Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Another Latour Blogger

Paul John Ennis of Another Heidegger Blog joins the discussion at We Have Never Been Blogging. The actors are multiplying!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Seeing the consequences of a thought

Two very knowledgeable Michaels (Johnduff and Wood) with some useful and interesting notes on what literary theory does.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

When It's Sleepytime

"Using extremely standardized conventions, artists can coordinate their activity under the most difficult circumstances. When I played the piano in Chicago nightclubs in the 1940s, we typically played seven or eight hours a night. Toward the end of an evening, players got quite tired and sleepy. I discovered that the extreme conventionalization of the popular songs we played meant I could play when I was half, or more than half, asleep. I would often wake up in the middle of a song, getting lost only when I realized that I had been asleep and consequently had no idea where I was. Until then, I must have made use of my knowledge that all the phrases of the song were eight bars long, that they used only a few chords from the many possibilities available, and that those were arranged in a few standardized ways."

— Howard S. Becker, Art Worlds, 58

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Lost in the Supermarket

"I have argued that most often in social sciences, 'social' designates a type of link: it's taken as the name of a specific domain, a sort of material like straw, mud, string, wood, or steel. In principle, you could walk into some imaginary supermarket and point at a shelf full of 'social ties,' whereas other aisles would be stocked with 'material,' 'biological,' 'psychological,' and 'economical' connections. For ANT … the definition of the term is different: it doesn't designate a domain of reality or some particular item, but rather is the name of a movement, a displacement, a transformation, a translation, an enrollment. It is an association between entities which are in no way recognizable as being social in the ordinary manner, except during the brief moment when they are reshuffled together.
To pursue the metaphor of the supermarket, we would call 'social' not any specific shelf or aisle, but the multiple modifications made throughout the whole place in the organization of all the goods — their packaging, their pricing, their labeling — because those minute shifts reveal to the observer which new combinations are explored and which paths will be taken (what later will be defined as a 'network')."

— Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social, 64-65

(Lots more Latour here, bien sur.)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Rather life-like

I'm stealing this from Will Evans, because it's too good not to disseminate as widely as possible:

"Satan then jumps over the wall into Paradise, already watched by Uriel because the passion of his soliloquy has betrayed him. Evidence of confusion has been found in 'Uriel once warned' (IV.125); but it only means that Uriel after being asked the way by this character felt enough curiosity to follow his later movements. The idea of a soliloquy being observed has been found absurdly theatrical or literary, so I make bold to remark that it once happened to me. I had landed at Los Angeles on my way from China to England, and there is a park in that city which rises to a fairly bluff summit. I went to the top of it and screamed; this was in 1939, so my feelings need not all be blamed upon Los Angeles. After I had been screaming for a bit I found I was being shot at by boys with air-guns; this satisfied me in some way; I came down the hill, and took the train to San Francisco. The incident on Niphates' top strikes me as a rather life-like thing to have happened to Satan."

— William Empson, Milton's God, 67

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The eternal reverse succession of contemplated entities

As part of my continuing back-and-forth with Mike Johnduff over at We Have Never Been Blogging, I offer a comparison (or, maybe better, an association) between Bruno Latour and Kenneth Koch.
"…We all know that we have to live for a certain time and then
unfortunately we must die, and after that none is sure what happens. Accounts vary. But we
most of us feel we'll be made comfortable for much of the time after that, and get credit
for the (admittedly) few nice things we did, and no one is going to make too much
of a fuss over those we'd rather draw the curtain over, and besides, we can't see
much that was wrong in them, there are two sides to every question. Yet the facts
fascinate one, we become one of those persons who are only satisfied with thoroughly
reliable information — the truth, if there could ever be such a thing. Our journey
flows past us like ice chunks, maybe it is that we are stationary.
O so much God to police everything and still be left over to flatter one's
harmless idiosyncrasies, the things that make us us, which is precisely
what is fading like paint on a sign, no matter how much one pretends it's the same
as yesterday. And children talk to us — that, surely, must be a plus?"

— John Ashbery, Flow Chart, 35

Monday, November 30, 2009

"…It took
two weeks to lead up to this. The stores are quiet now.
I say lie down in it. I already asked Santa about it.
And then, you see, it became part of our cultural history. We can't ignore it
even though we'd like to, it's so mild and hurtless. And you thought
you had it bad, or good. With as many associations as that
to keep thumbing through, one winks at the legal filigrane that penetrates every
page of the mouldering sheaf down to the last one, like a spike
through a door. Somebody dust these ashes off, open
the curtains, get a little light on the subject: the subject
going off on its own again."

— John Ashbery, Flow Chart, 20

Saturday, November 28, 2009

"…Even though you thought
everything you touched was doomed to fall apart or not start, time has
a few surprises up its sleeve and deserves to be spat on for not having more,
or would, if it didn't. Yet it does."

