Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Ah well, only a few more hours and we all get a clean slate, right? Bring on 2009, I say. One of my New Year's resolutions will be to return to regular posting on this blog, which I have let languish too much in the past few months. Thanks to all of you who are sticking with this site and reading regularly... I'll do my best to repay your kindness in the coming year.
Signing out for the last time in 2008... this is Dr. J saying:
Read more. Write more. Think more. Be more.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
But the real story of the game last night was the epic matchup between a couple of Giant Spaniard Brothers, Pau and Marc Gasol (pictured above). Pau Gasol played for the Grizzlies last year and won the NBA Rookie of the Year award before being traded to the Lakers. Now, the Grizzlies have his younger (and only slightly less formidable) brother Marc, who actually played high school basketball here in Memphis when his older brother was still a Grizzlie. There were a couple of nice one-on-one matchups between the Gasol brothers during the game, which were fun to watch. I suppose nobody ever gets too big to overcome the pure pleasure of schooling his brother on the court... not even these very big guys.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
shall have the power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.
As many of you already know, part of my dissertation work dealt with forgiveness, amnesty, pardons, clemency and other examples of personal and political exceptionalism. My research was primarily concerned with these phenomena in the context of Truth Commissions, which historically have taken place amidst extraordinary political circumstances. Of course, suspensions of the law should always be in some way "extraordinary" (from the Latin, extra ordinem, "outside the order"), so I find even the more mundane occurances of these phenomenon very fascinating. As my research work has turned more toward issues of human rights, political torture and terror, and their philosophical justifications, I find myself constantly confronted with this issue of legitimizing exceptions to the law.
But back to President Bush for a moment. As noted above, Bush is reported to be one of the "stingiest" Presidents in U.S. history with regard to his awards of pardon, clemency and commutation. If that evaluation were true (or simply true), it would suggest that, under the Bush Administration, we have enjoyed a time in which the "rule of law" was the least interrupted. If cases of pardon, clemency and commutation were the only measure of a sovereign's determination of "exceptions" to the law, then we could say that President Bush has been the one of the most lawful sovereigns in U.S. history by virtue of his reported "stinginess." But, of course, we know that is hardly the case.
What is the case, and what is both interesting and frightening about Bush's time in office, is that his reluctance to exercise his Consitutional right to suspend the law in cases of pardon, clemency and communtation has been been accompanied by an over-zealous enthusiasm for exercising all sorts of non-Constitutional rights to suspend the law, that is, to determine extra-judicial "exceptions" to the law. In Judith Butler's essay "Indefinite Detention" (from Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence), she argues that the practice of "extraordinary renditions" and "indefinite detentions" are evidence of the emergence of a "new" kind of sovereignty, which is primarily justified by and arises as such only in the context of the suspesion of law and the corresponding declaration of a "state of emergency." (As an aside, I highly recommend the film Fall of Fujimori, about Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, for its frightening similarity to the Bush story as well as its treatment of just the sort of "new sovereignty" that Butler analyzes.) What Buter identifies as the new sovereignty is found exactly in the sovereign declaration of "exceptions," the power of establishing a domain in which the rules no longer apply. In the suspension of their application, the power of the sovereign is both constructed and reinforced at the same time that it is exercised.
In Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Agamben addresses just this strange relationship between the law and exceptions to the law in his analysis of sovereignty. There, Agamben writes:
"... what is excluded in the exception maintains itself in relation to the rule in the form of the rule's suspension. The rule applies to the exception in no longer applying to it, in withdrawing from it." (Homo Sacer, 18)
The point that both Agamben and Butler are making, of course, is that sovereign exceptions do not "negate" the law/rule so much as they establish the meaning and power of the law/rule as such... as something that can be excepted. The "new" sovereign power, such that it is, is the power to establish domains or determine actions/persons/spaces that can be "taken out" of the domain in which the law/rule applies. ("Excepted," from the Latin excipere, ex- "out" + capere "to take") So, what is particularly curious about Bush's "stinginess" with pardons-- which are, curiously, lawful exceptions to the law-- is that he has been anything but stingy in his determination of other exceptions, particularly ones not established by the law. He has, in effect, reversed the relationship between the rule and its exception in his exercise of non-Consitutional exceptions and, what's more, he has done so so often as to make his kind of exceptionalism the new order, the new "rule."
