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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Koufax finals are here!

We interrupt this blog’s recent Journeys to January 2004 in order to bring you vital, late-breaking news from some point or other last night:  the finalists in the Koufax Awards have been announced!

This humble, newly updated, and oft-renamed blog has managed to claw and beg its way into five categories.

Best Series, for my posts on Jamie.

Best Writing, in which Chris Clarke deserves to win and therefore must be defeated.  That climate change sestina was the last straw.

Best Post, for an essay near and dear to my heart.

Most Humorous Post, in which Rox, PZ, and the Poor Man rule.

And Most Humorous Blog, which is a minor travesty of justice, because I do not, in fact, have one of the ten most humorous blogs on the left side of the dial.  I happen to know that I wound up in the finals only because I faced Wichita State in the last round, and Wichita State turned out to be a completely humorless blog.

Of course, even if you’re a regular reader of this mildly-humorous blog, you’re under no special obligation to vote for me in any of the above categories.  But you should probably be advised that if you don’t vote for me, I’m going to spend the rest of the month posting excerpts from the Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie, twelve thousand words at a time.  Just saying.

Kudos to all the nominees, and don’t forget the other blog awards hosted by our comrades at Sadly, Non!

Posted by Michael on 03/21 at 02:42 PM
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Fresh new old stuff

In the comments to last night’s post, a grumpy and demanding medievalist who goes by the name of Dr. Virago complains that my January 2004 “literary theory is dead and I feel fine” bit is recycled old stuff, and insists that I post fresh old stuff.  Very well.  Also from January 2004, but, curiously, still relevant today:

Conservatives Denounce Gay Marriage, Mars Mission

From “Bush’s Push for Marriage Falls Short for Conservatives,” David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times, January 15, 2004:

Some major conservative Christian groups said yesterday that they were pleased but not satisfied by a new White House initiative to promote marriage, and they stepped up pressure on President Bush to champion a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage in his State of the Union speech next week.

“This is like lobbing a snowball at a forest fire,” said Sandy Rios, president of Concerned Women of America, one of the largest conservative Christian advocacy groups. “This administration is dancing dangerously around the issue of homosexual marriage.”

Responding to conservative critics of the Bush administration, the Mixed Metaphor Association of America suggested that Rios’s remarks left Americans with a “thoroughly unclear” image of the threat posed by homosexuals.  “Gay marriage is like a forest fire, right, we got that part,” said Buster Poindexter, general secretary of the association.  “But then the administration is ‘dancing around’ it?  Exactly how big is this forest fire, anyway?  Is it one of those ‘raging’ things, or is it maybe just a campfire?  And where does the snow come from?  Did gays and lesbians build a campfire in the snow?  These are not idle questions.  Ordinary Americans need to know whether gays and lesbians are raging or just camping.”

In a related development, a spokesman for the Family Research Council today denounced President Bush’s plans for a manned mission to Mars later in this century.  Reginald Dwight, associate vice chair of the Council, said at a news conference that manned space exploration of the kind proposed by Bush would contribute to the deterioration of the American family.  “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,” said Dwight.  “In fact, it’s cold as hell.  And there’s no one there to raise them, if you did.” Asked whether the Council would eventually support civil unions on Mars or perhaps one of the gaseous outer planets, Dwight replied, “I think it’s gonna be a long long time” before Christian conservatives would be willing to consider gay and lesbian rights anywhere in the known solar system.

Posted by Michael on 03/21 at 07:41 AM
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Monday, March 20, 2006

Dead Again:  The Sequel, Part II

I know what you’re all saying.  You’re all saying, “sure, it’s great that you finally updated the damn blogroll.  And OK, it was nice to know that you’re actually doing ‘work’ down there in North Carolina, as long as you consider reading and thinking ‘work.’ And yes, everyone’s very very interested in the fact that you saw a basketball game in a bar.  But you promised us, back when you first announced your March of Solitude, that you would post a few “Greatest Hits from back in the prehistoric era when this blog was giddy with delight at the idea of having one thousand readers in a single day.” Why haven’t you re-posted any old posts?  The people are clamoring for the old posts! I know for a certainty that you are all saying this, because you have been leaving notes under my apartment door every evening.  And I will not allow those notes to go unanswered, even—or especially—if they are imaginary.

