Category Archives: Aesthetic Redemption

Literature hacked to death at *-Mart

I’m going to spare the rant about the quality of the book – most people have already expressed it.  I came across a great blog post this morning (as I am avoiding doing any type of grading or producing). The writer raises a fear that I’ve had for a while now. In the post  Assault on Literature through 50 Shades of Yuck, the writer laments the current phenomenon of inserting into already existing stories.

The prime example here is the phenomenon that swept the world by storm, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.   Yeah yeah, I can hear the post-modern protests already. But But But. It’s funny. But but but, it’s not hurting anyone. But but but lighten up.

book knifeI’d be less worried if I knew that everyone’s spawn actually knew works of literature. I’m disheartened on a regular basis that they do not, in fact, know much about literature at all (or care, or want to care). I fear the parody of these works (and the thriller/comedy/sex ification of them) is replacing the works themselves (insert rant on education/values/art/entertainment).

Hey, I think spoofs are funny. I think they’re only a good idea, however, when we know what they’re making fun of and why.

The decade of the reboot and the remake (not that these haven’t existed before) in such proliferation and zeal has annoyed me. I’ve enjoyed some, loathed others. But I knew the originals. Sure, some are going to argue that the reboot or remake may inspire seeing the originals. Ok, but that’s giving people a lot of credit. Yet, I’ll readily believe that people will see the original movie before they read the original book.

Flaubert spent 5 years writing Madame Bovary. Not due to laziness, but rather to an obsessive attention to words, sentences, and sounds.

I wonder how long the mommy porn author took to copy Sade’s homework before class.

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Distractions

Simias-egg

Cheating on Academic Sins with an alter ego.

#priceless.

Technēpoesie.


Abracadabra

Make it so.

Or so we all heard for a good 7 years in the late 80s and early 90s. More of an imperative than an performative utterance, it gets us a little closer to the bull’s eye. Recently, a judge in France ruled the auction of Hopi masks legal, as the previous owner had obtained them legally.  That seems logical.

Image

Art Et Communication / Ho / EPA
An undated handout picture provided by Art et Communication press office in Paris, France on April 11, 2013 shows a mask entitled ‘Angwusnasomtaqa’ or ‘Tumas Crow Mother’ as part of the ‘Katsinam Masks’ auction sale at Drouot-Richelieu. care of worldnews.nbcnews.com

Yet, the complication is in the role the masks play for the Hopi, who view them as living things, sacred beings. Naturally, money and collecting are involved (un passe-temps du 19e siècle), so the dispute over the masks’–scratch that. The dispute over the legality of the sale was hauled before a judge, who subsequently ruled that since the current owner had obtained them legally, years before, the masks could be legally auctioned.

The most frightening part, I think is the power that the law wielded here and invested in others:

Before starting, the auctioneer, Gilles Néret-Minet, told the crowd that the sale had been found by a judge to be perfectly legal, and that the objects were no longer sacred but had become  “important works of art.”

The ability of language to perform is powerful indeed. Big magic. In one deft tongue maneuver, Néret-Minet changed the status of the masks from sacred beings to important objects all because of another performative utterance, the legal ruling.

The irony, perhaps, is in this line:

[Néret-Minet] added, “In France you cannot just up and seize the property of a person that is lawfully his.”

Whew, well I sure feel better now.

Suddenly, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick surge out of the dry pages of theory and into the consequence-filled world of practice.


A-typical post

atypical post or maybe a typical post.

Jonathan Culler makes a point about how we view poetry, or even recognize it.  Sometimes I use this point with my students when we cover something from the avant-garde.   Usually, students are accustomed to dealing with poetry on classical terms.

Poem by Guillaume Apollinaire from Calligrammes.

How do they recognize a poem? Its (predictable) orientation on the page (at first glance).  Perhaps it’s a sonnet with two stanzas of four lines each and two stanzas of three lines each.  It doesn’t extend down the whole page, some say.  It doesn’t cross the whole page, others offer.

So, in taking a cue from Culler, I often write a line on the board. Something like.  Heat fully before serving.  And I ask them to tell me about what they read. Often, they tell me, “Well, that’s clearly from cooking directions.”  Good! I enthuse.  Then I ask them, “Is this a poem? It’s isolated. It doesn’t have any context, right?”   I see their faces screw up and their, lips pursed, brows furrowed.  Usually, there’s one leader in the pack who then offers, “No, that is not poetry.”

Ok, why isn’t it poetry? I ask them.   The response is usually something like, “It doesn’t sound like poetry.”   Aha! I say.  So, “Poetry has to sound like poetry?”  They nod their heads affirmatively (everyone hopping on board). I then ask them to tell me what poetry sounds like.  And they do.  Long (and studious) explanations about rhyme schemes, patterns of sound, and so forth. Very smart stuff.

Then I ask them to consider something. What if I take our excerpted line of directions and I do something like this with it:

Heat
F U L L Y        B
E
F            s
O             e
R                r
E                  v
i
n
g

“Ohhhhhhhh”  They say.  “That’s different.”   Different? How? I ask.   Well, that doesn’t look like directions any more.   What does it look like?  “Some kind of art,”  they say.


