Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Meta-Blogging 8. TPMcafe and The Allure of the Expert.

TPMcafe has finally launched, after months of breathless trailers. The trend towards consolidation of blogs has made me a little uneasy: it's inevitable, but the break-neck pace toward respectability leaves me a little sad. Josh Marshall's was the first blog I ever found, which is perhaps a sign of my media elitedom, but he was for me the entry into a world of rough n' tumble rhetoric, a twenty-first century debating society, or true participation in the online world.

The TPMcafe represents to me a very savvy move economically: Marshall is a free-lance journalist, and his online reputation has created a buzz that he is leaping on to establish a bloggy career. He is thereby securing a position for himself while cementing an institution for this ephemeral medium. It's a postive sign for the venture that the media-savvy Matt Yglesias should have decided to jump ship from his old url to join the TPM crowd.

While there's a certain sadness to seeing the format of blogging hit the mainstream, one shouldn't be entirely pessimistic. The enlisted bloggers are genuinely smart, trustworthy in their fields. The blogs are enabling (registered) comments, which is more than Marshall's TPM could boast.

For a much more positive take on the TPMcafe launch, see hilzoy's post on Obsidian Wings, where she induces that one value of blogs is to disseminate more democratically the findings of experts:
Their work (at least, the work of those who didn't already have blogs) will instantly become much more accessible to us. We will have an opportunity to figure out for ourselves whether or not to trust them. If we do, they can help us navigate the worlds of DC and policy in ways we would have a much harder time doing on our own. Moreover, they will all be asking one another questions, and responding to each other's posts, which will be fascinating. And, best of all, we get to ask them questions as well. In this way, we will be able to learn a lot of things we badly need to know, and to assess what we learn in ways we could never assess, for instance, a newspaper editorial or a long piece in the New Yorker.

In general and in principle, I do think that hilzoy is right, but I'm chaffing at the site's layout and registration restrictions and reserve the right to be cranky about bloggic changes for awhile.


Monday, May 30, 2005

Inevitable Venues For Satiric Genius

The Amazon Review is a marvel. Once completely uncensored, the easy reviewing function allowed authors to plug themselves, rivals to trash others anonymously, and of course for politicized books to get buffeted about like some CNN poll by waves of incoming blog-readers. Still, books trying to boost their tally of positive reviews or their "hip" factor might quote a "reader from Amazon" in the PR. I don't understand exactly why: t never worked on me, as a marketing technique, as I'd sooner trust one of those mindless plugs from the uniformly ghastly San Diego Union-Tribune.

Even before Amazon required reviewers to register with "real names," some reader/critics were starting to brand themselves. The Amazon "Top 20" or 50 or whatever reviewers are judged by other readers by their usefulness, and, generally, the system works: these commentaries are generally more informative, carefully written, and culturally sensitive than most of the crap that one sees on Amazon. The top reviewers tend carefully to the presentation of their online personae: most went by real names before they were required, and many posted general personal information about themselves.


It was only a question of time before someone hacked the system to create online performance art. Henry Raddick, who claims to be reviewing from the UK, has written scores of short, skewed reviews. For example, on Margo Woods's Masturbation Tantra and Self Love, he comments:
I bought this book to help my son Jonathan see a more zen side to masturbation. Or in fact any other side than the furtive and grubby.
And on Linda Egger's Spam: The Cookbook, we get:
This is a bold and imaginative cookery book. Eggers shows flair with a daring East/West fusion in her Thai influenced Spam with Mint and Brocoli: tender chunks of luncheon loaf stir-fried with fish sauce, chili, brown sugar and brocoli then topped with fresh mint. Look out too for her Spam en Croute - slab of reconstituted pork coated in a rich mushroom pate and wrapped in filo pastry. It's a triumph. That distinctive taste of the abbatoir floor you get with Spam comes through best, perhaps, in a simple yet delicious Spam Tartare - raw Spam, ground with anchovies, egg yolk, mustard, oil and Worcestershire Sauce. Mmmmmm. Heaven.
And on the almost implausible God's Diet: A Short and Simple Way to Eat Naturally, Lose Weight, and Live a Healthier Life by the totally implausible Dorothy Dr Gault-McNemee, Raddick raves:
This well-researched book argues for a regime of healthy eating using fresh produce. I have had serious weight issues myself and I have probably tried every diet there is going. The secret of healthy eating is feeling good about yourself and your body image. For a divine entity of incomprehensible dimensions, infinite mass is what God feels comfortable with, and this comforts me.
Most reviews get the full five stars (except, like, Shakespeare); the dagger-thrust is the voice of the person who loved the book.

Raddick has been at this since the fall of 2000, so he's developed quite a following. The most recent review seems to be 2003, so perhaps he's taken up blogging.

[HT: Vodkapundit]


Meta-Blogging 7. The Tech Crew Speaks

A TV cameraman notices that the instantianity of the digital citizen's footage is edging out good composition and editing values. Part of "Lenslinger's" comment:
No one expected the democratization of media to be pretty, but the attendant lens abuse is enough to break this cinematographer’s heart. But that ship has sailed, a nautical phrase as apparently outdated as Wide-Medium-Tight and Steady Sequenced Video. What use are lofty production values to the herky-jerky nature of today’s internet footage? Does proper composition really matter when the end product is viewed on a one inch screen? Of course it does - but only to us broadcast dinosaurs. This new hybrid breed of digital scribe gives little thought to such matters, instead relying on quick image uploads and push-button publishing to make up for his lack of camera acumen.

The post is a remarkably fair analysis of technological change in image capturing and how it affects social organization, aesthetics--and employment opportunities.
[Via Jeff Jarvis, who makes the obvious leap to blogging.]


The Revolution Controvery Continues

University of Michigan Law Professor Don Herzog, at Left2Right, has been recreating the pamphlet wars of the 1790s on the internet. It's fascinating to watch. Having gained the trust of some very smart conservatives, he posts excerpts of some of anti-Jacobin polemics, frames it non-confrontationally, and lets loose the power of the comment-thread to see what pops up. It's a thorny problem, and I continue thinking about it below the fold.

The taught history of this period, of course, is that the French Revolution was the most important and influential popular expression of equality that had ever existed, that it set the terms for equal suffrage for later democracies, and that it gave a permanent warning to all governments that some abuses a populace, even a debased one, would not stand. I do think that all this is true.

Yet, as some very fine revisionist historians have shown, "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite" purposively left out some people, like all those who might feel drawn to either "soroite" or the more inclusive humanite." Even leftist historians feel sympathy for those English fellow-travellers who reacted with horror when the French revolutionary government moved on Switzerland, one of the few states whose regimes had a decently popular support.

The effect of these ambiguities on the more open society of England--open in the sense of having a well-established free press and having had a revolution, of sorts, of its own in the 17thc--was an extraordinarily eloquent public argument in oratory, verse, drama, pamphlets, novels, and treatises--to the point that some historians have claimed (and I'm thinking Perry Anderson here) that English writers and activists had such access to communicating their political views that they were more easily encompassed into the political process, thereby circumventing the possibility of violently overthrowing the reigning class structure. Cause, effect, outcome, almost moot: for a student of this sort of conflict, the English pamphlet wars are among the richest public debates between a nascent liberalism and a nascent conservatism.

The best resource for reading on this subject, by the way, is an anthology edited by the hardheaded, erudite Marilyn Butler: Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the Revolution Controversy (Cambridge UP, 1984). The introductory essay is short and--man--it's something.

So Herzog has been scratching at what might indeed be primal scars. In his first such post, he goes straight for the jugular: Burke's suspicion that atheism might lead one into abstract schemes that would entail violence. In the second post, he disguises his hand somewhat more, posting a link to William Paley's suggestion that the working classes of England should make themselves content within their means--and he strips this argument of its political context, asking commentors whether they identify with its logic. In the third post, he reproduces segments of Hannah More's pamphlet that stages a debate between a Paineite and a pious status-quoist, and he argues that while the Paineite's atheism might not be relevant today, the political view of popular franchise has certainly prevailed over Moore's paternalizing separation of duties.

And this is where we get into trouble. All of the texts Herzog cites were written within a charged political context, no matter how important the individuals who wrote them. They are perhaps two steps removed from blog posts for immediacy and directedness. Yes, the argument that was created at this time set many boundaries and tropes for both conservative and liberal thought--but the literary historian in me rebels to see the language of the argument so entirely uncontextualized, made so entirely into ideology that can be transposed into the present.

I understand the impulse: the site is, after all, managing to foster a civil dialogue between liberal academics and conservative commenters, which is surely be an online achievement. And yet it does so by a curious flattening of all the historical figures involved.

Next up: the liberal reading of conservative icon, Edmund Burke. And then, later, a conservative reading of Tom Paine. They do shift around so....


More Stereotypes of Artists!

This time from my own romantic experience, and with special emphasis on verbs.

I worked alongside my visual artist.

I ran away with my poet.

I tried to translate my composer.

How much objective description of the working processes of these media; how much projection?


Saturday, May 28, 2005

Wodehouse on Artists

Since one of my six readers professes himself a fan of Plum, and since, well, one might as well please the readers one has...I proffer this brief selection of Wodehouse quotes on art and the business thereof.