In sum, don't be so impressed by Bush's stinginess with pardons. Those are the least objectionable exceptions.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
I handed out a narrative evaluation form in each of my classes at the end of the semester that was mainly designed to measure the students' experience with blogging in the classroom. One of the questions asked: "If you had it to do all over again, would you rather blog or write traditional (short or long) papers?" Out of a total 58 students, only 3 reported that they would not want to blog again. About 8 or 9 of them reported that they might prefer to write papers in addition to blogging, but those students unanimously spoke in positive terms about their blogging experience. Of the remaining students, the overwhelming majority of them were major fans of their class blogs.
But, I know that you're probably wondering about specifics. So, let's start with the negatives:
First positive: On the whole, my experience is that the quality of students' writing (and what they were writing about) was heads-and-shoulders above what I've gotten in the past. I attribute this largely to the fact that they got to write about things that interested them, and not only things that I assigned them to be interested in. But I also think that their writing was better because of peer pressure. I notified each of my classes that their blogs would be viewable to anyone in the world (though only members of the class were authorized to post or comment). So, not only did they have to worry about embarrassing themselves in front of their classmates, but also in front of any-old-body who happened across their little corner of the blogosphere. LESSON LEARNED: Raise the stakes for students and they rise to the challenge.
Monday, December 15, 2008
A mere 37 days before leaving office, our Lame-Duck-in-Chief President Bush was all the news yesterday. During a press conference in Baghdad with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, a Shiite Iraqi journalist (Muntadar al-Zeidi) stood up and threw one of his shoes-- and then the other-- at President Bush's head, missing Bush by a hair both times. Al-Zeidi is reported to have shouted in Arabic: "This is a farewell kiss, you dog. This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq." He was quickly wrestled to the ground by a hoard of Secret Servicemen and Iraqi journalists before President Bush composed himself and quipped: "All I can report is it is a size 10."
Strangely enough, I do not find this story funny at all. I find it embarrassing, and sad, and frustrating... a depressingly acute reminder of how far our country has fallen in the esteem of the world. The Leader of the Free World is a laughing stock and, what's worse, an oblivious laughing stock. I have no particular nostalgia for the "Founding Father" type, but seriously, whatever happened to statesmanship? Whatever happened to the dignity of the Office?
There are a lot of things to complain about in the last 8 years: the rolling back of civil (and human) rights, the pandering to corporate and capitalist interests that have decimated our economy, the unchecked hubris of American neoimperialism, the assault on science and good sense in the name of "values," the legitimated disdain for diplomacy, the wars. As Hugh Laurie said in his opening monologue on Saturday Night Live this weekend: "What an amazing year it's been. On the plus side, you've had the most exciting election in the history of American politics. And, I suppose, on the minus side... everything else."
One of the things that I look forward to most about Obama's presidency (and, to be honest, this would have been true of McCain too, I think) is the return of some modicum of decorum and stateliness to the Office of the President. Frankly, I just don't have it in me to laugh at episodes like Bush's shoe incident anymore. As cynical and sardonic as I may wish to be, as much delight as I may want to take in that circus show, it's just too old and too tired and too disappointing now. I'm ready for a change I can believe in.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
This year is my first time on the other side of the process, and I can report that it's not much better from this vantage point. We received over 300 applications for our position. That means, if everything else were equal, each applicant would have only a 0.oo3% chance of getting the job. That's 3 thousandths of a chance. But everything else isn't equal, of course. Many of the applicants don't fit the job description; many of them don't look like they'll finish their PhDs in time; many of them aren't the "liberal arts" type. Even still, after all of those obvious cuts are made, the chances of any one of them getting the job are still depressingly slim.
In fact, when I first saw the complete array of boxes that held the applications, my first thought was: How does anyone ever get a job??!! (Followed closely, of course, by: How in the world did I get a job??!!) The truth is, most of the applicants are qualified. They're PhDs or very close to it. They have interesting research projects and evidence of good teaching. They've published. They are reported to be good colleagues. So, in the end, it seems to come down to finding the right "fit" for our department.
And there's the rub.
