Saturday, December 13, 2008

Google by numbers

I've noticed an interesting trend lately, whereby a writer makes an expository point by way of an offhand reference to the sheer numeric quantities of a Google search.

For instance: Patricia Marx, in a recent article on sale shopping in the poor economy, notes: "If you type 'discount' and 'New York' into Google, you will be presented with 57,944 local business results."

Second case: In the Modern Language Association's 2008 issue of Profession, Geoffrey Galt Harpham, in a provocative article about teaching Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to American soldiers, observes: "Modernity generates hearts of darkness with an efficiency, and on a scale, that could only be called modern. Google 'Heart of Darkness' and 'Joseph Conrad' and you get fewer than 400,000 entries; leave off Conrad so that you are looking not for a text but a concept, and you get nearly 2,000,000" (75).

I, too, have resorted to a Google search in my writing. In a piece I am currently working on concerning Wallace Stevens's widely anthologized poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," I have been interested in the digital image saturation of blackbird citing in Google Images (1,120,000 hits) compared with Stevens's enigmatic yet economically sparse allusions to this form of avian imagery.

The truth, however, is that practically every Google search yields impressive results in terms of pure 'hits'. What do we learn from Google by numbers? Through Google do we glimpse the sublime aura of the Information Age? Or, seen differently, might Google always be reasserting the inescapability of finitude, even if it lies at the end of a million web pages?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Two TV Shows, Two Notes

A recent New Yorker review of two television shows ("Science Projects") raises two points worth lingering on. This post is perhaps a little strange because I have nothing to say about the actual shows in question, "Fringe" and "The Mentalist." Yet I would like to insist that the blog post is an effective venue for spurs, for the tangential literary critical points that can shoot off a main subject—points that therefore often go undiscussed.

Concerning "Fringe," Kalefa Sanneh describes the "mad scientist" of the show as such: "He is a godless mystic, convinced that every freak phenomenon has a materialist explanation, that there are no coincidences." This sentence is perplexing on several accounts. A "godless mystic" is fairly coherent; we might understand this character as a secular believer in the powers of palpable 'spirit' or traceable energy fields. In a word, this person might be a Hegel of the present moment. But "every freak phenomenon has a materialist explanation"—does Sanneh mean material explanation? Materialism would not exactly leave much room for mysticism; to see the world in terms of material processes would be to suspend the leap to mystical perception—rather, any materialist wonder would be grounded in the realm of the physical (finite but unbounded, as we understand the surface of a sphere). Furthermore, materialism certainly allows for coincidences. The world is wide; two things can coincide without necessarily being causally connected. Thus, I don't see how the godless mystic's materialism refuses coincidental phenomena. The freak in this sentence is the referential vacuity by which the "mad scientist" is (un)known.

Second note: In Sanneh's discussion of "The Mentalist," one of the main characters is defined in terms of her brusque castigations: "At the Palm Springs airport, she learns that a colleague needs to stop by the baggage carrousel, and she is not amused: “You checked luggage? What are you, on vacation?”" This scene description intrigues me for its reliance on what I elsewhere call "the poetics of no-man's land," or the ambiance of the airport baggage claim that becomes a spatial cipher for distinct personae, allowing travelers a reading of their fates in piles of bags. The baggage claim consolidates a number of social tropes, all situated in the indefinite time of waiting for one's belongings, which, as we know, may not arrive in the present moment. (The dialectic of the traveler and baggage handler is far more elliptical than that of Hegel's Master and Slave.) Here, the iconic and aloof vacationer is dropped out-of-context into what Sanneh calls a "quasi-scientific investigative drama." How does the airport come to function as a fortune teller? Recall the opening credit scenes of Mike Nichols's The Graduate: the entire film is anticipated in LAX by a mystical cut from Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock to the baggage carousel. Some coincidences are understood to be plainly material and proleptically visionary, at once.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mitt Romney and Automobility

