Monday, December 28, 2009

Taxiway Views

A little story of mine was in The New York Times last week: "A Night Spent on the Tarmac, With No Complaints." It made an especially nice coincidental pairing with another topic of the moment:

As if on cue, the past few days have offered a series of drab taxiway views that reflect a lingering preoccupation with the bleak drama of air travel, something people seem to crave and yet find revolting at the same time:

Dec. 25, 2009

Dec. 27, 2009

The philosopher Martin Heidegger once described the concept of "standing reserve" by evoking the image of an airliner waiting on the taxiway for takeoff. I wonder if airliners still hold such promise in terms of being able to illustrate philosophical ideas.

The recent headlines in the news and their accompanying taxiway views have led me to imagine a class I would like to teach on the discourse and imagery of the postmodern airliner. Don DeLillo's White Noise would offer an apt point of entry: in one section of the novel, DeLillo writes about a group of passengers who have just barely survived a plane crash. The survivors mill around the airport, unable to quite leave, opting instead to hear their story of near death recounted aloud by one of the haggard passengers. DeLillo writes, “They were not yet ready to disperse, to reinhabit their earthbound bodies, but wanted to linger with their terror, keep it separate and intact for just a while longer...” (91). For DeLillo, the near fatal plane crash throws bare life into stark relief, and yet it is also an experience doomed to be subsumed in a precession of simulacra.

Likewise, the current frenzy around near air disasters seems to reflect an attempt to grasp—only to lose touch with—what admittedly is a difficult subject: namely singular mortality, and all the physical risks and contingencies involved therein. In the monotonous taxiway views and in headlines such as "A ‘Nonserious’ Incident on Same Flight to Detroit," there is a tone of desperation, as if we are trying so hard to locate meaning in a subject that is rapidly losing distinction, its horizons gone gray.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Strange Plane Events

My colleague Mark Yakich and I have posted several excerpts from our current book project on flight. The book is a collaborative travel memoir of sorts that moves between two narratives: Mark's fear of flying, and my experiences working at an airport and becoming obsessed with the oddities of air travel. Our aim is to have this published as a true airport book: compact and easy to read while on the taxiway before takeoff, while in a holding pattern waiting for clearance to land, or while sitting at the gate during an indefinite delay. The idea is that the book can be read in little segments, a story here and a story there, at random—or taken together as a narrative whole, and read more like a novel. The rationale for the material object of the book is for all the times of travel (at an airport, waiting; or on an airplane when lower-tech forms of reading are demanded) when it is preferable to have some 'light reading' ready at hand. So, of course, we envision the book available at airport bookstores.

There was a New Yorker cover a few years ago that offered a utopian vision of airport reading; in a sense, Mark and I are trying to write the kind of book that the fictive passengers in this image might be holding:

In his illustration, Adrian Tomine presents the wish-image of "airport reading." It is a multicultural fantasyland where everyone is at peace, a cosmopolitan dream where instead of shopping, every subject is being enchanted by a book. (For an absurdly dark take on a similar setting, see Roy Kesey's short story "Wait" in the collection All Over.) The silhouetted aircraft in the background of this image hint at the unspectacular banality that jet travel has achieved in our contemporary moment: no one in this imaginary departure lounge seems the least bit in awe of (or afraid of) flying. The blustering snow out the window suggests the environmental limits of flight, similar to a recent USA Today headline that read "Bird risk to jets called a 'flashing beacon'" (so we often find ourselves reading about how flight ends). As the departures monitor displays a uniform stream of DELAYED signs, the passengers all go with the flow, calmly reading their unmarked (and hard-bound!) books. These are Platonic forms of the Book: objects that universally enlighten and make time irrelevant. The airport is a mythic space where time can stand still, but often not in a pleasant way. One might wish that the experience of an airport delay were more like how time flies when one is engrossed in a good book; but usually this is anything but the case.

And so Mark and I are attempting to write a book designed for airport reading, with a bit of double-edged irony, given our inclinations toward writing alternately about the quotidian details of flight and about the horror of airplane crashes. When you really think about it, flying is all the more strange for how plain it has become.

Friday, November 20, 2009

What We Can Learn From Zizek

This past week the philosopher Slavoj Zizek visted Loyola University New Orleans, and I had the chance to spend some time with him over dinner, as well as attend his public talk, "Uses and Misuses of Violence." I want to use this post to reflect on what we can learn from Zizek. This is a practical guide. I am not concerned here with delineating the 'big philosophy' of Zizek's thinking; rather, I am interested in touching on a few ways that I found Zizek's visit useful in relation to my own pedagogical practices.

First, it is necessary to point out the obvious but sometimes ignored reality that Zizek is a public intellectual. This is a difficult role with at times contradictory demands. One the one hand, the public intellectual has to be understood as profoundly intellectual—and accordingly held to certain (shifting) standards. On the other hand, the public intellectual must be clearly public—and therefore utterly accessible and entertaining. This is an extremely difficult (if not outright impossible) balancing act, and we should not too easily dismiss Zizek with regard to one side or the other of this dual role. (Common complaints tend to be "He's too narcissistic and theatrical" or "He's too tangential or sweeping in his references to follow.") The role of the public intellectual is tricky, and yet increasingly important—we should be supportive of such figures, and not get caught in the oppositional role of vulgar critics who can discount personalities (and performances) wholesale. What Zizek teaches us—on a really basic level—is that there is still a lot of hard thinking to do concerning society and culture.

At one point near the end of his talk, Zizek said something very useful about violence: he encouraged his audience to look for violence precisely where it is not perceived. This sounds counter-intuitive—and it is. That is what makes it philosophical and challenging. To look for violence in unexpected places is not a call to mass paranoia, but is rather a matter of "asking the right questions" about situations that seem 'normal'. It is a continual process, not a final judgment. How do we orient ourselves in such a continual process that also demands constant perception and assessment? In one of my current classes, my students and I are discussing this question as appears throughout the apocalyptic novel Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler.

Zizek called for a reclaiming of 'civility' and 'decency', which I think surprised many people, as he is hardly ashamed of using perverse anecdotes, obscenities, and graphic illustrations to make his theoretical points. Zizek posed 'civility' against 'habits'—suggesting that sometimes the most 'decent' and 'civil' we can be is to jar ourselves out of habitual modes of thinking (and thus acting). Zizek also advocated to the audience that we need to "change our dreams." This was a very interesting modification of the Marxian premise that the base (actions in the material world) must change the superstructure (thoughts, dreams, consciousness). Perhaps the 'dreams' here are to be understood as somehow more material—as activated settings and scenes, as it were. I found this formulation puzzling but totally intriguing, and I will continue to think about how humans might be able to change their dreams with instantaneous material effects (not simply as a matter of thought).

This point also came up in Zizek's provocation that we "stop saying things that keep everything the same." If there is one simple thing we can learn from Zizek, it is an attention to detail in terms of how we describe things, how we name situations, and what sorts of terms become standard, expected. This may sound all too simple, but it becomes complex, fast—taken seriously, this sort of radical refusal to say things that keep everything the same allows for the unforeseen, indeed possibly the unforeseeable. Taken seriously, too, such a positive refusal can greatly impact the ways we learn, teach, and live. Things cannot and do not stay the same—and when we STOP acting as if things CAN stay the same, this opens up worlds of possibilities. (Zizek is interested in thinking about history as not only what happened in the past, but also in terms of all the things that didn't happen, and for what reasons.) I am completely aware of how naively optimistic this idea of 'stopping-for-the-sake-of-change' may sound. But it is also a real lesson that we cannot help but keep learning. In my other class this semester, my students are grappling with this very issue in Philip K. Dick's novel Time Out of Joint, considering how the characters accept or refuse to accept as-if static material conditions.

