pseudopodium
Jesuitecall Pollicie
. . .

Destination Nowhere

Although I love the Internet more than any technosociological shift this side of antisepsis, I'm appalled that, nineteen years into the web, library executives continue to swap out book collections, with their paradigmatically long shelf life, in favor of expensive and quickly obsolescent computers so that people who walk into the building can find only exactly what they could find anywhere else on the planet.

But then I also thought it was crazy when the Metropolitan and MOMA replaced their paintings and sculptures with Philco Tandem Predictas, so what do I know?

Responses

martin browning from G+:

I forget who it was who redesigned the SF main library twenty years or so ago, but I do remember his notorious statement, quoted by Nicholson Baker, that he had no intention of treating a library as a "museum for antiquated books."

. . .

ATTN: Mark Yudof, Jean Quan, & most especially Brian Moynihan

Farmers envelope: Your occupation could save you hundreds on insurance.

. . .

If on a springtime's blog a blatherer...

I've been thinking about two types of metafiction, or at least metafictional moments: the type we're all too familiar with in recent years, where the metafiction is the point, and the (what to call it?) target fiction is in its service, and another more common, more exhilarating type (as I have come to think), where metafictional moments are actually in service of the story itself....
- balaustion

As Balaustion's examples suggest, there is a history, a lifespan, to apparently unmediated narrative or lyric. Thackerey and Trollope notoriously lack that goal, Byron (and then Pushkin) contested its triumph, and by the time we reach Bouvard & Pécuchet and Huysmans it's devouring itself. The perplexing disruptions of Ulysses simmered down into a signature sauce for Beckett and O'Brien, and then dessicated into spice jars for postmodern fabulism and swingin'-sixties movies. If Nabokov is a chess problem and Perec is a jigsaw puzzle, John Barth and Robert Coover are search-a-word.

Even more specifically, the desire for unmediated narrative is linked to genre Mark Twain and William Dean Howells were contemporaries, after all and therefore self-congratulatory metafictionality is also linked to genre. When, back in 1976 or so, I sought goods fresher than those provisioned by the oxymoronic experimental mainstream, I found them labeled as science fiction or fantasy. And they included a generally more relaxed use of metafictionality. Not Dick, of course; Dick is Barth haloed by sweat-drops. But Disch and Russ in the 1970s, and then in the 1980s and so on M. John Harrison and Fowler and Emshwiller and Womack and so on.

What I really wanted to blather about, though, was a rare third type of metafiction, neither the recircling of an already-overworked puzzle, nor the matter-of-fact surfacing of one discursive mode in a cove of splishy-splashy discourse, but instead doing something an emotionally engaged and affectively effective metafictionality. I likely first encountered that possibility in Warner Bros. cartoons and Hans Christian Andersen. But a lot of Updike passed under the bridge before I reached Delany's Dhalgren: a unique three-decker in which every tool of realistic fiction attempts to portray structuralism from within. It's like Zola as Fabulist, or Sergei Bondarchuk's seven-hour adaptation of an original story by Frank Tashlin. And about fifteen years later, Crowley's Engine Summer delivered a similarly visceral charge by embodying romantic loss in a closed roman.

Responses

Josh Lukin differs:

Honestly, I think the sweaty Barth is Gaiman. Dick is, I dunno, Philip Rieff with a Crawdaddy subscription? Tough one.

And I think Gaiman is Mary-and-Charles-Lamb-going-to-a-Police-concert, so go figure.

. . .

Ba-lue Mun-deii Ba-lues-Are : A Hug and a Kiss

Popular music was invented to corrupt God-, Stalin-, or Mao-fearing youth, and its guileful victories were legion: "jazz" and "rock'n'roll" themselves; vipers and kicking the gong and "Tea for Two"; "Sixty Minute Man", "Back Door Man", and "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman"; "YMCA" and "In the Navy" and "Wreck of the Old 97".

Today we mourn its saddest defeat: "Poon-Tang!" by The Treniers.

. . .

Ba-lue OX Ba-lues-are : A Hug and a Kiss

Over decades sex dreams wore a groove. I meet a woman informally, we converse, we attract, we caress and so forth to some varying extent and without much distinguishing the older and newer senses of making love. There's no chase, no transgression; I remember no signature prop or ritual or type beyond the unproblematic binary. Only a pleasant confusion of look, touch, talk, pheromones, and specificities.

X-treme vanilla, a view of Insipidity Peak. But as obdurate as any other perversion, and maybe a bit crueler than some.

Responses

Amanda Hugandkiss!

. . .

Suns of the sleepless! melancholy stars!

The visual may be applied as cold compress against verbal fever. I announced that discovery at age eight to my closest friend, the Navy wife with whom I used to debate the validity of UFOs and Edgar Cayce (I took con), like so: "I can concentrate myself to sleep!", by which I meant closely attending the phosphenes which stir and subside behind closed lids in a dark room.

