Saturday, November 21, 2009

Wally Cardona and Jane Austen

I have been busy writing and teaching, but I did go to three cultural events this past weekend: My Lang colleague Wally Cardona's dance piece 'Really Real' at BAM, the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library, and a reading by Justin Taylor and one of the Wu Ming collective at P. S. 122. Wu Ming and Taylor--though very interesting--does not really go with the other two, but I found odd commonalities between the Cardona and the Austen.

The Cardona is divided into two parts, "He Lived A Somewhat Uneventful Life" and "Repetition". For the first (shorter) part, the lights are turned on, so that the audience can see themselves see the performers (I don't know whether the lights helped or hindered the performers seeing the audience). As a series of small, unobtrusive actions took place on stage by a series of dancers, a overvoice--deliberately halting and unassured--recited details which, without the name (I believe) ever being explicitly mentioned, clearly demoted the life of Søren Kierkegaard.

The first time we heard the snippets about Kierkegaard, we paid rapt attention to them, the second time, we began to drift away, notice the movements of the dancers on stage, hear the sound as only sound but not sense. By the time the words--spoken with an awareness of both how difficult the concepts evoked in them could be and for their potential as cliché--were said a third time they became meaningless; only the action mattered. Then "Repetition" began--with no words other than songs, the stage darkened, and a series of lyrical, sinuous dances, peopled by both adult and child performers, took over as a kind of rhapsodic counterpoint and complement to the more talky and cerebral part that had gone before.
It is interesting to think of the juxtaposition of Kierkegaard with the emphasis on youth and the presence of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus as a large part of the action--Kierkegaard is usually thought of not as a philosopher for young people, if indeed there is such a thing, but part of the show's theme is openness to experience.
The articulation of a lived intellectuality is very different form actually living it, and the difference between the first and second sections was just that: the first was the rationale for a concrete mental life, the second the actually living it. But the second could not possibly occur without the manifestation of the first, just as, for Kierkegaard, the 'aesthetic' mentality was the necessary prelude to the ethical. Kierkegaard was very unlike many of his contemporaries who objected to e.g. haggle for not being political or practicable enough--Kierkegaard wanted to turn Hegel in the direction not just of concreteness but of irony and polyether title, “Really Real” suggests three states, the Unreal, the Real. and the Really Real. In this scheme, the Unreal could be philosophical abstraction as such, the Real could be an understanding of the need for lived. understood intellectual experience. the Really Real would be that experience, itself. of course, for some people, like Kant and Lacan, the Really Real would be the most ultimately unknowable, and in a sense there is a kinship between the most knowable and the most unknowable, conveyed by the moody lyricism, the playing of the song "I Feel Free' , which has exuberance, joy, a sense of the unfettered, but also especially in the version used by Cardona, an underlying melancholy. The uniformity of the second half has less to do with collectivism in my mind than the connection necessitated by the dichotomy of repetition and a more active recollection, which, as all readers of Kierkegaard know, has to be lived forward. In order for this to happen, the unites that are repeated or recollected have to be standardized, but the black to me signified the inevitable sadness that attends on this project as also a sense of the night, the unknown, a kind of dark, mystical ecstasy. I did not feel any sense of ;conformity from the dancers, the differences in ages and features in any event made that impossible.

Part of the liberation was having the lights turned on the audience for the first twenty minutes or so...we felt relaxed, freed, we no longer needed to pretend we were an audience, pretend we weren't there (though I wished the woman in front of me whose cell phone went off with the telltale Cingular/At&T ring tone had not been there)

I did not see the dynamic mentioned by Gia Kourlas in her, to my mind, generally, albeit unsurprisingly, uncomprehending Times review about the individual and the collective--to me, the dynamic was between thought and experience, the mental and the physical, the conceptual and the authentic. Really Real achieved what its title spoke of, a release into the freedom of the lived, the actual, but it also showed that this has to be a complicated and earned and actually performed process, that it cannot be done with a snap of the fingers. it was an extraordinarily uplifting and stimulating evening and I am most grateful for it.
A day later, I had a strangely analogous experience, going to the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan. Austen, like Kierkegaard, was someone not really taken seriously in her own day: compared to her peers, like Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott, she, like the Danish thinker, seemed unusually personal, narrow, 'living a somewhat uneventful life' --the observations made about Kierkegaard in Cardona's play, that he only traveled outside Denmark five times, that he rarely left home, could also be made of Austen--and they both, sadly, lived only 42 years. Austen also raises the issue of concrete experience--she has been underrated until the past two generations of critics because people thought she did not give vent to the Big Ideas, but what she really did is, like Kierkegaard, embed them in a lived, actualized context. As W H. Auden said about her in 'Letter to Lord Byron".

Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety,
The economic basis of society.

And this was not just an unmasking but an unmasking done in order to affirm life and affirm the real ties of regard and affection that could exist even after society's economic basis was granted. Austen and Cardona combined ot underscore the rich braid that is possible between conceptualized and lived experience, if thought of in , very generally, the right proportion.

The exhibition had Austen’s personal copies of several of the major books that influenced her (a number of which I am teaching in my eighteenth century fiction course at Lang this semester) as well as some of the few manuscripts of hers that have survived (all of her unpublished, unfinished work; the publishers threw away the manuscripts of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and EMMA, etc., not feeling anybody needed them any more). there also was a set of instructions on courtly dancing--which attracted a group of attendees from the Westchester Courtly Dancing society, (or some such name), an organization devoted to dance in the Georgian and Regency era. The woman I talked to at the exhibit said that some dancers liked Jane Austen, and some Austen fans liked dance, but that the groups did not have an overwhelming overlap. Still, it did provide yet another interesting link between Austen and Cardona.