“Poets as a class are business men. Shakespeare describes the poet’s eye as rolling in a fine frenzy from heaven to earth, and giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name, but in practice you will find that one corner of that eye is generally glued on the royalty returns” (Uncle Fred in the Springtime138).

“Although in the vers libre days in Greenwich Village she had gone in almost exclusively for starkness and squalor, even then she had been at heart a sentimentalist. Left to herself, she would have turned out stuff full of moons, Junes, loves, doves, blisses and kisses. It was simple that the editors of the poetry magazines seemed to prefer rat-ridden tenements, the smell of cooking cabbages, and despair, and a girl had to eat” (The Return of Jeeves 68).

“About this time there was a good deal of suffering in the United States, for nearly every boat that arrived from England was bringing a fresh swarm of British lecturers to the country. Novelists, poets, scientists, philosophers, and plain, ordinary bores; some herd instinct seemed to affect them all simultaneously. It was like one of those great race movements of the Middle Ages. Men and women of widely differing views on religion, art, politics, and almost every other subject; on this one point the intellectuals of Great Britain were single-minded, that there was easy money to be picked up on the lecture-platforms of America, and that they might just as well grab it as the next person.
“Mrs. Hignett had come over with the first batch of immigrants; for, spiritual as her writings were, there was a solid streak of business sense in this woman, and she meant to get hers while the getting was good. She was half-way across the Atlantic with a complete itinerary booked, before ninety per cent of the poets and philosophers had finished sorting out their clean collars and getting their photographs taken for the passport (The Girl on the Boat 9-10).

“I’ve just finished my new novel. Fairly good, I think, but what does it prove? I sometimes wish I wrote that powerful stuff the reviewers like so much, all about incest and homosexualism” (Yours, Plum 161).


Friday, May 27, 2005

Stem Cells and Treason

In 2000, Orson Scott Card, Mormon SF-fantasy writer, began a response to a reader's question about his early novel Treason by remarking that
For some reason, this second novel of mine has suddenly started to surface again in the past few months -- I get asked about it more than any other book outside the Ender and Alvin series. Maybe its time has come.
He might be engaging in self-congratulatory hyperbole, and then again, he might not. Since I don't make a habit of perusing Card's website and in fact searched for information about this book, the beginning presumption of this quote is, rather, not. Explanation below the fold.

Back in 1978, a young editor at Ensign published a little SF novel, A Planet Called Treason, about a planet of peoples who had evolved highly specialized genetic characteristics. As the novel and planet reveal their secrets, it becomes clear that the peoples are descended from a cargoload of transported convicts, each of whom gave a name to the tribe/subspecies that subsequently developed. One of the tribe was named "Niggers," a name Card quietly changed to "Inkers" (better?) in the book's 1988 revision and republication under the simpler title Treason.

The structure of the book is a kind of Bildungsroman: Lanik Mueller, a young misfit--a genetic failure, even--leaves his community (over which he, as an hereditary prince, might have reigned, perhaps a weak point), wanders through the various societies of the planet, and comes to understand that the diverse peoples are perpetuating their imprisonment on the planet when the resources to leave it are available if everyone would share their abilities and knowledge.

As I recall my early teen impressions of Treason, it leaves one with a deep sadness: the idea of an entire planet's civilizations' being punished--and worse, that the genetic evolution of future generations should have been encouraged as divisive--struck me as an extraordinary injustice. It is to the book's credit that these foundational concepts are revealed gradually and logically.

Since this is an older book, it's hard for me to tell offhand what its sales figures were, have been, or are. Amazon seems only to offer used copies, and the (eight, glowing but vague) reviews of it are mostly older.

So much for the neutral description. What really sticks in one's memory (besides the concept of an entire planet's being left in speciefied ignorance) is the description of the community that Lanik left. Lanik is a "regenerative," meaning that his body has the ability to grow new parts. In the Mueller community, which descended from a geneticist, this ability is fairly common, but Lanik has little control over his body: it grows unnecessary and cumbersome parts. Lanik is one of the comparatively common group of "radical regeneratives." Card in the abovelinked response suggests that Lanik's feeling of being separate from his out-of-control body had its origins in Card's own feelings of being alienated from his physical self. This existential version of the life of a "rad-regen" does still evoke sympathy, but Card's dystopian vision of how the Mueller community deals with its rad-regen off-spring has left a permanent trace in my mind.

The rad-regens are kept in prison compounds. They are thrown scraps of food, treated like animals. Their excess limbs and organs are harvested. According to the mores of the Mueller society, rad-regens should be considered as precisely the value of their parts, on the resale market. I've forgotten exactly to whom the Muellers sold these parts, given that this people seems defined by its ability to regrow parts; still, I'll never forget my thirteen (or was it earlier?) year-old self reacting in horror to the muddy pens where the rad-regens were kept, and to the sub-human category they were filed under.

Now, *flash* to real life and the present.

Stem-cell research, as I understand it, entails the use of either less flexible adult cells or more flexible (in the sense of "able to develop into therapeutically useful") fetal cells. Pro-life opponents of this sort of research envoke imagery similiar to Card's Rad-Regen gulag: potentially intelligent beings are being kept in laboratories for harvesting.

Myself, I am pro-choice, pro-stell-cell research, and pro-definitions of "life" that remember that born human babies, unlike those of many other species, require massive committment on the part of the mother.

All that said, Card's dystopia of human harvesting continues to haunt me, and perhaps others. There are many important differences between using therapeutically embryonic fetuses and enslaving adult mutant regeneratives for harvesting: the key one being, of course, the distinction between "fetal" and "adult." All this I rationally know, but, perhaps fifteen years after last reading Treason, I remember the holding pens.


Thursday, May 26, 2005

Moments of Disenchantment

If there is anyone reading this who does not also read Teresa Nielsen-Hayden, I would recommend following her erudite commentors' thread on books into whose emotional dynamics one has too closely seen. Yes, the prompt seems to have been my entry on Perez-Reverte, and I am grateful for the attention, though I don't know how my blog came to T N-H's attention, but her reframing of my reading and the reponses of her readers are much more interesting than my initial post, so go to!


Tim Hawkinson

I went this afternoon to the Whitney Museum, with the goal, admittedly, of seeing the Cy Twombly exhibit (alas), but the experience was far from a wash. Before I launch into discussing Hawkinson's work, respect is surely due to the Whitney for devoting a room to recent lithographs. While there was a curious family relationship between the works shown (tending towards the busy, painterly, and dark), a few pieces stood out: Mehretu's, of course, and then Carrol Dunham's, an artist who was new to me. I'll look out for his? her? pieces in the future.

An entire floor of the Whitney was devoted to the work of Tim Hawkinson. Without reading any of the curatorial texts, within a couple of rooms I was saying to my friend "This guy has got to be a West Coast artist." Without savvier art-critic vocabulary available, I'm left saying that the "hey man, that's neat" factor marks the West Coast artist. And as a Berkeley child accompanied by another Californian hippie child, I wandered through this exhibit saying "hey, look at that--wow, that's cool." A perhaps more intelligent analysis follows after the jump, but I'm not promising much.

Hawkinson works in a dizzying number of media: velvet paintings, oil, drawing, fingernail-clipping sculptures, installation, sound-installation, mechanical realizations of concepts, plexiglass wall installations, and that's just the beginning. He tends to favor a do-it-yourself aesthetic: the machine that continually recreates his autograph, for example, is fashioned of a yellowed disk with jerry-rigged nails, grooves, and hammered and rehammered pistons. All of the machinary is laid bare.

One shocking piece, shocking perhaps in its simplicity, is the "Emoter," a close-up photograph of the artist with moving elements. According to the random calculations of a very simple machine on view, eyebrows, eyelids, and lips move around; yet, as the left and right sides move independently, the effect is totally disorienting.

Sometimes one wonders if the rush to realize an idea hasn't compromised the quality of realization. His wonderful H.M.S.O., a kind of dream-catcher rendered in nautical models, with rigged masts projecting where webbing would in the Native American version, shows the signs of many a last minute supergluing--and there's even a supermarket price-tag on one dowel. The armored knight who has seemingly succumbed to some horrible invading virus--a powerful piece--still shows some untreated polyeurathane under one armpit.

These are quibbles. There is so much in this exhibit that excites me that I feel justified in wanting slightly more. For example, there is a wonderful installation called "Drip," in which a white, tangled, plasticized "tree" emits drips into carefully calibrated metal buckets. The sounds were lovely, but too infrequent. And the tree itself? Extraordinary! I wanted it to branch across the entire gallery. As an installation, it should have invaded the space. More! More!

Here is a link to the Whitney's PR on the exhibit. It seems as though he has been pretty savvy about his PR (some of his art suffered somewhat from his attempt to justify it to the "process" crowd), which might account for the non-obviousness of links online to images of his stuff.


Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Marian, Madame Pentagon Librarian

Poking around today, I found Seymour Hersh's 2001 NYT magazine article on the Jonathan Pollard spy case. A fascinating article about the spook world, with many loquacious anonymous sources. There's one paragraph that made me laugh out loud:
Government investigators discovered that one of the system's [the Defense Intelligence Agency's Community On-Line Intelligence System, or DIAL-COINS] heaviest users in 1984 and 1985 was Jonathan Pollard. He had all the necessary clearances and necessary credentials to gain access to the classified Pentagon library; he also understood that librarians, even in secret libraries, are always eager to help, and in one instance he relied on the library security guards. With some chagrin, officials involved in the Pollard investigation recounted that Pollard had once collected so much data that he needed a handcart to move the papers to his car, in a nearby parking lot, and the security guards held the doors for him.

