01/15/13

Look, yes, there are things wrong with conferences

…but you don’t have to be a dick about it. (Though at times honestly it’s not clear whether the object of derision is the narrator or the people he describes; nonetheless, since it’s the Chronicle, which specializes in columns about academia by unhappy academics, often playing to the anti-intellectualism of some crowd of people who the editors of the Chronicle presumably wish had liked them more in high school (none of whom actually read the Chronicle, naturally), I am inclined toward a harsher judgment.)

I agree that the conference paper format in literary and cultural studies ought to be rethought (as at ACL(x), here). In fact I would pay for an outright ban on the following:

  1. Going over your time limit.
  2. Reading aloud from your Powerpoint slide (unless it’s a quotation that you’re addressing

I personally no longer read written remarks aloud, either for conference papers or for 45-minute talks. I have discovered that I am not a good reader of my own work. What happens is that I get bored while I’m reading, since I already know what I’ve written; then I start worrying that the audience is bored; then I start reading faster and faster because I’m afraid it’s terrible.

So instead I extemporize from handwritten notes or hand-drawn Powerpoint slides. The adrenaline rush I get from being close to running out of things to say keeps me fully engaged with the presentation, and the energy level is as a result much better. The result looks a lot like my teaching (and has the same strengths and weaknesses–more on this below!).

But I have heard excellent readers (Homi Bhabha and Jane Gallop both read very well, for very different reasons). And I have heard lots of perfectly fine readers. I don’t think that, in general, listening to three people read papers is the best way to spend an hour, but it’s hard to see what the alternatives would be in a world where not everyone has an iPad. (In a world with universal iPads, one solution: everyone who walks into the room gets a copy of the papers, and everyone reads silently for 30 minutes; at the end of 30 minutes, discussion begins… voila! You’ve flipped the balance from 90 percent listening, 10 percent dialogue, to 40 percent reading, 60 percent dialogue… This is one way to take advantage of the fact that everyone’s in the room.)

In fact that little bit in parentheses expresses pretty clearly the ideologies of my preference, namely that if you’re going to get people in a room, then you ought to take advantage of that fact. One way to do so involves giving a fully embodied presentation (something more “live” than reading aloud something written to be read silently), and another involves maximizing discussion. So we should be thinking about ways to do both of those things.

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p.s. On strengths and weaknesses: I strongly recommend that anyone trying to extemporize a full talk really work hard on two things:

  1. the first few sentences and
  2. the last paragraph

There’s an absolute ton of rhetorical pressure on both moments. When my extemporaneous talks go poorly it’s almost always because I screw up the ending.

When you’re teaching this is easier because you have about a 7-minute window at the end of class and so if you are feeling your way towards a close you can manage the problem either by quitting early or by adding another two minutes’ worth of stuff and finishing a bit late (that is, you’re managing the feel and tone, and judging your own finish relative to the crowd’s mood; the point is to call it quits at the right moment or to realize you need to do more before you can call it quits).

With talks the time pressure and the window (especially on the back end, where you don’t want to go over; when you extemporize everyone expects you to, so it’s imperative not to do so) is much tighter. The answer is to make sure that you have something that you can read at the very end (or, better, have something that you’ve rehearsed, so that you avoid the awkward transition to reading) so that you handle the close well. Otherwise you just trail off into a weird kind of blather (“…and so that’s all I have to say about that”), or, slightly less awkwardly, you end up producing a finish that would work if you had realized, as you were saying it, that it was a finish, but since you didn’t you didn’t give it the right inflection and so you end up having to do another paragraph at a moment when you don’t have too much to say.

The open is less crucial; as a result, you can usually just swing it with the right kind of energy, but it does sometimes help to have it written out.

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.

01/14/13

The doldrums

Back after the break, and my life isn’t really that hard these days. Nonetheless I and everyone around me seem exhausted. No one knows what to blame; it feels, over the days, most like a collection of small things: the weather, the death of a not-very-well-known colleague’s son, the shorter-than-usual break, the MLA, 10 days without daycare, a lack of exercise, two job searches, one of which turned out to be emotionally very difficult.

None of these amounts to anything on its own. In a list they together don’t amount to much either.

This is the shape of a first-world, rich-person problem, I know. Too mild to be depression, it’s why the Cheever characters swim through strangers’ pools, why everyone on Mad Men is perpetually lubricated, why I am feeling snappish and dull.

First step: get back to writing and working. The communists were at least right about that, for me.

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.)

