28 April 2010

Bread and Circuses.

I may not speak for many people, but I'm sure I speak for a few when I say I really don't need updates on Bret Michaels' condition on the front page of cnn.com. First, I remember this guy from an 80's glam metal band. They sucked. Second, I understand vaguely that he participates in every b or c list stars favorite nostalgia vehicle, the celebrity reality show. I have no idea what his particular show is about except that it has put him back in the news.

In the age of infotainment, a field in which CNN can take credit as being pioneers, I suppose this tripe is what passes for news. Forget any deep analysis of actual problems in the world, like Greece's financial collapse or Arizona's draconian unconstitutional immigration law -- too complicated and not nearly sexy enough to spend time on.

In a literate society, CNN and Fox and every other cable news channel should essentially be the equivalent of supermarket tabloids, ridiculed for their emphasis on celebrity scandal and death and not seen as trusted news sources. As for anyone who points out that the Nat'l Enquirer first broke the story of John Edwards' affair...well, who gives a shit? They first broke Gary Hart's affair etc....they excel in scandal. That's what they do. That's all they do. It'd be like lauding Rolling Stone or Pitchfork for being the first to report on a band's latest release.

Christ, the waning days of empire are tough.

22 April 2010

On the Interpretation of Literature

I'm not sure yet if Jonathan Gottschall is a brilliant thinker or a charlatan. Of course, charlatans are often brilliant, or at least clever, so it could be that he's both. I suppose I have to read more of his work. Thus far, I think his critique of current literary study can be summed up succinctly as a misunderstanding (deliberate or not) of what he blithely dismisses as "defunct constructivist theory." When he announces, as he does in 11 minutes and 50 seconds into this video, that "for decades people in my field have mistaken the fact that it's difficult to be objective for a license to give up trying utterly," he may be speaking of the poor practices of some in the field, but that is hardly a knock against the various poststructuralist and structuralist theories he simply tosses aside.

To put it another way, the fact that your doctor can't properly detect your lung infection using his or he stethoscope doesn't call into question the very utility of the stethoscope.

Derrida is quite clear on this point (and in several places, but this particular quote is from Of Grammatology) as he discusses "a signifying structure that critical reading should produce" [158]:
To recognize and respect all its classical exigencies is not easy and requires all the instruments of traditional criticism. Without this recognition and this respect, critical production would risk developing in any direction at all and authorize itself to say almost anything. But this indispensable guardrail has always only protected, it has never opened, a reading [158].
This excerpt comes as part of Derrida's larger argument that "there is nothing outside the text," which poor readers take to mean that anything goes (this interpretation is by far the most popular among critics who are either too stupid or too lazy to read poststructuralist theory in general and Derrida in particular with any sort of coherence), although Derrida is actually talking about the critical duty to respect the integrity of the text. You can also get to this idea, although in a different way, through the essay "Violence and Metaphysics" contained in the collection Writing and Difference. Both explorations are deeply concerned with the impossible yet necessary approach to what Gottschall calls "objectivity."

Whether Gottschall is correct or not in dismissing without addressing poststructuralist theories, it is clear he has a marketable interpretation of literature (but I suppose to talk about the literary marketplace would mean employing one of the interpretive frames he trashes without explanation, Marxism), because it is attracting funding. The New York Times reported recently on Gottschall et al's ideas as "The Next Big Thing" in literary studies. Another like-minded critic, Lisa Zunshine, is part of a research team that will be conducting literary research via MRI -- a very cool but also very expensive idea:

Ms. Zunshine is part of a research team composed of literary scholars and cognitive psychologists who are using snapshots of the brain at work to explore the mechanics of reading. The project, funded by the Teagle Foundation and hosted by the Haskins Laboratory in New Haven, is aimed at improving college-level reading skills.

“We begin by assuming that there is a difference between the kind of reading that people do when they read Marcel Proust or Henry James and a newspaper, that there is a value added cognitively when we read complex literary texts,” said Michael Holquist, professor emeritus of comparative literature at Yale, who is leading the project.

