Thursday, March 31, 2005

Manifesto for Scholarly Blogging

John Holbo of Crooked Timber and Belle and John Have a Blog launches a new venture. The Valve is to serve as a kind of lit-crit review magazine-slash-blog, and its goal is to make pointy-headedness available to and open to criticism from the masses. Holbo inaugurates the blog with a rather grim analysis of the statistics: the MLA boasts 30,000 members (who live on what? who produce what? who do what?), the average loss on a UP publication is over $10,000, tenure requires at least one book publication, and of course nobody wants to read most of these books, or even the journal articles they're based on. And as the snarky comments on Crooked Timber indicate, even other academics make fun of literary scholars. So, Holbo's solution:
In sum, blogging gives its informal, infectious enthusiasm - its gleeful daemon-servicing - to scholarship. Scholarship imparts its intellectual discipline to blogging. A happy union, can't you see?

I hope it works! Hey, and while you're at it--try to encourage some wild and feckless translations.


Busy, Busy Bees On Wikipedia

Someone has been hard at work updating and expanding the "History of the LDS Movement" entry in the Wikipedia. Many of the newer entries are apologetic. There's an entry on the church's response to modernism, with an example of how in 1990 the church altered the "Endowment Ceremony" to remove some blood oaths and Masonic symbolism. There's another entry on 1960s revisions to Bruce McConkrie's book, which points out that some anti-Catholic language was removed. The section on polygamy emphasizes the extremity of the legal measures taken by the US Congress (property seizures, convictions, denial of due process to polygamists), while deleting the military threat Utah faced (according to the previous Wikipedia version and to some of my reading). This being Wikipedia, the entry will shake down into real neutrality eventually. Whoever is posting this stuff is doing a public service, but is surely not disinterested.


Plagiarism Sting

Via Bitch, PhD, I learn that some instructors are willing to lead on undergraduates who want them to ghostwrite papers, with the intent of "outing" them as plagiarists afterwards. Nate Kushner's description of how such a transaction might occur is really interesting to an instructor. It's wrong and stupid on so many levels.

Apparently, the student who wanted to buy a paper contacted Nate on the basis on an interest listed in his AOL instant messaging profile. For starters, that's an insane way of going about finding a paper to plagiarize for university purposes. Nate's AOL-listed interest in hinduism could yield anything from gibberish to a sting. Either Laura wasn't canny enough to buy her paper from the many online plagiarist sites, or she figured that those sites had been hacked by her professors.

What really kills me here is that Nate wrote the student a glib but flawed paper in exchange for money. According to what I read, he sent the college dean a link to his "outing" post. What he really needed to do, though, was to contact the instructor. If the instructor, for any reason, fails to catch the plagiarism, the dean will then be able to shame (and now publically) the instructor.

It really is more possible to miss plagiarism than one might think. The student in question seems to be on the Dean's List of honor students at her college. Maybe she usually writes decent papers, but this time, she dishonorably chose to take the easy route. If that's the case, her instructor (who might be trying to write a dissertation or secure tenure while teaching this class) might not get around to googling Laura's essay--particularly not if she's smart and tinkers with the phrasing. The dean's involvement will humiliate the instructor, probably. Was there no way of alerting the instructor directly?

[Update, via bOing bOing. Nate informs us that he didn't contact the dean himself, that Laura, the student in question, turned in the paper without alterations (alas), that the dean had contacted Laura, that all the internet publicity had churned up telephone calls to everyone involved, and that the Laura cried and her mom was nice. Nate feels kinda bad, and Laura is probably going to get the book thrown at her. Laura shouldn't have plagiarized, but she also shouldn't get the full Gannon/Guckert treatment. The first post about the plagiarism sting got 81 trackbacks. The story showed up on a number of major blogs: bOing bOing is in the top-ten rated blogs on blogshares (yeah, I looked--I'll stop wandering over there soon). The story was told well, with great dialogue and dramatic tension, and during these Terry Schiavo-obsessed times, everyone clearly loved an easy crime to condemn.

What I think Nate's reversal really points out is that many sins within the academy are more like family affairs than matters of state. Academic records are federally protected. While Laura violated her own privacy by seeking out a manufactured paper in the public domain, the spirit of the law is to give students some room to make errors within the academy. This, obviously, was a major error, but the university has internal mechanisms for punishing it. The paper for a course is not like an article for an academic journal or a newspaper. My students plagiarize in minor ways all the time: they misunderstand the standards of citation or pull a fast cut n' paste for a sentence or two, and when I catch it, I give them a stern talking-to but don't report them. Usually, it's a contained and containable problem. Laura did go out of her way to purchase a paper whole, which is obviously dishonest, but it shouldn't ruin her life. An email to her instructor with a link to the website would have taught her a sufficient lesson. Most importantly, her last name shouldn't have been made public.]


Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A Wider Profile.

This morning my browser (Firefox) came up without the usual toolbar. I wanted to tinker with the blog, so I googled "jackmormon" and "blogspot" and in the process ran across this here blog's rating on Blogshares. According to Blogshares, you can register to be on their market, but I don't recall doing so. Perhaps Blogger did it for me?

Anyway, this is my way of saying thanks to Bitch, PhD for linking to me. Your lone act of courageous support for these ramblings seems to have significantly increased my market value.

But I'm still a cheap buy, if there's anyone out there who falls into the very slim intersection of People Who Read This Blog and People Who Trade On Blogshares...


Epigrammatic Prose In Translation (edited)

And now a little exercise in translating epigrammatic prose. Only for the pedants!

"La vie est douloureuse et decevante. Inutile, par consequent, d'ecrire de nouveaux romans realistes. Sur la realite en general, nous savons deja a quoi nous en tenir; et nous n'avons guere envie d'en apprendre davantage."
--Michel Houellebecq, H.P. Lovecraft: Contre le monde, contre la vie.

Translation by Dorna Khazeni, pub. forthcoming (Believer Books), excerpted in The Believer Magazine:
"Life is painful and disappointing. It is useless, therefore, to write new realistic novels. We generally know where we stand in relation to reality and don't care to know any more."

I'd go instead with:
"Life is painful and deceptive. So it's useless to write new realist novels. On reality in general, we already know where we stand--and we don't really want to know more."

Problem 1--"Decevant" means both "disappointing" and "deceptive." Since a French reader would hear "deceptive" in the original and an English reader would have to work to find something similar in "disappointing," and since "painful" and "disappointing" are nearer to each other than "douloureuse" and "decevante" are, I'd err on the side of the extreme here. It's the first line of the book: it should go strong.

Problem 2--The second sentence is a fragment. This is more acceptable "high prose style" in French than it is in English, where it's a near-fatal grammatical error (unless you're writing noir). In French academic style, it signifies a dead-serious, seemingly throw-away line. The translation has got to seem colloquial and fluent. The "it is...[infinitive]" phrasing is a dead give-away for stultifying academic prose.
It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to write...
It is important, thereby, to think...
It is entirely bourgeois, thus, to consider...

Houellebecq's meaning is prescriptive, but his syntax is what you'd hear in a university pub or on public radio. Yes, academics will use such syntax to make serious points, but it's a conscious gesture towards the oral. A translation should indicate the oral, indeterminate nature of such a prescription by using more colloquial, fluent language.

I wanted the present progressive to work here--my first attempt was "there's no use, then, in writing new, realist novels"--but it didn't fly. Just too unwieldy. In the new version, my contraction moves toward the colloquial, the modulated syntax of the "so," I think, gives a sense of the rhetorical effect of the paused "par consequent," which in French is less weighty in usage than its meaning would indicate. And of course my version remains a fragment; whether it transcends its grammatical error into acceptable sense, I'm still not sure.

Problem 3--Realist vs. Realistic. I'm sure that Dorna Khazeni agonized over this choice. "Realist" is a major claim, both generic and historical, while "realistic" gets to remain vague. Another problem: "nouveaux romans realistes" raises not only the specter of the realist novel but also the specter of the "nouveau roman," that major critical genre of the 60s and 70s! Khazeni's translation cops out of raising either dispute by making the argument about mimesis in general. Houellebecq's categorical little introduction, on the other hand, advocates Lovecraft against the major critical tendency of the 19th century (le roman realiste) and the 20th century (le nouveau roman), and implicitly, he is saying that the "nouveau roman" is actually a sophisticated, 20th-century version of the realist novel. And you know what? I think he's probably right. It's hard to indicate this degree of condensation in a translation, of course. I alternated between "realist new novel," which is abhorrent to English prose-style, and "new realist novel," which didn't sufficiently indicate the distinctions. A comma between the adjectives, however, might give enough of a clue. I'm not sure about this; it looks weird with a comma. One thing I do know: "realistic" is a cop-out.