So there is my brief synopsis of what we can learn from Zizek. I have written this as an attempt to take the public intellectual seriously, as seriously as he takes himself, certainly—but also (and just as much) as seriously as he takes the world at large. And isn't this intellectual seriousness (or what Donna Haraway calls "serious play") what we try to teach our students, if nothing else?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

iPhones in the classroom

This is not a post about how annoying it is when phones go off in class, nor about how amazed I am when a student decides to take only one little white earbud out during class, and leave the other one in, softly playing something that only the self can hear. Rather, in this post I want to discuss a few ways in which I have found iPhones to be quite useful in what is mostly an old-school, book-oriented introduction to literary theory classroom.

The other day, we were discussing Simulacra and Science Fiction by Jean Baudrillard, and we were grappling with the concept "pantographic." I said, "Does anyone have a dictionary handy?" No. "How about an iPhone with a dictionary 'app'?" Of course. A tech-savvy student looked up the word, and then we talked about how the epoch of 'hyper-reality' (according to Baudrillard, our age) dispenses with the "pantographic excess" (massive scale shifts) of traditional science fiction (such as we see in imaginary parallel worlds that look eerily similar even when detail are exaggerated or shrunk) in exchange for pervasive models of simulation that have the feel of the 'real'—and iPhone apps turn out to be an apt example of what Baudrillard is referring to. We talked about all the 'real' things that one can now do on an iPhone—such as look up a word in a dictionary, play music, consult a map, identify birds—and considered why none of this seems magical, but rather appears as a simple, natural extension of daily life. The iPhone served as a pedagogical help-aid, and as a quotidian object to be unconcealed in the classroom—we could actually treat it as a living text, through its own access to language.

A week or so later, we were discussing a short story and a student conjectured that the word "torrid" might come from the same word root as the astrological sign of Taurus the bull (we were tracking metaphors of animality in a fictive landscape). This time, I simply said "Who has an iPhone etymology app ready?" And promptly a student was tapping away and informing the class that torrid comes from the Latin torrid-us (to dry with heat).

There are, then, real uses for iPhones in the English classroom. Still, as we move closer to the possibility of full immersion, paperless 'new media' classrooms, there are pressing questions to pose. In the name of online education, one recent blog post that has now disappeared recommended "75 Apps to Turn Your iPhone into the Ultimate Personal Library." The post claimed:
There’s something to be said about the weight of a book in your hand and the feel of the pages, but iPhone apps now give you an option.

I wonder, though, what is this mysterious "something to be said about the weight of a book"? That it is heavy? That it feels nice? And what is the singular "option" that an iPhone phone offers here? It seems caught up in a swarm of exchanges having to do with weight, feel, ease of consumption, access, energy—in other words, a whole world of experiential preferences are assumed when we exchange a book for an iPhone. Perhaps these experiential preferences need to be discussed more directly as such.

So what are the remaining arguments on behalf of (traditional) books? One gripe that I often hear is about annotation: you can't take notes and highlight in an e-reader like you can in a book. Well, not yet you can't (or at least not yet very well). Another one has to do with smell: books take on smells that are unique to each book, whereas the e-reader is seen to be a sterile object. Actually, though, electronics have their own abject qualities, as anyone in tune with their senses who has had a phone or a computer keyboard for a long time gradually becomes aware of. Plastic can come to stink and accrete bodily stuff, too. Maybe soon e-readers will be able to smell like books (and a different book each time you download a new one), and keyboards will be able to emit a new plastic aroma (like that "new car smell" spray that one can buy), rather than excrete an old-plastic-coated-with-food-and-earwax-and-boogers smell. But is this merely a question, then, of how good the simulation gets? Once an e-reader can really simulate a book to exactness, will we no longer miss the book? And if we still will miss the book, why? What are the experiential strongholds—and what are the fantasy objects—of 'old media' nostalgias?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Fields without Origins

Two colleagues of mine and I are working to develop a syllabus for a new English course that will utilize e-readers instead of paper books: every student in the class will be given an e-reader, and our goal will be to immerse ourselves in 'new' practices of reading. The class will be focused on the "digital human," and in particular it will concern questions of new media reading and writing technologies. How is reading different (and how is it the same) on a screen? Should we call this (what I'm doing now) 'writing', or are the practices of composition, citation, 'browsing', and 'linking' on a screen deserving of a new name?

One thinks of Roland Barthes's concept of the 'scriptor' who is "is born simultaneously with the text" and who "traces a field without origin"—this is sort of what it feels like to compose a blog post (even if it is a fantasy). And so, perhaps we'll read "The Death of the Author" and From Work to Text in the class—which makes me wonder: will reading Barthes be different on an e-reader than on this screen in front of me now? I suppose, thinking about it, that my head won't be hanging from my neck at this awkward angle, because I'll be lying back, instead of sitting up.

Nicholson Baker has proven to be an excellent phenomenologist of e-reading. I appreciate how Baker accounts for what it feels like to read electronically; we do not have nearly enough critical reflection on this subject. In his New Yorker piece on the Kindle, he describes one serious advantage of reading Kindle books on an iPod Touch: night reading. As Baker explains:
...when you wake up at 3 A.M. and you need big, sad, well-placed words to tumble slowly into the basin of your mind, and you don’t want to wake up the person who’s in bed with you, you can reach under the pillow and find Apple’s smooth machine and click it on. It’s completely silent. Hold it a few inches from your face, with the words enlarged and the screen’s brightness slider bar slid to its lowest setting, and read for ten or fifteen minutes. Each time you need to turn the page, just move your thumb over it, as if you were getting ready to deal a card; when you do, the page will slide out of the way, and a new one will appear. After a while, your thoughts will drift off to the unused siding where the old tall weeds are, and the string of curving words will toot a mournful toot and pull ahead. You will roll to a stop. A moment later, you’ll wake and discover that you’re still holding the machine but it has turned itself off. Slide it back under the pillow. Sleep.

Indeed, there is something utopian about the promises of e-reading. Look at how Sony figured it in an early ad, circa 2005:

I wrote about this magazine advertisement in my dissertation, because it was such a peculiar wish image: an utterly empty airport; a Boeing 747-400 devoid of any livery; carpet that looks almost grass-like, this ambience accentuated by the construction-site T-bar post in the ground, atop of which is the invitation to read. The ad then (reflexively) reads: "Pick a nice spot for your library." Ah, what a nice way to think of the airport: as a library. I have been in a few quiet airports, and it is a quite nice experience. Most of the time, however, airports are loud and anything but library-like. Often in airports it seems as though I am thinking in CNN—then, I realize it is just the inescapable TVs blaring above my head. Tip: Minneapolis has a tranquil, TV-free observation room accessible at the joint of—I think—the D and F concourses.

But back to the Sony ad. In this picture, the airport serves as a place where one will necessarily have the time to read, but the airport has also been somewhat deemphasized by the act of reading: the airport is emptied out by the superimposition of a library onto the departure lounge. This context shift justifies the ghostly emptiness of the airport, and might even explain the lack of a signifying airline icon on the aircraft in the background (the only mark, which is more of a phatic ‘re-mark’, is an obscured tail number)—the airplane is a blank page, of sorts. Reading has evacuated presence from the airport, even as the presence of the airport has allowed reading to happen—airport reading is thus rendered chiasmatic, as a thing to do while waiting to fly, and as a thing to do instead of flying, to defer principle, a deferment that can be drawn out as one can "read more" on the Sony Reader. Just keep reading—you won't notice your flight, much less see the fields below, or even remember where you came from.

