December 2009 Archives

Jerome Weeks and I have been having a competition over the past year to see who can blog less. It was pretty close there for a while, but at this point I have to throw in the towel.

Our blogs are both listed on the Arts Journal homepage under the heading of "publishing," which I have found slightly depressing to consider because there is really no way that Quick Study can be considered as "covering" that topic -- or anything in particular, really. This is just a scrapbook of some kind. Or conversely, part of the Internet's gigantic plot to get me to write for free.

Of course, we're both products of a tradition, if not a vocation, in which writing for free is regarded as proof of being a blockhead. The shifts in the economics and topography of the media landscape over the past decade have changed a lot of things. But not that, I suspect.

The idea that new media has somehow abolished the old hierarchical structuring of the field (making everything level and equal and rhizomatic and whatnot) is only half right, at best. The hierarchies aren't as well-marked as they used to be but they aren't gone. Talk of an "army of amateurs" is at this point persuasive only to people who enlist without paying any attention to the fine print.

Jerome is in charge of Art and Seek, the local cultural-news site for the public broadcasting station in Dallas. I'm coming up on five years of doing a weekly column for an online publication that is growing even faster than its print-based competitor is losing subscribers. I'm pretty sure the reason he is winning this contest is that he is just too busy even to remember that he has a blog.

Which is creditable. It is easy not to be a blockhead when you are being diligent. For my part, however, I must admit that over the past two years I have spent an altogether ridiculous amount of time thinking about blogging and not-blogging, about writing in general and not writing certain things in particular, etc.

Of course having regular deadlines puts a limit on just how much rapture-of-the-deep stuff you can indulge in. Nor has this musing been totally fruitless. Some of it ended up as part of my talk at the University of Iowa this fall. For the most part, though, I've just piled up notes on the situation from time to time, then turned to whatever work was at hand.

But given that my day job involves writing whatever I want -- about whatever I want, pretty much, which is nice work if you can get it -- the tendency to wonder about these things is always there. The problem is inscribed within my circumstances. As is the survivor guilt, which is another story.

The ability to shift among different registers (formal, informal, journalistic, essayistic, cross-referential, fragmentary, serial, etc.) is part of doing a column. It is also part of blogging. Still, writing a column and writing a blog post are very different things -- and not just because one of them pays the bills (that, too).

Caleb Crain's book is proof that the gap can be narrowed. But my experience of the past two years has been exactly the opposite -- that ever more space has opened up between blogging and "real writing," so that I've seldom even bothered to use Quick Study to point its four readers to my new work as it appears. This isn't a matter of diffidence. It's a matter of going, "Eh. maybe later" and then usually finding that there is something more urgent to do.

But beyond that level -- the strictly subjective part -- there has been the continuing problem of not knowing how to think about the changing configuration of writer and audience that makes up the different dimensions of public space.

I used to think I had some kind of feel for this, or at least that it was possible to do so. That is no longer the case. In fact it hasn't been for a while -- five or six years, at least. It raises all kinds of problems that aren't, strictly speaking, mine. I've read Lippmann and Dewey and Habermas and it's just not that useful anymore. (Nor is Goffman when you get right down to it.) And I'm sure as hell not coming up with anything on my own.

Now, arguably, none of this would be a problem for someone who had no experience of the "old regime" -- someone who took the pace and the texture of online communication, not as a supplement to writing, but as its always-given precondition.

Short of some kind of brain surgery I don't really have that option. At the same time, nostalgia isn't appealing. Nor is survivalist retreat, "going off the grid."

I just wish the grid were not so damned non-Euclidean, if that's how to put it -- one new coordinate system after another, each one with some new axiom that warps the rest.

My gut sense is that things have actually stabilized somewhat. It might be possible to start thinking more strategically about how to work amidst the existing structures, such as they are.

That may be cusp-of-the-decade optimism and nothing more. We'll see. It may even be that there are advantages to working within a medium without being quite "of" it. How many times have I vowed to stop writing with a pen? Well, forget it. You use the tools you need to use, to make whatever sense of the world you have to make.
December 30, 2009 10:39 AM | | Comments (1)
Back from Dallas...Now facing sundry deadlines, and a giant stack of incoming books, plus a certain amount of housekeeping. But at least I don't have to go to MLA.

This is the first time I haven't attended in five years -- and the last one to be held under the old system of scheduling it for the final week of the year. MLA '09 will be followed by MLA '11. And so MLA'10 will vanish, like a yacht of the damned in the Bermuda Triangle.

I'll miss some things, to be sure....It is often necessary to open a conference paper with some provisional notes towards a prolegomenon to the fundamental methodological questions that would first need to be addressed before beginning to frame whatever argument one supposes it might be possible to consider making, were there only enough time.

