December 2002 Archives

Happy

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Andre Kertéz, 1969

Year's End

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Year’s End

I was looking back through my archived material and realized that I haven’t been able to clearly explain just what I’ve been working on since August. I’ve posted a lot of sketches which probably only succeeded in confusing people further. What’s been missing, for the people who only see this stuff on my weblog, is the constant explaining/defining that goes on as I move it toward the proposal stage at school.

I’ve sketched several introductions, and submitted one proposal that resulted in around thirty pages of text— all about the eighteenth century. I wanted to try to explain why I think it’s important as the year closes, as much for myself as for anyone else. It surprises me that I’ve only been researching it for five months. It seems much longer than that, mostly because I now have several feet of shelf-space dedicated to this material.

So forgive me if you’ve read some of this before, but I want to try and write it as concisely as I can to remind myself as I get lost in the myriad of tangents.

The research project began while I was writing a series of blog posts about Walker Evans. Researching Evans, it began to blow me away just how many miles of text had been generated about him. Of course, I’d collected a foot or so of material on him over the years, because he was one of my early heroes as a photographer. Evans disdained politics— and the art world. I empathized with that deeply. It seemed to me that Evans wanted to take pictures that were somehow free of the taint of both. Most of my knowledge of Evans came from a time long before I’d studied language philosophy or rhetoric. Now, his views (and my own for most of my career as a photographer) seem hopelessly naive.

As I bought more books on Evans and tracked down articles it seemed like anything that could possibly be said about Evans had been said— with only one minor hole— the literary influences. So I dug into Hart Crane and others, not so much because I imagined that I could do anything in the way of a thesis in Rhetoric about it, but because I just wanted to know more. As I explored the milieu Evans moved through in the thirties, I noticed a huge disparity in the sheer volume of words generated about him and his collaborator James Agee and all the rest— the difference is at least a hundred to one. It was understandable at first— I wasn’t alone in considering these men to be the “heroes” of documentary photography.

I remember how much Let Us Now Praise Famous Men changed my life. It wasn’t just Evans’ incredible photographs. It was Agee’s heartfelt text. When I moved to Arkansas around six years ago, I remember loaning my copy to a local poet. He gave it back with a note— “thanks for giving me the chance to deconstruct this crappy prose.” Recently, I’ve run across several references to Evan’s feeling that many parts of Agee’s text were “embarrassing.” None of this has shifted my admiration of the textual portion of the book— it’s naked, and raw, and not really about the supposed subject Evan’s photographs were meant to document. Agee’s text is really about the sheer futility of documentary, and about the self-deconstructing nature of valediction. Agee’s worst nightmares have come true— his text is neatly ensconced on the bookshelf of classics.

It’s easy to chalk up differences of opinion on Agee’s text as a matter of taste. The sheer density of critical writing about it, and the tension it provides for Evans’ photographs seems to assure that the book rests comfortably in a sort of cultural aporia, free from the Marxist dissection of the proletarian and nationalist rhetoric that was all the rage during the 1930s. Most of the commentaries on other works from this period are scathing and derogatory. I really started to wonder why. Why are Evans and Agee universally hailed as heroes? Just what is a damn hero anyway?

I was reading Aphra Behn, and was impressed by her plea to the audience in the preface to The Lucky Chance that she wanted to be a hero in 1686. William Blake, who I have spent many years studying, was intensely concerned with the overthrow of classic models of heroism. Perhaps our present concept of heroes was developed in the eighteenth century? As I started to fill in some gaps in my literature education (Fielding, Defoe, Swift) it seemed clear that heroic consciousness was dealt with in a nearly obsessive fashion— and the peak of the New Deal in the 1930s brought with it a new sort of proletarian heroe, where rather than favoring the individual as hero we want to erect effigies to whole groups— unknown soldiers, firemen, you name it— as if to be a hero in the classic sense was anathema.

Another tangent loomed as I stepped into Emerson and Carlyle’s concept of the “representative man”— I need to deal with the formative years in the American national identity in the early nineteenth century. I spent at least three months on the eighteenth century, and never really finished. I’ve spent a lot of time just gathering material too, as more and more texts from the 1930s come to light. This is big, and far too unmanageable for a master’s thesis. But now I have the lay of the land. If I want to explore heroic rhetoric, I really know where to look now.

But why? Because as I uncovered those other texts, I found many of them to be innovative, and deeply influential even though no one seems to be writing about them much. It’s as if there is only one channel of input into considerations of documentary pursuits— the heroic artistic outsider exemplified by Evans. Only Evans defied the “government stooge” represented by Roy Stryker, head of the FSA. Though a growing amount of material is being generated which heroizes the “file” of 100,000+ pictures now in the public domain generated by the FSA. I’m torn now about what I want to do. On one level, I want to deal with the photographers and writers lost in the torrent of texts about Evans and Agee. On the other, I do want to deal with the nature of the FSA file.

