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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Madness

I was minding my own business the other day, whistling a happy tune and making notes on Erving Goffman’s Stigma, when I received an email that informed me that K. Lo. had interviewed U. No. for the N. Ro.:

Lopez: Seriously, do you think that you’re unfair to anyone in the book? Folks who—like, say, a [Stephan] Thernstrom—have clear political biases, write for the Wall Street Journal and National Review, but are still fine teachers? Do you know all the professors you name are dangerous inside the classroom?

Horowitz: The dangerous idea is a marketing strategy which my publisher attached to the book after it was written. The only appearance of the word “dangerous” in the text is in the coupling of the words “dangerous sophistry” to describe some writing by Professor Juan Cole. Nonetheless, I think “dangerous” can fairly be applied to the collectivity, not least in terms of what they have done to the academic enterprise. Readers of the book will see that the profiles are both accurate and fair.  There are several professors—Michael Berube, Todd Gitlin, and Victor Navasky to name four—who are there because they have been collusive in the efforts of political activists to purge the university of conservatives and subvert its academic mission in the service of radical agendas.

Well, of course Horowitz avoids the actual question, since he has no knowledge whatsoever of his dangerous professors’ classrooms.  Then he proceeds to accuse me, Gitlin, and Navasky of “collusion” in the “purge” of conservatives from American universities.  Collusion—an interesting charge.  “Acting in secret to achieve a fraudulent, illegal, or deceitful goal,” according to my copy of the Anti-American Heritage Dictionary.

I don’t know, folks.  I’ve just been teaching my disability studies class and enjoying my family these past couple of days.  Should the four of us—Gitlin, Navasky, and myself—do something about this latest accusation?  Some people tell me to ridicule it, on the grounds that Horowitz is desperate and flailing, and Horowitz-ridicule is always good for a cheap laugh.  Others tell me to pursue it, on the grounds that it is patently false and possibly defamatory.  Others suggest that I dismiss it, on the grounds that nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky, it slips away, and all your money won’t another minute buy.  Still others believe that I should sit down with Todd and Victor and deal a round of bridge.

Now, do you suppose that K. Lo. followed up by asking, “wait, what about the classroom?” or, in a more inquisitorial mode, “my goodness, do you have any evidence for this extravagant claim?” If you do, you don’t know K. Lo.  Here’s her next question:

Lopez: Have you made any retractions since your book has been out?

Horowitz: Not one.  The intellectual left has been conducting a vicious smear campaign against me alleging that my work is rife with inaccuracies ever since I launched my academic freedom movement. This is typical leftist strategy to destroy my credibility as a writer and thereby avoid having to deal with the evidence.

Well, Horowitz has half a point here: as you all know, I have indeed been trying to destroy Horowitz’s credibility.  Problem is, every time I make the attempt, I find that Horowitz has done the job himself! It is most vexing, I assure you.

Never mind his dumb-as-a-post “mistake” of attributing to Eric Foner a long passage he never wrote (a “mistake” for which Horowitz, true to form, then attacked Foner).  Let’s look at this “credibility” thing over the last couple of years, shall we?

First, there was the D’Souza-esque complaint that African-Americans haven’t been properly grateful to white folk for ending slavery:

If not for the sacrifices of white soldiers and a white American president who gave his life to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks in America would still be slaves. If not for the dedication of Americans of all ethnicities and colors to a society based on the principle that all men are created equal, blacks in America would not enjoy the highest standard of living of blacks anywhere in the world, and indeed one of the highest standards of living of any people in the world. They would not enjoy the greatest freedoms and the most thoroughly protected individual rights anywhere. Where is the gratitude of black America and its leaders for those gifts?

Then there was the insistence that anyone with “negative views of the Bush Administration” and the war in Iraq was in cahoots with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi:

It should be obvious that even the otherwise innocent Barbra Streisand shares negative views of the Bush Administration and its mission of liberating Iraq with anti-American jihadists like the aforementioned Zarqawi, even though we are sure that she deplores some of his methods.

A bit later on, the claim that I myself have been working for terrorists:

radicals like Berube can’t be bothered to actually read or respond rationally to anything that ruffles their progressive feathers, let alone be concerned about the fact that their entire political focus since 9/11 has been in getting our terrorist enemies off the hook.

And that 49,999 of my colleagues are doing likewise:

There are 50,000 professors with the views of [fellow Scarborough Country guest and Citizens for Legitimate Government founder Michael] Rectenwald and [Colorado high school teacher] Jay Bennish, who are anti-American, they’re radicals, they identify with the terrorists, they think of them as freedom fighters.  It’s a huge danger for the country.

And, last but certainly not least, on the subject of sympathy for mass murderers, David Horowitz’s very own expression of tenderness and love for one of the twentieth century’s great torturer-dictators:

Looking back now, we can see that Pinochet was good for Chile.

Now, what “credibility” were we talking about again?

Honestly, folks, I could try to destroy Horowitz’s credibility, but it’s a little like challenging the ethical standards of a Tom DeLay or a Ralph Reed.  The fruit just doesn’t hang any lower.

