Monday, January 28, 2008

Torrential Downpour

"A Childish Prank"
I've found Ted Hughes' "A Childish Prank" to be a wonderful poem to introduce on the first day of a gen ed lit class. The language is straightforward. The context (a subversion of the Genesis creation story) is recognizable and resonant. Some of the suggestions (that men and women are not in control of their biological sexual urges) are always entertaining to college students (as is the suggestion of genitals as the writhing halves of a worm desperate to join back together). I think it really shows students what we can do when we're reading literature.

I put it on an overhead, read it through once, and then ask students to share any thoughts they have on it. Sometimes I ask follow-up questions, or re-phrase (a habit I should try break--or at least tone down--this semester) and add commentary. But I think it really shows students that literature can be fun, it is in their grasp, and in this class, I want to turn it over to them to give their ideas (we embrace Reader-response theory as a pedagogy).

If you notice (I know you don't), I've been adding a lot of links to this blog. I'll keep seeking out new links.

William Grimes reviews The Logic of Life, by Tim Harford, a "a devotee of rational-choice theory," the belief that "Human beings are rational creatures who respond to incentives and rewards. No matter how bizarre a choice might seem, there is logic at work." Of course you know I think it takes quite an assumption to think humans generally act rationally.

Robert Fulford describes the benefits of a life devoted to appreciating art and literature (via Arts & Letters Daily).

David Oshinsky reminds us that no, Joseph McCarthy wasn't doing good.

We've all been there, man. We've all been there (The Onion). But this one is making me laugh out loud (The Onion, again).

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Asian Horror Movies

For a brief period I loved both Asian horror movies and their American remakes. After a while, they started appearing pretty derivative.

Terrence Rafferty in "Screams in Asia Echo in Hollywood":

"The original “Ringu,” based on a novel by Koji Suzuki and directed by Hideo Nakata, was so popular in Asia that it spawned two sequels and a prequel within two years and, over the next decade, dozens of imitations: quiet, slow-paced, utterly solemn ghost stories in which young women (or schoolgirls) are repeatedly menaced by some malevolent supernatural entity, usually the spirit of a pale, longhaired woman who’s extremely annoyed about having expired."

Yep. When I first saw that movie (in the form of the American The Ring), it creeped me out bad. After a while, realizing it was mostly all the same movie, I stopped being creeped out and started being bored.

But Rafferty hits on the reason these films can continue to work:

"And horror is by its nature a good deal friendlier to cross-cultural transplantation than most movie genres, because fear is universal in a way that, say, a sense of humor is not: what we dread is far less socially determined than what we laugh at."

And that's great, but frankly, I'm not sure I've seen a good horror movie in at least a year, perhaps closer to three. Or perhaps I'm at the point where fear for my child, my mortgage, my health, and everything else that comes with responsible adulthood has pushed fear of ghosts to the margins.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Torrential Downpour

Distinct Voices
The Big Lebowski is a brilliant film largely because so many eccentric characters speak with such distinct, unique rhythms, patterns, and mannerisms. The Sopranos, too, is a brilliant show in part because each character has his or her own way not only of speaking, not only of moving, but even a distinct aesthetic of being. The Simpsons is yet another show with the remarkable power of providing many distinct voices.

This isn't an easy feat to pull off. In Seinfeld, for example, Jerry, George, and Elaine often come off sounding remarkably the same. But when a show or film does pull it off, it is a great aesthetic achievement.

Can a misanthrope love humanity?
Can a person be a pacifist believing in the dignity of all people, while really not liking to be around people much? It can be easier to love humanity in the abstract than to love actual people. Can a person try to live by Christ's ethic of forgiving everybody who wrongs him/her, but while finding most people rather annoying? In some ways it's easier to forgive grand tragedies than to forgive people for being merely annoying.

I feel these two articles are somewhat related (besides both being in "Spiked" and coming to here through "Arts & Letters Daily." Frank Furedi writes critically about how "the science" has become a moral authority. Helene Guldberg reviews Christopher Lane's book on overdiagnosis of psychological issues.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Carmela Soprano is America

It can be frustrating watching Carmela Soprano get on her moral high horse; after all, she's a complicit beneficiary of her husband's criminal life.

I'm writing this in my home in Minnesota. Why is a descendant of Germans and Scandinavians living in Minnesota? I part because European colonists and the U.S. government used violence and deception to force Native Americans into smaller populations and smaller pockets of land.

I'm not responsible for these acts; in fact, I am morally repulsed by these acts. But here I am.

And what other unethical activities that may appall us are we complicit beneficiaries in?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Idiot

SPOILERS--don't read this if you plan on reading The Idiot.