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times Mitt Romney argues that the only way for the U.S. automotive industry to succeed is to “let Detroit go Bankrupt.” At one point, Romney quips, “I love cars, American cars.” This facile claim strikes me as both sympathetically banal as well as a blunt expression of exactly what Karl Marx would have described as the “fetishism” of commodities: as if cars have their own social life, as if cars care whether or not Mitt Romney “loves” them. It is noteworthy that Romney does not say that he loves the people who design or build cars; he loves the cars themselves. (This is mindful of John McCain’s remark in the final Presidential debate to the effect of “Americans are the best workers in the world!” The people known as “Americans” are, in this schema, recognizable by their labor before their humanity or other characteristics—work takes on a special quality, somehow constitutive in its own right.)

Romney’s declaration of auto-mobile-love also completely ignores a much more critical reality: cars are simply not a sustainable means (neither sociologically nor ecologically) for humans to transport themselves around this planet. Certainly, I understand that humans are very attached to cars in current practices of everyday life—and I also accept that many people do have the capacity to love the cars in which they spend countless hours commuting, running errands, or joy riding. However, we have to become aware of the reality that “automobility”—a term that means both self-directed mobility as well as dependence on external technologies for motion—is a phenomenon that is dated, and likely nearing its end. Cars cut up the world in ways that delimit perspective and cultivate solipsism, even while they seem to promise precisely the opposite. (Nabokov captures this brilliantly in his masterpiece Lolita.) Automobility, or “the entire gamut of practices that foster car culture,” relies on a host of twentieth-century conditions that are now exhausted and outdated. We need to get over the fetishism of cars and work to rigorously imagine new possibilities for how humans might inhabit and move around the planet. I am not sure what these new possibilities for mobility might be—indeed, they reside in the Derridean realm of a “future-to-come.” Yet this need not be a utopia; it might simply be a more consciously—and conscientiously—integrated network of transportation routes and rituals. The opening to this future exists. But humans have to be open to this possible future. Loving cars is not an open sentiment, as much as it may be deployed as such.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Annie Proulx's "The Hellhole": A New Media Approach

In thinking about how to teach fiction through an integrated new media approach, I wish to explore a theory for "digital mapping." I am using the term "digital mapping" in a geographic sense as well as in a more metaphoric, networked sense.

Annie Proulx's story "The Hellhole" (from her collection Bad Dirt, 2004) considers rugged landscape as both a fictive and a geologic terrain. In the spirit of Hawthorne, Proulx concocts a magically dark tale about the metaphysical niceties of public space and the everyday ethics of hunting. The main character is Creel Zmundzinski, a Fish and Game warden in Elk Tooth, Wyoming. Creel discovers a certain thermal feature near a turnout that will swallow poachers whole, if he catches them in the act of brutal animal slaughter and then leads them to the sinkhole. But when this morally charged topography becomes overused, its secret is unknowingly paved over by the Forest Service.

Where is this mythical space, and how might it align with a real place? Google Maps to the rescue. There appears to be no actual town called "Elk Tooth"— however, the corresponding Google search culls hits for several websites where one can purchase "elk ivory jewelry." As one site informs its readers/consumers: "The Jensen Family's strong belief in western values led us to exclusively offer our Elk Ivory Jewelry. Elk teeth may appear to be teeth, but are actually the remains of prehistoric tusk, which is ivory." Two Google clicks from the fictitious Elk Tooth, and one finds oneself in an ambiguous (yet real) thicket of rhetoric concerning "western values," prehistory, and the commodification of animal parts in a global (and virtual) marketplace. It is worth noting that in Proulx's story, Creel's drinking buddy and Forest Service pal is named "Plato Bucklew." How did we get from Plato's cave to Elk Tooth, Wyoming? Western values, indeed.