Besides, every time I get smeared like this, I get another couple emails from former students congratulating me on having drawn the fire of one of the worst people in the country, and thanking me for the courses I’ve taught in the past.  It’s kept me in touch with a lot of terrific people, and for that I’m truly grateful.

But you know, the funny thing about this, quite apart from the fact that there has been no “purge” of conservatives from academe, is that I’ve been more than civil to the handful of conservative scholars in my field.  Take Mark Bauerlein, for instance.  He’s been a vocal and articulate advocate for conservatives in academe, and he’s sharply criticized some of my work over the years.  To be sure, I’ve taken issue with his work in return, particularly when it relies on serious misreadings of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time or just-plain flimsy anecdotal claims.  But I consider that to be an altogether unexceptional form of responding to a fellow scholar with whom I tend to disagree.  Why, even when Bauerlein testified to the Georgia state legislature on behalf of Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights in early 2004, arguing that universities have broken the social contract on which academic freedom depends because they have not hired enough conservatives, did I complain?  Not a bit!  Different strokes for different folks, I say.

Bauerlein’s argument can be found on this attractive website.  His central claims are as follows:

In a democratic society, universities occupy a special place, namely, the place in which inquiry is to be unfettered by politics, money, and power. But in return comes an obligation for professors to safeguard the principles of free exchange. It’s a social contract: society grants faculty space protected from power politics and business models, and faculty members pledge to uphold the ideals that differentiate the campus from the rest of society.

Academic freedom doesn’t precede the contract, nor does it belong exclusively to the faculty. Every member in the campus community must honor academic freedom and be honored by it. It is just as easy for a professor to violate a student’s academic freedom as it is for an administrator to violate a professor’s academic freedom. For a professor to argue with a student over conservative opinion is altogether fitting and proper, so long as it is conducted with respect and decided on evidence. But for faculty to hire only Left-leaning faculty, teach only Left-leaning thinkers, and explore only Left-leaning opinions is to substitute advocacy for inquiry. For administrators to discourage conservative speakers, while paying radical Leftists five-figure fees, is to throw a mainstream aura around but one narrow range of belief.

The educational costs of such bigotry are obvious, and the ethical example it sets is deplorable. Such behaviors belong outside the campus, not inside, and there is no reason why outsiders should countenance universities that break the terms of the social contract. To be sure, academic Leftists will perceive outside pressure as an infringement of academic freedom. They think that the university is an independent enclave accountable only to itself, and that any incursions from beyond by definition threaten the integrity of higher education. But, in truth, outside pressure arises precisely in order to do the opposite. It is the faculty who have abandoned the ideal, who stifle dissent no matter how learned, who under the guise of a rearguard, adversarial, protest posture rule the campus intellectual world and apportion its many comforts and securities to a slim ideological spectrum.

This is what we must demonstrate to trustees, alumnae, politicians, and parents. Academic freedom isn’t the property of the faculty. It is the responsibility of campus dwellers, yes, but the property of all citizens.

Personally, I think this could not be more wrongheaded; it is wrong about academic freedom, and it is wrong about how administrators and faculty “discourage conservative speakers” and enforce leftist orthodoxies in hiring and teaching.  But for the record, I strongly defend Mark Bauerlein’s right to be as wrongheaded as he wants to be.  Of course, whenever a colleague decides to sign on with David Horowitz’s campaign, it’s not my job to supply him (or her!) with the necessary flea powder.  Conversely, should any of my colleagues decide that Horowitz’s recent antics are in fact a threat to, rather than a defense of, academic freedom and ethical standards of intellectual exchange, so much the better.  But I will continue to defend professors’ academic freedom from legislative oversight and intrusion, not least because I believe that my conservative colleagues deserve every bit as much scholarly autonomy from state interference—and protection from political purges—as I do.

________

UPDATE, MARCH 17:  You can now check out Mark Bauerlein’s recent contribution to the National Review Online‘s new blog, “Phi Beta Cons,” in which he complains about civil liberties groups ganging up on poor Horowitz:  “what gets these groups exercised is one aging man in Los Angeles whose books and web site have rightly tapped into public dissatisfaction with the state of higher education.” By contrast, Ralph Luker writes, “The old fraud continues to feature his attack on KC Johnson, David Beito, and me at Front Page Rag.  It led to my harsh exchanges with him on Conservativenet. I think it is especially important that his feet be held to the fire in conservative circles.”

Holding Horowitz’s feet to the fire?  That seems so . . . harsh.  He’s just one aging man in Los Angeles, after all.

Posted by Michael on 03/16 at 08:03 AM
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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Traum time

Regular readers are aware (probably all too aware) that I’ve been flogging my forthcoming book, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? (W. W. Norton, this September) over the past year or so.  I’ve been dropping dark hints about critiques of postmodernism here and Horowitzian smear campaigns there, suggesting that my footnotes will be explosive and that no one will remain seated during the thrilling final ten pages.  And for good reason!  I’m just waiting for Paul Haggis to pick up the film rights, and then it’s Oscar City for my little book, folks.