As sad an ending as I could have imagined. Not the murder, which is inevitable and expected (though the presentation is harrowing, haunting). But Prince Myshkin, lost, insane, an "idiot," not recognizing anybody? That's really more than a reader can take. I feel a deep sense of loss at the end of this novel, worse than with any other of Dostoevsky's novels. Notes from the Underground simply ends us where we begin: with the man from the underground, separate from society. Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamozov end with a sense of hope. Demons is dark, and yet reading the novel I was not shocked or deeply disturbed, as the novel itself is dark.

But The Idiot, for me, was different. As I said, the murder was expected: frankly, I'd have been surprised if Rogozhin didn't kill Nastasya Filippovna. Still Dostoevsky haunts, as the presentation of this death is entirely quiet and somber, unexpected. But Prince Myshkin was so noble, humble, beautiful. That the end of the novel leaves him an "idiot," insane and detached from the world (and himself?), is just to awful to imagine. The trauma and sadness of knowing the beautiful Prince Myshkin is lost to insanity is overwhelming.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Look at those, Sancho Panza!

"When the Giving Is Good: Saving Christmas from the economists"

Harvey Mansfield:

"The sovereignty of individual preferences also helps economics by freeing it from having to understand human nature. Economists can make mathematical models of behavior without considering whether their mathematics describes actual human beings accurately. Economics, no longer confined to a particular subject--namely, money--can expand into other fields such as psychology, sociology, and political science."

(via Arts & Letters Daily)

"Possible Side Effects"

David Leonhardt:

"This problem plagues many of the new economic imperialists: [...] they don’t get out enough. They are asking good questions about epidemiology and psychology, but they are not spending much time with epidemiologists and psychologists, let alone with the people who are the subjects of their academic research. As a result, they arrive at conclusions that can be clever but lack wisdom..."

Monday, January 14, 2008

Torrential Downpour

"In short, anything can be said of world history, anything conceivable even by the most disordered imagination. There is only one thing that you can’t say–that it had anything to do with reason."
In a recent post, economist David Berri writes about books applying economics to other subject, and discusses the idea (as expressed by Tim Harford) that

"Rational people respond to incentives: When it becomes more costly to do something, they will tend to do it less; when it becomes easier, cheaper, or more beneficial, they tend to do it more. In weighing up their choices, they will bear in mind the overall constraints upon them: not just the costs and benefits of a specific choice, but their total budget. And they will also consider the future consequences of present choices."

In Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky raises an objection against (among other things) the belief that human beings will behave according to their own best interests, if they could only be taught them. The man from the underground suggests that human desire cannot be easily quantified, and further suggests that "reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s intellectual faculties, while volition is a manifestation of the whole of life, I mean of the whole of human life including both reason and speculation."

It again strikes me that the mode of thinking Dostoevsky argues against is precisely the mode of thinking in economics. The man from the underground seems to suggest that people's desires transcend simple definitions of "incentives," that humans can and do behave against their own incentives or best interests (primarily in order to assert their free will, to prove they are not sprigs on a barrel organ), and that humans can't really be expected to act according to reason (as they often don't).

I'm chasing after windmills.

Finishing a book
I've been carrying Dostoevsky's The Idiot around with me for about a month. I'm a horrifyingly slow reader (ah, but I remember what I read fairly well, better than most, I think), the timing has been bad (finals week grading, Holiday visiting, lots and lots of football), and frankly taking care of a one year old limits reading time.

As I've been in Dostoevsky's world, it has felt to me as a world without beginning (since I started it at a Final, associating it with last semester, which seems worlds away by this point) and no end. And now, I'll soon be leaving this world. It's a bit...disorienting. In my thesis on John Fowles' The Magus, I argue that Nicholas the narrator's suicide attempt is inauthentic, because the weight of the pages after this chapter convince the reader that the attempt will fail. And the weight of pages of The Idiot has seemed interminable, as if the events could carry on forever (Dostoevsky's seeming lack of structure contributes).

But now I've got less than 90 pages, and it's terribly obvious that events will end. I know they soon must. And yet nothing in the book is occurring as if any denouement is on its way.

But the next book I plan to read is Dostoevsky's The Adolescent, so I won't be out of his world for long. I've really be working through the master's major works. Dostoevsky is my desert island novelist--I don't think I would need any other novels but his.

(and if you're curious, my desert island playwright is, of course, Shakespeare, and I do not have a desert island poet, as the infinite varieties and beauties of poetry cannot allow me to limit myself to but one poet).

Here's what I've been watching over winter break:

Day Watch. OK.
The Big Lebowski. Very funny.
Superbad. Very funny.
The Brothers Solomon. This is the sort of movie my wife and I frequently watch and often love: it's not technically "good," and it's low budget and unknown, but it is filled with genuinely creative, funny moments.

I've also been rewatching season two of The Sopranos, and occasionally rewatching episodes of season nine of Seinfeld.

