Lit Me Up

Things in literature, art, and culture that make me mad, or make me happy

Friday, December 01, 2006

Blogging about Blogging: Redux

One of the primary issues I have with the use of the blogging platform for academic purposes is that of tone. This project seems to be intended for two separate audiences with conflicting interests: the highly formal prose of academic discourse seems ill-suited for the informality of the blogosphere, while the chatty, first-person register of online writing does not lend itself well to graded academic work. Finding an appropriate tone while writing both for class and for the "public" sometimes led me to odd places, stylistically. I feel that some of my attempts to reconcile erudition with informality led my writing to seem smug and pretentious.

Another recurring problem I encountered was with the technology used in this course. Blogger's software is often clunky and unreliable. (I suppose the same is true of MS Word, but we're just more used to it.) Blogger deleted my first post, and on numerous occasions thwarted my attempts to add graphics. Since blogging is still new technology, such problems will probably be resolved with time, but I feel these frustrations added unnecessary difficulty to the course. I also encountered problems with certain websites. Aside from the minor issues of broken links and poor layout that affect many sites, the largest problem I had was with the Pulitzer Prize website, which I relied heavily upon as a source for Essay 3. For technical reasons that I don't understand, the Pulitzer website does not allow external links, so every time I tried to create links to the content on the site, the link would send me to the homepage.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed several of the unique aspects of blogging. Engaging with some of the denizens of the Internet added an interesting perspective to essay-writing, and I often enjoyed writing in a different style than I am used to. Also, previous to this class, I had assumed that, with a few exceptions, the blogosphere and the Internet in general were synonymous with frivolity, time-wasting, and crassness. Writing online about literature led me to discover literature blogs, online symposia, amateur and academic writing, and a variety of interesting perspectives.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

In Praise of Judgement: The Wisdom of Michiko Kakutani

Great literature shapes our thoughts. Great criticism shapes our thoughts about literature. A good critic is one whose judgment has the power to influence and the courage to contravene prevailing tastes. A good critic can asses developments in thought, emerging trends in style, and the state of literary zeitgeist in addition to the merits of individual books. A good critic has the power to make or break a literary reputation. For this, a good critic deserves recognition. Michiko Kakutani, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times book critic, does all this and more. For this reason, I would choose Ms. Kakutani to be nominated for an honorary degree at my academic institution.

Ethical philosopher Mike W. Martin, in his book Meaningful Work: Rethinking Professional Ethics (2003) outlines some broad criteria for excellence in professional life. He defines economic success as important, though not critical in establishing a professional as a master of his or her field, because those who pursue economic success advance the public interest in an Adam Smithian sense. However, he also notes the importance of advancing the public interest in an altruistic way, in the manner of physicians, social workers, or to use his (rather dubious) example, politicians.

While Martin’s definition of professional excellence is extremely practical, and in many ways a good yardstick of a worthy candidate for recognition, it is somewhat less useful in considering those professions which are aesthetic or intellectual in nature, rather than practical. Since general-public free-market demand for literature and criticism is somewhat lacking, the fields of literature and academia have become, in a sense, the ultimate guild system. However, even beyond Martin’s criteria, in contemplating the honorary degree-awarding process, I was struck by the narrowness of the field of candidates whom I would consider eligible for an honorary literary degree. Most working fiction writers, even visionary, virtuoso authors, lack sufficient public recognition to be considered masters of their field. Furthermore, almost all fiction writers operate in a sphere of extremely limited cultural influence. Even (especially?) genius authors of sublime writing have little recognition outside small academic and literary circles. Precisely why this is; whether it has anything to do with the ascendancy of television and movies, the decline of the American attention span, the ever-increasing desensitization of the public to graphic sex and violence, and any other hand-wringing over the state of literature are outside the scope of this essay. However, it is true that literary fiction, unlike its rival media formats, rarely inspires public discourse. Writers who do make their way into public consciousness tend to do so because of controversy surrounding their outspoken politics: Salman Rushdie, for example; or 2006 Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.

