Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sunday, September 13, 2009

cane toads!

this is a real documentary about real toads and their real australian friends. it is amazing.

my favorite part is the proposed commemoration of the cane toad with a cane toad "bust" that will provide "tourist potential."

also, the part where the little girl plays with her deadly cane toad pet using bad horror film camera work.

also, the part where the van zigzags across the highway in order to run over as many toads as possible.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

thought for food

from nikhil pal singh's black is a country:
the public is less a concrete aggregation of persons than an ethical ideal and symbolic construct that signifies the democratic institution of modern politics itself, to which the watchwords of "publicity," "public opinion," and above all, "publication,"attest. intellectuals in turn can be understood to be among the primary producers of public discourse - theoretical and practical knowledge of the social world - knowledge that becomes a key stake in social and political struggles to conserve or transform that world.
singh's definition speaks to my concerns with academic writing. though singh does not really help me formulate a definition of the "public" that suits my own position and occupation, the connections he draws between the intellectual, the social, and the political are useful in thinking about what "public" really means. not everyone is public. children, for instance, are not public beings - they are socially, culturally, legally, and politically subsumed within a family structure, be it their parents or the state via an orphanage.

the notion of the "public" as a construct also speaks to contemporary concerns with the public as really composed of a number of overlapping yet distinct and often competing publics. in other words, books are written for a number of groups. for instance, roald dahl's charlie and the chocolate factory was written for young adults, parents, and me.

and speaking of food, i would like to refer you to the title of my post. having read this entire post, i now require that you send me edible items as a token of appreciation for having imparted knowledge and wisdom. i am a poor graduate student. this is literally how i feed myself. ta!

wading through judith butler - accessability & academia

working in any academic field necessitates a decision about what kind of academic you wish to become. will you be a teacher? a researcher? an attempted amalgam, generally resulting (hopefully) in a longstanding position at some little liberal arts place far removed from the reality of american political culture?

these choices essentially represent a spectrum - you choose to be 70% teacher and 30% researcher at middlebury college, or you choose to be 80% researcher, 15% teacher, and 5% really awkward dude at columbia. become and independent researcher and you've jumped off the deep end of the research pool, while community college teachers generally represent the teaching end of the spectrum, as all of their research time is taken up commuting.

i am reading reading ayn rand and judith butler simultaneously, and i prefer reading rand, though i agree much more with butler. what does it say about academia that this is an assessment that most everyone - from the lay reader to the grad student to the tenured philosophy professor - would be very likely to adopt?

butler has encountered numerous complaints about her unreadability, responding to complaints in her 1999 preface to gender trouble by equivocating and then accusing her readers of not being responsible or hardworking enough to wade through her impenetrable kantian wording. apparently, she
think[s] that style is a complicated terrain, and not one that we unilaterally choose or control with the purposes we consciously intend. . . . certainly, one can practice styles, but the styles that become available to you are not entirely a matter of choice. moreover, neither grammar nor style are politically neutral. learning the rules that govern intelligible speech is an inculcation into normalized language, where the price of not conforming is the loss of intelligibility itself. . . . it would be a mistake to think that received grammar is the best vehicle for expressing radical views, given the constraints upon thought, indeed, upon the thinkable itself. but formulations that twist grammar of that implicitly call into question the subject-verb requirements of propositional sense are clearly irritating for some. they produce more work for their readers, and sometimes their readers are offended by such demands.
so let me get this straight . . . impenetrability is subversive. and those who do not throw grammatical constancy and structure out the window are rejecting "radical" (and thus, substantive) solutions to the problems of inequity.

does feel just a tad elitist to you? does it? because it should. a definition of radicalism that relies so heavily on jargon-laden philosophical analysis that apes kant's looping analytic style is both absurd and self-aggrandizing.

butler goes on to query whether
those who are offended [are] making a legitimate request for "plain speaking" or does their complaint emerge from a consumer expectation of intellectual life? is there, perhaps, a value to be derived from such experiences of linguistic difficulty?
thanks for the condescending lecture, judy. apparently, my need for transparent writing is merely a product of my superficiality, a result of my immersion and susceptibility to capitalist culture, which has insidiously climbed into the ivory tower, a la poison ivy. break free of capitalist grammatical nuance! embrace complete incomprehensibility!

after rolling my eyes continuously while wading through this complete crap, i began to think about what good academic writing might look like. academics all too rarely think seriously about the mechanics of their profession. after all, intellectual work is (unfortunately?) frequently aimed at other intellectuals, and when intellectuals are not speaking directly to one another, they are formulating a way of "dumbing down" not simply their language, but their ideas as well. this method of writing produces butler's assumption about simplistic language as a sign of and a vehicle for simplistic arguments.

is this relationship inevitable? are grammatical difficulty and intellectual breadth directly correlated with one another?

i certainly hope not. because there is a larger question here, one that relates to the elitism that i feel is implicit in much of butler's writing and approach to words and ideas. how accessible should academic work be? certainly, there are a number of options here, but again, the question is generally framed in terms of a choice: research or teaching.