— John Ashbery, Flow Chart, 15

Friday, November 27, 2009

Quote unquote fantastic

A few choice words on Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox over at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Dads going digital

My friend Sam has three poems up at the new web magazine Monsters & Dust (which also features work by Cass McCombs). They have a nice autumnal melancholy thing going on. I particularly like "Store Policy."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Up to something

Good old Michael Wood on Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice in the NYRB (from September 2009; I'm a little behind):

"A new gourmet health-food restaurant opens 'off Melrose.' It is called the Price of Wisdom, and located above a seedy bar called Ruby's Lounge. This allows the owners to put up 'a hand-lettered sign reading, THE PRICE OF WISDOM IS ABOVE RUBY'S, JOB 28:18.' Inherent Vice also has a collision and repair shop called Resurrection of the Body. There is something touching about jokes one has to work so hard for, and Pynchon has a special tenderness for the mode, memorably signified, in Gravity's Rainbow, by the Hobbesian law firm of Salitieri, Poore, Nash, De Brutus and Short.

"These gags and allusions are fleeting instances of cultural thought at work, failures of seriousness that are prodigies of connection … No thought is banal if it is up to something, and the novelist's task, and ours, is to watch the thinking as it happens and before it fades, not detach or prejudge the style or the content." (70-71)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Un Cadavre

"Comparison and analysis need only the cadavers on the table; but interpretation is always producing parts of the body from its pockets, and fixing them in place.”

— T.S. Eliot, "The Function of Criticism" (1923)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

You could see the sea out there, if you could see it

Here's a beautiful trailer, put together by Mark Franks, for Not Coming to a Theater Near You's screening of Los Angeles Plays Itself on November 21st at 92Y Tribeca.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Taking history personally

In anticipation of the 92Y Tribeca screening of Los Angeles Plays Itself on Saturday, here's my interview with director Thom Andersen.

Monday, November 16, 2009

my love for you… your love for yoghurt

Frank O'Hara reading "Having a Coke with You" in 1966. My friend Meghann read the same poem at our other friend Lauren's wedding this weekend. Mazel tov Lauren and Jesse!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Spark Plug Notes

Here's Paul Fry on Wolfgang Iser, from the fourth lecture of his Yale course in literary theory (online in its entirety here; thanks to Mike Johnduff for the link):

"'One text is potentially capable of several different realizations, and no reading can ever exhaust the full potential, for each individual reader will fill in the gaps in his own way.' And this, of course, brings us to the issue of gaps and the role that they play in the act of reading as Iser understands it.

"A gap. It's an interesting term. I don't actually know whether Iser — to be Hirschianmeans what I'm about to say about gaps, but plainly a gap is an abyss, it's a distance between two points. But what's really interesting is that we think of spark plugs, we think of 'gapping' a spark plug. I don't know if you know how a spark plug works, but for the electrical current to fly into operation in a spark plug the two points of contact have to be gapped. They have to be forced apart to a certain degree. Too much: there's no spark. Too little: you short out; there's no spark … And it seems to me that that 'a-ha!' effect of reading, the movement back and forth across the gap between the reader and the text, can be understood in terms of a spark — right? — as though the relationship between the reader and the text were the relationship between the two points of a spark plug." (Track 04, 26:18 - 27:57)

Friday, November 13, 2009

If you say so

"The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen. A few clouds in heaven do come together into the staring shape of one human eye. A tree does stand up in the landscape of a doubtful journey in the exact and deliberate shape of a note of interrogation. I have seen both these things myself within the last few days. Nelson does die in the instant of victory; and a man named Williams does quite accidentally murder a man named Williamson; it sounds like a sort of infanticide. In short, there is in life an element of elfin coincidence which people reckoning on the prosaic may perpetually miss. As it has been well expressed in the paradox of Poe, wisdom should reckon on the unforeseen."

— G.K. Chesterton, "The Blue Cross" in Favorite Father Brown Stories, 3-4

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Friends and advisers

Roger Fry, from his 1926 essay "Art and Commerce":

“What I constate is the fact that advertisement has, in recent times, taken on a new complexion. It is tinged with a new poetry — a new romance. It is no longer the severely practical affair it once was; it brings about a new relation between the public and the great limited liability companies. There is a note of affectionate zeal for the public in their communications. The big companies pose as friends and advisers of the public, they appear filled with concern for their welfare, they would even educate them and show them the way to higher and better things. The Underground tells the slum dweller of the beauties of nature in the country, it reveals the wonders of animal life at the Zoo, it inspires the historical sense by pictures of old London. The great railway combines tell of the glories of provincial England, and inspire an enthusiasm for the grandeur of modern locomotives. In fact, each of these great concerns tries to build up in the public imagination an image of something almost personal — and as such they begin to claim almost the loyalty and allegiance of the public they exploit.”

— from Art and the Market: Roger Fry on Commerce in Art, ed. Craufurd D. Goodwin, 121

On a related note, the season finale of Mad Men was excellent.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Brody, critic and man

My co-interview (with Leo Goldsmith) of Godard biographer Richard Brody is up now at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Friday, November 6, 2009

I liked his earlier stuff

before the epistemological break.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Office Party Crashers

Normally this would go on my Latour blog, but it's too good, and too relevant to my daily experience as a scholar, not to record here:

"A project is called innovative if the number of actors that have to be taken into account is not a given from the outset. If that number is known in advance, in contrast, the project can follow quite orderly, hierarchical phases; it can go from office to office, and every office will add the concerns of the actors for which it is responsible. As you proceed along the corridor, the size or degree of reality grows by regular increments. Research projects, on the other hand, do not have such an elegant order: the crowds that were thought to be behind the project disappear without a word; or, conversely, unexpected allies turn up and demand to be taken into account. It's like a reception where the invited guests have failed to show; in their place, a bunch of unruly louts turn up and ruin everything."