I was on the m**ket recently enough to remember how much is riding on what I am doing now, so I'm probably a more sympathetic reader of files than your average search committee member. Even still, no matter how much I try, I know that the odds are that I will somehow miss a "gem" amidst the 300+ files. So, I want to extend my sympathies and encouragement to my many friends who are on the m**ket this year. Here's hoping your file rises to the top, and survives to the end.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
What is Drezner's evidence to the contrary? Why, blogs, of course.
For academics aspiring to be public intellectuals, blogs allow networks to develop that cross the disciplinary and hierarchical strictures of academe. Provided one can write jargon-free prose, a blog can attract readers from all walks of life — including, most importantly, people beyond the ivory tower. (The distribution of traffic and links in the blogosphere is highly skewed, and academics and magazine writers make up a fair number of the most popular bloggers.) Indeed, because of the informal and accessible nature of the blog format, citizens will tend to view academic bloggers that they encounter online as more accessible than would be the case in a face-to-face interaction, increasing the likelihood of a fruitful exchange of views about culture, criticism, and politics with individuals whom academics might not otherwise meet. Furthermore, as a longtime blogger, I can attest that such interactions permit one to play with ideas in a way that is ill suited for more-academic publishing venues. A blog functions like an intellectual fishing net, catching and preserving the embryonic ideas that merit further time and effort.
I think Drezner's onto something here. Thanks to the almost ubiquitous internet-access these days, blogs have certainly torn down many of the walls that the Academy has traditionally erected. Drawing an equivalence between "blogging intellectuals" and "public intellectuals" may require some serious massaging of our traditional sense of the "public" realm... but perhaps less massaging than we think. In fact, I would contend that the blogosphere--because it allows contact and exchange with individuals one would not otherwise encounter--greatly expands the "public" realm of ideas. What's more, the blogosphere has become the new garden of critique, in which sometimes-vitriolic-but-often-astute criticism can reach across disciplinary (and sometimes language) barriers. Drezner continues:
Perhaps the most-useful function of bloggers, however, is when they engage in the quality control of other public intellectuals. Posner believes that public intellectuals are in decline because there is no market discipline for poor quality. Even if public intellectuals royally screw up, he argues, the mass public is sufficiently uninterested and disengaged for it not to matter. Bloggers are changing that dynamic, however. If Michael Ignatieff, Paul Krugman, or William Kristol pen substandard essays, blogs have and will provide a wide spectrum of critical feedback.
For all the moaning and gnashing of teeth we hear about the declining quality of published material, one wonders whether or not the no-holds-barred "quality control" enacted in the blogosphere serves as a harsher, but possibly more effective, model of "peer reviewing" these days. I've employed blogging in each of my classes this semester, and I've been tremendously impressed with the way that students "check" each other's ideas and the presentation of those ideas, which is one particularly effective way to hone critical thinking skills. Sometimes bad ideas are like porn-- hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
First, Ryan Adams & The Cardinal's Jacksonville City Nights. I actually came to Ryan Adams a little late, which is weird since he is for all intents and purposes the Avatar of Americana Music. I had pretty much stuck to his solo albums and some of the Whiskeytown stuff, but I recently decided to give the Cardinals a try. I tried first with the album Cold Roses, which I did NOT love. That was a disappointment... but I'm a girl who believes in second (and third, and fourth, etc.) chances, so I asked around and learned that I should've been listening to Jacksonville City Nights. Much better. JCN has just the right amount of pedal-steel (the instrument that I've always said most closely approximates the human cry), just the right amount of sadness, just the right amount of foot-tapping honky-tonk. I particularly like "My Heart Is Broken," which showcases the kind of simple-and-true songwriting at which Ryan Adams excels. All the tracks are tight, compact gems-- none of the indulgent stuff that's on Cold Roses. So, this one has been on regular rotation lately.
The film The Mission is one of my most favorite of all time. But the soundtrack is, quite simply, some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard. It's hard for me to judge whether or not the music is that beautiful all by itself or whether I subconsciously associate it with the film's story... but, either way, I must have listened to this album about a thousand times and it still gives me goosebumps. Before hearing this album for the first time, I don't think I could have picked the sound of an oboe out of a horn section, but now I understand the haunting lonesomeness of that little wind instrument. And the track "Vita Nostra" is a tour de force.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
I'm also clearly making regular payments on some karmic debt these days. I can't exactly pinpoint what I did to merit the utter mayhem of this year, but I suspect it has something to do with my remarking one too many times last year about how happy I was with my life back in Memphis. A lot of people in our line of work comment on how difficult the first year is for new faculty-- new location, new people, transition from grad school life, etc., etc.-- and I was happy to report that I was blessedly spared many, if not most, of those standard first-year obstacles. I was back in a city that I knew and loved, I didn't have to find my way around or make new friends, I wasn't teaching some god-awful 4/5 load, I had great students and colleagues... in sum, things were pretty good.