Of course, such things happen in print as well. You can skip the first dozen or so pages of some authors, confident that they will be taken up with little else but throat-clearing noises. (I recall that Walter Benjamin jokes about this somewhere, but then if Benjamin showed up at MLA in person people would snub him for not having the right sort of convention ID.)  But there's really no substitute for witnessing the learned gurgle in person. Authority is performative. A lot depends on deep, full-bodied resonance.

Meanwhile, the sidewalks of my neighborhood are largely empty, as if some kind of inverse rapture has occured, spiriting away all the servants of the Great Beast. It's cold, too. The snow from last weekend is still piled up on the street corners -- melt, freeze, melt, freeze. It seems like this could be elaborated into some kind of allegorical emblem of my experience over the past decade, but I should probably do the laundry instead. And reread Trotsky's Literature and Revolution while I'm at it. The chance to do this is pretty sweet, given the alternative I'm dodging. 
December 28, 2009 10:56 AM | | Comments (2)
I am constantly surprised by how often people end up at this blog while searching either "Baudrillard for dummies" or "Victorian porn." Not a majority of visitors in either case -- not even close -- but enough to notice.

Seldom do more than a few days go by without such a visitor. It must be a disappointment when people get here and don't find what they want. I suppose this post will only make things worse.

December 22, 2009 10:06 AM | | Comments (0)
Phil Nugent on the late Rev. Roberts:

Oral actually came from, and always kept one foot in, an older tent show tradition, and though he went into TV and used it as a money-raising tool with a vengeance, he was always a lot weirder, and, I suspect, considerably more sincere in his beliefs than people like the bullying demagogue Falwell or Jim and Tammy when they were on their crusade to make everything nice-nice.... As a Pentecostal, Oral spoke in tongues, praying every day with his wife in a mysterious, divinely inspired language that was half Captain Beefheart, half Teletubbies, usually delivered in the lyrical tones of someone who's just caught his dick in his zipper. Oral, who gave himself over to God after he had been divinely cured of what some back country sawbones had diagnosed as a terminal case of TB, was ten years into his preaching career when he found that he himself had the power to heal the sick and raise the dead with his right hand. Oral, who wrote autobiographies like Li'l Wayne drops mixtapes, was given to reminiscing about the many times that he resurrected dead people at his live shows. You might wonder what the dead people were doing there, but it seems that, perhaps because of his awesome charisma, adults and children had a startling tendency to breathe their last while he was onstage. Oral once explained that he hated to show off like that but that having someone drop dead in the middle of a show can be very distracting and that he found it necessary to resurrect them so that he could continue to deliver the Lord's word.

December 21, 2009 11:56 AM | | Comments (0)
My article on Ayn Rand appeared on Friday in The National, a newspaper published in Abu Dhabi.

In her forties, Rand began an affair with Nathaniel Branden, a disciple half her age. That, too, was a matter of pure reason and absolute knowledge in action. She insisted on explaining this to her husband and to her lover's spouse. During the same period Rand was using amphetamines, which tend to make everything seem like a good idea.

December 20, 2009 9:44 PM | | Comments (0)
Quick Study feeds into my Facebook account -- and so does my Twitter presence, episodic as it, too, has been. The Venn diagram covering their respective audiences is hard to picture. I'm not enough of a luddite to refuse to try such things out. But the need for more experience in this department is not a crying one. Let's hope that the age of innovation in brand-named new-media identity-syndication systems is now drawing to a close.

In any case, a new application on Facebook creates a collage of sorts out of randomly selected "status updates" from the past year. Looking over the result, I see that it contains a couple of sentences crystallizing out my basic attitude towards life online:

Appreciating the deep inner motivations of a feces-throwing monkey is arguably less important than knowing when to duck.

I just became a "fan of Theodor Adorno" on Facebook. All things considered, it's for the best he is not around to know about this.

For twenty-four years now I've been writing for publication. The first half of that period, I never did so online. (It went without saying that everything I wrote was for "print publications." The very expression would have seemed ridiculous.) In the dozen years since first taking that step, writing directly online only became part of my routine over the past six. Ambivalence towards the medium seems like the necessary and rational response to it. I tried to discuss this during my talk at the University of Iowa a couple of months ago -- or at least to sketch out some of the grounds for that ambivalence -- but that effort was much too provisional and elliptical. Need to develop this in writing before long. The problem being that ambivalence can make for paralysis.

Insofar as Quick Study has had a dominant theme for the past two years, that would be it -- a sense of approaching and avoiding the question of how to deal with an environment for writing that keeps changing, so that assessment of it potentials (good and bad) keeps falling short of coming to terms with the actuality of mess. But clearly "duck and cover" won't be a sufficient strategy for the long term. What is blogging (for)? That's not even the main question at this point. Maybe more like: What are the enabling conditions of being a certain kind of writer? Do they still exist?

