Thursday, August 31, 2006

Scattered Pointless Thoughts

I'm a secular humanist and a christian. I'm a socialist and a libertarian. I'm a pacifist and I'm an overly devoted fan of a very violent sport. Certainly on one hand these contradictions seem untenable--but these seeming contraditions are something that keeps intriguing me about post-structuralism/deconstruction

Two things make Nip/Tuck continue to work for me.
1. They continue to top themselves. The first episode gets us started with wierd and wild behavior--and each episode since goes so far over the top that the first episode seems conventional.

2. The character dynamic evolves. Which characters are ethical or depraved, safe or reckless, desiring of freedom or desiring of family, is constantly in flux.

Sources of my Ideas
You can look here, here, here, and here for some of my comments against modernism. My ideas aren't terribly original, of course--they are just expressions of whose side I lie on. Here's a quotation from Peter Barry's Beginning Theory on postmodernism and modernism that summarizes the view I have clearly (and, since this is a book I read in grad school, is one of the sources of the ideas I now have about modernism and postmodernism):

"The modernist features [fragmentation] in such a way as to register a deep nostalgia for an earlier age when faith was full and authority intact. (...) For postmodernists, by contrast fragmentation is an exhilarating, liberating phenomenon, symptomatic of our escape from the claustrophopic embrace of fixed systems of belief. In a word, the modernist laments fragmentation while the postmodernist celebrates it" (83-84)

Here's another quote from Barry about postmodernism that puts me squarely in the postmodernist camp:

"postmodernism rejects the distinction between 'high' and 'popular' art which was important in modernism, and believes in excess, in gaudiness, and in 'bad taste' mixtures of qualities. It disdains the modernist ascetism as elitist and cheerfully mixes, in the same building, bits and pieces from different architectural periods" (84-85)

Like most people, the great ideas floating around in my head are not my own: all I can do is attempt to illustrate or argue for the great ideas of others.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


The Personal Canon (or, what do we mean by "I should read that"?)

This is an expansion on my pseudo-utilitarian, anti-aesthetic theoretical views expounded upon elsewhere in this blog.

There is a major problem in devoting one's life to ideas, or more particularly, books. Unless one has a prodigious talent for reading and memory (such as Harold Bloom seems to have), one cannot possibly read everything that is great, or read everything that one wants to, or read everything that one "should." There simply isn't time. So we must prioritize" we must choose what we should read and what we should pass off (perhaps for later, if death waits long enough).

In my case, I recognize the distinct possibility that I will never read another Victorian novel. This is not deliberate by any means. It is simply because when I choose what to read, I must ask myself two questions.

1. Might I enjoy this reading experience?
2. Might this work contribute something to my mind?

If you pick up a book that you won't enjoy reading, or won't contribute something meaningful in the realm of ideas, WHY ARE YOU READING IT? Should you ever read something simply because you think, "that's a well known work, I should read that"? So I don't know that I'll ever read another Victorian novel, because I doubt I would enjoy it, and I am skeptical it would contribute much to my life of ideas (and most likely the several post-modern British works I've read that deconstruct the Victorian period and its literature contribute to my lack of interest in reading Victorian novels). But I don't know--perhaps intellectual curiosity will lead me back to such books in the future.

But the two critical questions I propose are not enough for a system. The problem is that you cannot know the answer to the first question until you've at least started the book, and you might not know the answer to the second question for years after finishing the book. So students should read books that they are assigned: somebody with at least some knowledge of the work has decided that the answer to the second question is probably. And sometimes, we should read books we really don't want to because we think we should. We just might get something out of it that we don't expect or no.

So once again, no answers, just ideas.

Derrida and the Failure of Modernism

In "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," Derrida talks about de-centering. Roughly, the center is the main idea of a structure's meaning, and Derrida talks about it no longer existing (avoiding words that suggest a lack or loss of center but admitting language doesn't easily allow it). He also suggests there are two ways to approach this non-existence of the center:

"As a turning toward the presence, lost of impossible, of absent origin, this structuralist thematic of broken immediateness is thus the sad, negative, nostalgic, guilty, Rouseauist face of the thinking of freeplay of which the Nietzschean affirmation--the joyous affirmation of the freeplay of the world and of the innocence of becomjng, the affirmation of a world of signs without fault, without truth, without origin, offered to an active interpretation--would be the other side. This affirmation then determines the non-center otherwise than as a loss of the center" (888).