The team spent nearly a year figuring how one might test for complexity. What they came up with was mind reading — or how well an individual is able to track multiple sources. The pilot study, which he hopes will start later this spring, will involve 12 subjects. “Each will be put into the magnet” — an M.R.I. machine — “and given a set of texts of graduated complexity depending on the difficulty of source monitoring and we’ll watch what happens in the brain,” Mr. Holquist explained.

Interesting, yes, but I find it very intriguing that the object of the project is to "improve college level reading skills." It's noble goal and I can see how they're research will work in that capacity, although I will admit to being fuzzy on the details about how knowing what part or how much of the brain is stimulated by increasing levels of complexity will translate to teaching students how to interpret better.

It very well could be "The Next Big Thing" (although to read the Times' comment section for the article is every bit as depressing as reading any other online media outlet's comments, as I've recently discussed), but it certainly can't replace other approaches to literature (and I'm not accusing Zunshine or Holquist of this aim, either). Gottschall implicitly makes this claim by arguing that literary studies has not produced knowledge that can outlast the next generation of criticism (a claim he immediately has to qualify by excepting biographical and historical criticism -- archival research in other words).

My major critique is two-fold. First, on a rather specific level he doesn't even understand the implications of "The Death of the Author" (Barthes) or "What Is an Author?" (Foucault). He takes it to mean that "authors don't matter," which is completely not what the critiques argue. Second, and more troubling, is his complete straw-man argument about social constructivist theories and how to interpret data (he more or less argues that patriarchy exists only in the Western world and that the similarity of world folktales undermines feminist arguments about patriarchy -- see about 18:00 - 20:00 of this video). Unbelievable.

Look, the jury is still out as far as I'm concerned, but I have a fairly well-developed skepticism that tends to question master narratives. Perhaps Dr. Gottschall should keep in mind Derrida's comment at the end of the "Exergue" section in Of Grammatology:
The idea of science and the idea of writing -- therefore also of the science of writing -- is meaningful for us only in terms of an origin and within a world to which a certain concept of the sign (later I shall call it the concept of sign) and a certain concept of the relationships between speech and writing, have already been assigned [4].

21 April 2010

Stupid Pills in Action

There are several social entities that should not be "run like businesses." First, they aren't businesses. They don't produce actual goods to be sold, except in the disgusting business-speak of the shills that think the only model to apply to anything is the morally bankrupt business model.

Schools are perhaps the greatest example of an institution that should not be responding to economic data as if they were producing sausage casings. Here's today's Washington Post, in an article headlined, "Recession Could Result in Deep School Staff Layoffs, Larger Class Sizes":

From coast to coast, public schools face the threat of tens of thousands of layoffs this year in a fiscal crunch likely to result in larger class sizes and fewer programs to help students in need.

Reports of deep staffing and service cuts are emerging in several states, including California, Illinois and New Jersey, as school officials say that finances have been stretched to the breaking point. The Washington area is not immune.

That's great. Except the problem is that when companies are faced with recession -- which generally means lower demand for their product -- they simply cut production (and I don't say simply lightly, because that cut in production of course means cuts in employment, etc.). Schools don't have that option. They aren't businesses. They can't cut production. Apparently, people continue to have children, and children continue to go to school.

Therefore, acting as though a school can be run like a business ignores the fundamental fact that schools aren't businesses. Yes, they should be run efficiently; yes, waste and fraud and mismanagement should be recognized and removed (or at least minimized). However, schools cannot reduce the amount of children they care for and develop simply because of a recession.

Funding those schools to deal with the children they have in reality, rather than pretending that the balance sheet is more important than children's lives -- that is, using the impersonal veil of accounting to dehumanize students, should be our priority.

20 April 2010

Read any good books lately?

In my line of work, I read a few books. Often they're the same ones over again, and very few are very new, but I do read. I recently read James Baldwin's Another Country. It's a pretty daunting text if only for the fact that the bulk of the text is marked by the absence of the initial main character -- a bit like Waiting for Godot except Rufus has already come and gone and isn't coming back.