Problem 4--Syntax in third sentence. A translator doesn't really get to change everything to suit the current usage guides of his or her country. Houellebecq wanted an anaphor--give the man his anaphor. Don't streamline his prose. The repetition of the "nous" subject is key to the impact of the rhythm. I do not understood the justification for destroying the sentence's internal rhythms. This is, after all, the first paragraph of the book: the man is trying to make an impression, and given his attention to Lovecraft's bold opening statements in later parts of the text, this here introduction is surely intended to ring out with hubristic and insistent clarity.

Problem 5--"A quoi nous en tenir." I gave up here, but then I only tried for about fifteen minutes. "Where we stand" is a decent compromise, but the French indicates a sense of desparation: not just "that to which we hold," but, and particularly here, "that axiom to which we cling tenaciously because we must believe." My Larousse (the online wanna-be OED Tresor de langage francais kept timing out) suggests some military aspects to the debate: I would be tempted to render the clause as, "where we draw the line."


Dorna Khazeni took the safe route on every possible translation problem posed by these three sentences. The only major risk she took--combining the independent clauses of the third sentence into a single complex sentence--appealed to the desire for clarity of an academic Anglophone audience while destroying the emphatic syntax that has made Houellebecq a popular icon (so much so that this text of literary criticism has gone into a second edition by a new publisher). Houellebecq is alive and speaks some English, and although he seems to be, um, a bit difficult, he could surely be asked about a more chancey translation.

I've taught Lovecraft: fans came out of the woodwork to find new takes on their icon. These fans are smart, though; they know how to filter out the bullshit. Khazeni's translation makes Houellebecq's article seem more bullshittish than it is. My first reaction on reading the Believer article was: Oh, cool, I didn't know Houellebecq had written on Lovecraft. Sucks that the translation is awkward. I'd better order a French copy. The original epigrams are brave, off-the-cuff, and yet quite serious.

I'm really, really glad that this project of translating Houellebecq's work on Lovecraft is happening, don't get me wrong. I'm glad the excerpt in the Believer caught my eye and brought me to the original. But the style is off: what reads in French as flippant wit comes off as heavy pronouncement.

The very international Literary Saloon has been scratching out its eyes, wondering what might bring US readers to foreign texts. I'm a somewhat 19th-century kind of translator: I want the original to be conveyed vibrantly in the new language, and more so than faithfully. I want excitement and even argument about the faithfulness to the original. Even an opinionated, sexy, but false translation of a foreign-language text might be a good thing. Put that shit out there, crazy, strong, popular. (The legal stuff, I don't know about.) If it takes, someone will come around later to retranslate the work and of course condemn the earlier translator as inauthentic and all that. Much like I'm doing now...


Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Epigram Day!

"One must be careful about evocations, for the markers of old graves are not always accurate."
--H.P. Lovecraft, "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward."

"It is a sad but indisputable fact that in this imperfect world Genius is too often condemned to walk alone—if the earthier members of the community see it coming and have time to duck.”
P.G. Wodehouse, Leave it to Psmith.

"Man being reasonable must get drunk;
The best of life is but intoxication."
--Byron, Don Juan (II, 179).

More, after the day's reading:
"...since life can little more supply
Than just a few good fucks, and then we die"
--John Wilkes, "An Essay on Woman."


Sunday, March 27, 2005

I didn't know this lady, but I would have liked to

Via MobyLives, a New York Times obituary of a woman who discovered the other Louisa May Alcott, the writer of dark popular tales for pulp magazines. While teaching 19th-century American Literature overseas, where my library card only got me canonical American writers, my taste for popular fiction eventually drove me to try out Louisa May Alcott's gothic stories--and I had a wonderful time with them.

Leona Rostenberg was a rare books dealer and scholar. She had a life-long partnership in books and love with Madeleine Sterne. From the obituary, it sounds like the two of them made a wonderful life together, but that's not really what intrigues me here. Rather, it's Rostenberg as a learned, devoted, and above all, a generous antiquarian who moves me.

I worked for a while in a company that bought and sold historical documents, sometimes on behalf of clients and their collections. The monatary value of a historical document was determined by 1) rareness of following attributes available for purchase on private market, 2) the autograph of a famous person, 3) the amount of non-essential text written by a famous person, 4) the historical importance (as determined by present-day interests) of an event that has some relation to the signature of a famous person, 5) personal or poignant information conveyed by a famous person, preferable with autograph attached, 6) then first editions, secretary's hand, anciliary personages, witness testimonies, etc.

The ranking was clear: the market wanted Great Men, Great Events, and a clear material sign that the given document attached the Great Man and the Great Event to the given piece of paper. My company had big clients and was going places; we were building important collections, whose owners--big businesspeople with an eye on their legacies--understood the value of a taxbreak.

The trade in old books, papers, maps, and images gives the people involved an incredible opportunity to handle primary material. Academics usually only ask for or seek out a physical primary source when it's directly related to their study, but antiquarians and historical document-traders (the modern form) get the stuff dumped in their laps. Some of the people I worked with in this company had a sense of history that combined the specificity of the war-reenactor and the obsessiveness of the stamp-collector: the"big picture" was the market--flawed enough--but they knew the details of every battle and every early map. I have to admit that this antiquarian knowledge was rare and compartmentalized in my company. When I left the place, they had hired a consultant historian, who gave them reports on the "significance" of their acquisitions so that they could more efficiently process unseen documents into value.

Ms. Rostenberg, on the other hand, represents to me the kind of antiquarian who used her access to this massive, historical data to contribute to scholarly and public discourse. And Rostenberg's discovery of the gothic life of Louisa May Alcott might not have gained her much, in financial terms: Alcott published her stories to gain money and so tried to find the widest audience possible, which would cut down on the scarcity value of attributing any given copy to her. Antiquarians used to be distinguished by their great love and knowledge of primary sources. I fear--but would love to be proved wrong--that these characteristics are giving way to the market, to the anonymity of ebay.


Is the US ready for a Mormon President?

In two discussion threads over at Matt Yglesias, commenters discuss various Republican candidate options for the 2008 elections. One name, that of Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, is debated, with most commenters of the opinion that the man is either "too north-east," "too pro-choice," or "too Mormon" to have broad appeal.

I don't know much about Romney, but I am curious about the "too Mormon" charge. The church seems in recent years to be succesfully remaking its image as a mainstream denomination. The highest-placed Senate Democrat, Harry Reid, is Mormon; one of the most powerful Senate Republicans, Orrin Hatch, is Mormon. With the 2000 Winter Olympics being held in Salt Lake City, the LDS church washed a lot of dirty laundry, the nation and world got a chance to air all of their favorite polygamy jokes, and for the most part, my guess is that the Olympics was a chance for people to work through their prejudices and (mostly) get over them.

That said, a wariness of the church and Mormon individuals still persists.

Religions with on-going revelation tend to have that problem. While less was made of John Kerry's Catholicism that was of Kennedy's, there was still a bit of nastiness when one cardinal threatened to refuse Kerry communion because of his pro-life stance. The Pope's directives about gay marriage and abortion didn't help Kerry's any and probably fed into the general perception of Kerry as insincere. The Mormon church goes even further: the President of the church regularly receives revelation as a prophet on the behalf of church members. The political problem with this kind of theological organization is that the church's official position is easily conflated with the individual's.

And the church's history might alarm some voters. Its history of following its own decrees in the teeth of federal laws (plural marriage, anyone?) is rather recent, and then there's the problematic history with black men being refusing priesthood rights until very late. The Mountain Meadow Massacre will get yet another airing. A Republican Mormon presidential candidate would be asked questions about the early church's centrally planned economy and its communistic "United Order."

The real obstacle would be religious. Southern evangelicals, particularly, have remained actively vocal denouncers of the LDS church's generally anabaptist and antitrinitarian tendencies. Poke around BeliefNet message boards and you'll find plenty of evangelicals who have a serious bone to pick with the Mormon Church's "three persons, one purpose" take on the trinity. Jews have protested the LDS church's desire to baptize-by-proxy their ancestors. And almost everyone gets a little creeped out by temple practices--which the Church hasn't really managed to assuage by the temple previews. The secresy surrounding these huge (and let's face it, often grandiose) buildings makes people suspicious. Oh, and Mormon religious culture, with its strong millenialist tendencies, its veneration of John Milton, and its horror of "priestcraft," has often fairly had somewhat nasty takes on the Catholic Church.

In other words: eventually a Mormon candidate could probably win the presidency, but I don't think it'll happen real soon. The West would go for a Mormon who appealed on the issues and to the party, the NorthEast could possibly go for a Democrat Mormon (maybe with some resistance in the primary), but the South would likely resist a Mormon Republican nomination.