This is the circular dream of e-reading: it promises to be seamlessly available to nearly every moment of everyday life. But at what point does an everyday life of e-reading cease to be desirable? When everyday pilots are so caught up in their screens (Off-Course Pilots Cite Computer Distraction) that their plane flies undeterred for 150 miles beyond its destination, might we rightly ask, like children, are we there yet?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Air Travel Absurdity, Part 2

The latest article in the NY Times on air travel is awkwardly titled "What Not to Say in an Exit-Row Seat". Passenger Jim Dwyer tells how he was pulled off a flight by security personnel for making a joke in the exit row; but he claims he made no such quip. It turns out that it was an identity mix-up due to a seat swap, and the security personnel were really after a man on the other side of the aisle. Dwyer concludes: is one thing to be belligerent on the street, and quite another on a commercial flight. And in truth, I did not care much about justice for the man who got thrown off, as long as I was let back on.

These two sentences expose the conceptual crisis of commercial flight in U.S. culture. On the one hand, airports and airliners are deemed to be elevated states of exception, isolated mobilities imbued with a higher level of consciousness and awareness, reliant on a tacit understanding of a certain civil and social conduct. Dwyer implies that commercial flight involves a way of being that is markedly different from life "on the street."

Yet on the other hand, in airports and in airliners civil society is seen to be on the verge of total collapse. Dwyer's utter lack of interest in "justice" for the exit-row joker suggests that the ambience of flight is, after all, not unlike the 'street life' derided above: the conditions of commercial flight inspire a cutthroat attitude, self-interested to the core, and a feeling of being outside the law. Outside the law, we find ourselves "on the street" inside a floating, flexible regime of protocols and paranoia, all in an effort to secure the liberal traveler, a category that anyone can be speedily exempted from, at almost any time. This is the experience of contemporary flight in U.S. culture: we have achieved brute existence, with complimentary beverages and exit-rows.

I am looking forward to Slavoj Zizek's new book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, which appears to have (at the very least) a surface correspondence with these matters:

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Nonsense of Air Travel

A NY Times article reported this week on how airlines are having to "rethink" First Class and Business Class, because they are too expensive to maintain as is. United, we are told, is considering a new class of service just below Business: it will be called "Premium Economy." Are we supposed to forget that this has existed in effect in the guise of "Economy Plus" for several years now? Rhetorically speaking, how does the flip of Economy and the shift from Plus to Premium constitute a serious 'rethinking'?

The article goes on to illuminate the state of air travel as such:
“In building up their premium classes, airlines have been building themselves a castle in the air that’s ultimately unsupportable,” said Peter Morris, the chief economist in London for Ascend Worldwide, an aviation consulting company. “Unless the business world carries on expanding its needs for these services, the castle, to some extent, will come crashing down.”

Wait: when is a "castle in the air" ever 'supportable'? (When it is an Airbus A380?) Furthermore, can one even imagine the sight of a castle in the air crashing down only "to some extent"? I cannot picture this, as hard as I try. It seems as though the popular discourse of air travel is approaching a surrealist aesthetic. Is there a threshold to such nonsensical language in the realm of something alleged to require a certain technological precision (e.g., flight)?

Another article (can we call these email-in interview pieces "articles"?) discusses the subject of manners on planes. Larry Winget expounds,
I don’t know what people are thinking when they travel nowadays. It’s like they leave their brains in the airport parking lot, and forget about common sense and courtesy.

Initially, one might be inclined to agree with Larry Winget's sentiment. The article goes on to narrate three episodes of bad manners on a plane; in two of the cases, Larry Winget intervenes, once with comic wit and once with a firm hand. Larry Winget's anecdotes are solid evidence for the tattered state of air travel: on planes people are rude, generally self-absorbed, and when they do communicate with one another their tempers are short, to say the least. Larry Winget emerges as a civilian arbiter of such situations. But Larry Winget looks like a pretty big guy, and kind of imposing; there is a colorful picture of him next to the article to prove it. This article seems to imply that what we need is a citizen task force, a sort of ad hoc brigade of unofficial (but serious) 'air marshals':
I am really trying not to let people’s behavior get to me. Most of the time, I keep my sense of humor, take lots of deep breaths, read a good book and don’t let the idiots get me down.

But sometimes, you just have to take a stand.

What are the limits of this injunction to "take a stand"? What brute force do we condone when it comes to flight? At what point is the rational, self-controlled liberal subject allowed to dominate, to flex within the aluminum-thin structure all around?

Perhaps literature can instruct. Larry Winget posits a civilized coping mechanism for this context: "read a good book" in order to avoid being annoyed by others on the plane. But what does one do when 'good' fiction reflects the absurdities of air travel? We would seem then to be caught in a möbius strip, or on an infinitely rerouted trip. Last week's short fiction piece in the New Yorker, "Land of the Living" by Sam Shepard, stumbles into this problematic terrain. Shepard begins this sardonic vacation story in the drab interior of a sweltering airport in Mexico. At one point the narrator observes:
We’re being herded, shoulder to shoulder with all the other Minnesota “snowbirds” frantically fanning themselves with their customs forms.

The familiar use of an airport setting to begin or end a story relies on what I elsewhere call "the poetics of no-man's land." Here, this involves a figurative disjunction between the "'snowbirds'" and the 'herding' taking place: animality is plainly overdetermined in the locus of the airport, and the setting resembles Larry Winget's worst nightmare: humans stripped of humanity, bumbling along, trying to get somewhere. What is the end of this spectrum? Sheer animality, or death? Later in "Land of the Living," during the characters' return trip, an unexpected landing at the St. Louis airport suggests that the end of flight is mortal death—which is to say, figurative evacuation, literally. Perhaps, then, the nonsense of air travel anticipates a more general, final vacation.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Some Comments on the Curiosity of Blogs

Stanley Fish's latest NY Times blog post "Does Curiosity Kill More Than the Cat?" has provoked 399 comments as of this morning (17 Sep).

Fish basically presents 'curiosity' as a vice that when given a "positive twist" morphs into "the scientific project"—leading all the way up to present efforts on behalf of the National Endowment of the Humanities to digitalize "just about everything." Fish seems to be unimpressed with the promise of digital archives.

In short, Fish concludes that 'curiosity' seems to be the God that humans want to worship. I keep placing 'curiosity' in scare-quotes because it seems like such an unwieldy concept, and an odd one to take on in a brief expository form such as a blog post. The 399 comments generated in the three days since the post appeared tend to either ridicule Fish for sounding like a religious fanatic, or applaud Fish's critique of hubris.

For one commentator, a welcome apocalypse is on the near horizon:

Do not despair, however, because soon there will be a collective, intellectual revolt, at which point the compasses will be righted once again and everything will be given its proper place.


There is something so, what, curious about this kind of certainty. It makes me almost suspect that Fish's post was a provocation, a calculated ruse intended to expose just these sorts of impulses. Clearly, to maintain a blog (or comment on one) involves more than a little faith in human curiosity, and such faith would be more than a little resistant to the "revolt" anticipated.

