11/29/14

Unpacking My Imaginary Library

The French paperbacks that I used to buy always contained a little card from “La Maison des Bibliothèques,” rue Froidevaux, Paris. The card showed a wall covered with shelves all crammed with books, the commercial assumption being, if you were the sort of person who would acquire modern fiction in the collection “J’ai Lu,” you would sooner or later fall for the products of La Maison. I was a nomadic boy then, but used to imagine that one day I would have an apartment somewhere with walls covered with shelves, each shelf crammed with books, and me feasting my eyes on print as long as the light lasted.

Eventually, it happened. I had plenty of walls and got them covered with shelves, then packed the shelves with books, and sat reading day in and day out. That should have been the happy ending of the story– the closed circuit of desire– but no one can ever leave well enough alone. Now here I am thousands of miles away from those hard-won shelves, thinking about a book that contains a piece of information I need, complemented by a sheet of scribbled paper wedged in at exactly the page where that information resides. But thinking doesn’t make it come back; it’s a material thing, that scribbled note, and I can’t quite make myself think again the thought it contains. And from the book I surreptitiously glanced at in a bookstore today, hoping to substitute for the missing information in my all-too-physical book at home, there fell out a colorful advertisement for “La Maison des Bibliothèques.”

 

11/11/14

Le Buzz

An article in Le Monde supplies background to the latest French best-seller, a work of cultural polemics that whines about the eclipse of “la vieille France,” bemoans the rise of feminism and makes excuses for Vichy. The purpose of this sad amalgam, which apparently pleases enough people that it is close to outselling Modiano, the recent Nobel laureate, is to make respectable the positions of the far-right Front National. And why are we even hearing about it? Because of such cultural entrepreneurs as this:

Catherine Barma, a formidable business-woman… daughter of the star producer of the French Radio-Television Network, ex-party girl, no great student, cultivates the big names of the time and picks the participants of her TV panels like the counter of a bar. She knows how clashes that make for “le buzz”  on YouTube and those who sigh that ‘you can’t say anything today’ are beloved by the 21st century.

When asked to explain her support for this Eric Zemmour who minimizes the issue of extermination camps and champions Pétain and Le Pen, Catherine Barma reads from prepared cards her excuse that “I haven’t read Robert Paxton [the historian who made it impossible to keep sweeping pétainism under the rug]. In general, when there is a conflict, I’m always on the side of the oppressed.”

And in the magical world of French TV, the “oppressed,” we are to infer, are the reactionaries. So this man who owes his existence to the egalitarian institutions of the Fifth Republic inasmuch as he would have been cheerfully exterminated by Vichy now exploits his good fortune to complain about the fact that Pétain’s “nationalist revolution” is no longer in favor. I really have no polite words to designate such trash, so will simply roll my eyes and make the international gesture for vomiting.

And a PS for Ms. Barma: if you don’t have the time or energy to read Robert Paxton, perhaps you or one of your assistants could read his Wikipedia page. Or here, I’ll make it even easier for you by pulling out a few high points:

Paxton bouleverse la lecture de l’histoire du régime de Vichy en affirmant que le gouvernement de Vichy a non seulement collaboré en devançant les ordres allemands : il a aussi voulu s’associer à l’« ordre nouveau » des nazis avec son projet de Révolution nationale…. Pétain et Laval ont toujours recherché la collaboration avec l’Allemagne nazie, et multiplié jusqu’au bout les signes et les gages de leur bonne volonté à s’entendre avec le vainqueur, allant souvent spontanément au-devant des exigences allemandes.

Loin d’avoir protégé les Français, le concours de Vichy a permis aux Allemands de réaliser plus facilement tous leurs projets — pillage économique et alimentaire, déportation des Juifs, exil forcé de la main-d’œuvre en Allemagne.

This is what you “haven’t read,” and a fair outline of what, by your choice of protagonists, you’ve chosen to support. Ignorance is no argument. Even if, as people say, “nobody reads any more.”

05/17/14

A Spacewalk With Joseph Frank’s “Spatial Form”

(For “The Novel as a Form of Thought,” a conference commemorating Joseph Frank, Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago, May 15-16, 2014.)

