Breathe In

“It is possible to imagine circumstances in which air would be a part of wealth. If it became customary to sojourn long in places where the air does not naturally penetrate, as in diving-bells sunk in the sea, a supply of air artificially furnished would, like water conveyed into houses, bear a price; and if from any revolution in nature the atmosphere became too scanty for the consumption, or could be monopolized, air might acquire a very high marketable value. In such a case, the possession of it, beyond his own wants, would be, to its owner, wealth; and the general wealth of mankind might at first sight appear to be increased, by what would be so great a calamity to them. The error would lie in not considering, that however rich the possessor of air might become at the expense of the rest of the community, all persons else would be poorer by all that they were compelled to pay for what they had before obtained without payment.”
John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy (1848)


Hey, I just met you, and this is kooky, but here’s my number! Tongue Labouti!

Top Ten Scandalous-Sounding Names For Fictional Intimate Acts Generated By Putting Chinese Transliterations Of Terms From A Fourteenth Century Collection of Mongolian Documents Through Google Translate This Afternoon:

10. Martha and The Black Mahama
9. The Fire of the Original Clean
8. Wipe Tuo
7. Scattered Jill Police
6. Tongue Assassination
5. The Black Dingban of Ghana
4. The Wood Answer
3. Satisfied Door
2. Satisfied Speed Children
1. Kazakhstan Tongue Labouti


Jadeite Cabbage with Insects

My wife was given the gift of a pen from which dangles a plastic replica of the National Palace Museum’s “Jadeite Cabbage with Insects.” The object (the original, not my wife’s pen) has its own Wikipedia page that includes the claim that, “The Jadeite Cabbage has been called the ‘most famous masterpiece’ of the entire National Palace Museum, and along with the Meat-shaped Stone and the Mao Gong Ding, it is considered one of the Three Treasures of the National Palace Museum. It has been chosen by the public as the most important item in the museum’s entire collection.” The NPM website has a series of short films about the Cabbage.


Career Moves

Poetry reading by Stephen Cushman. Live music and live poetry are great things. But among the least remunerated activities in this culture of ours.


The rise of the “Nones”

So here’s something interesting:

In 2007 Pew Research Center surveys, 15.3% of U.S. adults answered a question about their current religion by saying they were atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” The number of religiously unaffiliated respondents has ticked up each year since, and now stands at 19.6%.

While the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown significantly over the past five years, the Protestant share of the population has shrunk. In 2007, 53% of adults in Pew Research Center surveys described themselves as Protestants. In surveys conducted in the first half of 2012, fewer than half of American adults say they are Protestant (48%). This marks the first time in Pew Research Center surveys that the Protestant share of the population has dipped significantly below 50%.

The decline mainly occurred in the number of those surveyed identifying as white Protestants, whether evangelical or “mainline” (their term). Catholics, for their part, held roughly steady.

Damn. I thought it’d be easy to get a table for brunch after the Rapture.

Full Pew Study available here. (You might want to cross yourself or to place a wafer on your tongue before clicking.)


Natural History According To US Weekly (in which we suppose that aliens wipe out the entire planet except for the web archive of US Weekly and recreate human natural history from that archive)

“I felt like my vagina died,” she shared of her sex life with [former husband]. “Turned off. Lights out . . . you can lie to your relatives at Christmas dinner and tell them everything on the home front is just peachy. But you cannot lie to your vagina.” … “Sometimes your vagina dies,” she explained. “Then you know it’s time to go.” – from “Olivia Wilde: Jason Sudeikis and I Have ‘Sex Like Kenyan Marathon Runners’,”  Us Weekly 09.10.2012


Vagina: (n) Symbiotic organism connected to and communicatively linked with a human woman’s body. Has preternatural powers of lie-detection, especially during Christmas and in matters involving stone fruit. Illuminated when functional. Can proceed through repeated life-cycles with several successive births and deaths, each signaling a change in the locomotive pattern of host woman. Can be resurrected, especially by Kenyan marathon runners.