I would also disqualify most professional academics from receiving honorary degrees for similar reasons. Scholarship is an even more isolated pursuit than literature, in terms of public influence. Certain scholars, such as Camille Paglia and Noam Chomsky, achieve status as “public intellectuals”; Chomsky, again, because of his radical politics (so much so that people tend to forget he is also the world’s leading linguist), and Paglia for her outspoken feminism and writing on sexual politics and popular culture. In general, however, the awarding of honorary degrees to professional scholars creates an atmosphere of insularity among the academic community and serves only to further isolate academia from a broader sphere of culture and community. Stephen E. Epler, in Honorary Degrees: A Survey of Their Use and Abuse (1943), says that “there is little point in having the merit rediscovered several times by several colleges…After all, what can an individual do with several honorary degrees that he cannot do with one?” In other words, the practice of awarding honorary degrees to scholars devalues the merit of honorary degrees: as scholars amass degree upon degree in their curricula vitae, the prestige of each individual honor declines into worthlessness.

USC specifies that honorands must have “have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements in scholarship, the professions, or other creative activities, whether or not they are widely known by the general public.” From the list of recent recipients, one could draw the conclusion that USC is adhering to Mike Martin’s definition of professional excellence, with an emphasis on a particularly Smithian definition of “extraordinary achievement.” A look at the recipients of honorary degrees awarded to creative artists (of which there are few to begin with) yields only internationally-renowned household names, including Robert Zimeckis, and Frank Gehry, both of whom are successful by almost any definition. One can hardly fault USC for wishing to associate its image with only the most outstanding individuals, but the emphasis on celebrity (it must be because we are in Los Angeles) is somewhat troubling. Can we attribute the lack of literary notables among the recipients to the fact that the literary world is nonconducive to the manufacture of either celebrities or extreme wealth? Or does the absence reflect the formerly alluded-to trend in contemporary culture – the decline of the American reading public, perhaps, and the increasing marginalization of literature in culture?

If the preceding examples of literary notables illustrate the unsuitability of honorary degrees for unassuming, culturally isolated writers and scholars and their controversial, bellicose peers, Michiko Kakutani rises above the fray. Her writing is political only in the sense that it is judgmental– she does not deal in politics; it is controversial only in that it is unafraid to take aim at the sacred cows of the literary establishment. Some critics accuse Kakutani of deliberately inflaming her rhetoric to draw attention to writing. Even if this claim were true (which I do not believe it is), from a Smithian perspective, this pursuit of success would serve the public interest, and would thus be inherently good. However, in a sense, whether or not her vitriol is calculated to be as such, her divisive, provocative, and often entertaining criticism, and her fierce, fearless judgment have made her the most powerful, famous book critic today. Furthermore, Kakutani’s writing is the opposite of the abstraction and ineffectuality that plague the rest of the literary world. The power she wields through her pronunciations is the very essence of the power of a perlocutionary speech act: as she writes, it is so. For example, consider her 2004 review, published two weeks before the official release, of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. She was not kind:

“In his previous novels and earliest nonfiction pieces, Mr. Wolfe gave readers minutely detailed inside looks at rarified subcultures, from the world of Wall Street bond traders to horse breeding stud farms to prison inmate life. This time, instead of boldly going where few writers have gone before, he gives us some tiresomely generic if hyperbolic glimpses of student life at a fictional school called Dupont University…As for the plot of ''Charlotte Simmons,'' it's a cheap, jerry-built affair that manages the unfortunate trick of being messy and predictable at the same time.”

Other reviewers followed suit. (Charlotte Simmons eventually reached its critical nadir as the recipient of The Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award– awarded annually to the worst sex scene in a novel – especially uncomplimentary for an author who considers himself a master realist). Even charitable reviews contained a decidedly mixed note. And while the sour critical reception did not greatly dampen the public’s response (I Am Charlotte Simmons debuted at the #2 spot on Amazon), the critical reaction to what was certainly calculated to be another tour-de-force of perceptive observation became the undoubted low point of Wolfe’s literary career.

If the literary evisceration of a popular writer like Tom Wolfe seems unfair and disingenuous, Kakutani’s treatments of contemporary literary icons such as John Updike and Norman Mailer are hardly less scathing. According to her review of The Gospel According to the Son, a 1997 piece that is listed as an example of work that was reviewed in consideration for her award of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize (NB: the Pulitzer Prize web site is not link-friendly), Mailer’s fictional account of the life of Jesus is

a sort of novelized ''Jesus Christ Superstar'' starring Jesus as an ambivalent pop star and guru: a silly, self-important and at times inadvertently comical book that reads like a combination of ''Godspell,'' Nikos Kazantzakis's ''Last Temptation of Christ'' and one of those new, dumbed-down Bible translations.”

