Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Report: I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

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Been wanting to read this one for a while, since The Believer gave it a 2010 best book award.  They made it sound funny.  It was funny.

Here's the deal:  The narrator/hero of the story is a young man named Not Sidney Poitier (as in his last name is "Poitier" and his first name is "Not Sidney").  His mother died when he was young.  She'd bought a lot of shares in Turner Broadcasting, and Ted Turner sort of adopts Not Sidney and raises him, more-or-less.  Turner's full of absurd wisdomless wisdom.  He's the most non-paternalistic father figure I've come across.  Most of the conflict in the book comes from three situations:

1. Not Sidney tells people his name is Not Sidney and then has to explain.
2. Not Sidney makes ill-fated attempts to drive from Atlanta back to Los Angeles, where he was born.
3. Women with various motives attempt to have some kind of sex or another with Not Sidney.

Happily, Mr. Poitier can "fesmerize" certain people, which, like it sounds, is like mesmerizing them.  He uses this ability to get out of some unpleasant situations, but he can't control it all that well.  Also, Mr. Poitier is ridiculously wealthy thanks to his mother's investments, but this proves to be a hindrance when he tries to actually use it to do things.  Also, he looks very much like the movie star Sidney Poitier.  So he's got some things going for him to sort of balance out the perils of being black in the South and being named Not Sidney Poitier.

The big take-away from the book seems to be this:  It's hard to be black in the South if you're Not Sidney Poitier (or not Sidney Poitier for that matter).  Things just seem to work against you.  The deck is stacked.

Like I said, it's a funny book.  Everett is a really sparing storyteller, though not exactly precise.  The story is messy and uneven and seems unsure of itself at times.  A character named Percival Everett makes an appearance about half-way through to offer professorial guidance to Not Sidney, but his guidance is largely nonsensical.  He's not much help, really--comic relief in an already pretty funny comedy.  Is Everett saying he's lost the ability to steer his own character?  Maybe.  I'm rarely sure what's going on when an author inserts himself into a story.

Anyway, it doesn't matter.  The messy looseness of the book lends it a sort of honest sincerity that a story about a character named Not Sidney Poitier needs.  It's a recognizably absurd world Not Sidney inhabits. So, absurd as his name and biography is, he's not exactly out of place in it.  And neither is Percival Everett.  And neither is anyone else, really.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Today in Loudness

It's been a decibel-heavy day:

Good news:

Gooder news:

The first one is about the FCC-driven Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act, which takes effect next year.  But I'm not totally against loudness.  The second one is about a study out of the University of Portsmouth that claims loud music makes alcoholic drinks taste sweeter.

In related news.  I just watched The Decline of Western Civilization Part II the other night.  My favorite thing about it was how the director, Penelope Spheeris (thank you, Wikipedia), situated all the rock stars in these strange ways.  Ozzy Osbourne, oddly enough though, is cooking breakfast in a very quaint little kitchen.  Perhaps Spheeris foresaw his future easy-punchlineability.

Oh, Paul Stanley.

Book Report: Social Linguistics and Literacies by James Paul Gee

The idea of Writing Across the Disciplines/Writing Across the Curriculum has been around for a while.  What I want is a Reading Across the Disciplines/Curriculum.  What I want is a course titled something like "Foundational Readings for Looking at the World and the Stuff We do in the World Through All Kinds of Different Perspectives 101."  Or, you know, something like that.

Because, having read James Paul Gee's Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses, I'm convinced I've found the foundational book for understanding what's important about literacy studies and the work people do in literacy studies.  What's important about literacy studies and the work people do in literacy studies, ye ask?  Well, everything.  According to Gee, the way we understand the world and ourselves and ourselves in the world is through literate activity.  That is, the world is made up of literacies.  And I imagine every discipline has the book that makes this argument in its own way.  Physics says the world is made up quarks and/or strings and/or Higgs boson particles.  Chemistry says the world is made up of chemical reactions--at least that's what Walter White says (by the way, did anybody know about thishttp://www.savewalterwhite.com/?).  Philosophy says the world is made up of (?).  Biology says cells. Physical education says push-ups (or possibly proper stretching (the jury's still out on that one)).  And fashion merchandising says, for this season at least, pencil skirts.