The funny thing is that when I came to Durham, I imagined that I would “cut back drastically” on blogging (as I wrote three weeks ago), because I would be spending all my time in study and meditation.  But lo!  I have kept blogging anyway.  Why is that?  I tried to cut back, but, well. . . . Ahem.  Well, partly it’s because I have not had unbroken 16-hour work days since I was 24 years old, and I am finding them too vast for comprehension.  But mostly it’s because blogging turns out, in a curiously virtual-yet-tangible kind of way, to be one of the ways in which I now apprehend the world (and one of the ways in which the world apprehends me—and yes, I’m aware of the fact that “apprehend” suggests both “perceive” and “take into custody.” It’s far more elegant than ”interpellate," don’t you think?).  Perhaps this is a Sociological Phenomenon For Our Time!  Perhaps I am Blogging Alone, and should transmute and reify my experience in such a way as to make it emblematic of an entire generation.  You know, I tried Bowling Alone the other day, but all I learned was that I had no one to give me tips on how to pick up a spare on a 1-4-10.  Do you want to hit the 1 slightly to the left, hoping that it or the 4 will carom into the 10, or slightly to the right, so that the ball itself will take out the 10?  And then when I’d recorded my mediocre 138, I found that I had helped to fray the social fabric of these United States!  Who knew?

I will do more responsible-citizen-netizen blogging in the near future.  In the meantime, here’s one of those Golden Oldies for which you all have been clamoring and clamoring in tones only I can hear.  I posted this thing at the end of January 2004, when Theory had died for the eighth time, only eighteen months before Theory’s Empire declared it dead for the ninth time.  So, then, for all you Cool Cats out there, here’s my take on the Death of Theory back when this struggling blog had 500 readers on a good day.


Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Literary “theory” was pronounced dead today by the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics’ Ad Hoc Committee on the Status of Interpretation.  “The news should come as no surprise,” said longtime theory-critic John Hollander at yesterday’s CSI press conference.  “Theory has been dying for years—the only problem is that the ‘theorists’ themselves have been in a state of profound denial about the fact.” In a separate statement, eminent Yale critic Harold Bloom added, “alas.”

Hollander pointed to the infamous 1997 “Paris video” in which postmodernist-deconstructionist-nihilist literary theorist Jacques Derrida is seen swimming in the Seine, but in which only his head is visible above water.  “The members of the Branch Derridean cult managed to convince themselves that they could keep blathering on about the contradictions between the ‘literal’ and ‘rhetorical’ meanings of words, even though their leader was obviously unable to distinguish fantasy from reality,” said Hollander.  “But now that even Marxist theorist Terry Eagleton has renounced ‘theory,’ it’s time for Derrida’s acolytes to give up the ghost—so to speak.”

Speaking from beyond the grave, deconstructionist and former Nazi collaborator Paul de Man agreed with Hollander.  “I was wrong from the start,” said de Man.  “And I want to give you all an example of precisely how wrong I was.  Remember that reading of Yeats’s ‘Among School Children’ I did many years ago?  The one that took the closing couplet of the poem?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

-- and suggested that ‘It is equally possible to read the last line literally rather than figuratively, as asking with some urgency the question . . . how can we possibly make the distinctions that would shelter us from the error of identifying what cannot be identified?’ Then I went on to say, as you might recall, that ‘the figural reading, which assumes the question to be rhetorical, is perhaps naive, whereas the literal reading leads to greater complication of theme and statement.’ Well, I must have been high,” de Man admitted.  “Frankly, there’s no way to read that line literally.  The whole premise of my argument was flawed, because, in the end, language just isn’t that ambiguous.  Obviously, Yeats’s point is that you can’t tell the dancer from the dance, because—if you’ll pardon the analogy—there’s no difference between the words on a page and the way they might be read, or ‘performed,’ by any given reader.”

Responding to reporters who found this “confession” too damn confusing, de Man tried again to simplify matters.  “OK, I understand that rhetorical questions in Yeats’s poetry might be a bad place to start if you’re looking for interpretive certainty.  Very well, then, take the simple question ‘what’s the difference?’ For a long time, I convinced people that you could read this utterance in two different ways—as a question that asserted a ‘difference’ when taken literally, and as a question that denied that very difference, or insisted on its irrelevance, when read rhetorically.  But that’s so much horseshit.  I mean, come on.  Words aren’t all that hard to understand, are they?  Really, we all know how to distinguish real from rhetorical questions, especially when they occur in written texts, don’t we?”