De Minimis

It is strange to be inside a system in which I am to an adjunct what an adjunct is to a tenured professor.


The Crisis in the Humanities: Solutions and Non-solutions

I have found myself struggling these days with the ethics of recruiting graduate students to our PhD program. Given the terrible academic job market in the humanities, how can I justify convincing a smart young person to give over years of his or her life to the PhD when I know that half the students who start don’t finish, and half who don’t finish don’t get tenure-track jobs?

(These are not our local statistics; they are generalizations of averages; go elsewhere if you want the specifics… the point is: the odds are bad.)

I wonder whether we should just cancel the PhD program. Or whether places with lower-ranked PhD programs than ours should cancel theirs. I wonder how many PhD programs it would take to simply meet the existing demand for tenure-line faculty in Comparative Literature.

And then I realize that if I had been in charge of the world in 1993, I would never have ended up as a professor, because the relatively low-ranked (but wonderful) graduate program I attended would have been shut down.

Now, n=1, and anecdotes don’t equal data, and so on: but I feel like I owe it to thoughtfulness to think about why I think about creating a world that I wouldn’t survive in, or in which people like me (and the large number of other happy, tenured PhD graduates my program) would never have the chance to make it as professors, because we would have been unlucky (or lazy) somewhere along the path from grade school to college. (After a highly privileged primary, secondary, and college education, my derailment–at least according to rankings–occurred at the graduate school stage of things.)

I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks; in fact in the new Printculture one of my self-assigned “beats” is going to be the various ideas about remaking graduate education today. One of the most prominent has recently come out of Stanford: a suggestion (which you can read about in this recent Leonard Cassuto essay in the Chronicle) to “track” PhD students in the humanities after the second year, allowing them to choose an emphasis on a research career, teaching career, or career outside the professoriate, with appropriate changes to the degree requirements as necessary. Students wanting to get a PhD and go into high school teaching, or publishing, for instance, might not have to write a dissertation.

Some commenters on the piece compare this “lite” version of the PhD to already existing alternate degrees–the Ed.D. (according to some), or the mythical Doctor of the Arts, a sort of super-Master’s degree.

The other thing Stanford is thinking about–though I doubt they’ll do it–is mitigating the ethics of having PhD programs by seriously cutting down time to degree, ideally to 4 years. (I do think I would feel less conflicted about graduate education if it only used four years of someone’s life.) But of course after 4 years it’s hard to imagine anyone, especially a student in Comp Lit, where most students need at least another extra language, doing enough work to put themselves in a position to get a professorial job (of any type). So… you’re back to 5 or 6 years.

Are there ways out of this dilemma? Why are grad programs in the humanities structured the way they are? How much of the master narrative of the “crisis in the humanities” should we try to be responsible to–especially once we recognize its manufactured, abusive qualities? To what degree is the fundamental hope and idealism required to begin a PhD program in the humanities something that should be nurtured and praised, regardless of the job situation?

I’ll be dealing with all these questions and more over the next months. I invite the other PC writers to take up these topics and begin a longer dialogue with me and others on them.


The Invisible Native-American Spectator(s)

I want to make it clear about one thing: I never believe or advocate that anyone should employ film theory and criticism as a tool of film censorship. As a scholar and filmmaker of East Asian descent, I have no trouble with watching a Hollywood film — historical or contemporary — that grossly misrepresents a character of Asian descent. I would feel somewhat uncomfortable in the movie theatre when people laugh at that character or even yell out racialist slurs. I would look closely the way the film image is constructed and how the mis-representation itself may serve as a “performance,” and that the film, by means of performing that mis-representation, may open up a new discourse by renegotiating our affects towards such representation. I may even laugh at the performance uncritically at first, and then examine why, despite my critical distance towards it, my body involuntarily laughs at the other’s construction of my self.

But how far a critical distance have film scholars built for ourselves?