Aside from the Richard Foreman play, “Idiot Savant” , in December, this is it for 2009 in terms of cultural events—writing, the holidays, the end of the semester, and the MLA call! And, unless in case of emergency, my last post here for 2009—see you all in 2010!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Trip to New England

A quick weekend trip to the symposium on Australian literature at Harvard provided a joyful diversion from the rigors of the semester; not only was the academic companionship congenial and the intellectual atmosphere stimulating, but my ride up and back on Amtrak was enjoyable and in a way revelatory because I had never before travelled on this route this late in the fall--it was striking going past the Connecticut and Rhode Island shore with leaves turning, burning, churning, vibrant...seeing the bare birch trees standing alert in the unexpectedly balmy October air, the estuarine majesty of the Charles in Boston and the Thames in New London. Even an hour delay coming back at Old Saybrook was made tolerable by the company of my fellow passengers and the clarity of the blue-gray water surrounded by taut, brown reeds, the delight of intermingling yellow, green, and brown even in unromantic clusters of brush, the spray of afternoon sunlight amid trees steadily dispensing leaf after leaf...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

More Marches

it would be very funny, in terms of 'diversity', if in the gay rights march today there were some who were in the anti-Obama march I encountered last month......

Friday, September 25, 2009

Back from Klagenfurt

I am back, so once again have little time to blog, but the last two days in Klagenfurt were filled with fun, heroic and poignant folk singing, continuing sumptuous food, boat rides, and wonderful collegiality. Back to New York and once-a-month blogging!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Klagenfurt 3

Okay, I gave my talk--which went well depsite an extraordinary initial foul-up in which i was told by the convenor that I was to speak in a room different from those of the other keynotes, went to that room, was told we had to wait fifteen minutes for people to drift in, went to the bathroom, then was told the paper was in fact in the original room, makng me rush back to the alternate room, get my paper, get lost in the cavernous 'Hauptgebaudt' of the university, then finally rush to the podium, despite all this, the delivery was great, the adrenaline if anything really helped. Because the paper got off to such a late start, there was no time for discussion, but I heard appreciative comments afterward. Then the convenor took us to his house in the hills above Klagenfurt for a salad and lasagna lunch accompanied by champagne and red wine with a delicious cake prepared by the convenor's wife for dessert. There is yet another banquet tonight, and I wonder if I am up for it...but at least my own work here is over and I can sit back and listen to the other papers.

The convenor's wife by the way said the local Slovenian dialect (as opposed to the official Slovenian propagated from Lljubljana), was laced with French admixtures..I wondered if from the Napoleonic occupation, but apparently not, it was just French as lingua franca....javascript:void(0)

Monday, September 21, 2009

More Klagenfurt

Back before buffet dinner, impressed but also daunted by the excellence of the two plenaries (out of five, including mine) so far, I will have to be at my best. The jacket and tie definitely helped. Another detail; as those in the know know, Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is traditionally referred to by German speakers by its German name, Laibach, which people may know from the band of that name if nothing else. But I have noticed that not only is Llujbjana called that here but they pronounce it with exaggerated formality, as if an English speaking person was saying it--this is also a gesture in the direction of respecting cultural difference. or maybe Laibach is now just the name of the band.

As long as we are on the topic of music--my hotel's soundtrack plays the complete oeuvre of Lionel Richie, including hits I forgot he had.


I am currently in Klagenfurt, Austria, where tomorrow I am giving a plenary speech to Anglistentag 2009, a gathering of German-speaking professors of English. I am writing this as I had to return to my sumptuous hotel, the Lindner Seepark, in order to get a jacket and tie; I usually reserve these accoutrements for the days I am actually giving my talk, but, unlike on my last international conference trip to Brazil, the Teutonic formality of the occasion (even though all the peopel afre friendly, engaging, and unpretentious) clearly dictates a more stringent dress code.

Klagenfurt is, as one of the Forum speakers in the morning said (in German, therefore so far as I understood it) the southernmost city in the German-speaking world, near the Slovenian border (the university makes a deliberate attmept to be trilingual, with signs in Slovenian and Italian as well as German, and therefore a place of liminality that can meaningfully position itself in the context of diaspora and globalization in the Englsish-speaking world. In practice, the only language one hears on the street is German, and this region, as the bastion of the late Jörg Haider, is more 'conservative' than 'multicultural' in inclination, more Tea Party than Spivak or Bhabha in mien, though the people on the street and in the hotel are, again, friendly and charming. The ciy feels like a small city in the hillier regions of the Northeast or mid-Atlantic, sedate yet vigorous, with many new buildings. It is also the beach volleyball capital of Austria. The large lake, the Wörthersee, is now near to all that Austria has for a seacoast, Trieste and Pola of course having been long denied it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Among the Marchers

While in Washington for totally different reasons, I found myself, unexpectedly on the Mall, in back of the Washington monument, in the middle of the anti-Obama rally on Saturday. I had been with a bunch of Europeans, all of whom were quite surprised that people were rallying against government-sponsored health care that they did not so much celebrate—all said that they had needed to supplement their public insurance with private care when necessary--but assumed as a matter of course, indeed as a social right. The Europeans also were amused that those protesting thought that any reform that would be passed by the US Congress would be "socialist". To go from this point of view to the radically different one of those at the rally was disconcerting, but I was actually impressed by the demeanor, if not the beliefs of the people assembled. They seemed civilized, friendly, well-behaved, and after all they were exercising themselves of the great American right to peaceably gather and represent a point of view. It was also surprisingly diverse crowd, there were certainly people of color as well as people who (from my admittedly snap judgment) did not look as if they could seamlessly afford catastrophic health care costs without some sort of systemic help. One may have said that these people were perversely going against their socioeconomic self-interest, but it could also be said they were standing up for their convictions. There were tons of children there who could not necessarily consciously avow the views on the banners they were holding, but that could be said of left-wing or anti-war rallies as well….
It was when I continued to be surrounded by rally members on the train ride home that I had a few more qualms. First of all, the protestors began, in their conversation, to stray from health care or economic issues into various Obama conspiracy theories, including some with clear racist overtones and I had never heard before and were just incredibly outlandish and full of venom and spite. This was not only reprehensible in itself but detracted from the purity of the convictions I had sensed earlier; they seemed to be looking just for an outlet to attack Obama who they disliked anyway. In addition, a squadron of men wearing identifiable blue-jean jackets with the American flag created a slight impression of uniformity which, with the references to Pat Buchanan and lurid scenarios such as the prospect of the US breaking up into several balkanized regions in the near future, made the group seem more ‘fringe’ than they wanted dot appear (The conversation was full of claims the media had belittled thief renumber, which they said was 1.8 million, the media—CNN, they said scornfully--saying less than 100,000; the media seemed right even if one added ten or twenty thousand to their estimates at the maximum). What also surprised me is that so many of them were going all the way to New York—although hoof course 20 percent of New York City routinely votes for Republicans, and that adds up to a lot of people numerically if not percentage-wise, although of course a lot of the people on the train could have been from the suburbs or other points….a layer of irony was provided by the fact that, of all the ways to get from Washington to NYC, Amtrak is the one run by a quasi-governmental entity it is the public option. Indeed, the Northeast Corridor gets, through Amtrak, the kind of efficient public transportation denied the rest of the country. There seemed to be no protest against that….