And here's a better picture of Wild Bill/Willie. The bass player to the right is my good friend Melvin.
There really aren't words for what this place means to me. It's like my "church." It doesn't matter how tired or stressed or anti-social I'm feeling, I need to go to Bill's to get restored. A couple of weeks ago, after singing a set with the band, Bill's wife came up and asked me if I had a job. I said I did, of course, not really knowing where she was going with this. Then she said, "well, honey, if you ever decide that you want to take over the Friday night set here as the singer, it's yours." That might be the single greatest thing that has ever happened to me. No kidding. And then, the next week, I was sitting at my regular table in the back with some friends, and we were looking at all the pictures on the wall. (Wild Bill's walls are covered in pictures of people who have been going there since it opened.) Out of the blue, one of my friends says, "hey, Leigh, the girl in this picture looks like you with long hair." So, I looked, and as I'm sure you've guessed, it WAS me. It was me about 15 YEARS AGO!!!
Once I got over the embarrassment of the picture, I realized that Wild Bill's has been about the most consistent element in my life for almost half of the years I've been alive. It's the one place in the world that I can go and know that I will see people I know and love, and it's the one place that I know I will leave happy. Wild Bill's has changed a lot over the years that I've been going there, and some of those changes haven't been good. Bill died, of course, which was awfully sad. And the place is overrun by a lot more tourists than it used to be back in the day. Also, I occasionally see my students there these days, who almost always are fronting and say something like "Dr. J! I didn't know you came to Wild Bill's!" (like they go there all the time). What I want to say to them is, "If you came here at all in the last 15 years you would know that, so don't make me embarrass you in front of your friends." But I don't say that.
Anyway, Bill's has been my saving grace this semester. God Bless Wild Bill's.
Thursday, November 06, 2008
Monday, October 06, 2008
I was in a fairly nasty auto accident about a week ago. (See my poor, beloved, now "totaled" car to the left.) Short story: a woman ran a red light and placed her SUV in my lap. I was pretty banged- and bruised-up, but no broken bones, so I've just chalked this little adventure up to the inevitability of encountering disaster in the company of Memphis drivers. (The cop at the scene offered this sage reflection: "Well, honey, I guess it was just your turn.") The only "good" thing to come out of this was that there was a policeman sitting at the red light THAT THE OTHER DRIVER SHOULD HAVE BEEN STOPPED AT, so there's no dispute about liability. Even still, I have to find a new car-- preferably, one without an accompanying car note-- and I have to spend way more time than I have to spare dealing with this mess.
I will return to the blog shortly. Thanks for your concern. Stay tuned.
Monday, September 22, 2008
My real justification for this experiment is two-fold. First, I think one of the chief advantages of a "class blog" is that it provides a space for maintaining a consistent and uninterrupted conversation about the subject matter outside of the regularly scheduled "class time." I'm sure all of us hope that our students carry their reflections on the course material with them when they leave the classroom and, if we're really hopeful, we probably imagine them talking about these sorts of things in their dorm rooms, over lunch or beers, at parties. I suspect that some, maybe many, of them do this... but the truth is that students today are overburdened with extra-curricular activities and commitments (at my institution, they're called "co-curricular" activities and commitments), so there are numerous artificially-imposed limits to the attention students can direct at any one particular subject. So, my requirement that students participate in and keep up with their class blog is a bit of a ham-handed way of forcing them to see their work in my class as extending beyond the 3 hours that they spend with me every week. Also, and not unrelatedly, I have learned over the years that students often spend their time in class absorbing and attempting to process new material, which means that they often can't formulate something reflective to say until after class is over. How many times have we all had that experience where a student comes and speaks with us during office hours and says something particularly astute and relevant, prompting us to ask why didn't you make this comment in class??!! The blog allows for just this sort of lag-time, giving students a chance to come back and make that comment that didn't occur to them until class was over. Philosophy is best done in conversation, and no "natural" conversation has a 50- or 75-minute time limit. The blog also allows for semi-tangential or moderately-relevant contributions, which we often need to squash in class but which make for a deeper and more comprehensive consideration of the material.