The FSA was the first and last government funded “commons” where creative materials were made open and accessible to the public, free of copyright. Recent research I’ve been doing has highlighted the “unmediated” nature of Franklin Roosevelt’s access to American public opinion through his fireside chats— the parallels with contemporary issues on the Internet are fascinating.

And then, there is the theory behind the concept of heroism. I do believe that heroism is not synonymous with “power” in the Foucaultian sense, or “cultural capital” a la Bourdieu— I think there are other forces at work, completely outside these concepts. The persistence of “heroism” is not addressed very well by other theories. Barbara Kruger (or Tina Turner, if you prefer) can proclaim all day long that “we don’t need another hero,” but as Thomas Carlyle argued in the early nineteenth century, apparently we do. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many books, films, and pictures made about it.

So that’s where the year ends for me— deep in the middle of all this, trying to figure out which piece to chisel off for a Master’s thesis. That’s where my “work” these days is. I keep sailing along this titanic central idea, brushing against icebergs that regularly rip open my sides and cause me to sink into yet another round of research.

Hoes

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Dorothea Lange, Hoe Cutter, near Anniston, Alabama, 1936

Hoes

This photograph appears early in An American Exodus, cropped closer and printed in a really dark and grimy way. It is captioned in its earlier form as “Hoe Culture, Alabama 1937.” I begin to wonder about any possible connection with a poem by another San Francisco resident from 37 years before:

Their Blood Is Strong

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Pamphlet from 1938, illustrated by Dorothea Lange Photograph

Quiet

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Quiet

Every time I look into history I get sucked back farther and farther. I’ve spent the last few days working on my research site, and realizing just how much I don’t know. It took a while to figure out why. It has surprised me to find high school syllabi which cover the same material. I certainly don’t remember anything approaching the sort of depth I see out there now; but back then the courses were “social studies” and “government,” not capital H history as it seems to be today.

After the long hiatus of debauchery that was my “adult” life, I returned to college and thought a moment about majoring in a variety of things: Art History, History, English, and as a last resort, Rhetoric. Funny how things work out. I had to settle on only two, and they ended up being Rhetoric and English, and I couldn’t settle for a minor— no, not me— I had to make it a dual major, thus removing the chance of taking “elective” courses. I figured out that this is why I feel so stupid about American history. I was only able to take two classes: US History to 1877, and an elective upper level course in US History since 1945. The two other required history courses, “History of Western Civilization” were really a waste. When you do a century in an afternoon you can’t possibly remember much.

I have never taken a single class devoted to what I am researching now. It was strange to realize that after five years of school that I know a hundred times more about British history (due to the literature stuff) than I do US history. I’ve only had one course in American literature— American Literature to 1800— so there was little need to study it. Besides, I thought most of it was crap. Because of my single-mindedness in taking over a dozen courses in eighteenth and nineteenth century British literature, I had pretty much ignored the Americans. I suppose this guarantees that my approach will be different. I know where these pesky Americans stole it from.

It’s just the time of year, I guess. I keep thinking about just how much work I really must do to pull this off. I’m really writing about the 1930s in America (as a target focus) but I just can’t get there without dealing with the period from 1877-1945, and I just haven’t been able to cram that into my head in three days. I realized how long it took before the Romantic period really began to make sense to me— and that it only became a focused response when I started studying how the uncertainty of the hundred years that preceded it boiled over in that pivotal period. The same could be said of the 1930s, and it shares much with the 1730s and the 1830s. One of the things the chair of the Rhetoric department is fond of saying is that “all roads lead to the eighteenth century”— I wish he wasn’t right. No matter how much I try to write about the twentieth century, the more I begin to drift back.

There’s always so much more to know. When I feel stupid, I always seem to get quiet. I hope I can find my voice again soon, or this blog will become a very quiet place.

Holiday

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Holiday

I waited and waited for the rain to stop. It didn’t. I finally started carrying my things to the car with an umbrella. Traffic was murder, so I skipped the trip to the bank and hit the freeway. I hate driving on I-40, but because of the possibility of freezing on the mountain roads, I opted to stick to the well-traveled path. And it was well traveled.

Amazingly, the interstate was in better repair than usual. The last time I drove it, traffic was reduced to single lanes for miles in at least six places; this time, it was only three. Unfortunately, I hit the worst of it after dark. Near Clarksville, the road becomes a narrow stripe of concrete bounded by potholed asphalt, which forces you to ride with one wheel on a glassy smooth surface with the other wheel in a ditch. As the ditch fills with water, it’s more like skiing on one side and my car always wants to twist sideways. Of course, there had to be someone right on my ass with his high beams on all the way through.