Aramis, or the Love of Technology, trans. Catherine Porter, 72

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Friday, October 30, 2009

Happy Halloween

My review of the 1977 horror movie Hausu, in which I managed not to use the words "batshit insane," is up now at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Curiosity of the unprofound

"When in Maine the harbor-master is the habba-masta, when in New York seabirds are seaboids, when as in the Negro vernacular, the tenth becomes the tent, certainly is certainy, and Paris is Parus, the curiosity of the unprofound, with regard to the acoustics of speech, may seem like that of the Esquimaux listening for the first time to a phonograph. Our completely fascinated interest in these matters is, however, not to be disguised and our desire to know what topics may occupy the attention of the fastidious, is genuine."

— Marianne Moore on "a recent tract of The Society for Pure English" in The Dial, 80 (May 1926), 448

Friday, October 23, 2009

"We have to love the past
it is our invention."

— John Ash, "The Rain"

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Publishers all occupy skyscraper penthouses, or 'random houses,' and although I was never actually in one of them, I can see them as clearly as if I had been. The publishers dictate ideas for novels to the writers, supplying them with titles and, in some instances, writing the books themselves. The American custom of seducing one's best friend's wife, and later killing oneself while on a 'spree,' out of fear that one is actually in love with one's best friend, is the basic theme most recently insisted upon by the publishers."

— James Thurber, "The American Literary Scene" (1949) in Thurber Country, 193

Saturday, October 17, 2009

La tour de Latour

Starting in earnest next week, Mike Johnduff and I will be reading through the texts of Bruno Latour, as well as a few by some of his friends, and commenting and discussing at We Have Never Been Blogging. Here's Mike's opening statement and here's mine.

The outlook wasn't brilliant

Dial publisher Scofield Thayer's uncle Ernest wrote "Casey at the Bat."

Friday, October 16, 2009

From Confusion to Cummings

An exchange of letters from the pages of The Dial in 1923, as given in William Wasserstrom's The Time of the Dial (p. 58-59):

Mr. Dial Editor

My Mama told me to ask you what I want to know, so please tell me, dear sir. I am 11 years old and my mama lets me cut the pages of the Dial each month and I love to look at the funnies, next to the poetry.

Today I saw some funny poetry by Mr. Cummings. It had such funny lines and the punktuation and capitellization is so funny. My teacher makes me stay after school and my father licks me cause I punktuate and capitilize like Mr. Cummings does.

I said to my mama now can I write like they do in the Dial and she says I ll take your head off if you do what am I sending you to school for anyway to write like that.

And I said to my mama what does it mean an she said god knows cause nobody else does thats sure I've ask lots of Dial readers and they dont know no more than I do and at that its harder to break into print than to break out of jail thats what my mama said. Please Mr. Dial editor is it going to be like Cummings has it then I won't have to go to school any more to learn punktuation and capitellzation. Please answer.

Your little friend
Eugene Winton

3155 W. 38th Ave
Denver, Colo.

P.S. My mama says I won't get a reply unless I enclos a stampd envlup so heres 1.

Master Eugene Winton
3153 W. 38th Ave.
Denver, Col.

My dear Master Winton,
I am afraid that we can offer you very little consolation as to the matter of Mr Cummings' capitalization and punctuation. While Mr Cummings persisted in spite of spankings, and finally became a poet thereby, we could not officially council any one else to do likewise.

You must also remember that if all the world were like Mr Cummings, Mr Cummings' system of punctuation would lose some of its effectiveness. It is partially because the rest of us must devote our time to getting the rules right that Mr Cummings can get effects out of their violation.

But, going farther than this, I should point out that Mr Cummings does use his violations to a purpose. They are not mistakes; they are intentional. It used to be the practice, for instance, when one wanted to emphasize something, to underline it, or in printing to put it in italics. But we have learned today that much more emphasis can be gotten by other ways (this old way having been worn smooth). Look at the advertisements in a magazine, for instance, and see how much is done precisely along the lines which Mr Cummings uses in his poetry. Yet when you see an ad beginning with a small letter, do you write to the company in protest?

Wishing you all the success in the world with your school work, I am
Faithfully yours,
Kenneth Burke
Editorial Department

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Even Though

the suspension bridges are buckling in the hurricane
and several cars full of conventional families
with an average number of children have been thrown
into a river full of alligators,

the old house is still there in its "extensive grounds"
its doorways linking the clauses of rooms and corridors
into a majestic sentence that will not reveal its object
(it might be only a patch of unusual colouror a child's excited view through a bedroom keyhole)

the windows open onto the white of the margin
rainclouds are a shop girl's dusty thumb-prints
a word is a hand a throat a strand of hair damp after an evening's dancing

the branching stairs escape syntax —
are the extreme point of muscular tension translated into stone

you collapse sprawling across the marble prefix as

the first door opens with a hollow sound out of a cheap horror movie
shown late on friday when we are a little stoned or drunk
and very easily frightened
A cat escapes into the garden and a rich dust rises in welcome. Oh! the fineness of the objects!
their colours! Garbo's hat with the feather in it the heaps
of early sixties singles, the Afghan gloves, the burnished globes,
the toy trains, the mouldy jellies and rose-coloured maps of empire!