This is the kind of absurdist everyday detail that marks the better spy novels--and which the more recent Bond films have abandoned entirely.


Tuesday, May 24, 2005

I feel so justified

Ever since my somewhat histrionic de-veiling, I've wondered whether I'd mistaken the moment, whether NARAL's endorsement of the pro-choice Republican Chafee might not represent some sell-out on my part, whether I had taken all considerations in light. Well, one commenter on a follow-up at Yglesias's site really makes my dilemma easier. I cite Dan Kervick:

If NARAL wants to accomplish something, wouldn't backing a pro-choice Democrat be a better option? What has Chaffee actually accomplished? It's all well and good for NARAL to stand on principle but if they keep backing Repubs they'll be going down with the ship.

It's not just principle. An advocacy group like NARAL can't be effective if it continually compromises the integrity of its endorsements for the sake of high-risk partisan strategems, and too-clever-by-half political foxiness. Langevin had a 10% rating from NARAL. How could they possibly endorse him?

Suppose NARAL had endorsed Langevin. Consider some strongly pro-choice, northern Republican woman, in some state other than Rhode Island, who actually looks to NARAL for guidance on who has the best position on choice, and sometimes allows that guidance to move her to cross over and vote for the other party. She calls NARAL headquarters in 2010, and the following conversation ensues:

"Whom do you endorse in the upcoming Senatorial race?"

"We are endorsing Senator Laran"

"Well, Senator Laran is a Democrat ... and I usually don't vote for Democrats"

"We understand, but if you are interested in voting for the candidate with the best record on abortion rights, it is Senator Laran"

"How do I know that is true?"

"Because we say so ... because that's what we do here at NARAL. We do a lot of homework on the candidates, and endorse the one who has the best record on abortion rights and closely related issues."

"Yes, but what about that time you endorsed that guy Langevin from Rhode Island. I heard he had a 10% rating from NARAL - yet you endorsed him anyway."

"Well that was different. In that case, we decided it was most important to endorse the candidate from the party that was most likely to protect abortion rights."

"Which was ... ?"

"The Democrats."

"Well then how do I know that's not what you're doing now? - endorsing Laran because he is a Democrat, even though the other candidate has a better record on choice?"

"Ummm ... because we're not. Because we wouldn't do that. We wouldn't deceive you like that"

"Uh-huh ... just like with Langevin and Chaffee, right?"

"That was different ... That was special. It was really, really crucial that we get a Democratic majority in the Senate that year."

"And this election isn't special? It's not crucial that a Democratic candidate win this race?"

"No, it's not ... The party imbalance is such that it really doesn't matter this time. There is no chance that the Sentate will tip in a different direction. That's why we're just endorsing the candidates with the best records on abortion rights this time."

"So then what you're saying is that I might as well vote for a Republican, since I agree with the Republicans on all the other issues, and abortion rights don't hang in the balance ... and no matter which candidate wins this race, the overall national direction on abortion won't change."

"Um ... no ... It's not that non-special and non-crucial. Abortion rights always hang in the balance ... sort of."

"Uh huh ... so that's why you want me to vote for Laran ... because he's a Democrat and you basically always support Democrats."

"Well I guess we do always support Democrats."


"Because they are the party of choice."

"Like Langevin and Casey and Reid, right? - and some of those other pro-life Democrats you've supported in the last few years."

"Well they are mostly the party of choice - most of the time."

"Yeah well it looks to me like the Democrats will soon be the 'party of choice' the way the Republicans are the 'party of Lincoln' - even when they are running guys like Jesse Helms and Trent Lott."


Meta-Blogging 6. Using Blogs in Classrooms

I've been meaning for awhile to track down the posts of Eszter ( the most under-appreciated contributor to Crooked Timber) on requiring her students to maintain blogs in her classes. Here is her syllabus for her undergrad "Internet and Society" course. Sample:

Blog portfolio

Your blog portfolio makes up 25 percent of your final grade. You will submit a blog portfolio by 10am Monday March 7th, 2005. Your blog portfolio will include:
- 5 blog posts
- a list of all blogs on which you posted comments throughout the quarter

Five blog posts: Print-outs of five blog entries from your blog from throughout the quarter. It is up to you to choose the entries you think are of the highest quality.
Five comments: Print-outs of five comments you made on other people's blogs. It is up to you to choose comments that you think best engaged in discussions with others in the class. List of blogs on which you commented: A list of all blogs and post titles by classmates on which you posted comments throughout the quarter.

It's probably important to point out to anyone reading this who is not a teacher that such "journal" requirements are not at all uncommon. Many university level courses now have online components, although my class online message-boards are heavily encrypted (and slow). What is different about the blogging format is its publicness. Eszter's syllabus has some wonderful assigned readings, many of which are hyperlinked.

She posts publicly on the course project twice: once at the beginning of the project, where she thinks through some of the issues that such an assignment might entail:
As to why require blogs in the first place, here are some reasons. First, I like the idea of asking student to keep journals. It is hard to get students to do class readings, but requiring constant reaction to the readings and discussions should help. Second, I think asking students to maintain blogs will help convey some points to them about the potential of the Web to help people reach wide audiences. Of course the particular point there is that simply having a Web site in no way guarantees that someone suddenly has a wide-reaching public voice. But I think this will be easier to convey if students experience it first hand. On the other hand, the blogs will be public and it may be that people not associated with the class find them, read them and comment on them, which could be an interesting experience for students. (I have specific plans in mind to encourage such outside involvement.) Finally, knowing that one’s peers are reading one’s writing seems to encourage more serious reflection on the part of students than simply handing in assignments to an instructor so the overall quality of writing should be higher. That’s more of a hunch than a claim I can back up by any systematic evidence.

At this point she isn't quite sure how to reconcile the privacy rights of students with publicness, and so her tentative plan is to suggest that they use pseudonyms.

At around the middle of the semester, she writes again about how the assignment panned out in practice. Sample quote:
Judging from midterm feedback, it sounds like most students are enjoying the blogging experience although some find commenting on others’ blogs a bit tedious. At the same time others find it disappointing that they are not getting more feedback so it’s hard to satisfy everyone. Having students blog about the readings is certainly helpful for an understanding of how they are processing the material. Their blog entries have guided discussion in several class sessions.

Rereading this post I understand that Eszter is hoping that the Crooked Timber readership will go and read her students' blogs and respond to their thoughts. It seems that perhaps her students had thought that opening a public forum (after all that anxiety over making oneself public and all that) would let the barbarians in--but the barbarians didn't show up, of course.

Having briefly visited about six of Eszter's students' sites, I can say that posters maintained pseudonyms, that few of them continued posting after February, and that they all have better website design skills than I do.

Eszter promised the CT community a final write-up about the blogging-in-class experience, a promise which, to my knowledge, she has never delivered upon. Color me interested.

And, as Eszter herself hasn't publicized it, I'd like to draw my five readers' attention to her new blog, Web Use News, which tracks trends in online behavior and social organization. Eszter is particularly up on the research relating to search-engines and the way they pattern knowledge; this post demonstrates what kinds of findings this research can offer.


The Unitarian Menace

Billmon drew the blogosphere's attention to the mustering Unitarian jihad back in April. The first proclamation of this fell group was published by godless quisling Jon Carrol in the SF Gate:
Greetings to the Imprisoned Citizens of the United States! Too long has your attention been waylaid by the bright baubles of extremist thought. Too long have fundamentalist yahoos of all religions (except Buddhism -- 14-5 vote, no abstentions, fundamentalism subcommittee) made your head hurt. Too long have you been buffeted by angry people who think that God talks to them. You have a right to your moderation! You have the power to be calm! We will use the IED of truth to explode the SUV of dogmatic expression!

Sad to say, some have answered to that dread call! And to those who think the Unitarians jest? The Unitarian Universalist wiki revendicates its new name, urging fellow-travellers to let "the Pepper Spray of your Passion interdepend with the Web of your Warm Humanitarianism." They have even mechanized the cultish practice of renaming individuals within the cause.


Edmund Burke saw these people coming! He knew how best to characterize the Unitarian menance! In a May 1792 parliamentary speech "On the Petition of the Unitarians," he declamed that:
These insect reptiles, whilst they go on only caballing and toasting, only fill us with disgust; if they go above their natural size and increase the quantity, whilst they keep the quality, of their venom, they become objects of greatest terror. A spider in his natural size is only a spider, ugly and loathsome, and his flimsy net is only fit for catching flies. But, good God! Suppose a spider as large as an ox, and that he spread cables about us; all the wilds of Africa would not produce anything so dreadful.

Or the shadows of Mirkwood, presumably.

So: when you hear of Unitarians, yes, be afraid of their fearsome jihad against unreason, but above all, remember that they are really oxen-sized spiders in disguise.

(--Jackmormon, Sister Sword of Sweet Reason)


Sunday, May 22, 2005

Meta-Blogging 5. A Writing Teacher's Perspective

A commentor on this site, Nancy McKeand, maintains a blog concerned primarily with the teaching of writing. She has been thinking through and teaching how best to write in blog format in her last few posts, and in a way that is more sensitive and pragmatic than one finds from the better-known sources.