Like most breakthroughs, it was actually a rediscovery one made that year by many of my elders, that it's easy to nod off while meditating just as thirteen years later in the yoga class I took for a phys-ed requirement I rediscovered the more disconcerting gusher of hallucinations which my teacher called "opening your third eye" and forty years later I rediscovered nodding off while watching TV after 9 PM.

I never found anything that could be applied as ice baths.

. . .

Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?

Obama's crack economic team never seriously considered breaking up too-big-to-fail financial institutions, or otherwise slowing redistribution of wealth to their gambling joints, because (I quote from memory) that would've interfered with the only truly successful business America still boasted. Which, besides being a fine adaptation of "What drinking problem? I have plenty to drink," made me seriously consider a recent statement of my own.

The delusions of a Tom Ripley, a David Brent, a [NAME REDACTED], or a [NAME REDACTED] sometimes seem dismayingly familiar to me and my neurotic loved ones. But our grasp of them loosens in a tinnitus of second thoughts; we coil and recoil, we drop them, or anyway we try to drop them. We aren't highly motivated goal-driven visionaries. Highsmith's good at showing the difference between throwing oneself in and being pushed: Therese Belivet isn't a sociopath; she's just in love. Clarence Duhamell isn't a sociopath; he just chose the wrong career.

In a way, then, it's true that success depends on desire: not success at a job, but in a career. You can only gain entry to a community of sociopaths by wanting it bad enough. Instilling that desire is what basic training and analyst training programs and graduate school and Bimbo's initiation and Philip Carter's incarceration are all about. And within that community theater, you face notoriously little chance of "failure" no matter how poorly we outside the ranks might judge your performance. Your performance is not directed at us.

Responses

Josh Lukin related to John Shade's mother? Yrs, Dr Chas Kinbote (per Shade, "author of a remarkable book on surnames")

I'm better with elective affinity than with genealogy, and so I'll just confirm that Lukin's essay (linked to above, somewhere, somehow) really is worth a call to your local pirate (arrh).

. . .

Calling All Chrononauts

The only possible justification for a "science fiction issue" of The New Yorker would be commissioning a new Jack Womack story, and until I hear confirmation I'm not even gonna open it.

Responses

And from the good people of March 8, 2013:

just discovered: not in the New Yorker, but...

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E. E. Cummings & M. C. Escher

Before college I learned the Mona Lisa was a masterpiece because her eyes followed you around the room; Escher's unphotographic virtues were even plainer. You could tell he was a great artist because you could see why a Polaroid wouldn't surpass him. Similarly, Cummings kept his anti-prosaic hooks surfaced, easily grasped by the intellect without reference to the tongue or the ear, to the feel of poetry. What cloyed in maturity wasn't his adolescent sentiment I never outgrew well-expressed adolescent sentiments but the appeal of judgment without expertise.

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Hocus focus

Although there are nonprofessional readers of great literature, no one writes literary criticism but professors of literature. No one reads it but other professors of literature. There are effectively no amateur producers or consumers of the product. [...] Although there are no amateur literary critics, there are nevertheless many nonprofessional readers of great literature who might actually look at good commentaries if they were written in understandable English.
- "The Politics of Obscurity: The Plain Style and Its Detractors",
Michael Scrivener & Louis Finkelman,
Philosophy and Literature 18.1 (1994)

Sadly, Professor Scrivener exercises his ministry beyond the gentiles' earshot. But what can one literary critic do against history?

* * *

Retreating to the realm of pure fantasy, let's pretend that I recently read the five-year-old last volume of John Crowley's Ægypt, and three days later unpacked a basemented box containing a ten-year-old issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction whose front page featured Sondra Ford Swift's "Pierce Moffett the Ass: Apuleian and Brunonian Themes in John Crowley's Dæmonomania."

And in this altered world Swift would most presciently describe the at-bottom centrality of the Ass who was to ground that last volume, and in her last paragraph pinpoint, faraway at the start of the series, the thrownaway sentence that presaged Pierce Moffett's comedic end as published one year after the end of Sondra Ford Swift herself. It would be that rare occurrence, unknown to (say) Gene Wolfe, a Challenge to the Reader fairly met to the credit of both parties.

This must be false memory, I know, and yet the clarity!

* * *

To return to that which is the case, I next encountered Magical Imaginations: Instrumental Aesthetics in the English Renaissance by Genevieve Guenther, a professor (or philosophical doctor at least) of literature.

