural elite of the capitals (the cosmopolitans), he turned to the anti-cosmopolitan silent majority. Members of this constituency are far easier to convince of the just causes for their resentments (xenophobia, ethnic prejudice), as they have been sidelined during Russia's most recent spurt of modernization (a common enough phenomenon in the age of globalization and all too familiar to us in the United States – just watch Fox News). Putin spoke to them in language they could well understand, ratcheting up the rhetoric of incitement: first, the persecution of Pussy Riot, then the jailing of the demonstrators in the 2011 and 2012 protest rallies, and now the crescendo proclaiming Ukraine a nest of fascists.

  Of course, if you happen to run into Putin in your neighborhood bar and ask him, "why, Vladimir, why did you do it?" He would say he was afraid, not for himself, but for Russia, lest it disintegrate in a political free-for-all, and for that reason and it alone, he had to tighten the screws and start the little bloody war. But motivations, ultimately, are beside the point. A nationalist bully is a nationalist bully - whether because of the “stolen victory” in the Great War (Hitler’s well-known beef) or the insufficient magnanimity on the part of the Cold War victors (Putin’s whine). For unless a bully is stopped right away, his appetite will grow as it feeds on appeasement. To wit, unless Putin is stopped through diplomacy and other forms of soft power, including sanctions, we – meaning all of us here and in Russia -- will soon be staring into the new guns of August, and this is not a prospect that any of us will enjoy.

  August 10, 2014


P. S. My August Meditation I is here: Be Aware of the Quiet Days of August.

[1] Naryshkin’s speech in Belgrade on 5 May of this year.

[2] Tony Blair, A Journey: My Political Life (Toronto: Knopf Vintage Canada, 2010).


Tags: Aleksander YakovlevappeasementMunich 1938LocarnoVersaille Treatycreative classCrimeaHitlerMax WeberNational humiliationPutinRussiaUkraineWorld War ThreeSocial Network: Picture description: 

Pork delivered. Moscow. June 2014. Copyright © by Gregory Freidin


Social Science and Profanity at DH 2014

July 26, 2014 - 08:40

I recently returned from the DH 2014 conference in Lausanne. I went to give my brief (my brief brief) for getting serious about social science methods in digital humanities under the title “Let DH Be Sociological!” The conference offered plenty to think about on this theme. Also I got accused of wanting to “dumb down” an entire field of study…so that’s got me thinking too.

I won’t rehash the whole of my short talk in this post—in fact, a longer [sic] version is to be found online in the abstract, with the few significant changes I made visible in the final set of slides. Basically, I think we should situate quantitative methods in DH (which are currently going under names like “digital methods,” “distant reading,” and “macroanalysis”) in the context of one of the large-scale transformations of literary study since 1970 or so, its steadily growing and now dominant concern with the relation between the cultural, the social, and the political (let’s call it the cultural turn for short, though I don’t mean to identify the transformation of literary scholarship with the roughly contemporary historiographical shift of the same name). This turn is common knowledge, but it’s kind of fun to count it out, as I tried to do in the talk.1

One of the major challenges of the cultural turn has been the dubious relation between the handful of aesthetically exceptional texts literary scholars have focused their energies on and the large-scale social-historical transformations which have come to be the most important interpretive contexts for those texts. Do these texts tell us, as clues or symptoms, everything we can learn about the systematic relations between society and literature, or, for that matter, about the systematic development of literature considered just as a body of texts? 2 Haven’t we had good reason, ever since the canon debates, to doubt the coherence and comprehensiveness of the body of texts professional scholars happen to value? The cultural turn itself, then, might motivate us to search for other methods than those developed for interpreting the select body of texts.

What disciplines are concerned with systematically analyzing, using quantitative techniques, the relationships between patterns of culture and patterns in society? The social sciences: sociology, anthropology, political science… Not coincidentally, these are also disciplines in which the relation between quantitative and qualitative methods has been the subject of rich, lengthy, century-long debates. My own particular example was the way digital humanists making use of topic modeling are finding themselves facing the classic challenges of content analysis. How to reduce the complexity of a large body of texts in a reliable and informative way, how to scale up interpretation, how to validate a content scheme…The social-scientific methodological debates are now our debates. And quantitative and mixed-methods digital literary studies are in a position to radically expand and enrich the scope of the sociology of literature.

I saw some wonderful presentations at DH that were doing just that. Elizabeth Dillon and Julia Flanders presented a fascinating talk on planning text markup in light of research questions for the Early Caribbean Digital Archive. With the right markup, an archive can help to answer questions about cultural systems that link race, economy, and genre, or that allow us to map imagined and physical geographic spaces, or that let us trace changes in representations over time. And all of this not in a few hand-picked examples but across the archive. A team from the Stanford Lit Lab gave a fantastic presentation on reconstituting the eighteenth century British literary field from generic labels on title pages. Tim Tangherlini and David Mimno demonstrated how an algorithmic classifier of a collection of Danish folktales could yield remarkable anthropological conclusions about both story themes and story-tellers (not to mention the story-collector, too). Graham Sack showed some results from an ambitious attempt to apply agent-based modeling to the literary marketplace. Natalie Houston showed some techniques for probing the field of Victorian poetry, which promise to allow us to see large-scale trends in versification choices. Also from the annals of field-mapping was Carolina Ferrer’s short paper on applying bibliometrics to the MLA bibliography to understand canon-formation in the Americas (a topic which is naturally close to my heart). I missed the live version of Lauren Klein and Jacob Eisenberg’s discussion of how to analyze the evolution of topics in a 19th-century U.S. newspaper archive, but fortunately they have placed their talk online.

Such work breaks down the boundary between social science and “the humanities” (particularly the literary humanities; as someone at my panel pointed out, this boundary is less marked for historians). And well it should: this is just how we will answer some of our most interesting and urgent questions about the historical and contemporary role of culture. But we might also ask: what does that boundary protect? 3 Why indeed would someone be moved to say that my argument for the adoption of sociological method in DH is an attempt to “dumb down” digital humanities?

It would be more accurate (and would help to explain the animus, I think) to say that such methods threaten to profane the digital humanities. 4 Humanists, especially literary scholars, still often treat their objects as sacred texts, which can only be rightly handled by those who have been purified and trained in the correct methods. Treated reverentially, such texts, and their priests, promise something special, inaccessible by profane means. For example, they might allow priests some share of that “creativity” which infuses the original work, or some qualitatively exceptional, irreconcilably subjective experience, or some privileged species of meaning. 5

The digital as such is perfectly compatible with the sacredness of the humanistic text. The prominence of digital hypereditions of canonical authors (say: the Whitman Archive) makes the point. So, however, does the ambivalence with which many “distant readers” discuss their methods: there appears to be a strong temptation to frame such methods as a mere supplement to “close reading,” which remains the ultimate goal. Let us take a symptomatic example. In his DH 2014 keynote lecture, Bruno Latour repeatedly invoked the idea that the real value of the digital for the humanities would be to create a better close reading (a term he used repeatedly). The elaborate technical and institutional apparatus he created for his own Inquiry into Modes of Existence allows a remarkable “distant” view of the many readers and interpretations of his work, a few glimpses of which he gave. But he insisted repeatedly that the ultimate goal was to ensure a “close,” that is faithful, interpretation of his argument. Indeed, I could hardly ask for a better image of the sacerdotal than the video clips Latour showed us of the seminars on his book, in which the serious and credentialed readers voiced their views in the presence of the author. 6

This is not the only methodological route the digital affords us. Though it might preserve the sacred text, to be touched only by the sacred method (close reading) exercised by those who have been purified (the humanist, individuum ineffabile), it also might help us into an expanding universe of dirty methods, with their bags of words, their noisy classifiers, their obviously reductive models, their coding schemes (markup) planned in advance for counting. It might displace questions of value with questions about the systems that produce value. Instead of the priestly “reading” it might shift our attention to the study of readers and their readings. And so on… The more this transformation happens, the more humanistic research draws closer to social science in method as well as in object.

And here is the reason for going around saying “let DH be sociological, exclamation point”: these other methods can and do produce knowledge about subjects that matter to the community of scholars. Digital or not, quantitative or not—these oppositions are actually secondary. The boundary between sacred humanities and profane social sciences is a barrier to the production of knowledge. Let’s have profanity all around.

  • 1. The mini-content analysis in the talk was based on a topic model which I have not otherwise made available. If you really want it, get in touch with me by e-mail. Otherwise, I’d prefer people explore and analyze the 150-topic model of the same corpus Ted Underwood and I have put online as part of our Quiet Transformations of Literary Studies project. We discuss the cultural turn a bit in our article.
  • 2. In my view, even the latter is not so secretly a question about the social life of literature.
  • 3. DH allows us to revisit, and reiterate, the argument John Guillory makes in The Sokal Affair and the History of Criticism, to which everything I have to say is embarrassingly indebted. Guillory’s essay is a good place to go for an explanation of the way disciplinary boundary-drawing tends to produce overblown claims about the epistemological privileges of one discipline or another (not to mention ludicrous caricatures of the disciplinary rivals).
  • 4. Here begins a little armchair Durkheiming. Sorry.
  • 5. In Bourdieu’s memorably scornful terms: “Why are those who try to advance our knowledge of the artwork and the aesthetic experience so hounded, if not because the very ambition to produce a scientific analysis of this individuum ineffabile and of the individuum ineffable who produced it is a mortal threat to the pretension, so common…and yet so ‘distinguished’, of thinking of oneself as an ineffable individual able to have ineffable experiences of this ineffable thing?” Les règles de l’art, 12. “Scientific” (scientifique), it must be remembered, covers that wide domain of the sciences humaines which we do not easily encompass with a single English term.
  • 6. Latour insisted that this social closure was the point of the digitally-enhanced close reading. And in this he offered good, if somewhat (intentionally?) ironic, evidence for his other major argument, that the digital can help to lay bare more segments of the networks of practices and agents that have always been involved in producing cultural texts. I suggest that the digital apparatus “underlines” (as Latour would say) quite a few aspects of the priestly institution of the grand theorist. Though he repeatedly insisted he wasn’t a digital humanist, Latour spoke a language his audience knew well.
Tags: dhsociology of literatureprofanitySocial Network: Picture description: 

Noli me tangere. Hans Holbein the Younger, 1524. Wikimedia Commons.

Four Stones After Slavery

July 17, 2014 - 11:43

The four small stones we dredged up from the river and placed in my knapsack began to weigh me down with African history.

I had gone with Shola, a friend, and Johnson, a colleague, to the ancient Yoruba sanctuary of Osun. Located in the remnants of high primary forest in southern Nigeria and home to the white-throated monkey, the grove constitutes the only surviving Yoruba sanctuary, a place still revered by many people, and the location of an annual festival held in July.

The sanctuary is set along the meandering river of Osun and dedicated to the goddess of fertility, Osun, a central figure of Yoruba cosmology. Restored by the Austrian artist, Suzanne Wenger, it represents an important religious place for Yoruba people in Nigeria and the diaspora.

And it is with this diaspora in mind that I visited the sanctuary. Willys, a Brazilian colleague at Kwara State University where I was teaching in May 2014, had asked us to collect these stones from the river. He planned to take them to his home province of Bahia as presents to families who still worship the goddess of Osun and who feel a connection to the sanctuary. This was an astonishing discovery for me – that there exist descendants of slaves in Brazil today who remember Osun and its cosmology. This surely is proof of the indomitable human spirit.

So we delivered the stones to Willys; in his suitcase they made their own peregrination from Ilorin, to Lagos, Johannesburg, Sao Paolo, and finally arriving at Salvador da Bahia, taking part in a larger dispersion of people, faith, and material culture.

When I returned to Ilorin I picked up a book that made more connections between this area of Nigeria and Salvador da Bahia. Slave Rebellion in Brazil by João José Reis describes how in Salvador da Bahia Africans from Ilorin and surrounding regions fomented the largest slave rebellion of the Americas.

Many of these slaves were Muslim, some fluent in Arabic. Retaining knowledge of the language, they wrote down the Koran in Brazil from memory, taught it to their sons and passed it down through the generations. Unbelievably they achieved this without the knowledge of the Portuguese authorities or the plantation owners.

The rebels saw in Islam an alternative, unifying ideology that promised them freedom and envisioned a free Bahia for Africans. Some quixotically believed they would commandeer ships to take them back to what is today western Nigeria.

The insurrection broke out on Ramadan of 1834 and came to be known as the Mâle Revolt, as the Muslims of Bahia were called Mâle from the Yoruba imale, meaning a Yoruba Muslim. It was squashed by the authorities, who sought to destroy African Islam as a distinct, organized religion in Brazil. Some organizers were put to death while others were deported to Lagos. But slavery was abolished in 1851 partly because of this rebellion.

In an amazing example of turn-around, João José Reis will give presentations in October in Ilorin to an audience that will include descendants of the Yoruba Muslims who planned and partook in the rebellions.

But for me there were more links to be made. Before I left for Nigeria, Prof. Nayib Abdala, a colleague from the University of Cartagena where I taught in May 2012, suggested I read Changó. The Biggest Badass, (Changó. El gran putan) by the Afro-Colombian author, Manuel Zapata Olivella.

Little known even in Colombia, this is a difficult and challenging work, encyclopedic in its knowledge of the African diaspora and cyclopean it its ambition to represent the people of Changó, the Yoruba god of thunder, war, and sexuality. Part lyric, part epic, part novel, part ethnography, it defies the laws of genre as it also disobeys western notions of chronology.

The book proposes an Afrocentric view of the five-hundred-year experience of the African diaspora. Starting in places such as Osun, it follows the harrowing passage across the Atlantic, and the arrival of Africans in Cartagena, the entry point to the Caribbean and Latin America. Chapter Three, the “Vodou Rebellion,” chronicles the successful slave insurrection in Haiti while the subsequent chapter deals with the various wars of independence in Latin America and the leading role played in these rebellions by people of African descent. The book ends in the United States with the civil rights movement where Changó takes the form of figures like Malcolm X.