Second, the more you write, the more you write. Because blog-writing requires not only "posting" (equivalent to "essay" writing) but also "commenting," students end up writing more often... and just plain more. I'd like to say something like "the more you write, the better you write," but of course that is not always the case. Nevertheless, developing the habit of writing regularly is one particularly effective way, in my view, to improve one's writing. An added advantage of blogging is that everything that students write for the course is subject to the scrutiny of the entire class (rather than just me, as the "grader"). My experience so far this semester is that students' writing is of a higher quality because they know that everyone will be reading it. There is less misspelling, less sloppy grammar, less weak argumentation. And, in a sense, everyone must "edit" his or her ideas in response to the comments of his or her classmates, which is another invaluable writing skill. Although I was initially worried that blog-writing, because of it's shorter length, would result in incomplete or merely pithy essays, I find that this limitation in fact forces students to distill and focus their thoughts into the fewer words they are allowed. So, gone is all of the "fluff" material that we often find in student papers (biographical information, long quotations, irrelevant opining, repetitive argumentation). And finally, students at last are allowed to view their writing as a manner of engaging ideas and other people, as another way to have a conversation, rather than some purely utilitarian tool in the service of a grade.
For those who are wondering about the "nuts and bolts" of this practice, here's how my class blogs work: Each course has a blog (here, here and here, on Blogger) that is "public" in the sense that anyone in the world can view it, but "private" in the sense that only members of the class are authorized to post or comment. Students have a set number of posts and a set number of comments that they are required to complete before the mid-term, and another number of posts and comments that must be completed after the mid-term. Participation above and beyond the minimum requirement is rewarded. There is a minimum word-count for posts. Post authors are responsible for responding to any direct question or challenge that appears in the comments to their posts. And, finally, I don't grade each post individually, but rather I give a "blog participation" grade at the midterm and again at the end of the semester based on the quality and quantity of the student's writing.
So far, I'm happy with the results of this experiment, though I intend to evaluate its effectiveness again at the end of the semester, as well as distribute a "student survey" to gauge students' experience with the blogs. Even if this fails, we at least will have saved some trees this semster!
UPDATE: Read the post-semester follow-up post: Blogging in the Classroom, Revisited
Sunday, September 21, 2008
One (of many) reasons that it was so difficult to pick a General Manager for Rhodes Radio is that we needed someone not only with discipline, leadershp, time-management skills, and the ability to navigate a tremendous amount of stress, but we also needed someone with a "vision." As we all know, independent/college radio is an endangered species-- but it's a quirky, strange, and beautiful little animal that I, for one, don't want to see die. The students who are in college now are probably one of the last generations that will remember what it was like to listen to the radio... and that memory is fading fast, even for them. This is too bad, really, because the current college-age generation is also extremely savvy about their musical tastes. They listen to a broader and more diverse range of tunes, partly as a result of being able to surf-and-compile their own "playlists" rather than listening to the repetitive cycles of commercial hits by corporate radio stations (almost all of which are beholden to contracts with record labels and long ago lost anything resembling a "love" of music). But the problem, of course, with this current generation's music-listening habits is that they have become more and more solipsistic, more and more isolated, more and more individualized and, consequently, less and less communal.
College radio is the last bastion of that old, paradoxical approach to broadcasting, which is both "independent" and "communal." That is, college radio is the last place where "communal" doesn't mean "commercial," and "independent" doesn't mean "idiosyncratic." In my view, it requires a fairly sophisticated sensibility to get this, even more to implement and sustain it, and I do not envy the job of the General Managers whose charge it is to do that.