This is one mere path across the digitally mappable contours of Proulx's story "The Hellhole." One can imagine an entire class structured around small group work in which students map the narrative using online materials and then present their findings in multimedia essays at the end of class. For instance, one group of students might explore the ecology of Wyoming's thermal features and provide images to supplement the textual descriptions of a steaming, burbling earth. This online activity, though, should not be thought of as an end in and of itself, but always as a way to analyze how associative links are made in prose and on the internet, and where these two medial networks intersect, overlap, clash, or diverge entirely. What makes a story a text? What can a text make of the internet?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Metalepsis and the cultural logic of spies

"Faith in spies is mystical, fuelled by fantasy and halfway to religion. They're a protected species in our national psychology." —John Le Carré, "The Madness of Spies"

In this post I discuss the rhetorical term 'metalepsis' as it appears in William Gibson's recent novel Spook Country. Early in the narrative when one of the characters finishes a call on a cell phone, "She...clamshelled her phone" (4). Richard Lanham defines metalepsis as a "Present effect attributed to a remote cause," and also paraphrases Quintilian by describing metalepsis "the transition from one trope to another...a kind of compressed chain of metaphorical reasoning" (Handbook of Rhetorical Terms, 99). This word "clamshelled" functions as a metalepsis: the metonymic action of closing a flip-phone (an action standing in for the object) is described by way of not only a clam (which would be an outright metaphor), but specifically by way of the hinging of a clam's shell as it opens or closes. So an active part of the creature is used to describe the shape of the phone; it is a metonymy within a metonymy, the image of an organic action lodged within a technological object's hinge function.

An interesting pairing in an introductory literature course would be to read Gibson's novel juxtaposed with a screening of the Coen brothers' latest film, Burn After Reading. Like Gibson's novel, in this film the intrigue of spying pales in comparison to the everyday personal adventures offered up by Home Depot, "Hard Bodies" workout centers, and iPods. The literature class might trace how metalepsis functions as a logic of informational coding in the spy narrative: where metalepsis occurs, the form becomes the content and the reader becomes the spook. But as Gibson and the Coen brothers both wonder, what happens when the code does not conceal a national secret? What would it mean to make a metalepsis of nothing?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

From Bourdin and Nietzsche to the genre of aphorisms

My letter to The New Yorker was published in the September 15, 2008 issue. It is in reference to a fascinating article by David Grann on Frédéric Bourdin, the French con-man who pretends to be various children. In this letter I juxtapose Bourdin's evocation of Nietzsche's well-known aphorism about fighting monsters with another of Nietzsche's aphorisms on what maturity consists of: becoming seriously childlike, again. The fine point of this query sharpens depending on the amount of irony that one detects in Nietzsche. The most effective aphorisms involve ironic slippage; in this case, it is not clear whether maturity is something to be 'achieved' in an proactive sense, or whether it is no more (and no less) than a misperceived ascent that is, in fact, more of an inescapable return.

As I mentioned a few months ago, I would like to design a literature course on the aphorism: how this old form becomes all the more poignant—or elusive, I'm not sure—in the concentrated text-spaces of online reading. I can imagine a syllabus based around Heraclitus, William Blake, Nietzsche, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, and Lydia Davis—just to name a few of the writers who experiment in this form. We might trace a line from pre-Socratic philosophy to Modernist poetry, if only to find ourselves in postmodern currents of fiction that flow like a Heraclitean river, only different. It occurs to me, too, that successful 'letters to the editor' occasionally read like aphorisms; this could be a strategy, then, for teaching a certain kind of "professional writing," as well.

(I was going to change the title of this post to "...the genre of the aphorism"—but then I wondered: is there something about aphorisms that spurs multiplicities? This could be part of the critical import of aphorisms: that they demand contexts of multiple readings and pluralities of meaning. Out of condensed space, aphorisms generate more thinking and writing. This reminds me of Barthes's theory of the Text as compared to the Work. This could be a line of analysis in a course on aphorisms.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Virtual problems