Changó. The Biggest Badass blends history and myth, the past and the present, the living and the dead, the supernatural with the natural world. As Zapata Olivella says in the Preface: “Forget about the boundaries between life and death, because in this saga you are the prisoner, the discoverer, the founder, the liberator.”

But what unites the five disparate chapters are the “African Orichas, [deities] and the dead ancestors who refuse to recognize the limits of the centuries, of geography or death.”

And this is why on every page Zapata Olivella portrays African defiance and rebellion against enslavement. When a freed slave in Cartagena is brought to the Inquisition on charges of practicing African witchcraft, he is tortured (in the chambers I had actually visited two years earlier) and burned at the stake. But he remains rebellious. And as the flames consume his body, his spirit rises up, becoming one with the “Orichas and Ancestors.” And the chapter closes with these lines:

Let no one feel himself a slave,

For the brand on his buttock,

A night in chains Does not enslave the soul.

The Brazilian recipients of our stones breathe this soul, confirming Zapata Olivella’s vision of an undying diaspora and of the inexhaustible power of Changó. And I, an outsider to this drama, could only count the ties between Ilorin and places in the Americas, each link becoming more illuminating and more hopeful.

Tags: African diasporaBrazilChangóIlorinSlave rebellionsBahiaOsunYoruba sanctuariesManuel Zapata OlivellaNigeriaSocial Network: Picture description: 

Graphic by Michelle Jia : Images Gregory Jusdanis and ( I )

The Symphonic Subject: Beethoven, Hegel, Adorno

June 22, 2014 - 09:15

On a chilly October day in 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte's army laid waste to Prussian troops on the outskirts of Jena, a university town in central Germany. The sounds of his canons reverberated through the town, providing a sound track for the young philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as he put the finishing touches on a work that would change the course of history.

The Phenomenology of Spirit would be published the following year, a book of such suggestive power that it helped engender Marx and Engel's scientific materialism, Alexandre Kojève's vision of postwar European universalism, and Francis Fukuyama's argument for neoliberal capitalism as the natural end of history. As Hegel sat at his desk, finishing his epic story of how the human Spirit comes to full self-consciousness and absolute knowing, he imagined that history was coming to an end: the French emperor bringing with him a new form of government that would shatter for ever the hold of feudal lords on men's wills and that of an archaic church on their souls; and Hegel bringing them a new form of thought, a philosophy that could grasp the very movement of thought itself, and that could therefore never be surpassed.

In December of that year, a young composer, already the toast of Vienna and recognized heir to its musical royalty, Mozart and Haydn, would premiere his Violin Concerto in D Major. Finished in haste and almost too late for the premiere, the Concerto was at first not a success, and the soloist slated to perform it inserted some of his own music out of frustration.

Although Hegel was wrong about history having come to an end on that chilly October day, he was not wrong in sensing that he had articulated an idea that would dramatically change the way philosophers would conceptualize coming to know the world and themselves. Likewise, the music that Beethoven would begin to create from around 1803 on also signaled a fundamental change in human history.

These changes, one in philosophy, one in music, are profoundly related.

As the philosopher and music theorist Theodor Adorno wrote in his fragmentary notebooks for a never-completed project on Beethoven: "To say that Beethoven's music expressed the World Spirit, that it was the content of that Spirit or suchlike, would undoubtedly be pure nonsense. What is true, however, is that his music expressed the same experiences which inspired Hegel's concept of the World Spirit.”

What does it mean to say that Beethoven and Hegel were expressing the same experiences, when the former composed his world-changing music and the latter penned his world changing philosophy? Adorno was clearly not referring to the casual, particular experiences of two individuals as they grew to manhood in different parts of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. What he meant, rather, is that they experienced the same historical moment—in the sense of how culture at large was changing and articulating that change in different ways. As he put it, "Beethoven's music is an image of that process which great philosophy understands the world to be. An image, therefore, not of the world but of an interpretation of the world."

In making this argument, Adorno was trying to move our understanding of how music communicates away from the commonplace idea according to which we listen to music and it in turn generates images of the world. Instead, he insisted that Beethoven’s music be understood as an image of an interpretation of the world, and specifically of the process that great philosophy understands the world to be. That process that Beethoven's music communicated in its own language was the same process Hegel's philosophy tried to express: the process of human consciousness coming to understand itself.

For Hegel, Spirit can only achieve true knowledge when it stops seeing itself as separate from the world it is trying to understand; when it has learned that every empirical experience of the world already contains within it the entire history of consciousness and all its incessant change.

For Adorno, Beethoven occupied a position of privilege between the genius of Mozart and the experimental excesses of the Romantics. Beethoven came on the scene at a moment when the conventions of the classical style still ruled; he “composed as he wanted” in the face of those restrictions, hence opening the doors for all to follow him, while at the same time removing the very constraints that helped make him unique.

The conventions that Beethoven exceeded from within are a musical version of historically specific knowledge, the particular instances that Hegel's consciousness discovers along the path of history. His innovations, the concussive effects of his musical creations as they broke those conventions, were his version of Hegel's consciousness freeing itself from the bounds of time and place and reaching for the universal.

In the dialectic of knowledge that Hegel composes in the Phenomenology, again and again consciousness discovers that some inert, particular aspect of its existence, which it apparently comes upon for the first time, is itself already the dynamic result of the history that led up to this encounter. By coming to know this new thing, consciousness is already something else and is, together with that new thing, both destroyed and preserved in a new form, itself subject to new encounters.

In the Violin Concerto, as well as in the famous Pastoral Symphony that Beethoven premiered only two years later, we find, Adorno writes, “the idea of expressing tranquility through motion.” How is it possible,” he goes on to ask, “that in Beethoven, even where antagonistic moments are simply absent, as in the closing movement of the Pastoral—symphonic tension is nevertheless created? Through the transition to the general. This happens, however, precisely through an act of subjective will…. and in this we also find the rupture, the secret negativity."

What Adorno was perceiving in Beethoven was a musical expression of the sort of revolution in thought that Hegel's work initiated. For Hegel, the transcendental anchor that holds Spirit's identity intact was no longer God, the soul, or even an Ego or internal subject perched in the back of our brains witnessing our lives and history march by. The core of Spirit's identity over time was nothing but time itself; the movement of thought grasped as change; a subject becoming itself and only then discovering the past that it makes its history through an act of subjective will. In its musical manifestation, this is the very idea of symphony; the whole work that subsumes and gives identity to its parts, its components, its movements. In Adorno's words again, "In the Beethovian form the present creates the past."

The idea of the pastoral is, in fact, the perfect setting for revealing this aspect of Beethoven's musical philosophy. Arcadia, the bucolic Golden Age, a prior and perfect time lost forever to man's destructive urge to change nature. Beethoven's pieces don't convey or represent such an image, but by their structure and movement they elicit the emotional complexity of modern society's relation to such virgin tranquility. The past does not predate us, pristine and uncorrupted; the present creates the past as its lost predecessor, positing and depositing there its desires and broken dreams. We create Arcadia and are already longing for it, nostalgic for it. Our desire is always laced with sadness, even as we construct out of it our greatest works of beauty.

This version of the return to nature had a personal meaning for Beethoven, and one soaked in an almost unbearable pain. In 1802 Beethoven moved from the fourth-floor flat he had been renting in Vienna's third district out to the town of Heiligenstadt, a picturesque latticework of stone streets running through corridors of low-slung buildings painted in the gentle yellow beloved of the Hapsburg Princes, and nestled among the gentle hills and vineyards that abut the famous Vienna woods to the city's north. Beethoven's doctor had advised him to make the move in order to create a distance between the city with its constant bustle and the ever-worsening ringing in Beethoven's ears, which would gradually and irrevocably deprive him of his greatest, most vital sense.

For Beethoven, the tranquility of Heiligenstadt was simultaneously a retreat from the world of his fellow men and a banishment into the silence of his ever-growing solitude. As he wrote in 1802 in a letter to no one in particular, which he would keep with him in secret until his death in 1827, "born with a lively, ardent temperament, also susceptible to the diversions of society, I was, at an early age, obliged to cut myself off, to live my life in solitude; if, once in a while, I attempted to set all this aside, oh how harshly would I be driven back by the doubly bad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was no possible for me to say to people: speak louder, shout, for I am deaf; ah, how would it be possible for me to reveal a weakness in the one sense that should be perfect to a higher degree in me than in others, the one sense that I once possessed to the highest degree of perfection?" Thus was the tranquility of his country idyll at once a constant reminder of his loss, his solitude, and his burning desire for communion with his fellow men. "Forgive me if you see me draw back from you," he continued, "when I would gladly join together with you…. For me there can be no recreation in people's company, no conversation, no mutual exchange of ideas."

Hegel believed that music was the highest form of sensual art, going the furthest in Spirit's quest to free itself from the constraints of the material world. From there spirit's journey could only be carried further by the word, first in poetry, finally in a philosophy that learned to grasp the movement of thought itself.

Adorno appreciated the idea but ultimately questioned the hierarchy. Could it not be, he wondered, that music itself is the highest form of human expression, freed as it is not only from the material weight of any given moment of expression, but also from the particularity of the words and concepts that poetry and philosophy cannot exist without? He could always best experience Beethoven's music, Adorno claimed, when he read it in silence, the way Beethoven must have composed it already in the years when he put the notes of the Violin Concerto and the Pastoral Symphony to paper. Those notes, issuing from the curse of an unimaginably cruel irony, approached an idea and a set of emotions that could be painted in colors or described by words. But could words or images fully express the wrenching simultaneity of happiness and loss, desire and its unattainability that Beethoven's "tranquility through motion" affords us? Even these words are mere approximations and but the vaguest interpretations, a scaffolding from which, perhaps, to glimpse a fragment of what may be—just may be—the truth of what Beethoven gave us.

Tags: BeethovenHegelAdornomusic and philosophySocial Network: Picture description: 

Graphic by Michelle Jia : Images Wikipedia (I) and the Noun Project (I)

We have never been inside: on Peter Sloterdijk's "In the World Interior of Capital"

June 10, 2014 - 11:04


This is the first Sloterdijk I've read, though I've always been attracted to the title of Critique of Cynical Reason because it's got the word "cynical" in it. This volume promises a similar iconoclasm: has the critique of grand narratives, centerpiece of post-totalitarian Europe, itself "already hardened into a comfortable meta-grand narrative" (4)? His proposal really is grand: a philosophy of globalization divided into a "history" of crazy risk-taking ("disinhibition") and Western imperial expansion from 1492-1945, and a "post-history" in which electronic simultaneity and decolonization together create a space of "inhibitions," instant feedback, and the "obligatory contrition" (10) enforced on nation-states by international courts of law.

Anyone who likes Adorno's aphorisms will enjoy Sloterdijk's wordplay, and his habit of connecting seemingly random details into overarching stories: the "theory of the pirate," the excurses on Jules Verne and Rilke, the idea that if we switch to solar power, the "romanticism of the explosion" will look in retrospect like "energy fascism" (231). It's a delightful book, with weirdly defamiliarizing observations on every page. The book's most vivid section is its depiction of the risk-taking world of the first European explorers, and their literally delusional belief in their own success. Mutinies (and depressive, self-critical thoughts) must be violently suppressed: "Had the Portuguese Magellan ... not overruled the objections of the next men in command, marooning and executing Spanish nobles along with the other rebels, he would not have made it unmistakably clear to his people what it means to be on an unconditional outward voyage" (82). This relentless and quasi-psychotic forward orientation survives in modern business practices: "the crews on the discovery ships were the first objects of naïve and effective group modelling processes that were redescribed in the present day as 'corporate identity' techniques" (81).

Team-building exercise: Magellen dealing with mutineers

In this stage of globalization, no one can stop the "unleashed visionary energy of the entrepreneur-charlatans. Today, as yesterday, all of these live off their productive errors ... Through their auto-hypnotic talents, practical natures manage time and time again to build up empires around themselves from self-deceptions that succeed in the medium term" (83).

Sloterdijk thinks philosophy has underestimated the conflict between the land-bound and the sea-borne in Western thought: to really build your society and economy around ocean navigation, you have to make your culture portable (so explorers beneath foreign skies can still feel like natives of their country of origin), insure everything, speculate constantly, accept that "enlightenment begins at the docks" (87). The medieval universities and the landlocked countries overestimate the importance of nations, of Boden, of dwelling, and they merely look provincial. But Sloterdijk is so persuasive in his slighting of Heideggerian provincialism and his description of the psychotic-entrepreneurial mindset of globalizing Europe that I found the second half of the book, when he describes life inside the giant Crystal Palace of modernity, a little disappointing.

Global "haves" from Disney's Wall-E: freedom, whatever

This Crystal Palace was clearly built by visionary psychotics (though fully insured!), so it's not clear how life inside got so dull. Sloterdijk's Crystal Palace is like the spaceship in Wall-E, with its fat entitled humans—though of course far less equitable, since so many people today live outside the world of consumer dream. (Whether the global outsiders are being exploited—whether this economic inequality is in fact necessary to consumer society—isn't clear.) Inside the dome, modern subjects engage in various security-enhancing projects culminating in the desire to become a global celebrity. Despite the humor here, I'm not a big fan of the implication that modern society is decadent—it flattens out real political gains made in this century by (for example) women, non-European races, and alternate sexualities into mere consumer choices. Ho hum, women can vote now.

If you live in a glass house, you want to throw stones at the glass house. Glass houses are fragile and ridiculous. But what if you think you live in a city instead? Or perhaps a civilization? Maybe civilization is super-violent and unsustainable ecologically, but it's also been, thus far, the vehicle of all human liberation. I'm looking forward to reading more Sloterdijk: the first volume of Sphären (translated as Bubbles) is already out and the other two are on their way. But is there an apocalyptic death wish in that title, with its suggestion that bubbles gotta pop? What if some of the things in consumer society create genuine pleasure (an argument debated by Mark Fisher and Jodi Dean in Reading Capitalist Realism)? Humans live in society—as Sloterdijk does point out, we cannot survive in the empty void. Maybe humans actually breathe more freely in cities, in connected groups open to the air.

