Oct 30, 2009
Tom Waits: We're all insects crawling on the shiny hood of a Cadillac
Ralph Ellison: What would America be without the Negros?
4,000-year-old skeleton, buried with dagger, unearthed
The secret origin of Stan Lee and the Marvel Universe
The dangerous Daniel Ellsberg (& the Pentagon papers)
Birther lawsuit unconstitutional, attempted overthrow
The RZA on the truth shall set you free from all things
'Mermaid girl' dies at age 10. May she rest in peace.
Malcolm Gladwell: Journalists must get smarter
The new but not really new Malcolm Gladwell
Not the Onion: Coyotes kill female folk singer
E.B. White: I hate the guts of English grammar
The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson 1
The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson 2
Fewer journalists to witness state executions
The conservative case against gay marriage
Secret service straining with rise in threats
Before Ira Glass, there was Charles Kuralt
Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis
Elie Wiesel to speak at anti-semite event
Republicans purge moderates in Florida
Richard Powers and patterns of uptalk
Sherman Alexie's advice: be nomadic
The Rosary: bringing it down to Earth
The anti-Nazi cleaning lady of Berlin
Why you should read Marcel Proust
Yale's intro to lit theory now online
Republicans purge moderates in NY
Exhibitionists living in glass house
The kinder, gentler James Ellroy
10 ways to reduce incarcerations
The Devil on This American Life
Distance and the author photo
Ad hominem Heidegger
Karl Barthes and the Nazis
Tom Waits talks to the CBC
R. Crumb talks about God
Introducing difficult books
The RZA talks to the NPR
Picturing the Depression
Newt Gingrich's game
Talking to Philip Roth
Bolano for beginners
Science in pictures
Black super heros
The last Yugoslav
Oct 27, 2009
Notes on honest language
1. There is, it seems, an internal contradiction in the Anglicans who are considering placing themselves under the auspices of Rome, in that they are schisming for more authority. This is not the most politically or religiously critical point opposing the conservative Anglicans or their possible place in the Roman Catholic Church, but I find the contradiction interesting & maybe, in a broader way, important.
Isn't it somewhat similar to the sort of radical, revolutionary things American conservatives have proposed, e.g., privatizing social security or abolishing the Department of Education, extreme & experimental things, in the name of conservatism & preserving a (fictional) traditional way of life?
Perhaps the Papal authority & Catholic orthodoxy is likewise a fiction, though the fantasy of an authoritarian, straight male Church has clearly driven some people to some weird measures. It is, it seems to me, schism in the name of authority, rebellion at perceived rebellion, & methodological apostasy conceived of as opposing an apostasy. The situation, I think, is one of holding orthodoxy as more important than charity, & imagined purity & homodoxy as more valuable than love, humility & respect. But there is, maybe esp., this problem of an internal contradiction & dishonesty.
2. The assassination of a leader, it seems to me, is an assertion of control against perceived chaos, an attempt to have control over a world that the assassin thinks should be, was, & would be under his control except for X, with X being whatever forces, personal or political, have broken & breached the dam of order & which will be affected, adjusted or corrected (at least symbolically) by the assassination. It is a response of fear to chaos, then, & an extreme attempt to regain control, motivated to some large extent by the fiction that control was once had.
This is also true of conspiracy theories about assassinations.
3. Why is it that certain fictions, esp. certain motivational fictions, can only function as fictions while concealing what they are?
My problem w/ motivational fictions in 1. and 2., above, is not that they're not true, but that they motivate to fear & violence. From that endpoint of recognizing & rejecting the fear & violence I see how poor -- how truly, horribly poverty stricken -- these fictions actually are. Part of that poverty, it seems to me, is the claim, or, even more, the need, for these fictions to be true.
There is a connection here to ideology & literalist readings, both of which must, to function, deny being fiction & conceal themselves esp. from themselves, adamantly & vigorously denying, for example, that a literalist interpretation of the Bible involves any interpretation at all.