But I haven’t done quite as thorough a job of flogging my other forthcoming book, Rhetorical Occasions (University of North Carolina Press, this fall).  And you know how I hate to fall down in the all-important “Most Relentlessly Self-Promoting” Koufax category.  So, then, with gracious permission from my editor at UNC Press, here’s one of the thirty-something old, new, bloggy, and revised-and-updated essays that will appear in Rhetorical Occasions.  A slightly different version of it appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education four and a half years ago.

________

It’s the class of my dreams. We’re just beginning a new semester; I’m going over the syllabus, term papers, midterm, final, and so on when, suddenly, a secretary pops her head in the door to say that the class has been moved to a different building, effective immediately.  Puzzled, my students and I gather our bags and belongings and begin the hike to Zzyzzych 304, a room in a building none of us has ever heard of.  It’s about a 20-minute walk, and, before long, almost half the students disappear.  I begin to get worried and start talking to the remaining students about the assigned novelists and poets, trying to keep them entertained; that works for a while, until we enter a construction site and find ourselves shuffling through a makeshift plywood corridor whose ceiling seems to be getting lower as we go.  More students bail out.  By the time we reach the dank basement entrance to the Zzyzzych Building, I’m left with a class of twelve students, eight or nine of whom leave while I’m discussing the grading policy.

Another tableau:  I wander into the English Department office as the semester begins to find that my course on 20th-century African-American fiction, meeting later that day, has been changed to “Avant-Garde and Representation:  The Problem of the Holocaust.” I have no syllabus; nor do I know anything about the topic.  Nevertheless, terrified as I am, I manage to bluff my way through the first class meeting by asking students for their reactions to Schindler’s List.  Thankfully, they are less annoyed by my incompetence than by the fact that the classroom has window ledges seven feet high—and no chairs.

Anyone who’s had an anxiety dream about teaching knows the psychic landscape:  the mysterious building, the spectral students, the surreal classroom, the sheer suffocating terror.  This is the class that will expose me as a fraud, you think.  Or: This time they’ll know I didn’t prepare all summer.  Even: When this is over, they’ll fire me on the spot.  From what all my friends and colleagues tell me, it doesn’t matter how experienced or accomplished you are: if you care at all about your teaching, you are haunted by teaching-anxiety dreams.

They come in all genres and feature all forms of torment, and they afflict graduate students and emeriti alike.  My wife, Janet Lyon, despite having won numerous teaching awards, begins each year with some variation on a dream in which she walks into the room, discovers that she must lecture to 500 students on a short story she’s never read, and promptly pretends to faint at the lectern.

And then there are the related anxiety dreams, so often triggered by the advent of classes, in which you imagine yourself back in college under some terrible dispensation—you have to write 100 pages by dawn to graduate; you’re told on the eve of your Ph.D. orals that your B.A. has been investigated and found to be invalid. I’m sorry, intones the lugubrious, 16-rpm voice, you will have to leave the graduate program by midnight tonight. Bats whirl in the light of the moon as the ancient clock on the quad strikes 11.

That last nightmare (minus the bats and the tolling bell) was actually related to me by the late W.T.H. Jackson, the renowned medievalist, whom few colleagues would have suspected of a moment’s doubt about his skills or his credentials.  It was May 1982, and I, then a senior at Columbia University, had appeared at Jackson’s door in the kind of cold sweat that one associates with . . . well, with nightmares.  I was frantically explaining to him that the R (for “residence credit") that he had given me in his class on Tristan and Isolde was preventing me from graduating.  “I’m not a graduate student,” I said, “and I can’t take classes for R credit, and the registrar’s computer reads it as an F, and my parents are flying in at 4, and. . . .” Professor Jackson graciously explained that he had mistakenly given my B+ to some bewildered graduate student and given me her R.  Then he told me that, without a doubt, this experience would stay with me the rest of my life if I pursued a career in academe, where I would periodically dream that someone would declare my B.A. invalid and fire me on the spot.  He knew.  He’d had the dream many times.

In my case, you see, anxiety dreams are kind of like conspiracy theories—every once in a while, they have a basis in fact.  Remember that dream about the course you didn’t know you were taking and, therefore, didn’t go to all semester?  That’s the Ghost Course dream.  I have it three or four times every year, just as classes begin.

About half the time, it’s the foreign-language requirement that gets me.  Sure, sometimes I dream that I’m supposed to be taking Geology 801 or Intro Entymology or some other subject of which I have remained almost completely ignorant my entire life, but most of the time the Ghost Course concerns a subject close to me—and yet not close enough.  French is a perfect psychic magnet for my free-floating sense of inadequacy.  It doesn’t help matters that I really did fail my second semester of French as a college sophomore, because I transferred from one section to another without completing the appropriate forms:  I signed up for a 9 am section, then got a job cleaning a local restaurant from 7-11 am weekdays, then switched to the 11 am section without properly dropping the 9 am section.  I finally got the F removed, although not before spending the spring semester on academic probation.