01/5/13

“The Russian Kurosawa” at the University of Chicago

A series of screenings and a roundtable discussion of four films by Akira Kurosawa based on Russian literary sources is scheduled to take place at the University of Chicago on May 10-12, 2013 at the brand-new Logan Center for the Arts. In anticipation of the event, the following excerpts are meant to alert readers and Kurosawa fans to the event and its purpose.

thumb_20090220-Idiot_image_1

The films to be shown are: The Idiot (1951), Ikiru (1952), The Lower Depths (1957), and Dersu Uzala (1975).

For the full program and screening times visit: https://ceeres.uchicago.edu/kurosawa.

 

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01/1/13

Across the Year Line

Frances’s parents (her mother and stepfather, to be precise) and my parents were more or less best friends during a period that was probably among the best of their lives–I’m guessing, of course, because adults are always mysterious to children. I’d known Frances since kindergarten. By age 10 or 12 (we were only a few months apart in age) she had long russet hair, long skinny legs, a long freckled nose, a humorous voice, and excellent swimming style. My swimming style was more an aquatic rampage. Opportunities for comparison abounded, for we were at their house pretty much every weekend, for the Saturday and sometimes for the Sunday, since they had a swimming pool. Frances and I had younger siblings whom we majestically ignored. The grownups lay on chaises longues and drank long drinks; we chased and dunked each other in the pool.

grownups

(From left: Frances’s stepfather and mother, my mother. 1970.)

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12/18/12

Duck and Cover

I grew up in a small Kansas town that seemed at the time far removed from just about everything except the Soviet Union. Most of the U.S.’s planes were put together in Wichita (still known as the “Air Capital of the World”), which meant it was a first-strike target by that other superpower. Wichita sits about 130 miles east out on highway 50, and according to predictions and all sorts of maps bloomed with damage estimates, we (give or take a few megatons) would be erased with it.  I somehow understood all of this relatively early.  We practiced ducking and covering in the middle-school hallway, ostensibly to prepare for tornadoes, but the weather contributed little to the ambient fear of the time.

Shortly after Sandy rewrote the East Coast, my son told me about his class’s hurricane drill.  They turned out the lights and were instructed to huddle away from the door and to be very quiet.  In the wake of the Newtown shooting — a town just 60 miles north of us — we received messages from the school principal and our kids’ teachers advising us to talk to our children about what happened (best to get out in front of it all) and offering suggestions about how to go about that.  The upper grades would dedicate time to questions and discussion.  At home we broached and comforted and consoled more or less as advised.

This will be the legacy of Newtown:  Mass shooting is a children’s fear now, one they practice for and live with — one that, unfortunately, can no longer surprise even them.

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.

12/12/12

“The Historian and the Etymologist” concluded: some thoughts

I recently concluded “The Historian and the Etymologist,” an experimental Twitter essay. You can find it on Twitter as #etym1, or consolidated and explained here.

Some things learned:
– Next time, the form should incorporate participation/feedback from others as the essay is being written/posted.
– Fundamental to this form is a creation of meaning by reading across the blanks in the narrative
– The extension of a Twitter essay in time is necessary (…or is it?…) to convey an argument or narrative, but this extension of the essay in the form of discrete, immediate, successive posts over time is *very*, very tricky: we are different selves with different understandings and concepts at different times, and these selves don’t necessarily follow coherently on one another.
– I definitely want to experiment with this format again, and change it up completely. Stay tuned…

12/9/12

Courtly Encounters: An Interview

I recently spoke with with Sanjay Subrahmanyam about his new book on violence, intimacy, and images in the early modern Eurasian world. You can find our conversation here.

12/8/12

Goodbye to Aleppo

For Inna, Jörg and Ilonka

 

Clashes are raging in the Syrian city of Aleppo as government troops and rebel forces battle for control. (DemocracyNow! Headlines, July 24, 2012)

Whereas I used to follow the reports on the popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, I have caught myself shunning news from Syria, especially the visual footage from the urban battlefields: Daraa-Damascus-Hama- … When about two years ago the tumult of the Arab Spring broke out in the Middle East, an anxious thought of Syria immediately crossed my mind. I expected Syria to join. Knowing the country’s uneasy political past, I sensed how badly it was likely to turn out. The long-lasting silence from Syria was ambiguous: It could be a sign that Syria was doing better and would be able to solve its long suppressed conflicts by taking a path of reform. Or maybe it was the silence of a population too broken in spirit to mount a protest. Deep down, however, this silence gave me hope that Syria might be spared this time the bloodshed of post-revolutionary Egypt and especially that of the excruciatingly brutal civil war in Libya. When the protests finally started, I did not follow them. Glancing only briefly at the headlines, I inexplicably and for a long time hurried to turn away to something else. I did not want to dwell on my reaction, until suddenly in mid-summer I saw Aleppo in the headlines.

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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.)