In response to this and other reviews, Mailer famously said of Kakutani:

“She’s a one-woman kamikaze. She disdains white male writers, and I am her number one favourite target. She trashes it just to hurt sales and embarrass the author. But the Times editors can't fire her. They're terrified of her. With discrimination rules and such, well, she's a threefer: Asiatic, feminist and, ah, what's the third? Well. Let's just call her a twofer.”

Although this serves only as an example of the rage that Kakutani inspires, her more sober critics note that while she has certainly taken down her share of white male writers, Kakutani’s main target is the literary establishment in general, in which, not coincidentally, white male writers feature prominently. However, she has also unfavorably reviewed Margaret Atwood and Alice Walker, among others. It is certainly possible that Kakutani fixates on the condemnation of notables, but she is not spiteful or bitter in her dismantling of literary giants. It is an oft-repeated criticism of criticism (usually by disgruntled authors) that literary critics are failed writers. Whether or not this convention is broadly true is up for debate, but in Kakutani’s case it is clearly false. Whatever else she is, she is tough but fair. She doesn’t curry favorites with writers, and famously reclusive, she has never played a part in the literary/social scene. She doesn’t play favorites – with equal relish she has lauded and condemned Roth and DeLillo. When not inflammatory, her writing can be penetrating and illuminating, not to mention succinct. Her summation of roughly three thousand pages of Pynchon:

“The Great Big Question in Thomas Pynchon's novels, from ''V.'' (1963) through ''Gravity's Rainbow'' (1973) and ''Vineland'' (1990), has been: Is the world dominated by conspiracies or chaos? Are there patterns, secret agendas, mysterious codes -- in short, a hidden design -- to the burble and turmoil of human existence, or is it all a product of chance?”

For those unfamiliar with Pynchon, that is the literary-criticism equivalent of a snake digesting an elephant. Of her reading prowess, Ben Yagoda commented in a Slate article,

“It should be clear to anyone who has read Kakutani's reviews that she has an estimable intelligence; she backs this up with what must be many real or virtual all-nighters in which she digests every word ever published by the writer under review. She takes books seriously, a valuable and ever-rarer trait.”

This attitude towards literature is Kakutani’s most fundamental gift to the world of literature. Were she to give a commencement address, as is the custom for honorary degree recipients, I think this would be her message. But beyond the importance and vitality of literature, Kakutani shows us the power of judgement, the importance of making strong evaluations, even if they are unpopular. Her unwillingness to hedge her critical bets is unusual in a field where equivocal praise and oblique censure are the norm. In the Slate article, Yagoda goes on to criticize Kakutani for her all-or-nothing, thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down approach, claiming that her criticism lacks subtlety. Even if this is true, the passion that Kakutani feels for her subject matter is palpable. For those who would deny the power of criticism; and also for those who would deny the power of literature, the passion and vitriol with which Michiko Kakutani writes serve as a powerful reminder of the value of literature. It is a reminder that not only does literature have value, but truly good literature is cause for celebration; and lazy, bad, or pompous writing can incite anger and disgust. The critical thing is to know the difference.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Timothy McSweeny's Website is Clever and Interesting

The Internet has spawned a revolution in humor. As part of the larger trend of the democratization of media that the Internet has brought about, the new humor differs from traditional humor, as it was filtered through the entertainment and publishing industries, in several ways. One example is the trend of taking humor to its extremities – the tendency to badder, bigger, grosser, and more outrageous than could ever be shown in traditional media outlets. Another trend is that towards the eccentric, contextually isolated, one-off content of viral videos. The lowest-common-denominator downward spiral of traditional media has been well-documented, but does the Internet offer any alternative? Can the Internet serve as an outlet not only for content that is too gross or too bizarre for the mainstream media, but also for content of a higher caliber than that which is typically offered for general consumption?

It can and does.

McSweeney’s is one of my personal favorite websites. It is smart, funny, and weird; and it represents an unusually accessible kind of intellectual humor. Happily, it does not exist in isolation. For an in-depth look at some similar printed publications, I direct the reader to A. O. Scott's NYT article about a new journal-publishing phenomenon, and how these publications represent the attitude of a new generation of optimistic young intellectuals.