British Marxist theorist Raymond Williams, dead since 1988, concurred with de Man.  “I didn’t care all that much for deconstruction when I was alive,” said Williams.  “But I agree with Paul now—most of what we theorists were doing was bunk.  Take for example my book Keywords, where I provided a series of historical analyses of words like art, class, criticism, culture, experience, literature, masses, society, and work.  I predicated that book on the claim that ‘some important social and historical processes occur within language, in ways which indicate how integral the problems of meanings and of relationships really are.’ And I insisted on understanding these words not in terms of their origins or their current usages, but as records and palimpsests of social change; I really thought that I was undertaking ‘an exploration of the vocabulary of a crucial area of social and cultural discussion, which has been inherited within precise historical and social conditions and which has to be made at once conscious and critical—subject to change as well as to continuity—if the millions of people in whom it is active are to see it as active.’ But who was I kidding, really?  Words like ‘culture,’ ‘class,’ and ‘original’ have never changed their meanings, and most reasonable people know that those meanings have always been pretty clear.  I know it, you know it, everybody in the English-speaking world knows it.  I was just blowing smoke, and I’m sorry.”

Perhaps most strikingly, Eve Sedgwick has come forward to second the confessions of Williams and de Man.  “Queer theory is hogwash,” Sedgwick insisted at a recent conference, “Queer Theory: Nonsense or Hogwash?” “If you think about it seriously for a second, the homo/hetero divide isn’t an important conceptual division for contemporary thought in any sense of the term.  I know I made a big deal out of this in Epistemology of the Closet, but between you and me, I was just out of my bird.  Every sane person knows that gender and sexuality are pretty straightforward affairs—that is, I mean, we all know that people are pretty rational about these things.  They know what they want, and they work to maximize their interests, sexually speaking.  Cognitive science proves this.  And listen, while I have you here,” Sedgwick added, “I have to say that the literature of the past two centuries offers a pretty clear record of the facts.  Please don’t listen to these people who go on about the ‘homosocial-homoerotic’ dynamics in Victorian fiction, and please don’t read too much into poets like Walt Whitman or Hart Crane, either.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned since leaving Duke University, it’s that words and things generally are just what they seem to be.”

Blogging from a remote undisclosed location, literary critic and cultural studies theorist Michael Bérubé testified to his sense of relief at the news of theory’s demise.  “Irony died a few years ago,” he said, without “apparent” “irony.” “So it’s about time that these bizarre, elaborate queer-Marxist- deconstructionist theories about ‘meaning’ died too.  From here on in, things will mean just what people say they mean—and they better mean it this time.”

Posted by Michael on 03/20 at 10:57 PM
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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Takin’ care of Borges

It’s here! At long last—the moment I have long promised, and long delayed.  Just look right down there beneath my one lonely BlogAd . . . it’s my all-new blogroll!

Yes, folks, after only one year, I have updated my blogroll.  I am no longer the Worst Blogroll Updater in the World, singlehandedly holding back the dialectical movement of Blogeistesgeschichte. Now you know what I’ve been doing down here in North Carolina with all my free time!  I have the National Humanities Center’s first-ever Blogroll Updating Fellowship, and I have used it wisely.  I can now goof off for the remaining twelve days of March!

(Actually, that last bit is not quite true.  I present my work-in-progress to the NHC’s fellows tomorrow afternoon, and have already had my very first fellow-presentation anxiety dream.  All I will say is that I am reading George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate and writing a prospectus.)

Now, you’ll recall that when I last updated my blogroll in the spring of 2005, there were only fifteen or twenty blogs on the Internets.  Today there are over thirty million.  So, of course, the blogroll had to get longer, and I spent many many hours checking out many many fine new blogs.  But I didn’t want the blogroll to roll on forever down the right sidebar.  That seemed unseemly.  So Kurt Nelson, blessed be he, suggested that I group the almost-two-hundred blogs into categories, and he would get a hold of some of that “code” that allows the categories to unfurl before your eyes.

