. . . 2001-05-01 . . . The Hotsy Totsy Club
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Bryn Mawr Stories   The breakfast was nearly over, and the black waiters were serving the ices.

"Can you see Lilian Coles?" Blanche bent around an intervening neighbour to ask Katherine. Katherine, happy in the fact that she would get a degree on the morrow, looked across the tables just as Lilian touched glasses with a freshman, her lips moving in the chorus,

"Here's to Bryn Mawr College!"

It was Hester Grey who saw a solemn look on Lilian's face as they rose to join in "Manus Bryn Mawrensium." But at that moment it seemed to Lilian herself, that of all the "lætissimæ puellæ" she, in her way, was the most joyful.
Elva Lee, '93.

The hunt is up, the hunt is up, and it is well-nigh day....

. . . 2001-05-06

I started reading Derrida immediately after taking a class on Nagarjuna's masterwork, Codependent No More. It's always pleasant to fantasize that autobiographical accident somehow counts as critical insight, and so my rolling bloodshot eyes paused over Curtis White's latest confident assertion:

Anyone who has taken the trouble to understand Derrida will tell you that this putative incoherence was the discovery that the possibility for the Western metaphysics of presence was dependent on its impossibility, an insight that Derrida shared with Nietzsche, Hegel, and the Buddhist philosopher of sunyata, Nagarjuna, who wrote that being was emptiness and that emptiness was empty too.
And I don't care much what club is used to belabor Harold Bloom so long as he gets lumpier.... But White's unadorned Adorno is not much more palatable:
"Aesthetic experience is not genuine experience unless it becomes philosophy."
An ambitious mission if taken seriously, but a terrible guide if taken as Adorno does (i.e., "Art that is not easily explained by my philosophy does not count as art" -- if Adorno was doing philosophy of math, he'd declare that 5 wasn't an integer because it's not divisible by two). Aesthetics is empirical philosophy, and if pursued without attention to particulars, you quickly end up with nonsense like using a single-dimensional scale of "complexity" to ascertain "greatness." (Scientific attempts at researching "complexity" make for amusing reading, given the muddling ambiguity that attentiveness brings in, and the inevitable toppling over of increasing perceived complexity either into perceived organizational structure -- i.e., greater simplicity -- or into perceived noise -- i.e., greater simplicity.)

More pernicious, and indicative of why smart lads like Derrida avoid the whole question of "greatness," is White's contrast of a "simple folk tune" with what "a Bach or Beethoven will then make of this tune," the former being prima facie non-great and the latter being great. Note the indefinite article: we're now so far from particulars that we're not even sure how many Bachs or Beethovens there are.

And note the isolation of the tune, floating in space, divorced from performer or listener: no wonder the poor thing is simple. Why doesn't White contrast "a simple folk singer" with "a Beethoven" instead? How about with "an Aaron Copland"? Or with "a John Williams"? Is Skip James's 1964 studio performance of "Crow Jane" less complex and therefore less great than a slogging performance of an aria from "Fidelio"? How about if the former is given close attention and the latter only cursory? Is study of a printed orchestral score somehow more aesthetically valid a response to music than, say, dancing?

I'm pretty sure how Adorno would answer all those questions, to give the dickens his due. White, I think, would rather avoid them.

I owe 'im, though, for providing the following lovely quote from Viktor Shklovsky, which for some reason makes me think of The Butterfly Murders:

"Automization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war."
(The site also includes this less comic bit of Shklovsky.)

. . . 2001-05-10

Mothers Day Beefcake Special . . .

Fr. Baron Corvo on the pressing topic of pants, from A History of the Borgias:

Observe, from their manner of clothing him, how these people worshipped Man. Not for them was the concealment of his grace in dented fractured cylinders.

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Speaking of which, not many people realize that Robert Mitchum's first Hollywood job was playing an equilateral triangle in educational shorts....

  Mitchum at 18

. . . 2001-05-11

Curtis White has pointed out (quite correctly) that his Context piece didn't dwell on "greatness" and "complexity" to the extent that I implied. In context, both concepts play fairly minor roles (and are therefore left unargued with) in what's basically a worthy protest against Harold Bloom's vision of art as a narrow lineage of antagonistic wankers and a worthy defense of the notion that art serves a social purpose which is also irreducibly aesthetic.