Sacred Cows

…and other reductive conclusions.

Now that the better part of a week has passed since the Chronicle of Higher Education made the decision to discontinue Naomi Schaefer Riley’s blog pieces, I decided to do a quick web survey to see what was being generated surrounding the issue. Several key terms have appeared in conjunction with the brouhaha.

I have several personal favorites:

  • Witch hunt
  • Mob
  • Sacred Cow

The general gist of the criticism is that the editorial staff of the CHE capitulated to a bunch of incensed scholars who cried foul and pointed the clichéd finger of racism accusations because we disagreed with Ms. Riley.  Before moving on, I think it is important to first tentatively affirm that indeed – we screamed loudly and demanded that her time at the Chronicle come to an end. Yet, what I find most common is the misrepresentation of the reason we so vociferously demanded that her column  be guillotined.

The readership was angered by multiple things. Chief among the grievances, I think, is her manner of making her point: her opinion is largely uninformed. I have noticed that the vast majority of NSR’s work (I could not avoid reading her work and listening to her interviews) is actually comprised of hasty conclusions based in imprecise and elusive information gathering. (For an example see this  interview on CSPAN in which she discusses one of her books and the “problems” with the higher education system). I have noticed that like the great temptation, she couches her more biased attacks in legitimate criticism. Many of the points she makes about the problems within higher education are indeed largely recognized by the masses – yet, Riley derails when she begins to draw her conclusions for reform. Her main claim to argumentative probity? My father is a professor.  I will admit, I am personally split on the issue of research and tenure. In the humanities, I know I do not stand alone when I assert that we often have researched ourselves into obscure, often unpublishable, corners. Tenure becomes more rare; book publications harder to achieve. Do we need to rethink the model? Absolutely. Do we need to drop tenure? I’d be hard pressed to agree here. Should we stop researching highly specialized things? Absolutely not.

The point she seems to return to is that our research is “obscurantist.”  (A poor choice of words – what are we hiding? in the Derrida-Foucault bickering, Foucault accuses Derrida of this as a means of saying that the argument is so obscure so as to hide its failings, allowing the author to call the opponent an idiot for not understanding) Yet, how is this a problem? I think we can all agree that our research is to further the conversation, to challenge and push how and what we think, to promote further examination and analysis. This has nothing and everything to do with undergraduate education. The extreme focus of our doctoral education and research is a proving ground for original scholarship. Do we write for our peers and not our students? Yes. Yet, in deepening our knowledge, the goal, as I practice it, is to reduce these topics down to broad swaths (some more specific than others) for our undergraduates. We stay current in the field, its advances and its setbacks. The more we continuously learn, the more we continuously can bring to the classroom.

Several bloggers, academics, and “news” sources falling on the other side of the equation have accused the readership of the Chronicle of over reacting when one of its “sacred cows” was attacked (I highly encourage all readers to google NSRs name with “fired” after it). The majority of negative criticism has proven to be as reductive as Riley’s own reasoning. This reader did not protest because she attacked Black Studies. As far as I am concerned, the entirety of the academy is open to criticism (our own system of checks and balances, no?) It was the blatantly offensive manner in which she chose to make her argument. She is a hostile blogger in a sea of those she wishes to provoke. For my paltry subscription fee as a graduate student, I demand that what I read is of a certain standard, that when an argument is presented it is informed. What Riley offered was not up to the standards of the audience she writes for. If there is a sacred cow being defended here, it is not an area study. Rather, it is the practice and method we keep.

I invite you, if you have not yet done so, to read her eye-witness response in the Wall Street Journal, in which she defends herself against accusations of being uninformed:

I have been a journalist writing about higher education for close to 15 years now, having visited dozens of colleges and universities and interviewed hundreds of faculty, students and administrators. My work has been published in every major newspaper in the country, most often this one, and I have written two widely reviewed books on higher education as well.

Though it should be self-evident, none of this means that Riley is 1) actually a scholar, 2) conversant in the field of Black Studies 3) well-researched. She leaves out the telling information! Two widely reviewed books..by whom?  I’ve already started reading them – they don’t pass muster.

The most amusing part of the fallout is the demonstrations of ad hominem attacks the commentators resort to: “flowery academics,” “whining scholars,” “witch hunting on behalf of our sacred cows,” among others. I’d invite any readers to submit all of the fallacious attacks they find.

For now, I’m going to print out what I find, including her articles, as teaching tools for my students on how not to make a point.


Spread of Doom

Students, grad students, junior faculty – I think we’re all known to have absurd eating habits. Some of us eat nothing but crap, some of us eat once a day. We justify this to ourselves by maintaining that we have no time, we have no money. We eat and live hand to mouth. Hey, I tow the party line. There is a new item on my shelf that I found at the store that fits right into the category of grad student crap.