Sue Halpern’s article on “Virtual Iraq” (May 19, 2008) provided a curious look at how new media forms are being employed for P.T.S.D. therapy. One wonders, though, about the political implications of technologies that translate the real violence of warfare into an abstracted “game” of sorts. It is obviously important to help veterans with P.T.S.D. recover from their experiences and to be able to cope with everyday life; yet what happens, in the long term, when the wounds of war can be so effectively and efficiently treated by immersion in a virtual realm? It sounds eerily like a rationale for the continuation of an unwinnable war. Rather than address the root causes of today’s combat-inflicted P.T.S.D.—namely, chaotic battle conditions in which “civilians” and “insurgents” are easily mistaken, and there is no clear sense of what a “mission accomplished” would ever look like—Virtual Iraq threatens to normalize (and even trivialize) the consequences of a terribly chosen war. In short, Virtual Reality therapy does not simply make reality easier to bear; it also makes certain realities—such as preemptive war and excessive oil consumption—merely virtual problems.

The limits of the spectacle

Anthony Lane, in his June 25, 2007 review of “A Mighty Heart,” writes “Only once does Mariane [Pearl] crack. Informed of her husband’s death and of its savage circumstances, she goes to her room, crouches over, and keens.” This is a significant misreading of that moment in the film. In fact, Angelina Jolie’s Mariane screams over her husband’s death before she learns the specifics of his execution. Afterward, when Mariane is told about the video of the beheading, she simply insists that she never wants to see it. This sequencing is key to the film, which, in its own vexed way, critiques spectacular uses of violence in a global-technological age: the fact that killings, missile strikes, and torture can be recorded and screened does not make their realities any easier to navigate. The paradox emerges at the point where we are supposed to feel, through Jolie’s cinematic performance of Mariane, that the felt consequences of violence are always beyond the limits of the spectacle.

Stay sharp, Obama!

In Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile on Barack Obama (“The Conciliator” May 7, 2007), the presidential candidate is reported as saying: “There are universal values I will fight for. I think there may have been a time and a place in which genital mutilation was culturally appropriate, but those times are over. I’m not somebody who believes that our foreign policy has to be driven by moral relativism. What I do believe is that we have to apply judgment and a sense of proportion to how change happens in any society—to promote our ideals and our values with some sense of humility.” These sentences undermine one another in troubling ways. First, “universal values” would necessarily travel across time and space; that’s what would make them universal. To accept genital mutilation as a historical and cultural phenomenon, then, would be to critique the very logic of “universal values.” “Moral relativism” has become a cliché often deployed by the right to lambast precisely the “humility” which Obama later advocates. The problem here is that even though moral relativism is a fraught term itself (morality and relativity are two utterly distinct ways of understanding the world), Obama essentially accepts this contradictory stance in the previous two sentences: he claims to support universal values, but also concedes that time and place make such values culturally acceptable—or not. While I deeply respect and agree with Obama’s pleas for “humility,” “proportion,” and an understanding of societal “change,” I am nervous that his invocations of “universal values,” “ideals,” “judgment,” and the scarecrow of “moral relativism” threaten to compromise his status of a fresh political persona; this language sounds eerily similar to the confused, lofty, and inapplicable rhetoric that we have become all too familiar with over the past eight years.

On language and the philosophy of mind

I was struck by the way that Larissa MacFarquhar finesses a delicate strategy in her piece on Pat and Paul Churchland (“Two Heads” Feb. 12, 2007). Her article thoroughly explains how these two philosophers of mind are working to complicate (and ultimately do away with) the linkages between language and thought; in other words, MacFarquhar effectively uses language to describe how we might begin to imagine a world without language. The Churchlands’ wish to get beyond language is rather puzzling, especially given their own adoption of more sophisticated and nuanced language in their day-to-day lives. Collaborative writing practices also seem to reflect the sort of brain-sharing that interests the Churchlands: one often reads accounts of collaboration in which co-authors finish each other’s sentences or anticipate one another’s thoughts. For that matter, aren’t all serious engagements with what we call ‘literature’ instances of ‘brain joining’, however mediated or incomplete? In fact, isn’t this precisely the reason why The New Yorker devotes impressive (and, frankly, expensive) amounts of empty space to the margins of its poetry selections? These spaces make room for readers to enact a brush against another brain, to inhabit the perceptual processes of another human. One can accept language as a “minor phenomenon,” and yet still spend a lifetime expanding one’s mind with words.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Green Values