I first read Perez-Reverte as a young exchange student enjoying a leisurely vacation in Barcelona. I was at first charmed by The Flanders Panel, which reviewers rightly called a swashbuckling Name of the Rose. On later a later rereading, the central female character became less independant, more the sum of projections onto her, and the villain of the piece a disturbing homophobic fantasy. The Dumas Club presented a fascinating world of lower-tier book collecting (unconvincing mixed with Satanism--I liked the Sabatini references better), but again, there was a mysterious, younger woman with a Madonna-like face and an unhibited sexual drive to haunt the (older) male characters. The Polanski film was so embarrassing, even with some great early sequences and the almost-never-fail presence of Johnny Depp, that I decided to hold back on reading Perez-Reverte for a while.

On a recent library genre-book binge, I reconsidered: The Fencing-Master had had good reviews and good sales. I should give PR another shot, at least for the sake of entertainment. I should have trusted my instincts. The Fencing-Master is an intensification of trends I was picking up on before. More after the fold, with spoilers and invective.

The Fencing-Master is set in Madrid in 1868, a time of political upheaval: the industrialist bourgeoisie is conspiring against the throne and against the agitating Republicanist. Not that we really learn much about this conflict except as it furthers the "plot" because our protagonist is a self-consciously anachronistic fencing master, the non-threatening impoverished aristocrat Don Jaime, who venerates all the old traditions of gallantry and honor while remaining entirely disengaged from the world. The "plot" and the historical novel's generic demands require that he have some access to the world of people who care about the real world, so our noble aesthete takes afternoon coffee--seemingly every day--at a cafe where patrons loudly debate politics. These scenes would be purely expository if Don Jaime didn't eventually need to confide in one of the patrons (a journalist) about all those mysteriously important letters that fell into his hands. The journalist is promptly rewarded for his interest in current events by being twisted into an incompetent blackmailer before being tortured to death.

The plot line of the story, such as it is, tells the story of the beautiful and mysterious Senora Adela de Otero, a woman without connections in Madrid who offers Don Jaime three times his usual fee to teach her his secret fencing combination. Don J., being a traditionalist, at first refuses her offer, but then it is made clear that his real reservation wasn't sexist, per se, but rather that he is so devoted to his art that he is unwilling to teach the move to someone without sufficient expertise to use it effectively. Sra de O is champion-material, and so the reader gets a series of scenes in which the two of them practice fencing, with Don J manfully restraining his lustful urges at the sight of her breasts barely concealed by etc. etc.

She asks to be introduced to his other student (a couple of prop students show up once, but they aren't convincing), an important political type, they start an affair, he shows up murdered--with a single epee blow to the throat, sa-ha!--and a body resembling hers turns up mutilated in the river, and Don J is drawn into the fray as an unwilling, noble, vengeful detective. (see the note about the letters and the journalist, above, which in the novel really isn't much more developed)

Sra. de O is of course not dead. She and her beautiful Madonna-like face (in this iteration with a small scar by the mouth!) return to Don J to explain the whole plot. She was led astray by a powerful patron who raised her out of the muck, but by now she has been hideously corrupted. The body was that of her maid--this murder Don J cannot forgive. To make the moral dilemma that much easier, and quicker to resolve, Sra de O tries to seduce Don J, and as he relaxes his attention in anticipatory pleasure, he suddenly becomes aware that she is about to kill him with a hat pin! He kills her, perhaps in the process discovering the Ur-fencing-move he had been searching for.

So what kind of a book is this?It's not noir, which admits the imperfections of its protagonists, exposes systematic social corruption, and maintains some narrative suspense. It's not historical fiction, which usually explains a few things about how recent events shape the lives of the characters.

No, this book is a Gary Stu fantasy. All along you get secondary characters praising Don J's honor, indirectly by revering his anarchronistic dedication. The police detective whose investigation Don J has been obstracting is described as surprised by Don J's honor, honesty, and innocence:
Campillo looked at him as one might look at an exotic curiosity. "I assure you, Senor Astarloa, that you amaze me, word of honor. You really have no place in a country where the national pastime consists in firing a blunderbuss at the first person to appear around the corner, a country where two people having an argument will be immediately joined by two hundred more, who just want to find out what the issue is and then take sides" (205-6).
Sra de O pays Don J the compliment of observing that the assassins she had sent to kill him at the journalists' house had left the scene running, terrified and ignominously wounded (did one of the hits in the dark really need to go to the groin?): "They said you fought like Lucifer himself" (227). Even her insults at the last translate easily into praise, once the value-system decoder-ring has been beaten into the reader's skull. The final scene of this self-involved novel puts the central character precisely where he was all along: practicing lunges in front of a mirror with a dead beautiful woman in the background.

The only reason I'll ever read a Perez-Reverte novel again is if his next incarnation of the detached older man seduced by a mysterious and beautiful younger woman happens to work in an industry that piques my interest. The exposition of unusual professions is the only element in his books that has any merit for me any more.


Saturday, May 21, 2005

Apropos of Nothing at All

The elevator of my building has in the last two days taken on an odor that mixes notes of cat piss, barely digested alcohol, man-sweat, and dead mouse. Since the elevator does not usually smell of anything in particular, it seems to me that some particular event must have created this lingering foulness. But what?


Art Collectors' Shenanigans

I recently was embarrassed to realize how few blogs of my fellow commenters on Obsidian Wings I had clicked on, despite my general opinion that the best way to find new cool blogs was to follow the links of intelligent posters. So I today clicked on a few. And you know what? I found some cool stuff.

Via David Sucher, I found an article from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about Washington State's reluctance to pursue tax-evading art collectors. Apparently, revenue investigator Linda Fryant found a way to track Washington collectors' out-of-state, unreported art purchases--and was put on paid administrative leave because of it. People involved seem surprisingly willing to go on the record in this article; maybe it's because the Seattle PI is a regional newspaper, maybe it's because officials figured few easily outraged political types would pay attention to an arts piece.

Mike Gowrylow, Department of Revenue spokesman, actually went on the record saying:
"We don't want to kill off the business of art collecting. If we have agents going to museums to see what's there and investigating those collectors for use-tax payments, will it destroy the collectors' desire to exhibit in museums?"

While I have to say that he has a point (most art collectors in France remain strictly anonymous out of fear of the "fisc," the IRS), this is still an extraordinary statement for a DOR to make. Maybe I've been reading too much national press, but he's really making himself vulnerable to charges of cronyism with this kind of rhetorical (?) question.

The DOR's accomodation of collectors', um, financial idiosynchrasies seems to be more wide than either the spokesperson or the journalist can express:
According to collectors, the DOR has been willing to waive not only penalties and interest but substantially reduce the principal of the tax bill for those who come forward voluntarily.

A draft of an agreement between the agency and an art collector hammered out in October 2004 is a good example.

It allowed the taxpayer to declare the value of the purchases without showing receipts, and reduced the taxes on that amount by 50 percent because the taxpayer said some sales tax had previously been paid. The draft stipulated that "the time and effort needed to obtain documentation ... would be significant" and that fact-finding in the case would constitute "an extreme burden in cost and time."

A burden for whom?

"For both the taxpayer and the agency," said Gowrylow. "For voluntary disclosures, we can practice an unofficial amnesty. We do it in the interests of collecting funds for the state. These are people we might not reach at all if they hadn't contacted us, usually anonymously through their lawyers."

So, let me understand this correctly. If collectors declare the value of the art themselves, they get a 50 percent tax discount? That system surely creates an incentive to collecting contemporary art, doesn't it? "Oh, well, now so-and-so's art commands five-digit figures, but I bought this piece for a song two years ago!" And the dealer can use the cash part of the payment towards wine and cheese for openings or, depending on the price scale, a remodelling of his or her bathroom.

I would like to be able to move to the epode here, where I would resolve my concerns about collectors' usefulness to the art world and their skullduggery, and about tax collectors' moral responsibility to collect taxes without making class judgments and their pragmatic concern to get as much on paper as possible. But I am not a lyric poet, and I see no easy solutions (or even meaningful syntheses) to this problem.


Enough is enough

I've been thinking about this for awhile.

But it was this blithe post by young Yglesias that really made me decide to come out and say it. [ft. 1]

I am a woman, I am single, and I have had recourse to the "morning after" pill. I have been in committed relationships, I have slept around, and I have been engaged. I use condoms with an o'erweening sense of virtue and I think that the pill might have been the most important invention of the 20th century. I decided at about 16, when still a virgin who planned to stay so until marriage, that I would probably abort a fetus (early) if I felt I could not do right by the child. The adopted kids from the neighborhood, frankly, did not present a positive ideal of the alternatives. I might start having qualms later into a pregnancy, but I would never presume to judge the circumstances of another woman's procrastination.

Generally, I feel that Professor B and her colleagues are representing my arguments well enough, but, [insuffficient expletives deleted] it was the insouciance of Matt's post that really hit me. Abortion rights are personal to some people, after all. It's not just political calculus to some of us.