It is all perfect: the mirrors are hardly tarnished at all
and still flicker with the faces of unhappy children.

We have stepped into the frontispiece of a new book:
it is called "The History of Pleasure."

— John Ash, The Branching Stairs, 25

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Harder Better Faster Stronger

Over at Larval Subjects, Levi Bryant gives an excellent gloss on Latour's notion of "trials of strength." He says, sensibly enough, that a scientific theory is akin to a bridge built over a creek: what gives it reality is its ability to withstand pressure over the course of time, to maintain its structure when other similar objects around it are being destroyed. "Reality, for Latour … consists of gradients of resistance. Some things have a high degree of resistance, some do not and are easily toppled or shattered."

He then concludes the post by extending the claim to literature, which obviously made my ears perk up:

Finally the case is similar in literature. The thesis that the best selling novel is the best novel fails to attend to the manner in which endurance is one of the crucial dimensions of reality or strength. To be sure, most people prefer Dean R. Kuntz [sic] to Joyce… However, the comparative popularity of Dean R. Kuntz compared to Finnegan’s Wake is not what establishes the reality of the object. Kuntz’s novel Intensity, while perhaps enjoyable, has very little staying power and very easily passes out of existence. However, when speaking of works like Homer’s Illiad, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, we are talking of works that are like a well built bridge, somehow clearly carrying traces of the historical setting out of which they emerged but also having the capacity to transcend that historical setting, to resonate like two strings of a guitar against one another producing differences in other historical settings, never, somehow, becoming cliches in the way that Kuntz’s mustached Scotch drinking heroes seem to immediately embody the cliche of the Reagan era, faux-sophisticate 80s man that loses our interest when this time passes. There is something here about how the language holds together, the thought holds together, the themes hold together, that give these works high gradients of resistance to dissolution. Indeed, it is the resistance we encounter in reading the work, the difficulty of navigating them, the richness of their multi-stratified and resonating diverse meanings that functions as an index of their strength or their ability to resonate in multiple changing historical settings like the cone of Bergson’s memory without losing their originality. They are like the art of pantomime, in a strange way, where the good pantomime manages to extract the pure event of a particular action from its causal context such that it becomes capable of appearing in any context as a singularity. The greatness of these works, their strength, does not lie in the attitudes people have towards it – like coffee one has to learn how to read Joyce and at first it is painful – but rather in the sturdiness of the construction that allows it to endure.

Hmmmmm. While the extension of the analogy is tempting, I'm not sure that Bryant is able to solve the overwhelming question of cultural value so fast. I'll leave aside the usual queries about class and subjectivity and who gets to decide what "resonates," both because they're too easy and also because they're not really in the spirit of Bryant's speculation. Instead I'll just ask: what would a total failure of a trial of strength look like for a literary text? Less like a negative evaluation by posterity, as Bryant imagines, and more like simple illegibility: a text in a dead language, or one of which no copies have been preserved, is the weakest possible text, in Latour's sense. So while in one sense, Bryant is right, Finnegans Wake probably has a much better chance of resonating fifty years from now than Koontz's Intensity, in another sense it is a much weaker, more fragile assemblage, one that, without the Skeleton Key and our biographies of Joyce and an enormous (but finite) amount of other paraphernalia, would be within spitting distance of illegible. Whereas Intensity, I'm guessing, will be roughly readable as long as current vernacular English remains in a recognizable state. So which text is stronger?

But what I like about Bryant's formulation, in spite of everything, is that it makes the social use value of literature the criterion for textual strength without immediately conflating use and exchange value (as materialist approaches to literary sociology, like Franco Moretti's, often risk doing). On this view, a writer like Joyce is not just his fluctuating reputation, or his sales figures: he is also, as the card-carrying New Critic would insist, his texts, which can stand up as well as anybody's to trials of strength. And his texts are stronger than Koontz's, because they are more likely to satisfy examiners in a number of different social contexts, over a longer period of historical time, than Koontz's are, which will some day probably only be read by people who have a thing for late-twentieth-century period horror fiction.

But of course Joyce — any author, but particularly Joyce — is not just his texts either; he's also, as the card-carrying poststructuralist would insist, his paratexts, not only all of those he refers to in his work but also all of those books and articles that have been written on it, and all the other works that have been inspired by it. So it seems to me that Bryant is being unnecessarily formalist when he says that "[t]here is something here about how the language holds together, the thought holds together, the themes hold together, that give these works high gradients of resistance to dissolution." It's taking the metaphor of "construction" too literally: any given Joyce text is indeed a very sturdy construction, or assemblage, but it's one assembled not only by Joyce himself. It's in this sense that Joyce's texts, like any writer's, are social: that is, they require many actors and actants working together to give them their full strength, value, or "meaning."