Notes on Rhetoric

One of my ongoing interests here is the way bloggers and commenters write. Via Crooked Timber, I find this site maintained by Mark Kaplan, Notes On Rhetoric, where Kaplan has just started to compile the common rhetorical tactics of the more argumentative kinds of comment threads. One of his entries does address the idea of the demotic discourse that I raised earlier, but he dismisses it as a tactic, and a disingenuous one at that:
Profanity and the demotic. Used sparingly (so as not to be mistaken for some incensed half-wit), your use of the profane/ demotic is a right laugh and a sure sign that you represent robust common sense and can sniff out and debunk pretentious academics and pseudo-intilectukals. Try mixing it with more refined prose for full effect, as in “after careful and sustained reflection, I have now arrived at the inexorable conclusion that X is a clueless twat who talks counter-revolutionary shite.”

Within an argument, this kind of discourse can be maddening; looked at from outside, as a social phenomenon, it can be more interesting. (A lot of the genuinely popular agitators in history whom I've rather admired must have been maddening to argue with.)

My favorite entry, predictably, concerns the "university":
University, your opponent is at. Bear with me. In the realm of doxa, the university is entirely seperated from the Real World (qv) and populated by Student Revolutionaries. This image of the university is unassailable, and safely entrenched beyond refutation, so don't worry. It is thus rather useful if you can insinuate a connection between your opponent and the University (the University of doxa, that is, not any particular institution). Moreover, there is, belonging to this University of Doxa, an equally mythic 'undergraduate' who reappears endlessly in statements such as: 'this is an elementary undergraduate error'; 'As every undergraduate would know..' , 'one can find this kind of thing in any standard undergraduate essay.' 'if this were an undergraduate essay.. etc' and so on and do forth. This poor mythic undergraduate has been kept at university for countless years by the requirements of rhetoricians and polemicists.

Vive les jeunes!

Speaking of whom, I actually clicked through to the comment thread at David Horowitz's Front Page Magazine, trying to see what posters there thought of Horowitz's querelous attack on Billmon. It read like a wierd mash-up of a Freeper thread, an online gaming message board, and an AIM conversation. Most of the kids are alright, though.


Mormon History Blog

Yet another post on Mormon affairs. This kind, the link goes to the Mormon Wasp, a site that focuses on early Mormon history. The blog's author, Justin Butterfield, has access to a fair number of archival documents.

One example is this 1857 song, part of the last refrain of which goes:
But the crickets are gone, and the Mormons live
By faith in a right good way,
And to gentiles they would kindly give
The hint to keep away;
For should they pay their visits again,
They will most surely find
The Mormons will themselves maintain

The current post transcribes part of the 1904 testimony that Joseph F. Smith gave before the US Congress. The testimony poses a number of interesting political questions--how has the separation of church and state changed since 1904?--what place does this testimony have in the history of the Mormon church's becoming less marginalized? It also presents interesting theological questions: Smith finesses some ambiguity about church members' right to dissent, particularly on the issues of official revelation and of plural marriage (which was officially ended in 1890). It's also personally interesting to me, as Joseph F. Smith and one of his five wives are my great-great grandparents.


Thursday, March 24, 2005

Historical Humiliations

I went to see Hayden White speak. There are a million things to write after such a sentence, but I'll limit myself to summarizing one of his major arguments.

White advocates a style of history-writing that recreates not the factual information of the period but the feeling of living an impossible situation. He has become interested in the genre of the "Witness Narrative" and the "Testimonial," both of which genres, he argues, arise out of the Post-Holocaust interest in the ethical imperative of memory--as opposed to the scientific approach to the past. Diplomatically, he presents two texts as representative of the kind of phenomenological historiography in which he's interested: Primo Levi's memoires of his experiences in the camps, and Sebald's essay on the Natural History of Destruction (Luftkrige und Literatuer).

The emphasis is on historiography as evoking feeling. The neo-Marxist criticism is that feeling is easily coopted by ideology. The philosophical criticism is that feeling is another form of data that needs to be differentiated from documentary data. The conservative critcism is that feeling for inappropiate objects should be controlled.

And here's the real problem with Hayden White: if I'm any representative, the aestheticians and theoretists of rhetoric sat in the audience waiting for White to say anything useful ( or even remotely accurate) to them. It was a good time watching White play the precocious provocateur from an emeritus position, but so many questions were elided! If your major value is rhetoric and you are a historian, how can you so badly characterize the history of rhetoric as worthwhile up until 1650 or thereabouts and all wrong when you catch up with it again at around 1920? (Yes, I'm cranky because I've written about exactly what White didn't address.)

That said, the talent of scholars of his generation was to tear down what younger critics thought they knew and what they thought they were supposed to know. It was fun. At least my supervisor, unlike some other senior faculty in my department, stayed until the end of the talk.

[Update: I just realized that I forgot to address the title of this post. White answered one question about the use of resurrecting how it felt to live in a given past by claiming that one of the driving forces of a lot of contemporary struggles is an experience of, or a memory of, or a tradition of humiliation. A feeling of having been humilated, made less worthwhile as a human seems to trump many of the logical, realist, economic motivations that historians are used to studying. And when there is no way of understanding how this humiliation works and influences people to react, it's harder to address and defuse some of the wilder behaviors that can arise out of this feeling. White didn't mention specific cases, but I think everyone in the audience filled in some blanks...

I'm still a little confused about how histories that appeal more to the sensory and phenomenological imagination will translate into the kinds of knowledge that inform contemporary policy. Writing that works on the imagination and the empathetic faculties would seem to be based on the idea of changing people's worldview, rather than persuading their reason. And while as an artistic-type person I'm all for the power of the imagination, at some point I expect logic and reason to obtain.]


Ugly Theological Debate Worth Avoiding

For some reason, I felt it was my duty to find Mormon bloggers who supported the Republican line on Terri Schiavo. They were few and far between, I have to admit, but I did find one scripture-spewing commenter who was virulently against evolution (which is kinda like the Schiavo case?!?) at the Virtual Theology blog:

"And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness.
That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.” (D&C 50:23–24.)”

I like these Hinckley quotes because they leave room for the individual agency that it part of the core of both Mormon theology and culture.

The idea of edification in knowledge and media leaves a great deal up to the recepient. Yes, there are some limits. Pornography does not edify; it is repetitive, has only the goal of stupified pleasure, and presents the most limited world-view possible. Scientific knowledge, on the other hand, opens up the mind to new possibilities. Not only is agency a primary dispensation, but so is reason. This reason should be able to look at scientific evidence directly and glory in the chain of events that brought you and I here. Evolutionary biologists speak in hushed tones of wonder when they consider the process that created humans. They believe in random felicity; Mormons believe in God. I don't really see why the Church couldn't marvel at the wonder of a God who created the world gradually and carefully, nudging along mutations when they fit His purposes, creating a world of which we can only intimate the purpose.

We Mormons--even we jackmormons--believe that being born into material body has an important spiritual purpose. Our submitting ourselves to matter is part of our knowledge on this earth. Material knowledge is therefore essential to our spiritual progression.

Okay, stay with me now. By being born into material bodies into material time, we are also born into social matter and time. Our bodies are not islands of righteousness. The doctrine of tithing--let along the necessity of paying state and federal taxes--should demonstrate the sociality of our creed.

Once one admits that the knowledge of matter is key, and that matter implies social structures, then you're more than halfway to admitting that becoming familiar with the current paragigms of understanding matter and society is good. If we are incarnated to learn and to understand matter, I think we should seek out knowledge about matter, science, change, and bodies.

Our reason is given to us as individuals (a rather Levelling religion, ours) to make up our own minds about what understanding we are to reach between the material information that our religion tends to trust and the spiritual doctrine that our religion in its better moments makes available as suggestions rather than edicts to the free individuals of its congregation.


Tuesday, March 22, 2005


I don't have much to say about this case. I have been watching it, transfixed and appalled, and all I really want to do here is post up some links. The links start with the more frivolous, move into the serious, dive into the political, and end with a Mormon flourish or two.

Here is a philosophical game about personal identity, designed by Julian Baggini and made available by the crazy people of The Philosopher's Magazine. Here's a sample question:

Strange as it may seem, it has been discovered that reincarnation of a sort does actually occur. It seems that there is some immaterial part - call it a soul - in all human beings. On death, it leaves the body and enters the body of a new-born animal or human. It does not take memory with it, of course, for if it did we'd have known this were true already! It is thought that it may have some effect in determining one's character, but given the evidence for the strong influence of genes and upbringing, this effect is thought to be relatively small.

Even stranger than the fact of reincarnation, it seems that our souls die if stored at below freezing point for longer than a week.

These facts are vital to the last choice you must make. You are very ill, but scientists have almost found a cure for the disease you have. Further, they have also developed a technique to 'deep freeze' humans, enabling them to be revived later with their memories and character intact. You have two choices:

The first choice is to let the disease take its toll. Your body will die, but your soul will live on. The second choice is to be deep frozen, then thawed and cured later. This will destroy your soul and only has a thirty per cent chance of success; that is, there is a 70 per cent chance that the thawing and curing won't work.

You must make the choice which you think will give your self the biggest chance of surviving.