I wonder then if, really, Fish's post is a (perhaps unconscious) reflection on the curiosity of blogs in general. Let me explain.

Stanley Fish could have written a blog post with the title "Does Chocolate Kill More Than the Cat?" Then, using some clever passages and strategic citations, he could move swiftly toward an argument about a general idolatry concerning chocolate. One can imagine concluding sentences that would read something like this:
The question, posed by thinkers from Roald Dahl to Frederick Shilling to Timothy Morton, is whether this is the God—the God, ultimately, of indulgence—we want to worship. Given the evidence, including the philosophy of Green & Black's, the answer would seem to be yes.

Within three days, Fish would have around 399 comments that would account for a dispersed field of praise, agreement, disagreement, counter-argument, and sarcasm—over the subject of chocolate. And here we are: in a world of blogs, communicating about communication, right at home in the world. The argument was never about 'chocolate' or 'curiosity' all along—it was about ways of reading and habits of writing, and how these acts become ingrained over (digital) time.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

To "Over-Interpret"

What does it mean when people warn others not to "over-interpret" a situation? This usually means that too much thinking can paralyze action, and then things don't get done. This makes sense from a practical standpoint: the more time I spend analyzing a menu at a restaurant, the longer I defer my actual meal. And after too long, I might just be asked to leave.

We sometimes use this language to advise friends about relationships, for instance when we say things like: "Don't over-interpret the fact that she did not call you last night; just go see her and talk to her!" By this sort of phrasing we mean that direct communication and articulated questions are healthier for a relationship than are solipsistic hypotheses and speculative flights of the imagination.

However, when it comes to literary criticism, I do not think that it is possible to "over-interpret." In fact, I would go as far to say that every act of interpretation is inescapably an over-interpretation. When interpreting, one does not simply read a novel and then put it back on the bookshelf (or file it in the e-reading device's archive). Instead, what one does is linger over particular passages, research a peculiar historical material reference, or develop a theory that explains certain aspects of the narrative. In short, any act of interpretation over-does the literary work, and this is precisely the point. (Tangentially, I am very curious about this habit of attaching "over" as a prefix to words that already imply extra action: over-dramatize, over-analyze, even, strangely, over-think. Does this possibly come from a cultural sense of food, from how we say that something cooked too much is overdone? Or is this just another case in point?)

Interpretation is supposed to be enriching, and to add appreciation to art. On the other hand, interpretation can be seen as derivative, and completely external to the work of art. I am aware as I write this that it may seem as though I am relying on and even reinforcing a set of binaries here: life/thought, art/interpretation. These sets of categories are of course fluid and not mutually exclusive. Yet if we can never "over-interpret" art, it seems to make sense that we should also hesitate before telling people not to "over-interpret" situations in everyday life. Rather, to over-interpret might be nothing more and nothing less than to interpret, and given space and time, interpretation might be understood not as a derivative form of life, but as a way of life in which choices must be made, but must equally always be left open to ponder, and in some cases, to redress.

The impetus for this post was that I am in the middle of revising an article on F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, and it was recently suggested to me that I "over-interpret" passages from the text. This is probably true on a certain level: I like to spend a lot of time on a little bit of text. However, I also want to defend "over-interpretation" as interpretation. I suppose the trick is to make thoughtful interpretation look more like art, and feel more like life.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Nature and Artifice

“The machine which at first blush seems a means of isolating man from the great problems of nature, actually plunges him more deeply into them.”

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Terre des Hommes

Last week I saw two films at the Traverse City Film Festival: "Herb and Dorothy," an excellent documentary about two lovely, understated collectors of minimalist and conceptualist art; and “Examined Life,” a collage of site-specific interviews with contemporary thinkers who discuss subjects ranging from cosmopolitanism to ecology, and from disability studies to revolution. These two films, it seems to me, connect at the intersection of nature and artifice.

After the screening of “Herb and Dorothy,” the director Megumi Sasaki took questions from the audience, and spoke about the importance of one specific scene in the movie that took place in a pet store, in which the main characters look at animals in between their visits to art studios. Sasaki articulated a key point of the film: the convergence of animals, nature, and art.

Animals, nature, and art: what else is there? Species inhabit a planet; and they make things. This triangulation seems at once utterly simple and totally profound. What else is there outside of this amalgam? One might say thought, but thought is part of our species being. Thought is something interesting that we do as humans. Technology, too, is simply saying our technology, the things we make, ideas that often start out as (or in) art, and turn into machines or screens. Finally and inevitably, animals and art both collapse into nature. ‘Nature’ is an all-encompassing term the harder you think about it, which begs the question: why do we need the idea of nature at all?

When Slavoj Zizek insists in “Examined Life” that humans need to become more artificial, more alienated, in order to responsibly reckon with the realities of landfills and recycling dumps, I think what he means is that we have to let go entirely of the idea of nature as if we could grasp it either as a transcendent Other or as some ideal version of ourselves in balance with everything else. We have to accept ourselves as animals of artifice, and artifice as our nature. All this really means is taking what we make and do seriously. In turn, we might be able to actually do something different with waste, with all the remnants of artifice that humans produce. One of my mentors at UC Davis, Timothy Morton, has written at length on this subject in Ecology Without Nature.

These two films align with the urgency of ecological theory—which is to say, the crisis of realization that comes from the awareness that humans can never ever get outside the purview of ‘nature'. This 'nature' is a weird term: it can mean everything, and yet is eerily similar to nothing. Where does this leave us? We are always, only, thoroughly and inescapably, here, in our bodies, in our minds, making and doing things, on this planet, or somewhere nearby. Forgetting about nature, this is the place to start thinking.

The more artificial we become, the more natural we are. This is a difficult thought to think.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Thinking Space in "Childcare"

Next year in a first-year seminar called "Thinking Space," I will likely assign the fiction piece that appeared in last week's New Yorker, Lorrie Moore's "Childcare."

"Childcare" takes place in a more or less contemporary moment, and is told from the first-person perspective of a college student looking for work—based on preliminary content alone, it already presents itself as an apt story for university students. The narrative is structured around restaurants, so that what seems at first to be straight storytelling gets curved by gastronomic curiosities; the story takes place in a small town, but it also a little looping network of food, always ready to go global. Near the beginning, the narrator mentions a meal called "Buddha’s Delight" available at "the Peking Café"; by the end of the story, we are at a Perkins with a "Bottomless Pot of Coffee." One character owns a French restaurant that is a present absence throughout the story: it is mentioned repeatedly but never really there. The story is not ostensibly about 'food' per se, (the narrator is not looking for work in a restaurant), and yet food keeps popping up, interrupting—or arguably forming—the narrative. This suggests a useful debate to have in class: what is the role of food in this story? This debate might also lead into a favorite assignment of mine, which is to have students write mini-reviews of local restaurants; this time around, I could have my students try to discover narratives that are lying dormant in their restaurants of choice, rather like the obverse of Moore's story, which finds restaurants within a broader fictive landscape.

It would be interesting to pair this story with an excerpt from Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, in part because of the shared preoccupations with eating out. Then, there is something to learn about environmental language in these two texts. A Moveable Feast begins: "Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over." Moore's story starts out similarly: "The cold came late that fall, and the songbirds were caught off guard." I would ask my students how seasonal logic functions in each of these narratives. Is it just about setting, or does seasonal language do something specific to the setting? Perhaps it has something to do with what Heidegger called "worlding," in terms of how geophysical space is disclosed, both consciously opened up and necessarily delimited. I think of such environmental language as "spacing"—because in the midst of such description, the narrator becomes spaced out, and we (the readers) are not exactly in the realm of thought, yet not totally external to it, either. (This tangent could become a useful way to introduce Derrida's notion of "différance" as the spatialization of time and the temporization of space.)