My point is: different disciplines offer different ways of understanding the world.  The argument in my discipline (which is Literacy, Rhetoric, and Social Practice (otherwise known as Rhetoric & Composition (otherwise known as Writing Studies (otherwise known as That Class I Had To Take My Freshman Year Where My Teacher Made Me Read "The Yellow Wallpaper" For Some Reason And Write An Essay About What The Color Yellow Symbolized And I Got A 'D' Because Apparently Sparknotes Isn't A 'Credible Source'))) is that our understanding of the world both shapes and is shaped by how we talk about it.  If I had to pick one book to explain that point of view to people outside the discipline it would be Social Linguistics and Literacies.  Here's why:

1.  It's incredibly readable.  I wrote in an earlier post how my freshman students really took to an essay by Gee (pronounced like "gee-whiz!" by the way) we read for class.  I had them read it alongside an article by John Swales about discourse communities that I don't think any of them made it through because it is denser than dense.  We're talking thick.  Gee's, on the other hand, read like a conversation with a smart, funny guy--which, I imagine, Gee is.  Swales and Gee are discussing, with a few differences, the same idea, but in very different ways.

2.  It is vast in scope.  It's kind of jauntily all over the place, but not in a hard-to-follow or schizophrenic sort of way.  When we move from a close reading of warning labels on aspirin bottles to what it means to be "a real Indian" to a stanzaic representation of a young girl's show-and-tell presentation at school Gee makes it seem like the most natural progression of subjects.  It's a pretty crazy pastiche of a book, really.

3.  Gee's two conceptual principles regarding ethical discourse are fantastic.  He argues that when you debate any argument for long enough you will end up at "rock bottom," which is the foundation on which all arguments are made and cannot be argued any further.  For example, a devout religious person's arguments are likely to begin and end with "Because God says so.  That's why."  A physicist might say something like, "Because the Big Bang said so.  That's why."  Gee, in a nice act of full disclosure, begins his book by laying out his foundation on his two conceptual principles regarding ethical human discourse:   
“That something would harm someone else (deprive them of what they or the society they are in view as 'goods') is always a good reason (though perhaps not a sufficient reason) not to do it."
 “One always has the ethical obligation to explicate (render overt and primary) any theory that is (largely) tacit and non-primary when there is reason to believe that the theory advantages oneself or one’s group over other people or other groups.” 
When the conversation gets to this point, for Gee the argument has "run out."  As far as tautologies go, I think these are pretty good.

The big ideas here as I see them are as such:  If we want to understand language as it is used in social contexts, we have to understand capital-"D" Discourses as ways of being in the world.  In this sense, discursive acts are correct not only according their content but also how they are presented/performed.  Gee gives the example of a guy walking into a biker bar and asking some burly dude, "May I please have a match for my cigarette?"  He's asked the question in a grammatically correct way, but he's still incorrect because he didn't ask it in the Discursively correct way, which includes not only what he says, but how he says it, what he's wearing when he says it, how he's sitting/standing when he says it, and a lot of other things that make him a member of the biker bar Discourse.  I think that American comedy for the past however-long has been based on Discourse confusion (see, for example, every episode of Saturday Night Live ever)--somebody doesn't know how to act in a certain situation according to the rules of the Discourse that has defined and is defined by those rules.  It's funny!

And it brings me to the second big idea, which is that literacy is fluency in a secondary Discourse.  Most everyone is born into a primary Discourse--it's the way of being in the world that one learns at home from one's family.  Then one goes to school and one's mind is blown by all the new Discourse rules one has to learn and all the other ones' Discourse rules they learned at home.  And from that moment on one has to become many different ones to fit many different Discourses.  If one is able to perform a secondary Discourse fluently--that is, one is recognized as a full-fledged member of that Discourse by others--one can consider oneself literate in that Discourse.  The recognition part is important, though.  As Gee puts it in perfectly Gee-like fashion: "We need other people to be anything."  Sometimes things like skin-color or gender will get in the way of being recognized as the member of a particular Discourse, so one will always be not exactly fluent.  This is sad, but it explains a lot and gives us a useful way of talking about these important things.