In a somewhat flippantly phrased post, Matthew Ylgesias speculates about who would be alive or dead or what if his body fell into a persistent vegetative state and Schiavo woke up out of hers--but with Matthew's brain. He gets a lot of flack in his comments thread, but I suspect that everyone there is in a state of shock about the political overtones of this story. There's a real philosophical problem to work out, and it isn't easy: whether Schiavo is alive is perhaps a less fraught question than the question of who or what Schiavo now is. If the brain-damaged Schiavo is no longer the same person at all as the non-brain-damaged Schiavo, then decisions she made before this change in her identity might be construed as no longer binding onto this new entity. In more politically charged words, if this version of Schiavo is sufficiently different from the old Schiavo so as to constitute a new identity, then the old Schiavo's declared wishes about her body and medical treatment might be considered to be inapplicable to the new Schiavo.

This is a philosophically interesting line of thought, but of course it would be disastrous for legal policy. It slids speedily down the slope: if all it takes for a person's right to control his or her body to be voided is a simple change in conscious status and an inability to communicate, then we revert rather quickly to a rule of force. Whoever sleeps the least and can speak the loudest on other people's behalfs gets to determine the disposition of bodies and property.

On a very different note, this essay from UCSD bioethicist Lawrence Schneiderman gives a moving argument for accepting death in such cases. His argument gently moves from a technical description of the neurological condition of persistent vegetation, to a consideration of the increasing trend of people's dying in heath-care facilities (only 20% of Americans die at home, apparently), to a broader humanist plea for people to understand mortality as natural and even uplifting.

One well-put point that introduced a new word to me was this passage at the end of the medical description:
hat has given us this condition which was first diagnosed in 1972. It's really interesting, that that's a very new disease as far as medicine is concerned, and, in fact, it's an iatrogenic [doctor-created] disease. Vegetative state is the condition, as we call it, but persistent or permanent is what we do to keep that condition going.

This is the center of the conundrum: modern medical technology can prolong life, but in many conditions, this prolongation is at best a sustained death. The prolongation is the unnatural intervention; death, as the old syllogism presumes, is the human fate.

One commenter at Teresa Nielsen-Hayden's site, Making Light, posted this link to the US Living Will Registry, which stores on-line living wills to make available to heath care providers. I'm not sure how official such documents can be; the homepage looks a little schlocky, but the info and FAQs seem legit. The homepage notes that "Due to recent overwhelming demand, a new program has been added to allow direct registration by individuals. " If you don't have a participating health care provider or "partner" nearby, you can now register for a $25 fee.

More political links:

Rivka (a doctor of clinical psychology) has so far made three posts on the subject of Schiavo: an initial analysis of what the doctors' evaluations from court documents means, and above that, a summary of some ethical considerations involved in the distinction between euthanasia and refusal of treatment, and finally, a discussion of the weight that Schiavo's happening to have been a baptized Catholic should play in the court decision--short version, none.

Chris Bertrum of Crooked Timber, having two factors of distance from the debate (1. he lives in the UK, 2. their site was offline after a server explosion), gives a short n' meta comment here.

Obsidian Wings heats up, with 1) an open thread that turned into a massive (125 comments in about five hours) thread about the Schiavo case, 2) a truly moving post by hilzoy, resident bioethicist, who reframes the whole case around the value of patient autonomy, 3) another post by hilzoy, which points out the now-commonly known problem that the Texas Futile Care bill recently enabled a child's death against the wishes of his mother, 4) a comparison between Tom DeLay's grandstanding and the extralegal fundamentalism of Iran, by Edward, 5) an outraged post by Katherine that collects misleading or wrong Republican statements on the congressional floor, 6) a post about legal process in a tangential case by von.

The Rude Pundit has four posts on this subject, which the Rude One characteristically writes in as crass a style as possible while actually remaining logical. The posts begin with this one, titled "Terri Schiavo Must Die," and pretty much get crankier from there.

Billmon has finally started to move away from the quotation list sort of post back to some of the narrative satire I used to look for from him. The first post in this departure is a revisioning of the patient in question.

Digby seems to have been almost as transfixed by this story as I was; he writes a series of posts that start here and keep going for a while. He's looking more at the political fall-out from the Republican push, tending to agree with the Rude Pundit that Schiavo should probably go and that a judge or two has uphold due process.

From the Mormon blogs:
In a post that carefully avoids mentioning Schiavo's name, Clark Goble of the Bloggernacle Times thinks through the mind-body split as Mormons tend to understand it. Some excerpts from his concluding paragraph:
Mormons are materialists. Our very doctrine of the necessity of the resurrection tells us that a body is important for who we are. [...] Bodies were viewed as necessary [in the pre-existence] and we will look upon our separation from our bodies as a hardship [post-death and pre-resurrection]. That alone suggests to me that perhaps the brain is far more essential for who we are than some might wish to believe.

Jared, of the LDS Science Review blog, writes a number of posts. The most recent tries to work out the complexities of the family's interests against the interest in allowing Schiavo a dignified death, and generally is appalled at the state of discourse about the case.

At a Mormon blog that I hadn't linked to before, Times and Seasons, a smart post about abstract hypotheticals leads into a feisty thread with most commenters coming out in favor of individual autonymy (a not-uncommon value on the internet...). An earlier, very thoughtful post by a husband-wife tag-team, noting the absence of clear church position on such cases, asks commenters to think about Mormon theological signposts as regards to end-of-life decisions. The comment thread, of course, does anything but.

Anyway, that's enough on this sad case. The debate will continue, probably, although it looks very likely that the judicial system will rule to allow Schiavo to die. That would be the right decision in these circumstances, but it looks like Schiavo's parents will have a truly horrible grieving period. They'll blame someone else, and they'll have lots of company to blame that someone else with.


Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Saddest C-Span Show.

Maybe I shouldn't have expected much. On C-Span this evening, I was treated to a repeat broadcast of "Wag the Debate: What's the Future of the Pundit?" from the US Comedy Arts Festival. The panel consisted of: Eric (MSNBC correspondant and author), Joe Lockhart (Clinton Press Secretary), Laura Ingraham (conservative radio), Janeane Garofalo (Air America Radio), "right-leaning comedian" Sheryl Underwood (of whom I'd never heard and who stole the show in an entirely unproductive fashion), Ben Karlin (executive producer of "The Daily Show"). The panel was moderated by the useless and grandstanding Joe Scarborough, of MSNBC's "Scarborough County." I'm relying, by the way, for spelling and gossip on a cached "Reliable Source" article.

It was a sad, dreadful showing, and I blame Scarborough. As moderator, he set the tone, and the tone was to allow everyone to interrupt and nobody to finish a point. He hammed for the audience (which generally asked much better questions than he did); he denigrated everyone on the panel; he simultenously managed to turn the discussion into a scoring match while stentorously proffering the opinion that a plurality of opinions was a good sign of democracy. I've never seen the guy's show, but I'm pretty sure that he's bad for America, as they say.

Janeane Garofalo looked disgusted by the goings-on, and I must say I agree with her expression. She didn't manage to get any good points in, what she did manage to say was more positioned than expressive, but her visible horror at the direction of the panel's discussion spoke better to my interests than any of the audible arguments.

And the saddest thing about this panel was that most people on it seemed to agree that journalism has become more he-said, she-said than ever before! (Of course that utter ass Scarborough would take he-said, she-said as a plurality of opinion, and beneficial for democracy. I can't help wishing that he find some overwhelming reason to spend more time with his family.) It was the ultimate exercise in pomo silliness, in which everyone agreed that the dominant paradigm of discourse was flawed and yet they reinscribed it insistently, without being able to restrain themselves, without being restrained, playing to the spectacular, disappointing every political or epistemological hope of this audience-member. It was more like those godawful French variety shows, where "personalities" trot out and give stock opinions to a Live Studio Audience, than like any serious panel, conference, or political meeting.

Thanks, C-SPAN. Thanks, especially, to the miserable Joe Scarborough. And Sheryl Underwood, I agree with you that such a panel would do better with more minority participants. Your behavior didn't really advance your cause, however, and I would argue that it helped the moderator destroy any seriousness this panel could have hoped for.

And there is a real discussion to be had on this topic. "The Daily Show" has shown a larger audience what impact political comedy can have on the old-fashioned punditry. The Onion, alarmingly enough, was more accurate than the New York Times about the arguments during the run-up to the war. Liberals felt sufficiently shut out of political dialogue that they set up an "entertainment"-style radio network to combat right-wing "entertainers" like Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, and Laura Ingraham.

"Real" news outlets who want to maintain widespread credibility in a more diverse media landscape and who want to retain privileged access to important people (all of whom are now Republicans) have to present "balanced" reports. Increasingly, these "balanced" accounts sound like two absolutely different world-views colliding, or rather, the Republicans and Democrats present basic facts in such starkly contrasting ways that unless the readers have already decided what they think, the he-said, she-said presentation is literally incomprehensible. The pundits are the worst incarnation of this problem: the Op-Ed pages consider themselves to be under no obligation to issue corrections, but the columnists have attained their positions by their reputations and continue to have real influence despite the necessary speed of their dispatches. The role of the pundit deserves more serious scrutiny. Good heavens, someone like William Safire, who brags of his connection to and channels practically unfiltered Ariel Sharon, should be subject to a fact check, at least!