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Graphic by Michelle Jia : Images TheNountProject ( I, II)

Capture the Invisible: Liminal Space and the Photo Document

June 2, 2014 - 20:23

What is a liminal space?

The landscape architect Sonal Mithal answered this question as she began her laboratory workshop for the Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art, Nature, and Dance (iLAND), on whose board I serve and I've discussed in a previous post. I didn’t quite hear what she said because I was there to document, not quite within the group though not quite outside, which I gathered had something to do with liminal space itself.

As I came to understand it from my position, a liminal space is one that is neither inside or outside, what one has to pass through to move from one space to another. The dance and food artist Athena Kokoronis demonstrated this by shooting her hand through a hole in the wrought iron gate that separated the “public” space of the park and the fenced in garden area where one is not supposed to tread:

I captured this moment outside the boundary of clear focus, but perhaps Kokoronis’ hand is just focused enough, certainly more focused than the background, to occupy a liminal space in the photograph’s depth of field. I also do not remember the moment when I took this image, and am unable to reconstruct whether my eye was on my viewfinder composing it, or if I merely pointed the camera in the direction of the gate. 

I found these two spaces to be distinct as well, the space of the eye and the space of the hand augmented by my camera’s autofocus function, and over time, I was able to negotiate between them such that the composition of my photographs themselves documented this liminality. It would be a consistent motif of the afternoon and the resulting images from this documentation, as I often had to shoot without the aid of my eye for fear of bumping into something or being run over.

This image seems to have been taken at about eye level and focused on my subject, the landscape architect David Hays, though a railing seems to be obstructing my view of his head. Was this something that I saw through my viewfinder or was I in the mode of shooting without seeing that I clicked the shutter without looking even though I could have? And is David really the proper subject of this image given that we don’t see his head? There is a stranger’s face that seems to be in focus, yet compositionally one might argue that the obstructions and the out of focus elements in the foreground of the photograph constitute more of its subject. Liminality, so elusive at the start of this workshop, seems to be everywhere.

During the course of the afternoon, two groups first explored liminal spaces in Union Square Park and along the streets towards Madison Square Park five blocks up. I followed the first group, which consisted of Hays and the dancer and iLAND Director Jennifer Monson, during the initial phase of the workshop as they negotiated various barriers, fixed and mutable, natural and man-made, such as when I caught the two holding hands in the liminal space between the bike path and the sidewalk, as a skateboarder in a liminal position himself was passing them:

Their explorations made for endlessly fascinating moments of internal composition, yet form in its endless permutations kept moving me, especially when moments of formal intricacy caught me by surprise as I looked through these photographs:

Here’s a picture. Of what? An out-of focus hand? A foot? Or is the picture in the space where both the hand and the foot seem to be gesturing, a space whose boundary seems to be in the background, though it really isn’t the subject of the picture. It seems as though the subject of the picture is invisible, constructed by the interaction between my camera and my casual shutter-clicking (because I doubt that I could ever deliberately compose a picture like this). The invisibility exists between an interior constructed by the finger and an exterior constructed by the statue’s foot, or possibly the other way around. In whichever direction, this comes closest among my images to a picture of liminal space.

The second part of the workshop involved going back to three places and spending time there to map the appearance, disappearance, and reappearance of liminal spaces over time. I followed the second group this time consisting of Kokoronis, Mithal, and a woman I only knew as Kate. I found myself mapping my own space as I observed them, specifically the space of their interaction with each other. This resulted in me taking serial photographs as they interacted. In this series, I became curious about how Kokoronis’ animation made her the focal point of interaction, and moments when the space she occupied became more and less expansive:

It was curious to me that while Kokoronis in this series of images seems to be in mid-explanation, Mithal can also be seen interacting with Kate and shuffling through her map, which shows a certain fluidity in how the interior and exterior spaces of interaction between them are constructed. This made it quite difficult for me as an editor to decide which images to include in this set and which not to include, and I ended up including them all.

Given the difficulty in pinpointing liminal spaces within the photograph, it occurred to me that the same can be said for the photo editing process itself. Photographers are trained to choose the one image that captures whatever it is that an event or a brand or an idea is supposed to represent. But how can you capture something that must in itself resist being at the center, or inside, or clearly outside. Rather than take this approach of careful curation, I decided to include as many photographs as I can within the limitations of the medium I gave myself. In this case, that happens to be Issuu, which limits its documents to 500 pages, and I’ve edited about 800 images down to that many. It concerns me that I’ve eliminated emblematically liminal ones, but I hope that enough of them are in the final set to convey the idea that centrality is not the focus of these pictures unlike in typical documentation.

Finally, I invite readers to think of the liminal within the virtual spaces of this virtual book, currently in draft form. Maybe it can be found in the turns of the page, in the boundaries between pictures and non-pictures. Maybe you too can engage, as I did, with the practice of trying to capture the invisible.

Tags: spaceliminalityiLANDJennifer MonsonSonal MithalphotographydanceSocial Network: Picture description: 

Graphic by Michelle Jia: Photo Meredith Ramirez-Taluzan ( I

Nigeria beyond Bombs and Ebola

June 2, 2014 - 07:46

Friends and relatives warned me against going to Nigeria. They pointed to the scorched earth tactics of Boko Haram, the bombings in the capital Abuja and the internecine conflict in Jos. But my colleagues at Kwara State University, where I was invited to offer seminars in the Department of Languages and Literary Studies, assured me that the situation there was normal.

So on May 1, 2014, I arrived in Ilorin, a city of two million inhabitants, and spent a month participating in academic programs. My colleagues were right. Despite the alarming news about the country, life in this city went in its own way. People drove, walked, went to the market, made calls, and took care of their families despite the tremendous challenges they faced. Not once was my life in any danger.

In my reports back home, I tried to describe my interactions with people I met to give a sense of a place beyond headlines and symbols. Specifically I wrote about how my time in Ilorin forced me confront the privileges of race, age, and professional status that I can more easily avoid in Columbus, Ohio.

In Ilorin my whiteness endowed me with near ennobling qualities that emphasized my elevated social status. When I walked the streets, people addressed me as “oyinbo” (white man), not as an expression of hatred but of curiosity and often friendly greeting. Sometimes children wanted to touch my hands as if I had talismanic potential.

At a performance of neo-traditional Yoruba poetry, music, and dance, my race identified me for special treatment. At the end of the presentation, some of the performers invited me on the stage for photographs. Confused by this gesture, I asked my Nigerian colleague for an explanation. He suggested that the group would likely use the pictures for promotion, to demonstrate that “we are so good that even whites come to our shows.”

Yet while whiteness made me a “star,” it also implicated me in the painful history of colonialism. At the market I was called master. “Masta, masta, bananas?” the women cried out. This was disconcerting, entangling me in previous and current injustice.

Just as I could not escape my race, I couldn’t avoid the honors of professional status. When my colleague’s driver took me to the market, he always carried the bags of fruit and vegetables. If I had insisted on taking them myself, I would have brought shame to him in the eyes of those around him. For he would not have been performing his job properly, letting the oga (boss) do the work. I also rode in the back, right-hand side of the car, a carry-over of colonialism. One day, having forgotten this arrangement, I tried to open the front door and the driver kindly pointed to the back seat.

As a white middle-class professor, I was nearly at the top of the pecking order. You could say that this is also true back home. But in the United States it is easier to avoid thinking about class divisions.

My age also identified me for special treatment. When I first visited the house of my host, his maid bowed to me. Out of discomfort I bowed back. But my colleague advised against repeating this for it would imply equality between us. In reality, age, class, gender, race, and culture permanently separated us.

The bow of the maid also illustrated the tacit rules of ceremony and respect that were foreign to me. Her average day, and that of other residents of the city, constitutes an intricate dance of curtsies, bows, dips, bobs, and genuflections in front of elders and social superiors. All the men I talked to prostrate in front of their parents each morning. At the gate to the palace of the Emir, my friend dropped down in front one of the Emir’s advisors and with his right hand clasped his own left ankle and then asked permission for us to enter.

The emphasis on hierarchy pointed to the difference between the western celebration of choice and the local reliance on obligation. In a conversation with a young man, I learned that he was in line of succession to be Emir. I, who considered emirates mostly a mode of travel, asked clumsily whether he would like to be Emir of Ilorin. “If it is my destiny,” he responded. Had I in my 58 years ever used this expression? His understanding of fate and vocation showed that not just race but also the pull of tradition distanced me from him.

My attempt to see a normal Nigeria obliged me to face the contradictions of my own thinking. Every day I tried to align the divisions of age, gender, race, profession, and ritual with my own faith in egalitarianism, liberalism and cosmopolitanism.

Tags: NigeriaBoko HaramIlorinWhitenessraceKwara State UniversitySocial statusSocial Network: Picture description: 

Graphic by Michelle Jia : Photo by Gregory Jusdanis with Texture ( I )

Tolstoy, Max Weber, Love and War

May 22, 2014 - 10:15

Entitled Opinions (about Life and Literature) has just released a podcast of my conversation with Robert Harrison about Tolstoy and Max Weber. These two names—one, perhaps the greatest novelist of the nineteenth century, the other, the father of modern sociology—rarely appear in one sentence. They should.

During the winter quarter, I taught a seminar at Stanford called "Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Social Thought of Its Time." We looked at Tolstoy's great, perhaps the greatest, novel as a kind of an upside-down Noah's Ark transporting us from the optimistic shores of the nineteenth century onto the shores of the twentieth—an age shrouded in grand illusions but serving up wars, revolutions, the gulags, the holocausts, as well as the prospect for the total annihilation of humanity... Yes, I sigh, stay tuned...

Like all great works, Tolstoy's was in dialogue with contemporary master thinkers, and I structured the course in such a way that after immersing ourselves in the novel for three weeks, after following all the love and the heart break, the ball rooms and the salons, the barnyards and the races, the meadows and the railroad tracks, after figuring out how Tolstoy could produce a hybrid of Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert, after grasping the consequences of the Crimean War and the Great Reforms in Russia, we could start re-reading the novel yet again.

Week after week, we paused over a section to catch the echoes of Plato (on love), Freud (on dreams and the unconscious), Marx (political economy), John Stuart Mill (women's emancipation), Nietzsche (ethics, truth, and power), Emile Durkheim (community and religion) and, as a culmination, the response of a thinker who was one of the keenest readers of Tolstoy and one who put together systematically all of these aspects of the modern condition together—Max Weber.

Weber knew Russian (he learned it to follow the events of the Russian 1905 revolution), and thought that on the small chance that a new world religion might arise in the modern world, it could only happen in Russia. No doubt, his reading of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had a lot to do with it. But it must also have been the sociological sophistication of Tolstoy's genius, that drew him deeply to his work. Speaking to his students after the end of the Great War, the father of sociology conceded that social science cannot answer Tolstoy's killer question "what is a good life," even though this is, in Weber's eyes, "the most important question for sociology." What it can instead accomplish, Weber insisted, is to "help sort it all out." For two weeks, Weber guided us in the seminar, as we tried to sort out Tolstoy's conundrum.

Ivan Kramskoy, "Reading" (1863)

What, then, is a good life? Tolstoy thought he had figured it out. As we know, in the course of writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy underwent a conversion, and the novel, written over four years, served him during this time as a kind of a diary. Especially the last part of Anna Karenina, Book Eight, resonates with what Tolstoy understood as his conversion a turn to what came to be known as Tolstoyanism, or in Russian, tolstovstvo. Donning the mantle of a prophet, the author of Anna Karenina felt inspired to re-write the New Testament. His new Gospel (and he referred to it as "my Gospel") affirmed without compromise a distilled, rationalized Christian ethic of love (love thy neighbor as you would yourself, turn the other cheek); what it denounced was modern civilization, in particular, the modern state and society that he saw as vehicles for spreading carnality and violence, be it under the guise of the cult of romance, the veneration of the arts, emancipation or women, general progress, nationalism, communism, or other modern ideology.

This is why the main emphasis in Anna Karenina falls on the vehicle—the locomotive, the key symbol, the metaphor and the allegory for, not progress, but the perdition awaiting modern man. The novel's love story, by comparison, the tragic romance of Anna and Vronsky, is just a honey trap. As inevitably as carnal love fades away and disappears altogether, its other side—aggression, violence and war—comes to the fore. Weber's thought resonates with Tolstoy's. "The more sublimated it is," Weber wrote about the erotic relationship of the modern sophisticated sort, "the more brutal." And before you stop to catch your breath, he goes on to define erotic love as "the most intimate coercion of the soul of the less brutal partner."

Max Weber (1917)

According to Marian Weber's biography of her late husband, Weber was planning a book on Tolstoy, and I believe that his famous 1916 long essay ("Zwischenbetrachungen" or "Reflections") may have been, apart from other things, a sketching out of his own dialogue with the prophet and last author of Anna Karenina. His several references to Tolstoy's work, the essay's structure, and its very title—Reflections on Stages and Directions of Religious Rejection of the World—compel us to read Tolstoy and Weber together.

My friend and Stanford colleague Professor Robert Harrison, who has been running Stanford's radio show, has been asking me to do a show on Tolstoy for a few years now. Over the last few years, we've had coffees and lunches and talked about the subject. Finally, the stars aligned perfectly: I had just finished the course, Robert had an opening in his schedule. We pounced. You can now hear this conversation as a podcast on iTunes or directly on the Entitled Opinions website: Grisha Freidin on Leo Toslstoy.