Elizabeth Kolbert’s article on Amory Lovins (“Mr. Green” Jan. 22, 2007) exposes a vexing problem at the core of contemporary environmentalism. Lovins offers example after example of ecologically savvy solutions, by shrewdly linking energy conservation with the charms of free-market economics. Then, towards the end of the article, Lovins unconvincingly invokes the phrases ‘moral’, ‘spiritual’, and ‘higher purpose’ in order to explain why people will not simply consume more resources once energy can be produced and consumed more efficiently: “Every faith tradition that I know decries materialism.” Lovins then quotes the first two lines of Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard”: “After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends.” Importantly, though, Stevens is playing off of Nietzsche’s insistence that the ‘no’s of the world are precisely spiritual and theological in nature: so-called ‘higher purpose’ is often an excuse for not taking lower, earthly matters more seriously. Thus, to be truly environmental, humans must say ‘yes’ to the material world—in all its complexity—before enduring positive changes can be enacted. Kolbert’s article shows that as long as environmentalists defer to metaphysical justifications for human behavior, true ecological awareness will be endlessly deferred.

Post-secularism in the flesh

Rebecca Mead’s astute review “Proud Flesh” (Nov. 13, 2006) raises complex philosophical questions related to this contemporary medical niche. Cosmetic surgery indeed serves quasi-religious functions, but it seems not so concerned with “the notion of human perfectibility” as much as with the idea of infinite deferral: there will always be another possible surgery, a next procedure to undergo. In this way, the cult of cosmetic surgery is a decisively post-secular phenomenon. The cultural trend appears to rely on faith, and yet there is no transcendent object of worship; even the physical body, as Mead aptly notes, is emptied of any final value. What one desires is an experience of endless permutation—never any calculable progress. If we translate this attitude over to the political realm, we can begin to comprehend the comportment of individuals who call for revolutionary change, but, to echo St. Augustine, “not just yet!”

Self-help without the self

Nick Paumgarten’s fascinating article on Robert Greene (“Fresh Prince” Nov. 11, 2006) seems to forward an implicit critique of the self-help craze. What one gains in power, money, success, and fame is often at the expense of one’s actual ‘self’. Thus Greene’s persona slips in and out of focus throughout the article, never fully materializing as a human being to whom readers might in fact relate. Who is Robert Greene? For some, he is a mystic scribe; for others, a savvy business consultant; for others still, he is nothing less than a god. This brings to mind Marx’s observation in Capital: “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Capital, Vol. One, Sect. 4). Robert Greene is first and foremost a commodity: he is consumed in an already intact web of social relations and abstracted value. There are no ‘selves’ to help here; the consistent face of capital does not require personality.

String Theory: Postmodern, or Romantic?

Jim Holt’s compelling article on string theory (Oct. 2, 2006) turns on a complicated question: “Is physics, then, going postmodern?” Holt follows up this query by invoking John Keats’s 1819 poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” which ends with the tautological puzzle, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Importantly, though, Keats was not a “postmodern” poet; he was a Romantic. Strictly speaking, postmodernism has very little serious interest in considerations of objective beauty or unification. One wonders if Holt is in fact trying to suggest that physics, via string theory, is going Romantic in its expansively enumerated attempts to articulate a final, unifying theory. If so, Holt might have illuminated the current state of string theory with the words of another Romantic poet, Byron: “What is the end of fame? ‘t is but to fill / A certain portion of uncertain paper” (Don Juan: Canto the First, lines 1736-1737).