Moore also plays with words in clever ways. For example, the narrator makes this observation concerning her college life: "In the corridors, students argued over Bach, Beck, Balkanization, bacterial warfare." This would be an excellent moment to talk not only about the spatial effects of alliteration, but also about intertextuality, perhaps bringing back Hemingway on Stein or Pound in A Moveable Feast. And then, we might compare literary and cultural allusions in prose with hypertextuality online: How is Moore's story aided by new media ways of thinking and reading? What happens when we use a Google search to help us map routes, make translations, and follow obscure references in a story? What is the threshold of searching in literature? (Ending on that note, in another post and in another class, I'd like to discuss the fiction piece in The New Yorker from a few weeks ago by Stephen O'Connor, "Ziggurat." This story involves an imaginative search through language and space, blending old mythologies with new media mysteries.)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Currency : Critical :: PowerPoint : Political

I was recently forwarded an email with a PowerPoint presentation designed to lambaste big government spending by showing how much space a trillion dollars would take up. The presentation ends with a satirical trillion dollar bill on which President Obama's visage appears, and it reads "The United Socialist States of America."

But can such a presentation actually function as political commentary? I don't think so—at least not precisely. First off, this jab at Obama reminded me all too well of the 9-11 bill that ridiculed President Bush and pronounced ONE DECEPTION in place of ONE DOLLAR.

A quick Google image search yields dozens of such sardonic monetary notes from a range of historical moments and national registers. It would appear, then, that this is something of a trope: the use of currency to call into question the acts of certain political figures. But what does this trope suggest about the (perhaps misplaced) belief in the truth value of currency? Do we really believe everything we see on a 'real' dollar bill? Is this 'everything' even knowable, or must it remain partially cryptic—or at least infinitesimally semiotic—in order to preserve the metaphysical qualities of exchange? We know that the value of money is hardly stable, and that the 'truth' of money is a social product, made and remade everyday. So why call on the figure of money as an oracle?

To use currency as a template for divining any final truth exposes a misconception: money always lies in the sense that it abstracts value—the reason that it works is because we agree not to dwell on the abstractions in question. What does the dollar value on my paycheck really, finally, reflect about my actual work? Nothing very specific or unique to me. It is curious how something as fundamentally bland as money can become so tied up with the alleged sanctity of the 'individual' in certain political camps. What are people standing for when they invoke the rights of individuals to control their own money? Individuals, or money itself? What do we expect from money? In a way these are simple questions, I know—but these questions also hinge on complex psycho-social relations. (I guess this is properly called economics.)

Tom McCarthy's recent novel Remainder hinges on money, too. In the opening pages, the narrator is awarded a large settlement after an undisclosed accident; he envisions the amount as such: "...I thought about the sum: eight and a half million. I pictured it in my mind, its shape" (8). The figure of money permeates the novel, and ends up somewhat spoiling the mise-en-abyme conceit of the narrative. In short, money ruins this novel by becoming an increasingly plentiful and correspondingly uninteresting plot motivator. It would seem that McCarthy's contemporary novel and the Obama trillion dollar bill have this in common: a staggering amount of currency inspires only to snuff out the possibility of making any clear critical point.

Tangentially related, and perhaps even more intriguing to me than the money, however, was the medium contained in the email forward. (Email forwarding is itself a peculiar media form to consider where individuality would seem to be at stake, but that's another matter.) The presentation arrived as a PowerPoint, a program that, like most others, presupposes faith in a social system that is working. Thus, against the glib apocalypticism in the trillion dollar bill presentation, the medium is supposed to stand strong and true. PowerPoint is a new media form that must be 'fleshed out', as we say—and I mean this quite literally. What do people actually do with (or get from) PowerPoint? How do audiences respond bodily to these presentations? How do people take in slides that transmogrify before their eyes? How do words work (or fail to work) in this space? David Byrne raises such questions implicitly in his Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information, art pieces that utilize PowerPoint to show how medium and message are inescapably intertwined:

As Byrne's artwork suggests, have a lot of hard thinking to do before we can assume that ubiquitous software can be politically explicit.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

On Driving

Driving the long haul across southern Texas today I was reminded of the Coen brothers' excellent adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's equally excellent novel No Country For Old Men. In a way, this film is as much about driving around Texas as it is about drug money or an unstoppable killer. The Coen brothers captured these driving scenes with a "perceptual acuity" (ala Elaine Scarry) that makes the film both ominous and ordinary. As I drove along today I kept finding myself thinking about these less dramatic yet integral moments of the film, and I snapped some images of these vistas with the handy camera phone:

One might read McCarthy's novel as an updated version of his earlier work Blood Meridian, in which a less than Romantic Western frontier network of trails and towns is simply replaced with a more contemporary geography of meandering highways offering views that make one wince while driving, endlessly driving into horizons that seem eerily the same mile after mile: progress in the making.

Friday, June 5, 2009

interests converge

Many of my current interests converge on the cover of this week's New Yorker:

Air travel, ecology, post-apocalyptic imagery, book reading versus the new media technologies...this illustration serves as a cipher for a host of anxieties and consolations around the contemporary moment. There is a wish for aliens; but also a wish for them to be like us. There is a desire to see ecological recovery at the expense of human civilization—and a desire to see this from a removed, as if neutral perspective. Nostalgia for the old, tattered book depends on a pile of rubble in the form of the new media technologies (screens, keyboards, cell phones, e-book readers).

The New Yorker cover presents a modern take on Shelley's "Ozymandias": a story of ruin rendered in bright colors, positing annihilation in order to preserve an old form of reading (this is, after all, the summer fiction issue). Instead of the mise-en-abyme of first-person speakers who we meet in Shelley's sonnet, in this illustration we get to see the lonely reader at work—and he looks happy, his spaceship hovering nearby. To rephrase Wallace Stevens: the reader became the book, and the post-apocalyptic day was like the conscious being of the book.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Technologies R Us

The USA Today reports on The Dumbest Generation and presents a sort of counterargument. The basic concern is whether social networking sites like Facebook are making Generation Y students 'dumb', or whether such practices are simply (and complexly) retooling the ways of being 'smart'.

In many ways I find myself in a third position in relation to the two writers who are quoted in the article. This is a lively debate across the humanities, and it is almost too easy to take either side of this seeming divide: to be nostalgic for skills and habits that are allegedly locatable in some past moment in time, or to argue for different kinds of smartness across different times. Not only is it too easy to take one of these sides, but in fact these sides are incommensurable, and so they end up not really forming a debate at all, but more accurately exposing two different ways of understanding 'the world'—not to mention 'history'. The largest problem in this article, however, is the seemingly clear and distinct idea of 'technology'—which boils down to meaning either A) stuff that humans make that takes them away from some mythical pure origin, or B) something irreducibly bound up with humans and the world from the start, and therefore hardly a useful term at all.

For isn't a spider's web a 'technology' of sorts? The looping, grabbing tendrils on a vining plant are technologies too. And the ceramic bowl is a technology that likely changed eating patterns at some point in human history no less dramatically than text messaging is changing communication patterns now. The point is that the word 'technology' might not be helping this discussion: we would need to be much more precise about how specific things in the world affect specific acts of behavior (and not exclusively in relation to humans). Then we could at least agree on what we are talking about.