The experience might have been mildly traumatic—particularly for a 19-year-old who had spent most of his conscious life jumping through the requisite academic hoops, usually with the greatest of ease.  But why should I replay it over and over in my dreams to this day? Why should it be linked to the start of classes?  And why do I bother obsessing about little anxieties of 20 years ago, instead of about the much greater ones that have dotted my adult life since?  I’m actually not terribly worried about academic matters in my waking life.  Bad book reviews, rejected fellowship applications, stinging student evaluations—those are annoying or discouraging, no question.  But one severely asthmatic, repeatedly hospitalized toddler, then another child with Down syndrome, now that’s serious.

Or so one would think, in one’s waking moments.  The unconscious, however, has a mind of its own.  And so every semester, when anxiety strikes in the still of the night, I don’t dream that I have to cancel a class because of my children; no, I dream that my course descriptions have been changed, that my students get up and drift away as I’m in midsentence, that I’m three hours late to a classroom that doesn’t exist—or that I forgot to attend “French for Reading Proficiency” last term and will not be allowed to teach the novels of André Gide.  I’ve never taught the novels of André Gide.  But it doesn’t matter; there’s something about teaching that rouses all the gnawing fears that have accumulated over our academic lifetimes.

My dreams during the summer of 2001, as I was changing institutions, were particularly intense.  For the first time in twelve years, I really didn’t have any idea where my classrooms would be, and I really hadn’t filled out the book-order forms for my contemporary American literature courses.  I arrived at Penn State with much to learn, threading my way through what seemed to be an especially opaque and unnavigable campus.  Many things about Pennsylvania are opaque and unnavigable—it appears to be impossible to register a motor vehicle in the commonwealth, for example, without a blood test and a note from your college French teacher—but my unconscious worries about moving to a new place seemed to concentrate exclusively on what would happen on the first day of classes.

As I prepared my opening handouts, unaware that the English department was changing my office phone number (they eventually changed it twice), and that I’d forgotten to include Flannery O’Connor on the survey syllabus (now, how did that happen?), I realized why professors have anxiety dreams at the start of the academic year: teaching is really hard to do.  If you’re doing it in classes of 15 and 40 students, as I am, you’re teaching in a setting where the students will find out not only what you think about x and y, but also what you are like, in some strange and intimate way.  They’ll get a sense of how thoroughly you prepare, of course, but, even more, they’ll see how you respond to the unexpected—to the savvy young woman who wants to know whether you’re using the term “postcolonial” in a cultural or an economic sense, to the curious junior who wonders aloud why Don DeLillo gave the name Simeon Biggs to a snappish African-American character in Underworld. For such moments, you simply can’t prepare—except by accumulating years upon years of teaching experience, and weathering night upon night of anxiety dreams.

Because on that first day of class, truly anything can happen:  your students aren’t going to love you just because your last three semesters went well, and it’s a fair bet that none of your undergraduates (and almost none of your graduate students) will have come back from the summer freshly impressed by how deftly you handled that ludicrously unfair book review in the June issue of Crank Quarterly. Amazingly, none of your students will arrive on the first day having heard anything you’ve said to other students over the past twenty years; amazingly, you’ll have to make a first impression all over again, for the twenty-first time.

If it’s a course you’ve never taught before, you may wind up rewriting or scrapping the syllabus in midstream; if it’s a course in a fairly new area of study, you’ll have no idea what kind of knowledge base to expect from your students.  And, of course, if the window ledges are seven feet high in Zzyzzych 304, how will anyone be able to close the windows when the motorcycle gangs roar by?

Buddhists speak of learning to see the world with “beginner’s mind,” and that’s precisely what you have to do every semester:  begin again, from scratch, knowing that anything can happen—seeing those 10, or 50, or even 500 students, like the 2,000 students you’ve seen before, with beginner’s mind.  Our anxiety dreams, surely, are the index of our secret fears of failure and inadequacy.  But they’re also the measure of how very difficult it is—and how very exhilarating—to begin each semester with beginner’s mind.

Posted by Michael on 03/14 at 11:47 AM
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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Don DeLillo Day

I’ve done a little literary theorizin’ here and there on this recently-renamed blog, but, to date, almost no literary criticizin’.  Well, today’s that’s gonna change.  For today, I’m lettin’ everyone know, in a g-dropping, forced- casual kinda way, that there’s a new volume out in the MLA Approaches to Teaching series, that it’s about teaching Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and that I have an essay in it.  The editors of the volume, the patient and long-suffering John Duvall and Tim Engles, have graciously given me permission to flog the book right here, thus swelling their respective coffers, bwah hah hah hah, and permission to offer a section of my own essay as a teaser, thus filling my pockets with . . . hey! wait a minute!

The cover is cool.  Two covers are even cooler.

But the vagaries of academic publishing are so strange.  I remember very well where I was when I finished writing this essay: I was on an Amtrak train between Baltimore and New York, and when I got off at Penn Station I learned that Paul Wellstone had died.  It’s not every day you check into a hotel crying.  The fact that I’d just spent three hours writing about narrative and death didn’t make it any easier.  Today, I notice that the decade hand has moved on my watch, and the hideous Norm Coleman occupies a seat in the Senate. A little patience, perhaps, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over. . . .