For the unfamiliar: McSweeney’s Internet Tendency is a weekday-updated humor website from the publishing house McSweeney’s, which was founded by wunderkind author Dave Eggers. (I sometimes like to think that Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran-Foer, Benjamin Kunkel and David Foster-Wallace all get together and talk about how much they hate being called “wunderkind authors”). In addition to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, McSweeney’s publishing is responsible for McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a literary journal; The Believer monthly literary magazine (which I highly recommend); Wolphin DVD magazine; as well as two other book-publishing imprints.

What I didn’t know until recently is that McSweeney’s Internet Tendency was nominated for a Webby Award in two categories: Humor and Best Copy/Writing in 2005. It did not win either, but the very fact that it was nominated surprises, not only because McSweeney’s serves a rather niche market of Internet users (as discussed below), but because the Webby Awards are designed to distinguish websites that adhere to a very high professional standard of Internet publishing. Although McSweeney’s is an outstanding publication, it is also very iconoclastic.

As previously stated, McSweeney’s exists in an odd space between genres, and appeals to an atypical intended audience (as compared to the regular news-sports-and-eBay Internet user). The humoristic style of McSweeney’s can be encapsulated thusly: witty, droll, precious, high-brow, whimsical, intellectual, self-aware, etc. However, the site frequently publishes articles, features, and series that although not specifically humorous, exemplify the characteristic clever, light-hearted tone that permeates the entire website. And who reads this? The website does not publish its site traffic numbers, but I personally imagine an army of bespectacled Brooklynites sitting in Starbucks reading McSweeney’s on their Mac books. More generally, the site appeals to a young, well-read, well-educated audience, especially those who consider themselves media-savvy, intellectual, and self-aware.

Secondly, McSweeney’s operates according to an extremely minimalist, plain-text aesthetic. The site design owes more, visually speaking, to old photocopied jokes that were passed around offices in the pre-Internet days than to the hyper-multi-modal extravaganza of typical humor websites. In other words, it is an anti-Internet aesthetic, but certainly deliberately so. The lack of ornamentation here is not the result of laziness or lack of skill on the part of the web developers. Contrast the visual sparcity of the McSweeney's Internet Tendency site with that of the more traditional layout of the McSweeney's Store. The store's website has a traditional columnar layout with images of products and an attractive earth-toned color scheme. This is likely a matter of function. While the literary arm of McSweeney's seems to aspire to a perverse and alienating visual experience, the store probably cannot risk alienating potential customers with unconventional stylings. Furthermore, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency relies on a certain high-brow, literary sense of humor that does not include much in the way of visual gags or video clips. The lack of visual distractions serves to emphasize the reader’s attention on the text, of which there is plenty. In fact, if the visual experience of McSweeney's is underwhelming, the content component of the website is overwhelming. Furthermore, the quantity and variety of the content is such that the minimalist design is rather insufficient. Instead of creating a more layered, multi-page website, the McSweeney's homepage is cluttered with links to features, authors, and miscellany.

Nevertheless, the judging criteria for the Webby Awards are careful to articulate that

“Its more than just a pretty homepage and it doesn't have to be cutting edge or trendy. Good visual design is high quality, appropriate, and relevant for the audience and the message it is supporting. It communicates a visual experience and may even take your breath away.”

Although a text-only layout might be considered appropriate for a literary website, it would be hard to say that McSweeney’s layout is breathtaking. Ultimately, the visual experience that it communicates is more negative than positive. But it is not that the website is visually unpleasant so much as it is that the viewer better notices what isn’t there (such as advertisements, graphics, or colors), than what is.

McSweeney’s certainly meets the criteria for content and structure, it is easy to see why it didn’t win, especially compared to the winning website of the 2005 Webby Award for humor: perennial favorite The Onion, which submerges the viewer in an entire multi-media fake-news experience including audio, graphics, and a variety of content. In this respect, it is a far better website than McSweeney’s. But notwithstanding that The Onion is far more popular and widely-read than McSweeney’s, both share a certain stylistic element: specifically, the tendency towards intellectual satire and the use of parody to critique media, politics, and popular culture. Consider the following treatments of Britney Spears as representative of the stylistic tendencies of these two websites:

It's Over Between Me and My Baby

Bit-Bit, Speak! A Monologue from the Canine Companion of Britney Spears and Kevin Federline

By incorporating a visual element in the parody, The Onion satirizes the celebrity confessional, the journalistically insubstantial nature of the soft-focus glossy magazine, and the shallowness of celebrity culture using nothing but visual cues and a single sentence of text.