And lots and lots of football. Miserable, miserable football.

Friday, January 11, 2008

On my economics post

I feel completely ridiculous that my post on dehumanization in economics features such a clear and obvious error--and that furthermore, this error is the result of my ignorance of the terminology of the very subject I was attempting to write about. Those who know me know this is a fault for which I can barely forgive myself (even at this little blog which has never had more than a handful of regular readers).

Let me quickly summarize here: my point in that post was not to dismiss economics as a field of study or as a useful field within its sphere. My point was mainly to express my own personal dislike of economics, what I particularly dislike about economics. My focus was on the dehumanization; in my own opinion, it's an approach to reality that reduces individuals to their productivity, defines actions by response to incentives, evaluates human behavior according to group behavior, etc. What troubles me is that economists are expanding their worldview outside of the conventional sphere of economics and are explaining many aspects of human existence according to an economist's worldview. This is fine in some areas (it's useful--though not definitive--in sports analysis), but in other areas it just doesn't work for me. I fear that an economist's worldview stretched into other fields reduces human psychology and behavior to base and limited terms. And my life as a student of literature, imbibing Arthur Miller, William Wordsworth, Fyodor Dostoevsky, John Milton, John Fowles, and others, simply balks at explanations, evaluations, and assumptions of human beings in such terms.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Dostoevsky's Characters Resist Aesthetic Precision

Some novelists write with great precision: think of the restraint of Henry James or Gustave Flaubert, who seem to choose and place every word meticulously.

And some writers impose rigid structures on their works: think of The Sound and the Fury (though self-imposed structure is the only thing that could contain Faulkner's overflowing waves of words).

When I read Dostoevsky, I see neither precision nor structure. But the reason is simple: his characters will not allow it.

In Dostoevsky's novels, characters reach into their chests, rip out their hearts, set them on the table and shout, "There, look at that!" Characters are suffering in their souls, and exposing their souls. The words "restraint" or "manners" suit very few of Dostoevsky's major characters. They are all mad, talking, talking people, running about consumed with ideas. The ideas are so overflowing, the characters so eccentric and so full of passion, that they cannot be drawn with precision but only with energy-infused words, and they are too big and unrestrained to fit into structure.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Stupid Summer Project: The Voice

George: I'm a weed in Hitler's bunker.
Jerry: I'm getting a little uncomfortable with the Hitler stuff.

Darren: Then Mr. Seinfeld went to the restroom, at which point Mr. Costanza scooped ice out of Mr. Seinfeld's drink with his bare hand and used it to wash up. And then Mr. Costanza then remarked to me, "This never happened."

Comment: a really funny episode. From Jerry struggling to decide between a girlfriend and a joke voice (try saying "Helloooooo," and it's intoxicating), to Kramer hiring an intern to aid his everyday life, to George sticking it out at "Play Now" even though they didn't want him working there anymore. Frankly, George worked for the Yankees for far too long: there's just too much potential with George getting into shenanigans with all sorts of other employers who hate him. George's plots in seasons 1-5 and season 9 finding work, struggling with unemployment, and working at various jobs for various bosses, were more entertaining than any plotline he ever had with the Yankees.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Stupid Summer Project: The Butter Shave

Kramer: Stick a fork in me Jerry: I'm done.

George: Listen Jerry. With all due respect, Bania's voice is the voice of a new generation. My generation!
Jerry: We're four months apart!
George. Nevertheless, his time has come.

Comment: Season Nine is a good one. This episode marks the return of beloved character David Puddy, who had a few episodes in season six and returns as a regular in season nine. The dialogue between Jerry and George is sharp and often inane. Some corny plot stuff, but overall, the pace and tone is good.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Economics and Human

ADDENDUM: This post contains a pretty egregious error. I've tried to explain my feelings more clearly in "On my economics post." If you're going to read this, read that too.

I don't like economics.

Part of my dislike of economics is the arrogance I perceive. In my experience, people in the Humanities are comfortable discussing their theories as theories; in literature and literary theory "truth" is not quite what you think, and even history is not merely a chronicle of what happened, but an evolving interpretation of the meaning of what happened. Even the scientists I've encountered seem comfortable discussing the theoretical, subjective nature of their work (one of my college science teachers explained cosmology as our current model of the universe, not simply our knowledge of what the universe is). Some of the economists I've encountered seem to have greater assurance in the correctness of their own statistical analysis; I haven't noticed the same comfort with doubt in their own numbers, theories, and analysis. Particularly when I read economists (and mathematicians) writing on sports, I sometimes sense that the writers don't have even a slight doubt that their numbers are pristine and infallible indicators of truth. But this is entirely subjective: I don't have specific examples, and I'm basing it on my perception of my very limited experience (which is largely based on economists commenting on subjects other than economics, like sports).