I've been trying to think about this for a while now but it feels like running into a wall. Just walking around it does not seem to be an option.
December 20, 2009 4:00 PM | | Comments (0)

Via the reliably unpredictable BLCKDGRD, a song that fuses Gang of Four sensibility with Phil Spector production values and is now stuck in my head for the duration:

I just can't help believing though believing sees me cursed
For belief ignores the heathen's day by day sigh 'even worse'
But for all we are receiving, there's an even key to turn
You are the generation that bought more shoes and you get what you deserve

According to this blog, the song came out in 2004. That makes it all the more perfect to sum up a whole period between the no longer and the not yet.

December 18, 2009 1:06 PM | | Comments (0)
Last year, I wrote a piece about the widespread tendency to treat each decade as if it had a distinct character or quality, and about the problem this causes given the lack of a commonly accepted way to refer to the present decade. The discussion spilled over into a second column.

Well, more than 18 months later, it seems that nothing much has changed. The topic has just come up at the U.S Intellectual History blog. I suppose something will crystallize out eventually but that won't be well into the 'Teens.

(Crossposted to Cliopatria)
December 16, 2009 1:17 PM | | Comments (1)
It wasn't possible to shoehorn it into this week's column, but for me one of the surprises of The Last Interview was when BolaƱo named the influences on (or inspirations for) Nazi Literature in the Americas -- and it turned out Danilo Kis was not among them. I always assumed A Tomb for Boris Davidovitch was near the top of the list.

This seems like a good occasion to link to Rich Byrne's essay on Kis. So there you go.

December 16, 2009 12:15 PM | | Comments (0)
Clearing my Bloglines account just now (scanning dozens of feeds, and closing a few of them down) I see that someone has put the following message in a bottle and thrown it into the digital ocean:

Ressentiment is a reassignment of the pain that accompanies a sense of one's own inferiority/failure onto an external scapegoat. The ego creates the illusion of an enemy, a cause that can be "blamed" for one's own inferiority/failure. Thus, one was thwarted not by a failure in oneself, but rather by an external "evil."

That being the entirety of what appeared in the box on Bloglines. No need to click through to the original post, of course. Just quiet acknowledgment that the cosmos has a wicked sense of humor.
December 13, 2009 4:30 PM | | Comments (4)
Mark Athitakis has an excellent item on his blog about the news that Kirkus Reviews is shutting down. I am hoping we can get this crossposted to Critical Mass in a timely manner.

UPDATE: It's part of this roundup.

More: See also Conversational Reading.
December 11, 2009 11:48 AM | | Comments (0)
I look forward to Thursday because that is when the new issue of The Weekly Worker, published by the Communist Party of Great Britain, appears online.

Yesterday it did not go up. I can't tell if they are taking a break or if it's the result of another attack on the site. In any case, it gave me a chance to catch up on an article from the previous issue that I had not seen. It discusses some recent internal discussions of the CPGB, and includes the following passage high in the report:

Some comrades in internal discussion have raised the possibility of a change in emphasis in our paper - it has been suggested that perhaps we are concentrating too much on reporting on and polemicising against other sections of the left, or at least that we ought to state more clearly and more often the reasons for this concentration.
Now this is most troubling. I want to be perfectly clear. It is not possible for The Weekly Worker to "concentrat[e] too much on reporting on and polemicising against other sections of the left." That is the main reason -- often it is the only reason -- why anyone actually reads the Worker.

Of course I'm also interested in things such as the occasional article by Lars Lih or Hillel Ticktin, and the book reviews are sometimes interesting. But you can find such material elsewhere. They are not the reason to look forward to Thursday. And in saying this it is simply not possible that I am speaking for myself alone.

Comrades of the CPGB, you do not need "to state more clearly and more often the reasons for this concentration." We get it. Really, we do. In the words of Dirk Diggler, "Everyone has one special thing." You should be proud of this and not self-conscious about it.
December 11, 2009 11:15 AM | | Comments (0)
My interview with Bethanne Patrick about The Book Studio went up today at the National Book Critics Circle site -- at just about the time word came that Nielsen Business Media is shutting down Kirkus Reviews (among other changes).

Not to go overboard with linkage, it seemed best not to point readers at NBCC to this column about what Jerome Weeks is doing with Art & Seek at KERA in Dallas.

But the enterprises are similar enough that perhaps I should have. So there it is.

UPDATE: Also check out the spinoff "microsite" for KERA called Arts District, which seems to have come out of the same digito-genetic pool as Book Studio, design-wise. Seems like DC ought to have a publication called Arts District -- but Dallas beat us to it. How are we ever going to live that one down?
December 10, 2009 1:24 PM | | Comments (0)
My review of Cornel West's autobiography last week provoked a lot of discussion, well beyond anything I ever expected. (And more, it seems, than anything I have written in almost five years of doing Intellectual Affairs.) In today's column, I consider some of this -- and address, among other things, the question of whether I have a secret desire to send West a box of fried chicken.