Oh, and to the alias? It was born out of fora where I noticed subtle and not-so subtle bias against women. I didn't want to be part of gender bias (the Wollstonecraftian illusion) and figured I could argue my way out of religious bias in a way that might be useful. I am also a frothing Mieville fan, and so the chance to echo the revolutionary pass-name "Jack" seemed poignant to me. In Mieville as in historical sources of the late 1700s, both men and women used the name "Jacques" to convey their revolutionary sentiments. When I starting posting under the handle, I didn't think I'd get so sucked in, but once I was, I was more interested in making general rather than identitarian points.

These days, though, and increasingly, I sense that powers are massing against women. My mostly conservative parents support Roe v. Woe, my grandmother's having been a nurse who treated many a patient who'd suffered botched back-alley abortions; they'd always told me that Roe v. Wade would never been overturned, that we'd never go back to that. I look around me and I think, "For so many girls, it might as well be." Some major battles are to come; Bush is still trying to push through his nominees for judgeships, and, quite frankly, I worry about women in their early twenties who believe they're merely exercising their sexuality.

Anyway, it's an appropriate time for me to step out, onto the internet, as a woman and a feminist.

[ft. 1. (update) It's not so much the message of Matt's post (which is more about Chafee) as the facility of his waving away of NARAL, and, implicitly, that organization's concerns, that really tipped me over. I don't really blame Matt: he's a man, a wonk, and a prolific and often careless writer, not necessarily in that order. The rest of this post has been cleaned up since its first appearance, as the first version was very much published in the heat of the moment.]


Teaching Writing

Usually, this job is thankless. When a student's writing improves over the semester, a humble instructor has to think "well, this student would have responded to any careful attention." Such a reaction is ethical--I continually worry about the impact of personality--but not at all gratifying. Perhaps ethics and gratification shouldn't intertwine, but I do know that a young teacher's desire to see immediate results can be misleading and even do harm to his or her students.

I had a student this semester who needed help. He was the nicest kid, the smartest from the ghetto high school, the potential kid, maybe the affirmative action kid. He had a Latino last name. He explained to me at one point how an excellent science project in high school had gotten him a support-staff job at the swanky university. Maybe those connections got his undergraduate application a special consideration, but the kid has potential.

He's smart, but at the beginning of my class, his second semester, his writing was still a mess: ungrammatical, unsystematic, non-subordinated in logic or in grammar. I hauled him into my office--and he took it like a trooper. This kid worked his ass off for my class, and, yes, he's going to continue to struggle, but he's on it now, I think.

If anyone is reading this, I hope you'll let me know whether it's beyond the pale to quote a little from this student's last paper. In any event, further musings are under the fold.

My department's curriculum demands that the final paper be a "retrospective" one, which I always try to interpret widely; in fact, I usually present the curriculum's goals and open an essay-prompt contest. Those who choose to disregard the voted-upon prompt usually have something particular that they want to say. The above-mentioned student definitely had something to say.

In the most lucid and heart-felt prose I'd ever seen from him, he talked about how his high school teachers told him that his essays were "convincing" and "interesting." He said that he had graduated in a spirit of confidence, that he could hack it at the prestigious university, even if perhaps he would not excell. Then, he talks about his first semester. His introductory English teacher doesn't accept his first draft; rewritten, the paper gets an ignominious C+.

The next sentence's pathos and restraint make me want to cry, so I find it impossible to paraphrase. If any readers think I've violated this student's privacy, I will immediately delete this part of the post.
The C+ did not hurt as much as tthe thoughts that came to my mind about my previous school. My thought processes lead me to question the academic integrity of the high school I graduated from. I began to assume my teachers patronized me, and saluted me for a job well done, when in fact, it possibly was not well done.

In my comments to this paper, I of course tried to point out that this students' teachers were probably trying to encourage him, trying to keep a spark alive against perhaps difficult odds--but, oh gods, I felt for him, trying to work through having been the smartest kid in the ghetto to being one of the least prepared kid in the Ivy League. Least academically prepared, perhaps. Emotionally, he's three steps ahead. He even had tear-jerkingly kind things to say about my course:
It is weird to say [Jackmormon] constructively criticized a paper by never criticizing, meaning [Jackmormon] told you straight out "This is not quite right, let us work on this."

This is the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my teaching: that I was directly helpful. Yeah, we'd all like to be inspiring, and all that shit, but when it comes down to it, this kid is the kind of person whom we can really help. And, yeah, this kid managed to come to the perfect pedegogical attitude: he found out that he needed help, and he sought it. He was in my office more than anyone else--because he recognized that he needed help.

And this is the kind of kid whom we can really help. I spent more time with him and with my international students than with most of my bright, distracted students combined. Some of the brightest stars in my class didn't make any grade-progress over the semester; the terrible secret is that I don't feel bad about them. I have been a bright star, and I know how limiting arrogance can be at 17-18.

Well, anyway, the post is an indirect brag. This student's essay made my month, my semester--and no, my gratification didn't earn him an "a" because the whole point of what he was expressing was that some students are still able to respond to teachers' saying "you are bright, but your paper is still flawed."

This sort of response takes time and enormous tact (another way of expressing time). And, yes, my dissertation is progressing rather slowly.


Friday, May 20, 2005

Meta-Blogging 4. Trolls and References

Ben Wolfsen at Waste thinks about how the phenomenon of trolling has changed over the years. Here is the most useful paragraph:
I think that trolling can't really be done well on blogs or web-based message boards, at least not nearly as well as on Usenet. IMO, while Usenet-based trollings can be within one group, the prototypical troll depends on cross-posting between groups, one of which is trolled and the other of which is the troller, or at least the home group of the troller, because trollings are essentially ironic: the trolled audience doesn't know what's going on (or maybe they do know, but just! can't! help! responding!), and not just the troller, but also his audience, knows not only that a trolling is occurring, but also that the trolled audience is completely taken in. It's just not as fun otherwise. In fact it's kind of pathetic if you're the only one trolling a group; with cross-posting, or trolling within a group where some people take up the troll and others are taken in, there's some semblance of a social dynamic.

Later in Ben's entry, he provides some links to some "smashing trollings" from Usenet, but I'd swear I've seen worse in blog threads.

And Nadia of the Kinky Librarian (I've just discovered this blog, and I can say that, yes, she is kinky) posts a provisional bibliography of books on blogging:

Hewitt, Hugh. Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That's Changing Your World. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2005.

Pax, Salam. The Clandestine Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi. New York: Grove Press, 2003.

Stone, Biz. Who Let the Blogs Out? A Hyperconnected Peek at the World of Weblogs. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2004.

Rodvilla, John (edited by). We've Got Blog: How Weblogs are Changing Our Future. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Publishing, 2002.


Thursday, May 19, 2005

Uses of Nostaglia? Auerbach Edition

E. Hayot at Print Culture posts a little appreciative essay on Erich Auerbach's epilogue to Mimesis, an afterword I've also found heartbreaking in its tentative hopefulness. Hayot gives a smart, sensitive reading, and I'd particularly like to point out this concluding paragraph:
Nonetheless, to mobilize the (Western, American) past against the present, to fight the present in the name of a history that is better than what the present offers feels like a fairly compelling idea. The past, with all its hopes and mystifications, is to be sure a fairly malleable object. But it does have--unlike the future--an object-presence (the detritus piled up before the Angel of History) that offers grounds for resisting the uses to which it might otherwise be put. Strong, ample, fair, enduring (as Whitman said of America): the past offers both the possibility of a making and, as in the case of Mimesis, a powerful resistance to it. We were once, it might be able to say, far better than this.

I'm still musing this one over. It's a compelling idea, to be sure, which is why it's been mobilized in so many dubious causes by less careful historians than Auerbach...


Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Best Horoscope I've Ever Had

I flatly don't believe in astrology, which I ascribe, when I'm feeling defensive about it, which isn't often, to the shrinking responses I get from true believers when I cop to being a Scorpio.

That said, I often enjoy reading my horoscope. I've always taken a perverse pleasure in reading about what skullduggery my boss might have planned for my financial planning--particularly when I was reading as a high school student. Lately, I've enjoyed the Village Voice's existentialist "Free Will Astrology," and the Onion's absurdist horoscrope, brought to you by Lloyd Schumer Sr., Retired Machinist and AAPB-certified Astrologer (the mind boggles).

Today, which happened to coincide with undergraduate commencement day, Lloyd gave me the following horoscope:
All right. Scorpio is going to say this for the last fucking time. With an apostrophe, it means "it is" and without an apostrophe, it means "belonging to it." This is really not that hard.

I have since found it difficult to do any work, my day is so complete.


And she's not talking about bloggers. Maybe.

Kathryn Shevelow, in Women and Print Culture: The Construction of Feminity in the Early Periodical (Routledge, 1989), writes:
I am most concerned with the public construction of private life in the form of textual representations. This study will investigate the ways in which the construction of femininity in writing helped to encode a form of feminine authority that defined--that is, both enabled and delimited--a plce for women in print culture. The early popular periodical is a particularly revealing site of this construction, for reasons of both genre and historical development. Through its quotidian engagement with its audience and its historical situation as a 'new' form, organizing a 'new' audience, helping to produce a a newly coalescing ideology of middle-class liberalism, and rewriting gender, the early periodical was engaged in situating itself culturally. It formulated a cultural position in relation to an audience which in some senses, as a self-reflective body of periodical readers, did not exist prior to its organization by the periodical. As the periodical developed, it was constantly engaged in negotiating a relationship to its audience, a relationship variously composed of a mixture of consumer-oriented solicitousness, dependence upon audience complicity in textural production, and assumption of authority to prescribe readers' behavior. On these terms, the early periodical collected, influenced, and was influenced by, its audience. And, as I shall show, it represented that audience textually, not as an undifferentiated mass, but as an organization of specific, 'individual' readers and groups of readers.