Much of the new media--cable news as well as the blogosphere--tends to be of the punditry school: we all have opinions, and increasingly, we also all have a soapbox. I'm an academic; that which I offer to my academic peers, I'll stand behind or correct, according to the criticism of my peers. Here, I can offer anything whatsoever. I'm anonymous, nobody's reading me, it all seems awfully safe. Okay, but what if--unlikely enough--my blog should get the traffic of Atrios and my name should be revealed? I imagine that most redblooded Americans would make the logical calculation: my name is known, I'm famous, I'm making money, people agree with me--I'm a professional pundit! Maybe, in such a case, the People would have spoken, but that wouldn't really make me any more right, per se. And that's what serious journalists have to resist. It'll be hard: the money and security seem to be in wankery. But it's really, really important that journalists resist the lure.


Amory Show Aftermath

At the Armory show last weekend, one artist from Pierogi Gallery had presented a drawing I had thought of as bloggy. Having not written down the guy's name and having been made aware by the Amory that I've let my general art-competency fade, I went out to Williamsberg the other day. At Pierogi, the staff was in the middle of mounting a show of the guy in question's work. Felicitous!

His name is Jim Torok, and he makes narrative drawings, by which I mean that small naif sketches are arranged in horizontal story boards (no frames) with lots of accompanying text drawn into the scenes.

The subject of the texts and images are largely autobiographical; the perspective portrayed is that of the artist himself. Some of the stories narrate events in Torok's life, like "Trip to New York," or "Sometimes I Think Bad Things." Some of the works tinker with McSweeney-like ironic meta-artistic zaniness, like "This Is A Major Work," in which a primitive talking-head artist-stand-in tries to convince the viewer that, indeed, it is a major work.

Cute--and a bit thin.

The work shown at the Armory, "Fuck-You Assholes," was still interesting to me: the images were more closely pressed together, the composition busier and less relentlessly horizontal, and more important to me, the voice of the text hovering between the personal and the demotic. The voice is both a cri de coeur and an encapsulation of what everyone around here (New York and the liberal blogosphere) is saying.

The other works are less compelling because the voice and stories seem to be so familiar from literary movements, where the star of such a style is already waning. The poet James Tate is exemplary in the limpid little ironic reversal narrative style. And even Dave Eggers's "velocity" has spun off into more sincere, adult projects, like the generally excellent Believer review. (And yes, I think it entirely fair to criticize the literary merits of a visual artwork that uses textual narrative.) I also think the composition of many of the pieces shown at Pierogi repetitive--and somewhat contrived in their abstraction of comic framing.

Images from Pierogi's flatfiles.


Thursday, March 17, 2005

Adorno Blogging?

So, um, I was reading The Dialectic of Enlightenment the other day...

No, seriously, I thought that maybe Adorno would have something usable about Enlightenment thinking, and his critique of Kant, while certainly not systematic, is thought-provoking.

But what I really want to talk about is Adorno and Horkheimer's style.

I'd always thought of Adorno as Benjamin's humorless older brother, but this read-through made me realize that Adorno (and H.) have a much wilder prose style than I'd expected. There are the strangely active personifications of myth and reason, a device Adorno may have picked up from Marx, who uses them all the time. The real surprise for me, however, were the barbed epigrams.

"The rulers themselves do not believe in objective necessity, even if they sometimes call their machinations by that name. They posture as engineers of world history" (30) .

"The spark which most conclusively indicates a lack of systematic thinking, a violation of logic, is not a fleeting perception but sudden death" (64-65) .

"The private sphere of the bourgeois is an upper-class cultural asset which has come down in the world" (76).

"It is not the softness but the restrictive nature of pity which makes it questionable--it is always too little" (80).

"Fun is a medicinal bath which the entertainment industry never ceases to prescribe. It makes laughter the instrument for cheating happiness" (112).

"As long as it was expensive, art kept the citizen within some bounds" (130).

Now, that's bold writing! Each of these definitions twist inwards with dark irony. The immediate point is shocking, the metaphors vivid, the tone peremptory and indicative. Even when you disagree, you have to take the statement literally, explain the irony like some dimwit literary scholar "unpacking" PG Wodehouse, and argue at length to defend your disagreement. This is what a good epigram does: it forces someone who disagrees with the statement into a humorless, straight-man role. The unfairness of this kind of argument is perhaps why the epigram--and the Nietzchean aphorism, by which Adorno is surely influenced--are frowned on in contemporary academic discourse. But man, when done well!


Sunday, March 13, 2005

I'm a Western-Northeastern Liberal, I Guess.

So there's a form that formalizes where you've been, where you've lived--and presumably, how you identify. Bolded names represent where I've been, underlined names where (in the US) I've lived, and italics are where I live now.

Alabama / Alaska / Arizona / Arkansas / California / Colorado / Connecticut / Delaware / Florida / Georgia / Hawaii / Idaho / Illinois / Indiana / Iowa / Kansas / Kentucky / Louisiana / Maine / Maryland / Massachusetts / Michigan / Minnesota / Mississippi / Missouri / Montana / Nebraska / Nevada / New Hampshire / New Jersey / New Mexico / New York / North Carolina / North Dakota / Ohio / Oklahoma / Oregon / Pennsylvania / Rhode Island / South Carolina / South Dakota / Tennessee / Texas / Utah / Vermont / Virginia / Washington / West Virginia / Wisconsin / Wyoming / Washington D.C /

Yes, I need to visit the South. I'm working on that. (via Matthew Yglesias)


More Mormon Blogs

I lost a wittily phrased update to my last post, so I'll start over and perhaps more prosaically.

Clicking through links at the Feminist Mormon Housewives site, I found a little world of Mormon blogging, which I must say doesn't surprise me at all. Mormons are strongly urged to keep personal journals, the Church embraced modern communications technology very early, and blogging is the inevitable result.

Someone who really wants to know everything about the Mormon blogosphere should start here, at the aggregator site LDS Blogs. There's a rather strange hierarchizing of contributing sites: archipelago, mainland, isles in the sea, other islands and atolls. I suspect this feature is more a result of the inevitable bloggy popularity ranking than of any doctrinal position, but one does wonder. If anyone associated with LDS Blogs wanders over here, I sugest that your "about" page clarify this system.

Someone who simply wants to get the gist of the Mormon blogosphere without much editorializing should go to the blog The Bloggernacle Times, where a weekly review column is interspersed with some very moderate--think Kevin Drum on a particularly neutral day--columnist posts. Current events are determined by Mormon content, as far as I can tell.

Someone interested in hearing Mormons think through their own culture and religion for the benefit of a public audience might go to a group blog called Various Stages of Mormondom. Here, multiple contributors think through how a specified issue in the religion has been meaningful (or not) in their own lives. To give an example, the topic for the weekend of March 11-12 is the Word of Wisdom, the advice, or commandment (depending on how you read it), of Joseph Smith about substances like alcohol, tobacco, and coffee. Contributing writers take positions ranging from "I understand that some people could use these in moderation" to "even though polygamy is no longer a commandment, these substances are still harmful."

A more political person interested in Mormon takes on cultural trends might consider the liberal blog "By Common Contest." Liberal in this context means people who self-identify as Sunstone readers and who deem themselves worthy and empowered to come up with their own positions on ideas. A recent firey discussion on this blog shlocky Mormon-themed products, which one new contributer argued were "priestcraft" (a term which might be glossed as "totalitarian Papist propaganga"). The post was brave, and the discussion wild.

I've just scratched the surface of the almost thirty blogs listed on the aggregator site. If any of you Mormon bloggers wander over here, I have two general comments: 1) keep up the good work! and on a darker note, 2) be careful.


Feminist Mormon Housewives, Huzzah!

The New York Times, in a cultural piece on religious blogging, managed to slip in only a few urls (as usual, the newspaper tried to limit references to internet sources), but one of them directed me the excellent site, Feminist Mormon Housewives, where Lisa and some of her friends talk about their lives and about why the title of their blog is not oxymoronic.

The short answer, I'm infer, is that just because the modern Church takes some old skool positions, doesn't mean that individual women have to be ijjits. A longer answer would have to consider some of the drift in the Church's position on women since the frontier days, as well as the Church's politicization in its more mainstream incarnation.

Anyway, I'll be poking around the Mormon side of the blogosphere in my free time for the next little while, I think.


Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Armory Show

Oh my. So many gallery, so much art, so many beautifully dressed people. My eyes are still itchy from staring so hard. I'm not terribly well positioned to comment on general trends, but here's what I noticed:
--lots of C-prints. Glossy, glossy, glossy. I'm getting a bit tired of C-prints; they feel almost manipulatively beautiful. It's as though any fool could take a picture of anything and make it luminescent with a c-print, although I know that there were some genuinely lovely and well-composed C-prints shown today. A trend I hadn't noticed before and don't like is the C-print photo of lines and shapes that look organically produced, as though the artist had made a charcoal sketch and photographed it. Many of these C-print are produced onto aluminum, making them even brighter. The ratio of C-print to other photographic techniques seemed almost ten to one.

--lots more works on paper than I've seen at other recent large exhibitions. Drawing, prints, paintings, etchings, some montage, but everything seemed portable. Some of this is probably due to the art fair-format: the galleries are marketing the work to collectors rather than to museums. Still, I noticed more excellent craftsmanship in smaller formats than I've been exposed to recently.

--relatively few installations. One German gallery had set up some sort of chicken wire and wood crate/jail cell booth, but it was so exceptional (and uninviting) that I avoided it without a qualm. Another gallery had a smaller version of the now ubitiquous walk-in, stand-up video installation. There were a few installed sculptures: White Cube of London had a flashing chandelier and flatscreen room, another gallery had a nice golden wire sculpture that was attached diagonally across two walls, but these were also unusual. Again, the art fair format would limit this sort of work, so it's perhaps not a real trend.

--I'm starting to see much more explicitly political American art. Political as in "Bush and you republicans I hate you" rather than as in "people are suffering." Pierogi Gallery of Brooklyn showed a couple of drawings/rants that read almost exactly like despairing comment posts from Eschaton or Billmon--and, strange to say, instead of feeling jaded by such language, I was moved to see it enshrined in an artwork. Another Brooklyn gallery--I've now forgotten which--showed maybe 2' by 3.5' oils representing fantasy versions of the NYT's front page. A cri de coeur, yes, but perhaps also copyright infringement? Who knows.

--A fair amount of neon art, some minimalist (shapes), some conceptual (snarky comments), which surprises me, as I would have thought that neon art would either be incorporated into other sculptural trends or would die out. As much as I dislike much of the neon art I see in major art fora, there is some that I dearly love.

For the record, some names, mostly in drawing, to keep track of:

--Zak Smith (Fredericks Freiser Gallery in New York)

--Ralf Ziervogel (Barbara Thumm Galerie in Berlin)

--Yehudit Sasportas (Sommer Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv and Eigen + Art in Berlin)

--Jokum Nordstrom (all over the place)

--Dinos and Jake Chapman (White Cube in London and another gallery...they're already huge, though)


Thursday, March 10, 2005

Utah and Bankruptcy

Atrios posted the states with the highest number of households filing for bankruptcy. Utah's number one. Commenters at Eschaton and Matthew Yglesias try to put their heads around the idea. Among from the usual polygamy jokes, some plausible explanations surface.

1.--Mormons tend to marry young and produce big families early, before a steady income that can guarantee support for the family's needs is secured. It would be tempting to use credit to supplement the deficit.

2.--Mormons tend to value education, but the expectation that young men will serve two-year missions interrupts the undergraduate concentration and tends to make four-year degrees less worthwhile to the recipient. A typical pattern is for the wife to work (and tend children) while the husband gets a post-graduate degree. Sounds like a situation that demands credit.

3.--The injunction to pay tithing to the church is very strong. Once a month, services are given over to "fast Sundays," when everyone is supposed to donate the money spared by fasting to the church and when the service is taken over by personal testimony. This monthly routine reinforces the commandment to pay 1/10 of your income (and in the early church, it was initially 1/10 of your capital) to the church. What you get back from the church--and there is a return--is in the form of services. An adherence to the tithing commandment will limit your disposable income, even if you're making a decent salary.

4.--Salaries in Utah aren't very high. According to the governor's website, which tries to spin the statistics as well as it can, the average non-agricultural salary is $29.700 per year. The site gamely admits that this salary is 17% lower than the US average and does its best to mitigate damage from that admission.

5.--The population is young. According to 2000 census data, Utah has perhaps the most under-18-year-olds in the country, at a whopping 64.4 percent of total population. Actually the data from the census bureau seems to support more the idea that Mormons are having lots of children rather than that Mormons are young and irresponsable with credit (a point which would be better supported if the under thirty population were above the national average, which it isn't). So the census data actually supports point #1.

Those are the supportable, policy-like points. Muzzier cultural explanations for Mormon bankruptcy are next.

6.--The Mormon religion is an offshoot of Calvinism, so much of what Weber said about Protestantism and its relationship to money holds true for Mormons--and in spades, since it can be such a self-contained society. Having nice things is a sign of having money, which is a sign of having a successful life, which is a sign of being virtuous. The whole culture of polygamy and many children can to a certain degree be understood as part of a prestige society: within Mormon intellectual circles, the rationale is that since in the 19th century there were many unattached female converts, it made sense for the better-off men to take them in under the protection of marriage. Having multiple wives and children showed that one had the means to support them: prestige. While polygamy is out (and it really is out), children, big homes, and commodities are still definitely in. Mormons aren't your ascetic kind of Puritans. There's a glory in materialism--athletics, money, technology, even sex--that remains theologically interesting to me. Credit is a short-cut that makes sense here.

7.--Optimism. The religious culture in the LDS privileges happy endings. The narrative of conversion--I was so screwed up but then found God--in LDS is determined primarily in terms of lifestyle. Life will get better because I am doing honest work as an honest man (and yes, paid work is primarily being done by men). As I progress spiritually, as I become more Christ-like, life will continue to get better because I am becoming more worthy. This point is somewhat like the last one, but it's the quality of boundless hope that is important here. Spiritual potential is perhaps unlimited, but earnings potential is unfortunately restricted. A propensity towards optimism might lead one into damaging credit errors.

8.--While the Mormon parallel safety-net is good for some things--individuals will sacrifice a lot to home-care family-members and spouses, shut-ins will get visited by church members, elderly receive needed attention from their visiting teachers--it isn't an insurance policy. Tithing gets you services, but not medical care. Some Mormons might be lulled into a false sense of security, which would make medical emergencies expensive if not covered by a private insurance policy.

9.--One place where the Puritanical streak of Mormonism really shows up is in the general unwillingness to talk about money. It simply isn't done. Maybe a church member will go to the ward bishop and talk about his or her problems. The bishop will then figure out a specific way to help that member, usually involving some call to service on the part of the ward. But the appeal for help will then be couched in moral, not financial terms. The poor are in developing nations; the US members need some help, with casseroles or visits or services.

10.--A couple of commenters on Atrios's site suggested that family pressures might make Utahns and Mormons particularly susceptible to get-rich-quick schemes. From everything I've read about the preferred marks of con-men, Mormons fit the bill pretty nicely. Culture of the oppressed minority? check. Belief in rational quickfixes? check. Feeling of individual entitlement? check. Trust in fellows to speak truthfully? check. Sense that things will turn out for the best? check.

Thanks largely to my Depression-era atheistical father, I escaped much of this credit card cycle, but what comparatively mild interest-hikes and late-payment fees I've incurred make me more sympathetic to those who simply haven't been able to get out from under the debt. The sums have a nasty way of increasing, and what seems like a good deal turns catastrophic very quickly. I hope Utahns put pressure on Orrin Hatch about this bankrupcy bill. If he's going to advocate for penalizing debt, he really should start addressing more seriously the reasons so many of his constituents are defaulting.

Speaking of bloggy celebrities, Tacitus is back up. Tacitus was one of the first blogs I commented on. The other was Billmon. Billmon's site was scary to comment on, in the earlier days, because Billmon would descend from the main post into the comment thread and crush you if you were stupid. At Tacitus, the other commenters would argue with you, and if you were polite, they would continue the debate and show you a different point of view.

That atmosphere changed when Tacitus switched to the Scoop format, requiring users to sign in. I didn't sign in at the time--as a perpetual lurker, I didn't feel that making a hotmail account for internet purposes was really justified, although I tried later and never had any info, confirmation, or anything sent to my email account. Still, I returned often to the site, reading both the main posts and the discussion threads, to see what was going on. And my general impression is that the switch to the Scoop format intensified what was already a somewhat clubby atmosphere. It's the same names making the same arguments, only applied to different objects.

The switch in format occured shortly before Tacitus (Josh Trevino) started up his project, whose mission is to seek "the construction of a Republican majority in the United States." This community has more commenters, more voices, but they tend to debate issues from within the Republican point of view, as might be expected from the mission statement. So, Tacitus's audience has been refined even more: not only did the Scoop format for the site eliminate comments from the noncommittal lurker, but the RedState site required both registration and a certain degree of affiliation. And while the Tactitus site went down, sustained only by diaries, the RedState site continued strong, with Trevino posting semi-regularly.

