Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Object Lessons, the backstory

Earlier this winter Ander Monson asked me & Ian to do an editor's post on Object Lessons for the Essay Daily; it's up and you can see it here. And now for further edification, here's even more—the backstory of the series:

A few years ago my editor at what was then Continuum, Haaris Naqvi, and I were eating at a Thai restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island—this was during an ACLA conference hosted by Brown University. I had just presented a paper on David Foster Wallace's use of air travel in The Pale King. Over bowls of steaming curry, Haaris wondered if I’d be interested in proposing a new series of cultural studies books for the press. (My recently published airport book had triggered this idea.) At that time I had been reading lightly if enthusiastically across the burgeoning movement called Object-Oriented Ontology, and teaching some of these texts in my courses at Loyola, and I immediately thought about a series devoted to single objects and the lessons they hold. On the spot I came up with the series title “Object Lessons.” Reaktion has a very nice academic series called objekt—I admired these books, but wanted more of them. Lots more. And I wanted them to be a little shorter, pithier: books you could read on a single cross-country flight, say. I had a vision for the series: an endless list of slim books unified by a striking design, brief titles (one or two words, no subtitles), and the utterly unexpected juxtapositions that would occur between the volumes over time.

I had this hunch that there were plenty of academics who know a lot about single things—whether from long research projects or just from everyday life and non-academic hobbies. But there isn’t really a place for this kind of para-academic writing: a place to write about that one thing that captivates you but which in normal academic writing would get subsumed by vast apparatuses of frameworks, concepts, and theory. So much scholarly writing ends up in forms that are either too expensive for the common reader to access, or too abstruse to understand (much less enjoy) if you are outside of the author’s discipline or field of expertise. Where can an academic write more playfully, in accessible prose, for a wider audience? (There are blogs, sure—but who really wants to read another blog?)

I initially saw Object Lessons as a venue for two types of academics: junior scholars who were working on a traditional monograph but who also had a pet project, maybe some minor topic that got a page-worth of attention in their book, but which could warrant a small book of its own; and more senior scholars who were at that point in their career when they might want to write a smart yet accessible book on a single thing—something they know enough about to come at it from a surprising angle.

From the outset I envisioned the series as having crossover appeal: a venue for public intellectual writing (in the best sense of that phrase). Neither compromising theoretical sophistication nor abandoning lucid and lithe prose, the series would be a place for good smart writing on a wide range of ordinary and concrete topics. Was this unrealistic, idealistic, too neat and tidy a vision? Probably so.

Nevertheless, I started conjuring this book series, and as part of the initial proposal I asked about a dozen writers and scholars whose work I admired to serve on the Advisory Board—including Ian Bogost, whose wonderful Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing I had just read.

About a year later, Ian came to New Orleans to give a talk from a new book project, and over wine one afternoon we were talking about the book series, and Ian suddenly raised the stakes: what if it weren’t just a book series, but if it had a corollary essay series, published in a high profile venue like The Atlantic? It turned out that Ian had been mulling over a similar series idea, but essay-oriented, rather than geared toward books. But what if we merged these plans? In short, what if it was a series with two outlets, for two (not mutually exclusive) forms of writing?

From that point on, things happened fast. We drafted up a proposal for Ian's contacts at The Atlantic, and Alexis Madrigal and his savvy crew loved the idea of the series. The essays would be run primarily out of their Technology Channel, which gave us a useful constraint and challenge for how to describe what we meant by 'objects'. (You can read some of that proposal's language here.)

As we sat there discussing the series we intermittently rattled off lists of objects, at turns focusing and expanding the potential scope of the series:

bundt cake, cuttlefish, aircraft carriers...vacuum bags, bottle caps, flying buttresses…Blow Pops, slime mold, sawdust, silence...magnesium, bone marrow, bilge pumps...crabgrass, Kleenex, coolant...lodgepole pinecones, dryer lint, dental floss...honey, hurricanes, heliotropes, hatred...morel mushrooms, molasses, landing gear...copper wire, cruise ships, Velcro...tampons, tigers, trademarks, trash...cilium, silt, silence, suitcases...dirt, dioramas, interstellar nebulae...windshield wipers, wonder, inchworm...