As it is, the idea of 'technology' functions as an inscrutable force, either to be wary of and resist, or to submit to and be absorbed by—either way, this word completely misses the point that there is no location from which humans could ever get a clear view of technology, for even the brain and the eyes are themselves always already little technologies for seeing and knowing, and here we are, enmeshed in the whole matrix from the start. We would need to talk about very specific things that bother us or interest us. How contemporary college students use personal devices that seem in friction with a book-based literature classroom—now that might be interesting. Or how contemporary students are engaged in ongoing, expanding communication networks that challenge linear narrative structures—that might be interesting, too. But these need not be antagonistic lines of inquiry, as the USA Today article seems to posit them.

In the American Studies course I am currently teaching called "The Ecology of Beauty," my students did a photography project in which they were required to grapple with how they understand themselves in relation to 'nature'. I think that one particular student's photo gets at some of the complexities of the technology question at hand:

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Down on Up

The problems with Pixar’s latest film Up are primarily formal ones. These include the onslaught of events, and a virtual saturation of characters.

The events in Up are sequenced irregularly and create strange senses of importance: for instance, the breaking of chocolate bars takes up more time in the film than a trans-hemispheric journey. A rare bird turns out to be rainbow colored, in case one has missed the colorfulness of the house or the vast cluster of helium balloons that provide it with lift. The events that are the best in the film achieve a majestic quality of slow time that could have been maintained throughout—such as the excruciatingly drawn out, diagonal ride of an electric stair-chair descender. This film really only needed about four events; as it is, there are dozens of events that fill out the plot, and too many of these events flit by so quickly that they cannot be substantive, and therefore are throwaway. More of the story's time could have been given to the defiance of urban sprawl, the isolation and domesticity of unregulated air space, and the spectacular vistas that we see so well in a few scenes early in the film.

When too many characters flood the plot, narrative sensitivity and attention to detail can tend to be dampened. In this case, the gradual introduction of more and more characters climaxes with a canine infinitude that is more ridiculous than funny. In a film like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, hoards of running, red-eyed humans gone mad works; in a film that should remain skyward, such as Up, hundreds of talking cyborg dogs on the ground do not work so well. This character splurge rather ruins the conceit of an animation film, wherein anything is possible—which is precisely why some things should not be done. Restraint would seem to be the key to digital storytelling.

Finally, a missed opportunity: an airline or aircraft manufacturer could have benefited from a case of ingenious 'product placement' with the ballooned house seen from an airliner cruising by, people gawking while sipping small cups of soda. Here are some rough ideas:

Up made me nostalgic for the quiet, richly intertextual and darkly comical Wall-E of last summer. Or maybe it just exposed just my penchant for the post-apocalyptic genre, which I plan to teach a class on this coming fall.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Airport Reading

I recently completed my dissertation at UC Davis on the textual aspects of airports in U.S. culture. After filing my dissertation I took a short trip to visit some friends in Portland, Oregon. On the way there, I snapped a picture in the Sacramento airport without too much attention to what I might capture. In fact, I held the camera to my side and took the picture without looking into the viewfinder at all. Now, I'll take the take the time to 'read' this image in order to explain a little about my dissertation.

My dissertation is interested in how airports read. In this picture, I can see people reading various things: magazines, computer screens, books, text messages, and newspapers. Airports are the place to read, as evinced by the way that bookstores are increasingly migrating out of cities and towns and into terminals and concourses.

Beyond the people reading in the airport, there are also a lot of things to read about the space itself. In this departure lounge I see signs for gates 25 and 27, directional markers meant to be read and followed. I see a sign for "free Wi-Fi"—a hanging text that prompts me to discover further reading material on my laptop, if I have one. Several people in the picture have taken the "free Wi-Fi" cue and stare into their screens. If I cannot get 'connected', I will have to resort to lower-tech forms of reading, or just space out. People watching is another kind of reading suitable for airports.

I see multiple trash receptacles, which tell me that this is a space where consumption and waste is expected. I also see a tree which appears to be rather discordantly 'greening' this built space of transit. Or perhaps the little tree is inviting Nature in—in which case the color complementary small red alarm boxes on the columns may be imagined as berries beneath the canopy of off-white ceiling tiles. Aside from the verdant motif, however, the dominant color scheme reads monochromatic and is laid out in mostly geometric patterns of alternating lights and darks.

A majority of the dark shapes in this scene are the ubiquitous rows of airport chairs that the psychologist Robert Sommer calls "hard architecture": such seating is quite clear and uncompromising about how passengers are to comport themselves and communicate (or not) in this space. Anyone who has spent significant time in such chairs should be familiar with the feeling of craning your neck to talk to someone next to you, or leaning awkwardly uphill to talk to someone across from you. Through this seating arrangement, the airport forwards a sociological understanding of how people should be organized and spaced out (how people should feel) in this space.

And above, the square fluorescent lamps offer light for easy reading. In the airport everyone has their identity checked: passports read, employee ID cards verified, and boarding passes scanned—the airport reads its human inhabitants. All these practices combined make up airport reading: this is a legible context wherein nature and culture collude, inside becomes outside, bodies blend into technologies, and everything proceeds as in an endless delay.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"here" & "apps"

Today I am a guest contributor to the blog Changing Lives, Changing Minds, a literature blog out of UMass-Dartmouth. You can view my post here.

Two new media observations:

1. On that curious word here: A friend recently pointed out that the linked word "here" has attained a funny way of functioning as a floating transit point with no necessary stable spatial anchor. Online, the linked word "here" can lead one anywhere (here), or nowhere (here). I also see that there is a place called which is thoroughly cryptic but existentially reassuring. I wonder if the linked word "here" is a sort of virtual "non-place"—an updated version of how the anthropologist Marc Augé has used this term to describe spaces that are designed for passage and transition, never to serve as distinct places in and of themselves (e.g., airports, highway rest stops, & ATMs).

2. Lately I've been seeing a lot of advertisements that evince the plethora of "apps" available for the iPhone. I was discussing some of these applications with my students recently in class (the iHandy Carpenter with its digital level, The Moron Test, etc.), and one student rolled his eyes and said "They've got an app for everything." Yet when people are surprised (or annoyed) that there is an iPhone application for "everything," it seems to me that this is not entirely different from being surprised (or annoyed) that there is everything there is in the world. Perhaps this is the secret trick of the iPhone: it refreshes the already existing world with a surprising quality of recognizability. (Because surely we couldn't have apps that were unintelligible or ineffable.) Thus the iPhone apps depend on our continual experience of a rather underwhelming revelation, something to the the effect of: "I can't believe that there are so many things in the world!"

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Rey Chow on New Media

Recently I attended a talk by Rey Chow, who gave a provocative talk called "Postcolonial Visibilities: Foucault, Deleuze, and the New Media Technologies." Among other things, Chow discussed the seemingly paradoxical phenomenon by which images of the lowest resolution end up achieving the highest visibility. Consider, for instance, the way that camera phone snapshots can be captured nearly spontaneously and then disseminated at an exponential rate, causing the 'first images' that we often see of an event to be distinctly unframed, out of focus, pixelated—yet also the ones that tend to stick in our minds (and in Google image archives, as well).