But my further dislike of economics stems from the dehumanization inherent in economics. Of course, economics explores trends, and the individual is easily ignored (or merely categorized). But it goes further. I think every reader of this blog knows of my other incarnation as a sports blogger, and I do encounter some economists writing about sports. One such economist is David Berri of Wages of Wins, a blog devoted primarily to basketball analysis. In a recent post, Berri wrote the following passage:

"In sum, our teams can make us happy or sad. Or if I were to pretend to be an economist, teams can increase or decrease our utility."

I'm not writing this to criticize Berri himself (he's not the specific problem, and furthermore the post was written with a light-hearted tone), and I don't know his precise intent with this passage. I write now because the passage struck me as microcosmic, in some way, of a larger issue. I fear this passage gets at the heart of what disturbs me about economics as an area of study: humans are defined by their utility [NOTE: see the comments: Holy Hitter set me straight on what "utility" means in economic terms. The inspiration for this post was based on my ignorance and misunderstanding of economics terminology, and so my apologies to David Berri. However, I won't eliminate the post, as I hope the points made are valid even if the impulse that inspired these points isn't].

I don't believe an individual's dignity resides in how useful or not useful he or she is; I believe there is an inherent dignity in each individual human that transcends mere "utility." If a person is defined by his or her "utility," then it is merely that person's production that matters, not the person himself or herself. And that is at the root of capitalism's dehumanization: you are only worth what you can produce. You the person don't matter; you the productive employee is all that matters. There's a place for such a view, I believe (for example, Troy Williamson the person doesn't matter to the Vikings when Troy Williamson the wide receiver is a completely unproductive employee). But the values that reduce humans to their productivity are often extended out of the fields where such a reduction is useful and necessary, and into social attitudes, social policy, and general ethics and behavior.

The dehumanization takes other forms. In economics, it seems people are part of groups that can be studied and placed into trends. People are merely the units that can be manipulated by "incentives." Provide the right "incentives," and at least according to groups and trends, people will behave in a particular (and hopefully predictable) way. It's almost a denial of free will. As Dostoevsky writes in Notes from the Underground, "as far as I know you deduce the whole range of human satisfactions as averages from statistical figures and scientifico-economic formulas."

Of course I stand with Dostoevsky's underground man (for better or worse): "the whole range of human satisfactions" cannot be so easily quantified into an economists' system. The man from the underground suggests that human behavior cannot "be worked out by those laws, mathematically, like a table of logarithms," and that humans will ignore their own best interest (or, if you prefer, "incentives") to assert their own free will. In other words, humans have transcendent spiritual needs that defy their merely utilitarian economic needs--and their behavior sometimes follows these other needs.

Human dignity doesn't reside in the individual's utility, and the complexities of human desire can't easily be fit into codified trends or defined by incentives.

Economics, of course, wasn't really intended to get at deep human spiritual needs. And yet, economists keep branching out to apply economic theory to other areas of human life. So if my criticism of economics is well off the wikipedia definition of economics ("Economics is the social science that studies the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. [...] A definition that captures much of modern economics is that of Lionel Robbins in a 1932 essay: "the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses"), that's OK. What brought on this post was two sentences in a post that replaced "make us happy or sad" with "can increase or decrease or utility"; while I'm not writing about economics as a study of "production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services" but as a field of study that defines individuals in a dehumanizing way, I don't think I'm off-base in doing so.

And at any rate, I'm just a crackpot with a little-read blog ranting about my own dislike of economics. My revolution is solitary.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Does this change your perspective?

Lee Siegel on modernism in France, from "The Blush of the New:"

"if the French provided the most extreme assaults on Western rationality — Rimbaud’s 'disorientation of the senses,' AndrĂ© Breton’s celebration of primal instincts stored in the unconscious, AndrĂ© Gide’s enthusiasm for the 'motiveless' crime, Antonin Artaud’s 'Theater of Cruelty,' Maurice Blanchot’s declaration of the death of the author — the reason was simple. It was not that French conditions kept creating figures resembling Baudelaire, about whom Gay histrionically writes that he was 'an outcast aware of his loneliness' — though, as Gay admits, Baudelaire lived at the center of Parisian cultural energy. In France, civilization is invincible and eternal. Its immutable stability makes opposition to it all the more cheerfully ferocious. You can hurl the most incredible rhetorical and intellectual violence against French custom and convention and still have time for some conversation in the cafe, un peu de vin, a delicious dinner and, of course, l’amour. And in the morning, you extricate yourself from such sophisticated coddling — the result of centuries of art and artifice — and rush back to the theoretical barricades."

Perhaps we need an historical and social context to understand literature. If, as Siegel asserts, French social critics were particularly scathing of French bourgeois culture because they knew they could not disturb it, then perhaps we will read them differently.