You can imagine, then, how pleased I was to find that our new General Manager at Rhodes Radio "gets" it. Not only does he get it, but he can articulate it, and he seems to have some pretty good ideas about how to achieve it. It's always a risk to go with the "big idea" candidate, because he or she is invariably untested and, hence, unproven. But let me tell you what won me over in this case: In his application, which included an essay describing the candidates' "vision" for the radio station over the next two years, he listed all of the requisite "pragmatic" plans that need to be implemented (fundraising, standardization, promotion, etc.)... but he spent most of his essay explaining why college radio matters and what it should be. He noted the "sense of smart independence" that mainstrem radio cannot and does not offer, and "the DIY vibe that only non-commercial, volunteer radio provides." He described college radio as "the box in the middle of town that gives anyone with something to say a place to stand up and have their voice heard." And then there was this:
Few people on campus get hand-written letters anymore, and yet e-mailboxes are bursting at the seams. Let’s remember what handwriting looks like. Let’s humanize music again Let’s get back to our mix-tape days, where music told you something about the person and the way they worked. Let’s provide students an alternative to their computer-screen-headphone-personal-playlist mentality by making the musical experience more communal than individual.
Yeah, that's something I can believe in. What's more, I think that sort of vision is about the only way to keep college radio alive and flourishing. Because, the truth is, college radio doesn't run on money (which we don't have) or technological innovation (which we can't afford) or mass appeal (which would require a bigger antenna, which we don't have and can't afford), but rather college radio runs on the passionate investment of people who believe in it, who work hard for it, who don't want to see it die, and who care that it still bears the mark of their community's handwriting.
Monday, September 15, 2008
Like many people who grew up in the church, I suspect, the rapture was a mysterious, frightening, and practically ubiquitous imaginative possibility in my youth. I remember watching a movie about the rapture in church camp one summer, in which the film's protagonist (a young girl about my age at the time) wakes up to find everyone in her family missing from her home. (As predicted in Scripture, the rapture had come "like a thief in the night.") It was creepy and utterly terrifying to me, and I'm sure it inspired my taking serious inventory of my pre-teen soul. I suppose there are a range of intensities with which one can believe in the rapture, but for "true believers" (who must be seriously distrbed by our current "162" ranking on the Index) this always-anticipated but never-precisely-anticipatable event adds a level of urgency and magnitude to all of our otherwise mundane actions and experiences.
There's been a lot of harping on Sarah Palin recently for her belief in creationism. Last December on this blog, I offered a criticism of then-Presidential-candidate Mitt Romney's creationism in a post titled "The Trouble with Fossils." I was particularly disturbed by Romney's (ultimately untenable) claim that "to be asking presidential candidates about their specific beliefs of books of the Bible is, in my view, something which really isn't part of the process which we should be using to select presidents." Of course, the "specific book of the Bible" to which Romney was referring is Genesis, and the "specific belief" that he felt should not be an element in our selection process is creationism. I argued that Romney had missed the Good Judgment Boat on two counts with that remark: first, by believing in a literalist rendering of the Biblical creation account and, second, by believing that such beliefs are irrelevant criteria in the process of selecting a President.
As I hope was obvious in that earlier post, my criticism of Romney was directed less at his particular beliefs about the origin of the world, but rather primarily at his beliefs about (1) what constitutes "good judgment" and (2) the role that our evaluations of candidates' powers of judgment should play in the election process. To believe that the world and all that is in it was created in a span of six days and nights, all scientific evidence to the contrary, is a manifest demonstration of bad judgment. But I can imagine ways in which this sort of judgment-- IF we consider it as a judgment of meaning and not a judgment of fact-- may serve other, quasi-justifiable ends in one's life. So, even though I would seriously question the judgment of any candidate who regularly disregards the legitimacy of scientific truth, my skepticism might be somewhat assuaged by the realization that s/he at least judges the world in which we live to be a meaningful and purposive place.
Belief in the rapture, on the other hand, bothers me both as a judgment of fact and as a judgment of meaning. I do not want the Leader of the Free World, with his or her finger on whatever "button" might destroy said world, to believe (1) that this world is a fallen and temporary place, (2) that the "end" of this world is an event to be welcomed and possibly facilitated, and (3) that his or her eternal happiness is being postponed by the perpetuation of this world. In short, I don't want a "Rapture-Ready" President. In fact, I want a President who is absolutely terrified by the prospect of the rapture, and who instead focuses his or her energies on bringing about justice in this world. I want a President who sees the troubles of our times as problems to be solved, not signs of the apocalypse.