As students seem increasingly to have ready-to-hand access to portable imaging technologies such as camera phones, I wonder how such 'writing tools' (if I can dare to call them that) could be put in the service of analysis and composition in the humanities classroom. In an American Studies course I am currently teaching, called "The Ecology of Beauty," I plan to experiment with this by having students capture two images, one of 'nature' and one not of 'nature' (how else to categorize it?). The goal will be to complicate not only the categories of nature and non-nature, but also to think about how tiny-screen image capturing is an ecology in its own right: our devices are a part of how we see, frame, and interact with the 'the world' as a viewable landscape, a space always just waiting to be imaged. What will students take pictures of? How will they describe their taking of these pictures? Are we able to be phenomenological about the visibilities that we can hold in our hands as 'objects'?

In her talk Chow posed challenging questions about a pictorial fluidity and mobility, i.e. about the immanent recyclability of new media images. Chow suggested that we need to develop a new flexibility for thinking about how humans are constituted as subjects through these technologies that from one perspective look like no more than little surveillance machines that we carry around on our bodies as we traipse through a heavily-monitored, hyper-individuated world.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Attention, Focus

I am starting to glimpse a constellation.

A recent Wall Street Journal article on Kindle e-book reading argues: infinite bookstore at your fingertips is great news for book sales, and may be great news for the dissemination of knowledge, but not necessarily so great for that most finite of 21st-century resources: attention.

Can 'attention' really be measured in terms of finitude or infinitude? It seems to me rather that the more attention one gives, the more one has. At least this is what appears to happen when slow reading a poem in a classroom: the more attention one pays, the more one gets 'out of' (or into?) the text, and the more attention one will have for future literary encounters.

This week the New Yorker reports on the use of neuroenhancers, specifically in college and work settings. The article quotes one psychologist, Martha Farah, as saying: "...I’m a little concerned that we could be raising a generation of very focussed accountants.”

An excerpt from David Foster Wallace's last novel-in-progress "The Pale King" accounts for the inner-subjective labyrinths and deep focus of I.R.S. agent Lane Dean, Jr.:
He did another return; again the math squared and there were no itemizations on 32 and the printout’s numbers for W-2 and 1099 and Forms 2440 and 2441 appeared to square, and he filled out his codes for the middle tray’s 402 and signed his name and I.D. number that some part of him still refused to quite get memorized so he had to unclip his badge and check it each time and then stapled the 402 to the return and put the file in the top tier’s rightmost tray for 402s Out and refused to let himself count the number in the trays yet, and then unbidden came the thought that “boring” also meant something that drilled in and made a hole.

DFW's Lane Dean, Jr., amid countless numbered forms and tangential thoughts, challenges any easy oppositions between accountant and philosopher, attention and distraction.

Concerning attention, is the point to increase deep focus, or to accept certain distractions as precisely the material to focus on? Are the holes of consciousness there to be filled, or left empty? Perhaps it is the concept of emptiness itself that is the most scarce and 'finite' resource of the 21st-century. In that case, though, could one argue that the Kindle creates more empty space to contemplate by reducing the need for stacks of books? What is the relationship between new media reading technologies and empty space? And to call up Keats, in a roundabout way, what are the (im)material thresholds of "slow time"? This post is unspooling, which my spell-check function wants me to replace with "supercooling." Believe it or not, there is a future contemporary literature class forming out of this nebula.

Monday, April 13, 2009

To Be or Not To Be Kindled

The email I received from this morning really tried to make me feel like I was missing out on something. As someone who "enjoys purchasing books from Amazon," they just thought I'd like to know that "there are now over 260,000 books, magazines, newspapers, and blogs"...this implied that said texts are available for the Amazon Kindle, which is always connected through 3G wireless so that one can download "anytime, anywhere." With objects like these, who needs imagination?

I am curious but hesitant about the Kindle. I have thought seriously about the potential advantages of these devices in the literature classroom. There would be almost no excuse for students not having their texts with them. Maybe reading would be fun for all. And look how easy it is to hold a Kindle:

Yet if you did not know what to look for, this image would be a cipher: is she gazing at a mystic tablet...or at her hands...or at a mirror (i.e. herself)? It is almost as if 'it' isn't there at all. Such minimalism certainly could uplift the spirits of college students who are used to schlepping around five-pound Norton anthologies. What would such a class feel like, in which everyone had the same slick little machine for reading? (Furthermore, could we get some of those couches and throw pillows for the classroom? Those unergonomic chairs are not helping the situation.)

The picture in my email was slightly more instructive, if also eerily vacant:

What bothers me about this image, though, is the white border around the device, not to mention the disembodied white hand; these make the Kindle look hermetically sealed in a world of its own, as if one can so easily achieve the uninterrupted time and empty space for reading that the cover page alone would evoke a sort of rapture. Amazon notes that the battery can last so long that one can "read for days without recharging." Could Kindles really guarantee a new era of learning, a promised land of literature students seduced into slow reading via fast connections? Practically speaking, does the energy required to build and power Kindles offset the energy required to produce (and transport) paper books? Is white the new (same old) green?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Marley & Me: What is it?

When I went to Blockbuster yesterday afternoon, I had no intentions to write a post about Marley & Me. But this movie is such a curious oddity, in ways one might not expect from a film touted as "The Perfect Family Comedy!" (Mark Allen, CBS, DVD cover).

First of all, the movie is about writing and narrative form. Here are Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson in one scene, proofreading a piece of writing together:

I can (almost) imagine screening this moment in a classroom in order to model collaboration. Aniston and Wilson play married newspaper columnists. The film, intermittently narrated by Wilson in plucky voice-overs, follows their careers and the escapades of their dog Marley, who Wilson's character writes about in his columns. But as the movie unfolded, I was constantly uncertain whether I was watching a story about Wilson's character the writer, or whether I was watching what Wilson's character was watching in order to write stories. In other words, the film is so layered with embedded subplots and hovering meta-narratives that it begins to take shape as an intricate chiasmus. The movie jerks back and forth between narrative points-of-view, but it turns out that all these layers exist on the same plane, even as they appear to loop around continually, adding texture and turns. The movie, frankly, stretches and twists the brain by employing quite sophisticated plotting mechanisms. Toward the end, it turns out that we're back at the beginning; the movie has mostly been an elaborate analepsis, or flashback of sorts.

The movie also participates, albeit awkwardly, in the genre of the epic: Wilson and Aniston's characters are on a familiar journey toward that mythic place called The American Dream, yellow lab and Honda Odyssey minivan included. However, this is an epic landscape without gods or fate. In fact, Marley & Me forwards a radically secular sense of contemporary culture. Mentions of God and Christian theology are brief, sardonic, and during a vacation in Ireland (thus also exoticized). Near the end of the film, a young child speaks of Heaven, making this idea seem infantile. On the other hand, the film makes its audience intensely aware of the passing of time, and the passing of life—i.e., mortality. Marley & Me is about impermanence, enjoying things while they last, and writing about it all. And then making a movie about all these things. If this sounds like a tall order for an allegedly simple feel-good movie, it is. Furthermore, the movie is definitively not a comedy. It is a tragedy. But perhaps what makes the movie 'postmodern'—to use a potentially vapid term—is precisely its ability to conflate, confuse, and compact an incredible amount of narrative material in 115 minutes of something called entertainment.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Questions Concerning Technology

What is the point of teaching students how to read books in the epoch of the Internet?