My discussion here stresses the multiple ways in which the periodicals addresses and figured their women readers, and in so doing constructed a normative definition of feminity. So that reading the periodical not only brought readers into engagement with 'images of women' but also implicated them in a process of reading which itself was gendered and ideological, exerting a normative force. This process was certainly defined by authorial or editorial intention, but it also was shaped by the historical position and generic properties of the periodical text itself, as I shall show..." (115-116)

While I was just recently arguing with some nice people at Obsidian Wings that academics were no longer so worked up about identity politics, this bit of reading called to mind all of the women-blogger debates that flare up every so often--and Shevelow's historical point about how women and femininity might become, gradually, objects rather than subjects of discourse is an excellent one.

Generally, I feel that the user-friendliness of blogging takes us away from the message-forum technology towards the publication. These are no longer zines or chatrooms; they're something else, more akin to the earliest print fora. (Granted, most journals and magazines in the eighteenth-century tended to founder for lack of paying readership...) Early print journalism had a few versions of our professorial Bitches, our hilzoys, and our feminist Mormon housewives, but as Shevelow's book warns, these voices can be manouevred out of a dominantly male discourse that prefers to sentimentalize "family"--because it sells. This medium is just getting off the ground, and if I've put any effort into it, you know I'm convinced it's got some staying power. The regular feminist attacks on bloggy complacency, as rote as they might seem, should continue, if only to give us historical dignity.


Shout-out to the mathematicians in the house!

Between dissertation woes and the complications of dating an Iranian exile amid the frothing rumors of America's finally taking decisive action on that country, I haven't really managed to blog about much other than my own identitarian angst. So, to rectify that gap, I offer a couple of quotes from Douglas Hofstadter's Metamagical Themas and a link.

A "joke" (aka a teachable moment):
The renowned cosmogonist Professor Bignumska, lecturing on the future of the universe, had just stated that in about a billion years, according to her calculations, the earth would fall into the sun in a fiery death. In the back of the auditorium a tremulous voice piped up: "Excuse me, Professor, but h-h-how long did you say it would be?" Professor Bignumbska calmly replied, "About a billion years." A sigh of relief was heard. "Whew! For a minuted there, I thought you'd said a million years" (115).

The world is gigantic, no question about it. there are a lot of people, a lot of needs, and it all adds up to a certain degree of incomprehensibility. But that is no excuse for not being able to understand--or even relate to--numbers whose purpose is to summarize in a few symbols some salient aspects of those huge realities. Most likely the readers of this article [in Scientific American] are not the ones I am worried about. It is nonetheless certain that every reader of this article knows many people who are ill at ease with large numbers of the sort that appear in our government's budget, in the gross national product, corporation budgets, and so on. To people whose minds go blank when they hear something ending in "illion," all big numbers are the same, so that exponential explosions make no difference. Such an inability to relate to large numbers is clearly bad for society. It leads people to ignore big issues on the grounds that they are incomprehensible. The way I see it, therefore, anything that can be done to correct the rampant innumeracy of our society is well worth doing.

As Kent suggested on an Obsidian Wings thread about paying the cost of our current war in Iraq, these numbers can become much more real when split into cost-per-taxpayer or cost-per-household.


Meta-Blogging 3. Reflections of a Guest Blogger

Liberal academic David Greenberg spent a week guest-blogging for conservative academic Dan Drezner and published his thoughts about the experience (shorter Greenberg: "it was hard") in the NYT. Drezner posts the full article and some follow-up links from around the more conservative blogosphere.


Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Metablogging 2. Academic blogging critique

Conscientious Objector gives The Valve a thorough going-over and in so doing, offers a number of thoughtful reflections about:

1. the genre of the blog-post
A blog is where you put down first thoughts, subject to revision. It's where you conjecture, weigh, revise, refine, amplify, explain, and sometimes recant. (Quite often, of course, it's just a place to spout off, but I'll leave those cases aside.) If your posts are regularly more structured than that, then you're writing essays or journal articles, not blog post. As such, a blog post works best when it's short and punchy and makes a strong, definite claim. There will always be time later to change your mind or amplify your defenses.

2. the difficulty academics have in adjusting their habits of thought to the former

3. the power-dynamics of a group blog
A group blog looks democratic, but it is actually an aristocracy. This adds a volatile element: internal politics. Who gets to be a "contributor" when there are so many possible contributors and when the privilege of being a contributor is being extended by invitation?

4. his prefered solution for The Valve (a "three-ring circus" of a site, with message boards, blogs, and lecture halls. Sounds complicated and high-maintenance).

I agree with him that the Valve hasn't quite found its voice yet. I somewhat agree with him about the aristocratic nature of group blogs, but I prefer this clear form of elitism to the "prefered regular commenter" kind that prevails on many big-circulation blogs. I suspect that acaedemics can adjust their mental habits more easily to blogging than back again. And I think his solution is crazy pie-blogging. Was that pithy enough?


Monday, May 16, 2005


Now they tell me. Teresa Nielsen-Hayden, one of my favorite writers on the internets, is an excommunicated Mormon. She tells the story of her ejection from (rejection of?) the Church here, in an essay that reads so familiar to me: this voice, this bemused pedantry about the arcana of Mormon historiography, is the one I slip into every time I explain what Mormons believe to a non-member ("gentile"). I particularly liked Teresa's description of the implausible Liahona, as a "magic dingus," and her anatomy of the Mormon prayer is so dead-on that I've got to grab it:
The next order of business was an opening prayer. Now, Mormonism has a lay ministry, which means that there is no professionally trained clergy; for instance, I think that Bishop Lee is a builder or contractor or some such thing. And though services are generally heartfelt, they are not graceful. One peculiarity this breeds is that everyone learns to pray by listening to everyone else, and certain phrases get repeated over and over, prayer after prayer, until they lose their sense.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, she gets excommunicated after writing an angry letter to the president of the church asking to leave the church after it mobilized against the ERA. A loathsome episode in church history, and I'm glad that Teresa opposed it with her all.

But I'm also glad to know that the Church didn't just swoop down and find her out. I'm not quite ready to leave entirely, not quite so alienated from my Mormon relatives (who are rather less insular than her family sounds), not so affected by Mormon temporal power. Perhaps more nostalgic.


Sunday, May 15, 2005

Current Exhibits in Williamsburg

I'm just dipping my toes back into the art world. I'm not and have never been a professional visual artist, art critic, reviewer, or collector, though I've dabbled and fantasticized in all of those categories. Teaching and working on my dissertation have the past couple years prevented me from keeping up with what I consider a serious hobby of mine. Summer has arrived, however, in my academic calendar, and so I took advantage today to venture out to Williamsburg's Taste event. Art galleries offering free food? I'm there.

Pierogi had, as usual, two intriguing exhibits.

In the main room were paintings by Johan Nobell (images in link), who makes pop fantastical landscapes in a color palette that reminded me of Takashi Murakami and a close but loose and outlined brushwork that made me think of 18th and 19th century Japanese history paintings and also of the comics artists who've been inspired by them. Nobell's paintings have a static quality to them, however: while the techniques that he's using tend toward the narrative, his landscapes are more surreal montages, emblems. The work is compelling, but I feel as though there might be one or two steps that are missing in his thought, although I can't quite put my finger on what they might be.

More interesting to me, although messier, wilder, and more dangerous to promote, were the drawings of Martin Wilner, in the back room. Dangerous because word-based: as a literary type, I get nervous when visual artists venture into word territory because so many of them use words so poorly. And also because so entrenched in contemporary concerns: most of Wilner's works at Pierogi seem to react specifically to political events after 9-11, especially his beautiful and explicitly political reworkings of world maps (none of which are shown in the Pierogi online link, although the gallery's postcard choses a map drawing to represent the exhibit, curiously enough). The maps made me think of an educational toy that I played with as a child: the picture divided into squares and all mixed up. One space was left in plastic grid so that the child had room to manoeuvre the squares around to resolve the unity of the picture. Similarly, Wilner left square blanks in his mixed-up maps (handily labelled with sites of disturbing--although not obviously politicizable--events), blanks that prompt the viewer to reorder the confused world. I also enjoyed the butterfly-formatted narrative drawings, shown in bad resolution on the link, but not quite as much.

Momenta gallery has up a bit of a mish-mash, as usual, not clearly explained or contextualized. There were some very arresting photos of professional sex there; there were some conceptualized copies of Wal-Mart goods there.

Plus Ultra
gallery showed off the very nice work of a single artist, Trevor Wentworth, who makes mini-installations/models and paintings. Wentworth's models are rather more interesting than his paintings, as they create almost architectural city-scapes of the biological marvels that move his work. In conversation with the gallerists, one of whom is Obsidian Wings' Edward Underscore*, I learned that Wentworth doesn not appreciate representations of his art that emphasize its connection to the architectural and the landscape traditions. To which, I pretty much have to say: "tough shit." What is to me most moving about Wentworth's work is his using some of the teachniques of architectural modeling in completely aestheticized and theoreticized directions. Serious architectural models leave me almost completely cold, but Wentworth's three-d, precise fantasias on biological vision in the mode of architectural modeling are extraordinary--and made me want to be more fair to those architectural models that bored me before.