This material is all in preface to the point that inspired me to write tonight. Trevino's prose style has gotten out of control. I don't have good data points to support a case that Tacitus's prose has gotten more florid as a result of tighter control of his audience, although I do think the two are related. My first memory of being drawn up short by his style dates from late summer or early fall of 2004, but as the site doesn't have calendar-based archives and as I remember little about the specific post that appalled my sense of decorum, I can't substantiate even that point.

I can, however, take one data point: the first substantive post from Trevino on the most recent incarnation of Tacitus suffers from overblown rhetoric. I can't find a permalink for the post, which is called "The Dawn," but it's in the Tacitus section as well as on the mainpage, and was posted on Tueday, March 8th, at 7:15 EST. Here's a paragraph that's particularly dense in annoying rhetoric:

I was privileged to spend time this weekend with an old comrade from my ROTC days: she was recently back from Baqubah, Iraq, and was embittered and a bit weary as a soldier has the right to be. She was against the war, as war is terrible, and had no desire to see it again -- indeed, she voted for John Kerry, which is surely a rarity in my experience of the officer corps. But in the day to day horrors of dismembered men in which she worked at her forward aid station, her perspective, and her vote, altered accordingly. It is indeed as Eisenhower said: "Men acquainted with the battlefield will not be found among the number that glibly talk of another war". We listened to her speak and asked her questions. Then something interesting happened: another old friend (and another Kerry voter, at that) from cadet days who did not make it to war asked, "So do you think Joe Iraqi is better off now?" Her reply was sharp and swift: "I know he is." She shifted from a recounting of combat's horrors to rattling off all the ways in which the American presence -- her presence -- in Iraq had made life better for Iraqis (and, she noted especially, for Iraqi women). As firm as her conviction that she never wanted to go to war again -- and that this war in particular is bad -- was her belief that concrete and transmformative good was being accomplished there. There was pride in her words. Justified pride. And in that pride, you could see the realization that she accomplished more there than stitching up hajis, saving young soldiers, and staying alive.

You were privileged? That's nice. Oh, wait, you mean you enjoyed a "special advantage" (OED, sub. req.) in speaking to people who have been deployed to Iraq? It's a sweet compliment to them as well as to yourself, but it's a terrible transition.

Tacitus presents the viewpoint of someone in a position he's honor-bound to respect (former deployed servicemember) but with whom he disagrees, which rhetorical technique I applaud him for, as it is rare in the blogosphere, but he tends to reduce "Rachel's" opinions to her war-time experience--"embittered and a bit weary as a soldier has a right to be." It is also possible that a soldier has a right to be considered as rational and that her vote for a less pro-war candidate might have been the result of more thought than these post acknowledges.

I really object to is the obstreperous uses of the word "indeed." Oh yes, Eisenhower is a fearful reference, the kind best introduced with a vague absolute statement like "It is indeed as Einsenhower said..." Indeed, we must value things; indeed, our foes are wrong; indeed, I sound serious.

I also object to the narrative style: "Her reply was sharp and swift: 'I know he is.'" I feel as though I've dropped into a second-rate Kipling poem when I read those adjectives. In fact, I can't help hearing that sentence as distantly remembered from an Edwardian education by Bertie Wooster:
um, tiddly um-pum, something's amiss
Her reply was sharp and swift, tum hum:
My friend, I know he is.

Hearing Wodehouse do Kipling in that sentence makes the shift to Mickey Spillane-type sentence fragments even more jarring. "There was pride in her words. Justified pride." I'm saying something important. Really important. My sentence fragments heighten my emotional appeal. Emotion appeal for you. Because you care. We care. We are tough men. And we care.

What kills me is to click through to comments and see that people respond to Tacitus's writing style, which brings me around to a final speculative observation: the right-wing side of the blogosphere tends to the snarkier side of style. Glenn Reynolds's identifying stylistic tic is his "heh, indeed." Charles Johnson tends to the vague and insinuative. Dan Drezner does snarky policy. Michelle Malkin is predictable as well, writing short, safe, and, to this reader, strangely passive-aggressive posts. Tacitus, on the other hand, writes with grandeur (At least in mainpage posts; in comment thread arguments he practices what one commenter on Billmon's old site referred to as "the squid maneouver:
I agree that Tac is smart, eloquent and conservative, and some of the comment threads over there are outstanding. unfortunately, he's also a shameless practitioner of the squid maneuver. nail down a flaw in his logic or a place where he's actually contradicting himself and he disappears in a cloud of rhetorical misdirection and obscure historical references. this is often accompanied by an ostensibly humorous assertion that either you or your source are out of your minds, or that your argument is beneath consideration and he was just indulging you before.

Having recently seen Tacitus banned for similiar behavior at the site that some of his regular commenters set up, I think Radish's diagnosis prescient.) Tacitus's grandeur, however, relies on some lazy stylistic techniques, which limits its appeal. His closed audience has made his style trend to the more grandiose, making him the place to go if you're a conservative in need of uplifting moral justification. "Honor" is an important, if never defined, concept on his site; all is stern, noble, and uplifting. Except that it's also schlock. Heh. Indeed.


Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Public Lives, Mini-Celebs, Blogging

Tom Watson's post on how blogging fits into the 15 minutes of ME! postmodern phenomenon is smart, putting bloggers in the same category as amateur pornographers...


Sunday, March 06, 2005

Mormon Commandments That Many Americans Would Feel Funny About

Over at Pandagon, Amanda Marcotte wonders what a Ten Commandments monument actually symbolizes and comes up with a convincing exegesis:
But you know what? I believe them that it's about "heritage", or at least taking possession of what Americans believe that our heritage is. Going back to the relational way that people think of dichotomies, it's easy to see. Conservative/liberal is to strict father/nuturant parent is to Old Testament/New Testament. A monument to the 10 Commandments is a symbol of the Old Testament and therefore evokes the multitude of things that we relate to that half of the Bible dichotomy--maleness, discipline, rules, favoritism, everything that is dear to conservatives. The heritage that is being asserted may not be religious at all so much as political. The Commandments symbolize a belief that American history adheres to conservative values and to make people think that liberalism is an uppity newcomer.

The fact that as the monument became a rallying point for conservatives who had no reason ever to step foot in that damn courthouse, the fact that a judge who really should have known better sponsored the damn thing--yeah, the heritage is political.

More to the point, Julian Elson in comments wonders what Mormon commandment could accompany the OT commandments for a truly inclusive religious representation.

Happy to oblige. Here's the early Mormon church on tithing. Note who's speaking in this passage.

Doctrine and Covenants 119
1. Verily, thus saith the Lord, I require all their surplus property to be put into the hands of the bishop of my church in Zion. 2. For the building of mine house, and for the laying of the foundation of Zion and for the priesthood, and for the debts of the Presidency of my church. 3. And this shall be the beginning of the tithing of my people. 4. And after that, those who have thus been tithed shall pay one-tenth of all of their interest annually, and this shall be a standing law unto them forever, for my hold priesthood saith the Lord. 5. Verily I say unto you, it shall come to pass that all those who gather unto the land of Zion shall be tithed of their surplus properties, and shall observe this law, or they shall not be be found worthy to abide among you. 6. And I say unto you, if my people observe not this law, to keep it holy, and by this law sanctify the land of Zion unto me, that my statutes and my judgments may be kept thereon, that it may be most holy, behold, verily I say unto you, it shall not be a land of Zion unto you. 7. And this shall be an ensample unto all the stakes of Zion. Even so. Amen.

And that's Joseph Smith. You should read Brother Brigham for practical socialism:
In reality, we should have only one mess chest, one place of deposit, one store house, one "pile," and that is the kingdom of God upon the earth; it is the only store-shouse there is for Saints, it is the only "pile," the only safe place of deposit, the only place to invest our capital. This is rational to me; and all who contend for an individual interest, a personal "pile," independent of the kingdom of God, will be destroyed. Journal of Discourses 1:341. (Cited in Leonard Arrington's Brigham Young: American Moses, page 182)


Cult Watch Novels and The Post Office

Given that the Church of Scientology has recently opened up a new branch in the hip LA neighborhood of Los Feliz, it's time to comment on a novel I recently read, The Program, by Gregg Hurwitz.

The Program is basically an infilitrate-and-rescue thriller, with a fairly standard nice-troubled-violent hero-cop who rather predictably has fallen into trouble with his superiors. He contracts his services--for this one job--to a kind of ad hoc committee that includes his old division and a cranky self-involved millionaire father who wants his step-daughter extracted from a mind-control cult. The mind-control cult resembles the Scientologists, basically, but with a vastly accelerated schedule of conversion and a sex-obsessed Dear Leader.

The descriptions of how cults like this use atmosphere and body rhythms to screw people up are quite interesting. Apparently, the key factors in a convention-style event are: manipulating people's sense of time, ambient temperature, releasing normal inhibitions, abusive role-playing, and extracting confessions that can then be used to tug at your mental strings. Hurwitz also conveys the schizophrenia of cultists who can ardently and totally believe in the truth of their practices, while simulteneously creating elaborate and deceptive illusions for new adherents.

