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Archive for January 2011

classrooms without teachers

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From the NYT today.

Resolution: I will stop using the Sainsbury’s self-checkout machines, even if I finally have snooped the code that allows me to buy booze without waiting for “approval” from the employees. Here’s for maintaining the inefficiencies (and employment) involved in Actually Existing Human Presence!

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January 18, 2011 at 9:27 am


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… can be slightly depressing at times. What saves it only is the fact that the chicken bits die daily for our sins.

Or I could make a Septimus Smith joke here. Tough call.

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January 18, 2011 at 9:10 am

Posted in london

“not an option”

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Laurie Penny, in an ad for a researcher on her site:

I wish I could afford to pay the living wage for this rather than just minimum wage, but that’s not an option for me at the moment.

Malcolm Grant, UCL provost, responding to the queries of The Evening Standard a few months ago:

I am advised that paying contract cleaners the living wage would cost UCL £500,000 to £1 million a year. That’s a big slug. And what I haven’t got is a spare £1 million, okay?

Hmmm… I’m telling you, watch. Cultivating one’s own garden the right way and with the gardeners at the right wage isn’t the only thing, but given the parameters of the situation, it’s a big thing. And the fact that she runs around London telling people that she’s going to be “the next Christopher Hitchens” (?!?) is pretty much all the entrails inspection we need on this one…

(via oy….)

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January 18, 2011 at 8:20 am

Posted in grub

the vicissitudes of branding, abs, etc

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I’ll admit, in the wake of my time spent with the Occupations, my reaction to an article like this has tilted from enthusiasm to skepticism. Lovely to have encounters with students who dramatically change one’s mind, or at least render one’s solid and potentially writeable ideas complex and ambivalent.

In a similar light, check this ridiculousness out from The Daily Mail. Late to it, I am, but it’s rather hilarious. And make me even more determined to start doing my sit-ups in the morning etc.

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January 17, 2011 at 4:41 pm

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second person – stub post

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In my (contractually limited) fictional endeavors, I find myself falling as if automatically into the second person. The damned you. We all know that this is a more than problematic form, as presumptuous as it is claustrophobic… Wish I could kick the habit.

But on the other hand… And I’m not saying that I’m exactly getting this all the way through at the moment… Another way to look at the second person voice is that it it is a potentially destabilizing, dislocating intensification of the basic presumptions of normative bourgeois fiction, which despite the fact that it’s generally written in the third or, increasingly, the first person, always inevitably involves a sense that you, you normative but cosmopolitan bourgie reader, are right here along for the ride, an acceptable overseer of these sorts of occurrences, situations, affairs. You belong in Ian McEwan’s sitting room or bedroom, or, in a touristical mode, wherever else that the humanitarian aid-working forces of fiction might bring you.

The second-person voice has the potential to render all of this rather uncomfortably close. This is what we might call the political unconscious of agents’ and editors’ resistance to the form. It’s less salable because less readable because it presents itself, self-consciously, as the locked box of bourgie subjectivity that fiction is meant to permit us to inhabit but only ever without letting us see the walls of the cage that we, as we scroll through in our hardbacks or Kindle versions, are currently in.

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January 15, 2011 at 3:31 pm

“mass intellectualism from birth to death”

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Interesting, encouraging piece in the Times Higher Education about socialist education in Venezuela:

To counter this, one of 21st-century socialism’s central features is the extended role of the educative society, accompanied by mass intellectualism from birth to death (Chávez has described Venezuela as “a giant school”). A central objective of this is to develop the conditions for the production of autonomous and relevant ideas for the development needs of the majority of Venezuelans. It is also a means to overcome the traditional division of labour present within Venezuelan society and politics, in which there were thinkers (the dominant economic and intellectual elite) and doers (those who produced, yet were unable to control or receive the fruits of production).

Such educative processes are clearly apparent in the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV), where one of us taught. As part of a major attempt to extend access to higher education, UBV is free to all students and seeks to fundamentally challenge the elitism of many traditional universities. Social justice and equality are at the core of its educational content and delivery, and all courses taken there use Participatory Action Research methodology – a multidisciplinary approach linking theory and practice. PAR methodology bases UBV students in their local communities, working on community projects that form a core part of their formal studies.

Mission Sucre is another example of 21st-century socialism’s democratisation of higher education. The programme provides free, ongoing education to the 2 million adult Venezuelans who had not completed their elementary schooling under the old system. The Mission is an attempt to popularise, reform and expand Venezuelan higher education beyond its traditional elitist role. The programme is geared especially towards the most marginalised segments of society and is based in their communities, embedding education in the concrete needs and desires of Venezuela’s poor majority. Yet many professors among the traditional intellectual elite in Caracas’ main universities have refused to go to the barrios to teach in the Mission.

On the other hand, here’s what’s going on in the UK (and part of what I was talking about here…)

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January 14, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Posted in academia, chavez, socialism

what novels are for (according to conservative columnists)

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Slightly unfair to throw one columnist’s words from 2011 up against another’s from 1988. But this is, it seems to me, interesting to think about. Ross Douthat today in the NYT:

But chances are that Loughner’s motives will prove as irreducibly complex as those of most of his predecessors in assassination. Violence in American politics tends to bubble up from a world that’s far stranger than any Glenn Beck monologue — a murky landscape where worldviews get cobbled together from a host of baroque conspiracy theories, and where the line between ideological extremism and mental illness gets blurry fast.

This is the world that gave us Oswald and Bremer. More recently, it’s given us figures like James W. von Brunn, the neo-Nazi who opened fire at the Holocaust Museum in 2009, and James Lee, who took hostages at the Discovery Channel last summer to express his displeasure over population growth. These are figures better analyzed by novelists than pundits: as Walter Kirn put it Saturday, they’re “self-anointed knights templar of the collective shadow realm, not secular political actors in extremis.”

George Will in 1988 on Don DeLillo’s Libra, via here, and its presentation of Lee Harvey Oswald:

DeLillo says he is just filling in “some of the blank spaces in the known record.” But there is no blank space large enough to accommodate, and not a particle of evidence for, DeLillo’s lunatic conspiracy theory. In the book’s weaselly afterword, he says he has made “no attempt to furnish factual answers.” But in a New York Times interview he says, “I purposely chose the most obvious theory because I wanted to do justice to historical likelihood.”

History, says a DeLillo character, is “the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” Of course. “They.” That antecedentless pronoun hants the fevered imaginations of paranoiacs. For conspiracy addicts like DeLillo, the utter absence of evidence, after 25 years of search, proves not that there was no conspiracy but that the conspiracy was diabolically clever.

It is well to be reminded by books like this of the virulence of the loathing some intellectuals feel for American society, and of the frivolous thinking that fuels it.

Of course, neither of them are wrong about what novels generally and reflexively do when it comes to ethical questions. Contextualization and the relativism that comes of it, speculation to fill in the holes in the story where the assignment of goodness or evilness might otherwise fill the blank – all very much a part of the game, and you basically have to derange the form a bit in order to do otherwise with them.

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January 10, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Posted in america, novel, Politics


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Full disclosure: I used to play softball with one of the authors of the book I’m about to discuss. And, further, I don’t have it on hand yet – it’s supposed to be delivered today or at least soon so I hope to read it on the plane to LA (for the MLA, that is the naughty-sounding LAMLA) tomorrow. But here’s a paragraph from David Brooks’s recent column focused on Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s new book, All Things Shining.

Spiritually unmoored, many people nonetheless experience intense elevation during the magical moments that sport often affords. Dreyfus and Kelly mention the mood that swept through the crowd at Yankee Stadium when Lou Gehrig delivered his “Luckiest Man Alive” speech, or the mood that swept through Wimbledon as Roger Federer completed one of his greatest matches.

The most real things in life, they write, well up and take us over. They call this experience “whooshing up.” We get whooshed up at a sports arena, at a political rally or even at magical moments while woodworking or walking through nature.

Dreyfus and Kelly say that we should have the courage not to look for some unitary, totalistic explanation for the universe. Instead, we should live perceptively at the surface, receptive to the moments of transcendent whooshes that we can feel in, say, a concert crowd, or while engaging in a meaningful activity, like making a perfect cup of coffee with a well-crafted pot and cup.

We should not expect these experiences to cohere into a single “meaning of life.” Transcendent experiences are plural and incompatible. We should instead cultivate a spirit of gratitude and wonder for the many excellent things the world supplies.

It’s probably not all that fair to blame them for it, but it is a bit worrisome to write a (semi-)scholarly book that David Brooks finds “marvelous and important.” But there’s something more interesting to say about it than that (and again – I haven’t read it yet, will do so soon, so take all of this with more than a margarita glass-lip of salt….) So… it sounds a bit, at least in Brooks summary, that Dreyfus and Kelly have written a book in the Alain de Botton mold – a popularizing work of philosophy cum literary reference. Nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with trying to reach a wider audience.

But one of the major modernist (sort of small m modernist, perhaps slightly larger than completely lower case – know what I mean?) reflexes in literary studies, a deep brain reflex that all of us who work on novels and poetry possess no matter what we work on, is a reflex that resists transcendence, heart-flutter, escape from the everyday. From Flaubert and Baudelaire forward, and especially through the generation of the 1920s, we have been trained to be suspicious of the epiphanic. Or at least we resist valorizing it as a moment of authenticity. Philosophers, on the other hand, from the one on the airport bookshop shelf to Alain Badiou, can’t quite get away from the reiterative valorization of this sort of “transcendent whoosh,” even if the terms that they use to describe it are altogether different. We smell, as did our literary forebearers, bad poetics at play and with them – often enough – bad politics. Or at least I do. And so to my mind it’s no wonder that a pseudo-literary, pseudo-philosophical “thinking man’s conservative” hack like David Brooks would pick up on All Things Shining as his high-brow guidebook to our age, even if he does at least register later in his column the deeply worrying thing about this sort of narrativization of meaning:

I’m not sure this way of living will ever prove satisfying to most readers. Most people have a powerful sense that there is a Supreme Being over us, attached to eternal truths. Though they try, Dreyfus and Kelly don’t give us a satisfying basis upon which to distinguish the whooshing some people felt at civil rights rallies from the whooshing others felt at Nazi rallies.

Yep – that’s the sort of complication that we literary types have a hard time moving past with a shrug. Anyone who has spent time, say, in the old Yankee Stadium bleachers can easily understand both the heartpounding excitement of the experience… as well as the fact that it feels not a horribly long stroll away from the Nuremberg rally.

Anyway, I’ll try to read the book on the plane today if my copy arrives and say more – I admit it’s unfair to critique the book through Brooks rendition of it…

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January 5, 2011 at 3:03 pm

the dysfunction of criticism today

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This weekend, the NYT Books Section ran a six-essay feature on “Criticism,” complete with an introductory note about the canonical works in the genre that they had in mind when they came up with the idea:

The inspiration for the six essays anchoring the Book Review this week was Alfred Kazin’s polemic “The Function of Criticism Today,” written in 1960 (and published in Commentary). But Kazin belongs to a long tradition of critics who have cast a keen eye over their vocation. In fact, Kazin’s essay echoes T. S. Eliot’s “Function of Criticism,” published in 1923, which itself echoed Matthew Arnold’s celebrated “Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” written in 1864.

The sadly hilarious thing about the feature, however, is how far short the commentators – as well as the weekly reviews that show up in the NYTBR – fall from the ideals established in the cited examples. There’s something interestingly symptomatic about just how this happens as well. While Kazin’s essay aims in the direction of futurity, activeness rather than passivity, and the engaged spread of writing about art into writing about “the age,” the showcased critics in the Times are caught in one posture or other of chastened retreat. Here are a few snips from Kazin (whose essay is partially viewable for free here):

[T]he most obvious thing about criticism in America today is that it is not consciously related to any literary movement. It does not consciously work toward a future. Look at much of the criticism that concentrates on Joyce, Eliot, Faulkner, Stevens. Are these essays written so as to suggest new possibilities for art, to welcome new writers, or are they written to explain a point in Ulysses that no one else has mentioned?


The trouble with all of us who teach and explain so much of modern literature is that we are too far from the kind of historical confidence, the élan, the historical swagger, that made it possible.


We must practice criticism on the older writers lest they harden into the only acceptable writers. We must learn to practice criticism on the newer writers in order to bind them more truly to our own experience. We must practice criticism on our age while it is still here to show us its possibilities.

So what do we get now, today, in the Times? We get, for instance, Stephen Burn urging a sort of strategic retreat in the face of Amazon reader reviews:

The culture is what it is — messy and multi-valent, open to a certain range of entertainments and cultural expressions — and the critic’s yearning to dominate a larger audience is an index of the extent to which he or she finds the critical task insufficient in itself. Stepping aside from the culture of opinion, delving deeper into open-minded analysis, critics might fulfill their most important function: locating major works that are not always visible in mainstream networks.

Or we get Katie Roiphe, queen of the attention-garnering and offensive polemic, raising the extremely controversial point that literary criticism should be written well.

If the critic has to compete with the seductions of Facebook, with shrewdly written television, with culturally relevant movies — with, in short, every bright thing that flies to the surface of the iPhone — that’s all the more reason for him to write dramatically, vividly, beautifully, to have, as Alfred Kazin wrote in 1960, a “sense of the age in his bones.” The critic could take all of this healthy competition, the challenge of dwindling review pages, the slash in pay, as a sign to be better, to be irreplaceable, to transcend.

OK. Well. The assembled critics oscillate, as they would, between seeing the iPad and iPod, Facebook and Twitter, as threats to the business or spurs to its salvation, as they would in true NYT featurese argot. Perish the thought that one could write a culturally focused piece in this paper at this time that didn’t thread everything through an advertisement or anti-advertisement for ereaders. If they were to look back at the Kazin essay, and the others mentioned in the introductory piece, they’d find that while many of the canonical critics register in passing the same anxieties about the future of literature as an enterprise, the real issue at hand – and what they to a one duck – is the issue of engagement, the appropriate ends of criticism.

Whatever its cultural centrality – and there’s more for me to say about how I think we should simultaneously keep the issue of cultural centrality, well, central and ignore it altogether at the same time – literary criticism and the forms of criticism that can branch out from and be informed by it are ripe for renewal. We are in a period of flux – political culture, and in particular the left, is in a state of potentially highly productive disarray. Because literature and art more generally is notoriously (or, at least it should be notorious) resistant to dogmatic analysis, it can provide both a school for thinking through problem and solution sets that flicker dimly on the horizon, somewhere on the other side of the river of conventional wisdom, however refined. If only the better papers would see that this could be the case; if only those who could or even would would find the courage – and not all that much is needed – to take up Kazin’s “historical confidence, the élan, the historical swagger.”

I’ll try to say more about how I think this might be possible in the near term….


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January 4, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Posted in criticism, nyt