4. There's something about technical language that "feels real." Evan Wright's work about the Marine's invading Iraq was praised for it's use of jargon, military acronyms, official names, etc., with that language connected to or even equated with authenticity & the feeling of "being there." David Foster Wallace often uses the same technique of technical writing, as for example in the short story "Mister Squishy," where he uses (or even deploys) the very technical language of marketing research to a) accurately represent the jargon-textured environment described, b) accurately represent the dense, inter-tangled, dialectical and deconstructioning reality of our, as Wallace might say, quote-unquote postmodern existence, & c) to give us, the readers, & also probably himself, the sense that the trick or manipulation of language is revealed as it's deployed (in contrast to the concealment & insistent denials of 3)) and is, therefore, esp. honest.
There is a strong sense in which this works. Technical language does give this feeling of reality and "being there." This is odd, tho., when juxtaposed with the very, very strong Anglo-American anti-jargon tradition. That tradition is so strong, cf George Orwell's Politics and the English Language or what he says about language in 1984, that even rather lame, mostly meaningless & cliched restatements of the orthodox, anti-sophistication sentiment are basically immediately canonized into commandments of "good writing," such as attacks on adjectives or the vague and not very helpful directiton to rewrite what "sounds like writing."
I think it's possible that there's something going on here with regards to the (unstable and probably incorrect) minimalist vs. maximalist split in American writing (where blue collar & not college educated = minimalist, e.g. Raymond Carver, John Cheever & all who follow Ernest Hemingway, while postmodern, hard-to-read & intellectual = huge, complicated works, e.g. Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, & everyone following Herman Melville & William Faulkner), but it also seems true that those who use technical language to achieve verisimilitude & those who don't are both worried about manipulation & dishonesty.
There's a sense in which, too, I think, that the very technical and jargon-textured language feels honest right now, in particular, because of the recent American experience of being manipulated (in this case into war, torture & disregard for civil liberties) by men who pretended to be less sophisticated than they were, basically using the schtick of "good ol' country boy" & "just us folks" to move Americans to support & embrace horrible, horrible things. In "Mister Squishy," Wallce used high-powered, well-educated market researchers to explore the manipulation within manipulation within manipulation, but you could do the same thing, I think, with the language of hack lawyers & car salesman ("I ain't a big city law-yuh"). This makes me wonder if writers aren't lagging behind salesmen, & if honest language isn't badly losing to dishonest manipulations.
5. Christopher Hitchens has an interesting trick of dismissing anyone who'd have a sophisticated & complicated response to his atheism. He calls them wincing & insincere, evasive, wittering & mumbly, while praising as bold & brave & truly religious the kinds of religious people who he elsewhere describes as basically stupid, insane & evil. Richard Dawkins does this too, at some points claiming the Pope, who believes life evolved & is evolving & that this is not in contradiction with Christian faith, doesn't understand Christianity, while saying that those who are not educated enough to understand even the basics of Charles Darwin & Gregor Mendel do completely & rightly understand the Bible & all of Christian theology.
This has the tone of someone insulting the goalie who can actually block goals, while praising the goalie who lets you score, but also & more importantly, it serves to legitimize the fundamentalist & least educated versions of faith, while also ensuring permanent marginalization. I assume Hitchens will not be converted during his debate tour, & also find unlikely that anyone is going to suddenly become an atheist after seeing their pastor spar with a prominent, pop atheist. Thus the result of the exercise, I think, will be that both sides can claim increased legitimacy, specifically w/ the claim "I have debated the other side," while the actual debate & ongoing conversation will be stagnant, fixed in a permanent stupidity.
I think I'd like to say Hitchens is violating a version of the Principle of Charity, if I can expand the principle to say that you shouldn't just attribute to your opponents the strongest argument, but should also find the best & most sophisticated opponents for the argument you opposed.
6. The above trick of dismissing the moderate & most educated opponents & instead legitimizing & permanently marginalizing those who are more aggressive & less nuanced is also, I think, an exact description of what the Democrats & President Obama have done to conservatism this year.