But still. Doesn't this privilege the particular constructions of literary critics, academic scholars, and "highbrow" readers above the millions who are certainly experiencing some reality when they read a Koontz book (whatever else you say, you can't take that away from them)? Could we say, then, that Koontz may be real to more people, but Joyce is real in more ways?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Steady Job

Some intriguing remarks on literary professionalism from "The Art of Poetry: Marianne Moore," the 1960 Paris Review interview with Donald Hall:

Interviewer: I was intrigued when you wrote that ‘America has in Wallace Stevens at least one artist whom professionalism will not demolish.’ What sort of literary professionalism did you have in mind? And do you find this a feature of America still?

"Moore: Yes. I think that writers sometimes lose their verve and their pugnacity, and he never would.

“That question I am so often asked: ‘What work can I find that will enable me to spend my whole time writing?’ Charles Ives, the composer, says, ‘You cannot set art off in a corner and hope for it to have vitality, reality and substance. The fabric weaves itself whole. My work in music helped my business and my work in business helped my music.’ I am like Charles Ives. Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller would not agree with me.

Interviewer: But how does professionalism make a writer lose his nerve and pugnacity?

Moore: I suppose money has something to do with it and being regarded as a pundit. Wallace Stevens was really very much annoyed at being catalogued, categorized, and compelled to be scientific about what he was doing — to give satisfaction, to answer the teachers. He wouldn’t do that. He was independent.

“I think the same of William Carlos Williams. I think he wouldn’t make so much of the great American language if he were judicious about everything. And that is the beauty of it — he is willing to be reckless, and if you can’t be that, what’s the point of the whole thing?”

— Reprinted in Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Charles Tomlinson, 44-45

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Not only connect

A typically interesting speculative post from Graham Harman on the use of blogs. His basic thesis is that blogs (and the internet and new media in general) are great for the exchange of information, but less great for critique, which he feels "works best when it is quantized, not constant and rapid." I think I agree, which may be why this blog has been evolving from a more dialectical style, inviting argument and discussion, into more of an online commonplace book, or even a collection of placeholders, ways to mark texts or store information for future retrieval. It strikes me that the accumulative, archival aspect of blogs is less often emphasized than their immediate communicative power. For instance, I like to discover blogs that interest me (like Harman's) and work my way through the archives, getting a sense of what the writer is like and what things and people he or she is connected to. Every once in a while I'll become a daily reader of a blog, checking it every day for updates, but this habit is usually temporary: I'd rather move on and find something new. Not sure whether this means I've got a more "old media" approach to the internet, treating it more like a library than a public forum; or if it's just that some people tend to emphasize new forms of exchange over new forms of access. Either way, it's clearly a new kind of landscape.

Friday, October 2, 2009

On Figures

"On Figures Quintilian, though he may pay disproportionate attention to them, still is perfectly aware of the danger of the actually and constantly committed fault of separating off some quite ordinary fashion of speech, ticketing it with a long Greek name, and thenceforward regarding the ticket as something real, the attaching of which to similar phrases is an illuminative and profitable exercise of the critical faculty." (18)


"When a man writes even a good oration, much more than that far higher thing a good piece of prose (which may be an oration, if need serves, or anything else), he does not say to himself, 'Now I shall throw in some hyperbaton; now we will exhibit a little anadiplosis; this is the occasion, surely, for a passage of zeugma.' He writes as the spirit moves him, and as the way of art." (33-34)

— George Saintsbury, A History of English Criticism (1911)

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Tina and Seth met in the midst of an overcrowded militarism.
"Like a drink?" he asked her. "They make great Alexanders over at the Marxism-Leninism."
She agreed. They shared cocktails. They behaved cautiously, as in a period of pre-fascism.
Afterwards he suggested dinner at a restaurant renowned for its Maoism.
"O.K.," she said, but first she had to phone a friend about her ailing Afghan, whose name was Racism.
Then she followed Seth across town past twilit alleys of sexism.

The waiter brought menus and announced the day's specials. He treated them with condescending sexism,
So they had another drink. Tina started her meal with a dish of militarism,
While Seth, who was hungrier, had a half portion of stuffed baked racism.
Their main dishes were roast duck for Seth, and for Tina broiled Marxism-Leninism.
Tina had pecan pie a la for dessert, Seth a compote of stewed Maoism.
They lingered. Seth proposed a liqueur. They rejected sambuca and agreed on fascism.

During the meal, Seth took the initiative. He inquired into Tina's fascism,
About which she was reserved, not out of reticence but because Seth's sexism
Had aroused in her a desire she felt she should hide — as though her Maoism
Would willy-nilly betray her feelings for him. She was right. Even her deliberate militarism
Couldn't keep Seth from realizing that his attraction was reciprocated. His own Marxism-Leninism
Became manifest, in a compulsive way that piled the Ossa of confusion on the Pelion of racism.

Next, what? Food finished, drinks drunk, bills paid — what racism
Might not swamp their yearning in an even greater confusion of fascism?
But women are wiser than words. Tina rested her hand on his thigh and, a-twinkle with Marxism-Leninism,
Asked him, "My place?" Clarity at once abounded under the flood-lights of sexism,
They rose from the table, strode out, and he with the impetuousness of young militarism
Hailed a cab to transport them to her lair, heaven-haven of Maoism.