It's a smart genre thriller that involved some research to make. But what really caught my eye in the book wasn't the cult. It was the postmaster.

Let me explain. The police have a hell of a time justifying an intervention into the cult compound because, apparently, you can abuse consenting adults to your heart's content. (The S&M community has also figured out a legal strategy.) So the plot will eventually turn around a misdemeanor offense. Hurwitz chooses mail fraud, and to explain the crime, Hurwitz creates a USPS zealot, a man defined and obsessed by his profession just like in the best Dickensian novels. The postmaster doesn't interact with the other characters so much as he harranges everyone.

And his soapbox creed is one that does deserve more respect. The USPS is faster than the French Poste, cheaper than the German Post, and more consistent than any of the private delivery services in the US. The Postmaster points out that a 37-cent stamp will get you a letter from the Florida to Alaska--a vast continent of service--and a legally enforced contract between the sender and the post office that that letter will be delivered to the addressee. The mere fact that the Post Office bothers to maintain a dead letter office, sorry, Mail Recovery Center, instead of automatically chucking out mail that can't reach either an addressee or a sender, speaks volumes about the seriousness with which it approaches its task.

Speaking of dead letter offices, to bring in the mail service as Hurwitz does is also a cool high-literary nod. It's an uninsistent thriller-version of Melville and Pynchon's themes, even if its spokesperson is principly characterized by his insistence.

Anti-cult thrillers are neat enough, but what I really want is more mail literature! More!


Deborah Solomon Jonathan Safran Foer MASH!

This profile in the New York Times Magazine occasioned much smirking in the literary blogs, which gives me an opportunity to pool together links to said blogs.

Gawker's take on the interview: Foer as emo-boy.

The Rake's Progress calls reading the profile like drunkenly opening the wrong door at a party.

GalleyCat's first reaction: "Worst...Profile...Ever." And her second reaction: "'Epistolary Climax': Reaction Shot, Take Two." Nathalie stresses Foer's responsibility for Solomon's crush-article and suggests that Foer might have a thing for letter-writing.

The New York Observer speculates about what some of those emails exchanged back-n-forth might have looked like. (via Bookslut)

Maud Newton contains herself to calling the profile "strange" and linking to the Observer piece above.

In the minority, Bookdwarf read the profile as making Foer seem "nice" and "less pretentious than...imagined."

The Elegant Variation is too high-minded to comment on the profile, but I'll link to this post instead, which points out that much of the loathing felt for Foer can be attributed to jealousy. The Literary Saloon is of course above commenting on local gossip. MobyLives doesn't comment, either, which surprises me a little.


For myself, I disliked Foer's first book, and I don't think my dislike can be attributed solely to jealousy. Since I helped teach a class on this novel, my dislikes are already organized, and I just have to add bullet points.

1.--The evocation of the village's utopian past in the magical-realist mode seemed hackneyed to me. Is there a way to convey "nostaglia" and "cultural otherness" without slipping into goofy fantasias? I know the "bad" way to evoke past cultural otherness is the exotic or the anthropological, both of which modes the Said school of anti-orientalism have pretty effectively taken apart. But a really good novelist should be able to figure out some new tricks.

Let's see, in Foer's novel we get an absurdist village ritual that marks the local community as absolutely contained in its glorious uniqueness, we get a generational family romance with some delicate sexual transgressiveness and a crew of harmlessly zany excentrics, we get a couple of wise old men, lots of fables, and the sparkly fog of atmosphere that covers up the fact that none of this stuff goes anywhere. Ian Rankin seems to be the only professional critic willing to point out that "everything which isn't from Alex's point of view somehow falls away."

2.--The voice of "Alex," the Ukrainian translator who narrates most of the present story, relies on the funny, funny device of the malapropism.

The literary tradition of this device is satirical. Bottom, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, gets his line wrong in "Pyramus and Thisby," saying:
"'Thisby, the flowers of odious savors sweet.'" (III.i.81)

Ha, ha! Bottom is such a blockhead that he's calling Thisby hateful instead of perfumed! What an idiot! And then there's Mrs. Malaprop herself--who, like Bottom, pretends to refinements above her station--in Sheridan's The Rivals (1775), one of whose lines goes like this:
"Sure, if I reprehend any thing in the world it is the use of my vernacular tongue, and a nice derangement of epithets!"

Ha, ha! Mrs. Malaprop thinks she's a salon wit, but we all know she's a stupid social pretender!

Would the device have gone over so well if Alex had been an African translator? No? It would have seemed rather callous to make fun of an African's misuse of English? Well, that's because Eastern Europe is funnier--and besides, we liberated them from the Soviets!

Alex's malapropisms are meant to be funny in a kind of wistful way, but I had a hard time forgiving Foer this humor. At the time I was reading lots and lots of ESL papers. Yes, I chortle when I read unintendedly funny malapropisms, but I feel a little cruel doing so. And the techniques Foer used to balance the cruelty of this humorous device are heavy-handed; they're poignant guard-rails, managing the reader's sympathy, making sure the reader doesn't fall off those superior heights.

Would the device have gone over so well if Alex had been an African translator? No? It would have seemed rather callous to make fun of an African's misuse of English? Well, that's because Eastern Europe is funnier--and besides, we liberated them from the Soviets!

3.--Don't get me started on the marketing. That cover. The dance around the "Holocaust Genre." The Wuenderkind of well-connected parents.

Yes, I'm jealous, but I also think Foer has enough talent that he should have started his literary career with a stronger novel. One, perhaps, that wasn't all about him.

[Update 1: The Elegant Variation weighs in with a post that makes me feel bad. At least I took issue with the book more than with the man. Still, I've got to admit that if Foer hadn't been so young and so relentlessly promoted, the book would have fallen into the interesting-but-flawed column for me rather than the I-hate-it-I-hate-it category. ]

[Update 2: Galleycat collects some links that discuss Foer's apparent desire to be compared to black men. And another, rather less involved interview with Foer at CNN, via The Elegant Variation.]

[Update 3: Editor and Punisher discusses similarities between Foer's novel and Beverly Cleary's Dear Mr. Henshaw. (via Gawker.)]


Designed for what, exactly?

Ophelia Benson over at Butterflies and Wheels posts on Intelligent Design and its as-of-yet unclear teleology. She asks, if the designer is so powerful and smart and all that, why did He/It/She bother to design humans? For company? For amusement?

Mormons have a very elaborate history of the "premortal existence." It follows Milton's verson, with a couple of important revisions.

First off, God the Father is not alone. He's married. Heavenly Mother keeps in the heavenly kitchen, though, so her name doesn't get blasphemed. God the Father and Heavenly Mother had a whole bunch of kids. Us. Two of these sons are more important than the others: Jesus and Lucifer.

Now, God wanted to put all of his children through the steps that would enable them to become adult divinities. So he created Earth and set up the rules for coming back and becoming like him: get a body, experience life, and die. The catch is that you've got to remember that the goal is to get back to God. Then he asked his sons what other parameters should be involved.

The sons went off and came up with their design projects. Lucifer's proposal would program the incarnated souls to march through the various righteous steps: birth, chastity until marriage, church-attendance, joyous death. Lucifer was proud of his proposal, as it would bring all the souls back to God. Jesus's proposal was chancier: he suggested that the souls should forget their origins and destinations, and that they should have choices ("free agency" is the preferred Mormon term). Jesus admitted that he'd lose some, but those who made it back would really deserve to become like God.

Lucifer was pissed, a third of the Heavenly Host agreed with him, and they rebelled, got tossed out of Heaven, and wander the universe without material bodies, wreaking random havok. So it's like Paradise Lost, except that Lucifer here is a kind of totalitarian. Take that, Shelley!

So the Mormon answer to Ophelia's question is that the Designer is only responding to an already-existing condition, and that Designing is happening all the time, on different planets and universes.

The sheer creativity of early Mormon theology has always impressed me.


Supporting Our Troops

The most politically incorrect I've ever been in my classroom was when, before the war in Iraq was launched and everyone was debating the pros and cons as though our opinions mattered, I suggested somewhat pitilessly that US soldiers were instruments of the state. My already-cynical students were genuinely shocked, and I've thought a great deal about what my statement meant and whether I actually feel that way about volunteer soldiers. On a structural level, my statement is of course true: while of course there are honorable soldiers and soldiers who signed up for a college education and soldiers who are just ordinary guys and soldiers who have families and needs and are somebody's son or daughter, they all signed up to become the force by which the US government pursues its policies. Of course the US government must honor its contracts with its soldiers: veteran benefits and services must be guaranteed and respected.

That's my frame for a couple of links.

This connects to a warblog that points out a 1942 law that entitles a family whose children are all deployed to demand that their children be transferred to a safer unit when one of them is injured or killed.

This links to an "opinion" piece in The Onion. Headline: "I Support The Occupation in Iraq, But I Don't Support Our Troops."