While we were developing the proposal for the series, something happened to Continuum: it merged with the publisher Bloomsbury, which ended up working out well for us, as the larger independent publisher offered the series a wider platform and robust marketing. And Haaris got promoted. Haaris is terrific, and helps us move our book proposals through the review and vetting processes at a brisk pace. He's also a champion of top-notch design and overall book quality, which is one of the ulterior motives of the series: to make books that are themselves elegant objects, pleasant to hold and to read.

We launched the series in June 2013, and you can read the rest at the Essay Daily...

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Introducing Scott Shershow

poster by Nancy Bernardo*

Scott Shershow is a great friend and was a fantastic mentor of mine at UC Davis; he directed my dissertation on airports in American literature and culture. Scott visited New Orleans a couple years ago and gave a fascinating talk at Loyola last year on the philosophical debates that undergird laws and ethics around the topics of suicide and the right to die. The book that developed from that talk, Deconstructing Dignity, has just come out, and Scott has a terrific post at the University of Chicago Press's blog on recent episodes where these issues have flared up once again in the news, stirring up a range of tense (and not always consistent) emotions, attitudes, and ideas. This got me thinking back to Scott's talk at Loyola last year, and I realized I might as well put my introduction to Scott here on my blog. The introductions we write for guest speakers often become so much more ephemeral work done by academics—a crumpled page in the recycle bin or a forgotten file in a blue simulacral folder, never to be looked at again. So, here it is:


Professor Shershow’s work ranges across conceptual boundaries with relentless ease, making sophisticated and always surprising connections between political economy, Western philosophy, visual arts, literature, and anthropology—to name a mere few of the fields that his work traverses. 

I’ve been referring to Shershow’s “work,” but what I really should say is that Shershow excels at unworking texts—and not just literary texts, but all sorts of structures and textures that form and inform everyday life.

Whether he is elaborating the most troubling and perplexing implications of torture, describing precisely how a Sarah Silverman line clinches a philosophical knot, unpacking the dense rhetoric of ‘sacrifice’ in post-9/11 discourse, or delineating the conflicting economic schemas that course through the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic—in all these cases, Shershow’s thinking maintains a buoyancy, a rigor, and a flexibility that is always refreshing, and equally challenging. 

Where I am tempted to quote something from the philosopher Jacques Derrida in order to further elaborate Shershow's contributions to contemporary critical theory, I will instead turn to a few lines by Wallace Stevens, from “The Ultimate Poem is Abstract”—these lines, I believe, evoke the spirit of Scott Shershow’s unique and inspiring style of inquiry, unworked:

If the day writhes, it is not with revelations.
One goes on asking questions. That, then, is one
Of the categories. So said, this placid space

Is changed. It is not so blue as we thought. To be blue,
There must be no questions. It is an intellect
Of windings round and dodges to and fro,

Writhings in wrong obliques and distances,
Not an intellect in which we are fleet…

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Done with Deconstructing Brad Pitt

evolution of the cover

Last weekend I delivered the final manuscript of Deconstructing Brad Pitt. It will be on bookshelves this coming September.

This book was incredibly stressful to put together, but highly rewarding in the end. It was, to borrow Brad Pitt's own word applied in various contexts, a "journey." (Most books are, but this one palpably so.)

From the original call for papers, some of the chapters never materialized; and some of those that did show up needed serious revisions that then never materialized. One contributor died. Another one went crazy (read the book for the rest of that story). My own chapter kept evading me and shifting topics as it moved—finally I nailed it down and had a lot of fun with it, but it's pretty weird. There were other quirks and oddities not suitable for discussion on a blog.

Originally I intended to edit the collection myself, and I went at it alone for about a year—but it became overwhelming. The chapters seemed at turns too personal or too detached. Editing the chapters was like trying to get into other people's heads, and specifically that part of a head that is obsessed with someone else. (The experience was reminiscent of Being John Malkovich.) Celebrity studies is a hard thing to get right: it is all too easy to be cooly dismissive, or to take things way too seriously. It was difficult to balance attachments to Brad Pitt (as an artist, as an icon, as a person) with the more exterior conceptual framework, such that the book would have critical value (whatever that means).