In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from that essay.  My mission, once I chose to accept it, was to write about White Noise and DeLillo’s 1997 epic, Underworld; my argument, in a sentence, is that “Underworld complicates and magnifies the question of motive, by narrating itself backwards and by contrasting the motivelessness of sports with the macromotivations of superpower conflict and the micromotivations of ordinary men and women; but White Noise asks us to comprehend a form of narrative that somehow manages neither to eschew nor to embrace the consolations of plot.” Or something like that.

We now turn you over to some literary criticizin’.  Especially you DeLillo fans.  We start, appropriately, in medias res.

_______

. . . In the novel’s final section, “Das Capital,” at the Kazakh Test Site (where, in a sense, the novel began—there and at the Polo Grounds), our protagonist Nick Shay turns to Viktor Maltsev, the representative of a post-Soviet company (“Tchaika”) that offers nuclear incineration of hazardous waste, and asks, “Viktor, does anyone remember why we were doing all this?”

“Yes, for contest.  You won, we lost.  You have to tell me how it feels.  Big winner” (793).

At least two things are going on in this exchange: first, the irony of hearing Nick called a “big winner” long after we’ve learned that he defines himself in terms of loss (the Dodgers, his father, George Manza) and even spent $34,500 to buy a baseball that reminds him about losing; second, the reduction of the Cold War to a “contest” without any motive other than to produce a winner and a loser.  Nothing here about democracy or the worker’s paradise, nothing about market and command economies, nothing about NATO and the Warsaw Pact, Czechoslovakia or Chile, Pershings or SS-18s, capitalist lackeys or evil empires.  Just winners and losers, as in the playoffs; one side goes on, to spin its narrative another day, and one side goes home.

Contrast this scene, then, with Brian Glassic’s response to Big Sims’ Donnie Moore argument:

“. . . well I’m sorry but how do we distinguish Donnie Moore from all the other ball games and all the other shootings?”

“The point is not what we notice or what we remember but what happened,” Sims said, “to the parties involved.  We’re talking about who lived and who died.”

“But not why,” Glassic said.  “Because if we analyze the reasons honestly and thoroughly instead of shallow and facile and what else?”

“Unhistorical,” I said.

“The we realize that there were probably a dozen reasons why the guy started shooting and most of them we’ll never know or understand.” (99)

Glassic complicates Big Sims’ comparison of Ralph Branca and Donnie Moore by foregrounding precisely what Viktor Maltsev refused to engage in his two-word summary of the superpower conflict that structured the latter half of the last century: the question of motive.  And this, finally, is the real distinction between sports and the rest of our lives: though sports may present complex questions about justice that are also complex questions about narrative, sports offer their fans a form of narrative that is evacuated of motive.  No one asks Michael Jordan, “why were you trying to hit that buzzer-beater?” No one grills Tom Brady about why he was trying to unload the ball against the Raiders, no one wonders why the New York Giants were trying to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers, regardless of whether they were stealing signs.  It is for contest, that’s all.

Juxtaposing the narratives of baseball and of the Cold War, then, Underworld insists on the importance of motive: like Thomas Pynchon (to whom he is often compared in this respect), DeLillo makes much of the multivalence of the term “plot,” spinning paranoid tales around the word’s more sinister connotations, ranging from “diabolical scheme” to “area of cemetery land.” But what’s striking about Underworld is that unlike postmodern paranoid fictions in which all plotting is sinister and probably related somehow to your eventual demise, this novel shows us time and again how trying it is, outside of the world of sports, to live in a story without a plot, a narrative without a motive.

Accordingly, we can use Underworld to illuminate White Noise’s ruminations about the relation of plotting to death.  Under that heading, as well, we can revisit White Noise by way of two of the twentieth century’s most influential English-speaking theorists of narrative, E. M. Forster and Frank Kermode.  For Forster, of course, there can be no plot without causality: “‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story,” he writes in Aspects of the Novel.  “‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot” (86).  Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, a brilliant, elusive book devoted in part to explaining the longer Western-civ plot lines underlying the many varieties of modernist experimentalism, argues that plotting is indispensable to any humans living outside a religious dispensation that explains to them the purpose of their living, from genesis to revelation.  Kermode’s argument is practically transcribed into White Noise via the person of Murray Siskind, a former sports reporter who not only provides the novel with a kind of running commentary on its own forays into American popular and commerical culture, but also rationally and bloodlessly convinces Jack Gladney to kill Willie Mink:

We start our lives in chaos, in babble.  As we surge up into the world, we try to devise a shape, a plan.  There is dignity in this.  Your whole life is a plot, a scheme, a diagram.  It is a failed scheme but that’s not the point.  To plot is to affirm life, to seek shape and control.  (291-92)

Yet as Kermode points out, the plot that affirms life may well spring from our fear of death:

Men, like poets, rush “into the middest,” in medias res, when they are born; they also die in mediis rebus, and to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems.  The End they imagine will reflect their irreducibly intermediary preoccupations.  They fear it, and as far as we can see have always done so; the End is a figure for their own deaths.  (7)

The first half of this passage sounds like Murray, perhaps, but the second half recalls Jack’s discussion of plots at the outset of the novel, when he tells his students, “All plots tend to move deathward.  This is the nature of plots.  Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games.  We edge nearer death every time we plot” (26).  DeLillo follows this rather obvious announcement of one of the novel’s major preoccupations by having the announcer himself disclaim any insight into what he has just said: “Is this true?  Why did I say it?  What does it mean?” (26).