I had an opportunity to watch the film Hand’s Up (Clarence Badger, Paramount, 1926) last night amid a sizeable audience, among which there were top film historians and restorationists. The vast majority of the spectators were either Europeans or North Americans of European descent. In the film, a confederate spy Jack (Raymond Griffith) is captured from a stagecoach by a group of (imaginary) “Native American” warriors. But the chief is perplexed by a pair of dice that Jack carries inside his jacket, which he “mistakes” as a pair of good luck charms. Our resourceful Jack then explains to the chief the art of crap-shooting, wins all the clothes from the chief and becomes the new chief himself. To celebrate Jack’s inauguration, the warriors dance around him, only to be stopped by Jack, who teaches them how to tap-dance — an art form of African-American origin.

From a critical perspective, the scene plays with — or some might even say “camps up” — the idea of racial performance, mutual borrowing, and the unmarked “white man’s” role in the social discourse of cultural “love and theft,” which conveys an art form from one socially-othered group to another. But despite my seeing this scene as one that can generate a potentially rich critical discourse, I was genuinely disturbed not by the image — but by the seemingly uncritical laughter around me. I am sure that many people, like my friend and I, would go home and think about this scene in a critical light — in a way much more sophisticated than I do. Yet, I somehow can’t help but be reminded by that laughter that in the movie theatre, many laughing spectators genuinely believed that the “Native-American spectator(s)” is or are invisible, that all our bodily affects participated voluntarily in the construction of “whiteness” as a comfort zone that puts our critical distance under erasure.


Religious News From All Over

Did you hear about the fundamentalist preacher in Florida who wanted to go on the attack against Zen Buddhism? He threatened to burn a stack of koans.

And the local Zen monks turned out to lend a hand.


“All right, we’re going to move to a–“

Writing as an ‘outsider’ who deeply dislikes the thinking which gives rise to the apparent need for a word such as ‘outsider,’ it seemed cheekily appropriate to write about the first of the “Presidential Debates.”  The full transcript can be found here:http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/03/us/politics/transcript-of-the-first-presidential-debate-in-denver.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

The first presidential ‘debate’ was, I’m sorry, farcical.  That is not hyperbole.  The first three ‘segments’ – supposedly concentrating on the economy, were near replicas of each other.  Mr Lehrer, who had apparently chosen the questions himself, and had phrased them so ambiguously that they could easily be taken for the same question: in fact, by and large this is how they were fielded, by both candidates.  These are they as an aid to memory:

1:    “What are the major differences between the two of you about how you would go about creating new jobs?”
2:    “What are the differences between the two of you as to how you would go about tackling the deficit problem in this country?”
3:     “It’s two minutes. Mr. President, do you see a major difference between the two of you on Social Security?”
4:    “You want the Affordable Care Act repealed. Why?”
5:    “Do you believe — both of you — but you have the first two minutes on this, Mr. President — do you believe there’s a fundamental difference between the two of you as to how you view the mission of the federal government?”
6:    Many of the legislative functions of the federal government right now are in a state of paralysis as a result of partisan gridlock. If elected in your case, if re-elected in your case, what would you do about that?”

(The sixth question was only asked three minutes before the debate’s end, which gave neither candidate time to produce anything but a synoptic answer with no subsequent discussion.  Which is a pity, because in many ways it’s the most interesting question.  The moderator was ever verging dangerously close to incompetency, and doing so immoderately.)

The first five questions elicited variations on almost the same answers from the candidates: Obama would finish the work of the last four years, Romney would “look at history” and do something “not like anything that’s been tried before.  Both espoused support for the “middle class,” who both acknowledged were “suffering.”  This was interesting, as I have never yet seen any coherent definition of exactly who the “middle class” are, and when people start talking about things which have no clear definition one ought to wonder why they use these terms.  In Europe, from where I am writing, these terms have clear historical meanings: the “middle class” are those who are neither “the aristocracy” nor “the working class.”  So, with a little substitution one could conclude that the “middle class” are those who are below the moneyed elites, and above the working class (and, presumably, by dint of tainted status, those unemployed or who have stopped seeking employment).  But it’s the working class, surely, who do the work; it’s the working class for whom these jobs are most important.