This was the moment I’d been dreading for months. Categorizing the blogs! I feared that every step I took would kill a living thing.  What if I classified someone’s blog as anarcho-syndicalist when in fact many of its posts were crypto-Maoist?  What if I designated “Sivacracy” as post-Impressionist when in fact its studied pointillism owes a great deal to Scott McLemee’s experiments with color and line?  And (this last question bedevils all of us literature professors) what was I to do with those damned medievalists?  Especially the ones whose blogs are full of thorns?

Well, after I culled through the old blogroll, fixing broken links and tracking down fugitive blogs that had undergone radical changes of name and/or identity in the course of joining the Blog Protection Program, I decided to place my faith in the best classification system in the world: the Borgesian taxonomy in “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.”

Which reminds me of something.  About a decade ago, Keith Windschuttle, Australian Professor of Harrumphy in the Department of What’s All This Then, published a particularly stupid book titled The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past.  In it, he not only showed how literary critics and social theorists are murdering our past until it is dead; he also pointed out that although Michel Foucault was inspired by Borges’ taxonomy, and Marshall Sahlins and many other people cite it too, the taxonomy is in fact fictional, having been entirely made up by Jorge Luis Borges!

Gee, d’ye think?  As it happens, Borges (being Borges) has a great deal of fun embedding the taxonomy in a series of attributions and “attributions.” Here’s a taste:

Let us consider the eighth category, the category of stones. Wilkins divides them into common (silica, gravel, schist), modics (marble, amber, coral), precious (pearl, opal), transparent (amethyst, sapphire) and insolubles (chalk, arsenic). Almost as surprising as the eighth, is the ninth category. This one reveals to us that metals can be imperfect (cinnabar, mercury), artificial (bronze, brass), recremental (filings, rust) and natural (gold, tin, copper). Beauty belongs to the sixteenth category; it is a living brood fish, an oblong one.

These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

The Bibliographic Institute of Brussels exerts chaos too: it has divided the universe into 1000 subdivisions, from which number 262 is the pope; number 282, the Roman Catholic Church; 263, the Day of the Lord; 268 Sunday schools; 298, mormonism; and number 294, brahmanism, buddhism, shintoism and taoism. It doesn’t reject heterogene subdivisions as, for example, 179: “Cruelty towards animals. Animals protection. Duel and suicide seen through moral values. Various vices and disadvantages. Advantages and various qualities.”

Just wait ‘til Windschuttle finds out where Freud got all that Oedipus stuff from!

Have fun with the new blogroll, everyone, and give many thanks and sucking pigs to Kurt.  Anyone who wishes to question his or her classification and seek reassignment may direct a Petition of Appeal to the Emperor.  The Emperor is, however, a very busy man, and may not be able to see you right away.

Posted by Michael on 03/19 at 01:40 PM
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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Madness II

Very very dedicated readers of this blog will remember that I am mediocre at best when it comes to predicting the outcome of these NCAA basketball tournament things, and that I am a singularly ungracious loser to boot.  However, because it is rumored that there are some college basketball teams in the Research Triangle Park area, I stopped into a Chapel Hill bar last night and watched a couple hundred people go very, very quiet during the second half of the UNC-Murray State game.  Murray State, you’ll recall, is one of those perennially dangerous first-round teams, partly because no one can remember where they’re from.  That makes them very hard to locate when you’re trying to box ‘em out.  (In fact, almost forty percent of Americans are unable to locate a state named Murray on the map.) I did not endear myself to the locals by yelling every few minutes, “Go Murray State Salukis!  Lose by merely two or three in the final moments!” (And yes, I know that they’re not the Salukis.  Southern Illinois are the Salukis.  Murray State are the Erasers.) Maybe that’s why everyone was so quiet!

Anyway, I am getting crushed like a bug in the Atlanta bracket, where I picked UNC-Wilmington to beat a questionable George Washington squad who turned out not to be that questionable, picked Syracuse to “have momentum” rather than to “be exhausted,” believed that the Salukis (ahem) would upset the Mountaineers, failed to foresee Northwestern State (traditional crosstown rivals of Northwestern) upending Iowa, and, in a self-inflicted wound, picked Iona over LSU just for the hell of it.  However, to my credit, I do have George Mason over Michigan State in the Washington bracket, though I marred that one by getting a little upset-happy and picking Utah State over Washington and Seton Hall over Wichita State as well.  Like everybody else in the world, I went with Montana over Nevada in the Minneapolis bracket because it was a deadly 5-12 matchup (see Utah State-Washington, above), and I almost almost almost picked UW-Milwaukee, where I have some friends, over Oklahoma, where I have some other friends.  I also almost went with Alabama over Marquette in the Oakland wing (I’m sorry to report to Oaktown Girl that I had the NC State Wolfpack beating Cal’s Bears of Gold in the Atlanta bracket, though), and I do not care that Bradley beat Kansas last night because I have Pitt beating Kansas on Sunday anyway.