Tossing Dame Frances Yates ass over teakettle, Guenther emphasizes the inseparability of occult and rhetorical influence in Elizabethan-Jacobean England. Yes, alchemy encouraged labware; yes, cosmological speculation encouraged astronomical observation. But propaganda, spectacle, sleight of hand, ritual, and pretty shiny things primarily affect the practitioners' and audience's minds.

On this we enlightened successors agree both with the period's magicians, philosophers, and poets, and with their persecutors. Where we might demur is at which secondary effects follow. Upon sensawunda is a "real demon" displayed or a "real storm" brewed or a "real soul" lost? For Guenther's churchmen and heretics, the sorcerer is deluded, yes, but he's deluded for the benefit of Satan or as a step toward Platonic verities; the sonnet is seductive, yes, but the ensuing love or damnation is sincere enough; if the miracle was goosed by human hands and human psychology, it merely proves that God chose human means.

At $65 for a padded and anticlimactic 145 pages, I won't be purchasing many gift copies of Magical Imaginations. But I recommend it to other readers with interest in Sidney's Defense, Spenser's allegory, Marlowe's Mephistopheles, Shakespeare's plots, James I's laws, John Dee and Giordano Bruno and so on.

For example, readers of, or like, John Crowley. If we peer at Crowley's sources along Guenther's sightline, then Ægypt's figure and ground flip. The novel becomes less about John Dee and Giordano Bruno and so on, and more about its own inception, more like Engine Summer's incarnation of Engine Summer's motive force.

Or, depending on one's circumstance, more like gruel of the already-known.

For me, as for Pierce Moffett, 1977 initiated a sometimes velvet and not quite bloodless psychic revolution. That leaves me more sympathetic towards his sins than a less besmirched reader might be. But it also leaves me unable to credit the speed and ease of his redemption.

Less idiosyncratically, I've lived the three decades since revolution's end. And contrary to Ægypt's claims for the quotidian, the history of the world did change; it is not was it was; some observers even claimed history ceased altogether. Not through the offstage superhippieheroics of Dæmonomania's catastrophe, of course, but through the chemycal operation of artful words upon the soul.

I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality judiciously, as you will we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

And if we consider the way-things-once-were in Guenther's telling, then the history of the world not only changed; it changed back. In the land of corporations and consumers, survey says: ignorance, please; superstition, fear, and shell games for all.

We wished for more wishes, and, a generation after golden dawn in America, our Endless Things reward us with Endless Summer and the prospect of Endless Vacation. Ægypt, finally, was not fantastic enough for belief.

. . .

An honest candidacy

Mitt Romney's every utterance was either lying or deluded. Yet in a sense he was the least deceitful presidential nominee of my lifetime: he truly represented his party's interests. No fake folksiness; no fake patriotism; no fake rage or compassion or erudition. Romney is a selfish, smug, willfully ignorant, well-maintained son of wealth who's devoted his life to pure consumption. He's the post-1980 equivalent of a fat guy in waistcoat, monocle, and top hat. For once, the captain played the figurehead and the face played the mask.

And so gullibility can't be what's the matter with Kansas (60%), Alabama (61%), Idaho (65%), Oklahoma (67%), or Wyoming (69%). At least fifty-seven million American voters genuinely admire plutocrats more than teachers, scholars, doctors, nurses, lawyers, or civil servants. They don't have to be tricked into abjection. They like it.

Responses

Josh Lukin:

Well, there's a possibility of liking abjection for the same reason Cocksucker likes it: one doesn't see any credible alternatives that are better. I mean, I don't personally believe that Rupert Murdoch is Hogg, but it's a coherent hypothesis.
Not so much genuinely admire more than, as despise and resent less

. . .

The Secondary Source Review : Two Correctives

Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences
by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young

Terrible title; slightly misleading subtitle. Jordan-Young isn't fool enough to take on the entire "science of sex differences" armed only with thoroughness and rigor. Instead she surveyed a single research topic the determination of stereotypically gendered behavior by prenatal hormones and that proved enough to fill thirteen years and three hundred pages.

Of course Jordan-Young's chosen slice and the broader headline-whoring community draw from a common store of techniques. For example, the grossly tendentious summary, whereby "All the children preferred to play with the truck, but truck-deprived children who picked up a doll were slightly more likely to be girls" becomes "Men are hard-wired to be mechanics and women are hard-wired to be nurturing." And the whatever looks good at the buffet approach to confirmation: a miscellany of self-evidently sexually linked characteristics is compared to the particular evidence at hand; positive correlations are reported, negatives discarded; and the winnowing vanishes behind the paper's title. Particulars may never be successfully replicated, but that's just nit-picking; the titular beast thrives on.

In a few respects, though, the hormonal shtick is instructively unique.

  1. Killjoys might blather all we like about purported "facts" like the cultural specificity of gender-keyed colors or the tendency of homosocial communities to consider womanizers effeminate, yeah yeah whatever that's not science! Where's our nonlinear regression?