In the taxi he soon kissed her. She let him unbutton her Maoism
And stroke her resilient skin, which was quivering with shudders of racism.
When beneath her jeans he sensed the superior Lycra of her militarism,
His longing almost strangled him. Her little tongue was as potent as fascism
In its elusive certainty. He felt like then and there tearing off her sexism
But he reminded himself: "Pleasure lies in patience, not in the greedy violence of Marxism-Leninism."

Once home, she took over. She created a hungering aura of Marxism-Leninism
As she slowly undressed him where he sat on her overstuffed art-deco Maoism,
Making him keep still, so that she could indulge in caresses, in sexism,
In the pursuit of knowing him. He groaned under the exactness of her racism
— Fingertip sliding up his nape, nails incising his soles, teeth nibbling his fascism.
At last she guided him to bed, and they lay down on a patchwork of Old American militarism.

Biting his lips, he plunged his militarism into the popular context of her Marxism-Leninism,
Easing one thumb into her fascism, with his free hand coddling the tip of her Maoism,
Until, gasping with appreciative racism, both together sink into the revealed glory of sexism.

— Harry Mathews (1984)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The contempt in kicking

"How did it become fashionable for disparagers of skepticism to tell the story of Dr. Johnson, who, receiving Bishop Berkeley's 'denial' of matter, kicked a stone, replying, 'Thus I refute you'? People who know nothing of the motives of skepticism know a version of this story. How strange a scene it offers. Why, to begin with, is kicking a hard object more a 'refutation' of immateriality than, say, sipping wine, or putting your hand on the arm of a friend, or just walking away on solid ground, or muddy ground for that matter? Why is a sensation in the toe taken to be closer to the things of the world than one in the throat or in the hand or on the sole of the foot? Does Samuel Johnson take himself to be closer to his foot than to his throat or his hand? Or is it the gesture that is important — the contempt in kicking? Emerson assigns to Johnson the saying 'You remember who kicked you.' Is Johnson's refutation accordingly to be understood as reminding the things of earth who is master, as an allegory of his contempt of philosophy left to its arrogance? Or is it — despite himself — a way of causing himself pain by the things of the world, implying that he knows they exist because he suffers from them? And, if so, had he then forgotten when he last kicked them, or brushed them by?"

— Stanley Cavell, "The World as Things" in Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow, 248

Monday, September 28, 2009

Pots, Mugs, and Jugs

"The problem with philosophers is that because their jobs are so hard they drink a lot of coffee and thus use in their arguments an inordinate quantity of pots, mugs, and jugs — to which, sometimes, they might add the occasional rock. But, as Ludwik Fleck remarked long ago, their objects are never complicated enough; more precisely, they are never simultaneously made through a complex history and new, real, and interesting participants in the universe."

— Bruno Latour, "Why Has Critique Run Out Of Steam?: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern" in Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004), 233-234

Saturday, September 26, 2009

L-R: Kenneth Koch, Alan Dugan, Robert Lowell, Stanley Kunitz and Marianne Moore at the New School for Social Research, 1962(?).

Sunday, September 20, 2009

New Sincerities

Graham Harman, on his blog:

"In some ways it is surprising that science has been associated with critique, because science has been the greatest creator of new sincerities that the world has ever known … What we need is more innocence and enthusiasm in intellectual life, not more sneering critique and labyrinthine qualification and complexification."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

In Love with the Idea

"What does it mean to fall in love with a writer? What does it mean, for that matter — or maybe we should ask, what else could it mean — to cathect in a similar way a theoretical moment not one's own? … The moralistic hygiene by which any reader of today is unchallengeably entitled to condescend to the thought of any moment in the past (maybe especially the recent past) is globally available to anyone who masters the application of two or three discrediting questions. How provisional, by contrast, how difficult to reconstruct and how exorbitantly specialized of use, are the tools that in any given case would allow one to ask: What was it possible to think or do at a certain moment of the past that it no longer is? And how far are those possibilities to be found, unfolded, allowed to move and draw air and seek new voices and uses, in the very different disciplinary ecology of even a few decades distance?"

— Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank, "Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins," in Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, 117-118

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Two thoughts about biography

Theodor Adorno to Leo Löwenthal, 25 November 1942 (quoted by Detlev Claussen in One Last Genius, 5-6):

At bottom, the concept of life as a meaningful unity unfolding from within itself has ceased to possess any reality, much like the individual himself, and the ideological function of biographies consists in demonstrating to people with reference to various models that something like life still exists, with all the emphatic qualities of life. And the task of biography is to prove this in particular empirical contexts which those people who no longer have any life can easily claim as their own. Life itself, in a highly abstract form, has become ideology, and the very abstractness that distinguishes it from older, fuller conceptions of life is what makes it practicable (the vitalist and existentialist concepts of life are stages on this path).

Graham Harman on his blog, August 31, 2009:

Jung’s early family life was almost painfully pathetic: both the dynamics between his insecure and not-always-respected parents and the way he was treated by fellow students, not to mention little Carl’s unpleasant daydreams … [T]he little C.G. Jung started life as a bit of a clumsy and weirdly daydreaming oaf, with a grotesque love of blood, guts, and death. (One of his childhood homes was next to a waterfall, and he seemed to enjoy the assembling of the bodies of waterfall suicide and accident victims that regularly turned up near his yard.) He also liked setting small fires. All of this doesn’t sound like someone even I (who was very tolerant of all other children) would have wanted as a playmate, and in fact many other children were urged to avoid him by their unnerved parents. Jung’s major childhood event was being “sucker-pushed” to the ground by a schoolmate and undergoing fainting spells for a long time thereafter, which made his classmates laugh all the more. And then suddenly, he blossomed while in university.