Tags: TolstoyAnna KareninaMax WeberZwischenbetrachungenReligious Rejections of the WorldTolstoyanismTolstovstvoSocial Network: Picture description: 

Graphic by Michelle Jia : Images Wikipedia ( I , II ) and Flickr ( I )

The Kitchen Sisters and I

May 22, 2014 - 09:53


Some time a year a go, I received a call from Davia Nelson, one of the famous Kitchen Sisters, whom I had met earlier while having drinks with our mutual friend Tom Luddy (yes, at Chez Panisse, of course). Davia wanted to do a whole program on the Soviet Kitchen, especially the Soviet kitchen as the locus of civil society in the late Soviet Union. I have heard their features before, and I loved them but it never occurred to me that something this colorful could be done with my "native realm." Although I like cooking and at a certain point in my life spent quite a bit of time learning Chinese and French cuisine, I had never thought about the kitchen and food as a significant subject in Soviet history, even Soviet cultural history. A good conversation piece, a cute object of ambivalent Soviet nostalgia, a subject for jokes, perhaps even a shibboleth for the Soviet cognoscenti, but an object of serious study?

Boris Ignatovich, “Drinking tea in the Village of Ramenskoye” (1928)

Well, I scratched the surface and saw -- gold! I realized that my own and at the time inexplicable obsession with learning to cook Chinese, French and Italian dishes had to do with my deep desire to create a distance between my Soviet past and myself. Yes, my wife was an American, a New Yorker, I had been living in the US since the fall of 1971 and a American citizen since 1974, went to Cal, taught at Stanford since 1977, and yet I now realize that my migration had not been complete without a retreading, so to speak, of my alimentary tract with the tastes, flavors, and textures of non-Soviet cooking. I emphasize Soviet because I love Russian food -- caviar, lox, herring, various salads, bliny, milk products, pickled mushroom, cabbage, apples, and its Georgian/Armenian/Azeri iterations of the Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean dishes. To make a long story short, I started reading up on the history of Soviet food since 1917 and the origins of ОБЩЕПИТ (Communal Food Industry).

Boris Ignatovich, “Lunch in the Commune” (1920)

A whole new angle of the Russian experience began to come into view: what happened after a whole way of life was destroyed in the 1917 revolution and the civil war that followed, what replaced the tavern (кабак, трактир), the diner, the restaurant, how the kitchen evolved, how the scientific Soviet "diets" emerged, and how everything changed once again with the Stalin revolution of 1929 when all private and semiprivate little shops and eateries were shut down practically overnight, and the country moved toward centralized industrial American-style food production. It was so interesting that I started writing on the subject. Before long, Davia dropped by, and we spent a couple of hours talking about food and Soviet and Russian history and how it offered a fascinating view, but also the feel of what Soviet life was like. She had her tape recorder on. A year later, we got together for a breakfast of lox and bagels (not bagels but the "crackles" from the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley) and listened to her incredible feature on the communal kitchens in the Soviet Union that she and her "kitchen sister" Nikki Silver produced.

Three cheers for the Kitchen Sisters! You can hear about the fabulous "Communal Kitchens" at this NPR URL.


Tags: Russiafood historysocial historythe kitchen sistersDavia NelsonNPRSocial Network: Picture description: 

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Boris Ignatovich, “Drinking tea in the Village of Ramenskoye” (1928) and Flicker ( I )

The Heroic Age of Spenser Studies: Roche after Fifty Years

May 17, 2014 - 16:06

Thomas P. Roche, Jr.'s book The Kindly Flame is fifty years old.  Subtitled A Study of the Third and Fourth Books of Spenser's Faerie Queene, Roche's book belongs to the heroic age of Spenser criticism, with Harry Berger's The Allegorical Temper: Vision and Reality in Book II of Spenser's Faerie Queene (1957), A. C. Hamilton's The Structure of Allegory in The Faerie Queene (1961), Paul Alpers' The Poetry of the Faerie Queene (1967), the essays of John Hollander (for whom Kenneth Gross organized this beautiful set of tributes), and a handful of other landmarks. Some weeks ago, at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, with Roche in the room, a panel of speakers gathered to address the significance of The Kindly Flame.

It's difficult to imagine a corpus of criticism with a durability comparable to the work of these inimitable scholars of the heroic age. Even the classic works of 1964 in other periods and fields—such as Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden or Robert Brustein's The Theatre of Revolt—have a less secure purchase in their respective fields today than Roche's work does among scholars of Spenser. At the RSA event, Patrick Cheney mentioned another classic book of that year, Angus Fletcher's Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, which remains relevant for Spenser and Renaissance literature generally, though its reach goes further.

Does the longevity of Spenser criticism of the heroic age speak to the intrinsic virtues of this corpus to a field that became modern all at once? As I have written elsewhere, Berger's book brought the New Criticism to Spenser, even though by 1957 that method had been current for other periods and authors for twenty years or so. Does it mean that paradigms in this field change very slowly? Or that we are near the end of a phase in the history of the field? However one thinks about these questions, it's a rare honor to be able to discuss them when many of the heroic generation, with the sad exceptions of Alpers and Hollander, are still with us.

This is not to say that The Kindly Flame does not show its age, for it does. But it shows its world-view more than its age. That world-view puts in the foreground of interpretation an allegorical method largely derived from the work of Rosemond Tuve, emphasizing a so-called horizontal rather than a vertical reading of poems like The Faerie Queene. In a horizontal reading, the narrative's forward momentum counts for nearly everything, and readers notice allegorical correspondences as they rush along, often without resolving meanings into anything but general correspondences. Contradictions are tolerated, even enjoyed. Roche grounds this approach in what Elizabethans called "continued metaphor," and observes that "in reading a metaphorical statement one does not jump from the vehicle to the tenor at every stage; such reading calls to mind the old adage about changing horses (or vehicles) in midstream" (10).

Where the allegory is concerned, horizontal reading is heuristic rather than definitive, and accommodates the open questions thrown off by such a method. We might say further that such a reading is diegetic, emphasizing the continuing telling of the story as story, whereas a vertical reading would be not mimetic (the usual opposite term of diegetic) but exegetic, emphasizing solid equivalences at every turn. In any case, Roche's style of horizontal reading remains an influential model. Only a couple of years after The Kindly Flame, Alpers would take up many of these open questions of interpretation in his influential, reader-oriented account of Spenser's poem. I should acknowledge that I speak as an initiate in, though not quite a convert to, this variety of allegorical method. Tom Roche was my teacher during my graduate education at Princeton, and while neither of us would say we were of the same views in those years, his influence on my work has been considerable. 

As I see it, the limitation of the book's world-view today is that it doesn't go far enough in exploring the gaps in interpretation occasioned by the rhythms of Spenserian diegesis. At places in the book, Roche seems reticent before the fact that—as he rightly puts it—"we cannot restrict ourselves to a sterile hunt for one-to-one relationships. There is no single meaning, at least no single meaning to be stated apart from the experience of the poem" (31). Forgoing a "sterile hunt," then, we should enjoy a messy survey of multiple possibilities whenever the poem brings us to its innumerable crossroads of allegorical interpretation. In instances like these, however, Roche tends to look away somewhat fastidiously. While he insists often that "no explication can be conclusive" (31), "we will not be able to write out a precise definition" of any key concept (56), and so on, he lets the sifting of possibilities—not to mention what it entails to sift through possibilities—take place more or less offstage from his argument, in the reader's thoughts.

I have sometimes thought about Roche's accommodation of multiple interpretations and the gaps among them in light of Tuve's dictum, which Roche quotes with approval: "allegory is a method of reading in which we are made to think about things we already know" (30). A related statement is the one quoted above, putting "the experience of the poem" above all. In 1964, locutions such as experience and "things we already know" were on their last legs as expressions of a universalist criticism—the conviction that literature speaks in the same way to all readers—that had been losing authority since after World War II. What do "we" already know about, say, chastity, the virtue at the center of Book Three of the Faerie Queene, or about friendship in Book Four? And how, by the end of Book Three, is "our conception of chastity . . . refined and deepened" (95)? The answer in Roche's method is an unexpected one, and different from Tuve's: that we all know not the same thing, but many different things.

For while he adopts the language of a universalist criticism, the implications of his style of reading point in the opposite direction. In The Kindly Flame the onrushing story teaches us, not only to see an abstract virtue in concrete action, but to distrust exegesis as unfaithful to how we "experience" the world. Each of us constructs our own version of the allegory around a few key correspondences, and the substance of the poem may differ considerably from one reader to the next. We might say that the language in which Roche dresses his method has not kept pace with his premises; universalist code-words soften the brunt of a kind of reading that tolerates a great deal of equivocality and irresolution. The book's crucial revisions to an allegorical approach, honoring Tuve but departing from her model, are hidden in these dicta rather than confronted outright.  Or to put it a different way: Roche may reproduce Tuve's exact words but mean something else, because the critical era around the statement has changed.  For her "we" may be one; for him it is many.

There may be another disagreement under the surface of the book. I remind myself of the publication, two years before The Kindly Flame, of D.W. Robertson's A Preface to Chaucer. Robertson was a highly visible member of the Princeton faculty and a momentous (though a polarizing) figure in medieval studies; others, such as Steve Justice, have told his story better than I can do here. (Justice's essay "Who Stole Robertson?" in PMLA 124 [2009]: 609-15 is the one indispensable account of Robertsonianism.) If anyone was ever a vertical, definitive, and exegetical reader, it was Robertson. I remember being shocked in a graduate seminar at his incompetent attempt at a diegetic reading of a passage of Chaucer's The Book of the Duchess, in which he could not make the narrative of the poem cohere under all the allegorical freight he made it carry. Knowing he is a more adept reader qua reader than Robertson, I suspect, Roche allows The Kindly Flame to demonstrate a kind of interpretation that implicitly exposes the shortcomings in the exegetic approach of A Preface to Chaucer—and does so for a poet, Spenser, who is allegorically inclined at a consistent setting, unlike the Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales. There are many ways of allegorical reading, Roche tacitly shows, and those that incorporate equivocality may well be more true to these poets' works.

What keeps us reading The Kindly Flame fifty years after its publication is that the book obliges us to think on our own—whether we call it our "experience" or something else—about how to make meaning in Spenser's poem.  



Tags: Edmund SpenserallegorySocial Network: Picture description: 

Photo courtesy of Julia Walker.

Real Life Poetry Top Ten

April 15, 2014 - 01:27

Real Life Poetry Top Ten, April 15, 2014



F320 (“There’s a certain Slant of light”) was always my favorite Dickinson poem—and I told my father that—later I memorized it and I love reciting it—when I was a kid my father told me that Dickinson was choosing (or not choosing) between the weight of cathedral tunes and the heft of cathedral tunes—my father felt that heft was better—it is more physical, tangier, stranger—I agree with him (heft sounds like magic, like prophecy, like the Norns), but I also love the pun in wait—wait, wait, wait to die—the ending—the distance on the look of death—used to be sublime for me—then I saw my father's face just seconds after his soul left his body—



David Shapiro, poetry workshop, the Cooper Union, 1986 or 1987.  Class begins.  Shapiro places an apple on the table.  He says, Write about this apple—pause—without contempt.



Gertrude Stein reading “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso,” youtube

Stein's graceful voice—surprisingly relaxed—full of exactitude—full of identities and the procreant urge to escape from identities that might stifle life—full of life and identities and exactitude and human connection (what Creeley called particulars).



Leonora Carrington, Illeidos (ships engendered from metallic seeds) (1965).

Part of what surrealism should mean is what this painting—scratched, distant, intimate, aware of every dream and the undervoice of dreams and the real strangeness of dreams, the last dreams, the dreams of death—should mean to a fifteen year old walking in a snowy park at twilight anywhere in the Midwest—



Hoa Nguyen

imagine this inside

Hoa Nguyen’s poems are necessary and magic—and devastation arrives, is uncovered:


Face the never-stumble

    for throwing yourself so


sprightly    What can’t stay

late in the month:



dolphin fetuses      not birds

washing up in numbers


imagine this inside

So which way of happening (Auden: a way of happening, a mouth) is it—prophecy—prophetic poetics destroying and renewing (us in) social spaces—the day and night and news as ecopoetics—these poems embody our private spaces as public spaces (social space, emerging).  Creeley: speech is a mouth.  Nguyen breathes and thinks and changes through the mouth of speech, the way of happening.  Her poems veer, drop, and fly.  It’s wonderful.  Grand and amazingly precise:




Toilet seat slam     so what

if I’m an orchid killer


Seeds and eyeholes


Poured the last of the cheap wine

Written upside down (again)


Think about the tow of

It     The possibility

     or awful

dust then rain on Haiti


“Like war destructions,” my mother

said     A wormhole in the good squash


The rocks don’t match at all


She doesn’t need to say “daily life” or “consciousness” or “first-world problems” or “imperialism” or “globalization”—she says the words inside the words she says—and the awareness in these poems enacts self (selves) in process—not the school of quietude’s fixed and stable self. 



Joshua Clover / Al Young

Joshua Clover, at a (my) poetry reading, 2007: “What makes you think democracy would be a good thing?”  Al Young, at coffee, 2010: “If you’re part of a true democracy, you’re part of something spiritual.”



Greil Marcus, Real Life Rock Top Ten, January 6, 2003:

10) Helen Thomas at White House press briefing, Jan. 6

“In his 1972 study ‘The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution,’ Christopher Hill, poring through the annals of the 16th and 17th centuries, tried to reconstruct the beginnings of a heresy that by the 1650s was making itself known across England. There would be a document noting that a certain craftsperson had questioned the divinity of Jesus; 20 years later there would be a record of a woman denying the need to work. Across a page or so, a dozen examples of seemingly stray people claiming that all true spirits were god and that all authority was false took on a huge charge, less from the power of any given fragment than from one’s sense of how much was missing between the fragments. Reading the transcript of the exchange between 82-year-old Hearst News Services columnist Helen Thomas and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, what was so shocking was not what she said, but, given the socialization produced by the news writing and even editorial writing in the likes of the New York Times, how bizarre it seemed — because in the context of contemporary political discourse Thomas spoke not as a reporter but precisely as a heretic . . .



Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem

Agamben derives an idea of dictation directly from “In the beginning was the word”—Language dwelling in beginning—Amor—is devotion—images are connected to this dictation, this language made actual


Agamben: The End of the Poem--p. 79--"Amor is the name given by the troubadours to this experience of the dwelling of speech in the beginning . . ."


Whitman (in a Post-Petrarchan tradition) enacts or embodies origin . . .


Richard Sieburth, writing about The Spirit of Romance, compares it to The Cantos: Both books attempt to articulate a pattern, at once historical and atemporal, of cultural beginnings and rebeginnings.  Sieburth adds: Subscribing to the early German Romantics´ estimation of the Middle Ages as the decisive inauguration of modernity in European literature, The Spirit of Romance marks Pound´s first sustained archaeological excavation of the Tradition of the New.


I don´t want to be rhapsodic about Pound—or about Arnaut Daniel—


But-I like what Agamben says about Amor as the beginning-One is changed, I am changed, I am born, re-born, etc.  It´s like the experience of beginning described by Althusser, (the subject is created by power and the relation is like that of a police officer who hails a pedestrian)


 but, well, better . . .


In Arnaut there is a tremendous combination of image and thought (voice) (Dante has that of course)


This connection between image and language beginning (voice) is extremely important for Whitman and Pound


Agamben says the Troubadours experience the creation of the world in the experience of language and experience as the creation of love and knowledge and a unity between voice and life


What lies at the foundations of poetry and constitutes what the poets call its dictation is neither a biographical nor a linguistic event


It is a zone of indifference between lived experience and what is made


An experience of speech as an inexhaustible experience of love


Which locates the very event of language

as original topos


which takes place in an absolute proximity of love, speech, and knowledge



You forgot to see the end of the world:

capital, capital, surplus rain and snow:

capital refuses, capital eats your face (“I

would prefer not to”)—

Start over,




Thoreau: Workers have “not leisure for a true integrity day by day." Has anyone in America leisure for a true integrity? Thoreau: we have “no time to be anything but a machine." We locate this problem inside: we are machines, we are blind, we have no true integrity. Or even worse: we have true integrity and we poison it. One story: the only way to be honest is to be haunted. The haunted person recognizes that s/he is cursed, recognizes that s/he has done something terrible, even if s/he can’t admit s/he knows what the crime might be.


Social Network: Picture description: 

Leonora Carrington, Illeidos (ships engendered from metallic seeds)(1965).

Copyright Estate of Leonora Carrington /ARS. (reproduced on facebook, on the Leonora Carrington artist page)


Scholar's Tales

April 14, 2014 - 10:57

I have been reading Geoffrey Hartman’s A Scholar’s Tale: Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europe.  By “intellectual journey” Hartman means something like an autobiographical bibliography—it is full of stories surrounding his writing. I started reading it mostly for Hartman’s memories of Erich Auerbach, with whose work I have become a little infatuated.  The connection between the two of them might not be completely obvious at first, but a moment’s reflection makes it clear why Hartman dedicated his 1964 Wordsworth’s Poetry to the memory of Auerbach.  They are two of the great immanent readers of the twentieth century, who both move elegantly but determinedly back and forth between the micro-movement of a text and the macro-movement of a history.  Hartman’s tale doesn’t disappoint.  Beyond his recollection of a “gemütlich conversation every fortnight” in which Frau Auerbach always asked the young Hartman if he’d like a “a drop of rum” in his tea, there are a number of very short passages that get to the heart of both Auerbach’s work and the more nagging problem of the vague sense of autobiography that you feel lurking somewhere in Mimesis long before you hit the famous Epilogue.  After describing the two broad concepts Auerbach deploys, the doctrine of the levels of style, and Christian figural typology, Hartman remarks that “[w]hat makes both concepts moving and persuasive beyond the remarkable learning backing them up is that the first implies a sense of decorum or ‘aesthetic dignity’ one always felt in Auerbach as a person, while the second implicates, as a wonderful essay on ‘Philologie der Weltliterature’ makes clear, his own historical situation.”  The tension throughout Mimesis between an urge to hold on to a classical conception of aesthetic and human dignity meets the “historical situation” of the twentieth century: the transformation of Christian creaturalism into (the good version) modern conceptions of universal equality (legal, social, though rarely economic) and (the bad version) the commodification of human life itself.  If you insist everyone is (or should be) equal, can “dignity” exist at all?  In short, how can people be both equal and dignified, when, in the “historical situation” that he finds himself in, Auerbach seems to insist that both of those things must, somehow, be true?  Reading Mimesis, I can’t help but feel that it is his ability to write through this conundrum that gives the book much of its bite.  If Hartman is right (he usually is), it was also the central paradox of Auerbach’s life.

I was reminded of Hartman while reading Gordon Teskey’s remarkable analysis of biography, poetry, and theory in the most recent Spenser Review.  Teskey (at the urging of David Lee Miller) thinks through the links between recent biographies (by Benoît Peeters and Andrew Hadfield) of Derrida and Spenser, two authors whose urge to sprawl make it at times difficult to imagine that there could have been a single “life” holding them together as people.  Teskey thinks about this singularity as the “convergence” of philosophy and poetry: is there a moment when those two are, finally, the same thing, in the philosophical poetry of Spenser, or the poetic philosophy of Derrida?  In both, the violence of undermining something like what Auerbach calls decorum and dignity is obvious: “The practice of such universal overturning,” writes Teskey, “the practice of deconstruction, would be undiscriminatingly violent—and it would be so not in practice, by accident, as it were, but in principle, on purpose.”  Spenser, on the other hand, tries to cling to decorum, but he constantly delays his journey to integral meaning.  If the violence of Derrida emerges through the indiscriminate violence against hierarchy, the violence of Spenser emerges through the dedication to a hierarchy that never arrives.  Here is how Teskey puts it:  “The Mutabilitie Cantos arrive where Glas starts: at the agony of system. As Jove to Mutabilitie, so Hegel to Genet. The great difference is that Glas is on course for a burial, and funeral rites, in obedience to the tolling of its bell; and The Faerie Queene is on course to a marriage, even if the groom, Artegal—like Arthur himself—is already being mourned.”  Marriage or funeral?  Perhaps that is a more poetic way of putting the political-philosophical dilemma of Mimesis: dignity or equality?

Tags: Erich AuerbachGeoffrey HartmanGordon TeskeyDerridaSpenserSocial Network: Picture description: 

Graphic by Michelle Jia and Wikipedia (I)

“Academese” and the Idioms of Crisis

April 7, 2014 - 09:46

Given the so-called “crisis” of higher education today, it is hardly a surprise that academic writing remains the preferred target of mainstream and alternative media. The shockwaves that Nicholas Kristof’s recent editorial1 in the New York Times set off among academics2 and their critics3 in February rehearses the usual plaints: scholars spend their days navel-gazing amidst their tomes; humanities disciplines are appendix-like vestiges of a bygone era; academic publishers reward ever-narrower research agendas, as do review committees when the tenure clock strikes midnight. A point of contention in virtually every critique in this vein is academic language, what Kristof calls “turgid prose” mired in its own obscurity. Lamenting academic prose is now a commonplace in media takedowns of academia, thought to betoken a broader crisis that assails North American colleges and universities. Of course, even a cursory look at media discourse over the last decade shows “crisis” to be the preferred term for situations when something goes awry, when our control over nature is exposed to be an elaborate farce, or when we simply have no idea what is going on. What I would like to suggest is that “academese”—what I designate as all discourse in the humanities and social sciences (which can occasionally be dense and even obscurantist)—taps into anxieties about language’s ability to signify in a world beset by self-generated “crises.” I say “designate” rather than “define” because academese is sufficiently variegated to resist any binding definition. Many beautiful works of non-fiction have come off university presses in recent years; so have many of the most grating.

This is a wildly speculative idea at which I have arrived after years of reading cultural criticism in periodicals across the ideological spectrum, then set atop my research on apocalyptic prophecy in early modern Iberia. Whether or not academese is a synecdoche of higher education’s systemic woes is not my judgment to make. For me, what is more interesting than the specifics of arguments like these is why op-ed writers continue to train academia in their rhetorical crosshairs, impugning the value of a liberal education while student debt soars and budget axes dangle precariously over whole departments. Academese fits neatly into such snark, painted as one of many symptoms of an institution increasingly estranged from reality. Academia, of course, is just one of many professions that speaks a particular idiom. Law students plowing through briefs and budding physicians leafing through medical journals encounter a peculiar variation on what they thought was their native tongue, yet often strike them as vacuous gobbledygook. Even the business world—the self-styled bastion of utilitarian stylistics—boasts an idiom rife with acronyms and buzzwords that only the initiated can comprehend.

Legalese and its professional cousins notwithstanding, academese and, by extension, higher education, have become a favorite whipping boy for today’s social maladies. A college degree is held up as the sine qua none of a middle-class lifestyle, a reflection of higher education’s drift away from intellectual formation towards vocational preparation. Job-readiness and “ROI” are now the go-to metrics for evaluating degree programs, which are entirely reasonable for anyone deciding whether to shoulder colossal debts and enter the worst labor market in more than a generation. Since private funding now comprises the bulk of public and private university budgets, it certainly makes sense to scrutinize the research those universities produce. This is where most editorials launch into diatribes against academese, but in so doing imply that the onus of explaining the world still falls on academic researchers. At least in theory, research is supposed to tell us something about the world with an eye towards a greater truth. Even as the media (and some segments of the public) lambaste universities for overcharging and underdelivering, the expectation for academics to conduct actionable research survives.

Practically the only reason offered for why academics continue to dash this expectation has do to with the rigidity of tenure decisions, themselves hemmed in the by ever-narrower specializations needed to publish. While this may be one factor, I have often asked myself if it is the only one or the even most important. If the economic crisis of 2008 laid bare the flaws of neoliberalism, it also underscored the value of higher education in order to analyze and prevent such crises in the future. Yet crisis—broadly conceived as an aberration of a normal state of affairs—has become the ethos of our time rather than an exception to it. In a recent essay on the Great Recession’s cultural fallout, Rosalind Williams proposes that crisis “is no longer a turning point in history but rather than an immanent condition of history, part of its ‘normal’ working, indistinguishable from its own aftermath” (30).4 Crisis, in other words, has become history’s default setting rather than an index of its breakdown—needling evidence that our collective belief in progress continues to recede, despite promises that enough apps and lean startups can save humanity from itself. By this account, academics and anyone else trying to make sense of things face the chore of discerning patterns in today’s maelstrom of data, events, and disasters.

Naturally, many of the worst crises humanity has witnessed long predate our age. Our toxic political landscape pales in comparison to that of Roman Empire at its zenith; the Nika Riots in Justinian’s Constantinople led to the slaughter of some 30,000 citizens enraged about the outcome of a chariot race, dwarfing today’s post-game fan hijinks; it is well nigh inconceivable to imagine how today’s media would cover the outbreak of the plague in fourteenth-century Europe. What distinguishes our time from these earlier periods is not the presence of crisis, but the absence of an explanatory framework to overlie it. When Herodotus first conceived history as an inquiry that rescues human deeds from oblivion and Aristotle parsed apart history and poetry in Poetics a hundred years later, both assumed the world to be stable and immutable. History immortalized the virtuous and the daring through enduring memory, even though, as Hannah Arendt observes, the ancient Greeks held that “man, insofar as he is a natural being and belongs to the species of mankind, possess immortality; through the recurrent cycle of life, nature assures the same kind of being-forever to things that are born and die as dot things that are and do not change” (571).5 Any crisis—assuming that one was thinkable in the first place—was absorbed into this repetitive cycle.

Though divergent from eternal cycling, the Judeo-Christian view of history understood crisis as a temporary setback in an otherwise rectilinear path towards the end of days. Eschatological prophecies, in spite of the horrific images they conjured, also invested history with a telos that co-opted crises, portraying them as sanctifying punishments from God rather than ruptures in the flow of time. First seeking compatibility with religion in the eighteenth century, then jettisoning it altogether in the nineteenth, those whose saw history as progress framed crises as swerves on the road to humanity’s complete domination of nature, the utopian stage managing of reality. Progress has since lost its status as the singular guiding principle of history, now largely confined to the tech industry, whereas “larger systems are involved—especially environmental, military, and economic ones—the pattern of contemporary history associated with them is visualized not as a line but as a pattern of crisis centers spreading with no end in sight” (Williams 31). It would seem that progress in this narrower sense empowers its chaotic opposite: the dizzying speed of technological innovation does not simply outpace our ability to comprehend its impact, but belies our claim to mastery over nature when it fails. Crisis, then, is the absence of any explanatory theory of history. It is an abyss that theorists took to calling the “postmodern condition” decades ago, one that defies conventional descriptive codes and, as with all new things, forces recurrence to the literary devices and neologisms upon which poets, novelists, and yes, academic researchers, are among the first to seize.

If crisis is history devoid of an identifiable pattern, forging a vocabulary to talk about it is daunting indeed. In fleshing out her thesis on history as a perpetual apocalypse, Williams alludes to the thought of two writers—Haruki Murakami and Leo Marx—whose ideas address the question of language explicitly. Murakami addresses this dilemma on behalf of fiction writers when speaking of a recent “realignment” in global culture. While previous decades North American and European readers sought to domesticate his writing with one or another “-ism” and plenty of “logical parsing,” he marvels that in recent years “people were accepting my stories in toto—stories that are chaotic in many cases, missing logicality at times, and in which the composition of reality has been rearranged.”6 For Murakami, this marks a shift in mentality that he attributes to the aftermath of 9/11, which, darkly echoing the collapse of the Berlin Wall, partially expunged progress from the Western cultural imaginary. The lack of any historical pattern presupposes a paucity of descriptive language with which to identify one. Leo Marx refers to this paucity as a “semantic void,” that is, “an awareness of certain novel developments in society and culture for which no adequate name had yet become available” (563).7 In the late nineteenth century, for instance, “technology” emerged as a filler for the semantic void the Industrial Revolution had pried open, standing in for terms like “mechanic arts, “invention,” or “machinery” that proved unsuitable. This void emerged within a recognizable historical pattern—progress, in this case—that was able to contain it.