But just as constellations can be picked out of the teensiest weensiest stars, those minor points sparkled out with some others (the unargued-with citation of Adorno, Bloom's unargued-with dismissal of "the race-class-gender axis," and White's opening hook: the unargued-with "tautology" that "the great works" are (particularly) "great")1 into an arrangement of negative space that I found irresistibly arguable. (The problem with hooks is people get caught on them.... An awful lot of Rushmore viewers never understood that the movie had opened with a dream sequence, and kept wondering why this supergenius kid had such crummy grades.)

Which just goes to show again that even if art isn't often produced by willfully antagonistic wankers, criticism often is.

1. Addendum on those other minor points, bearing in mind that I'm not arguing against White's piece so much as arguing against what it didn't choose to argue with:

Shklovsky's notion of "recognition" helps to explain how the notion of a canon is destructive -- canonized art is automatized art -- and why works from uncanonized points of view deserve to be pushed forward -- unfamiliar expressers are likely to provide unfamiliar expressions.

To put it another way, the problem with the "dead white male" canon is not that the works are all mediocre (although many seem so to me), but that to be trained exclusively in any established canon is to join a club with easily parroted and not very strenuous rules, including rules for "complexity." If the same set of "complex" formulas is repeatedly used, they become through habit not so very complex any more (viz. John Updike). A whirlpool bath is complex but also somnific.

. . . 2001-05-13

The Blasted Stumps of Academe

Lawrence L. White simultaneously kicks off our end-of-school special and continues our previous thread in high style:

I spent several days composing a response to your comments re Curtis White, but couldn't make sense in my own head. As Adorno also says, the aesthetic is inarticulate. Though he claims philosophy is necessary, he recognizes that the artwork always withholds its best part. It's a perfect marriage: one party claims the other can't live without them, the other party knows it.

One of the few ideas that have made sense to me in this dreadful canon debate is John Guillory's suggestion that instead of thinking of canons we should think of syllabi. It's an inescapable fact: only so many books can be assigned for the term, or, for those who have survived their educations still reading, only so many books can be read. (Mr. Bloom acts as if he has read everything, which is his claim to greatness, 'cause none of the ideas he's had about these books amount to squat.) You have to make choices, though you don't have to, or may not be able to, explain them.

Just as there is are Great Works syllabi out there, so too are there Race-Class-Gender syllabi. & both can be automatized. Try to get an American Studies PhD w/out reading Uncle Tom's Cabin. & try to read any of this stuff the way someone like Spicer would read. I bet my copy of Aesthetic Theory (w/marginal notes throughout to prove I read the whole thing) someone out there is doing a Race-Class-Gender critique of Updike, & is thorougly kicking old Johnny-boy's ass. Yes, he deserves it, but aren't there better things to do w/your time?

I want to read books that are smarter, truer, more beautiful (&, as Adorno & Stein point out, beautiful can be ugly) than I am. Criticism that's superior to its object is masturbation. & as my pa told me, beating off is a fine hobby but you don't want to make it your life's work. One of my fellow students did a master's thesis on Fern Gully. Kicked its ass up one side & down the other, undoubtedly. (Which reminds me: Derrida can avoid the topic of greatness because it goes w/out question in France. The question on the bac is about Rimbaud, not Asterix.)

The example of Spicer's reading -- wide, idiosyncratic, passionate -- shames me when I think of all the time I have wasted in graduate school.

  Bent over the old volume

. . . 2001-05-14

Doug Asherman sums it all up:

You know, while you're rambling on and on about your fucking intellectual concerns, there are these two guys who have passed out in a booth in the back and probably need medical attention.

What kind of club is this anyway?

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Flandrin's Theseus  

Theseus - Antitheseus - Syntheseus

It's time for another fabulous Caption Contest!