This led me to some thoughts about biography, and about the running autobiography we all do when looking at our own lives while going along.

It seemed to me that Bair did a good job of picking out the most important events and character traits in the life of little Jung. And yet my first reaction was: “yes, but God, this childhood looks terribly painful in ways that Bair doesn’t emphasize enough.”

But then came my second reaction, which I think is closer to the mark: it doesn’t matter if Bair edits out much of little Jung’s internal suffering, because our own feelings about how our life is going are perhaps not the primary thing. Biographers can know us better than we know ourselves. (This was on my mind again last night when a new friend made a remark –complimentary in this case– that was completely at odds with my own self-understanding, as happens from time to time. And it’s always worth reflecting in those moments.)

In other words, none of us have privileged access to our own life stories. Not just occasionally, but quite often, other people understand our capabilities and limitations in certain areas better than we do ourselves. If someone were writing your biography, they would miss out on almost all the internal drama, and for that reason it might feel at first as though you were reading a fiction. But perhaps it’s your feelings about your own life that are the fiction. Your life is a real trajectory that can be completely misinterpreted by your feelings no less than by the remarks of outside observers. And this is why it would be great if everyone at birth were assigned a professional biographer to hand them their life story every five years or so. Just think of how helpful it would be to be able to see yourself from the outside, as an object. Lots of orientation would probably come from that exercise. It would probably be a lot more helpful than months of therapy, because sometimes all you need is an outside person to offer their perspective on which things are going well and poorly for you, not some trained expert to grub around inside your soul: after all, there may actually be less truth down there in the “depths” than in the simple orientations offered by an observer. Maybe we all need biographers rather than psychologists.

But we’re trained to think the opposite: that life seen from the inside is more important and accurate than life seen from the outside. We’re trained to think that “what matters is the question of happiness and unhappiness,” because this is placed in sterile opposition to a hollow alternative: “or otherwise, you will be left chasing empty status and success that brings no true inner fulfillment.” But this is a false dichotomy. A life can be meaningful even if it brings neither success nor happiness. There is too much pressure to be happy, too much pressure to be successful, but not much pressure to live meaningfully.

If you consider a list of the happiest people you’ve ever met, there is certainly something admirable about this state, but I’m betting you wouldn’t trade places with most of them. Some of the happiest people I’ve ever met live in a state of blissful and even willful ignorance, and to that option I would prefer a more difficult life spent in pursuing things of genuine value. The notion that the meaningfulness of life consists in a happy internal state seems to me like just the flip side of the notion that it consists in the pursuit of external social honors. Both of these options miss the fact that a life unfolds in a space that is not quite accessible either to society or to introspection. What I love about biography is that it comes closer than any other genre to probing that intermediate space between the social and the psychological.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bad Modernism (or, Sure beats Los Feliz)

Why do movie villains live in modernist houses? Here's a clip from Thom Andersen's fascinating cine-essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, which I saw at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica last night.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


"A first precaution for writers: in every text, every piece, every paragraph to check whether the central motif stands out clearly enough. Anyone wishing to express something is so carried away by it that he ceases to reflect on it. Too close to his intention, 'in his thoughts,' he forgets to say what he wants to say.

"No improvement is too small or trivial to be worthwhile. Of a hundred alterations each may seem trifling or pedantic by itself; together they can raise the text to a new level.

"One should never begrudge deletions. The length of a work is irrelevant, and the fear that not enough is on paper, childish. Nothing should be thought worthy to exist simply because it exists, has been written down. When several sentences seem like variations on the same idea, they often only represent different attempts to grasp something the author has not yet mastered. Then the best formulation should be chosen and developed further. It is part of the technique of writing to be able to discard ideas, even fertile ones, if the construction demands it. Their richness and vigor will benefit other ideas at present repressed. Just as, at table, one ought not to eat the last crumbs, drink the lees. Otherwise, one is suspected of poverty.

"The desire to avoid clichés should not, on pain of falling into vulgar coquetry, be confined to single words. The great French prose of the nineteenth century was particularly sensitive to such vulgarity. A word is seldom banal on its own: in music too the single note is immune to triteness. The most abominable clichés are combinations of words, such as Karl Kraus skewered for inspection: utterly and completely, for better or for worse, implemented and effected. For in them the brackish stream of stale language swills aimlessly, instead of being dammed up, thrown into relief, by the precision of the writer's expressions …

"The thicket is no sacred grove. There is a duty to clarify all difficulties that result merely from esoteric complacency. Between the desire for a compact style adequate to the depth of its subject matter, and the temptation to recondite and pretentious slovenliness, there is no obvious distinction: suspicious probing is always salutary. Precisely the writer most unwilling to make concessions to drab common sense must guard against draping ideas, in themselves banal, in the appurtenances of style …

"Scepticism is called for in face of the frequently raised objection that a text, a formulation, are 'too beautiful' … The writer ought not acknowledge any distinction between beautiful and adequate expression. He should neither suppose such a distinction in the solicitous mind of the critic, nor tolerate it in his own. If he succeeds in saying entirely what he means, it is beautiful. Beauty of expression for its own sake is not at all 'too beautiful,' but ornamental, arty-crafty, ugly. But he who, on the pretext of unselfishly serving only the matter in hand, neglects purity of expression, always betrays the matter well.