The haphazard task of filling semantic voids assumes that circumstances will remain stable enough to enable new descriptive keywords to develop. What I am wondering is whether the perceived acceleration of history’s tempo frustrates efforts to fill such voids, and whether professional “babel” is a linguistic symptom of this frustration. Scrambling to explain ever-changing circumstances is akin to finding clarity in a blur or to perceiving depth in the darkness. If our language obsolesces at the same rate as last year’s favorite gadget, then it is tempting to resign our commission and devote ourselves to learning how to take in each crisis tout court. Humans, however, are storytelling creatures. Our thoughts are structured as elaborate narratives, our most banal language flooded with reified metaphors. Despite postmodernist celebrations of the death of meta-narratives, we need frameworks to explain the past, to make sense of the present, and to predict the future in order to plan for it. An identifiable pattern of history is therefore much more than a cerebral luxury; it is, in William’s words, “the basis for a sense of predictability in human life” (36). However awkward or slapdash our language is, the world’s demand for it undergirds the expectation that academics continue to conduct research. It may be that crisis forecloses possibilities of analyzing matters clearly, especially if the language of analysis has to be invented on the spot with full awareness that its shelf life is limited. Both in its beautiful and less savory forms, academese may be the ideal response after all.

Kristof’s op-ed and others of the same genus gesture towards something far deeper than academics supposedly stepping out from departmental sanctuaries and speaking an intelligible idiom. Higher education is as vulnerable to economic forces as other sectors, and many of those sectors rely on their own jargon to speak among themselves in the proverbial “real world.” Instead, the cry for America’s “sharpest minds” to participate in the public sphere unearths a yearning for good storytelling, that most human of qualities that brings order to chaos, patterns to randomness, hope to anomie. It does not take a stretch of the imagination for literary critics and historians to see themselves as narrators, spinning stories or the raw materials that go into them. At the same time, like fiction writers, social scientists and policymakers envision possible worlds through narrative based on the data they collect and the solutions they formulate. Though highly specialized, research at its best equips us to craft stories, and with it, to descry historical patterns. Research is repurposed storytelling, its mission to make sense of our increasingly complex world. In this regard, it draws near to how Murakami views literature on our crisis-riddled planet:

[T]he role of a story is to maintain the soundness of the spiritual bridge that has been constructed between the past and the future. New guidelines and morals emerge quite naturally from such an undertaking. For that to happen, we must first breathe deeply of the air of reality, the air of things-as-they-are, and we must stare unsparingly and without prejudice at the way stories are changing inside of us. We must coin new words in tune with the breath of that change.

Murakami’s clarion call to absorb reality before crafting stories about it is instructive. It exhorts us into an uphill battle against conditions that change far too quickly for our minds to catch up. Murakami himself remarks that while his writing in recent years has been rocky, it has begun to thrive amidst chaos rather than in spite of it. Academese is the scholarly correlate to the challenge that writers of all stripes now encounter—a gawky yet noble attempt to “coin new words in tune with the breath of that change.” Whether we ever manage to portray this reality is in many ways secondary. Instead, what matters is that after enough fits and starts, we fashion stories that ultimately enable us to embrace our limited knowledge. We may never again decide on another all-encompassing pattern of history, but this may be as liberating as it is terrifying. Where we once stood confident that history was going our way, we can now humble ourselves before the unknown. And where we once clung zealously to our theories and our models, we can now take pride in our vulnerability as storytellers laboring to narrate a perpetual crisis.

  • 1. Kristof, Nicholas. “Professors, We Need You!” New York Times. 15 Feb. 2014: NY ed.: sec. 11. Print.
  • 2. Stoller, Paul. “The Scholar’s Obligations.” Huffington Post. 25 Feb. 2014. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
  • 3. Marshall, Joshua. “Goodbye to All That—Why I Left the Academic Life.” Talking Points Memo. 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 27 Feb. 2013
  • 4. Williams, Rosalind. “The Rolling Apocalypse of Contemporary History.” Aftermath: The Cultures of the Economic Crisis. Ed. Manuel Castells, João Caraça, and Gustavo Cardoso. New York: Oxford UP 2012. 17-43.
  • 5. Arendt, Hannah. “The Modern Concept of History.” The Review of Politics 20.4 (1958): 570-90. Print.
  • 6. Murakami, Haruki. “Reality A and Reality B.” New York Times. 29 Nov. 2010. Web. 27 Feb. 2014
  • 7. Marx, Leo. “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept.” Technology and Culture 51.3 (2010): 561-77. Print.
Tags: Crisis in the HumanitiesApocalypseHistoriographylanguageSocial Network: Picture description: 

Graphic by Michelle Jia. Images from Flickr (I, II).

WhatsApp with Friendship?

March 20, 2014 - 13:32

Hurrah for friendship. This was one the messages behind the heart-stopping price of close to 19 billion dollars Facebook offered for WhatsApp, the new instant messaging service. The galactic sum paid in late February of this year for a tiny company caused a global sensation.

First, not many people, including myself, had heard of this company. And then they legitimately asked how one firm with 55 employees could possibly be worth that much. As many commentators have noted since, the price has nothing to do with reality. More serious is the fact that all this wealth now becomes concentrated in these new owners.

Even more serious is the following question: What wealth has WhatsApp, like Facebook or Google, created for the rest of us, to justify its high valuation? Nothing, Jaron Lanier, argues in Who Owns the Future? (2013). Digital technology, he shows, shrinks the economy while focusing wealth in those firms that control of flow of information. It destroys jobs without creating new ones in their place. He offers the example of the thousands of jobs lost in the transition from Kodak to Instagram. Whatever we say about the future, the Internet has not yet created general wealth in the way that the invention of electricity had in the previous century.

As a person with a personal and professional interest in friendship, however, I wanted to seek a positive development in the sale of WhatsApp. Although I had not heard of the firm until its sale was announced, I did know of Snapchat, having been introduced to it by my fifteen-year-old daughter. (I worry how I am going keep up with technological change once she, my third child, leaves home!) As I was thinking and reading about it, I came to conclude that people are looking for vertical relationships beyond the horizontal connections offered by Facebook. Services like WhatsApp and Snapchat may be providing users the possibility of more immediate, one-on-one communication.

Facebook, by contrast, enables people to transmit information about themselves over a network of hundreds of “friends.” An efficacy of connection encourages an efficiency of affection. Within minutes of a posting a picture of your family on Facebook you gaze at the affirmations from across the globe: “Loved the shot of you all eating pizza.” You are swept up momentarily by the 38 “likes” that breeze by. But you are neither offering nor demanding much beyond phrases of approval or solidarity. Moreover, you neither offer nor demand reciprocity, the key to binding relations.

Yet, along with our horizontal contacts we crave the verticality of love. Evolutionary biologists have demonstrated that we are an affectionate, companionate species, hard-wired for deep relationships. But science is merely catching up with what literature has known for centuries. Our earliest poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, written in ancient Mesopotamia almost 4000 years ago, is a story of friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. It is significant and heartwarming that one of our first literary text is about the caring bond between two men rather than, for instance, about war. This says something about the value humans have placed on closeness. While the algorithm of social networks can enable a broad and perhaps cosmopolitan sense of belonging, they can never satisfy Gilgamesh’s need for Enkidu. This relationship is reciprocal and valuable in its own right.

But this sense—that friendship is a good itself—has been lost in thinking about social networking. Aristotle identified three types of friendship. The relationship of pleasure describes our acquaintances, the people we hang out and have fun with, our largest cohort. The second category, the utilitarian friendship, entails the people we work with or have a purposeful connection with. Finally the ideal friendship signifies a bond built by trust, love, and reciprocity. This relationship, of which we have only a few in our lives, could not, according to Aristotle, be turned into a commodity.

Yet this is exactly what Facebook does. Its ingenious strategy has been to take Aristotle’s first category, the relationship of pleasure, and to use it instrumentally. That is to say, it promotes increasing links between people in the name of sociability while all the time mining this information for future profit. While we continue to think that we are all friends, Facebook treats our revelations as revenue. For Facebook there is a purpose to our pleasure.

Of course, money has always figured in human relations. We buy gifts for our friends, go out for dinner, or on hiking trips, all activities that involve some sort of financial transaction. By partaking in them, we may enrich somebody along the way. But the activities themselves are private. Now the connection between people is very public and a source of revenue. The more we reveal about ourselves the more money we make for others.

The turn to messaging systems like WhatsApp and Snapchat may be a sign that people are seeking means for unmediated communication and reciprocity alongside with the self-broadcast opportunities offered by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The two developments go hand in hand.

This is hardly surprising. The more you push in one direction the more people shove back. What is surprising is the expectation of uncritical boosters of the Internet that individuals would allow their identity to be determined solely by the protocols of Facebook. Behind this technological determinism is the belief that people are clay to be breathed life into by social networking sites. Recent developments, as well as our most ancient poems, tell us that humans have an innate capacity for affection. And that can’t easily be sold.

Tags: AristotleFriendshipFacebookSnapchatWhatsappSocial Network: Picture description: 

Graphic by Michelle Jia. Image from Flickr.

Business Card Poetry: Fuzzy's Supper Club, "How to Get to Heaven," and the Case of the Missing 'N'

March 19, 2014 - 11:38

In 1949, Arthur C. “Fuzzy” Rahill—son of Ray and Lillian Rahill who immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon in 1907—went to work for a restaurant located at 1232 Classen Boulevard in Oklahoma City. He bought the business a year later and opened Fuzzy’s Supper Club, which he owned and operated until 1983 when he retired and sold the joint to a Mr. Lobb who apparently spent $100,000 remodeling it to feature a "sports motif ... decorated with antique sporting equipment." Then, in a series of events that news reports don't fully explain, Rahill "took the business back through litigation" in 1984. I can't discover when exactly Fuzzy's finally shut its doors—the place was still open in 1987 when people were instructed to go there to buy tickets to the Oklahoma City Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament—but Rahill died in 2003 at the age of eighty.

In the mid 1970s, then in his fifties, Rahill extended Fuzzy's to include Arthur's Prime Rib House—an attempt, according to one news story, to provide a "classier" dining experience that offered, among the usual steaks and other gustatory attractions, a Friday night seafood buffet at $14.95 per plate—and, as part of that expansion, he also had printed up a business card (pictured above) that included on back the poem pictured to the left, "How to Get to Heaven":


A man knocked at the gates of heaven,

His face was scarred and old,
He stood before the man of fate,
For entrance to the fold!

What have you done? St. Peter asked,
To gain admission here?
I've slaved away most of my life,
I've been a restaurateur!

The Pearly Gates then opened wide,
St. Peter struck the bell,
Come in, and choose your golden harp,
You've had your share of Hell!

It's impossible to figure what exactly motivated Fuzzy to feature "How to Get to Heaven." Business cards have long included poems (see here and here and here, for example), and perhaps Rahill thought that the classed-up Arthur's merited a poem to class up its business card. Or perhaps, I like to think, the ghosts of Rahill's birthplace in Springfield, Illinois, were speaking through him; by the time Fuzzy was born in 1922, "prairie poets" Edgar Lee Masters and Vachel Lindsay, both from the Springfield area, had put Sangamon County on the national poetic map.

As it turns out, "How to Get to Heaven" is an intriguing little poem. It's part of a going-to-heaven or going-to-hell poetic tradition that not only includes famous epics and modernist masterpieces, but popular texts as well—like the Depression-era poem “Rejected” (pictured here), which tells the story of President Franklin Roosevelt being denied entrance to Hell, or like "The Grocer's Dream," which was printed on the back side of an advertising trade card for Majestic Sandwich Spread sometime in the 1930s. Unlike "Rejected" and "The Grocer's Dream," however, both of which leave their main characters in Hell (one unable to get in, and one unwilling to give up his seat), "How to Get to Heaven" features a protagonist who has already been to Hell and now appears, like Sterling Brown's hero in “Slim Greer in Hell,” to converse with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.

What intrigues me the most about "How to Get to Heaven" is not this narrative in particular, but what the poem appears to have left out. If you look very closely at the word "restaurateur" in the last line of stanza two, you'll see that the kerning is a little off. There's more space between the "a" and the "t" of "restaurateur" than there is, for example, between the "a" and the "t" of "Gates" in the fist line of the third stanza. This is the only time in the poem that the kerning is irregular, and I think it's the somewhat Derridean trace of a change made during the printing process when "restauranteur" (spelled with an "n") was changed to the more proper term "restaurateur" (without the "n").

What effect, if any, does this missing "n" have on the poem? Well, for starters, I think it's the very thing that gets the poem's main character into heaven. By using the correct but less frequently used term "restaurateur" instead of the more common but erroneous "restauranteur" to describe his occupation, the main character proves himself to be what he is in fact claiming to be; he is no pretender or impostor, but the genuine article who knows the difference between "restaurateur" and "restauranteur." Unlike the typical scene at the Pearly Gates, which—like the scene of Roosevelt trying to get into Hell in "Rejected"—involves enumerating why one deserves entrance into Heaven and St. Peter logging or checking those reasons in his giant book, "How to Get to Heaven" has no justification other than the proper vocabulary word. St. Peter would no doubt appreciate the proper terminology, but he would also hear embedded in "restaurateur" the word's origins in the Late Latin restaurator or "restorer" (as opposed to "restauranteur," which is derived from the more mundane word "restaurant"), thus making "restaurateur" an account of one's occupation, a sign of one's legitimacy, and a sort of password, prayer, code, or miniature argument linking the earthly restaurateur to the Restorer for whom St. Peter (the patron saint of bakers, butchers, fishermen, and harvesters) so diligently serves as chief "rateur," if you will.