McSweeney’s, on the other hand, generates humor by contrasting the dramatic, serious tone of the piece with a seemingly absurd subject for this tone, namely, Britney Spears’ chihuahua. As a method for generating humor, theorists would tell you, the contrast of the lofty and the ridiculous is the oldest trick in the book. Nevertheless, it’s an effect that McSweeney’s uses to great success, probably because it allows writers to demonstrate their intelligence and showcase their craft while still being funny. Other examples of this technique include the entries “An Open Letter to Orcas” and “An Open (Love) Letter to Taco Bell’s Crunch Wrap Supreme”, in the ongoing feature Open Letters to People or Entities who are Unlikely to Respond.

Some features on the website skew more towards the literary. For example, the article A Selection from George W. Bush’s Eavesdropping Tapes: Matthew Barney and Bjork Place an Ikea Phone Order retains the website’s characteristic whimsy; the central humor of the piece derives from the personalities of the titular eccentric artists. While Bjork is a fairly accessible pop-culture reference (and Ikea is a pop-culture icon), not everyone is familiar with Matthew Barney and his decade-spanning multimedia art project The Cremaster Cycle. Again, the main source of humor in the article is contrast – the mundaneness of an Ikea phone order: “It's called the Flärke. F-L-A-R-K-E. It's a bookshelf… Flärke. With an umlaut over the a…Yes, I can hold again… You're kidding me. If you can't deliver it, why do you have the option to order by phone?” - with a series of absurdist nonsequitors. Another source of humor is the positioning of Barney as the more grounded and practical of the two quixotic artists. Still another is the enframing conceit of President Bush listening in on the phone-call.

Perhaps the best article which encapsulates the tone and style of McSweeney’s is Lists of Ideas for Ideas for Lists , published, appropriately, in the Lists feature. The critical element here is the self-awareness of this article. Notice that it was published in October of 2000, only a year after the debut of McSweeney’s, but already the writer is irreverently parodying the predictability of characteristic humor style of the website. However, rather than criticizing this style, the writer revels in it (notice: “lists that absolve even as they damn”), before (also appropriately) devolving into rhyming nonsense.

Visual input is always important to the experience of a website, even if it involves the absence of visual stimuli. Thus, another point of comparison in several areas is the winner of the 2005 Webby Award for Best Copy/Writing, for which McSweeney’s Internet Tendency was also nominated: The New Yorker. The New Yorker website, like McSweeney’s, is notable for its visual austerity and emphasis on textual content, unless of course one counts the massive sidebar of advertisements, which engulfs a third of the screen. Of course, The New Yorker, the gold standard of High Seriousness, does not aspire to be humorous, much less precious and light-hearted (except the cartoons, of course). If McSweeney’s cannot reasonably exceed The New Yorker in penetrating and insightful commentary and opinion, it does lead in interactivity. Another criterion of the Webby Awards, although it does not apply to the Best Copy/Writing Award specifies:

“It's input/output, as in searches, chat rooms, e-commerce and gaming or notification agents, peer-to-peer applications and real-time feedback. It's make your own, distribute your own, or speak your mind so others can see, hear or respond. Interactive elements are what separates [sic] the Web from other media. Their inclusion should make it clear that you aren't reading a magazine or watching TV anymore.”

Unfortunately, reading the New Yorker website feels a lot like reading The New Yorker magazine. Furthermore, the only interactive component is the venerable cartoon caption contest, which has persisted since long before the Internet.

McSweeney’s, by contrast, frequently includes work written by non-professional writers, people who are entirely unaffiliated with the website or the publishing house, and anyone else who submits funny, witty, self-aware, self-deprecating articles to the website. The inclusion of reader-submitted content on the site is especially interesting considering its aforementioned highbrow nature. Of course, the process is not entirely democratic: the articles published to the website are selected by an unnamed cabal of editors, who release no statistics as to the number of submissions they receive. Nevertheless, the site’s editors describe themselves as “
small and irresponsible, and afflicted with mold-born allergies”. They submit that their proofreading “will be done by an unqualified person”. (Personally, I find that these protestations ring false: McSweeney’s is clearly in love with its own precocity). However, if McSweeney’s is not democratic in the un-edited, self-publishing sense of YouTube and MySpace, it is because it is not so much seeking a democratic web experience as a community experience for a group of like-minded readers and writers.