I'd be curious if anyone reading this blog has any other foundational books that they'd suggest for the class that I think should probably exist.  As of tomorrow, I'm officially on winter break.  I've got a lot of readings already planned, but I might could squeeze in one or two more.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Fall Semester 2011

First semester at a new school coming to an end.

I taught my last class of the semester this morning (well, I didn't so much teach it as listened to some students' presentations and asked questions).  It was a pretty rough morning. I cut my pinkie pretty badly last night washing a cheap wine glass, and when I climbed out of the truck I hit it on the door and it started bleeding again.  I put a band-aid on it and poured myself a cup of coffee and then poured that coffee on my other hand.  My whole body was a headache.  I couldn't remember ever being so tired.

My students were excited for the last day of class--they were goofy and talkative and friendly--but I couldn't match their enthusiasm.  I couldn't even muster more than a few lackluster comments for a student who presented on Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes, two of my favorite comic book authors.  Just wasn't my usual self.

I must admit that I got really lucky with this group of freshmen writers.  Really couldn't have asked for a better group.  Starting a PhD program and a new teaching assignment in a new town in a new state in a new climate is a lot to take in, but I was almost always delighted and surprised by the level of conversation every Tuesday and Thursday morning from 9:15-10:30.

And the writing wasn't half-bad either.

We read primarily from Writing About Writing, edited by Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs.

Writing about Writing

Can't recommend it enough to any first-year writing teacher.  It's mostly a lot of hardcore writing studies articles by prominent scholars--the editors are big into the idea of teaching freshman comp as intro to writing studies.  So it kind of just throws freshmen into the deep end of the pool.  But Wardle and Downs suggest that teachers not apologize for the difficulty of the readings.  So I didn't.  And it went really well.  We talked about what was unclear and we figured it out, and before long those students were throwing around James Paul Gee's "Discourse" like they'd been using the word forever.  Some of them even put it in their papers here and there.  Gee is a hit with the youth.

We also read Ed Abbey's Desert Solitaire.  All of it.

They loved it and hated it and were indifferent to it in about a 40-30-30 ratio.  Nobody really wants to pack it all into a trailer and move out to the desert, but most everybody has a new idea of what writing can look like, which is to say, weird.  Writing can look very, very weird.

And arguments can be weird, too.  Paradoxical.  Unreasonable.  And ugly.

And pretty.

And why not?

Writes Czeslaw Milosz:
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

When I wake up tomorrow there will be snow on the ground.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Book Report: The "War on Terror" Narrative by Adam Hodges

Immediately upon the impact of the first plane into the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, people began talking.
It's the talking that Adam Hodges is interested in.  The "War on Terror" Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality is a work of critical discourse analysis of the Narrative itself: how it was formed and maintained by the political discourse of the Bush Administration; how it was decontextualized and recontextualized by the media and by the citizenry (or at least by a group of politically-inclined college students he interviewed).

The first half of the book--probably the more interesting half--is an analysis of some of Bush's speeches.  Hodges emphasizes that Bush [and I'm just going to use "Bush" here instead of the more cumbersome, nebulous "Bush Administration" and I think you'll know what I mean] chose to frame the Narrative in precisely the way he did.  Bush chose to frame our understanding of September 11 and the appropriate response by appropriating the genre of "a nation at war."  The use of this genre, though, opens up intertextual gaps in the narrative between the recognizable elements that make up that genre and the particularities of the situation that contradict those elements.  For example, the "nation at war" genre requires military action by a nation-state actor, and the reaction would require a similar response, but the al Qaeda operatives responsible were not military representatives of any nation.  This is just one of many, many, many more.