Biscoff Spread.  First, you may find Biscoff cookies familiar if you’ve taken an airplane in the last five years. They go pretty well with airline coffee.  So, seeing this name in the store, I bought this jar of peanut-butter-looking spread and took it home. I set it on the table and stared at it for a little while, which of course then fascinated my cat, so he stared for a while too (perhaps I was expecting it to sing, or reveal its mysteries to me).

Having read the jar, Biscoff is a Belgian product. Now, I begin to think about non-American spreads.  Nutella – rocked my world when I was 16 and en France for the first time.  Marmite rocked something and it wasn’t my taste buds.

Finally, I twist the thing open and get a spoon. Viscous crack, the spread has the consistency of peanut butter (capriciously advertised so for Americans), tastes exactly like the airline cookie and is apparently made of the cookies.  Now, the logic game begins. Well, it looks like peanut butter. “They” say peanut butter is somewhat healthy – protein or something. This will not, then, instantly turn my ass into a helipad.  Run, don’t walk, out today and get yours.

** Trader Joe’s has made a rival spread – apparently made of the more sugar-filled American variety of cookie, crumbs present and all.  Aren’t we so industrious.


Well, that’s just Religulous…

Ok, I’ll admit it.  Sometimes, I’m a bit too similar to those past professors I swore I’d never become. You know them, we all know them, you might even be them. Which, you ask? Oh, you know them. Here’s an example of a conversation:

Gun-shy graduate student (attempting to curry favor):  So, did you see on TV last night where [some random event  that might be applicable to what we’re studying] happened?

Professor: …What?

Gun-Shy Grad: (Stammering) Oh, well, you know.. on this show.. and this came up.. and Heidegger..[downward glance]

Professor:  I haven’t owned a television since 1975. I’d rather read Joyce. [Cat-like flouncing exit]

In my defense, I own a television, I have cable. I love netflix and Dancing with the Stars is like American Gladiators with sequins. All this to say: yah, Religulous is from 2008. I just watched it this morning with coffee, cat, and pre-final giving glee.

Bill Maher amuses me…usually. He’s witty, he’s snarky.  So, I though I’d stream the mockumentary. I liked Jesus Camp from (what seems like) eons ago.  I don’t have the answers (I honestly don’t care). Religion, its history, or rather the course it took throughout history, doesn’t seem so mysterious or special to me. It seems obvious, mostly. Faith is different, I think.  Faith, like Truth (with that annoying capital T) is a personal thing – neither of which I have significantly deep thoughts on (the Philosophy department is down the hall). Having been raised both Italian and Catholic (oh, the guilt!), I’ve settled into one of those post-faithful loves of the kitsch bi-product.

Now, I’m skirting the liberal-ivory-elite-tower-of-doom label here in writing about the great Taboo (look, another captial T). Experience has shown that the zealous rarely argue on academic terms. Likewise, we’re (usually) professional, refereed debaters. It’s two separate conversations, isn’t it?

Maher is not part of the club, either club, as it were. He’s no rube, but is educated enough to use it as a weapon. This is where I had my problem. On his television show, he stacks the deck in one direction or another, throws some juicy meat on the table and lets the teeth-gnashing wonks off the leash to verbally eviscerate each other in prime time. Good fun. They opted into this. In his film, he takes on a U.S. senator, Mark Pryor. Fair game, as far as I’m concerned. I snickered delightfully at his question to Pryor, “Can you think of anything else that we cleave to from the Bronze Age?”  More good fun.  Where I grew uncomfortable was with the non high profile people – those who were not sect leaders, not public officials, not scholars, not Vatican uppers. He uses his knowledge as a weapon, and not in the good way. The exchanges come off as little more than a condescending, demeaning one-sided fight. In this period of anti-bullying conscience, is he any better?

Don’t get me wrong. These men may have very well been on record with hateful agendas or any number of reasons to attract Maher’s attention (Though, I suspect it had more to do with making a chapel out of a semi truck trailer). But, they weren’t framed that way. At least not in what I saw. What I saw was a stereo-typically(not mine, Maher’s) southern congregation, blue collar group of men from the Trucker Chapel. Is it fighting fair to show up with cameras, an expensive suit, book learnin’ and make them look like idiots? Does that really serve the end-goal (which I presume to be a revolution of consciousness in some HBO sponsored Neo-Enlightenment? Sign me up if it ever happens.)

Academics are no strangers to the conservative media attention we get. For all-certain news-affiliate viewers know, we are Commies ready to collapse the capitalist system in the U.S., make their kids gay with our liberal ways and our logic, and burn all the [insert faith tome here]. Do we really need any  more effigies burned?

I think what this serpentine reflection is (poorly) attempting to get at is this: fight fair. I’m no stranger to a good debate. I’ll bring it, yo. But, I don’t want to debate someone who isn’t coming armed with the same type of weapons.  ‘Sporting’ would seem to be a good word here. I can’t debate personal Faith or Truth, that’s not sporting – or fruitful, for that matter. Maher was shooting at unmoving targets from a duck-blind. That’s not funny. That’s embarrassing.

Don’t do us any favors, Bill.