1. Mazel tov!
2. Have you seen this one, father?
3. Austin Powers: From Minos With Shag

Contributor's Note: Our beefcake artist today is Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin, a student of Ingres whose "Theseus Recognized by his Father" won the 1832 Grand Prix de Rome, anticipated the Japanese use of eggplant, and made the next generation of painters re-think the impropriety of male genitalia....

. . . 2001-05-17

Speak nothing and lack a big stick Bang

After his classmates ratted on an eleven year old boy who'd made some drawings of weapons, he was expelled from Oldsmar Elementary School in handcuffs. (via Obscure Store) The principal explained "We just need to get it through kids' heads that there are certain things you don't say and there are certain things you don't draw."

"... although you should continue to buy them," adds consumer advocate Juliet Clark.

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In other Obscure educational news, Norwich High School for some reason thought it would be a good idea to maintain a course on "feminist literature" (no elucidating link available) in a community whose standards don't allow explaining the term "phallic" to a 17-year-old. Teacher Richard Bernstein gets a $3000 fine and a formal reprimand, courtesy of the school's principal and the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court. (If he'd been a loyal Kokonino reader, he'd've known that the only correct answer to such queries is "Ask your mama.")

Hate the sinner, love the sin. As much as I dislike obscenity laws, I like the idea that exposure to Lacan can (who can? Lacan can!) be indefinitely postponed -- the guy bugs me, you know? If Lacan's "Phallus" [The proper page from Earl Jackson, Jr., has been purloined; the Google cache momentarily stops the gap] isn't to be construed as a weirdly and unnecessarily exclusionary and hierarchicizing penis, why didn't he just call it "the Object of Desire"? It's like turn-of-the-previous-century intellectuals who talked about "the Eternal Jew," always ready to point out (if, and only if, challenged) that they weren't referring to particular Jews; they were just using "Jew" as a convenient image.... Kids, images that seem to fit into an existing discourse that you don't trust and that require constant policing and clarification to prevent misuse are no convenience in the long run. (Except as branding, of course!)

I guess I should confess, though, that I wouldn't feel compelled to climb so high on my horse if he'd called the center of the symbolic order "Poontang" instead.

. . . 2001-05-18

David Auerbach economically adds to our belly-down crawl around the thundering canon:

Can I make a simplifying statement that the missing element may be some sense of equanimity?

And speaking of which, please give Mr. Lethem a medal for his Salon Premium plug of today. He made better of a thankless task than I'd thought possible. His bait-and-switch of "It's not just that, but it's nothing more!" is some sort of inspiration.

Last, all I need from a novel is here.

For myself, it's wonderful to discover that, thanks to Salon Premium, I am now refusing to support Camille Paglia! (Admittedly, this is one of those "speaking prose all my life" thrills, but a thrill's a thrill.) On top of which, I can also actively not shore up the tottering incomes of Salon's CEO, editors, movie reviewers, and so on. Talk about win-win!

My attitude towards subscription might be a little old-fashioned, though, since I don't subscribe to newspapers but I was glad to throw some money toward the NosePilot kid and I'd be glad to pay Lynda Barry directly for her watercolors. What galls are the extravagently wasteful layers of plastic and cardboard pimping that wrap the product. The web doesn't need prejudging editors so much as postfacto pointers, and the web doesn't need high-salaried executives or designers at all. What the web (still) needs is a reliable way to handle genuinely micro micropayments and a reliable way to protect creators from being bankrupted by unexpectedly popular creations.

More than anything else, the Web means low-cost publishing with fast wide distribution. It's therefore not surprising that the Web is dominated by the sorts of publications that have traditionally only been held in check by cost or distribution worries:
  • Academic research
  • Fanzines and other publications created "for the love of it," including reprints of rare, low-interest material
  • Ego-driven essays, diaries, and artwork
  • Small press fiction and poetry
  • Non-marketing-driven comics
  • Publicity and advertising
  • Retail catalogs
  • Community resource guides
  • Public services, such as transportation reports and weather forecasts
  • Industry-specific magazines that are usually distributed for free
Since the Web is in essence low-cost, it's very hard for any given publisher to fight against that essence by seeking extra payment from its audience. Gross costs can be reduced by moving to the Web, but gross income is unlikely to appear. Thus, subscription services have only succeeded when they maintain fairly tight control over a much-desired service that could not be gotten elsewhere as easily: the fetishes of stock-market players and pornography addicts have proven particularly ripe for exploitation. On the other hand, a standard newspaper, magazine, or TV-style sitcom won't have much of a shot at bargain-hunting Web surfers' cash.