If we are to consider this community aspect as central to our understanding of McSweeney’s, then some unresolved issues fall into place. Most noticeably, the issue of website design makes much more sense if we consider that McSweeney’s is not attempting to appeal to a broad audience. In fact, their alienating site design may be an attempt to repel certain Internet users. Given that the site does not use advertisements (except for plain-text endorsements of other McSweeney's publications), McSweeney’s has no financial incentive to drive traffic. In fact, increased web traffic can only serve to strain their servers.

This is, of course, only a theory. McSweeney’s certainly does not appear to have an agenda of exclusion and elitism hidden behind its whimsical exterior. It would be very odd for a website to attempt to deliberately estrange visitors. Nevertheless, through its choices of design and content, McSweeney’s certainly narrows its appeal.

Considering its essentially odd nature, I think it is wonderful that McSweeney’s has achieved recognition as a distinguished website as a result of the Webby Awards. I’m looking forward to the 2006 award winners. In any case, if there was an award for Best Smart and Quirky Website, McSweeney’s would probably win. That said, McSweeney’s would do well to broaden its appeal. Considering that it leverages the tremendous creative forces of many talented writers, it seems unfitting that the website should exist as a lonely outpost in an odd corner of the Internet. If the website could move beyond its purist impulses against links, graphics, and multimedia, it could find itself in a position of considerable authority, not only as an unusual and fascinating website, but as intellectual touchstone for the Internet generation.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Blog Post about Blogging in Blogs (watch out: it's a little bit meta)

One of the worst things about the blogosphere is its self-reflexivity. Some amateur writers with blogs seem obsessed with the act of blogging. They are drunk off their new-found influence and their ability to reach an audience. But it is not so much that these people don't have anything to say - it just seems that everyone wants to speak his piece with as much navel-gazing and self-congratulation as possible. Such writers (and even legitimately accomplished bloggers such as Markos Moulitsas Zuniga and Arianna Huffington occasionally fall into this category), along with the embarrassing variety of celebrity-worshiping, intellectually bereft websites of the Gawker genus, number among the reasons why I still harbor a degree of distrust for the blogsophere.

That said, this experiment has led me to discover a large community of highly credentialed commentators, pundits, academics, and students who write with grace and elan. Of these bloggers' subject matter, however, it seems as though the only topic that inspires discussion or consensus involves a debate over whether higher education today is in a state of debauched, decadent, intellectual bankruptcy, or brave, commendable exploration of the frontiers of human knowledge. This is because the academic blogosphere (to the degree that it even exists as a cogent entity) revolves like hypertextual moths around the digital flame of Michael Bérubé, who, although brilliant, witty, and insightful, is currently touting a book on this very topic.

Another reason for this monomania is that, as previously stated, the blogosphere in general is prone to navel gazing. And what is more self-important than a group of academics discussing their own merit and the merit of their institutions?

So, since no-one seems to be writing much about books, ideas, philosophy, or anything else that really interests me, I set out to join the hand-wringing over students who drink too much, and professors who think too little.

Unfortunately, my attempt to go to the heart of the matter and enter into a discussion prompted by the review of Michael Bérubé's book by libertarian economist Tyler Cowen led me to another demerit of the blogging format: digression. Enough time had lapsed since the original post (four days) that the banter in the comments section had meandered away from a discussion of academia and into a discursion about libertarian attitudes towards Social Security (here's a clue - they don't like it). What's worse is that other blogs pertaining to this topic didn't even have enough authority to generate the beginning of a discussion, much less an irrelevant tangent.

Hence my frustration. More to come...

Monday, September 11, 2006

Follies of the Freudians

This should be a non-issue: in this day and age, it is pretty much universally accepted that Freud was pretty much wrong about everything in almost every way. And even in the cases where we can't say the Freud was wrong, it is because he was given to making broad, unverified claims that can be neither proven nor disproved. Jerry Coyne writes, in a review of a new book on the Freudian fallacy:

"How can we disprove the idea, for example, that we have a death drive? Or that dreams always represent wish fulfillments? When faced with counter-examples, Freudianism always proves malleable enough to incorporate them as evidence for the theory. Other key elements of Freudian theory have never been corroborated. There are no scientifically convincing experiments, for example, demonstrating the repression of traumatic memories."