Joseph Frank was fully developed before he came to the Committee on Social Thought. His essay “Spatial Form,” first published in the Sewanee Review in 1945, is an astonishing piece of synthesis when you consider the state of play at the time. Joe Frank, born in 1918, had already at age 27 the stylistic authority and the full deck of reference that we find in his older contemporary Clement Greenberg, for example; but Greenberg, who preceded Joe at Erasmus Hall High School, had a proper BA (Phi Beta Kappa) from Syracuse, whereas Joe cobbled together his few semesters of college education between bouts of paid work and was largely educated through talking with freelance or underemployed intellectuals. Later, joining the class of underemployed intellectuals as a copy writer for the Bureau of National Affairs in Washington D.C., Joe was again walking in Greenberg’s footsteps; Greenberg’s non-academic jobs were with various federal agencies until he became a full-time editor at Partisan Review and The Nation in the 1950s. And like Frank, Greenberg made a strong impression with an early essay, in his case “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939), which showed him to be fully up to date with the conversation about art, ethics and politics then underway in what would later be known as the Frankfurt School.[1]

Joe’s biography is too big a subject for me today. My reason for enumerating these facts and making the parallel with Greenberg is this. For people who came of age in the 1930s and 40s, art mattered in a way that we can hardly recover, even as a theme for nostalgia. It was important to discern what made modern literature and art modern, because in the adequate description of those representational artifices lay, one thought, a diagnosis of the spirit of the age, and it was important to get that right. Part of the reason lay in the contending teleologies of the day, theories of history with vastly divergent political formations behind them, structures of intention that claimed the power to determine one’s day-to-day actions and options. How we got where we are today, in a much weakened state of mind, onlookers if not scroungers at the remote edges of a frightfully well-financed commercial culture, is a complicated story. You have heard the recurrent laments for the demise of the public intellectual, specifically the sub-species of public intellectual whose habitat was outside the universities. From a U.S. point of view, the relative but steady rise in living standards, the massification and commodification of university education, and the cultural assimilation of previously excluded groups must all have had something to do with it, as these generally good things both undermined the cause of the Left as people of the 1930s understood it and broke down the difference between high culture and mass culture. If “Spatial Form” had been published in 1965, it would have been an academic, formalist exercise, and it’s often been mistaken for one since.

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02/15/14

From Folk to Folk

…When and how did ‘oral literature’ become an object of discourse? To that question I have an answer—the curious history I promised you.

Presumably oral literature itself goes back as far as language. Oral literature becomes something that people write about at moments when their written culture bumps up against a non-written culture that for some reason impresses or frustrates it. You wouldn’t find a lot of attention given, in ancient Greek and Roman texts, to the fact that the villagers of Boeotia don’t spend their evenings curled up with a good book. The illiteracy of the peasantry is absolutely taken for granted. The relative literacy of urban dwellers in the ancient world does get some attention—usually when someone has a complaint about it. The following text from Julius Caesar’s narration of the Gallic Wars is exceptional and I will linger over it for a while:

The lore [disciplina] of the Druids is thought to have been transmitted to Gaul from Britain, where it originated. Those who most eagerly wish to acquire it go there for the sake of study…. There, they are said to learn by heart a great number of verses, and not a few of them spend up to twenty years in study. Nor is it considered in keeping with divine law to commit these verses to writing, though [the Gauls] use Greek letters for almost all other kinds of public or private business. It seems to me that this rule was established for two reasons: one, that they did not wish this lore to be acquired by the common people, and two, that they did not wish the learners to rely on letters and therefore apply themselves less strenuously to memorization, as generally happens to those who, through the help of writing, lose their facility of learning and their memory.