Letters to the Editor

One of the practical ways that I use literature is to inflect my weekly perusal of The New Yorker. I receive a subscription of The New Yorker every year as a gift, and in this magazine I often find articles that I use in the classroom. Sometimes, I write letters to the editor. Since most of them have not been published, I have decided to 'publish' them here, in the virtual pages of my "What is literature?" blog. Following this post, then, I will occasionally post my letters to the editor of The New Yorker, each of which takes its cue from a literary theoretical point of interest. Literature both appears in the non-literary, and can be used to respond to and complicate the non-literary. Literature, in other words, is an ornament and a tool for disassembling ornamentation.

The reason that I am 'publishing' my own letters here is that as a humanities scholar and instructor, there is simply so much writing that one does that goes unread. One of the reasons that I experimented with a paperless writing class facilitated through blogs was to give more of my intellectual labor more of a public audience—my comments to individual students were always available to all students (not to mention public readers), thus expanding the number of potential readers of my critical writing. Then there is the peer review process, which takes a long time for turn around, and sometimes this does not even result in comments or feedback. It seems to me that blogs can be used to make our intellectual labor more public—particularly the work that will almost certainly go unread, otherwise. These letters to the editor took time, and were written according to certain genre conventions that are both nuanced and tacit. Furthermore, these letters reflect trajectories of thought that are not necessarily apparent in my more formal academic prose.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

questions of literature on pause

I have not been updating "What is Literature?", as I am currently concentrating on my blog in support of the experimental advanced composition course I am teaching at UC Davis this summer; I call this project "Paperless Writing." I plan to return to questions of literature later this fall.

If, however, I were going to compose a post for this blog, I would write about William Gibson's latest novel Spook Country, and I would ask questions about the narrativization of the present moment as science fiction. What literary tropes does this type of writing require? When do other perspectives cease to be necessary to be imagined, because they can be imaged in 'real time'? How can personal technologies comprise urban-romantic landscapes?

Friday, June 6, 2008

The 9/11 Digital Image Essay

How many words does it take to make a persuasive argument? What if images were used not just to supplement but to forward and develop an 'essay' in which words did not have obvious priority? I imagine a blog posting assignment that would require students to make an argument out of culled images (from Google images, camera phones, digital cameras, etc.), followed by a very deemphasized amount of written explication. For example:

Two of these photos are of Dennis Oppenheim's art installation "Flying Gardens" (2004) at the Sacramento airport, two photos are from 11 September 2001, and two are of a collapsed section of Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris (23 May 2004). In each of these pairs, one photo was taken from a personal camera phone. My argument is that post-9/11 airport aesthetics—ranging from visual art to camera-phone photojournalism—reference the images produced by the spectacle of 9/11.

This aesthetic trend comes through literature, as well. Don DeLillo’s 2007 novel Falling Man imagines the videotaped specter of a 9/11 hijacker-in-training. Hammad, the terrorist-to-be, dwells on his own spectacular exposure two times: “He watched TV in a bar near the flight school and liked to imagine himself appearing on the screen, a videotaped figure walking through the gate-like detector on his way to the plane” (173). And a few pages later: “When he walks down the bright aisle [of a supermarket] he thinks a thousand times in one second about what is coming. Clean-shaven, on videotape, passing through the metal detector” (177-178). This literary scene alludes to the widely disseminated photo of Mohammad Atta clearing airport security in Portland, Maine:

There are ties between the ways that airports and terrorism are rendered aesthetic through contemporary visual media.

Works Cited
DeLillo, Don. Falling Man. New York: Scribner, 2007.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Posts instead of papers

When I consider using blogs to teaching literature/writing, I am not simply talking about transposing the forms (and formalities) of syllabi, essays, rubrics, etc. onto an electronic medium. No, I am talking about rethinking what it means to write—what it means to describe, explain, cite, argue, and allude in writing. New questions would drive such an experiment: Has intertextuality been trumped by hypertextuality? How can image montages (which fit into blog spaces nicely) make arguments? How can shorter pieces of writing (e.g., the 'post') be as (or more) effective than the traditional essay?