this is not simply a kick-off question to an academic career - it is a question within the research option. will you, as a highly trained (over-educated) scholar, write for a scholarly audience or a popular audience? what is the difference? how does the aim translate into the right grammatical and syntactic approach?

i never want to write a book that only academics can understand. what would be the point? on the other hand, i don't want to condescend to a "popular" audience that i perceive as an army of dolts. the reading public is not a bunch of dolts.

so who is the reading public? i throw out the term as if its meaning was self-explanatory, but the question is not one i can answer at this point. to conceive of the people who read (intelligently) as a homogeneous group is a faulty premise.

so i start with a compromise. right now, everything i write is something i might be able to assign in an undergraduate seminar class. this means days of revisions, generally. it is far more difficult to retain nuance without resorting to jargon and obtuse sentence structure. being vague requires two drafts. being clear and concise while retaining the complexity of a scholarly argument requires days of revisions, hours of agonizing over word choice and argument structure.

do i write this way because it is naturally the way i write? i'm unsure. perhaps my mind is just as good as a middle-rate undergraduate student. and perhaps judith butler writes the way she does because she has the mind of a philosophical giant - and she will only speak to those like her. at any rate, i promise to never - ever - assign judith butler in any undergrad courses i teach. ever.

impenetrability is not subversive. impenetrability is a waste of everyone's time, brilliant ideas or not.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul,
and sings the tune--without the words,
and never stops at all,

and sweetest in the gale is heard;
and sore must be the storm
that could abash the little bird
that kept so many warm.

i've heard it in the chillest land,
and on the strangest sea;
yet, never, in extremity,
it asked a crumb of me.

Friday, August 21, 2009

the power of camp novels: reading ayn rand

a certain amount of flexibility is required in order to become a good historian. this flexibility is particularly important because you will inevitably end up studying the one thing that you promised yourself you would not touch with a 10 foot pole. indeed, you should refrain from making these sorts of promises to yourself. the path to a ph.d. is replete with far more dramatic opportunities to let yourself down.

ayn rand never quite fell into the category of refuse-to-read or refuse-to-study, but i certainly always assumed that i'd have little to no use for her books, given the absolute uselessness of the people i knew who really enjoyed rand.

i am now reading ayn rand. a lot of ayn rand. starting with anthem and working my way forward, i am currently nearing the end of the fountainhead. and i'm finding that i do have little use for rand's books, though not for the reasons i thought i would.

they are pure, unadulterated camp. sure, heavy-handed libertarian moralism infuses the actions, personalities, and personages of every character, but the overall tenor of the fountainhead is that of a politically-charged teen novel - full of melodrama and (forcibly) stolen kisses and clingy dresses and evil geniuses and love triangles.

a definition of camp would include something about an affectation or appreciation of manners and tastes commonly thought to be artificial, vulgar, or banal. this is a fairly broad definition. more specifically, the use of the word "camp" often indicates an appropriation of "high culture" (or what was previously regarded as "high culture") in pursuit of "low culture" ends. there is good camp and bad camp but, as susan sontag notes, the line is fine, and there is nothing worse than camp done poorly: "when something is just bad (rather than camp), it's often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. the artist hasn't attempted to do anything really outlandish."

camp often involves referencing - a signal that the author knows the history of his or her medium and is deliberately choosing to denigrate it, looking to induce either laughs or discomfort (and often both). sontag observes that "camp is a vision of the world in terms of style -- but a particular kind of style. it is the love of the exaggerated, the 'off,' of things-being-what-they-are-not." camp is a stylized form of exaggeration.

in this sense, rand is campy without recognizing the fact. she would hardly lower herself to acknowledging that she has learned anything useful from anyone, though her novels obviously model themselves somewhat on her beloved victor hugo, both in dark tenor and saga-like chapter layout. rand novels are supposed to be gothic novels for the modern (and i mean modern in the early twentieth century asceticist sense) reader.

unfortunately for rand and, perhaps, fortunate for her reader, the careful avoidance of reference or response actually serves to heighten the campiness of the fountainhead and its siblings. and this, i suspect, is what makes them so popular. without reference, one has a much harder time creating depth, and literary depth is the enemy of the uninformed and poorly read pupil. readers work their way up to joyce's ulysses. rand's books, by contrast, sit at the very bottom of the nuance pile. they are accessible in a way that few 700 page books are, and the sheer length of the novels, alongside rand's insistence that they are philosophical treatises, lends an academic aura to writing that would otherwise be considered extremely subpar.

i remember when i first discovered that books had subtexts. i was eight years old, lying in a motel bed en route to my grandmother's house in albany, ny. i was reading a wrinkle in time and, about 1/3 through, realized that the book was a critique of centralized authority, alongside a liberal religiosity. i remember this moment as sudden, ecstatic illumination, the sense that people kept telling me i was supposed to feel in church but never experienced. if you are aware that you are learning something, you can be actively exhilarated by the process and the fact.

i suspect that ayn rand functions in much the same way for the average reader. there is nothing challenging about her books and they feel vaguely taboo, independent, and - for those who misunderstand the term - intellectual. rand's subtexts and philosophical bent floats just under the surface, and the surface is made of saran wrap. you can see her points coming before they reach you, and her heavy-handed application of lessons is never mitigated by allusions to other writers or references to other philosophies. the historian in me is appalled at the lack of literary and ideological contextualization.

but for many readers - and the ayn rand institute's subsidization of purchase of her novels for classroom use inflates their numbers - reading the fountainhead must be akin to my experience reading a wrinkle in time.

reading ayn rand does not necessarily a libertarian make. one must be predisposed through upbringing or rebellion against that upbringing to embrace her flat set of teachings. but the book's ability to spark a recognition of one's own intellectual capabilities is a powerful tool in the libertarian arsenal, because this approach produces incestuous, cult-like followings. reading madeleine l'engle was part of a continual process that i became aware of in a short moment in a bed that wasn't mine along i90. and i go back to it, reading it every year and finding something new to love each year. i have turned into a socialist feminist who does not believe in or trust institutionalized religion, but i reread this anti-authoritarian, nuclear family-oriented, and occasionally heavy-handed liberal catholic on a yearly basis, with wide-eyed, uncritical wonder.

every person cherishes the book that facilitated the recognition of their personal, individual intellect. i suspect that rand's popularity stems from her ability to spark that recognition. books don't have to be complicated or even well-written in order to play this role. sometimes - too often - nuance is the enemy of influence. and perhaps we should look more seriously at rand's demand that every philosopher be forced to encapsulate his or her philosophy in a work of fiction. the caveat, of course, being that the lessons lying under the storyline ought to be clearly visible through all those other words, your book might garner a devoted readership with the inclusion of a little campiness.

as for me, in my post-eight-year-old life i prefer to stick with the resolutely difficult. a wrinkle in time is a benchmark rather than an endpoint. onwards into the abyss!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

david lynch embraces america (?)

david lynch has begun an interview project. his carefully detached delivery maintained throughout, lynch somehow manages to convey a certain sense of caring in this clip - something he generally has a difficult time doing, probably hinged at least in part on the fact that he has spent a career fucking with our collective need to identify linearity in . . . well, everything, including movie plot lines.

and a large part of that queasy removal is strung through these interviews as well. lynch is committed to ambiguity though, so even his most sincere introductory clip has elevator music lilting through the background, and the interview project website hawks a david lynch coffee collection alongside his films.

but this project feels like lynch moving backwards to a movie-making style and approach to humanity more in line with the elephant man, after all these years of twin peaks variations, spin-offs, and shorthands. something like compassion for his subjects lurks underneath lynch's little speeches, and the various clips of interviewees manage to walk the fine, ever-wavering line between voyeurism and genuine curiosity.

not that the very idea of documenting the "real" america by asking questions like "what would you like to do before you die?" and highlighting the little old man who avows that "when i was young, we didn't have toys." pieces of lives that feel like pieces rather than windows into something larger. a distorted real life puzzle resulting not in a whole, but in the amplification of the pieced quality of life and the fact that none of it fits together properly anyway.

but the interview project is not about these backcountry people anyway. this is lynch once again making it known that he is interested in these sorts of stories and people, and the interviews result in a self-deprecating look at who david lynch is, rather than a pastiche of american faces and stories designed to enhance and enlarge the meaning of american life. and david lynch has no interest in helping you to understand him. though he has compared his work (termed "american surrealist" by dennis hopper) to edward hopper's art, for me, francis bacon is always the artist who springs to mind.

lynch is film noir, but the menacing central committee and its shadowed agents and informants have been replaced with something more amorphous and yet personal. an ultimate goal - achieving worldwide communism - has been replaced with a question mark. as a result, you often get the sense that you are in fact to blame, you might be the evil in the world. there is an imperceptible line between waking and dreaming, there is an imperceptible line between sanity and insanity, and there is an imperceptible line between good and evil. so what are you and where are you anyway? even the most accessible of lynch's films explicitly blur these distinctions. lynch is democratic in application as well, for second-rate actresses, midwestern farmers, detectives, and insurance men are all similarly afflicted with realities rife with unreality.

in the end, the most honest filmmaking lynch has done is the daily weather report he gives from his painting studio, a routine of which he says "people are kind of interested in weather. it’s not artistic. it’s just me sitting there in my painting studio."

this observation about observing is perhaps more revealing than it is meant to be. lynch films, art, and absurdist commentary are all designed to merge art, money-making, entertainment, voyeurism, philosophy, and social commentary into one impenetrable mass. short films about death, long red and blue dreams, surrealist serials, and realist parables are all, in lynch's world, predictably impenetrable. everyone falls down the rabbit hole together. good thing lynch makes sure we're all properly caffeinated beforehand.