Overall, I’m 22-10 for the first two days.  Here’s hoping that Boston College smelled the Pacific coffee and is all ready for next week’s upset of Villanova.  And go Illini, beat Washington, and then lose to Connecticut by only two or three!

UPDATE:  Dammit, Illini, I said lose to Connecticut by only two or three.

UPDATE MARCH 19:  OK, be honest now—who had George Mason meeting Wichita State in the sweet 16?

Posted by Michael on 03/18 at 12:13 PM
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Friday, March 17, 2006


Last week I bought a copy of Entertainment Weekly at one of Durham’s fine supermarkets (not Whole Foods, which gives me chest pain, and which one of my friends calls “Whole Paycheck”).  It was the March 10 issue with the Sopranos on the cover, and I got it because I foolishly believed that my apartment has HBO and that I’d settle in on Sunday night with the Sopranos.  Imagine my dismay last Sunday evening when I suddenly realized that I’d waited twenty-one months for the Sopranos’ final season only to wind up in a one-month rental apartment with no way of watching the show—for I seem to live in a neighborhood where there are no local bars with HBO either.  (Though if there are Sopranos fans in the area, I’ll be more than happy to visit your house on Sundays and give motivational speeches to your children!  I’ll tell them I live in a van down by the river!)

But that’s not why I’m a-bloggin’ today.  I’m a-bloggin’ because that issue of EW has a moderately fun article on the 25 worst movie sequels ever made.  Take it away, Chris Nashawaty:

25.  The Matrix Reloaded
24.  The Next Karate Kid
23.  Porky’s II: The Next Day
22.  Teen Wolf Too
21.  Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde
20.  The Godfather Part III
19.  Revenge of the Nerds III: Nerds in Paradise
18.  Battle for the Planet of the Apes
17.  Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
16.  Ocean’s Twelve
15.  Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd
14.  Conan the Destroyer
13.  The Sting II
12.  Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
11.  Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights
10.  Jaws: The Revenge
9.  Speed 2: Cruise Control
8.  Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan
7.  The Fly II
6.  Weekend at Bernie’s II
5.  Batman and Robin
4.  Blues Brothers 2000
3.  Leprechaun: Back 2 Tha’ Hood
2.  Caddyshack II
1.  Staying Alive

OK, most of these are classic stinkers, but I have two questions.  One, who the hell cares about sequels to Porky’s or Leprechaun or Conan the Barbarian or Weekend at Bernie’s?  Shouldn’t the original be minimally watchable and/or important if the sequel is to be among the 25 worst (let alone the top ten)?  And two, where in the world are The Two Jakes and 2010: The Year We Make Contact? Talk about sequels that crapped all over sublime originals: who can forget Jake walking past an ATM—in 1948?  Or Dr. Chandra’s immortal line, “Whether we are based on carbon or silicon makes no fundamental difference. We should each be treated with appropriate respect”?  Surely there should be a separate category for terrible sequels like these that appear sixteen, seventeen years after their originals.  Which brings me to Terminator 3, which not only undid one of the world’s best sequels after a thirteen-year lag but consigned the talented Clare Danes to the outer darkness as well.  Where’s the hate for Terminator 3?  And I suppose there’s no Blair Witch 2 here because of the Blair Witch backlash.  Wel, I hear that the cool kids are saying that the Blair Witch backlash is so over.

I mean, come on, Entertainment Weekly, you’re supposed to be an “entertainment” “weekly.” You should certainly be able to identify those films that violate the very principle of entertainment.  But then, if you’re not up to the task, my readers are.  That’s today’s Arbitrary but Fun task, folks:  Sequels that Violate the Very Principle of Entertainment!

Have an entertaining weekend, everyone.  And may one or two of the local basketball teams around here enjoy some moderate success in that tournament thing of theirs.

Posted by Michael on 03/17 at 09:03 AM
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