The book is Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays by Frederick Crewes. (Here is the introductory essay.) Crewes is a professor of English at Berkeley, and himself a former Freudian. He has since done a philosophical 180, and arrived at the conclusion that Freud peddled a dangerous brand of nonsense, insofar as it values myth over fact, wishful thinking over proven science , and hearsay over evidence.

The crimes are numerous. Coyne cites Freud's megalomania. More glaringly, there's also his notorious misogyny. Even if we no longer believe that women are deformed, incomplete versions of men who remain psychologically unfufilled unless they have children, we have Freud to thank for "penis envy" and "castration complexes" - both of which are epithets still directed at women who defy norms and conventions. Freud posited that homosexuality was the result of a failure to overcome the Oedipus complex. (NB: I couldn't turn up any academic background for the author of that essay, although his references are in order, and he seems to make some sense) He was also a cocaine user. (Alright, that's a blatant ad hominem attack - but really, is there any better way to destroy someone's credibility than by accusing them of being a drug user? )

Freud was long ago discredited as a scientist. But as is implied by Crewes' literary background, Freud has resurfaced in philosophy, history of thought, and literary theory, and somehow, we can't seem to get rid of him. When you study literature from a Freudian perspective (as you are often forced to do in university-level literature courses), from a Jungian perspective, or from a Lacanian perspective, you are buying into this pernicious sophistry. Even when you read feminist theorists like Judith Butler (of Bad Writing Contest fame), who claim to react against Freud and debunk his theories, you are still reading and thinking in the Freudian tradition, albeit in a negative sense. It's time to break free from this nonsense - nonsense that should have been laid to rest a long time ago.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Finnegan's Wiki

This intelligent, well-written (aren't they all?) New Yorker article may be old news, but it's an excellent starting point for a discussion of one example of the intersection of literature, media, and technology, and of copyright law gone terribly awry. To summarize, the article focuses on the ongoing conflict between the academic community and the curmudgeonly executor of the James Joyce estate, Stephen Joyce. Simply put, Joyce scholars wish to expand the realm of Joyce scholarship into new (and sometimes peculiar) areas, while Stephen Joyce controls copyrights, unpublished Joyce letters, and access to historical documents with an iron fist.

In response to the New Yorker article, Reason magazine's Hit and Run blog posted this essay, which clarifies greatly some of the specifics of the copyright issues (many of the comments are also very insightful). Take the case of Ulysses, for example. The book was originally published in 1918 (in the U.S. ; the international copyright status of Ulysses is even more torturous) in a serialized format before it was censured for obscenity in 1921. A pirated version dates to 1929. A legitimate, but highly erroneous version was imported from France in 1934. The legacy of the book's convoluted copyright history means that the copyright dates from 1934, and several extensions to copyright law since then mean that, despite a brief stint in the public domain before the 1998 Sony Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, Ulysses will not truly enter the public domain (barring further Congressional copyright stupidity) until 2012. However, keep in mind that what is at stake is not so much the right to reproduce copies of Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake, (both these texts are currently available online for free) but rather the right to creative use of characters or elements within the texts, novel interpretations of these works, and other scholarly pursuits that are currently stifled.

Two examples of this mentioned in the New Yorker article are the cases of Eloise Knowlton and Michael Groden, both preeminent Joyce scholars. Eloise Knowlton's "Sweets of Sin" project was an attempt to create a fictional version of the story of the same name from Ulysses. Her work was subsequently deep-sixed by Stephen Joyce as "hare-brained." More interesting, I think is Micheael Groden's Digital Ulysses project, which was also dismissed by Stephen Joyce, this time because of personal dislike. Groden imagined a free, publicly available, hyper-textual annotation of Ulysses, complete with links to explainations, translations, relevant maps and diagrams, newspaper clippings, songs, poems, etc. Anyone familier with the dense, context- and allusion- heavy style of the modernists in general and Joyce in particular can understand what useful idea this is. But even beyond this, we can imagine digitally cross-referenced scholarly articles, online creative symposia, or wiki-style publicly-edited databases where experts and amateurs could share their knowledge. New media have so much potential to bring the works of James Joyce to a new, broader audience, if only they could be allowed to do so. Maybe in 2012.

NB: I feel it necessary to divulge that I (along with millions of people of Irish descent) share the surname of James and Stephen Joyce. Sadly, no relation.