Thursday, August 27, 2009


After reading this overoptimistic article on peak oil, i was reminded of this superb poem by John Kinsella occasioned by the phrase 'peak oil'-this poem sums up a certain mood, linguistic and cultural, that prevailed around the middle of this decade:

Graphology 590

Language having reached peak, the slide

into plagiarism, blackmarketeering of syntax,

electrolysis of grammar, inevitable. Became,

lifted like cascade, warbled in magpie tune-ups;

to flex shades, shadows, pleasures, comforts,

shopping reflex; caravaners fringing countries;

sourcing alternative energies, green as ground-down,

pillaging three mine policies and upper antes

dug over, extrapolated, wood-chipped,

wearing overalls and safety goggles: I found

the pair we lost cutting wild oats before summer,

clear as a bell on a rocky outcrop, mini-

breakaway, the maker or publisher

guarding reputation, owning orders,

licenses to drill-core, Google, Wikipedia,

edit as you go purchase-power,

reading habits, ingénues,


John Kinsella

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Art of Memory


The Art of Memory, explored in a famous book of that name by Frances Yates and later studied more systematically by Mary Carruthers and Anselm Haverkamp, intriguingly binds the verbal and the visual as the mind is able to retain huge troves of archival information by picturing them, associating them with a tangible, visual icon. To extend this parallel into movement and into three dimensions seems both challenging and the next logical step, and this is just what Company SoNoGo's Art of Memory , which I saw last Saturday at 3LD  in Tribeca, accomplished. From the lighting by ‘book-lights’ which filtered light through prisms resembling book covers, to the ‘glass musician’ to the left of the performance space who meticulously and hauntingly sounded out clinks and clanks on an intricately wrought glass instrument, to the set full of old books, this performance called up what it is like to remember the past to have a past, to be burdened by a past. There is a sense of the aura, the aroma; the weight, the gripping presence of memory. In an age so full of transitions and transformations, this was heartening; at a time when so much performance wants to allude to historical or political issues but has trouble meaningfully incarnating that desire on stage, the piece’s genuine achievement of a sense of the archival in a live performance is worth noting. Yet the Art of Memory does not idealize memory; the piece understands Walter Benjamin’s aphorism that every act of civilization is also an act of barbarism, and that memory, with all its nostalgic, redemptive allure, can thus be a double-edged sword. One of the four performers declares in the middle of the 50-minute piece that her shoes were taken by a malevolent princess; this both elicits the trauma of memory—that we can remember bad things, painful things—and also implies that memory, in its privileging of certain objects and associations over others, can be hierarchical, can led to subordination. Neither this nor any other conclusion is so definite; the piece allows room for the viewer to fill in their own dreams or nightmares, making the space around us also include personal and collective pasts. The Art of Memory is running for a few more days—go see it. 

Friday, July 24, 2009

Gates, Obama, Intellectuality


I have spent much of the week thinking about the Henry Louis Gates Jr. incident. I have always admired Gates,  used his work in my dissertation (during which I had a polite and helpful exchange of letters with him) and during the writing of my forthcoming book on theory, in which he figures extensively. I viscerally sympathized with him having to deal with the police, at the end of a long trip (having done that distance from Australia, I know how he must have felt) and finding his door jammed. Very few academics, especially one of Gates’s stature, would be above using “Are you aware who I am >” rhetoric in that circumstances, it is a kind of arrogance that just ocmes with the territory of being a professor, and it is, after all, one of the few things we have—even somebody of Gates’s stature is not well-salaried when compared to the Coco Crisps and Jose Guillllens of the world. Sometimes our cultural capital is our only armor, and if gates was showing off that capital to Sargeant Crowley, it was in a way his professional reflex to do so.

My first reaction to the incident was that it was racial profiling; that the person who made the call should have known their neighbors; and that the police should not have arrested gates unless he was violent, not just agitated or petulant. which again I would not put myself past being if I were in the same circumstance. I still basically feel this way.


I was surprised at how big a story this became—I was interested in it, but I know Gates’s academic work. I was surprised that people who had no stake in Gates’s work became so interested, but clearly, as President Obama implied, it became a barometer of people’s attitudes towards racial profiling and police brutality. It mushroomed very quickly—it was surprising Lynn Sweet asked the question at the end of a press conference that could be instrumental in a pivotal health-care bill, and it was surprising that Obama addressed it so forthrightly and with such a clear admission of his own stake in the matter. Obviously, he himself now wishes he had not said ‘stupidly,” when something like “precipitously” or “heedlessly” would have been fine, but no one who has a had to answer questions about multiple subjects for an hour could say they would be pitch-perfect in their diction and in their nuances of meaning. Police officers have been ragged by the intellectual left for their level of intelligence, and are understandably miffed by that, and by a general left-elite disregard for the police, audible, sadly, even in New York right after 9/11.  Having made an obvious mistake, the Obama White House handled it well with the rapid-response acumen they showed throughout last year’s campaign. What if Obama had offered to have a latte or a Cosmopolitan with Sargeant  Crowley, not a beer….