I took two books with me: William Stott’s Documentary Expression and Thirties America and Documenting America 1935-43. I was in a particularly voracious mood, and read over half of Stott’s book before midnight the first night. The next morning, Christmas Eve, was perfect. A light snow had started to fall at six a.m. and by the time I got up it was coming down smoothly in large flakes. By noon, about four inches of powder was covering everything. It was much more pleasant than the rain. I got on the net to check the weather cams back in Little Rock and saw that it was only falling where I was. Wasn’t that special?

Mom had been baking for days, and decided she wanted a break for Christmas eve. She asked me if I’d go out for pizza. As I crossed the freeway, headed back to Ft. Smith I noticed that though it was snowing, none of it was accumulating on the ground scarcely two miles away. The roads were clear and sparse; the pizza place was having a “no kids” day so it was quiet and nearly empty. The snow continued to fall all day, but while the surrounding landscape looked brown and wet, the area where I was became increasingly beautiful. Just around the corner at the Choctaw casino, I laughed for a moment while I picked up a newspaper for my father. The newspaper vending machine was covered with snow, as it displayed the headline: “No White Christmas for Ft. Smith.”

It dawned on me that it was rapidly becoming a Christmas tradition— pizza on Christmas Eve. For some reason, another thing I connect with Christmas is Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus— I first read it on Christmas day, and I now make it a point to watch Taymor’s film version some time during the holiday season as an antidote to all the “It’s a Wonderful Life” vibe. It was a holiday thrill to have a cherry pie ready to pull out of the oven a few days ago during the penultimate dinner scene, though my companion thought it might be in questionable taste. But I digress, as usual. The sobering thought for Christmas day, as the snow melted away, was that my parents will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary in March— an achievement, by any standard.

But I ran out of things to read this year— well, almost. Mom suggested that I give a book my father got for Christmas a few years ago a try. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War 1929-1945 is a weighty tome of around 800 pages, and I only managed the first 250 before I came home. I suppose it might seem strange that I often spend holidays reading, but its sort of a family tradition. Though my father doesn’t read as much anymore now that cataracts have impaired his sight, my mother continues to read novels at a constant clip. I suspect that’s where much of my appetite comes from. In our family, the central entertainment was always just sitting around and reading.

The trip back was clear and uneventful, and I’ve got so much work to do. Stott’s book opened up new vistas to explore, including the proletarian fiction of the 1930s. His book (the parts that weren’t merely singing the praises of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) attempts to argue that in the 1930s there was a “documentary impulse” which manifested itself in all the products of that age. There’s so much more to say on that, and I’d like to do a full close reading of the book. But for now, I’d just like to publicly thank you all for reading and hope that your holiday was as nice as mine.

Russell Lee, Hidalgo County, Texas 1939

Off to Eastern Oklahoma for the holidays. Merry X to y’all.

Does linking mean?

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Does linking mean?

Eons ago in my previous blog I was racking my head over link blogs. I came to the conclusion that under certain circumstances linking had implications in the construction of meaning— so, Jonathon, I am not nearly as averse to the idea of link blogs as a medium of self-expression as I once was. I really meant to expand that post further to embrace the “writerly types” out there— because displaying your creative talents through writing is also, as Jonathon observed, a form of show-and-tell. However, I find both of these approaches less revealing than what might be called expressivist “creative non-fiction”— manifest in blogs of personal exploration which do not rely too deeply on constructed personae. I think it was Golub who argued that link-blogging is a process of persona-construction. I disagreed at first, but I’ve since seen the light. I don’t begrudge anyone who decides they want to share something— in fact, I rather like it.

But does linking mean? I came to the conclusion that if it does, it does so only subtly. That’s why I refuse to submit to delinking. The assumption involved is that link-aggregators like blogdex are “popularity indexes”— that is a really twisted rhetorical perspective. What these devices do is highlight the subtle nature of community on the Internet. They establish the shifting context of the discourse, spread among thousands of sites— a phenomenon well worth studying, in my estimation. However, because I link to something does not mean that I like it, dislike it, or am just amused by it— to accentuate only the postive, affirming side of linking is to deny its complexity. Link networks are only “popularity” indexes in terms of affirming interest. I wondered about linking to the racial-hate material in my previous post. But I figured that what mattered most was the content of the post, not any electronic aggregation of the context. Aggregation is imprecise, inaccurate, and devoid of content.

For me at least, a blogroll has absolutely nothing to do with popularity and everything to do with context, and one of my favorite things as a lazy person— convenience. These are the sites I regularly visit. I have my history set to purge each three days, so the links to blogs change so that I know if I’ve been neglecting to read my usual ones. I really don’t think very many people use it at all, except me, to keep track of my own little “neighborhood.” I believe that linking to posts within a blog rather than on the sidebar may have a strong impact (depending on the popularity of the blog) on traffic. However, the primarily static sidebar links only show a bit of my context within the complex blog discourse community. It’s a subtle thing. When I’ve been reading a blog for long enough to be attached to its writer, I like to explore their links to find out more about what they like to read. I find it nice, convenient, and often enlightening.