It's good politics (as long as the craziness is always a minority & you're not a minority in one of the local govts run by the now-raving right wing). I worry, though, that it's bad for a) the discourse (be it between Christians and atheists or American conservatives and liberals), & bad for b) the space available for intelligent & nuanced positions, & c) language that isn't captured by ideology, hackishness & partisanship, & d) all of us who believe in the Principle of Charity & want honest language.
Oct 26, 2009
Today I become a teacher. An official, stand-in-front-of-a-college-classroom teacher. Not that I meant to. It was kind of an accident, but here it happens that I am, today, a teacher.
Oct 23, 2009
I used to park my truck towards the sun, or towards where the sun would come up, so when I walked out of the Wal-Mart in the morning at the end of my shift, the windshield would be beginning to thaw. It was cold that Winter, my senior year. There was a blizzard when I went to take the GRE and I fishtailed off the road into a field of snow. I remember I sat there shaking, afraid of what hadn't just happened, watching the vortex of these fat flakes, suddenly still, gentle and drifting, and I remember the how the heater roared, loud now that I was stopped, forcing stale air up the inside of the windshield to melt the flakes as they fell to the glass. Each one, bloated by lake effect, would for a moment be perfect. Then each would collapse upon itself, becoming a spot of water.
Winters started early there, and the darkness was heavy. It never lifted and lasted from the early gray through to depressed afternoons and evenings that seemed to buckle under the weight of Winter. Winter there lasted late into the year, and Spring was just an oscillation of false hope and ice that covered everything.
The mornings, though, would sometimes be clear. They had a sharpness and they hurt to breath. My eyeballs would be dry and burned from the fluorescent lights, body achy from the forklift and four hundred, five hundred boxes, but in the cold, the iced-over world would seem new, and clear, and it would be, in a way, wonderful. Going back to school from work, I used to try to avoid the janitor. He always tried to give me the gospel again. He and I were the only ones on graveyard shift and I was his mission field and he didn't believe me when I said I believed. In the mornings, though, the security guard came by on his rounds and I sat with him once, and we had coffee in the quiet before the cafeteria opened. My voice was hoarse from not sleeping and he was quiet, sitting there, but I asked him about his tattoo. It was old, fading out blue, a death head, a skull with wings. I asked him was that a tattoo, which was a stupid question, and he said yeah. I asked him was he a biker, because the skull was Hells Angels, and he was bearded and had a face that looked like battered sky. I liked him and wanted to have him talk to me. It'd been a long time since I talked to a man. We sat there and we were silent and I just wanted to say, tell me a story. I asked about the tattoo though, and he looked at his coffee, the little cup tiny in his hands, and he said that was a very long time ago. Then we were silent, and I felt like I'd offended him. I tried to say something else but he shook his head. It wasn't, he said, somewhat defiantly, something he was proud of. It was stupid and a very long time ago.
I don't remember seeing him again after that. Maybe I stopped going to sit outside the cafeteria and watch the morning rush of tousled kids with crusty eyes and instead went home to shower, and sleep, and try to write a thesis. I remember the cars would be parked in the driveways, running, heaters on, warming up. I parked in the back of the parking lot, by a light pole, pointing the truck East at the optometrist and the Chinese buffet where the sun would come up about a half hour before I got off work. The frost and snow would still be on the window, but softened a little by the morning. I didn't have a scraper since I wasn't from the North and used instead an old library card that wasn't any good, anymore. I'd hold the edge at an angle, catching the edge of the glass, slicing the frost off in a big sheet.
The mornings were good, though. My heater was good. When I clocked out I'd take off my apron and I'd buy a quart of orange juice with the pulp in it. I'd buy a little bacon if I'd been paid. The sun would slant up over the trees by the time I was leaving, and the morning was like a single key played on a piano in an empty room, all possibilities, interesting possibilities, and possibly even in tune.