Editor David Richter paraphrases this way:

"Derrida contrasts two methods of freeplay, Levi-Strauss's and his own. The former is 'sad' and 'negative' in that it seeks a substitute for the absent center once provided by metaphysics; it is 'nostalgic' for origins, 'guilty' over European imperialism (...) On the contrary, Derrida's system of freeplay, like the philosophy of Nietzsche, is 'joyful' in its affirmation of the power of the will to assign and alter all values. For Derrida, the lack of a center betokens freedom, not loss of security" (889).

I've written here before of my waning interest in modernism (not the modernist aesthetic so much as the modernist weltenschaaung). A modernist is distressed by chaos, nostalgic for old values, generally sad about the loss of traditional authority and traditional center (the most important concept in modernism is probably "loss"). A post-modernist celebrates the loss of the traditional authority and center, for it connotes freedom to the individual. The non-centeredness means that we are free to explore and define meaning in new ways that can be independent of the center.

(These quotes are taken from: Derrida, Jacques. "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 2nd edition. Ed. David Richter. New York: Bedford:St. Martin's, 1998. 878-889.)

Monday, August 28, 2006

Old Jack's an Odd Duck

Here's an odd book: Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. I expected to read about overbearing, conservative fathers with traditional social values harshly arguing with their liberal-minded, progressive sons yearning for freedom. There is conflict over old social values, but in fact the fathers are sensitive (even overly sentimental), in awe of their sons, even try hard to impress their sons. To go all reader-response on you, I also discovered in this book I'm at a middle point in life: I don't know whether I side more with Bazarov and Arkady, or with Pavel Petrovich and Nicholai Petrovich. There is also an interesting line that Bazarov uses when arguing with Pavel that, I think, illustrates what I wrote earlier in My Ideological Paradox. Bazarov says,

"You find fault with my point of view, but what makes you think it came into being by chance, that it's not a product of that very national spirit which you are championing?"

What happens when the values of the group teach people to value individualism?

As an addendum, we now have two contributors at Costanza Book Club. You'll have to pay close attention to who writes each post, since we have vastly different views on literature, film, and theory.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Movie Recommendation

At Costanza Book Club, we're not usually in the business of recommending movies. But I must recomment the film "Tristram Shandy: a Cock and Bull Story." It's post-modern metafictional fun (it's like a comic version of the film "The French Lieutenant's Woman," which as a film missed much of Fowles' humor). And the scene with the giant womb is the funniest thing I've seen on film in a long while.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

My Ideological Paradox (with many parentheticals

(this is narcissistic mostly, but to an end)

Recently I considered whether Peace were now the most important concept in my life, whether more than all else I would seek inner peace, inter-personal peace, and world-wide peace. I very quickly gave up this notion, recognizing the most important concept for me by a long shot, is, always has been, and always will be, Freedom. Freedom is not a monolithic concept, of course (e.g., the freedom to spend money and the freedom from having to work are usually, for most of us, mutually exclusive freedoms). For me the concept of Freedom is bound up with existentialism (freedom of choice, and also free will on a cosmic level, i.e., the freedom of Adam and Eve in "Paradise Lost"--btw, italics aren't working for me on this computer, so you'll get the grammatically infuriating quotation marks around titles of long works), in equality (the idea that every man and woman is my equal is an important part of my freedom), and my time (I'm peculiarly protective of how I am able to use my "free" time), and individualism (it is not like I'm out fighting for freedoms of groups, though I do believe in freedom for groups and do take up such causes; however, I live very much in the assumption of freedom of groups and focus largely on individual freedom.

So why is Freedom the most important philosophical ideal in my life? Many reasons.

1. I'm an American.
Growing up in America, I've imbibed the ideals of liberty and equality every day of my life (perhaps if "fraternite" were added to the ideals of "egalite" and "liberte" here, I would view the world differently). Liberty and equality have never exactly been regular practices in America (it's only recently that they were truly expanded as ideals to include those other than white males--and even that is not fully in practice), yet the ideals have been hanging around. I am foolish enough to believe in these ideals. My ideals would obviously be quite different if I were raised in a different country and/or culture.