Now, in Britain the old distinction between classes had been pretty consistent for at least two hundred years.  Then, in 1979, an interesting shift began, instigated under the governance of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party and, I suspect, set in motion quite calculatedly by Thatcher herself.  The shift was a redefinition of “working class” and “middle class,” such that the “middle class” were characterized as having the socio-economic benefits to which the “working class” aspired, or ought to aspire.  The “middle class” then had its numbers swollen even more by the inplicit inclusion of the “aspirational working class.”  Thus the “middle class” has ended up – in the UK – as the vast maority of people, irrespective of actual income or actual status.  You are middle class if you are not of the “landed gentry” and not “on the dole.”  The membership has become so vast that the category no longer has any basis in reality, its only basis being rhetorical.  A little like the “tax payer,” darling term of our media.  Both the “tax payer” and the “member of the middle class” have become almost mythological creations of the media/military/legislative/industrial complex.  And people here have almost entirely forgotten about this shift in meaning: both the Labour Party and the Conservatives claim to be the party of “the middle class.”

So both candidates were reaching out to the same sector of the population.  And, I’m sad to say, Mr Romney did this with greater surety, aplomb and seeming conviction than did Mr Obama.  This is not to say that his arguments were more cogent; these “positive” qualities were purely presentational.  His was a ‘seductive’ appeal rather than an appeal to reason.  In fact what he said so seductively was by and large unreasonable, untested and dangerous in the extreme; far more dangerous than Mr Obama’s utterances (though they, too, contained dangerous motifs).  Romney sounded assured, certain, about the capacity of his plan – never spelled out in detail – which had never been tried before.

The people have been taught to admire strength, or what they are told is strength, forthrightness, or what they are taught is forthrightness, and charisma – which cannot be taught.  They have been taught to prefer eyes that look straight at the person spoken to than those which remain lowered in order to concentrate on notes.  And what the people have been taught to admire, they tend to vote for.  And in this particular case, voting for Romney would be a disaster, both for America and for the rest of the world (which many Americans have forgotten, it seems, is much, much larger than America is or ever could be).  To be fair, Mr Obama presides over a highly toxic administration which has openly arrogated to itself the powers of “world police,” moral arbiter, judge, jury and executioner, and he needs to be dealt with.  Mr Romney’s election would destabilize even that which is already unstable.  Here’s what he would do with his five part plan:

“One, get us energy independent, North American energy independent. That creates about four million jobs.
Number two, open up more trade, particularly in Latin America; crack down on China if and when they cheat.
Number three, make sure our people have the skills they need to succeed and the best schools in the world.
Number four, get us to a balanced budget.
Number five, champion small business.”

I dearly hope that these are in no particular order.  Number one alone poses a real and present danger to all seven billion inhabitants of this planet, in the form Romney sketches it out.  Creating four million jobs a the possible cost of the species seems like an unsound gamble.  Number two sounds both isolationist and imperialist, isolating the Americas and likely to be achieved at least in part by military or covert interventions.  What “cracking down on China if and when they cheat” precisely means is unclear, but it does not sound like a safe attitude to one’s main creditor and business partner.  Number three, as I’m sure any Printculture reader knows, is hardly likely to happen given Mr Romney’s attested views on what we here still take pride in calling the welfare state.  Number four is to be achieved through completely untested means, by Mr Romney’s own admission.  Number five, well, Mr Romney’s view appears to be that “small business” is primarily an adjunct to the functioning of large corporations such that, if large corporations grow, so too the number of small businesses.

Oh, yes.  Mr Romney will absolutely not be making any cuts in military spending.  One wonders – why? – and is fearful of the answer.

Here are a few suggestions for Mr Obama, none of which he articulated plainly.  In particular order only with regard to the first point.