I have always read these questions as being somewhat disingenuous, though I confess I have not been able to decide whether the disingenuousness is Jack’s or DeLillo’s.  Surely, I think, DeLillo knows what he is about when he peppers a novel with discussions about the functions of plotting, so it seems a bit heavy-handed to have a character offer one such discussion and then to puzzle over it.  As for Jack, perhaps his need to disavow responsibility for an argument about plotting arises from a disingenuousness born of fear: if motive lies at the center of plot, how better to obscure one’s own relation to plots (and thus, perhaps, to death) than to claim not to know why one tells one’s class about the relation of plots to death?

Still, though I am not fond of this passage, I do think that Underworld can help us pry it open.  Let us imagine, first, that Jack sincerely does not understand his own motives for saying that all plots move deathward.  We might then be inclined to remember that Jack apparently does not understand his own motives for studying Hitler or for founding Hitler Studies, and tends to speak about his career in the most shallowly professionalist terms available: he has carved out an academic niche, he has established a new field and a scholarly reputation of some sort, yes, but tellingly, we never get any sense of the intellectual substance of this field, or of Jack’s work in it, on which Jack’s reputation presumably rests.  From here we can move to the more general observation that the major characters and events in White Noise seem to be without motive, and we can secure this point in part by looking at the minor fringe characters who do have clear motives—like Orest Mercator, whose goal is to “break the world endurance record for sitting in a cage full of poisonous snakes” (182), and who bends his entire being to this goal: “he inhaled food according to aerodynamic principles.  Pressure differences, intake velocities. . . .  He was creating an imperial self out of some tabloid aspiration” (265, 268).  Motives in White Noise do, indeed, tend to be the stuff of tabloid aspiration, and are inevitably trivialized, even when they involve terrorist plots of the kind with which we have lately become all too familiar, as in this item Babette reads aloud from a tabloid to an audience of blind people: “Members of an air-crash cult will hijack a jumbo jet and crash it into the White House in an act of blind devotion to their mysterious and reclusive leader, known only as Uncle Bob” (146).  By contrast, the novel’s central event, the release of the chemical Nyodene D in the “airborne toxic event,” is utterly motiveless.  If we compare White Noise’s airborne toxic event with the1984 toxic leak at the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India (which occurred about a month before the book’s publication, and which DeLillo is often credited with having eerily anticipated), the motivelessness and the agentlessness of the event should seem all the more remarkable—not because Union Carbide intended to poison thousands of residents of Bhopal, surely, but because White Noise contains so little treatment of the causes of the event, not a word about the train that derailed, about the chemical company that was transporting Nyodene D, or about the large-scale socioeconomic forces behind chemical spills and other industrial disasters.  In White Noise, the airborne toxic event is presented as just another one of “the networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies” (46) that fill the air, like the hum of consumers in the mall or the ubiquitous and intangible webs of information that define Jack’s life at Autumn Harvest Farms and at the Automated Teller Machine.

The salient exceptions to the rule are, of course, Babette’s plan to have sex with Willie Mink in exchange for Dylar, which she undertakes in a desperate and doomed attempt to alleviate her fear of death, and then Jack’s plan to kill Mink and take his Dylar.  These are plots in Forster’s sense, and it is clear that the second follows causally from the first.  But it’s fitting that both plots go so terribly awry.  For one thing, Dylar itself seems to be a dud.  It causes Mink to confuse words with things, thus affording us some speculations on the relation between language and what Heidegger called Being-toward-death (this would be one facet of the novel’s affinities with existentialism), insofar as it suggests that we must somehow be willing to confront the meaning of death if we are to understand the functions of language.  But since the drug does not actually succeed in counteracting its users’ fear of death, both Babette’s and Jack’s plots to obtain Dylar seem pointless and futile.  And what of the revenge plot that drives Jack to kill Mink for having sex with his wife?  This too fizzles, even though—or because?—Jack obsessively repeats versions of his “plan” to himself some eight times in the course of chapter 39.  Interestingly, had the plan worked, it would have confirmed both Jack’s thesis and Murray’s: it would have imposed order on chaos and it would have moved deathward.  Does Jack’s failed plot, then, suggest that he had it right the first time, when speaking to his students—or perhaps later, when he thought, in that elegiac moment amid the headstones in Blacksmith Village’s “Old Burial Ground,” “May the days be aimless.  Let the seasons drift.  Do not advance the action according to a plan” (98)?

. . .
______

There’s lots more from me in this vein, along with biographical and bibliographic info on DeLillo and seventeen other essays on White Noise.  So go read the whole thing, as they say on “blogs.” And check out the full table of contents—there’s some great stuff in there.