2. I'm a Protestant.
I grew up in a Protestant tradition. Protestantism has a much greater emphasis on freedom, individualism, and equality than Catholicism (I base this on my experiences and studies with the ideology and practices of both Protestantism and Catholicism; I could go into greater detail giving examples, but I join Bartleby in asserting that "I'd prefer not to"). If I had grown up in a Catholic tradition, perhaps I wouldn't have such an emphasis on Freedom as a concept, or at the very least, my idea of Freedom would be different (after all, as a Protestant I was encouraged to read the Bible on my own, and was left largely to interpret it on my own. So much of my worldview is still based on my adolescent interpretations of Jesus as a guy who doesn't fight, cares about the poor, hangs out with social rejects, and forgives people). It would clearly be even more different if I had been raised in a non-christian religious tradition. Doesn't Islam mean "submission"? Don't many Eastern religions particularly de-emphasize the concept of self?

3. I'm a reader.
I read, and many of the things I've read have had a strong influence on my thinking (I realize it's hard to say whether I'm drawn to certain works based on my ideas, or whether certain works form my ideas--I call this "The Seinfeld Dilemma," since I don't know whether it formed me of drew me in because of what I am). And the readings that stick out to me emphasize freedom. Henry David Thoreau's "Life Without Principle" remains the essay that informs my ideas about work and self. Jean-Paul Sartre's writings on existentialism have pretty much become my frame for viewing existence. And John Fowles' novels exploring the meaning of individual freedom in society, particularly "The French Lieutanant's Woman" and "The Magus," have informed my more recent views on freedom of choice and behavior. My research on censorship has further convinced me of the need to allow the individual freedom against the norms of society.

So now I reach the paradox of my ideology. Quite clearly I believe strongly in individual independence from the limitations and expecations of groups. But here's the contradiction: THE REASON I BELIEVE THIS IS LARGELY INFLUENCED BY MY GROUPS. I emphasize Freedom largely because I am a member of two groups: Americans (loosely) and Protestants (even more loosely). It is the country, the culture, the worldview of the groups that have made me so emphasize separation for the individual from group expectations. Even reading, the most individual of activities, for me has been framed in the context of academia (the values and practices of the academic community have impacted what I read and how I read it, therefore, the values of another group influence my emphais on individual freedom).

I believe strongly in individualism because of the groups I was raised with/in; that is the nature of the paradox of my ideology.

And that is an illustration on the meaning of Ideology.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

New Translation of The Three Musketeers

"All for One," Terrence Rafferty

There's a new translation out of Dumas' masterpiece. Rafferty provides some good insights into why this is one of the greatest books ever written.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Humans: the animals that get bored

What is the purpose of literature? I like the Marxist explanations (to teach cultural norms, to reinforce or subvert dominant ideology, etc.). I like the Existential-Spiritual explanations (to explore what it means to be human, to find the meaning of life, etc.). But those explanations don't seem quite there.

What I think about the meaning of literature, I picture a bunch of people sitting around a fire as somebody recites The Odyssey. I start thinking of long nights between days of work. And it all becomes clear just what the purpose of literature is.

To pass the time.

Literature exists to relieve boredom. My guess is that ancient people wanted something to entertain themselves with in the times between when they had things to do. Thus, literature.

Sure, it does other things. We've found all sorts of new ways to entertain ourselves and avoid boredom, and yet literature persists and wil persist because its meaning and purposes are deep. And yet, still literature's primary purpose is to pass the time, to entertain us, to relieve boredom.

Literature exists to pass the time (so do games/sports, which probably have a longer histoyr in human existence than literature, so don't be too snobbish in dismissing the pointlessness of sports and the supposed shallowness of those of us who follow and cherish them closely).

Anyway, today is a department meeting, so even though I'm still over two weeks from teaching my first class, I'm considering today the symbolic end to summer. So here are capsule reviews of the books I passed the time with this summer.

The World's Wife, by Carol Ann Duffy
I think it's silly that states have things like a state bird, a state flower, and all that crap. These are the clues that always stump me on crosswords. So I've started making up our household items. Our official household lighting fixture is lamp. Our official household mammal is cat. And if we have an household poet laureate, it would be Carol Ann Duffy, a rare poet that my wife and I both love. Should we write her a letter informing her of the honor?

Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, by Roland Bainton
A conventional Lutheran biography of the man that does a good job providing historical context.

Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, by Erik Erikson
It's a book of ideas as much as a biography, and a brilliant one at that.

Luther: Man Between the God and the Devil, by Heiko Oberman
Revisionist history that isn't utterly convincing, but is well-written and insightful.

A Gathering of Old Men, by Ernest Gaines
This novel takes place during one day, and in that day Gaines succeeds in describing the entire history of white-black relations in the South. An underrated achievement.

Beloved, by Toni Morrison
Frankly, I like The Bluest Eye better. It's an important book, though.