I am currently trying to make a case for a ‘new’ collection of theoretical readings—a book that will teach well and provide undergraduate students with a sense of confident mastery (albeit preliminary) over the slippery subject of Critical Theory. But what is the use of such a sheaf when most readings—or in some cases, summaries of such readings—are available on the screen, at the click of a mouse button, handily archived, and hyper-linked throughout? What can a book do, differently?

One can resort to the materiality of the paper-feel, or to the smell of a book. But textually speaking, what subtleties exist when reading a page? Does a page of Marx or Freud read differently in a book and on the screen of an Amazon Kindle? Will the Webpage soon displace the earlier notion of ‘page’ as piece of paper? Was Alexander Pope’s formulation of the critic an early premonition of the movement from literature to criticism to…the Internet?

How does one discuss this (hyper)textual matrix without sounding apocalyptic, nostalgic, or utopian? What is the work of literary theory in an age of technological reproducibility? Take the contemporary Japanese phenomenon of the ‘cell phone novel’—now is literature dying, or thriving? It is hard to say, but interesting to think about.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Art and Commerce: A Lesson in Faking

A friend passed along a story about the artist JSG Boggs and his one-sided, hand-drawn dollars that he passes off as real money in stores…only to then sell the receipt, change, and whatever goods he bought as the ‘art’. This would seem to function as an interesting extrapolation of a claim by the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: “The phenomenology of images insists on their transparency” (“Reality and its Shadow”). For Boggs, the assumed transparency of a dollar bill’s appearance allows (fake) currency to move simultaneously into dual phenomenological realms of commerce and art: both realms become bracketed and open to question. After the performative transaction, a true aesthete can buy the ‘work’ of art: commodity, change, and a receipt. Meanwhile, the objet d’art circulates effectively as a dollar—until, one supposes, it actually gets counted by a machine at the bank. (In which case, is a Boggs Bill thrown away? Destroyed? Sold on eBay?) Of course, this double move also threatens to implode an economic system on which it depends. Or does it? Perhaps, instead, Boggs has indicated a clever way out of our current recession.

This case suggests how one could use plagiarism productively in the literature classroom. I recently discussed a rogue assignment with one of my colleagues at UC Davis that would proceed as such: students, working in collaborative groups, would acquire ‘finished’ papers online—and then remix sections, rephrase sentences, and bolster (or strip) arguments until what one ends up with is a single essay that could pass through an online ‘paper finder’ detective. In other words, through technologies of online plagiarism and by recourse to pastiche and collaboration, a polyvalent lesson emerges: we challenge the regime of singular authorship, we practice critical engagement with online media forms, and we encounter the Internet as a textual feedback loop rather than as a copout, a (false) compositional authority, or an outlet shopping mall. Again, Levinas: “Art then lets go of the prey for the shadow.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On Crashing: An Inquiry of Fragments

We chose this plane because we didn’t know that
It would become the subject

Of a poem. To us poetry is ludicrous,
As if telling a hawk he has talons.

—Mark Yakich, “Last Flight out of a State of Mind”

A recent article from the Times reports that the crash of Continental Flight 3407 near Buffalo, New York was possibly caused (in part) by "specifically, large cool droplets of water that freeze on contact with an airplane." I am no scientist, but I wonder about the specificity of the terms "large" and "cool" in relation to matters that would seem to require precision (i.e., aeronautics). Now the debate seems be turning from matters of ice to matters of the autopilot: if it isn't nature, it's the robots that kill us. (But what happens when climate and machines collude?)

A similar problem can be considered in further reporting on the circumstances around US Airways Flight 1549's emergency landing in the Hudson River. It turns out that the plane went through a flock of Canada Geese:
But researchers are still trying to determine if they were migratory geese from Canada, or resident birds from the New York area. Those that migrate typically weigh from 6 pounds to nearly 11 pounds, the safety board said, but nonmigrating geese are fatter and “can exceed published records.” Either kind is too much for the engines to handle, however.

It also turns out that the engines of the Airbus A320 are required only to be able to "choke down" (is that a technical phrase?) birds of up to four pounds. Yet at stake in this investigation is not why this plane's engines seem built drastically below levels of reality (the Airbus A320 has not been grounded; there are several hundred taking off and landing as I write this), but whether the birds in question were locals or tourists, corpulent or svelte. Yet still, the masses in question are so disproportionately greater than the certification standards of 1996. Have Canada Geese really gotten that much larger in recent years? Should we blame the chubby geese on urban sprawl, or on migration patterns being affected by global warming? Or is this a postmodern Icarus myth, a cautionary tale about underestimating a flying machine's "choke down" levels? I find myself utterly flummoxed concerning the competing values of technical science and everyday mythology in such reporting.

There is an aesthetic history to trace here. Of course these thematics go at least as far back as Icarus, but for our purposes here, let us consider two 20th-century examples from U.S. literature: F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon (the original, non-authorized edition of 1941), and Michael Crichton's Airframe (1996).

Fitzgerald's unfinished novel begins with a late night, transcontinental flight that is grounded by thunderstorms in Tennessee; Fitzgerald had sketched out an ending that would have involved a midnight plane crash into snowy mountains, a month after which a group of children on a hike in the vicinity find the wreckage and pillage the plane's contents, thus learning about the main characters in a grizzly sort of ramshackle anthropology of the present. The narrative is framed by the tremulous status of human flight.

Crichton's novel opens with a scene eerily similar to the descriptions we are being given about Flight 3407's last moments of flight: "...the plane seemed to shudder, the nose of the plane turning down. Suddenly everything titled at a crazy angle. ... The plane went into another steep dive" (4-5). Compare a passage from the Times article today: "Then the airplane nose pitched up, then down, as the airplane rolled to one side. It was far too close to the ground already for the crew to regain control."

Incidentally, Crichton's novel refers to planes again and again as "birds." This is not at all an uncommon trope, but it is worth reflecting on given our current preoccupation with "bird strikes." The bird, in other words, is both a figurative model for human flight, and the animal that can endanger human flight. In my dissertation I call this aesthetic trend "bird citing," for the ways in which birds and planes are symbolically juxtaposed and occasionally literally collide into one another around the space of airports. Birds are sometimes cited as inspirations, and other times cited as threats.

A complexly layered instance of bird citing can be seen in a public art sculpture at Chicago's Midway Airport. Ralph Helmick's installation "Rara Avis" is a diaphanous bird comprised of 2500 tiny metal airplanes. Here is the City of Chicago's Public Art Program description of the piece:
Suspended sculpture visible from center of ticketing hall and mezzanine epic suspended sculpture poetically linking natural and manmade aviation. Comprised of thousands of precisely suspended pewter elements, the artwork employs three-dimensional Pointillism wherein numerous small sculptures compose a larger, composite form. From a distance, the sculpture is perceived as a monumental image of a cardinal, Illinois’ state bird. Upon closer examination, a perceptual shift occurs and the large avian form reveals itself to be composed of over 2500 small renderings of aircraft. Over 50 different aircraft are represented, ranging from Leonardo da Vinci-inspired designs and 19th century balloons to classic passenger airliners and 21st century spacecraft.

In a flip of scales, this bird is apparently able to "choke down" thousands of flying vessels, from across historical moments, and remain a contemplative, airborne register for human flight.

The links between "nature" and "manmade aviation" are made in the air, and undone on crashing. Or perhaps this formulation gets it all wrong: what if there were never any links to be made or undone in the first place? What if 'man' could never be closer to, or farther from, 'nature'? How might we think of flight differently, then? Might we be able to build a better vocabulary for talking about things like air flow, ice, and birds—not to mention, ourselves?