And, pace Romney, I think this process of judging candidates' powers of judgment is exactly the process we should be using to select a President.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
I know that just a week ago I was poking fun at the cult-status of Wallace's Infinite Jest. I feel bad about that now. So, let me say for the record that one of the things that I most admired about Wallace was that he somehow managed to find and maintain that delicate balance between a skeptical, disillusioned and exceedingly-academic nihilism on the one hand, and a probative, resilient and thoroughly genuine belief in the inherent meaning and meaning-making genius of humanity on the other hand. Wallace was exactly the sort of "postmodern" with whom I am the most sympathetic, and about whom the right-wing critics of postmodernism understand nothing-- that is, the sort of guy who believes wholeheartedly that "the Emporer wears no clothes" and yet still recognizes that Emperors are people, too, and it must really suck to be caught out there in front of everybody all naked and vulnerable like that.
From a commencement address that he delivered at Kenyon College in 2005:
But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.
Friday, September 12, 2008
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
In one of the most brilliantly titled articles I've read in a while-- "Racist A-Holes to Gather in Memphis for Convention"-- I learned that, just 4 days after the Presidential election, Duke and his cronies will be coming to Memphis "to say clearly that neither Black Radical, Barrack Obama [sic], nor Mr. Amnesty, John McCain truly represent the will of the American people." On Duke's website (which I am not linking to on purpose), I learned that their conference is called the "European American Conference" and also that "college students will tell you that a university education today is a guilt-trip for whites."
Monday, September 08, 2008
I wanted to extend my sincere gratitude to those who have stuck with this blog over the last couple of years. As Prof. Grady once said, the life of a blog really happens in its "comments"-- and that has definitely been the case here. In the true spirit of this site, you visitors (and lurkers) have motivated me to read more, write more, think more and be more. Thank you.
Sunday, September 07, 2008
Thursday, September 04, 2008
So, Clydesdale warns, don't expect your first-year students to climb atop their desks and yawp "O Captain, my Captain!" They're too busy trying to figure out how to balance the demands of life without parental control: studying, partying, working, making friends, managing finances, waking up on time. And while they're doing that, they're keeping the characteristics that have defined them so far in what Clydesdale calls an "identity lockbox."
For the time being, I'll keep my Rule #1 as it is... including the "Be More" part. Maybe I'm just preaching to the Future Professors and Purveyors of the Dream Choir, but maybe not. At any rate, despite the nay-sayers, I'm going to keep practicing a lesson I learned from the Republicans last night: "...try First."
Sunday, August 31, 2008
For bibliophiles, books are profoundly significant, and terribly under-acknowledged, factors in the making or breaking of relationships. I'm guessing that many of us are somewhat clandestine about our scoping-out of others on the basis of their literary tastes, but I can always spot a fellow bibliophile when, upon entering my apartment, s/he slowly gravitates toward my bookshelves and tries to appear indifferent while perusing the titles. I know, of course, that what this stealth creature is doing, in fact, is slowly and carefully cataloguing my tastes, measuring my educational level and cultural sophistication, piecing-togather a preliminary psychological profile and, of course, searching for evidence of his or her "literary dealbreakers" somwehere on the shelf. I know this is what the bibliophile is doing because, well, that's what I do.
It's much easier, I think, to identify the books that instantly indicate compatibility between yourself and someone else than it is to identify the ones that are prophets of relationship doom. For me, the deal-sealers are many and varied: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Philip Roth, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Milan Kundera, most existentialists, and non-fiction that is quirky, political, and timely. On the other side, though, I think that I mostly identify deal-breakers by genre rather than individual titles. Any form of "beat generation" literature is out (bye-bye to Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Borroughs). Also out is sci-fi, magical realism and fantasy (no Anne Rice, no Harry Potter, no Hitchhiker's Guide). Anything that has any number of "steps," "principles," or "secrets" as a part of the title, especially if those are directed at "self-improvement," "financial security" or "management success," is definitely a bad sign. And too much medieval stuff is a red flag (sorry Boethius, Dante and Chaucer).
If I absolutely had to identify specific deal-breakers, though, there are a few candidates that would definitely make the cut. I don't think I could bear someone telling me that his or her favorite book is Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind . Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet would probably be taken as a bad sign by me as well. And, as a rule, I usually question the sincerity of anyone who says his or her favorite book is David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest or Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time-- not because I don't love Wallace and Proust, but just because I would seriously doubt that the person actually finished them. In almost every case, I think, the people who cite those as their favorite books are pretenders, not real readers.