But what I am interested in is another aspect ot the situation, my Lang colleague Ferentz Lafargue, in a fascinating essay in the Huffington Post, has suggested that town-gown, as much as black-white tensions, may be at the source of the incident—Cambridge, having elected two black mayors in a row, who in addition were successively a gay man and a lesbian, is not necessarily a hidebound racist enclave, but does participate in the historic tension between municipalities and universities that play a huge economic role in them but do not dominate lock, stock and barrel. I would add to this that some of the reactions gates provoked may be reaction provoked in general by intellectuals. I do not mean to invoke the corking ghost of Richard Hofstadter one more time, but we all know the road to popularity in this country is not by appearing overly cerebral, and that for all of Gates’s popularizing and media friendly activities, most people in the US would still perceive him as forbiddingly academic. It is in this regard that I note that, until this incident, Obama has been, strikingly, helped rather than hurt by his evident intellectuality. Unlike past Democratic candidates like Adlai Stevenson, reviled for being an ‘egghead’, Obama’s clear comfort with books and curiosity about what is in them did not hold him back from the top. Part of this is racial—Obama’s intellectuality meant he was not a “black militant,” his conversancy with the mainstream academic tradition meant that he could be counted on to affirm common American values. But some of it may well have been a growing comfort level with people who foreground their intelligence, a concession that expertise and intellectual curiosity are needed in government. The Gates incident  is the first time Obama’s intellectuality—his reposnse to Gates being conditioned not just by his personal friendship with the professor but his knowledge of the value of his work and the regard it has garnered—influenced his reaction to Sweet’s question, and arguably the American people’s reaction to his reaction. This is perhaps a way to explain just how much stemma this story has unexpectedly gotten….

Ensor, Modernity, Nationalism





I saw the Ensor exhibit at MOMA  last week—I was deeply impressed by his idiosyncrasy, his combination of rigorous draftsmanship and adventurous uses of color and imagery, and his wining combination of parody and distortion with a generous embrace of the world as it is. It also struck me as interesting that “Les XX,” the avant-garde movement to which Ensor belonged for some years, was the first organized European avant-garde, and these Belgians were the first set of “modern painters.”, or “painter of modern life” to use the phrase Baudelaire so famously employed of Constantin Guys—the first set of them. The painter of modern life is, by definition, not celebratory of modernity, not a ‘Futurist', not a “modern sublime”,  and Ensor’s paintings of modern life indeed express its dinginess and banality. Yet, importantly, they are not, as the works of so many later modernists were , meant as a critique of industrial modernity. Indeed, Belgium, as a nation, as a compound of French and Flemish that was when Ensor began working, behind only Germany and Italy as the most ‘recent' nation of Europe, owed its national identity to early and successful industrialization, and Ensor’s canvassing of industrial dinginess, though again not overtly celebratory of it, was an affirmation of the everyday modernity of ‘his’ Belgium, and maybe even an attempt to position it as ‘cutting-edge”.


Flash forward over a hundred years. Ensor was  half-Flemish (his father was English) and worked in an artistic environment as French-speaking as Flemish-speaking. Moreover, the entire industrial identity of Belgium, anchored in the ‘Sillon Industrial’ had a French emphasis; the Flemish were seen as rural, ‘having fallen off the turnip truck’ the French were initiates into la vie modern. Ensor’s Ostend, as a beach resort, was hardly part of this as such, but it was not severed form it either. But, lo and behold, the 2009 Ensor exhibition is funded partially by Flanders House, an organization representing specifically Flemish trade and cultural interests in many world cities now including New York.


Without taking sides in Belgium’s internal politics or expressing a preference—which I do not have either way—for Flemish over Walloon nationalism, I must observe that Flemish nationalism is unusual in being so assertive auspicated with postmodernity. It is because Flanders did not industrialize as much as Wallonia did that it was eligible for the information age; it is like the Research Triangle or Silicon Valley as opposed to the Detroit or Cleveland of the Sillon Industrial. Now, nationalism is supposed to be rooted in ancient loyalties, or conversely bound together by modern economic centralization and its communicative appurtenances such as print culture; postmodernism, the information age is supposed to globalize, decenter. Yet Flemish nationalism boasts of how postmodern it is, how globally attuned, how unlike the plodding old Rust Belt of Wallonia. And Ensor’s emphatic embrace of ‘modern life’ in its deromanticized dingy avatar does not fit a nationalism that bundles local self-assertion with a celebratory affirmation of up-to-date business practices and global exchange…on the other hand, perhaps the current economic crisis will make this vision of nationalism itself a back number.

Nonetheless, Flanders House should be thanked for helping mount the show, which I enjoyed and would recommend—free with a New School ID by the way!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Return From Rio

 I am just back from a quick, five-day trip to Brazil. This was a journey of great significance for me. Not only did I get to present my research on the complicated intertextual relationship of Mario Vargas Llosa's The War Of The End of The World (La guerra del fin del mundo). with Euclides da Cunha's Os sertões at the LASA conference, but I got to have a thorough experience of Rio--its beaches, its bookstores, its restaurants, and even got to see a bit more of the city than the tourist guides, panicked about crime that in fact is largely gang warfare, tend to encourage. Even though my Portuguese is analogous to Shakespeare's Greek, as diagnosed by Ben Jonson, I managed to get by, although having a friend in my colleague Juan de Castro who speaks it well was a great help. (My Spanish, I think, is comparable to Shakespeare's Latin; pretty bad, but if I had to only read Ovid in Spanish I could crib it, as Shakespeare presumably did with respect to Latin).  

The LASA conference was held in the Gavéa neighborhood, which I quickly, after a couple of times taking the shuttle bus, fouDescription: was walkable from my Ipanema hotel; my morning walks allowed me to see a great deal of the city's Zona Sul. One of the aspects one quickly noticed was the massive security. Some guessed that this was because the former President of Brazil, Francisco Henrique Cardoso, was scheduled to speak (I believe he cancelled; if any readers know otherwise, let  me know); others, like  Idelber Avelar in his Portuguese-language blog, attributed it to paranoia about Rio and an exclusionary attitude towards the local populace. There was in any event, far more security than even an MLA, and it was not to check the badges, as the last day I left my badge at the hotel and I was unapprehended. The conference itself, though, was fun: some of my favourite sessions were on the representation of the Chaco War in literature, on the Supreme Courts of Latin American nations as figuring, performing, legitimacy (and thus being in a sense 'imaginative; as well as 'formally legal') and NGOs as enabling 'organic intellectuals' in the Granscian sense. This was the best side of the interdisciplinarity of the group; which inevitably led to fragmentation. I also confess to finding, true intellectuals like Alfred Stepan aside (and Stepan's work was explicitly lauded for itself being interdisciplinary) , the old-school poli-sci analyses to be a bit stultifying. There were also just too many sessions; on the security line at the Rio airport, I heard once of the section chairs say that at the next conference, which will be held in 2011 in Toronto, the acceptance rate will be reduced to 33% for individual papers and 66% for panels. Although our own panel was marred by there being no question period (because some of the speakers including myself, went on too long), it was a very stimulating occasion, and had I been in the audience, it would have been one of the most stimulating. It was conducted in two languages, included discussions of authors in yet a third, represented three continents, and included two people who had connections with Australia, as well as academics with both Roman Catholic and Episcopal/Anglican connections. Besides De Castro and myself, other speakers included Paul Allatson and Rocio Silva Santisteban. We were disparate individuals brought together by a common interest--not even a common enthusiasm, as all of our talks contained some castigation of the author under scrutiny--but a common fascination with Vargas Llosa and how he represents the overdetermined relationship of literature and politics at its richest. 