Black and White Gallery showed a young artist, Megan Forster, whose work showed potential but seemed at this point to be derivative. Yes, painting empty consumerist spaces can be understood as manifesting the hollowness of our current moment, but if the style is reminiscent of Apple advertising, one might be forgiven a few qualms, I hope?

*This was my first venture into meeting internet folk in the flesh, and I must say it gave me hope. Ed is courteous, open, easy on the eyes, and remembers online nicks--even of those who, like myself, don't post that often. New York-based ObWi posters, go to! (I feel safe in saying this, keeping tabs as I do on my sitemeter.)


What Is A Jack Mormon?

Thinking of myself as a jack Mormon always made me chuckle, on some level, as though it gave a more dignified, powerful quality to my loss of belief, my move away from the church, my "apostacy," as the church would have it. Posting and now blogging under this handle has made me wonder what I saw in the term that other bloggers clearly did not. First, some etymological evidence, then, some literary analysis, both under the fold.

The OED defines "jack mormons" under variants of the noun "jack":
36. Prefixed to another noun denoting a person, a thing personified, a trade, or a quality, so as to form a quasi-proper name or nickname, often applied familiarly or contemptuously; as Jack Blunt (a blunt fellow), (the ‘Boots’ at an inn)[...] jack-gentleman, a man of low birth or manners making pretensions to be a gentleman, an insolent fellow, an upstart; so jack-gentlewoman, rare; Jack Mormon, a non-Mormon on friendly terms with Mormons; also, a nominal or backsliding Mormon;

And provides the following examples from the term's history:
*Jack Mormons, and sympathizers abroad may croak and groan over the poor Mormons. 1846 Jack-mormon [see BIG-HEAD 3b]. 1890 Congress. Rec. 2 Apr. 2941/2 In our country we have a genus homo called ‘Jack-Mormon’,..a class of individuals who do not belong to the Mormon church,..yet who are ever found doing the bidding of Mormon priests. 1947 Time 21 July 21/1 The number of backsliding ‘jack-Mormons’ is increasing.

Since the OED is primarily a British English dictionary, it doesn't include reference to the book that sets the word in its modern sense (the non-practicing Mormon) and disseminated it the broadest in American English, Edward Abbey's 1975 The Monkey Wrench Gang, and, more specifically, his description of Seldom Seen Smith at the opening of Chapter 3. Here's the first paragraph:
Born by chance into membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Smith was on lifetime sabbatical from his religion. He was a jack Mormon. A jack Mormon is to a decent Mormon what a jackrabbit is to a cottontail. His connections to the founding father of his church can be traced in the world's biggest genealogical library in Salt Lake City. Like some of his forebears, Smith practiced plural marriage. He had a wife in Cedar City, utah, a second in Bountiful, Utah, and a third in Green River, Utah--each an easy day's drive from the next. His legal name was Joseph Fielding Smith (after a nephew of the matyred founder), but his wives had given him the name Seldom seen, which carried.

I don't have much patience for jack Mormons who practice plural marriage these days, and I don't spend much time praying for "pre-cision type earthquakes," but that first sentences could go over on the right under my profile. It won't, of course--a bit long and so awkward to edit out the proper name.

To my knowledge, nobody today uses the term "jack Mormon" in the sense of the OED's primary definition; the "backsliding" sense has won out. What is interesting about the difference between the primary OED and the Abbey definitions is the sense one gets of the Church's former control in the Southwest. Anyone who lived in that area and traded with Mormons but wasn't a fully participating member could have been considered a "jack Mormon"--close enough to Mormon to be tarred with the same brush when the anti-pologamy campaign really heated up. Notice the date on the OED's Congressional Record quote? 1890, the year the Mormon-Congress stare-down resulted in a convenient revelation that plural marriage was no longer God's will on earth. By 1947, the date for the OED's citation documenting the shift in meaning, the church may have had overwhelming social and cultural power within Utah and surrounding areas, but the national stage saw the religion as a quaint frontier religion at best and a group of outback zanies at worst.

By Abbey's time, Utah governence was thoroughly secularized; deals between the Church and the state government were probably struck, but behind the scenes. The Church's bureaucracy had already gone corporate: it still owned a lot of land in Utah, but it had branched out its holdings into, among other industries, communications--and, strangely, Pepsico. It was possible to live in Nevada, Colorado, and even Utah and not to have to negotiate with the church's structure and power (its members and missionaries, perhaps less so). Mormons had already spread out across the country to live peaceful, middle-class lives in mixed communities--more virtuous and diligent lives, according to them, but your basic, non-frontier American lives, regardless.

These changes make the shift in definition of the term "jack mormon" possible. They also enable Abbey's romanticized frontiersman, Seldom Seen Smith. Smith is a fantasy-version of the early Mormon settlers in Utah, who damned the options society gave them at their time and struck out into the wilderness to live as they wanted. Smith's plural wives, which are rather disturbing to me on a literal level, could perhaps be read as signifiers of his adherence to cultural tradition rather than theological dogma and of his more general flouting of contemporary law. The book was, after all, written in 1975: Smith's polygamy is almost a quirky frontier spin on contemporary sexual practice. This blend of conservativism and self-determination---mixed with a heady degree of getting-away-with-shit---is what makes him a fantasy character. And that's before he starts to sabotage machinery and blow things up.

A jackrabbit to a cottontail, indeed!


Friday, May 13, 2005

The Stendhal Syndrome

Ever since a friend of mine described the Argento film's premise, I've been fascinated by the idea of the Stendhal Syndrome. In early 19th-century terms, it's the condition of being almost unpleasantly overwhelmed by visual art.

In our psycho-analytic age, it's the condition of being so overwhelmed by visual art that the sense of self and reality fall apart so that the seeing subject enters into a psychotic fugue, as defense mechanism.

The Italian tourist bureau seems to believe that the phenomenon is real. The Stendhal Syndrome, plausible or not, is a wonderful instance of rhetoric's meeting its best audience: an audience that will hallucinate being inside the artists' tropes.

From my film school friend's description, the syndrome always seemed so poetic to me: being overwhelmed by a work of art, well that's the sublime, and feeling that one is inside a work of art, well that's the absorptive aspect of aesthetic reponse, described by Michael Fried among others.

But then I saw the Argento film. I'm not a big fan of Argento; I saw Suspiria and was profoundly shocked: perhaps he was effective in that, but it took me years to dare to see The Stendhal Syndrome, which had been recommended to me years before. I recognize Argento's power: he managed to upset me so much with Suspiria that the idea of watching another of his films required about three years' interval.

Argento's Stendhal Syndrome, much as I'd like to disavow it, is extraordinary. There are two strands: the psychical condition of a young police-woman who suffers from the Stendhal Syndrome, and her interactions with a serial rapist/killer who has fixated upon her. In a very strange twist, it is Argento's daughter, the beautiful Asia Argento, who plays the central female character; she gets beaten, raped, nearly killed, but she also lies, fights, and kills. She goes more than slightly mad over the course of the film, and one is offered a range of diagnoses: job-stress, unhealthy family life, post-traumatic rape, Stendhal Syndrome, or paranoia.

Here's what disturb to me: the film seems to presume a kind od possesion: the woman begins to take on some of the characteristics of her rapist, as though she were experiencing a kind of Stockholm syndrome. Argento could be praised for his unfliching view of how rape can screw up the psychologies of otherwise well-functioning women but there is something in this transition from docile female to wrecked, yet autonomous quasi-lesbian figure that deserves parsing.


Monday, May 09, 2005

Fun Finds Around The Web

Via bOing bOing, I come across this amazing, open-source effort to render the English-language in limericks. An example:
apostrophe by mino (Limerick #5331)
The apostrophe's often abused:
It gets battered, and bruised, and misused.
On a plural, a blight;
For possessives, just right,
Barring "its", which leaves people confused.

Via Pharyngula, a wonderful discovery: the Language Log, a group blog maintained by academic linguists with a real knack for rendering in popular terms what can seem to be be a dusty discipline. The news-making post was a spoof on the Kansas ID debate, recasting the issue at hand as King James Absolutism, but almost every post on their site keep me clicking. A series of posts on the "snowclones" phenomenon, which this community defines as "some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists," leads to this fascinating analysis of the bloggy phrase: "I, for one, welcome our new X overlords."


Sunday, May 08, 2005

Mothers' Day

Better late than never, sez I, so here's a post that I'd kept timorously on draft this past week.

At Feminist Mormon Housewives:
If I could imagine a job advert for a mother it would say:

Carer wanted.
Hours - 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Length of Contract - the rest of your life. Pay - $0.
Description - Will involve feeding, changing diapers, cleaning vomit, cleaning house, washing clothes, driving, teaching, cooking, bathing and other things as needed

No one I know would respond to that, but mothers do all that and more.