I'm going to revisit Baldwin this summer, especially after I get my copy of The Price of the Ticket. I kept seeing references to this text throughout Baldwin scholarship and in tangential pieces on Baldwin or people Baldwin commented on, so I figured I'd go pick it up. After all, it's Baldwin's collected essays and Baldwin was as well known an essayist as he was a novelist, so it's got to be an easy score, right?


The book is out of print. It came out in 1985, just two years before Baldwin died, and it covers the years 1948-1985. How does something like that go out of print? So yeah it's out of print, but not difficult to find, as long as you're not looking for the signed or numbered or first printing first edition copies.

So I'm waiting on that.

I'm also waiting on a used reading copy of Willa Cather's Not Under Forty. Here's another text I can't believe is out of print. It's Cather's reflections on culture and the state of literature as she looks back late in her career.

And both of these texts, by the way, are also unavailable at my current university's library, which is why abebooks.com is one thing I definitely thank the interwebz for...I've made up for many a lack in library resources and the absence of local used bookstores (or quite frankly of any sort of local bookstores outside of BigBoxBookWarehouse up near the highway) with a few searches on abebooks.com.

19 April 2010

The not so great era of online media.

I've taken to almost completely ignoring comments left on newspaper articles, youtube videos, etc. They're beyond useless. The concept is great: open up the articles for immediate and unlimited commentary. Unlike the traditional letters to the editor (which still exist of course), these comments can appear seconds after the article has been posted (and by seconds, I mean, quite literally, that many comments appear to be made without any sort of knowledge of the originating article), and you don't have to worry about column space. Additionally, in keeping with the fine internet age, we can all comment without attaching any of our real names (yes, I know, my entire blog is based on that premise...but at least I put some thought into my posts).

Essentially, these comment spaces have become nothing more than arenas for confrontation between two blandly predictable opposing camps. Very little thought is required to anticipate the content of the comments section -- far from liberating, they are in fact constricting. No one takes any sort of time to read an argument, so very few people take time to write one. Instead it's invective, sound bites garnered from talk radio, and rehashed political party talking points. Additionally, for all the complaining the right wing does about the Washington Post, and the threats that "they'll never read that rag again" or "no one reads the Post anymore" or some such bullshit, the right wing loons are clearly reading the Post.

It's my belief that right wing loons (for instance, the Freepers -- and I follow long-standing policy of not providing links to racist or fascist organizations) actually see it as their mission to patrol message boards of prominent media outlets and swamp the comment pages with their own irrational arguments and position statements. It could very well be that the left does the same, but I haven't seen it (unless the conversation has been pushed so far right that you have to define "left" with the idea that the government has the right to exist).

However, the Post isn't the best place to see this insanity at work, because it's too mainstream (not used in the bogeyman sense that critics on right and left seem to deploy it, but rather in the "general audience" sense). The best place to look for this phenomenon is on the comment pages of specialty media outlets, like The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle (which can be nefariously abbreviated to "CHE," showing off, I'm sure, its true socialist leanings) is a leader in its field, but its field is very small. You don't see back issues sitting around the dentist's office, like you might see Car and Driver or Sports Illustrated or Ladies Home Journal. The Chronicle is aimed at highly educated people (and administrators) who work at or with institutions of higher education, and its content therefore concerns such earthshaking issues as graduation rates at community colleges, bad writing and bad thinking, and a police raid on a student newspaper. Now these are important issues and they do touch at times on larger cultural hot buttons, but so also does the latest research in physics deal with important issues that have ramifications for our larger culture -- yet the pages of the Journal of Applied Physics do not overflow with fools arguing that Obama/Hitler/Stalin has threatened to eat all the children of white gun-toting patriots (OK, first I exaggerate, and second, the Journal of Applied Physics, like most scholarly journals, doesn't have a comments section).

Getting back to my point, I'm convinced that Freepers or some organization much like the Freepers trolls the CHE boards spouting off nonsense. I'm not suggesting that there's a policy decision anywhere saying, "let's assign five people to watch over Board X"; I simply think that a few members probably see it as their mission in life to bring their level of ignorance to the higher education community.