At the beginning of my Vargas Llosa/da Cunha talk, I made a point (thereby adding sometime to it, alas of mentioning Elizabeth Bishop’s support for the 1964 military coup in Brazil; I felt this was unseemly, especially since those friends of Bishop's who protested so vehemently against the US role in Vietnam seemed not to notice or care that she was supporting a regime much lauded by right-wing elements in the US. As Mario Vargas Llosa himself might say, does not Brazil deserve self-determination as well? I admire Bishop's poetry tremendously, but other writers get called for political missteps, and she tends not to be.  The coup was in my mind because the previous day I had seen Stepan, of Columbia University being honored with LASA's Kalman Silvert award for contributions to the filed, and in his acceptance talk Stepan spoke eloquently of his experience in his youth witnessing the run-up to the coup, which deprived Brazilians of democracy for twenty years. Stepan is an acquaintance of my father's, and I conveyed my father's congratulations to him, as well as noting that I had known Silvert, the namesake of the award, as a child and had visited his New England country home. Even at the young age I was then, I recall him as a formidable intellect and compassionate man. In my comments, I spoke of Latin American Studies somewhat presumptuously and grandiloquently as 'our field'. But, even though this was my first formal paper in the area, Latin Americanists have been so hospitable to me and encouraging on my interest in region and its literature that I felt at home to make this declaration. Indeed, I generally felt at home in Rio, and plan to go back there, visit other parts of Brazil, and indeed other nations in South America in the hopefully very near future.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Consequences of Inarticulateness

A friend posted the link to this fascinating article , spurring me to read it after seeing many mentions on blogs and in the general press. What I am saying here implies reading Joshua Wolf Shenk's article first, so please do click on the link above before you come back and see what I have to say, if you then so choose. I had two major responses. One was that a midlife crisis, or more specifically that sense of things not working out for people despite every conceivable material or cultural advantage gas something to do with not only class but generational scenarios. The guys who went to college in the fifties did all the right things, wore the gray flannel suits, got the conventional, remunerative, socially conformist office job, had the presentable house, garage, two gas-guzzling cars, 2.5 children, but they failed to individuate themselves, failed to accept themselves despite fulfilling all the normative criteria of happiness. But I want to be Foucauldian here and only half-jokingly say an analogous scenario in the next generation. Somebody born in 1950 could 'do all the right things', smoke dope, chill out, turn on, protest against the Vietnam War, wear psychedelic t-shirts, and miss out on happiness, fail to individuate themselves aside from what was generationally expected. The inverted 'success myth' is still a 'success myth'. And there were some who fell outside entirely; if you were gay, both scenarios really had no place for you. Similarly, my generation was told it had to be more mainstream than the Sixties people and pursue Yuppieism as a cultural remedy. I do not know what the following generation was told. but it was told something. All of these are 'epistemes' and I think the sense of personal disappointment has to do with letting oneself be totally defined by 'episteme' and having no reserve of selfhood. 
The second issue is masculinity and its particular construction in the mid-twentieth century.  (I have been co-directing a fine senior work by a very promising on this subject at Lang so have been thinking about this a lot). Masculinity meant, or entailed, inarticulateness; silence about any kind of not only emotional but subjective feeling was so mandatory as to make being male both ultimate privilege and unavoidable paralysis. All this of course was heightened by the Puritan inhibitions and discomfort with anything emotional or spontaneous that characterized the white Protestant elite. (Though the name ‘Vaillant” certainly implies some French ancestry in the past). Thus the suicide of the father, in a sense occurring because he could not talk about his own pain, release it, share it, so a kind of consequence of silence ; and then the silence of the son about the father’s death, as to have a father who killed himself and to talk about it, would be an act of weakness, an exhibition of vulnerability and inadequacy that would be punished. This may be overdoing it, but that both Vaillant senior and junior were scholars and academics, which migiht be thought to make them more able to deal with feelings, maybe put more pressure on them, as they were already 'unusual' in their cohort for being so avowedly intellectual. But, notwithstanding our genuinely and laudably greater freedom from gender-based inhibition, can we look back from a sense of teleological advance, a sense that we are all metrosexuals now? Today he could go on Oprah and cry about it, but one is still unsure whether men are actually allowed to show vulnerability and to talk about their feelings, or whether there is just the discourse that men should do that, which operates without actually changing the underlying syndrome. Men, I think, still feel they cannot reveal their inner pain, and now the old citadel of inarticulateness is gone. Men are castigated for not sharing. Now it is lamented when they are silent and immovable; but they still seem week when they share. It is sad that he could not come to terms earlier with his father's suffering, but, again in a quasi-early-Foucauldian vein, I wonder if the only gain we would have today is one of discursivity, nor affect?

I do not want to be overly diagnostic about a human story with profound particularities: to be ten years old and see your father shoot himself is going to affect your future relationships. And there is something individually, almost novelistically poignant about leaving his second wife for a third and then crawling back to the second. This sort of thing may well come up irrespective of what gender or generation you are. But I thought I would offer these thoughts....

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Spring recommendations

Some recent reading recommendations

Jeremy Davies--Rose Alley (Counterpath, 2009). A hilarious, utterly original, totally self-conscious tale of making a film about the life of the seventeenth-century libertine Earl of Rochester during the height of the frenzy in 1960s Paris. Both rollicking and riveting.

Brian Lynch, The Winner of Sorrow (Dalkey Archive, 2009). A compelling, experimental novel about the troubled but oddly inspiring life of the eighteenth-century poet William Cowper. An intriguing subject and an original way of presenting it. it is nice to see a novel about a poet also manifest its own aesthetic self-consciousness.