"Properly written texts are like spiders' webs: tight, concentric, transparent, well-spun and firm. They draw into themselves all the creatures of the air. Metaphors flitting hastily through them become their nourishing prey. Subject matter comes winging towards them …

"In the text, the writer sets up house. Just as he trundles papers, books, pencils, documents untidily from room to room, he creates the same disorder in his thoughts. They become pieces of furniture that he sinks into, content or irritable. He strokes them affectionately, wears them out, mixes them up, re-arranges, ruins them. For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live. In it he inevitably produces, as his family once did, refuse and lumber. But now he lacks a store-room, and it is hard in any case to part from left-overs. So he pushes them along in front of him, in danger finally of filling his pages with them. The demand that one harden oneself against self-pity implies the technical necessity to counter any slackening of intellectual tension with the utmost alertness, and to eliminate anything that has begun to encrust the work or to drift along idly, which may at an earlier stage have served, as gossip, to generate the warm atmosphere conducive to growth, but is now left behind, flat and stale. In the end, the writer is not even allowed to live in his writing."

— Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott, 85-87

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Oh, the Depravity!

I did two reviews for Not Coming's recent Erich von Stroheim series: Merry-Go-Round and Queen Kelly.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Critics are like assholes: everybody is one.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Just the next thing that happens

My final Women of the West piece, on John Huston's The Misfits, is up now you know where. We now return you to Men of the East (like R.P. Blackmur).

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Behind every man…

Women of the West rolls on and on... Here's my review of The Violent Men.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Kindley Writes Again

My review of Destry Rides Again — the first of a few contributions to Notcoming's Women of the West series — is online now.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Weather of the Weathermen

"Take for example the case of weather forecasts. Every day, often several times a day, many millions of people talk about the weather, make predictions, cite proverbs, inspect the sky. Among them, a large proportion listen to weather forecasts or glance at satellite maps of their countries on TV and in newspapers; quite often, people make jokes about weathermen who are, they say, 'always wrong'; many others, whose fate has been linked earlier to that of meteorologists, anxiously await forecasts before taking decisions about seeding plants, flying planes, fighting battles or going out for picnics. Inside the weather stations, running the huge data banks fed with satellite signals, controlling the reports of the many part-time weathermen scattered over the planet, sending balloons to probe the clouds, submitting computer models of the climate to new trials, a few thousand meteorologists are busy at work defining what the weather is, has been and will be. To the question 'what will the weather be tomorrow?' you get, on one side, billions of scattered commentaries and, on the other, a few claims confronted with one another through the telexes of the international Meteorological Association. Do these two sets of commentaries have a common ground? Not really, because, on the one hand, the few claims of the meteorologists are utterly lost among billions of jokes, proverbs, evaluations, gut feelings and readings of subtle clues; and because, on the other hand, when time comes to define what the weather had been, the billions of other utterances about it count for nothing. Only a few thousand people are able to define what the weather is; only their opinions literally count when the question is to allocate the huge funds necessary to run the networks of computers, instruments, satellites, probes, planes and ships that provide the necessary data.

"This situation creates a rather curious balance account: the weather and its evolution are defined by everyone on earth and the few weathermen provide only a few scattered opinions among the multitudes of opinion, taken more seriously in only small sectors of the public — the military, the ship and air companies, agricultural concerns, tourists. However, when you put all these opinions in one balance of the scale and in the other the few claims of the meteorologists, the balance tips on the side of the latter. No matter how many things are said about the weather, no matter how many jokes are made about the weathermen, the weather of the weathermen is strong enough to discount all the other weathers …

"A handful of well-positioned men of science may rout billions of others. This will happen only, however, as long as they stay inside their own networks, because, no matter what the meteorologists think and do, every one of us will still think it was a hot summer and make jokes, the morning after, about the weather forecasts which were 'wrong as usual' … [M]eteorology 'covers' the world's weather and still leaves out of its mesh almost every one of us."

— Bruno Latour, Science in Action (181)

Friday, July 24, 2009


"[I]n practice we tend to get in literature immature intellect tampering with imagination and in criticism immature imagination tampering with the intellect. Tampering, I think, is a very deep instinct; we see it in monkeys and in kittens, and in all the young parts of ourselves and also in all the senile parts of ourselves. You have a chance at an intervening maturity where you wouldn't go quite so far as tampering, but it doesn't turn up much."

— R.P. Blackmur, New Criticism in the United States, 26

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Great Dictator

“It is worth noticing about literary dictatorships that they only partly work. There is no police power in this dictatorship, only the power communicated through fashion, and fashion is impervious to what lies in the realm of tedious or too laborious change.”

— R.P. Blackmur, "In the Hope of Straightening Things Out," 168