-- from Web Design Resources Directory, 1997, thus partly excusing the use of "surfers"

The dreadful commingling of the overpriced software industry and overpriced entertainment industry loaded huge amounts of unnecessary cost onto a model kept afloat till now mostly by inflated valuation and partly by advertising. Advertising alone can't come close to maintaining it. Good riddance in the long run, but in the short run, the tumbling mountains of garbage are, as is their wont, sweeping lots of great stuff away.

Services I would gladly pay to keep alive simply vanish without being given a chance, their wanna-be-like-the-big-guy owners using the same reasoning by which corporations are supressing the history of cinema: the copyright holders, not caring about what they hold copyright on, consider the cost-to-benefit ratio of giving permission too high to deal with. (You have to hire someone to give permission; you don't need to hire anyone at all to ignore requests. Suing for infringement, of course, is always worth the money.)

Instead of archiving and cataloging their own work, writers depend on crash-by-night magazines to collect and maintain material, when the realities of both print and online publication is that magazines work, at best, as initial publicity. Comics artists waste time on brain-dead Flash loops when they could be making full-color serials. Newspapers, rather than storing their articles as highly compressible dirt-simple text and collecting the small fees that would be otherwise fed to library photocopying machines, are closing access, increasing "reprint" costs to unrealistic levels, and publishing more material on expensive paper than on cheap diskspace.

After its jerrybuilt business district finishes collapsing, the web may find itself only set back five years or so. But even in the midst of the swirling dust, there are encouraging signs. Weblogging seems to have already spread to zine scene levels, without paper zines' constraints on further growth. And there are finally signs that some academics are ready to push against the utterly unnecessary waste of traditional journal publication....


Of course I've had it in my ear before      
Ressentimental Journey

Perhaps as a reaction to my gloat over picking Camille Paglia's purse, I wrestled with a terrible moral dilemma through much of last night:

It seems that Adolf Hitler, who survived the war and moved to Argentina, is planning to purchase some stereo equipment and wants my advice. But, to be honest, I'm no audiophile. Should I admit that to him and point him to better sources of information? Or should I purposefully deceive him so that he'll squander his money on shoddy goods?


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The Blasted Stumps of Academe, cont.

A great mystery of the past two decades is just how a bunch of European philosophers and psychologists ended up in the English Departments of the New World.

A minor mystery of the past two weeks is why the moral Vincent Leitch drew from his own story (to your right) was that "close readings" should be avoided rather than that English majors don't read enough.

Wouldn't it be nice if these mysteries solved each other?

Question from Stephen S. Power, MA, UFlorida:
Considering how completely removed literary theory has become from the criticism of actual literary works -- a consideration the composition of your anthology may harden into a given -- do you think someday theory may be removed from the English department entirely and put either in the philosophy department, the sociology department or a new one of its own, that of cultural philosophy?

Vincent Leitch:
Let me tell a story. I just finished teaching a course to graduating English majors which had 26 students. I asked them after I taught the essay by Achebe on Heart of Darkness how many students had read the novel. Eight of 26 students had read Heart of Darkness....

Well, as we know here in Kokonino Kounty, nice things are pretty much always the things that happen!

The English Department version of "post-structuralist theory" is to the insanely engaged work of the original theorists as the English Department version of "creative writing" is to the insanely engaged work of real novelists and poets. That's what permits the two groups to be departmental rivals at all: they're playing the same game.

It's true that Derrida makes for terrible Cliffs Notes. But the problem with Cliffs Notes isn't that they get in the way of primary sources -- no one cares about primary sources -- but that they make students play a different game than the professors, and thus keep the students from assisting the professors' careers.

... an' anotha thing ...... then again ...

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2001 Ray Davis.