If that isn't cool enough for you, then the extra space alerting us to the significance of the missing "n" alerts us to a feature of the poem's acoustic economy, as well, for eliminating the "n" also highlights the "ate" at the center of "restaurateur"—a morpheme that not only serves as a fitting metonym for the protagonist's career, but that echoes throughout the rest of the poem: in the "ate" of "gates" and "fate" as well as in the assonance of "face," "gain," and "slaved." Reading retroactively, in fact, it's hard not to see "How to Get to Heaven" announcing this acoustic theme from the very beginning, as the formatting of line one—which leaves "gates" hanging as a line break even though it's the middle of the poetic line—seems designed to call attention to this precise feature of the poem.

What brings the protagonist's acoustic past to an end, however, is St. Peter himself, whose very name transforms "ate" (past tense) into "eat" (present tense), thus offering the main character the very invitation that a restaurateur spends his life extending to other people. In fact, can we not hear in the sound of the bell St. Peter strikes in line two of the final stanza the sound of a dinner bell calling the poem's hero (and Fuzzy, too, on March 16, 2003) to his just reward: a heavenly feast?

Social Network: Picture description: 

Graphic by Michelle Jia. Images from Flickr (I, II, III).

Decolonizing Self

March 17, 2014 - 03:26

This is a polyphonic blog-poem about decolonizing one's self.

(Second language is Georgiandon't be surprised by alphabet)

I talked to my friend today:


He has peed with Salman Rushdie and got to know him in Toilet.

It has made his day—to pee with the classic of post-post-post colonial literature.

They have exchanged few words while peeing:

Discussed Puchini at Metropolitan Opera, Mayor Bloomberg's Presidential aspirations,

Wall Street and Morgan Stanley, and having all vegetable diet.


ჩემი მეგობრის ბედნიერების მიზეზი:  საზოგადოებრივ საპირფარეშოში

სალმან რუშდი გაიცნო;

რა საოცრად ახალი ოცნებაა—რომ წინა საუკუნის ყველაზე სკანდალური ავტორი

გაიცნო ორგანიზმის ყველაზე დიდი მოშვების პარალელურად;

და ესაუბრო მას მაიკლ ბლუმბერგის საპრეზიდენტო გეგმებზე,

პუჩინის დადგმაზე მეტროპოლიტენ ოპერაში,

უოლ სტრიტის და მორგან სტენლის ურთიიერთობაზე

და მთლიანად ბოსტნეულის ვეგეტერიანულ საკვებზე.


My friend was so happy that I was happy for him..

I could sum it up like this..

Ever since 1989—whole generations grew up in Georgia

Dreaming to pee with Salman Rushdie.

And write at least one scandalous work

With commercial success

America the land of the dream

And Europe was a paradise..


საოცარი ოცნებაა მეგობრებო

1989 წლის შემდეგ ყველა ჩვენთაგანი ოცნებობდა

რუშდისთან ერთად მოფსმაზე

და ერთი მაინც სკანდალური მოთხრობის დაწერაზე

რომელიც გამოქვეყნდებოდა და ძალიან ბევრ ფულს გააკეთებდა.


We were colonized by our own dreams..

We have colonized ourselves

And helped to colonize others.

We came out of former Soviet Union and 

We have declared:

Liberal Democracy is great!

Without knowing anything about it.

We have screamed:

Capitalism is the only way to go!

Without knowing anything about Capitalism!

We were sick post-Soviet generation

Of McDonald Diet and Coca Cola dreams,

Of Frued's materialism!


მეგობრებო, აღარ ვაპირებ ბევრის თარგმნას

ისედაც ყველამ იცის ინგლისური

დღეს ხომ ყველა ორ ენაზე ფიქრობს,

ან სამ ენაზე, ან ოთხზე

ან კიდევ მეტზე.

მოკლედ, ჩვენ კრიმინალები ვართ.

ჩვენ დავაკანონეთ მაკდონალდის და კოკა კოლას


და 'ოიდიპოსის კომპლექსი'.


We have legalized Washington Consensus,

And we are the war criminals of 21st century!

We have justified the death of 22 thousand kids every day,

Because we said that equality and socialism are impossible.

And our main crime was that we were


We have made it possible to bring

The dictatorship of materialist dreams!


ჩვენ გავაპრავეთ 'ვაშინგტონის კონსესუსი"

ჩვენ გავაპრავეთ სოციალური პერვერსია

რომელსაც ლიბერალიზმი ჰქვია,

და რომელიც ბავშვებს გვიკლავს ყოველ დღე.

არადა გვაფრთხილებდა ირაკლი ადრე,

ჩემზე არ არის საუბარი, ჩარკვიანზეა.

რომ ასეთ ცხოვრებას მოყვება სიზმრები

ბურთვულ სოკოზე.

დიახაც მოყვა.  


We are the first generation google,

We are the first generation Microsoft,

We are the first generation of skype,

And we are the first generation of unapologetic criminals of consumerism!


And now, 20 years later since that moment 

First time ever, it occurred to us:

Maybe it was not completely right:

To justify murder for nothing.


გოგლი-მოგლის სამზარეულოდან

პირდაპირ გუგლის სასადილო ოთახში გადაგვისროლეს.

ახლა ვერ გაგვირკვევია რა სჯობია:

სკაიპი თუ კაიფი?

მაცივარი თუ პოემა?

მოდილიანი თუ ზურგის საფხანი?

ვაჟა ფშაველას დავატაკეთ

მტვრის სასრუტი მანქანა,

რომელიც 76 ლარი და 24 თეთრი ღირს..

იაფია, რას იზამ.


My young friend wrote his scandalous story

I have published it;

It sold record numbers back in my country,

And I still doubt it made us very happy.


Maybe having all veggie diet is good.

Maybe that helps to decolonize ourselves.

I guess most of us did not see 

The fifth column inside ourselves.

The one that took us for a constant shopping

For unfulfilled dreams of lucid ambitions.


ალბათ გვჭირდება მეგობრებო

საკუთარ თავს რომ დეკოლონიზაცია გავუკეთოთ.

სანამ ქვეყანას გაუკეთებ დეკოლონიზაციას,

საზოგადოებას, შენს ეთნიკურ ჯგუფს

გენდერულ ერთობას, ან რელიგიურ კონფესიას,

იქნებ ისიც ვიკითხოთ:

რამდენად ვარ მე ჩემი ინსტქიტების და ნივთების მონა!

იქნებ ეს არის ჩემს სულში შემოპარული მეხუთე კოლონა!

და იქნებ ამ მონობისგან დეკოლონიზაცია მინდა!


Perhaps I need to deal with the fifth column

Inside myself,

When checking out the hospitals around the world..


ეს ადვილი არ არის, ჩემო ძვირფასო კლერკო

შენთან ერთად ჩემშიც არის კარიერისტი ტურა,

მატერიალისტი ღორი, და მომხმარებელი ქორი..


და ასეთი ცხოველი ბევრია ჩემში,

ეს არის ჩემი მეხუთე კოლონა!

ჩემი სხეული დღეს საკუთარი მეხუთე კოლონის კოლონიაა,

დეკოლონიზაცია მეხუთე კოლონაზე გადის.


საკუთარ თავში..

Social Network: Picture description: 

Graphic by Michelle Jia. Images from Flickr (I, II).

Mistakes Were Made, or The Language of Rescinding

March 16, 2014 - 15:16

“You never know exactly what’s going on there”:  the adage about other peoples’ marriages applies equally to the academic job market.  Bearing this in mind disinclined me to contribute to the recent Internet storm of commentary about Nazareth College’s withdrawing a tenure-track job offer from a candidate (“W”).  But two other factors contributed to my reluctance to chime in.

First, most of what I would say about this story seemed to have been stated, or at least raised, on various academic and other blogs and social media outlets already.  The major threads have been gender, maternity leave policies, the mentorship of graduate students, the “fit” problem, the shifting expectations of professionalism, the delicate business of negotiating and the inadvisability of doing it over email, and the ethics of Nazareth’s decision. (I’m linking to examples of these necessarily overlapping threads, rather than rehearsing the arguments here.)  By the time I even heard about the story, last Friday, discussion of the incident involving “W” and Nazareth on most websites had devolved into mean-spirited moralizing, ad hominen critiques, and the ultimate occupational hazard of academia, grandstanding.

Second, I am an assistant professor at a small liberal arts college at which I enjoy teaching in ways I couldn’t have anticipated during my doctoral training. I am also a junior faculty member at a small liberal arts college that expects that faculty be excellent teachers and that they maintain active, engaged, and significant scholarly careers.  Crucially, my home institution facilitates that pursuit with paid student research assistants, a solid grants office, pre-tenure sabbaticals, and other forms of support.  Thus for me and for many of the job candidate and junior professor peers with whom I have, inevitably, discussed it, the Nazareth/“W” story hits a little too close to home.  One friend described it as “the stuff of academic job seekers’ nightmares.”  Indeed.  So can any of us really be as objective as we’d perhaps like to in our thinking about this story?  And besides, doesn’t this whole storm have “time-suck” written all over it?  Well, no and yes, respectively.  

Disinclination aside, there are two related points—about language and narratives—that I have not seen raised in online discussion of the rescinded job offer.  On language: while the phrasing of the candidate’s email enumeration of her “provisions” for acceptance of the job offer has provoked much comment, the College’s language, as opposed to its questionable ethical behavior, has not.  To this point, one sentence of Nazareth’s rejection email strikes me as particularly noteworthy.  After stating that the search committee and administrators have discussed the candidate’s provisions, the College writes:

It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered.

The phrase “it was determined” uses the passive voice to convey a certain determination, while the point of ostensibly logical reference here is a constrictive dichotomy of the kind scholars across disciplines are trained to suspect:  it’s “Us” (“a college like ours”) versus “them” (the research university where the candidate has, necessarily, been trained).   It’s obfuscating language, designed to leave ambiguous who exactly did the determining. Were Nazareth’s sentence found in a student essay, most of us would direct them in our comments toward writing more precise prose.

The “it was determined” sentence also bespeaks a tendency of search committees in particular, but perhaps faculty in general, to create and then consolidate narratives about a candidate or, later, about a new colleague, that do not accord with the candidate’s articulation of her professional aims in the areas of research, teaching, and service. The converse is true, too, especially during the job search:  many candidates are coached to tell the institution what they assume it wants to hear about teaching and research—or, all too often, about teaching versus research.  In the present instance, what the Nazareth administration and search committee agreed upon was a reading of W’s email.  And an unoriginal reading at that.  If we need any proof that the College’s reading of W’s email aligns with standard narratives about job-seekers and search committees, look no farther than the “Comments” sections I mentioned above:  there, you’ll see an assumed mismatch between what commenters dismissively call “fancy” R1 institutions or candidates and implicitly un-“fancy” colleges or colleagues.

To expand the problem of such readymade narratives out from “W” and Nazareth to candidates and colleges or universities more broadly:  the response to this story online has relied on and reiterated similarly pre-fab stories about how “all R1s care or know about is research” and “all LACs care or know about is teaching.”  Snobbishness, inaccuracy, and a baffling datedness underlie both of those narratives.  Any good teacher at an R1 or any solid researcher at a liberal arts college can tell you that much.*  But such anecdotal evidence of good teachers at research places and good researchers at teaching places, however, leaves those dominant and, as the case of “W” and Nazareth makes clear, damaging narratives intact.  Such narratives can come to inform, or misinform, scholars’ expectations of ourselves as much as of our fields, careers, employers, and even colleagues.  They inform—or misinform—the infamous “name tag affiliation check” at academic conferences.  Why perpetuate such reductive thinking about scholarly life or institutional practice? 

Just think about the current graduate student reading the rapidly accumulating discussion of this incident among the academic community.  What does she read?  She reads, by turns, the story of a candidate who either cluelessly made a mistake or rightly advocated for her needs, and of a teaching institution that either behaved shabbily toward a woman graduate student or heroically held the line against a culture of prestige entitlement.  What that graduate student also reads, however, is an academic community responding in language and narratives that, while perhaps cathartic in the short term, do very little to challenge lazy assumptions about the kind of career that is possible at an R1 or an LAC (or other kinds of academic institutions, for that matter.) We’re assessing the mistakes on both sides here according to the kind of readymade narratives through which a committee arrives at “It was determined…”  Might continued community propagation of these dated narratives constitute an indirect failure of mentorship? 


*There are, of course, many important differences between the expectations and rhetoric around being on the job market versus being on the (tenure-track) job.  But if it wasn’t clear before the most recent market collapse in 2008-09, it should be clear by now that many R1s and LACs alike will not grant tenure without demonstrated achievement in both research and teaching.  Different kinds of institutions will, of course, emphasize different kinds of things in their job listings, interviews, and deliberations. The MLA Committee on Professional Employment addressed the structures and assumptions that inform such variations in expectations in its 1997 report on what it referred to as the “job system.” The MLA website also maintains a link to this relevant article from 2001.

Tags: Job marketnegotiatingprofessionalismacademic communitySocial Network: Picture description: 

Nazareth College (Image from Flickr)

Para-Library Science at the NYPL

March 3, 2014 - 21:33

[...] But this book
Is a cloud in which a voice mumbles.

It is a ghost that inhabits a cloud.
-Wallace Stevens

In Roland Emmerich’s schlocky disaster film The Day After Tomorrow (2004), a tsunami swamps the New York Public Library and enables some ham-handed scenarios about the fate of books after an environmental apocalypse. In the film’s abrupt post-tsunami ice age, a small tribe of survivors burns up the print record for warmth while marooned inside the library. They are led by the young Sam and Laura (Jake Gyllenhal and Emmy Rossum), who happen to be in town for a scholastic decathlon, and who probably accrued their impressive trivia-level knowledge of history from digital sources, to judge by their indifference toward books. The book burners spare Nietzsche, but only for as long as there are reams of tax law to incinerate. A homeless man teaches a privileged prep-schooler how to rip paper from its bindings to use as long underwear, while complaining that codices have nothing on newspaper when it comes to personal insulation. Finally, as the gag lights up to Farenheit 451, print’s final custodian (in a newsboy cap) guards a Gutenberg Bible from the flames--but also from the mockery of a fellow survivor: “You can laugh,” he remarks, “but if Western Civilization is finished, I’m gonna save one little piece of it.” Viewers of The Day After Tomorrow are therefore asked to imagine some alternative futures for the book. Fuel, insulation, or souvenirs, they are meant to be anything other than read.