Another deal-breaker for me is the presence of too many "show" books-- the ones with still-pristine, unbroken spines that are obviously unread. The more a person's books show signs of being "handled," the better. Extra points for books filled with scribbled marginalia or with dog-eared pages. And extra, extra points if there is some organization to the bookshelves, alphabetical or otherwise.
Ahhhhh, the mysterious ways of nerds in love.
Saturday, August 30, 2008
It shouldn't be a surprise to any of us, I suppose, that McCain chose a woman for his vice-president. And, before I go on, let me just note again, for the record, the historical significance of having both an African-American Presidential candidate and a female Vice-Presidential candidate in the same year. (Not to mention TWO candidates under 50!) We might be finally catching up with the rest of the world here...
Unfortunately for Palin, though, I'm afraid that she will come to represent "progress" for women along the same lines as Geraldine Ferraro and Harriet Meiers did-- what I like to call progress of the "close-but-give-him-back-his-cigar" sort. Hillary Clinton may have indeed put a "thousand cracks" in the glass ceiling of patriarchy with her astounding run this season, but McCain's attempt to force Palin through those narrow, jagged openings likely will involve much blood-letting.
The truth is that Palin simply cannot be what McCain and the men-behind-the-Republican-election-curtain want, and need, her to be. They need her to be the "honey" that draws all of the disgruntled female HRC-flies over to the other side. The problem is, Palin is an anti-abortion, creationist, self-described "hockey mom" who just a month ago was under investigation for abuse of power. And she's young-- younger than Obama-- which not only casts a pall over McCain's recent lambasting of Obama's "inexperience," but will probably make her (instead of McCain) the new target of any return volley that Democrats make in the campaign "age wars." McCain's decision to choose Palin is so curious, in fact, that it makes me very suspicious... and not suspicious in a good way.
Waiting for the other shoe to drop...
Sunday, August 24, 2008
It's a little hard to write about this film without revealing "spoilers" because the story is intricate, non-linear, and chock-full of plot twists... so I'll try to proceed carefully. What really impressed me about Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, though, was that it is almost a perfectly composed "tragedy" in the Aristotelian sense. Now, to a certain extent, I don't think one would have to know much about Aristotle to recognize the similarities between Lumet's film and Greek tragedies. The film centers around brother/brother and father/son conflicts (which are both sexually-charged and potentially murderous). The familial crises depicted in the film are catalyzed by individuals' unreflective and unchecked desire for money, power, and recognition. The protagonists are all basically sympathetic, even if flawed, and eminently resilient, even if weak. Like Oedipus, they do not know themselves, and they are crushed under the weight of self-knowledge when it comes to them. Like Antigone, they do not rule their worlds, and they suffer for their efforts at trying to impose an alternative Law on the world around them. As in Greek tragedies, the "physical" violence upon which the story turns is only accidental. What the audience comes to understand, really, is that the true motor of the plot and all of its players is psychic violence, for which the only truly adequate salve is exile or death.
I won't bore you with all of the ways in which Before the Devil Knows You're Dead dramatically elaborates the core themes of Aristotle's Poetics (mimesis, catharsis, peripeteia, anagnorisis, hamartia), but I do want to recommend it as an excellent teaching tool for illustrating the technical terms in that text. In the past, I showed the film V for Vendetta when I taught Aristotle's Poetics because it was so easy to identify Aristotle's elements of tragedy in that film, but now I'm convinced that Lumet does it better. (Fair warning, though: the film begins with an extremely graphic sex scene-- between Hoffman and Tomei no less!-- so there may be potential problems with showing it in the classroom.) Lumet has always been a connoisseur of family dysfunction-- the classic mise en scene for tragedy-- but he is arguably unrivalled in his skill for portraying, with equal measures of honesty and compassion, all of the mean and petty things we do to one another.
As I've suggested on this blog many times before (much to the chagrin of Booga Face and Chet), I think contemporary films are about the closest art form we have to ancient Greek tragedy in the following sense: part of the function of Greek tragedies was to serve as a mirror to the community's collective values, as well as a vehicle by which moral instruction could be imparted to the community. This is why Aristotle insisted that "good" tragedies must reflect the plight of a human being in such a way that, no matter how pitiful or fearful the protagonists' station in life, the audience can see their own humanity, their own finitude and weakness, in the actions and reactions of an other. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead excels in just this sort of representation.