Oct 20, 2009
Lost racing pigeon
In praise of the cliche
The lessons of Vietnam
Named after presidents
Sherman Alexie laughs
Ray Bradbury's painting
Republicans defend rape
Barack Obama the writer
New biography of Dickens
Video tape interrogations
Dawkins' arguments evolve
Americna roadside rhymes
Talking to Michael Chabon
A Maurice Sendak sentence
Maurice Sendak's thin skin
Dylan defiant & invigorating
Why we watched balloon boy
Obama teaches English in Japan
When Joe Biden tells the truth
Glenn Beck in a land of Torys
Vonnegut: "Look at the Birdie"
Listening to Thelonious Monk
David Hockney's long road home
Vonnegut on schools of writing
Don't Ask, Don't Tell is done for
Proposing to redesign the dollar
Peter Paul Rubins, artist and spy
Whither withering conservatism?
Don't ask, don't tell in Hollywood
Maurice Sendak rewrote the rules
Richard Dawkins: I'm not strident
Junot Diaz on writing and despair
Jonathan Letham talks to Criterion
What does balloon boy mean (x5)?
Thomas Pynchon and Grand Theft Auto
Bookshelves as personal expression
Letham's novels for global warming
Youth pastor's murder leaves questions
Trying to read Hegel as if he was right
Donald Barthelme's suggested reading
James Joyce got tenure, not immortality
Michael Chabon has an "impulse to control"
Dylan does Christmas, and it's not a joke
Seriously, who would bomb a Zizek lecture?
Institutionalists economists win the Nobel
Photographing the agriculture of East Anglia
Thelonious Monk was an American original
Conservative Episcopalians prepare for exodus
Jonathan Letham's new novel's nervous energy
The memoirs are coming, the memoirs are coming!
Can young blood save Germany's Social Democrats?
For Safire, grammar wasn't a front in the culture war
Dylan does homage to vintage American Christmases
Why does the CIA act like it's involved in an Oswald cover-up?
What is it like to be in the military with gay men and women?
Mad at Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze and their kids movies
F.A. Hayek was a socialist & conservatives are all really Randians
Jack Kerouac set to music by Benjamin Gibbard and Jay Farrar
Donald Kauffman, collector fo toy cars, dies at 79. May he rest in peace.
Oct 16, 2009
Oct 13, 2009
New interrogation tactics. But effective. Nothing rough. Instead: Feed him an explanation. Explanation = confession. Appeal to guilt. It’s always there. Find it. Wheedle it.
Say: You didn’t mean to. See pictures: Infant body broken.
To have been born is to be fucked with guilt.
Say: You didn’t mean to.
Noir in 50 words
Oct 9, 2009
There were a lot of women that came to the Texaco. There were girls in dresses, jeans, school uniforms, in shorts with bikini tops. There were young moms and thickening middle-aged ones, old women, widows, nuns and some he thought might be transvestites. There were little girls who came in with their fathers. There were church women with hats. There were army women and army wives. There were women with blisters, calluses, grease on their hands. There were women who were clearly in love, and ones who talked on their cell phones, women who acted like they owned the world, and ones who looked like they were surrounded.
Sometimes, when Ray watched, sitting behind the counter, everything seemed to slow down with his breath, and all the cars and people pumping gas and women stepping into the station seemed all to go too fast. They were in fast forward. When he felt like that he felt disconnected, safe in the silence but also suspended, stuck there. He was, it seemed, in his own personal wind tunnel.
Sometimes he tried to talk to the women. Hello and more, patter and have a nice day. Other times he said nothing. Either way he was trying to do it right, to connect and treat everyone with respect. But when he spoke, women seemed to be startled, repelled, and when he was silent they shied away, reporting he was angry, or rude, brooding or leering. Whichever he did didn't seem right. It was always awkward. He was always awkward. Everything was oblique to him.
Ray read one time about an author who couldn't write women. He wrote, it was said, as if women were only men with feminine names. Ray wondered, though, how that would be different from how women would seem if you knew what you should say.