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02/3/14

Planetary Thinking of 1876

Ernest Renan (whose enormous body of work stands heaped in front of your correspondent) was “one of the few nineteenth-century writers to think on a planetary scale,” observes Simone Fraisse (“Péguy et Renan,” Revue d’Histoire littéraire de la France 73 [1973], 264-280, at 269). But planetary scale and prophetic futurity do not equal being a nice guy. Some excerpts from Renan’s Dialogues et fragments philosophiques (1876), with translation below:

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05/14/13

Kleos Aphthiton

From the New Yorker‘s reportage on the MOOCs that people (well, the stockholders of Coursera and the like, anyway) claim will make the brick-and-mortar university obsolete:

“I could easily see a great institution like Harvard having a dynamic archive where, even after I’m gone—not just retired but let’s say really gone, I mean dead—aspects of the course could interlock with later generations of teachers and researchers,” Nagy told me. “Achilles himself says it in [Iliad,] Rhapsody 9, Line 413: ‘I’m going to die, but this story will be like a beautiful flower that will never wilt.’ ”

The speaker is Gregory Nagy, a scholar I’ve been reading for at least thirty-five years and who’s been personally encouraging to me; and I can’t help feeling there’s something sad about the quotation. Greg Nagy has been covered with every honor the world of American learning can dream up. He was tenured and promoted to full professor at Harvard at a young age, he has been the director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, been lauded, fêted, cited, and nonetheless has time to go out for coffee with random visitors and talk about ideas for books that may never be written. Among his many students are some of the most lively minds in Classics; they have generally done pretty well on the perilous career path of that always menaced field. He doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as a dead language. For what it’s worth, I like him immensely. And yet when he thinks about the shortness of life, about the recompense that Achilles received for his early death in battle– undying fame through Homer’s songs– he envisions his own berth in the Elysian Fields as a set of computer videos, chunked into twelve-minute segments, each followed by a quiz: his MOOC on the Greek hero.

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03/6/13

Debatable Propositions in a Book I Otherwise Thought Important

If Bildung comprises a reactionary alternative to revolution, it shares this pacific spirit with modern human rights law. The French declaration of rights similarly articulated, after the event, how the revolution could have been avoided, and how future revolutions might be avoided through the reproductive mechanics of popular sovereignty. Although they emerged from the context of revolution, both human rights law and the Bildungsroman are reformist, rather than revolutionary… both human rights law and the Bildungsroman project individualized narratives of self-determination as cultural alternatives to the eruptive political act of mass revolt…

Both human rights and the Bildungsroman are tendentially conservative of prevailing social formations. Plotting novelistic and social evolution as an alternative to civil and political revolution, the idealist Bildungsroman narrates the normative constitution of the modern rights subject…. What emerges from the process is a socially contingent personality imagined to prevent certain antiestablishment collective and collectivizing revolutionary actions.

(Joseph R. Slaughter, Human Rights, Inc., pp. 115, 135, 136)

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02/12/13

When Beautiful Dreams are Bad Dreams

Working my way through Conor Friedersdorf’s collection of 2012’s best nonfiction, I have come across a piece by Joshua Foer on a man named John Quijada, who has invented a language, Ithkuil, that attempts to fulfill the age-old dream of a perfect language.

At one point Foer describes what happened after Quijada read Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By:

For Quijada, this was a revelation. He imagined that Ithkuil might be able to do what Lakoff and Johnson said natural languages could not: force its speakers to precisely identify what they mean to say. No hemming, no hawing, no hiding true meaning behind jargon and metaphor. By requiring speakers to carefully consider the meaning of their words, he hoped that his analytical language would force many of the subterranean quirks of human cognition to the surface, and free people from the bugs that infect their thinking.

“As time went on, my goal began changing,” he told me. “It was no longer about creating a mishmash of cool linguistic features. I started getting all these ideas to make language work more efficiently. I thought, Why don’t I just create a means of finishing what all natural languages were unable to finish?

The piece is fascinating (though Foer’s prose is only really average, if by “average” you’ll allow me to refer to the general high quality of New Yorker prose). But it does go to show that dreaming big almost always means dreaming crazy. Quijada’s story is wonderful, and Foer includes just enough of the history of invented languages (you can get more, and have more fun, reading Arika Okrent’s book) to give the whole thing context.