My friend and co-editor Robert Bennett really saved the book. Last summer I invited him to join me on this distinguished endeavor, and luckily for me he accepted. Robert came on the scene with fresh energy and ideas for how to think about the book and arrange its contents. The book has this sidelong relationship to Jacques Derrida—thus the "deconstructing" in the title—and we were trying to play throughout with some of the more approachable ideas implied by his quasi-philosophy. But we're not trying to suggest that Pitt is uniquely deconstructive. Rather, it is simply a useful way to think about all sorts of celebrities, how they appear and what sort of cultural work they do, how they communicate. I like to imagine an ongoing series of books applying this title-word and accompanying strategy: Deconstructing Philip Seymour Hoffman, etc. I may be the scourge of the humanities, but it seems to me that if we can't use our ideas to talk about the shimmering and vibrant world around us—then what are we doing? And the thing about deconstruction is that it is a positive term. It's generous. It gives.

For a project that started out as a joke over ten years ago, and which may strike some as ludicrous, this book turns out to have surprisingly good essays in it concerning a range of issues connected (more or less directly) to the name Brad Pitt. It's a book that takes Brad Pitt seriously, but which is also playful. It's personal, and yet aware of itself. I'm really happy with how the book turned out, and very glad that it is done.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Introducing Tim Morton

The title of this blog post is silly; Tim Morton needs no introduction at this time. But I had to introduce him last night, before his talk at Loyola, and writing an introduction for Tim was a nice walk down memory lane—so I'm posting it here for general reading:

I first met Timothy Morton in 2003, when I was starting out as a PhD student at the University of California, Davis.

Tim had just been hired at Davis, to replace the famous poet and acclaimed nature writer Gary Snyder, who was retiring around that time. These were big shoes to fill, but we heard enticing rumors of Professor Morton's edgy and daring style of eco-criticism, and we had our hopes set high.

That first year of grad school, I took one of Tim's seminars on environmental aesthetics, and I'll always remember one day when Tim came in, plugged his laptop into the room's loudspeakers, and broadcast the computer as it robotically and awkwardly read his notes aloud for the day's discussion. Tim sat there silent and grinning; we sat there uncertain, shifting and uncomfortable—which somehow exactly proved his point that day. (We were discussing Frankenstein.) 

A few years later I worked up the nerve to ask Tim if he would be on my dissertation committee; I was writing about airports in literature from a curious ecological angle. Tim told me to meet him at his office the next day.

I met Tim at his office the next afternoon, and he suggested we go get coffee.

Twenty minutes later, we were sitting on a bench in the quad, sipping coffee and looking out at the cork oaks and streams of bicyclists. I launched into some elaborate theories of postmodern space, dislocated regionalism, and air travel's place in all this. I had brought a few pages of typed questions and notes, which I handed to him at some point. Tim scanned the pages as I rambled on for several minutes.

Then I stopped, completely out of steam. I needed guidance—that's why I was a graduate student, after all.

Tim paused, looked back at my pages, then around the quad…and then he asked me:

"Have you ever really tasted an avocado?" 

We spent the next 45 minutes talking about avocados—and this conversation totally changed how I thought about airports.

That pretty much sums up what it's like to work with Tim: he catches you off guard, in exactly the right way. 

One of the most important things I learned from Tim was about teaching, and it proves more true and effective each year that I teach college courses. 

This was in a graduate seminar on pedagogy; we were talking about poetry, and all the ways you could teach rhyme and meter, explain structure and form—but at one point Tim broke through all the jargon and said, "You know what? Just dare to be dumb." 

This was shocking, but so true: between the students and the texts in front of us all, we'd figure it out. It's all there. All we had to do was dare to ask simple questions, without having already made up our minds. Dare to read things slowly—decelerate! was one of Tim's mantras in that class. 

The longer I teach, and the dumber and dumber I feel each year standing in front of savvy new college students, I take more and more solace in Tim's point. Daring to be dumb means letting raw intelligence emerge in front of me, each new year, in every class.

Tim's writings on ecology, aesthetics, literature, and philosophy are audacious and sincere, trenchant and playful. His work has influenced myriad fields, and for good reason. It will rock your world, if you're open to it.