There were women who ran by the Texaco, sweaty in sports bras. There were women who smelled of fast food, their shirts stained with unfolding flowers of sweat. There were waitresses in uniforms and girls going out to party, butch women with buzz cuts and Camaros, and brown-haired, blonde-haired, red- and black-haired women always coming in and always it was off. There were Jersey girls with pancakes of make-up, baubley jewelry, and a gaudy way of chewing gum. There were Southerners, with syrupy drawls, and girls who dressed like they came from a country they made up themselves. There were women in suits. There were women who were lost, women who paid with ones, and women who were taken care of and carried credit cards that couldn't max out.
There were women who handed him tracks, who gave him looks, who didn't look at him. There were women who left menstrual blood smeared in the restroom and women who, most of their lives, most of the places they went, would be remembered by men only as legs or butts or boobs -- disembodied menageries. There were women who wanted flavored cream with their coffee and certain brands of water. There was a woman who he knew dated Jerry, the drug dealer who lived down the street in an apartment upstairs. Her name, he thought but wasn't sure, rhymed with his. There was a Jamacian who came in who must have been seven-feet tall. There was a German au-pair. There was a girl with a cello in her car, her hair in braids, and a girl with braces who always bought gum with her gas. There were many women. They came in opaque parades, like a radio scanning through stations of static.
Oct 7, 2009
A qwerty world
Tattoos in literature
E.L. Doctorow and rap
German book prize list
Burning Man time lapse
Reformed use of images
John Paul Sartre in Texas
Revisiting Richard Ford
Donald Miller's new book
When Amazon is hijacked
Gore Vidal: America is rotting
Dennis Hopper shot the '60s
Georgia O'Keeffe's love letters
What the internet has wrought
Is the internet melting our brains?
Bill Clinton's blue jillion anecdotes
Clinton - fireman with arson hobby
Bookbinders museum in SF. Calif.
Dan Brown and the pirated Symbol
Authenticating the Frida Kahlo trove
Wishing Ahmadinejad was Jewish
How Irving Kristol beget Glenn Beck
Tweet and tweet until you feel real
What and who Duchamp was doing
The poetry of water purification plants
Metaphors and the literal way we think
Excerpts from the new Kurt Vonnegut
Poem to celebrate a piece of punctuation
Lunch with Slavoj Zizek and Billy Collins
Pictures of Germany's (political) pirate party
Violence, Inglorious Basterds and Christians
The split at the heart of liberal foreign policy
Ending the cycle of presidential love and hate
Out and gay in New York in the 70s as an artist
The quest for certainty in math: a new comic book
Excerpt from Dawkin's The Greatest Show on Earth
The Clinton Tapes a splendid political story
Robert Creeley in the outfield with the Tampa Bay Rays
Bukowski's most recent posthumously published poems
Max Cleland tells his story: Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove
Physics and photography: the Nobel and the "switch to digital"
Great books, educational striving, authority and the middle brow
Norwegian, Nazi, modernist writer: What happened to Knut Hamsun?
William Safire, conservative columnist, dies at 79. May he rest in peace.
Safire was a hack who posed as a reporter, and sometimes as eloquent
Remembering William Safire for allowing others to learn to play with words
British police, art, and a picture of a naked child who later became famous
Gen. of Guantanamo Bay says he's sorry we lost the high ground
The real damages of illusionary power of media personalities
Interview with a book reviewer editor from the Wash. Post
The Republican's lie machine and the killing of health care
Beck vs. glennbeckrapedandmurderedayounggirlin1990.com
Explaining Internet memes & viral satire to the court
Trying to save God from followers and despisers
James Agee's punctuation is an "aperture of awe"
Deception and the history of the lie detector
Unsentimental celebration of the coffee waitress
What happens when we think about love or sex?
German flash mobs going to the high court
3 Americans share Nobel prize for physics
The problems of posthumous publication
Financial incentives for political outrage
Celebrating Samuel Johnson, a big man
Coen brother's story Jewish, universal
Work spaces: Where and how we work
Working as a waitress at Oktoberfest
The state of online book reviews
American right waxes and wanes
Is Ellroy an unchallenged racist?