Omar Shapli, Them (Twenty-Three, 2007). Lyric poems by a well-known experimental actor and director which focuses on the aftermath of 9/11 but also combines fresh lyric insight with its sharp angle of public commentary.

Burt Kimmelmann, Somehow, (Marsh Hawk, 2005) Poems about a daughter growing up, understanding a Gerhard Richter painting, and how the last portions of each month have a special quality that subverts our conventional ideas of time and seasonality. Kimmelman is disciplined, precise, but deeply responsive to life and feeling. A poet at the height of his craft.

Also look for Patricia Carlin's Quantum Jitters, just out from Marsh Hawk....

Monday, April 27, 2009

Caillebotte and distinction

I went to the Caillebotte exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and this engendered some thoughts which had already been percolating in my teaching of Bourdieu's 'Distinction" to my students at Lang. Owner of the points that arose in our discussion was Bourdieu's dissection or Sartre's self-presentation as an intellectual--that his portrayal--performance, as Judith Butler mgiht say--if himself as rejecting conventional bourgeois standards, of not fitting in, of the poignancy of his non-assimilation into the normative, was itself a struggle for a sort of comparative advantage, a seizure of a niche of distinction that would make him look special. No one is more the target of the theoretical generation of French intellectuals than Sartre, but even after taking out Bourdieu's local agenda the point is worth taking: the avant-garde was so successful precisely because it made its non-normativity normative, made conventional the embrace of the unconventional. Despite waves of postmodern irony, one still saw this in the presentation of Caillebotte. His association with the Impressionists was played up, he was made to seem an artistic rebel, even as the exhibition made clear that he was not only that. Caillebotte was not only one of France's leading painters, but its leading marine architect--in other words, builder of boats--and its leading yachtsman. It is as if Ted Turner, in the early 80s, had also been Robert Ryman and (whoever the leading American marine architect of that era was, which even I am not going to bother to find out). This is a consummate example of the late nineteenth-century yen for the artist as doer, the Jack London ideal, which is a little-noted complement to the aestheticism and experimental sexualities of that era: its coexistence wit hypermasculine, hyperengaged artists who also were figures of not only public notoriety but public action and responsibility. That, on the floor below the Caillebotte exhibition, Hernán Bas's work, consciously referring to late nineteenth-century aestheticism and decadence, and playing up its queer valences, while clearly enjoying financial and popular reward in a twenty-first--century Miami context, illustrates not just the inextricability of art and commerce but how the 'art' element is actually potentially overexaggerable for motives that if not immediately commercial are certainly strategic or positional and not 'intrinsic

So far so good for the Bourdieu model. it works well with modernist or existential aesthetics that try to assert that they have on prudential or expedient motives in mind; Bourdieu delights in goring their ox. But both the Caillebotte and Bas exhibitions also raised points that might vex Bourdieu's paradigm. If one were to choose Caillebotte over, say, Bonnard at the Met (and oddly the actual feel of the paintings, the sense of their harboring a beneficent, open, minutely observed and felt world was similar) one might do so out of a kind of deliberate cheesiness: wanting to see the more hybrid, commercial artist, wanting to see the artist whose less ascetic choice of lifestyle promised a relief from aesthetic rigor. As I said to my Lang students on Wednesday, this is the same motive that leads people to croon over pop songs from the 70s and 80s that they know are not great artistically: there is the sense of them having bene undervalued by snobs, as Caillebotte would have been by a "Greenbergian' aesthetic, and so there is a guilty pleasure in unearthing them. This coolness of the cheesy is something Bourdieu does not discuss in detail, though at times he gestures at it, as in his example of the guy who drives Rolls-Royce but takes the Metro. This up-front cheesiness seems necessarily connected to the unleashing of free-market capitalism in the West after 1980, which Bourdieu, writing from a society that was more statist and hierarchical anyway, and in a time--the 1960s and 1970s--when a mixed economy seemed a permanent given in Europe and America, seems oddly innocent of in his discourse. Our reality in the past thirty years has given another twist of the screw to Bourdieu--and this was something my students were very much aware of even as they appreciated his excavation of the latest motives of situational taste in the assertions of artistic value.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The G20

I have been thinking about the G20--not the summit itself, but the very idea of the G20 as an organization.

This organization, it is no exaggeration, somehow grew in prominence by stealth, but now after just under six years of existence it is perhaps the most effective international group imaginable, as it includes the mot powerful nations of the world, all of them, in one way or another. I am, though, here only interested in its composition, and the principles of that composition: who is left in, who left out, who qualifies.

First of all, there are only 19 member nations; the European union is also a member, And here if the G20 was actually a rule-making body, if it had any regulatory or fiduciary responsibility, there would and should be objections; after all, EU member states Germany, France, Italy, and Britain are all members, so EU membership is like both the USSR and Ukraine being members of the 1945-1991 UN, or both California and the US being members of the G20 now. (I am sure California is bigger economically than several G20 member states). Again, if the G20 were functionally rather than pragmatically important, other regional/federative groups would rightly claimed disenfranchisement. One could say EU membership in the G20 is to represent the smaller EU members, the recently admitted states, but this then implies that these states need the EU, are dependent on it, but the Big Four do not.

This is reminiscent of the debate inspired by the separate memberships of the English-speaking Dominions in the :league of Nations after World War I: but one of those nations is here absent: New Zealand. Canada, Australia, and (a now happily multiracial_ South Africa are all members, all judged to be among the 20 biggest economies, but new Zealand is not. White and English-speaking, yet it is among the shut-out. Although Canada was routinely criticized for not really being up to membership in the G7/G8, it is felt that being among the G20 is its proper rank, and there was only a slight sense of pushiness about Stephen Harper’s inevitable swanning-around on those second-rank US cable networks that would have him at the summit. But Canada is among the circle of the privileged; the trek across the border from British Columbia to Bellingham, WA is requires no upward step in terms of conglomerate economic power. Not so the Tasman Sea: and no wonder the continual exodus of New Zealanders to Australia, which is not a political or cultural exodus, but an economic one.