The New York Public Library maintains an informative webpage devoted to the building’s storied appearances in popular cinema, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) to Sex and the City: The Movie (2008). There, we are reminded that no books were harmed in the filming of The Day After Tomorrow. But ever since November, 2011, when an outcry first emerged among journalists, scholars, architects, and intellectuals over the New York Public Library’s “Central Library Plan,” The Day After Tomorrow feels less like popcorn humor and increasingly more like a flimsy allegory for the NYPL leadership’s directives: sell two midtown branches, gut the stacks below the iconic Rose Reading Room at 42nd street, ship at least 1.5 of 4.5 million on-site volumes to a New Jersey storage facility, and transform the edifice’s newly hollow core into architect Norman Foster’s Gattaca-esque vision of a circulating library for the future.

Champions of the plan, such as president Anthony Marx and trustee Robert Darnton, contend that the renovation will democratize the physical plan of the library, resolve 21st-century storage dilemmas, adapt to changing patron profiles, and anticipate the next wave of funding crises. A few years ago, Darnton went so far as to bait liberal recession sentiment, suggesting that such a facility could double as a job resource center or hiring hall. In historian Anthony Grafton’s less sanguine view, it would instead transform one of the world’s premier research institutions into “a vast internet cafe where people can read the same Google Books, body parts and all, that they could access at home or Starbucks." Preeminent architectural critics from the late Ada Louise Huxtable to the New York Times’s Michael Kimmelman have suggested that the renovations of the building, including the engineering triumph of the stacks themselves, are akin to the defacement of an architectural masterpiece. Finally, under pressure from The Committee to Save the New York Public Library, President Marx capitulated to an independent review of the estimated $300,000,000 price tag for renovations, and last summer, public interest law firm Advocates for Justice, representing a small coalition of scholarly and preservationist plaintiffs led by celebrated historian David Levering Lewis, filed a suit in New York state court claiming that the library has neglected its fiduciary responsibilities toward research. But the off-siting of books from the stacks continues apace. Translator Susan Bernofsky has recently toured the empty stacks on behalf of a PEN America delegation, and she concludes that the still “evolving” plan continues to be bullishly pursued without proper public input:

In fact, there’s so much secrecy surrounding the plan and its progress that Kennedy and Weine forbade me to take any photographs of the stacks during the tour. Why not? I asked, this is a public institution, what the stacks look like shouldn’t be a secret. Weine referred me to the NYPL’s “policy” prohibiting photography in the library’s “non-public spaces.” When I asked where I could find a record of that policy, it quickly became clear there wasn’t one. I guess NYPL leadership is afraid that if enough people see actual images of the stacks in their current state—they give an impression simultaneously of vastness and solidity—they might have too many questions about why in the world the library is proposing to tear them down.

The Committee to Save the New York Public Library will gather on the steps of the NYPL on Wednesday, March 12 to request that Bill de Blasio keep a campaign promise to halt the CLP and to request another independent audit.  Clearly, though many major research libraries have debated, enacted or tabled similar storage solutions in the past several years, the NYPL’s uniquely public mission has proven uniquely capable of raising hackles. I dutifully sign all petitions coming my way, but sometimes it feels as though the tide of activism rallying to the defense of a print-based research library seems to be crashing against an endless wall of unbelievers, who rebuff the growing chorus of protesters as a bibliophilic, sentimental rearguard. It is as if only a small group feels obliged to ask why the book, in its distinguished career, has never been deeded the building that was built for it. Defending the library’s status quo requires a conviction in something that many others regard as increasingly immaterial. For too many, if the book is not still a nuisance, it is already a ghost; if the library was never a monument, it is already a ruin.

We Are All Spenglers

I don’t evoke ghosts in passing. We live with powerful cultural fantasies about the ghostliness of books, fantasies that have been reanimated in recent weeks with the passing of the beloved comedian Harold Ramis. In the blockbuster comedy Ghostbusters (1984), penned by Ramis and directed by Ivan Reitman, the first signs of paranormal activity famously occur in the basement stacks of the NYPL. Looking back on these opening sequences, we stand to be reminded that we have been coping with unheimlichkeit in the house of books far longer than the Google Books Project or the Central Library Plan, and that we do not often enough date ourselves amid the slow revolutions of the information age and the neoliberal economic agenda, as they variously converge across recent decades to dematerialize knowledge archives and sell off public cultural infrastructure.

Ghostbusters opens with an elderly librarian pushing a re-shelving cart past a bank of card catalog cabinetry. Suddenly drawers begin to slide mysteriously open behind her, unleashing a storm of index cards destined never to be re-filed.

Most librarians viewing Ghostbusters in the theater in the summer of 1984 would have knowingly smiled at these images. Machine Readable Cataloging (MARC), developed by the Library of Congress in the late 1960s, cleared the way for the “retrospective conversions” of the cumbersome analog catalogs as early as the late 1970s. In “Discards” (1994), Nicholson Baker’s bitter dispatch on the demise of the catalogs, he points out that the NYPL itself had already microfilmed and gleefully jettisoned its catalog by 1980, several years before Ghostbusters (in part because it was subject to frequent vandalism). In 1985, the University of Maryland Baltimore Health Sciences Library published a pamphlet entitled 101 Uses for a Dead Catalog Card and threw a party in which they released hundreds of cards into the sky tied to helium balloons. Across the 1980s, many librarians rejoiced over the death of a system they had meticulously constructed over the course of nearly a century.

Despite nagging critiques of the conversion errors and multiple metadata protocols that prevent the “inter-operability” of our digital catalogs, Darnton reminds us that these electronic advances laid the groundwork for off-site storage procedures far more reliable than the physical catalogs. But in Ghostbusters, this card catalog hailstorm does not simply speak to the growing unruliness of print, nor the necessity of remediating, dematerializing, and digitally containing it. Rather, it speaks of the electronic information age’s unruly disdain for print cataloguing procedures. In fact, it is the card catalog that hosts the film’s first sighting of “ectoplasm,” the supernatural toxic residue that comes to mean many things as Ghostbusters unfolds (especially the increasing visibility of environmental pollution and the racialized crime waves of the 1980s). Whatever and whomever will soon be slimed, analog data storage is granted indelible priority in the allegorical order of “the uncontainable.”

Soon books are misfiling themselves across the stacks into oblivion. Perhaps Ghostbusters’ most apt information age prolepsis is the curious phenomenon that Ray Stantz (Dan Akroyd) describes as “symmetrical book stacking ... just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947.” Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) displays an obsession with electronic documentation of this cairn-like, sepulchral book sculpture, suggesting a coming order in which books are photo-scanned, OCR-ed, and then “up-cycled” as interior design objects:     All this leads inexorably toward the first verified ghost sighting: “a free-floating, full-torso, vaporous apparition,” in the pseudo-scientific jargon Dan Akroyd contributed to the script (Akroyd is a third-generation spiritualist and avid parapsychology hobbyist, and the Ghostbusters franchise has been his lifelong passion project). The Ghostbusters first observe this marmish “library ghost” in a scene of reading, her image as irresolute as a daguerrotype. She assigns a historical instability to the activity of reading. This library patron is also the library's destroyer. She decorously shushes Dr. Venkman for “disturbing” her (as the film often puns), but she has just finished trashing the stacks she now peruses so piously.   

Perhaps we could call the “library ghost” the film’s allegory of para-library science -- the library’s new wholesale faith in the digital necromancy of the print era. Even Robert Darnton has figured himself as this kind of re-animator, first in The Case for Books, but also with the Digital Public Library of America, which like most new basic search functions, does not distinguish between print and other forms of “text.” The effect in Ghostbusters is to dis-authenticate all relations to print. Only electronic devices and mass-mediated gazes can be trusted. And only ghosts display relations to print as reliable repositories of knowledge, relations the film constantly reminds us to regard as fickle and dubious.

In Ghostbusters, humans who read (rather than “take readings”) are floozies and misfits. This distinction is dramatized by no-nonsense receptionist Janine (Annie Potts) ripping through a paperback romance novel at her desk like a character out of a Janice Radway reception history, while Spengler wires a telephone provocatively beneath her desk (the film often eroticizes his typecast technophilia). Janine coos over him “You’re very handy, I can tell. I bet you like to read a lot too,” but Spengler’s affectless, three-word reply is only “print is dead.”

Spengler, who places his entire faith in his gadgetry, is not spooked by ghosts, which he regards with inquisitive enthusiasm. Spengler is only spooked by books. When we first see him in the library, he is perched beneath yet another desk to listen by jerry-rigged stethoscope for paranormal resonances. When Venkman slaps a book on the tabletop to startle him, we understand that for Spengler, only the physicality of print is terrifying.

What are ghosts in Ghostbusters? As cinematic technologies, they signal a spiraling 1980s propensity for animatronic invasions of diegetic realism (think Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) As symbols, it seems easy enough to define them as unmanageable, toxic materialities: first print, but later pollution, excess, crime, and finally consumer products (the Stay-Puft marshmallow man). Slimer, the tuberous memento mori we first see pillaging a room service tray like a reincarnation of the recently deceased John Belushi combines many of these elements. Here we probably need to pause for a separate reflection on ghosts and obesity. In all, few cultural artifacts of the 1980s flaunt what Lawrence Buell calls “toxic discourse” as directly as Ghostbusters. And yet, the portals to the paranormal are not the polluted East River, the post-industrial port or the ghetto. Rather, they are the grand edifices of Gilded Age capital: the library, the hotel, and the gothic co-op on Central Park West. These remnant architectures connote Spiritualism’s heyday, relegating ghosts to history. But in such spaces, ghosts are the recrudescence of Progressive Era philanthropy. Having entrusted civic institutions to local government (as Andrew Carnegie did with his libraries), Slimer reemerges, the ravenous ghost of a 19th century super-capitalist, only to withdraw from the view that public stewardship is any longer desirable or sustainable. The ritual exorcism to be performed by the Ghostbusters is to rid the city of civic residues and pre-neoliberal models of public culture. If the Ghostbusters are heroes, they heroize an era defined by the corporate mismanagement of civic institutions--libraries preeminent among them.

The Ghostbusters themselves are products of philanthropic civil society. They first pursue their quackery as parapsychologists in academia, where, as Akroyd opines, “they give us money and facilities and we don’t have to produce anything.” Such admissions slyly wink at parapsychology’s tiny academic surge in the 1970s and 1980s, emboldened by figures like Thelma Moss of UCLA, whose research into Kirlian electrophotography visually influences the film. But Ghostbusters quickly ousts occultism from its University shelter, as an elitist dean critiques Venkman (who runs experiments designed to pick up co-eds) for viewing “science as a kind of dodge or hustle.” Parapsychology is thus rebranded as “the indispensible defense science of the next decade.” “Destined to get thrown out of this dump,” the Ghostbusters  “go into business” as custodial defense contractors, shilling “professional paranormal investigations and eliminations.”

In all, the Ghostbusters are consummate neoliberals, fated to privatize the fruits of subsidized scientific research and to break the state’s monopoly on the exercise of violence. They rapidly manufacture generic biohazard equipment; they purchase a decaying city-owned firehouse; they hang a branded public safety symbol as their shingle. In effect, as Thomas Frank has recently reminded us, they become a perfect Reaganite goon squad, swooping into the cheap real estate left behind by deregulation and divestments from urban infrastructure (which, as in the case of the firehouse, is portrayed as terminally broken). The only alternative the film advances to private defense contracts as the means to rid the U.S. metropole of its ill-defined toxicity is an insufferable, emasculated federal regulatory agency (the EPA) whose villainous representative does not fathom ghosts, but only frets over chemicals.

According to Tad Friend, the screenplays of Harold Ramis pioneered a comedic voice defined by a “defanged sixties rebelliousness that doesn’t so much seek to oust the powerful as to embolden the powerless.” But in Ghostbusters, the undeniably affable Bill Murray does little ideological work other than multi-pronged, neoliberal cheerleading for the ongoing installation of the electronic-age information economy, the demonization of environmental regulatory frameworks in the face of unmistakeable environmental crisis, the privatization of civic infrastructure, the vindication of defense contracting, the flight from academia as a safeguard of knowledge, and the succumbing to the monstrous power of branding.

For the current trustees of the New York Public Library, a specter once again haunts the stacks of the NYPL: the specter of books. And so these frightened custodians have deputized all of us as Ghostbusters who will line the library with fiber optic cables and flush our books into remote containment systems not unlike those that Spengler builds for the ghosts of New York. Ghostbusters was part of a cutting edge that asked us to stop viewing books as a commons to be monumentalized at the center of the city, and asked us to regard them instead as hosts for vaporous apparitions, an unruly quantity of toxic refuse for which to build remote storage facilities. We have become an army of gadgetry-bedecked Spenglers who (to judge by the Cult of Bill Murray) delusively fancy ourselves as a breezy company of Venkmans. At this point, we have been sliming the stacks for longer than we all care to remember.

Works Cited

Nicholson Baker, The Size of Thoughts (New York: Random House, 1996)

Roger Darnton, The Case for Books (New York: Public Affairs, 2009)

Tad Friend, “Comedy First: How Harold Ramis’s Movies Have Stayed Funny for Twenty-Five Years,” New Yorker 80.9 (Apr 19-26, 2004): 164-73.

Ursula Heise, “Toxins, Drugs and Global Systems: Risk and Narrative in the Contemporary Novel,” American Literature 74.4 (Dec 2002): 747-778

Don Shay (ed.), Making Ghostbusters (New York: Zoetrope, 1985).



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