How not to fight in Afghanistan
How the WASPs lost their sting
The end of an Infinite Summer
What is the book reviewers' job?
Why no great Indian novel?
James Wood on A.S. Byatt
Dylan's Christmas spirit
Adjectives and politics
Flarf = the smirk of art
Teaching the N-Word
It's all literature now
Being Carrie Fisher
R. Crumb's Genisis
Grunge, a history
Noir in 50 words
Oct 5, 2009
Ray saw her as she came across from the gas pumps, her yellow skirt like a little sail. She came through the door, it beeped, and four men turned to look at her. She had a little tattoo on her lower back. A butterfly. A flower. Something like that. Not that that was the real reason, though. They all would have looked at her anyway. She was blonde and tanned. She had on black boots that were knee high, the skirt and tattoo, and a top that looked like a corset.
There were five men if you counted Ray.
They watched as she went to the counter and paid. Ray looked her in the face when he gave her her change. She looked him in the face and he saw she was afraid. It was only a moment. She was silent, there was fear, and he saw the men peripherally, surrounding her. He said what he always said, automatically, in an automatic voice, and told her to have a good day now, and take care.
She turned and went, and they watched her, even craning to see how she'd go. They were silent, together in that way, watching. The station was silent until she reached the door and it beeped. Then the four all spoke. The one man said damn, swearing slowly. Asked, had they seen that? One, a fat one with chips, said those were fuck-me-boots, weren't they, and they called that a tramp stamp. An older one said his daughter had a tattoo like that, a stamp was it?, but wow, ungh, it made you ache. Bet she's wildcat, said the fat one. Little blonde like that. The fourth one said hot, hot, hot, like a howl, and he turned to Ray and said he bet that was the best part of this job, all these girls.
Ray didn't say anything, and looked out at the pumps. He watched the girl in the yellow skirt. She went and got into her car. Her skirt slid up some on the seat. He didn't say anything to the men or with the men, but didn't know if maybe that made it worse. Whatever he did it still seemed wrong. It still seemed like he was a part of it too.
Oct 2, 2009
He was never entirely sure he remembered her. When they said the family was going to sue, Ray didn't even know who she was. He asked what lady were they talking about.
The only reason he thought he might remember was because there was one older woman that week who was snappy. He was stocking the shelves of sodas and and didn't see her, didn't see she was ready at the counter, and she told him he was very rude. She said he was exacerbating and she was insulted that he was so rude. She actually said that -- exacerbating, or maybe it was exasperating? He didn't know the difference, and she scowled. That might have been her, but he really wasn't sure. The Texaco lawyers said she bought a pack of peppermint gum and then she died.
She had a bad fall on the side of the gas station. The family said a step wasn't marked. It was a question of liability. She lay there for some time, an old woman alone on the pavement, while he was inside putting up sodas and chips. No one knew how long she lay there. When someone helped her up she said she was fine, but her head was hurt and she died that night.
The family wanted him to feel bad about it. The lawyers were very careful not to tell him how to feel. If he felt bad then Texaco had to settle the suit. But instead he was kind of confused, asking them to repeat parts. He looked, though they didn't ask, but he couldn't find any record of a sale of gum.
of a guy at the counter in the supermarket
or the quietness of a stranger's parking lot smile
or the rattle of weeds across a dry summer mohave
or watching my unfettered fingers
jump jump jumping across the computer keys
deep in the middle of typing three hours worth of unscrubbed truth.
God for me
turned out to be a conscious choice
a self-evoked experience
just like love.
-- Dan Fante
He sat down on one end of the sofa, and she sat down at the other end. But it was a small sofa, and they were still sitting close to each other. They were so close he could have put out his hand and touched her knee. But he didn't. She glanced around the room and then fixed her eyes on him again. He knew he hadn't shaved and that his hair stood up. But she was his wife, and she knew everything there was to know about him.
-- Raymond Carver