ISome of West's earlier and more substantive work will be considered in the article promised in my talk on "C.L.R. James and African-American Liberation" during the summer.

I need to get back to work on it and not be distracted by chatter -- let alone by the sort of "literary streetfighting" that involves a seedy guy bludgeoning his own head with a thesaurus (to make the voices stop) and then bleeding all over me.

What a weird week.
December 9, 2009 6:52 AM | | Comments (8)
What is it like? It is like being urinated on by a small dog.*

Someone using Google would have little difficulty locating a blog post from yesteryear in which Ed Champion indicated that he admired my work. If I remember correctly it situated me alongside John Leonard in that regard. That was a bit excessive, and I have no difficulty imagining how my fellow Olympian would have laughed at it.

If memory also serves, all of this was before an election to the board of directors of the  National Book Critics Circle in which both Champion and McLemee were candidates.

That is not to say the rant reflects the outcome of that election. I'm just, you know, situating things in a chronology.

One other thing, regarding time. I find it very easy to go for months at a stretch without so much as remembering that Ed Champion exists, let alone thinking about him, much less reading him.

The converse does not appear to be the case.

* On reflection, there is another analogy. Ed Champion is the Rupert Pupkin of American literary journalism. This was like being an imaginary guest on his talk show.
December 7, 2009 7:30 AM | | Comments (3)
On Tuesday night, I went to the park across the street from the White House to join a protest against the Afghan "surge" that Obama was about to announce in a speech. Very few people turned out. There were maybe fifty or sixty, to use the full flexibility of the word "maybe." The speeches were sort of awful. I clapped and chanted and whatnot at various appropriate points. But the whole thing was lacking in spirit as well as numbers, and the thought of how hard it was going to be to build an antiwar movement under -- and against -- this president was burdensome.

It must be done. I will do my bit. But it will be like rolling a boulder uphill using plastic spoons to push it, and no getting around that. We must imagine Sisyphus in a suitable mood, because come on, this sucks.

The next day, my column about Cornel West's autobiography was published. The piece has gotten a lot of attention -- far more than I would have expected. I have more or less given up trying to "push" my work over the past couple of years. I just publish and that's that. It's possible to spend a lot of time trying to position oneself in the "market for attention" but I don't think any good can come of it. Instead, after the piece went up online, I was undertaking a marathon reading session to get through, in one day, the 400 page biography of someone who is fairly disagreeable. It was an okay book, and absorbing.

By contrast, while I have admired some of Cornel West's work, his latest was bitterly disappointing. I said so with some vigor. But that created a problem. For many people it seems that only two only two permissable (or at least intelligible) positions about Cornel West are possible. Either you believe that he is a singularly awesome freedom fighter whose every word is a tool in the struggle for human liberation, or else you think he is Al Sharpton plus Cliff's Notes.

Now, I do not believe either of these things, but nuance is not this medium's strong suit. Many people did seem to follow what I was getting at, so I can't complain too much. But there was a little tempest over what a terrible racist I am for having used the expression "to pop a cap in [someone's] ass." Actually that was in the context of making fun of Larry Summers and not Cornel West.

But there are people for whom verbal policing constitutes their entire experience of political activism, and this has given them something to do -- something very much easier than, say, making the argument that Cornel West's work has actually been getting better over time. You can't really blame them for doing the one thing they find convenient and possible.

Somewhat less easy to understand was some of the other discussion that went on. One person cited my reference to David Hume in the piece as "name dropping," which suggests that this person has no idea what the expression "name dropping" actually means. Either that, or that I am pictured as moving among the social circles of the illustrious dead.

Another person said that I wrote a "gossip column for the tweed set." This is no end of peculiar, not to say hopelessly stupid. I know no gossip and can't very well write any. I read a lot of academic books and write about them, but in terms of the personal lives or career dynamics of "the tweed set," my degree of access to inside dope is perhaps best summed up by the Homer Simpson line "Now wait -- Mel Brooks is Jewish?"

Oh well. Both parties had all the courage that goes with writing without signing your name, so I take it for precisely what it is worth.

And now -- while I have been in the middle of writing this entry -- a friend sends me a link which obliges a response.

Well, that's enough of the internet for a while. Now I have to go across town to sit in a room with other people trying to figure out what we can do to mobilize public opinion against the war. I am not optimistic. That doesn't matter very much, though, in the final analysis.
December 3, 2009 4:36 PM | | Comments (14)

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About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
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Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
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rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
State of the Art
innovations and impediments in not-for-profit arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
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Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
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Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
The Unanswered Question
Joe Horowitz on music

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
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