Some flavor of both the lovely, bold, joyful craziness of it all and the desperate grasping for control that accompanies it can be gathered from these two paragraphs, which succeed one another immediately and appear three-quarters of the way through the piece:

He opened a closet and pulled out a plastic tub filled with reams of graph paper documenting early versions of the Ithkuil script and twenty-year-old sentence conjugations handwritten in marker on a mishmash of folded notepads. “I worked on this in fits and starts,” he said, looking at the mass of documents. “It was very much dependent on whether I was dating anyone at the time. This isn’t exactly something you discuss on a first or second date.”

Human interactions are governed by a set of implicit codes that can sometimes seem frustratingly opaque, and whose misreading can quickly put you on the outside looking in. Irony, metaphor, ambiguity: these are the ingenious instruments that allow us to mean more than we say. But in Ithkuil ambiguity is quashed in the interest of making all that is implicit explicit. An ironic statement is tagged with the verbal affix ’kçç. Hyperbolic statements are inflected by the letter ’m.

01/16/13

Read To Me 2: The One Who Claws At His Names

The wonderful Cabinet magazine hosted a performed bestiary one recent afternoon at the New Museum. For 4.5 hours, a small group of writers, artists, professors, curators, and others talked about a series of creatures in order from smallest (ant) to largest (whale). We each had 10 minutes. It was an absolute blast.

To represent my creature, the phoenix, I wrote and read a short story based on the birds featured in a 19th century text about Mongolian drugs. The key here is to try to shift the way you’re seeing the pages of the text: the words and names and images all become part of a common landscape. Try to see the words not as descriptions, but as a living part of this tiny cosmos. The images are crucial.

It’s a love story, and I’ve read it for you here:

 

01/15/13

China, Middlebrow to Highbrow

My first foray into tweener literary criticism has just been published by Public Books.

Fun quote:

What would it mean to recognize ourselves (again, the first person plural includes the Chinese) as people who want to know what China is, and who are willing to work hard, as authors and as readers, to understand it? How will such an understanding return us, like fiction, to a new vision of the world we have known until now?

These questions are too important to be left to the Chicken Littles and überpatriots on both sides who anticipate them being answered by military action, trade wars, or mutual exchange and indoctrination via soft power.

01/14/13

LARB discussion of Toby Miller’s “Blow Up the Humanities”

Well worth reading, here. Miller’s response here.

Here is the thing: I’ve always liked Toby Miller, ever since he gave a talk when I was in grad school and bet that no one in the room had seen Demolition Man, which of course Ted and I had (and had loved; if you haven’t seen it, you really must).

But you see in his response that trying to be Christopher Hitchens doesn’t work, I think, for most people, including Christopher Hitchens, because at some point the macho insouciance outweighs the cleverness and people begin to suspect that, rhetorically at least, you’re just kind of an asshole. (Cases in point: Walter Benn Michaels, about whom more soon, and Stanley Fish.)

That said I probably also disagree with the book, so take my reading with salt. Consider this post another placeholder for a future post on the future of the humanities, which along with my much-awaited humanities PhD and MOOC posts will finally set the world aright, when (and if, if) it arrives.

01/9/13

Slurp!: An Interview

I had a great time talking with Barak Kushner about his recent book on the history of ramen in Japan and beyond. You can listen to our conversation here.

(For a list of previous interviews on NBEAS, click me.)

12/15/12

Bugs, Bodies, and the Emperor: This Week’s Interviews

For your listening pleasure, you can find two new interviews from my recent podcasty travels on the New Books Network this week. If you’re looking for some stimulating book-related material to listen to while you’re mixing up eggnog or counting down the hours to the end of grading papers and exams:

1. The Poetics of Sovereignty: I had the pleasure of speaking with the very thoughtful Jack Chen for NBEAS about his recent book on literature, rulership, and a fascinating emperor of the Tang Dynasty.

2. The Insect and the Image: Janice Neri and I spoke for NBSTS about her beautiful new book on the imaging of insects in early modernity and its surprisingly wide-ranging consequences for understanding the history of science, art, and global exchange.

Happy holidays!

12/13/12

Jameson’s similes

This is a list of most of the similes using “like” in Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism.