At my ward, Mothers' Day occasioned a pageant of distributing roses during Sacrament (our Mass equivalent) to all those women who were or had been mothers. I don't know exactly how the deacons (altar boys) made the decision, or whether some non-mothers of roughly child-bearing age might have been embarrassed or humiliated by having been so honored. The distribution of roses was usually accompanied with tributes to mothers who overcame difficulty, annoyance, and humiliation for the grander purpose of nurturing the next generation.

Rebecca at Feminist Mormon Housewives has a point: this work is underacknowledged, and a rose from the church once a year is a silly tribute.

Still, I'll never forget the moment when my own mother was finally moved to comment: "They make it out to be such a sacrifice, but, you know, I really enjoyed watching you grow up." Maybe the comment was enabled by hindsight, but watching her with her grandchildren, I think rather not.

My mother mothered with glee; she thought we were neat at our weirdest stages, and she was our best audience for our silliest endeavors. Maybe it's the hippy buried deep within her--she was, after all, a student at Berkeley in '69. Whatever the causes of her gleeful mothering, my siblings and I surely profited from it.

So, Mothers' Day, yes, a good holiday, particular if it can have any impact on policy debates about how to write rewards for childcare-givers into tax codes or labor regulations. As recognition of struggle, I support the cause of emphasizing the work of raising children.

However--and mind you, I'm writing as someone who has yet to become a parent--I prefer my mother's glee to the leaden appreciation of sacrifice.


Reaching Out vs. Stalking Jackmormons

Within six months of my moving to New York, the local ward had found me. I was diligently reading Friedrich Kittler, a German theorist and historian of the impact that media have on psychologies and social networks, when the phone rings.

"Your files have arrived here at the Manhattan ward, and I'd like to know what we should do with them."

It should be said that I was totally blindsided by the call. As far as I knew, the church had NO reason to know that I was in New York. I had changed addresses at least three times since I last attended church or had a visiting teacher.

The options, I learned, were 1) that I begin to take an active interest in the ward's activities, 2) that I have the ward destroy my file, 3) that I do nothing.

I didn't and don't want to participate in the ward's activities or to go to church. I don't particularly want to be wiped off the church's records, which seems to me like a histrionic refutation of my family's culture. My very nice interlocutor even goes so far as to admit that the permanent file, buried in some salt mine in Utah, would likely not be affected by the paperwork shuffle here in NYC. Still, I went for option number 3: keep my file open.

I called around, asking my mother, my grandmother, even my more fanatical aunts whether they'd narked me out to the church. How did they get my phone number? Nobody knew. My non-practicing sister hadn't narked me out, but she'd had, around the same time, a similar, so-what-are-you-up-to call.

A year later, I get a weary-sounding message on my answering machine: "Look, should we list you as an active member or should we destroy your file?" Again, I freak out, despite knowing that the Utah file will remain open until I die or commit some hideous act of apostacy, like publishing on Mormon history or maintaining an openly critical blog. Heh. (Hi, Utah!) I never called the guy back, thinking, If they want to destroy my file for bureaucratic reasons, they can go ahead and do so, but I won't ask them to do so since who would ask to be written out of the book of life? It was a grim either-or, and so I evaded it.

The ward shifted tactics in the following year. I got birthday, Christmas, and Easter cards from the Relief Society (the female branch of the church). These cards moved me; they reminded me of the good memories I hold of sassy, smart Mormon women who, despite the patriarchy of the Mormon theology, manage to appropriate the culture's love of knowledge and self-determination for their own purposes. I never replied, but I was disposed to think more kindly of the religion.

The following year I was away, but the cards continued in my absence.

This last year, however, the ward changed tactics once again, seemingly initiatiating a full-court press.

First, I get a call from my assigned visiting teacher. He seems to be a rational, human figure. I level with him: "I'm not about to come to church." He takes it well, admits to having been jack himself, gives me his number, invites me to call him if I need anything, and leaves me be.

But the on-going trouble has been the missionaries. I don't know what internal process sicced the missionaries on me, but this year I've apparently been on their list. And the trouble is that I haven't really been able to give them a clear message. There is a part of me that wants to communicate with people who are culturally Mormon; maybe it's the depaysage, maybe it's a perverse desire to see my fears confirmed, but I was really tempted to hang out with two Elders who, I learned over the phone, were both native Utahns.

I knew it was a bad idea. I put them off for months with excuses about deadlines. Then I made an appointment with them--was I mad?--and missed it due to a scheduling crisis. You can't call a missionary to cancel an appointment, by the way: they don't have personal phones. A couple months later, we schedule another appointment, and again I miss it: I forgot about it and had other pressing things to do.

Finally, last night, I levelled with Elder E. (who is probably much younger than myself): "Look, my mother's maiden name is Smith; I'm culturally Mormon and will probably be a Jackmormon until the day I die. But I'm not about to come to church, and your job is to get me to come to church. I don't want to feel antagonist about the church, and in fact I'd like to hang out with culturally Mormon people, but I'd prefer my relationship with members to be more like that of my gay great-uncle: a wary understanding of differences sustained by personal sympathies."

Elder E. asked me the name of my visiting teacher. We'll see what happens next.


Meta-Blogging 1.

Since I can't afford any of the art on Edward's blog, I think I start collecting something free: links to posts about the medium of blogging. Bloggers being so self-referential, there's a serious back-log of linkage to be done, and more is produced every day. No promises, then, to thoroughness--or to intelligent commentary.

That said, I'm starting my collection with:

Bitch, PhD's passionate defense of the blogroll:
Blogrolls, by their very nature, are not inflexible or immutable. And I've gotten comments from people saying that they've found new stuff from my blogroll. I've seen comments on other sites saying that my blogroll is a good resource for personal-type academic blogs; and for that reason, despite the length and how long the damn thing takes to load, I leave it up there, and I try to add every new, personal, small academic blog I come across. Because yes, for regular readers, y'all probably use the links in the main posts more than you do the blogroll; but for new readers and some of the regulars, I'm sure the blogroll does occasionally serve as a resource.

Les Blogs's slide show on "What Blogs Are vs. What They Are Not." The slide show puts its definition of what a blog is in the context of current policy arguments over free speech vs. restrictions on broadcasting content. From one frame:
Blogs inform.
They don't "deliver information."
-The difference is critical.
-"Information" is a commodity. Content.

A couple of posts from Billmon, whose bright implosion could serve as a cautionary tale (and inspiration!) for all bloggers.
Explaining why he closed the bar, why his tentative venture back was so impersonal, what blogging meant to him:

But if the truth does not set any one free, there’s not much point raging against the machine – not unless you enjoy being enraged all the time. On balance, there didn’t seem much point in keeping Whiskey Bar open, given that writing is hard, time-consuming work, and nobody was paying me to blog. (Yes, many readers had given me money to help cover expenses, but after more than 1,500 posts in a year and a half of blogging, I figured most of them had already gotten their money’s worth, and then some.)

So I stopped – cold, at least for awhile. There were weeks last fall when I didn’t even want to look at a blog, much less post on one, not even to say goodbye. And I apologize to all the barflies for that. But it felt like it had become one of those destructive relationships [where] all you want to do once it’s over is delete the other person from your life – entirely, you know, to the point of cutting them out of old photos.

Acknowledging the discussion space (one of at least three that popped up after his closing of the bar) for his posts, and addressing what he didn't in the earlier post, namely that the commenting crowd had gotten out of control:
I still have nightmares about unplugging from the blogosphere matrix for a day last summer and coming back to find 400 or so outraged comments tearing me a new lower opening in my gastrointestinal track for daring to criticize Michael Moore. That kind of feedback I don't need. (Or even if I do need it, I don't want it.)

And a placeholder, for more specific links to come: Crooked Timber's archive of posts in the blogging category. Some are more a propos than others.
For example, this post by Henry takes up a discussion of great interest to academic bloggers: how does your blogging interact with your professional life in ideas?
I suspect that over the longer term blogging will become increasingly attractive to scholars who want to connect with that wider audience, but who don’t want to give up their scholarship. You can become a low-rent public intellectual, without having to give up your day job. I don’t know if there are any people who’ve been lured away from academics by blogging, but I do see quite a number of academics who use blogging as a means of blowing off steam, and of writing about things that they couldn’t otherwise write about. Not substitute, complement.
And then there's this fascinating post, again by Henry, performing an economic analysis of link-value and filtration-systems and pointing out how incentives to gaming the blogosphere's technology of promoting content could undermine the society's values:
Both linkfarms and flogrolls would create a sort of Gresham’s Law effect, driving out (or at least greatly weakening the informational value of) links, and thus hampering the efficiency of the blogosphere as an aggregator of interesting opinions.
And, again by Henry (perhaps the Crooked Timberite assigned to the duty?), a post on the curious logic that allows bloggers to complain about the "MSM" while abdicating all responsibility themselves:
If you think that blogs should replace the mainstream media, then you should be prepared yourself to live up to some minimal standards of scrupulosity, intellectual honesty, and willingness to deal fairly with facts that are uncomfortable for your own ideological position. You should be prepared to live up yourself to the standards that you demand of others. Exercising the “shucks, I’m just a little old blogger” get-out clause is rank hypocrisy when you want the blogosphere to devour the New York Times whole.
So much self-referential material to work through! I haven't even begun to touch the feminist blogger debate, the awards debate, the sometimes rewarding anniversary notices, or the anthropologizing articles in print journalism.