    Stereotyping hormonalists have been churning out text for a century now, and the brain organization theory targeted by Jordan-Young was introduced in the year of my own chemically-imbalanced birth, 1959. That makes it by far the most venerable line of current research and therefore most firmly established but also most vulnerable to social change.

    When, for example, early researchers managed to correlate higher IQ scores to one set of subjects, they would describe that population as "more masculine." What was significant evidence for them would become insignificant noise to their successors, disadvantaged by the revelation that men in the general population didn't really test higher after all.

    And early research described women who weren't particularly interested in sex or sexual fantasies (involving men or anyone else) and never experienced orgasm as more feminine than freaky chicks who fucked around or masturbated. Whereas by the mid-1970s good girls and boys had other expectations, and asexuality began to count as less heterosexual/feminine/normal rather than more.

    But, as Jordan-Young shows, later paper-writers and popularizers would continue to cite these earlier papers as if they were supportive rather than contradictory. Pluralism had infected SCIENCE ITSELF!!1!

  2. Still, a lot of studies report some significant differences in prenatal-hormonally-divided populations. Crediting the integrity (within limits) and validity (within limits) of those studies, is there any way a single biological factor might genuinely sway social behavior in one direction at one time, yet in another direction at another time?

    Well, if the biological factor attracted unusual attention to a child's sex, and if extraordinary attention influences behavior, then one might expect some deviation from expected sexual norms even while expectations change. What do I mean by "extraordinary attention"? Consider:

    The vast majority of women and girls with classic CAH, even in fairly recent studies, have had clitoral surgeries [and] have either impaired clitoral sensation or no sensation at all.... for most women with CAH, vaginal penetration is painful.... In a very large study that is now more than twenty years old, Mulaikal and colleagues found that the sexual orientation and activity women reported was more closely related to their vaginal condition than to the degree of prenatal androgen.... Medical visits every three or four months are often considered necessary to monitor children's hormone levels as well as their response to treatment. As Karkazis documents, girls with CAH, as well as their parents, often experience the genital scrutiny as "intrusive and dehumanizing."

This feels like a nice solid piece of work which (as you probably already realize) did not achieve New York Times Number One Best Sellerdom or win blurbs from our leading bullshit artists. Was Jordan-Young's analysis fatally flawed? Probably not; the most negative critique I've found goes "We wish she'd written about more flattering things and oh hey look over there at that other book, man, that's a bad book, in conclusion why do these women write such bad books?"

No, most likely the fate of Brain Storm was determined from its very conception, and by that I don't just mean the terrible title:

A long time ago I was asked to analyze a sex survey conducted by a popular magazine, and the editor was especially interested in comparing the interests and behavior of men and women.... When he finally said to me, "People don't buy this magazine to learn something, they like to confirm what they already know" I knew it was time to withdraw from the project.

* * *

Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century
by Cristanne Miller

A densely researched, rationally argued, and slightly miscellaneous contextualizing of Dickinson's techniques, subject matters, and career path by a writer with clear mind-mouth-ears-&-throat, access to large libraries, plenty of patience, and a healthily congenial attitude towards those she disagrees with. If she somehow neglects to cite this seminal-in-my-dreams Valve effusion, well, I confess to having missed some of her prior art as well.

Responses

Peli points out:
Cordellia Fine's 'Delusions of Gender' came out at almost the exact same time and got a lot of buzz/praise, and is a very good book.

Yeah, but it looked (and looks) a bit poppy for my taste more what I like to write than what I like to read. Pretty much on that basis it's the whipping-book of the "negative critique" I linked to; their complaint about Jordan-Young, on the other hand, is that she didn't shift her focus from claims about human sexual orientation and stereotyped social behavior to less embarrassing and more useful research that she wanted to write this volume rather than some other.

. . .

The Limits of English Department Memory

The Limits of Literary Historicism
ed. Allen Dunn

Global search-and-replace is here applied to an old anti-Theory polemic, or possibly an even older anti-New-Criticism polemic. How many more generations of this cycle are needed before combatants recognize an institutional issue?

And when will the Yankees and Red Sox realize they could avoid a lot of bother by staying home and reading a book?

. . .

Overcome with mosse and balefull misselto

Early this morning before I woke up, someone told me Henry Wallace once broke off an extended kiss by saying "That's enough; people are starving out there."

Responses

Mistletoe and Moss Holiday Market

. . .

The Critic as Pornographer

This much is clear: for the Romantics, criticism is far less the judgment of a work than the method of its consummation.
- Walter Benjamin, "The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism"

Like Wilde's "The Critic as Artist," much too flattering.

Critics merely describe a consummation and hope the description will incite readers to some brand of mimicry.

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .