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December 17, 2007

Considerations on the Cultural History of the Top of My Head

Between overdue work and impending travel, this will probably be my last entry here until the new year. I would like to use it to invite any readers who will be at MLA in Chicago to get in touch. I'm expecting to meet a couple of people in person for the first time there, and to say hello again to a few others. My schedule is still pretty open, though I need to make definite plans over the next few days.

But first, I am going to blog about my hair.

When a marriage is well into its second decade (I proposed during the first Clinton inauguration, or rather amidst it) and it turns out there is something you can do that your spouse finds particularly appealing and attractive -- well, then it is undoubtedly a good thing not to take this for granted, and just to go along with it.

So it came to pass that, twice over the past eighteen months or so, I let my hair grow out. She likes this a lot. There are waves in my hair, it seems. I never would have noticed this, let alone regarded it as a good thing; but evidently so, in the eyes of the one whose opinion in this matters.

At some point along the way, usually around the seventh or eighth month, the effect has been rather like that associated with Bernard-Heni Lévy, the best-known member of the group from thirty years ago called the New Philosophers ("by a double antiphrasis," as Castoriadis once put it with a certain wicked economy):


Enough guys my age are going bald that, yes, there is a bit of will-to-power involved in this. But the whole thing goes against my nature. Over the next year, we're going to hear a lot more about the generation of '68 than anyone should have to do. But I am no hippy, nor was ever meant to be -- and sooner or later, the hair began to weigh on me, quite literally. It became distracting. My wife liked it, which was good; but she did not like the grumbling.

And so now, once again, I look like Soviet futurist poet Vladmir Mayakovsky:


This really is for the best. Of course, I might well think otherwise upon arriving in Chicago in the dead of winter, when the extra insulation could prove useful.

UPDATE: A concerned reader asks, "Did you keep the facial hair?" Yes, I did. So we're talking more or less a cross between Mayakovsky and Bukharin at this point.

Posted by smclemee at 9:26 AM | Comments (7)

December 14, 2007

This is Radio Schizo

I really like Oliver Sheppard's taste in noise. A while back, I came across an episode of Radio Schizo, his regular music podcast, that paid tribute to Killing Joke and bands influenced by KJ. Right this minute, I'm listening to another episode that opened with a Spanish band covering "Now I Wanna Be Your Dog."

Later, there's a cut by a band from the sixties called Stereo Shoestring that -- as the host points out -- sounds a bit Joy Divisionish.

Now, I've never heard of Stereo Shoestring, and chances are you haven't either; but there's no big display here of Sheppard making sure you know he's known about the band for years, and too bad for you that this is the first you've heard of it. He just plays the song and asks if listeners think there's a resemblance.


But then I lost track of Radio Schizo, partly because the show was webcast through MySpace, and my eyeballs just won't tolerate that kind of abuse. Now it's also available via Cultpunk, which goes into the blogroll here shortly. Check out the latest podcast here.

What I like about Shepphard's approach is that he clearly knows a lot about the underground rock scene but never comes off like the indie-rock snobs who are such a tiresome part of living here on the East Coast. (Oh, the rant in me, how it wells within.)

He goes about things with a certain generosity towards the audience -- mixing familiar stuff (the New York Dolls, say) with exotica, never pulling the old "this is an incredibly cool band that you will of course not know" bit, and at times displaying all due modesty about the very real likelihood that he's fallen out of touch interesting music that listeners might know.

A directory of previous episodes is available. I'm going to download a bunch of them to the iPod, once I figure out how to do that.

And please don't anyone tell me how easy that is. It'll seem easy once I've done it a couple of times. The heart sinks a little at ending up on this side of the learning curve, over and over again.

Posted by smclemee at 10:50 AM | Comments (1)

December 12, 2007

Archival Zotero-fication, or Possibly Vice Versa

I like Zotero a lot. It makes collecting and organizing material from research online much easier than it would be otherwise. Plus they sent me a t-shirt after my column about it appeared, which pretty much amounts for all the non-book-related swag to have arrived in 2007.

Still, I have been somewhat irregular about working with Zotero. Required to give a more or less sensible reason for this, I could say that it is a matter of waiting for the 2.0 version, none too patiently. But the really deciding factor is that I still use Netscape, which is proving less rational or defensible all the time. Shifting over entirely to Firefox (of which Zotero is a plug-in) seems like a good resolution for the new year.

One factor holding up the 2.0 version -- which will, it's said, allow people to share documents -- is the range of intellectual-property issues it would create. But at IHE this morning, Andy Guest reports that the Center for History and New Media is going ahead with the development of a Zotero archive into which scholars can deposit material, as long as it is public-domain.

In partnership with the Internet Archive, and with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the center is creating a way for scholars to upload existing data files to be optically scanned (to make them text-searchable) and stored in a database available to the public. Since only works in the public domain can be made available in that way, scholars will have to complete an online form with legal assurances.

The vehicle for the new environment will be the Zotero plug-in for the Firebox browser, also developed by the center. The software stores Web pages, collects citations and lets scholars annotate and organize online documents. A new feature of the plug-in will allow people to collaborate and share materials through a dedicated server. Building on that functionality, according to Cohen, the system will allow scholars to drag and drop documents onto an icon in Zotero that essentially sends it to the Internet Archive for storage and free optical character recognition.

This seems like a step forward. I guess the next big development will come when the Zotero people work out something with the 800-pound gorilla in the room, also known as JSTOR.

Posted by smclemee at 1:54 PM | Comments (2)

Starting Out in the Evening

I love Brian Morton's novel Starting Out in the Evening and am ambivalent about the film. On the one hand, I really don't like it all that much; the adaptation never even hints at many of the nuances there on the page, and it takes a couple of liberties that seem in poor taste.

On the other, if it doesn't get an Oscar nomination for Frank Langella, then I am going to lose all faith in the judgement of Hollywood phonies, and that is going to be a sad day.

But it was a happy one when Brian Morton agreed to the interview that runs in my column today.


(Photo of Frank Langella
playing Leonard Schiller
impersonating me in a few years)

Posted by smclemee at 9:45 AM | Comments (4)

December 9, 2007

The Class of '03

Ralph Luker points out today that the history group blog Cliopatria has just celebrated its fourth birthday. Or anniversary perhaps. I guess it depends on how you look at it.

CT passed the same marker in July, though it does not appear from the archives that anyone noticed at the time.

A slogan that used to appear at Technorati said something like: "There are 55 million blogs. Some of them have to be good." I never understood the logic of that. The idea that enough quantity is bound to produce some quality is not too rigorous, even by the standards of some blowhard quoting Anti-Duhring. Likewise, enduring for four years is no guarantee of anything either. But it's pretty remarkable, even so, especially given the hyper-ephemeral nature of this medium.

Cliopatria at its best has been an example of why those who denounce the entire blogosphere as a bunch of people wearing pajamas in their basements and whinging about American Idol are, themselves, pretty silly. Congratulations to Ralph and the other Cliopatricians (also to myself for the good luck of being one of them) and also, retroactively, to the Timberistas (and ditto).

(crossposted from CT)

Posted by smclemee at 8:15 PM | Comments (2)

When Attack Ads Attack

Found this via the comments at CT

Posted by smclemee at 12:12 PM | Comments (1)

December 8, 2007

Somebody's Had Too Much to Think

I like the studio version more, but seem not to have the album (one of my favorites in the early 1980s). Hint, hint.

The most striking thing about the video is the audience's response when the song is done: A few seconds of stunned silence before anyone claps.

Posted by smclemee at 3:13 PM | Comments (3)

December 7, 2007

And He Spake Unto Me, Saying....

I could do without hearing anything more about Mitt Romney for a while. That would be totally okay. And it seems reasonable to guess that in a few weeks my wish might just come true.

Come what may, though, I remain quite interested in the history of Mormonism. It's been a few years since I wrote a feature story called Latter-day Studies.

Along the way, I interviewed Wayne Booth. He was still at least nominally a Mormon, though it was pretty clear that the operative word there was "nominally."

He was very circumspect about saying anything tending the characterize what he did or did not believe about (let's put it this way) the relationship between sacred and profane history. In short, he didn't want to be excommunicated.

This has tended to color my reading of Booth's work ever since -- especially upon noticing that he had written a book called The Rhetoric of Irony. As well he might.....

Posted by smclemee at 10:35 AM | Comments (6)

Can Do

I have got to see this documentary:

The Pervert's Guide works best when Zizek treads lightly and moves nimbly, engaging in capsule analyses that offer opportunities for quasi-desultory philosophical speculation. Of David Fincher's Fight Club (1999), he wonders in regard to Edward Norton's self-flagellation if "in order to attack the enemy you first have to beat the shit out of yourself." And with respect to Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974), which Zizek discusses at some length while sitting, fully clothed, on a toilet, contemplating the flushing mechanism, he ponders the notion that "the eye is the window to the soul," asking: "But what if there is no soul? What if the eye is simply a window to the abyss of the netherworld?" At any given screening, half of those in attendance are likely to lean forward, trying to figure out where they stand on such conjectures, while the rest are likely to lean back, trying to figure out what Zizek is doing on the can.

Plenty more at N+1. I got a screener of Astra Taylor's documentary ages ago, but does anyone think to send a copy of this one? No, they do not.

To repeat something I've said before: It is time for someone to create the Zizek Movie Data Base. We have The Legend of Rita, a fictional film based on the Baader-Meinhof gang, arriving via Netflix in the next couple of days, and I have to think Zizek must have written about it somewhere. With ZMDB, it would be easy to find out.

Seriously, this seems like a good project for an honor's thesis in film and new media. Somebody should run with it.

Posted by smclemee at 7:27 AM

December 6, 2007

A Uniter, Not a Divider

Some of my friends who read this blog are gay. And some of my friends who read this blog like comic books. But so far as I know, the two demographics do not overlap. This is a cosmopolitan establishment; and to each, his or her own.

However, it seems as if this extensive rant-and-dialogue regarding gay comic book characters might close the gap.

It seems more pathetic than anything else. On the other hand, I've always thought Dr. Frederick Wertham was probably right about Batman and Robin.

via here

Posted by smclemee at 8:03 PM | Comments (2)

December 5, 2007

Around the Web

My column today at Inside Higher Ed is based on an informal survey of some academic bloggers who are part of my regular round of webcrawling.

I asked them to recommend the ones they liked, but that might not have very large audiences, even by the normal standards of the academic microblogosphere.

The results turned out well. Have a look.

Also: Glad to see that Critical Mass is spreading the word about the new feature at the Austin-American Statesman.

Posted by smclemee at 11:13 AM

December 4, 2007

My Hat ----> The Ring

To serve as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle sounds like whatever the exact opposite of a sinecure would be. Lots of work, no tangible reward.

The intangible rewards are enormous, however. Or so it has been said a number of times over the past few months by people trying to get me to consider running.

Now, I became an essayist and critic in order to become fabulously wealthy and powerful (which, for some reason, is not really working out very well) and so would prefer to think that there really are tangible rewards, and that everyone has just been very, very discrete about it.

Even if that turns out to be true, I suspect the swag will consist of free books. And heaven knows we don't have enough books around here.


But after declining when asked for the first time last year -- then dithering for the past few months -- I have submitted the statement necessary for candidates for the board. That decision was a matter of feeling both a kind of debt of gratitude for the Balakian Citation a few years ago and a sense that NBCC has become a national organization representing and acting in the interest of people in this line of work. Perhaps the latter has always been true, in principle. But now thanks largely to Critical Mass and to the initiative of outgoing president John Freeman, NBCC's presence seems much less tied and limited to New York. Where I do not live.

My statement will run in the next NBCC newsletter, and might be boiled down to:

"This is a great organization, but let's face the future by knocking off any posturing about how appearing in newsprint confers upon us a degree of profundity and lasting value that no blogger will ever attain, because come on, that's crap and we all know it; and if we never want to recruit smart young critics, we'll just keep indulging in it."

Not to deny the obvious reality that (1) working with an editor can be good for a writer in a multitude of ways and (2) the internet often seems like one big cultural affirmative-action program for the bellicose, the ignorant, and the deranged. But essentialism doesn't make much sense here. The gatekeeper function does not operate only in print media, nor do the latter automatically preclude malice and stupidity.

I suspect most of the bash-the-bloggers sentiment has reflected a kind of status anxiety (not that some bloggers haven't exhibited plenty of that at times).

And with that in mind, I will launch my bid by quoting (once again) from Wilfred Sheed's essay "The Politics of Reviewing":

No occupation designed for dim younger sons was easier to enter than book reviewing; or, once entered, easier to rise in. You go immediately to the top, it is the least you can ask.... So whatever politics a microscope may turn up in this game can have little to do with upward mobility. Since there is absolutely no way of not reaching the top -- and since the top proves to be so close to the bottom -- the satisfaction must be sought crabwise, foraging side to side, magazine to magazine; passing on the way other reviewers of similar, sometimes almost interchangable sensibility, who are lurching counterclockwise.

And lurching now in ways Sheed could not have imagined at the time.

As for a campaign slogan, I cannot do better than to quote what Kang said when debating Kodos during the 1996 election:

We must move forward... not backwards, not to the side, not forwards, but always whirling, whirling, whirling towards freedom.


Posted by smclemee at 11:49 AM | Comments (5)

December 3, 2007

Supersonic Sky Cycle

My feeling for the early 1970s comes from four distinct but somehow blended memories: Watergate, the energy crisis, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and Evel Knevel. The first three were in the papers and on the evening news -- while the latter was a presence looming in the daily conversation of any white boy in elementary school in Texas, even a bookish one. Evel, who died on Friday, was the bravest man in the world, or at least the most famous, which was almost the same thing, given the circumstances.

Naturally Phil Nugent says everything I could, and does it one better:

I grew up white trash in the 1970s, which means that I am among the select group that might be expected to be able to explain Evel Kneivel to the generations not then yet born. I'm not really sure that it can be done. I can say that for those of us who were of a certain age, the Snake River Canyon adventure on September 8, 1974 marked the first time we really grasped the concept of "hype," just as those a little older or a little younger figured it out with a little help from the Liz Taylor Cleopatra or Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The event was long in the planning and almost as long in the anticipatory trumpeting, though it's probably just a trick of the memory that I recall hearing about it while still in my mother's womb. (Or maybe not. Mom liked the TV on loud.) Evel a motorcycle daredevil by trade, announced that he would jump the canyon with a specially built "supersonic Sky Cycle", a phrase calculated to conjure the picture of some kind of bike in the mind's eye. In fact, the plan was to strap the man to a rocket, aim it at the other side of the canyon, and hope for the best. Reports indicate that Evel himself had given up hope of surviving the event by the time it came due but preferred certain death to giving back the money and enduring the jeers of the fans. (The kinks never got worked out prior to the actual attempt; after the first few tests failed, Evel decreed that there would be no more test runs because the actual reminders that he was a dead man walking were bumming him out.) Viewed today, the footage of the "jump" is like something from The Simpsons. To the screams of a desert full of excited, well-juiced fans, the rocket shoots up in a wobbly trajectory, then the chute unloads prematurely, and then you have forever to watch Evel slowly, slowly descend into the canyon, where he narrowly avoided landing upside down in the water and gurgling his last. Then the rescue team goes down to pick him up, the closed-circuit TV company that broadcast the great event killing time before the post-fiasco interview by letting people jam their faces into the camera babbling variations on, "He did it! He said he'd do it and he did it!" As Bill Clinton used to say, a lot depends on what your definition of "it" is.

More here.

Posted by smclemee at 7:10 AM