And I am not gazing wide-eyed into this abyss. Part of me wants to teach classes in which students hand write everything, in-class style. It seems like writing on the spot is more and more difficult as we come to know writing as something that is A) private and personal—like me sitting here in the early morning, alone and quiet at my very personalized computer, and B) entirely connected with what we still call a 'web' of information networks. To have students sit and write spontaneously in class (formal, graded prose) disorients both of these standards. So I still find myself attracted to an older (or simply slower, more public) model of composition.

But then I think: perhaps these two impulses could be merged. What if students wrote in-class essays (short ones), and then had to post them on their blogs, complete with at least four hyperlinks per post? This might attain both aims at once.

One more thought I had was that blogs depend on regular (and frequent) upkeep. Blogs lose their dynamism if new posts are not continually appearing. Thus if used in class, students should be required to compose a new post at least four times a week. Also, how does one encourage intelligent, focused commentary—but not too much? (Comments can run rampant and become the worst kind of 'postmodern' textuality.)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

On revisions and archives

I'm in my office right now trying to revise a piece of writing. I have revised this particular essay at least 30 times; its scope has significantly changed, and parts of the earlier drafts are completely gone. Blogs are funny because you don't ever really revise your postings, or at least it's not what the logic of archiving advocates. The blog archives itself, and promotes new postings rather than revisions of old postings. On the other hand, with essays or stories or poems it's all we do: revise and revise and revise until the textual object is 'done'—but it's always a 'done' in scare-quotes. We know that we could never really truly be DONE. Blogs are dated, and thus literally done when the date changes. This seems to be almost an epiphany, like the end of James Joyce's "Araby": Gazing into the blog I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my postings burned with anguish and archive fever.

(Curiously, I have returned to this posting and edited it a little; I also revised "Moving Rocks" days after it was initially posted.)

Saturday, May 31, 2008

From literature to collaboration and beyond

How can literature be taught as a collaborative subject? I mean this question in several ways:
1. How can students and instructors collaborate in the literature classroom? (For instance, collaborative in-class writing assignments.)
2. How can students and instructors become self-aware of collaborative learning already happening around the subject literature? (E.g., a chalkboard full of words, diagrams, and sketches contributed by students and instructor alike over the course of a single class.)
3. What literary texts explicitly foreground collaboration—either as writing process, subject of study, or compositional style?
4. How might collaborative essays achieve unique aims around the subject of literature? What new forms of knowledge can come from collaborating around literature?

These are very general questions, prompted in part by my reading of Roland Barthes's "The Death of the Author" and Michel Foucault's "What is an Author?" in a graduate seminar I took at Montana State University taught by Professor Linda Karell on collaboration and authorship. I am now wondering whether it might be effective to dispel myths of the singular Author in an introductory literature course. This Author would be at once the literary genius, the student, and the literature professor. What would a literature class with no Authors look like? Maybe I should experiment on this blog; what would a blog posting without Authorship look like? I am capitalizing the "A" in author to signal the monolithic urge around authorial intention—as if human beings are ever so singularly minded. Wallace Stevens said it interestingly: "I was of three minds, / Like a tree / In which there are three blackbirds."

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Wikipedia assignment

Final two-part writing assignment for an early-21st-century introductory literature class:

A couple weeks before the end of the term, each student chooses one text that they have read for the class, and posts it as a Wikipedia article. A complete entry would include the name of the author, historical context, a brief summary of the text's content, and a detailed description the text's form. A useful entry would also link internally to other Wikipedia articles, as well as cite external websites that support the claims made in the article.

Then, have students watch and write about how their Wikipedia entry is flagged, edited, shortened, lengthened, or altogether deleted. This assignment would teach students about the challenges of writing about literature in an age of new media, where text is ephemeral yet charged, and citations are at once necessary, all too plentiful, and infinitely digressive.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On aphorisms and arguments

The foundation of many literature courses is the argument. We are supposed to teach students how to construct arguments about texts. In this posting, I argue that aphorisms can leap over while fulfilling the aims of argumentative prose.