As an example, I cite "adamreed," on a comment left on Mark Bauerlein's "Brainstorm" column (for those who don't know Mark Bauerlein, he's a right-leaning professor at Emory with whom I don't agree much if at all, but who at least employs rational argumentation):

24. adamreed - April 16, 2010 at 02:57 pm

Oh delicious irony: A man who directs the re-distribution of property taken from its creators as taxes, by the most uncivil of means, extortion at gunpoint, lectures his victims about "civility." Who needs The Onion when we have propaganda?

"adamreed" is commenting on the current NEH "civility tour" that Bauerlein objects to. To sum up Bauerlein's argument, the lead objection (which we should also read, if we were Freudians, as the "manifest content") is that the civility tour oversteps NEH's jurisdiction and mission, while the real objection is that NEH Chair Leach is "politicizing" the NEH in ways Bauerlein doesn't like (interesting conclusion, given the Lynne Cheney years of hyper-politicization). But back to "adamreed," who apparently objects to taxation and believes he's being extorted at gunpoint to pay his taxes. He obviously has either not read Thoreau or simply didn't understand him.

Whether you agree with Bauerlein or not about Leach's civility tour (and it seems Bauerlein most likely objects more to the content of Leach's speeches and not the tour itself, despite his initial argument), it's clearly not something "adamreed" even knows how to engage with. So instead of offering a useful commentary either in keeping with the column itself or the 23 comments that precede his, he offers his soundbite libertarian objection to taxes and the canard that Obama is a socialist (again exposing his ignorance of either Obama's policies or the definition of socialism...I'm not sure which).

There are other gems in the comment section for this particular Bauerlein column, but this post is already too long as it is. The bottom line (and believe it or not the "adamreed" comment was downright coherent as opposed to others I've read on that site) is that tools like "adamreed" certainly aren't reading the Chronicle because they are involved in higher education; they're actually pretty much incapable of maintaining a straight line of reasoning or supporting their sound bite arguments. So what the hell is "adamreed" doing reading this somewhat esoteric weekly, and more importantly, what motivates someone to insert themselves into arguments that they have no ability to follow? It'd be just as silly for me to jump on the JAMA website and opine on the latest medical research.

18 April 2010

Morons Muster Monday

It's nice to see that the utter fanatic fringe will be convening across the Potomac in beautiful Virginia to commemorate their hero, Timothy McVeigh. I've never actually understood gun nuts. The 2nd Amendment, I understand. Gun nuts, the ones who think that the 2nd Amendment allows them to carry guns unconditionally, I don't. The 2nd Amendment allows for some pretty broad rights, but I think it's kind of ridiculous to assume that something applicable to 18th century technology isn't in need of some tweaking.

Free speech doesn't really change over time, although the media to deliver that speech has, and those changes have been the subject of vigorous debate. Free speech is also restricted by our libel and slander laws, as well as the more tricky public safety concerns (e.g. yelling "fire!" in a crowded theater). Apparently the 1st Amendment still stands.

However, you propose one slight little change in gun laws, like let's say requiring guns to be licensed, and you have the gun nuts literally up in arms, threatening revolution, pretending to be patriots (a most ill-used word in most cases). In the case of tomorrow's protest, conveniently scheduled on the same day as fellow gun nut and mass murderer Timothy McVeigh parked his truck packed with explosives in front of the Oklahoma City Federal Building -- including daycare center --, the protesters are apparently convening to protest the recent broadening of gun laws, which now inexplicably allow people to carry weapons in national parks.

Given that gun rights are apparently not in any immediate danger, and are in fact expanding, the gun nuts have to strut their stuff, in the words of the chief organizer, to warn the government about the passage of the health care bill and other sundry items that he feels (apparently because he doesn't know the definition of either word) equals "totalitarian socialism." Of course, the government will feel duly chastised when the few score nutcases show up with their handguns, rifles, and other small arms.

After all, the prospect that nationwide a few thousand or so veterans of the paramilitary equivalent of fantasy baseball camps, sprinkled with a few actual military veterans, have access to such intimidating weaponry and a will to use it on active duty police, military, and federal officials must send shivers down the spines of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.