Posted by Michael on 03/12 at 11:50 AM
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Friday, March 10, 2006

Abject but fun Friday

An old friend writes (he really does—this isn’t one of those rhetorical “contrivances” you so often find on “blogs”) to console me about my imminent 0-for-6 Koufax shutout.  First, he notes that “Koufax shutout” is not such a bad thing, since Koufax himself pitched forty of them, eleven in 1963 alone.  Second, he suggests that this blog needs a new name, something snappy that can plausibly compete with blockbusters like “Hullabaloo” and “Happy Furry Puppy Story Time with Norbizness.” He even proposes that I save “Michael Bérubé Online” for my more serious posts about culture, politics, literary theory, and disability, and move the silly stuff to a Distinctly Silly Blog where it can be all silly all the time.  “But people have come to expect a tonally incoherent mix of stuff from Michael Bérubé Online,” I whinged.  Well, that may be, he said, “Michael Bérubé Online” isn’t much of a brand to begin with, and it’s recognizable only to regular blog readers.  “But I’m one of only six or seven Michael Bérubés online,” I replied, only to be met with the email equivalent of a raised eyebrow.

I don’t know what to think about this.  On the one hand, it would be great to have a cool new blog called Colonel of Truth, second in command only to the General himself.  On the other hand, which happens to be holding Occam’s Razor, it could simply be the case that this blog gets three times the traffic it did last year but one-third as many Koufax votes because it is exactly one-ninth as good as it was last year.  Or it could have nothing to do with me; it could be that liberal blogs have just gotten that much better in the past twelve months.  I don’t know.  I’m open to suggestions.

Anyway, Koufax voting closes this Sunday night at one minute to midnight, Eastern time.  There are two categories for which I humbly (nay, abjectly) solicit your vote, just to eke into the finals—this one and that one (in which you can find my friend’s totally impartial and fair and balanced vote, just so you know this is a real person we’re talking about).  If you do vote for me, thanks.  If you don’t, perhaps you could suggest a cool name change for this blog or something.

OK, now it’s time for an Arbitrary but Fun game: Duets That Do Not Suck! 

As you know, the duet is one of the most degraded of popular music genres, usually yielding atrocities like Michael McDonald and Patti LaBelle’s “On My Own,” Stevie Nicks and Kenny Loggins’ “Whenever I Call You Friend,” or Elton John and Kiki Dee’s “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart,” which some scientists consider to be very close to the theoretical Absolute Zero on the universal scale of human listenability.  In 1997, however, a British team of researchers claimed that the legendary Lita Ford / Ozzy Osbourne duet, “Close My Eyes Forever,” is actually on the zero, and represents the ground state of “lowest possible energy” for all forms of music.  They postulate that the song can actually produce solid helium when played at 90 dB or above, but so far, no one has wanted to try to confirm this.

Anyway, it occurred to me the other day that the Steve Earle/ Lucinda Williams duet on “You’re Still Standin’ There” (from Earle’s 1996 I Feel Alright) does not suck at all, but, rather, seriously kicks it.  Similarly, though less rockingly, Freedy Johnston’s duet with Syd Straw on “Down in Love” (from Johnston’s 1992 Can You Fly) is quite gorgeous.  Further suggestions are more than welcome, and extra special happy furry bonus points will be awarded to anyone who suggests that this blog could improve its chances in next year’s Koufaxes by singing duets with Lucinda Williams or Syd Straw.

Posted by Michael on 03/10 at 08:02 AM
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Thursday, March 09, 2006

South Dakota special

When I think about South Dakota, I think about all kinds of things.  Like this little item from way back when:

Nader Sees a Bright Side to a Bush Victory
by Melinda Henneberger

Dearborn, MI, November 1, 2000 –

Mr. Nader said he did not think there would be much difference between the justices Mr. Gore would choose and those Mr. Bush would appoint. After all, Democrats had helped confirm Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, hadn’t they? Besides, “You can’t really predict how Supreme Court justices will behave.”

And he called the possibility that a court packed with Republican appointees could overturn Roe v. Wade a “scare tactic.” On Sunday, Mr. Nader said in a television interview that even if Roe v. Wade was overturned, the issue “would just revert to the states.” Just?

“Here’s what happened on that,” he said wearily. “The scare tactic is that would end choice in America, and I just said that’s not true, but I should have been astute enough not to mention that.”

He said he did not in any case believe for a moment that Mr. Bush would seek to overturn Roe v. Wade. “The first back alley death, and the Republican Party is in deep trouble and they know it,” he said.  He described the party’s opposition to abortion as just for show, “just for Pat Robertson.”

My point is not that Ralph Nader was secretly pro-coathanger.  My point is that Nader, like all too many men on the left, doesn’t believe that the right-wing culture warriors really mean it.  They think it’s all shadow-boxing, a distraction, a sop thrown to the radical fringe.  That same attitude can be found, as I’ve noted before, in Tom Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, where Frank writes, “Values may ‘matter most’ to voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won.  This is a basic earmark of the phenomenon, absolutely consistent in across its decades-long history.  Abortion is never halted.  Affirmative action is never abolished.  The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act.”