Thankfully, Hodges isn't interested in simply exposing such gaps.  Such a book would be hundreds of pages of "Bush said this, which is a lie, because this is really what was going on."  He seems to understand that his audience is aware of the inconsistencies that permeated the Narrative from the beginning.  Rather, Hodges shows how the use of the TERRORISM IS WAR metaphor (as opposed to the much less intertextually porous TERRORISM IS CRIME metaphor) on which the Narrative was founded and the careful deployment of "canonical episodes from the nation's history" (i.e., Pearl Harbor and the U.S. involvement in WW II and the Cold War) served to close those intertextual gaps, or at least to occlude them--to brush them aside.  Bush's unwavering insistence on the TERRORISM IS WAR metaphor and his frequent linkages to past conflicts delimited the ways the media and the general public could speak meaningfully about what happened and what the appropriate response should be.  Writes Hodges:
In this way the past is both represented and representing.  That is, mythologized images of the past are both illuminated in the Narrative and are used to interpret the present.
This book was good for me at this point in my studies.  Hodges puts some principles of critical discourse analysis and some complicated Bakhtinian and Foucauldian theories to work in ways that made them clear.  The latter half wasn't quite as useful to me, as I've heard firsthand how the media and fellow politically-inclined students have de- and recontextualized the Narrative, and Hodges doesn't introduce too many new ideas.

Maybe the best thing I can say about The "War on Terror" Narrative is that Hodges does a fantastic job of sticking to his subject.  It must have been tempting to stare into the intertextual gaps and criticize the media and under-informed students who spouted such wisdom as "There's no reason why we should be talking about bringing troops home right now."  But like I said, this is a book about talking, and Hodges sticks to what was said without digging into the validity and/or truthfulness of such statements.  "The point," writes Hodges, "is to focus on the way discourse effectively brings into existence a "truth" with real world consequences . . . In Foucalt's terms, the Bush 'War on Terror' Narrative is a type of discursive formation that sustains a regime of truth."  The Narrative was so effective because it shaped what could and couldn't be considered "valid" and/or "truthful."  That's what a regime of truth does.  Hodges ends his book by noting that since Obama took office the phrase "war on terror" has "subtly slipped out of presidential discourse."  While the Narrative still has its weird hold on the way we talk about terrorism in a lot of social spheres, maybe this subtle slippage is indicative of some kind of regime change.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

There's something wrong with my neurons.

Kicking myself.

For various reasons I missed all the meetings of the Kent State Neuroscience and the Humanities Reading Group.  The other group members were kind enough to send me the readings and keep me abreast of all the goings-on, but I really wish I had attended these discussions. 

Ne'ertheless, Jason Ellis set up a really great blog that recounts the group's doings.  Very cool of him.  Here's the link if you're interested in brilliant stuff like "Neural Mechanisms of Moral Cognition" and/or "Neurorhetorics":


Sorry I missed it.  Hopefully I'll get it together enough to be able to attend a second go-around next semester or next year.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Few Guys Talking About Donald Barthelme

Now that I've left Texas, I find myself laughing a little harder at King of the Hill and hankering for Donald Barthelme, that most Houstonian of Houstonians, a little more.

Pagestopixels.com introduced Barthelme as their first Author of the Month in what I hope will be a long series.


Here's what they do with their Authors of the Month:  They offer a story (if it's available) by that author.  Then they offer a discussion of that story from some sharp literary critic or other.  They offer two such installments as of now.  One discusses "The Indian Uprising" and the other "Me and Miss Mandible."  I hadn't read the latter one, but it's one of my favorites now.  Bartheleme's got a funny way of writing about schools that shows what silly and powerful institutions they actually are.  The accompanying essays are okay, too, but neither comes close to George Saunders's "The Perfect Gerbil" from his collection of essays The Braindead Megaphone about Barthelme's "The School."  Writes Saunders thusly:

When I was a kid I had one of these Hot Wheels devices designed to look like a little gas station. Inside the gas station were two spinning rubber wheels. One’s little car would weakly approach the gas station, then be sent forth by the spinning rubber wheels to take another lap around the track, or more often, fly out and hit one’s sister in the face.
A story can be thought of as a series of these little gas stations. The main point is to get the reader around the track; that is, to the end of the story. Any other pleasures a story may offer (theme, character, moral uplift) are dependent on this…
So if the writer can put together enough gas stations, of sufficient power, distributed at just the right places around the track, he wins: the reader works his way through the full execution of the pattern, and is ready to receive the end of the story.