How might one compose an aphorism about Flannery O'Connor's story "A Good Man is Hard to Find"? Here is my attempt, including a quotation:

"'We've had an ACCIDENT!' the children screamed in a frenzy of delight." The American road trip reveals a cultural landscape in which revolutions are rendered mundane.

Could such an assignment converge with close reading, analysis, and explication? For Nietzsche, aphorisms were part of a careful system of philosophical rumination. Could meta-literary aphorisms be taught as a replacement for essays? There is certainly a discursive demand for aphorisms, for they must never (re)present the last word, but rather should always remain open to elaboration, description, and conversation. Can aphorisms precede a working knowledge of the structure of argumentative logic? I am not sure, but I am interested in this question.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

An Artist Who Likes Theory

Video artist Paul Chan says: "Part of the pleasure of reading Derrida is precisely that I do not have to understand him. Comprehension is not the game. I don't care what he thinks he's saying—I want to read word for word, and pay attention so much that I begin to hallucinate. Which I think is a very reckless way of reading, but for me a productive one."
("Shadow Player: The Provocations of Paul Chan," by Cavlin Tomkins, The New Yorker May 26, 2008, 40-45.)

I think that this is close to my method of teaching literature. I advocate such a "reckless way of reading" in class; I also urge my students to explain their 'hallucinations' precisely and clearly. (Indeed, that's what they are graded on: written clarity.) Yet I wonder: how is this method "productive"? What is produced? Chan calls it "articulate speechlessness." I am not sure where the literature class stands in relation to art and (mystic) philosophy.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Moving Rocks

Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.

—Gary Snyder, "Riprap"

These lines are from a classic Gary Snyder poem that I thought of as I was making a rock pathway today outside the cottage I rent in Davis. Some of Snyder's more recent works are really effective for teaching basic poetics in introductory literature classes. For example, "Day's Driving Done" (from his 2004 collection Danger on Peaks) is a simple ten-line poem about floating in a motel pool at the end of a long day of driving, and listening to the highway sounds. Many college students can relate to the content (if they can't relate immediately, at UC Davis you can always walk out of the classroom building and hear the white noise of Highway 80). The form of the poem plays with space and acoustics in very teachable ways. Sonic tricks such as alliteration, consonance, onomatopoeia, assonance, and internal rhymes are just a few of the devices used in this poem. Line breaks and irregular internal line spacing call attention to specific sounds and silences. I have spent easily over an hour on this one poem in a single class, and the students seem to genuinely enjoy it--and learn from it. Teaching this poem is a good way to practice slow reading.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

"I have nothing to say about this world."

The latest story by Yiyun Li, published in The New Yorker a few weeks ago, introduces literature in a timely manner. Fashion magazines, philosophy, online chatting, and painting are all drawn into an interpenetrating skein of media, yet all under the methodical structure of straightforward narrative. It would be interesting to teach this story by way of the various media forms that orbit around -- and at times intersect -- the interior world of the main character, Teacher Fei. One can imagine an assignment that might ask students to consider how this 'story' manages different forms of media. In the story, which media forms does narrative defer to? What media forms strive to mimic or tap into narrative? How does narrative allow for medial blindspots? Such questions might nudge students toward thinking about literature in the context of new media.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

on the possibility of literature blogs

In a discussion on teaching "Introduction to Literature" courses at UC Davis, two colleagues and I speculated about the possibility of using blogs for the entire writing content of the course. Could this be done? Here is how it might look: Each student must create a blog, and the first posting (or 'writing assignment') would be to reflect on the choices one makes when setting up a blog. How does literature warrant certain aesthetics? (This could be discussed in relation to the form of literature anthologies, with all their humanistic overtures and inter-textual over-determinations.) From this point on, students would be required to compose a blog posting each day in response to the texts read for class. Assignments might include: responding to a classmate's blog posting; an entry that only cites other online literature essays (for example, a thesis hunt); a revision of another student's posting; a posting that uses literary terms to describe or comment on a movie; a meta-critique of the process of blogging on literature. This would be a fresh approach to the work of teaching literature in the age of digital reproduction.