Operation Shylock: A Confession, by Philip Roth
Roth is growing on me. A good novel of ideas.

MacBeth, by William Shakespeare
The Bard gives you something new each time you read one of his plays. This time, the issue of gender roles and essence stuck out to me.

Spiral, by Koji Suzuki
Actually creepier than the first book.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard
Funny stuff. Very funny stuff.

Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett
The play that inspired a generation of playwrights to write about two boobs sitting around inanely waiting is still probably the best one.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
, by Gregory Maguire
My favorite book I read this summer. Awe-inspiring. The soundtrack for the musical is wonderful, too.

Mantissa, by John Fowles
Certainly not Fowles' best or most important work, but he knows it (the title is from an old word meaning an addendum that may be minor or trivial). Still, he plays around.

Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
I wish Miller were a poet. He writes some really incredible sentences. But I don't like works of literature or film that are just about a bunch of stuff that happens.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Stupid Thing I Believe (2)

If a movie is longer than 150 minutes, it probably shouldn't be.*

I believe this for many reasons.

--Alfred Hitchcock said the length of a film should be proportional to the size of the human bladder. I couldn't agree more. Movie theaters should have intermission for movies longer than 150 minutes. We don't expect people to watch live drama for more than 2 hours without a break, but people have to hold it in to enjoy a film? Senseless. One of the pleasures I get of watching movies at home with my wife is whenever nature calls, we press pause.

--Generally, if the film would be trimmed down, IT WOULD BE A BETTER FILM. Too often the long films are made by proven directors allowed to do whatever they want. But generally, some cuts would trim unneeded fat and make the film crisper, sharper, more effective. I enjoyed the 2005 King Kong remake (thanks to a vow of frugality, I will always be 6-9 months late on film commentary. I can rarely see paying to see a film in the theater when I'm already paying for Netflix and could see the movie in 6 months anyway. Plus, if films are "art" as some say, 6-9 months is certainly not too late to comment), but after 3 hours, I really wasn't as focused in as I probably should have been. And it would have been fairly easy to cut 20 minutes from that movie, and possible without hurting the overall feel (even helping it) to cut 30-40 minutes. Hemingway cut a big intro from The Sun Also Rises at Fitzgerald's suggestion; I've never heard it suggested that this unnecessary intro would have made it a better book. Am I thinking too much like a composition teacher, demanding the superfluous material be removed or edited? But most of the times I get done watching a movie, my comment is, "That was good, but it would have been very good if they cut ___ minutes."

*Before making a list of exceptions, please consider the meaning of "probably."

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Exterior World, and the Interior

During the heat wave of the past 5 days, I had no motivation to do anything, and virtually no guilt about wasting away my time laying and doing nothing. Once I was laying on a blanket in front of a fan in front of the air conditioner, and Sadie said, "Are you sleeping?" "No," I said. "Are you reading?" "No," I said. "Are you just laying there?" "Yes," I said. All that mattered was getting past the heat wave; now we're past it, and it's time to start living life again. The only thing that interested me much at all was crossword puzzles.

In the history of ideas, perhaps we don't give enough attention to the exterior aspects of thinkers' lives (well, some people do, some people perhaps give too much attention to the exterior. Perhaps I should replace "we" with "I", but I think I'll leave the "we" because there are wider issues at stake). Sometimes we do--certainly it's hard to read John Keats' best poetry without realizing that he was fatally ill and expected to die young. How did his sickness affect his thinking, his poetry? There are scholars all over that, I think. Sometimes we don't. Now, every perspective of Martin Luther has been taken up by historians, so there are historians out there who have focused on his health issues. But for most people, the fact that Luther spent his later life constantly ill (likely because of total physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual exhaustion--though he was still pretty sharp and revising the Bible translation all the way through his life, so it's not like he totally broke down or anything) doesn't show up much in their thinking. Luther had every sort of painful illness you can think of--he once almost died from a kidney stone. So the fact that he was a prematurely old and bitter man lashing out at the world (in the form of papists, peasants, Jews, "fanatics," and anybody else who didn't see the world exactly as he did) makes some more sense. He was "A Great Man"...but he was a human being. When people talk about "A Great Man" being human, they usually refer to his mistakes and sins. In fact, being a human being meant Luther had flesh, blood, and bone, and that physical material was subject to the same decay as all flesh, blood, and bone. His physical nature had a strong impact on his spiritual-mental nature, I think.

I don't know where else I'm going with this right now, so I'll stop and let somebody else use this computer.