To be a Muslim nation in the G20, one has ot either have oil (Indonesia, Saudi Arabia) or not be Arab and be partially European (Turkey). Saudi Arabia's presence is almost ludicrous; as an economic power, it is like the Cleveland Cavaliers if no one but LeBron James were on the team. South Korea's inclusion is justified, and also helps provide a bridge between China and Japan, but also conjures a host of other possible claimants. Taiwan might well be in the next ten; but it will never be the G30 because China would protest that. Who would have thought thirty years ago that China would be not only politically but economically more powerful than Japan?

If Iran were in dialogue with the Western world, it would be, and deserve to be, a member. And one would think Nigeria is certainly knocking on the door as well, or will be after a few more years of relative stability and economic growth.

As for the Latin American states, if you are not Mexico or one of the ABC countries (Argentina, Brazil, and Chile_--in other words, if you are an Andean or Central American country, you are out of luck. One sees why a lot of the countries thus excluded are electing more radical governments, and why such organizations as UNASUR may be appealing as vehicles ot pack more collective weight--although one doubts that any other federative group will be members alongside the EU--unless that is you count the US.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Man Booker International Prize

The nominees for the 2009 Man Booker International Prize are Peter Carey (Australia), Evan S. Connell (USA), Mahasweta Devi (India), E. L. Doctorow (USA), James Kelman (UK), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), Arnost Lustig (Czechoslovakia), Alice Munro (Canada), V. S. Naipaul (Trinidad/India), Joyce Carol Oates (USA), Antonio Tabucchi (Italy), Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (Kenya), Dubravka Ugrešić (Croatia) and Ludmila Ulitskaya (Russia).

I really like this list: it remedied a lot of the structural issues that plague the international prize circuit: for instance, the dominance of novels over short stories (Munro, the premier short story writer of our time, is on the list) as well as the dominance of the Anglophone (not only are Tabucchi, Vargas Llosa, and Ugrešić on, but Devi, Ngugi, and Ulitskaya are writers from Anglophone countries who have written partially or entirely in languages other than English. (Ulitskaya seems to live most of the time in the US). In addition, Connell, Ulitskaya, Devi, and Lustig have all been underrated by the mainstream Anglophone press (though most have received respectful notices) and Devi has the additional non-commercial appeal of being principally championed in the US by a well-known postmodern theorist (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak).

I tend to think none of the non-American Anglophone writers (Carey, Munro, Naipaul, Kelman) will win because they are already eligible for the regular Booker Prize, and with the exception of Munro have won at least once. (besides, Chinua Achebe won last time). Munro may, though, transcend this limitation as her practice in the short-story format has never been Booker-friendly. Given that this prize was ostensibly set up to honor Philip Roth, it is funny not to see Roth on the list: Oates, Doctorow, and Connell are all eminently deserving (it is especially nice to see the much-underrated Connell given a nod) and they might want to commend America for having the grace ot elect a Democratic president, but I still would bet against any of these winning. Ugrešić is known as much as a social commentator than as a novelist, and, though I may be underrating her work, does not seem of the same stature as the rest. This leaves Ngugi, Devi, Tabucchi, Lustig, Vargas Llosa. I can see any of these getting it, and all would deserve it. Vargas Llosa’s eligibility may have been helped by his having, as my colleague Juan De Castro has observed, distanced himself from the rightist associations he has often cultivated, for instance making positive remarks about President Obama and critiquing religious fundamentalism. I have an interest here—I am currently working on Vargas Llosa—but it would be a great tribute to a writer always at the center of both political and literary currents who has produced buoyantly, abundantly, and with continually high quality.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Calgary drama

One of the highlights of my visit to Calgary last week was seeing the highly laureled Canadian playwright Judith Thompson’s Palace of The End. This play was put on in New York last year and won a prominent award, and has also been prominently staged in Toronto, but, as so often, I had missed it until steered ot it by the need to find something to do in Calgary on a Saturday night. The play consists of three monologues by individuals relating to the Iraq War and its backstory—Lynndie England; David Kelly, and a woman based on a real-life individual who se family was an early victim of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. What struck me, aside from the intense, mesmerizing, yet necessarily disturbing performances, is how simultaneously passionate and nonjudgmental the playwright’s implied view of her subjects is. England’s affectlessness and narcissistic sadism, Kelly’s tormented, guilty indecisiveness (brilliantly acted by Stephen Hair, a well-known Calgary performer who was really superb), and the Iraqi woman’s bewildered rage at the cruelty of those who vie for power are highly articulated in discursive terms yet are given from within; subjectivity does not detract from adequacy to the material. For this reason, I think this play will well outlast its immediate circumstances, and may well be a principal lens through which we look back at Iraq and its reverberations thirty years from now. I particularly appreciated the way England was looked down on not because she was uneducated and from an often dismissed part of the country, but because she participated in unconscionably cruel acts. The journalist Tara McKelvey, who interviewed England, gave a talk at my university recently, and made a similar point; that cruelty can come from people in all walks and from all stations of life, and, as Thompson shows, in this context, from both Iraqis and Americans.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Shakespeare the 'individual'?

A colleague questioned my assertion, in a curse description, that Shakespeare is the individual in world literature who is most prominent as a producer of world literature. The Bible and "Homer" may have had a more durable influence, but the Bible, even in the most fundamentalist construction, is confessedly of multiple authorship, and few hold to the idea of an individual Homeric author these days. (And even so. Homer's unavailability during the Western Middle Ages 'hurts' him in this respect). One could think of other figures from other linguistic traditions who have an even greater range than Shakespeare, like Goethe, but Goethe is not read the way Shakespeare is. Cervantes may be a possibility, but his chief creation may overshadow him. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky are more recent and just have not had quite the same impact either in depth or durability. One tires to avoid Anglocentric or bardolatric rhetoric, but I think the assertion is simply incontestable, Even of, as is certainly plausible, one sees the individuality of Shakespeare as an ascribed effect or readership, ideology, and reception-history, it still is an individual who is being so interpellated, and not an accretion of tradition, and there is no other individual who has been positioned this way....

Joyce or Kafka?