Barthelme does just this with "Me and Miss Mandible."  Gas stations galore.

Onward Robots!

Dennis Johnson, over at Melville House, wrote this really good little thing about print and ebooks:

He writes about his feeling that "there is a deep-seated respect in our culture — still — for the importance of the printed book and, no less important, there is an equally deep-seated affection for it. We shouldn’t let the mindless din of a few, loud and nasty as they are, obscure that, nor bully us into failing to champion great technology — old or new."

Too right.  The loudest are so often the wrongest.  And there are some LOUD folks in a lot of discussions about e-readers and print texts, hellbent, it seems, on creating one of those false binaries between Print People and, oh I don't know, Kindle People.  Observe:

Get it?  Kindle People--those only-slightly-smarmy pillars of elegance and casualness--privilege efficiency and simplicity, while Book People--those hard-headed luddites--privilege stupid shit like carrying around stuff in big bags.  Is it any wonder they are meeting in that weird empty white purgatory where the "I'm a Mac/I'm a PC" guys met?  This is apparently the space where people go to identify themselves as this or that technology, or, in the case of those Progressive commercials, to buy car insurance.

Anyhoo, here's where I'm going with this:  Books are technologies with affordances and constraints.  So are e-readers.  Let's be a little quieter about all this.  Gunther Kress wrote this about reading and writing technologies and literacy in the New Media Age:

"My sense of what is needed above all is some stocktaking, some reflection, a drawing of breath, and the search for the beginnings of answers to questions such as: Where are we?  What have we got here?  What remains of the old?  What is common about the making of representations and messages between then and now and in the likely tomorrow?  I think that what we need are new tools for thinking with, new frames in which to place things, in which to see the old and new, and see them both newly."

That was in 2003.  It could've been written last year or 1973 or 1497 or 220 BCE.  It'll probably need to be written again in 3772.  Technological developments tend to make us louder than we need to be.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Absolute

So the name of this blog comes from a book by the Czech writer Karel Capek:  The Absolute at Large.  I'm on a Capek kick right now.  Just re-read War of the Newts and I'm currently re-reading The Absolute at Large.  Both novels are about mankind trying to exploit technology (is a newt a technology?) with a complete disregard for how technology acts on humans just as much as humans act on technology.  Capek was funny, funny, funny.  I don't laugh out loud at much stuff I read, but Capek's writing cracks me up a hundred years after it was first written.  I'm impressed by the lasting power of his sense of humor, but I'm amazed by his foresight: he invented the term "robot" in his play R.U.R. (which stands for Rossum's Universal Robots); he seems to have foreseen nuclear power with his "Karburator" from The Absolute at Large; War With the Newts shows a very sophisticated understanding of humanity's effect on our planet.

He's written other stuff.  I must read it all.

Here is what he looked like:

Here's something smart he wrote in The Absolute at Large:

"There came into the world an unlimited abundance of everything people need. But people need everything except unlimited abundance."

So, there you have it.  Demystified.  The Absolute.

First blog. First blog post.

Just getting off the ground here.  How's this going to look?  I dunno.  Probably a collection of readings I've read and videos I've watched and songs/radio programs/podcasts I've heard.  Nothing special, I guess, but no crime either.

I closely follow other blogs that do this exact same thing.  I've learned to appreciate the art of filtering and arranging and displaying the world in interesting ways.  And I the punk-rock part of my brain says, "Make yr own art!"  (The punk-rock part of my brain writes "yr" instead of "your."  The rest of my brain can't stand that.)  So, yeah.  Why not?  Let's see what happens.

An appropriate quote, from Donald Barthelme's story "Genius":

"Q: What do you consider the most important tool of genius today?  A: Rubber cement."

Yep.  That sounds about right.