The prestige of these great streamlined shapes can be measured by their metaphorical presence in Le Corbusier’s buildings, vast Utopian structures which ride like so many gigantic steamship liners upon the urban scenery of an older fallen earth. (36)

It strikes one then, in that spirit, that neofigurative painting today is very much that extraordinary space through which all the images and icons of the culture spill and float, haphazard, like a logjam of the visual, bearing off with them everything . (176; love the echo of the last line of Gatsby!)

Only an old-fashioned communism and an old-fashioned psychoanalysis stood out upon the agrarian landscape like immense and ugly foreign bodies, history itself (equally old- fashioned  in those days) being very effectively consigned to the dusty ash can of “scholarship.” (183-84)

I think we now have to talk about the relief of the postmodern generally, a thunderous unblocking of logjams and a release of new productivity that was somehow tensed up and frozen, locked like cramped muscles, at the latter end of the …(313)

Like the three wishes in the fairy tale, or the devil’s promises, this prognosis has been fully realized, with only the slightest of modifications that make it unrecognizable. (320)

…at one and the same time more abstract and more concrete, and a feature whose essential materialism can be measured by its scandalousness for the mind, which avoids it or hides it away like plumbing. (356; this one especially good because it’s such a surprise, and doesn’t explain itself)

inward conceptual defense mechanisms, and in particular the rationalizations of privilege and the well-nigh natural formations (like extraordinary crystalline structures or coral formations excreted over millennia) of narcissism and self-love…(358)

It would now seem that, far from becoming extinct, the older genres, released like viruses from their traditional ecosystem, have now spread out and colonized reality itself… (371)

We have all those things, indeed, but we jog afterward to refresh the constitution, while by the same token computers relieve us of the terrible obligation to distend the memory like a swollen bladder retaining all these encyclopedia references. (383)

And here is my favorite Jamesonian simile of all, from The Political Unconscious:

Only Marxism can give us an account of the essential mystery of the cultural past, which, like Tiresias drinking the blood, is momentarily returned to life and warmth and once more allowed to speak, and to deliver its long-forgotten message in surroundings utterly alien to it. (383)

12/12/12

PODCAST RECOMMENDATION: Lunch Box with Ed and John

The number of podcasts currently available can almost be put in a one-to-one correspondence with infinity.  Which means you might not have heard about this relatively new, relatively small operation called Lunch Box with Ed and John.  The Ed and John here are poet Ed Skoog and novelist J. Robert Lennon.  They talk about lunch, sure, but food serves (as it usually and rightly does) as a vehicle for conversation between good friends about writing, poetry, the ubiquity of sandwiches, and the work of a life.  Consistently good stuff.

ITunes link.

12/4/12

Genentech: An Interview

I had the pleasure of speaking with Sally Smith Hughes recently about her book on the history of Genentech and the business of recombinant DNA technology. You can find our conversation here.

(For a list of previous interviews on NBSTS, click me.)

12/2/12

Republicans on Copyright

A few years ago at the instigation of Paul Saint-Amour Ted Wesp and I spent a few months thinking and writing about copyright (results in Paul’s edited book, here). Ever since I’ve been convinced not only of the importance of copyright for thinking about the history of aesthetic production, but also of its vital contemporary impact on the entire economic life-world, ranging from patent law (and its implications for technological or medical developments) to the field of culture.

Crooked Timber points me to the Republican Study Committee’s new thinkpiece on copyright, which argues against it from a radical capitalist/libertarian perspective. I am not going to read the entire RSC piece, and neither are you, so here instead is the quote CT pulls out:

Copyright violates nearly every tenet of laissez faire capitalism. Under the current system of copyright, producers of content are entitled to a guaranteed, government instituted, government subsidized content-monopoly … It is a system implemented and regulated by the government, and backed up by laws that allow for massive damages for violations. These massive damages are not conventional tort law damages, but damages that are vastly disproportionate from the actual damage to the copyright producer. … we do know that our copyright paradigm has … Retarded the creation of a robust DJ/Remix industry … Hampering scientific inquiry … Stifling the creation of a public library … Free 12-year copyright term for all new works – subject to registration, and all existing works are renewed as of the passage of the reform legislation. If passed today this would mean that new works have a copyright until 2024.

Ummm. Amen?