1:   The threat of anthropogenic climate change is the single most important threat to everyone, everywhere, everywhen.  Period.
2:    In any civilization worthy of the name, healthcare is a basic human right, irrespective of the wealth of the recipient.  Period.
3:    Any destabilizing, resource-centered foreign policy, even one less biased that the one he currently presides over, is counterproductive to (1) as well as being inherently hazardous.  Period.
4:    As for healthcare, so too for education.  So too for shelter.  So too for food.  Period.
5:    Likewise for every and all public infrastructure.  Competition in infrastructures which have universal benefit and usage must always be counterproductive due to systems incompatibilities and loss of economies of scale.  Period.
6:    Money has no place influencing politics in anything even remotely close to the degree to which it is permitted to in the U.S.A..

I also hope that Mr Obama wins this intrinsically rigged election, as he seems to be more likely to be convinced by the above, and I, for one, very much hope that the deliberately repeated ‘periods’ do not coalesce into a full stop.



The following clip (discovered for me by René, already a transportation theorist at 2 years 8 months) seems to me allegorical of just about everything. White guy in nice shirt drives around Johannesburg destroying things for the camera! Early on, White Guy in Nice Shirt says something like “On the one hand, I worry about bumping into things. On the other hand, I don’t have to worry about bumping into things,” which is worth ten volumes of moral philosophy and analysis of the spirit of the age. The bit where the SUV drags away the police tow truck rather nicely encapsulates the culture of impunity which will be even harder to extirpate in the case of a Romney win. Meet the Marauder. “A struggle with the earth…”


Great moments in storytelling

From a piece on assholes in Slate:

One need only turn on the television to find oneself subject to the spectacle of an asshole condemning or defending another asshole, while yet a third asshole provides commentary on the assholishness of the previous two—a veritable Möbius strip of assholism.

I can’t tell if it’s because of my great love of the theorization of assholes, or because writing and thinking about assholes is inherently interesting (to everyone), but: the quality of prose, philosophy, and comedy regarding assholes truly does set it apart from the quality of those three things as they apply to every other topic in the universe.


My Bookstore

From the second year of graduate school until about five years after I left, I worked for my university’s bookstore. I did a variety of things, ranging from heaving medical textbooks onto the shelves for $6.15 an hour to working as the “Internet Projects Manager,” which basically meant that I was a one-man web development shop in direct competition with Amazon.

It was a wonderful place, with visionary people. We had a classical music CD department, an anime department, and about 100,000 books on the shelves in academic and non-academic subjects. We had an ongoing reading series with authors from our MFA program, like Maile Meloy, Glen David Gold, Aimee Bender, and Michael Chabon. My bosses turned me loose on web technology a couple of months after the final bits were dry on the first web browser, NCSA Mosaic. We were one of the first bookstores to try e-commerce, and my bosses and I wound up on the cover of the June, 1996 cover of American Bookseller and in the LA Times.

Amazon put an end to our nascent, at times Rube-Goldberg-like efforts, and I struggled with the limitations of being one person trying to fight an e-commerce battle I had no chance of winning. One boss left in frustration, then I left, and the second boss retired a couple of years after that.

After that, the focus of the store shifted away from strategy and towards operations. By the time a few years had passed, without anyone at the store completely realizing how quickly it was happening, Amazon had eaten our store’s lunch. Together with its competitors, it had peeled off too many of our textbook customers. It was because of a monopoly on textbooks and their profits that we’d been able to do all this great stuff; without that monopoly, the number of students coming through our doors started to dwindle and our margins started to thin.

The end of the store soon followed, brought from on high by administrators who were frustrated that the store was no longer a cash cow. There was a sham of “consultation” with the University community — my letters were met with form letters — but management consultants were brought in, and they made the brutal suggestions that you would expect. My friends there who cared about books and literary values were forced out, along with all the employees over 50. The store has now been emptied of books. It is now selling textbooks, plush animals, and sweatshirts. It has been, in a word, deconsecrated; the word “Bookstore” has been taken out of the name.

So here is a photograph of the shelves that used to hold literary criticism and philosophy, now filled with plush anteater mascots. Look upon it and despair.

Shelf of Anteaters

Shelves where the books used to be: UCI Bookstore, now “The Hill.”


NOTE: I’ve published a follow-up piece to this article at https://printculture.com/the-late-bookstore/.