The idea is that an actual abortion ban would go too far: the first back alley death, and the Republican Party is in deep trouble.  Well, maybe and maybe not, folks.  You might think, along similar lines, “the first hideous death by torture in the War on Terror, and the Republican Party is in deep trouble,” or “the first unconstitutional power grab by the executive branch, and the Republican Party is in deep trouble,” or “the first data-mining program of domestic spying, and the Republican Party is in deep trouble,” or “the first systemic corruption scandal involving Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham and Tom DeLay, and the Republican Party is in deep trouble,” and you’d be, ah, wrong, you know.  Besides, there’s a nasty time lag between that first back-alley death and the repeal (if any) of a state’s draconian abortion law, and in that time-lag, that state’s Republican Party might or might not be in deep trouble.  It’s hard to unseat incumbents in this jerry-built and gerrymandered system, after all.  So there’s no guarantee that popular outrage against back-alley deaths would jeopardize a state’s elected GOP officials en masse.  But we can be pretty sure that women with unwanted pregnancies would be . . . how shall we say? in deep trouble.

As for Nader’s belief that Gore would probably have appointed people like John Roberts and Samuel Alito: well, that’s reason number 22 I didn’t think his political judgment was worth bothering with.

Now, would Joe Lieberman have appointed people like Roberts and Alito?  Hmmm, I’d say the odds are only about 3-to-2 against.  So while I’m revisiting the grievous wounds of 2000, let me take a moment to consult with some Democratic consultants.  Who should Gore have picked as his running mate?  In June 2000, a prominent pair of Democratic strategists wrote:

By choosing former Georgia governor Zell Miller as his running mate, Al Gore could add intellectual brainpower, rhetorical firepower, and lots of plain old populist piss-and-vinegar to this staid election. . . .

At a time when politics seems moribund, Zell would bring energy. When people are looking for heroes, Zell’s the real thing. And when Democrats need someone who’s not afraid to open up a can of whupass on the radical right, they need look no further than Zell Miller.

For those of you unfamiliar with this “populist” lingo, “open up a can of whupass on” does not actually mean “join forces with.” Which is why these consultants turned out to be, ah, wrong.  Now, OK, so Gore didn’t take this particular piece of advice.  He did the next worst thing.  Fair enough.

By the way, those consultants were Paul Begala and James Carville.  You know, the guys who are now advising us to “take it back” using various strategems that include, in Charles Pierce’s immortal words, “pitching the privacy rights of 51 percent of the population overboard piecemeal.”

Digby and Amanda have been just brilliant on this lately, as you probably know. These are my two faves [link all fixed!  thanks, folks] for the month of March, but please feel free to toss more links into comments.

Posted by Michael on 03/09 at 09:44 AM
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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A tense question

I know there’s almost no point in linking to a New York Times editorial, but then, this has never been a news-breaking blog, anyway.  I just thought that for all the paper’s shortcomings in recent years, it deserves some love for this almost-perfect piece of work:

They Came for the Chicken Farmer

This has been our nightmare since the Bush administration began stashing prisoners it did not want to account for in Guantánamo Bay: An ordinary man with a name something like a Taliban bigwig’s is swept up in the dragnet and imprisoned without any hope of proving his innocence.

A case of mistaken identity’s turning an innocent person into a prisoner-for-life was supposed to be impossible. President Bush told Americans to trust in his judgment after he arrogated the right to arrest anyone, anywhere in the world, and toss people into indefinite detention. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld infamously proclaimed that the men at Guantánamo Bay were “the worst of the worst.”

But it has long been evident that this was nonsense, and a lawsuit by The Associated Press has now demonstrated the truth in shameful detail. The suit compelled the release of records from hearings for some of the 760 or so men who have been imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay. (About 490 are still there.) Far too many show no signs of being a threat to American national security. Some, it appears, did nothing at all. And they have no way to get a fair hearing because Gitmo was created outside the law.

Take the case of Abdur Sayed Rahman, as recounted in Monday’s Times. The transcripts quote Mr. Rahman as saying he was arrested in his Pakistani village in January 2002, flown to Afghanistan, accused of being the Taliban’s deputy foreign minister and then thrown into a cell in Guantánamo Bay. “I am only a chicken farmer in Pakistan,” he said, adding that the Taliban official was named Abdur Zahid Rahman. . . .

Because Mr. Bush does not recognize that American law or international treaties apply to his decisions as commander in chief, these prisoners were initially not given hearings. The transcripts are from proceedings that were begun under a court order. They started years after the prisoners were originally captured—a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. And they were conducted under rules that mock any notion of democratic justice.

Prisoners do not see the evidence against them and barely have access to legal counsel. Now, thanks to a horrible law sponsored by Senators Lindsey Graham, a Republican, and Carl Levin, a Democrat, they have virtually no right of appeal. The law even permits the use of evidence obtained by torture.

If the stories of the chicken farmer and the men with the wrong watches are new, the broad outlines of this disaster have long been visible. It is shocking in itself, and in the fact that average citizens have not risen up to demand that these abuses come to an end. The founding fathers knew that when you dispensed with the rule of law, the inevitable outcome was injustice. Now America is becoming the thing they sought to end.

There’s only one note off-key here: “is becoming” should be “has become.” Otherwise, it’s pretty damn good.

Posted by Michael on 03/08 at 11:42 AM
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