In one of my classes, we have been batting around in my class the assertion made by a writer friend of mine that "Joyce used to be the most influential author of the 20th century; now it is Kafka," This excited some very interesting positions pro and con. The idea of Kafka's influence is, I assume, in magic realism, the interplay between high fiction and genre fiction such as horror, fantasy, and sci fi, and a more felt political imperative, and this had influences beyond Joyce's 'merely' formal and experimental ones.......this has its temptations, but I wonder if what my friend was really saying was, Kafka's German-Jewish-Czech political context was more interesting than Joyce's Anglo-Irish-Catholic one, and I am not sure if this is true, certainly the influence of Joyce on postcolonial fiction belies this..and I also wonder if the more important idea is just that K and J are comparable....

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Death of a Centenarian

Edward Upward, the contemporary of Auden, Spender, et al. has died at the incredible age of 105.

He is in a way the British parallel to Henry Roth in the US, in terms of early promise, not writing for many years for ideological reasons, and then resuming very late in life.

I always liked the fact that he was named "Upward" and wrote a book called The Spiral Ascent.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Barthes, Benjamin: Minor/Major?

My colleague Mark Greif, one of the editors of n + 1, has a brilliant and incisive article on Susan Sontag in the current London Review of Books, which--a rare phenomenon for work on a figure who usually evokes such polarized reactions--treats Sontag judiciously and thoughtfully values her strengths and weaknesses. One point of interest is Greif's assertion that Sontag seldom wrote on major thinkers; I take, and accept, his general drift, but wonder if Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, on whom Sontag wrote extensively and indeed were, in the middle-to-late portion of her career, virtually adopted by her as her signature thinkers, are exceptions. Admittedly, neither are systematic; but both in terms of their influence and the breadth of their work--which in each case ranges across fields, disciplines, national literatures, proprietary discourses, might be said to make an exception in their case. Also, I am interested--in the wake of my recently completed book on theory--on Barthes and Benjamin as figures of the middle ground, people who do not usually or typically evoke the fiery reactions that Derrida and Foucault often inspire. Does their lack of system, their epistemic modesty, their aphoristic, staccato mien, make them more beloved? Do they seem more literary, less philosophical? Would the people who find Derrida and Foucault so indigestible have felt the same about Kant and Schiller in their own, as-yet-undomesticated day?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

How online is our online teaching?

As part of my responsibilities at my university. I teach one online course per term. I started doing this very early, before the Internet, much less Web 2.0, really evolved, I am wondering if my complaints below are not so much inadequacies of my students but residues of the involuntary text-centeredness of online pedagogy's early years.

Several people in my current class have reported that they were not able to get the assigned textbooks on time through the bookstore, and I pointed out that all the early stories were in the public domain and easily available as e-texts (I provided several links), often with helpful and useful commentary. But they are not reading these e-texts, they are waiting for the book to arrive, and so falling behind their colleagues. My students do not seem acclimated to reading e-texts (I noticed this in my Greek drama course in fall 2008 as well where often I would post e-texts of alternate translations, vital for understanding the idea of literature in translation--David Grene's, Richmomd Lattimore's, David Slavitt's Sophocles all being so different, and all three different from Victorian translations). Nor do they appear particularly interested in the video clips and images I go to great lengths to post. I also post scholarly articles; these I do not expect most of them to look at, but they are also a possibility afforded by the Web that they seem reluctant to embrace. I wonder if I should make an assignment involving these mandatory, or make it mandatory that they read the e-texts? I wonder if from now on I should not just assign any print books of anything available as an e-text?

In short, their viewpoint is very text-centered. They do very well within that compass, but the online environment offers such a more multimedia experience, such a chance to be at home in the Internet rather than simply use it as a venue for a prepackaged course. I feel a lot of the potential innovation and creativity of the Internet is being left by the wayside. Perhaps a longer course time would address this issue, make it more possible to use more modes. Or perhaps I just need to incorporate the multimedia structure within my assignment frame and apparatus.

Part of the problem may be that my institution uses Blackboard and not a Facebook-like software such as DruPal, but I am not sure a change in platform alone would reshape the underlying syndrome.

part of my puzzlement is that I look at YouTube for fun, and basically read scholarly articles for fun, and I mean by adding them to the course to create fun extras; my students, though, seem to perceive them as supernumerary add-ons, and even burdens. Perhaps it is I who need the readjustment.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Perplexing 'Parmenides'

I reread the ever-vexatious 'Parmenides' view of it is basically now this: that the dialogue ends up saying yes, There is a One, but it cannot be a predicable One, it is relational and built on the possibility of similitude rather than any palpable monad or similitude between monads, but there is somehow a One subtending other words, Plato agrees with Parmenides more than Zeno. This would be the obvious conclusion without the craziness of the second half, but I read that in a literary or dramatic way. Parmenides is old, has achieved fame, and Socrates is saying, Parmenides, why do you not restate your well-known ideas. Ina sense, Parmenides feels challenged, feels like he has to 'show he still has it', and therefore works the subject into the ground, proving his eristic virtuosity, not really refuting himself but saying to Socrates, "OK, you wanted the old guy to prove himself here I am"--also there is a Zen or puzzling sense of the old thinker asking himself riddles, realizing the provisional nature of even his own heartfelt assumptions, nut not abandoning them, I do not read this though as an abandonment of the one, an endorsement of Zeno, or an auto-deconstruction in the part of Parmenides.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Liking the Ancients

My current project involves compiling an encyclopedia of literary criticism, from antiquity to the present. I resolved to do the classical part first, because I as the most apprehensive about it and thought it would take the most time. This is not because I am averse to the Classical world--I have taught enough on the field to be at least superficially competent (if no more) in it, but because my image of ancient literary criticism as unglamorous: The highlights of Aristotle and Longinus, enriched by the centuries of latter-day reflection on them, and aside from that a lot of rhetorical handbooks and aids to eloquence I would have to slog through. Imagine my surprise on actually enjoying the classical part of this project, and having it take longer not because I had to plod through it but because I actually found it enjoyable. One of my real discoveries has been Porphyry's allegorical Interpretation of the Cave of the Nymphs scene in Odyssey 13. I had known OF this as an example of allegorical interpretation, but had not thought to put it crudely, about ho it allegorized what it allegorized. That it addresses a liminal point in the poem--between Odysseus's adventures and his homecoming--only makes more interesting its reading of the cave as a liminal point between the material and ideal. This stuff is good after all.