Blogrolls can help you find people you’d like to read, that is, if you like the person whose blog you find them on. There are no guarantees. They subtly aid the process of developing communities without overt rhetorical posturing— which a roll of “my favorite posts” would surely involve. I often find blogs I really like by looking at my referrer logs to see who has linked me. I don’t always link back though, because my sidebar is monstrous and there are only so many hours in the day to read blogs. Being placed on my sidebar is not a vote of affirmation, only a vote of interest. To read my blogroll, or anyone’s for that matter, as a popularity contest displays a lack of subtlety— interest and affirmation are not synonymous.

Subtlety

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Subtlety

One of my favorite comments (about me) came when selecting material for my first show. A photographer I respected was helping me. After looking at a large number of my prints, he said:

You aren’t very subtle, are you?
I suppose that might be a contributing factor to my current career in Rhetoric. I’ve had to learn to cope with increasing levels of subtlety, in literature and in other forms of discourse. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m usually embarrassingly direct.

When Spitting Image linked to a page on Hitler’s Art I was curious about just where this resource was coming from. I used several articles on the art of the Third Reich to demonstrate the rhetorical bias behind them in class last semester, so I couldn’t help but question this. The Hitler Historical Museum?

The aim of the site seems innocent enough:
The Museum's chief concern is to provide documents and information that shed light on Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party. Because of the numerous contradicting, disjoint[ed], biased, confused, and deficient interpretations that exist, few scholars are able to gather the facts and to understand and explain them coherently. Whether this failure is from a lack of information, scholarship ability, or honesty is unimportant. What is important is that historical information be made freely available and gathered into exhibits that allow researchers to derive indepedent (sic) conclusions from the relatively well preserved writings of this time period.
Of course, there is an ideological statement:
The teaching of history should convey only facts and be free from political motives, personal opinions, biases, propaganda, and other common tactics of distortion. Every claim that is made about history should also be accompanied by documentation proving its basis. Only responsible scholarship and teaching should be permitted. Those who intend to support particular political interests and agendas should have their biased historical interpretations criticized for lacking proof.
Sounds great— ill informed (communication without bias is an oxymoron)— but noble at any rate. Responsible scholarship? I needed to look at this more deeply.

A quick check of the links page revealed what was really going on. As you might guess, there was no link to what I would consider a reputable historical site, The Holocaust Museum, but instead a link to an article called The Hoax of the Twentieth Century. I read the first line of the introduction, and then stopped:

I see three principal reasons for the widespread but erroneous belief in the legend of millions of Jews killed by the Germans during World War II: US and British troops found horrible piles of corpses in the west German camps they captured in 1945 (e.g. Dachau and Belsen), there are no longer large communities of Jews in Poland, and historians generally support the legend.
Legend? The scary thing that this is the page of a US computer-science academic, complete with .edu address.

I cannot believe that Northwestern University actually underwrites the presence of such utter crap on the web. But they protect themselves with a convenient disclaimer:

The content of all Pubweb pages is solely the responsibility of their authors and not the responsibility of Northwestern University or any of its employees engaged in management or administration of the Pubweb service. Northwestern University will not monitor Pubweb page content except as necessary to investigate allegations that such content violates federal, state, or local laws or University policy.
Following the link-train reminded me of the reason why I spend so much time focusing on reading responsibly. You’ve got to be careful out there. Free from political motives? Yeah, right!

Zombies

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Russell Lee, Hobbs, New Mexico 1940

Unnatural Acts

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Unnatural Acts

I received so much material in the last few days for my project that its hard to keep track of. I keep getting lost in the minutiae of it all, along with several new software packages to try to help me keep things straight. Merry Xmas to me, and all that. Strange confluences keep popping up so fast that I’ve got to at least note the web related ones so I can come back to them later.

Steve Himmer noted something about Henry Wallace a few days ago and then today I encountered another article about the presidential race of 1948 which continued the theme. I was doing some research on the Southern Agrarians and then of course, the next day, Wood s Lot provided links to a bio of John Crowe Ransom and some poems. It’s nice when things work out this way. I haven’t really begun to process that part of things yet, but I’ve been reading a lot about it and eventually I’ll have to spit it out. But another link from there lead me to at least to try to sketch something I was thinking about regarding “the resistance to theory.”

Silence of the Critics was strangely appalling to me. David Herman laments the loss of critics like F.R. Leavis and T.S. Eliot, “the golden age of criticism.” I read a lot from those guys a few years ago, when I was working more with the Romantics. I hated them. They used flip rhetoric to dismiss and denigrate anything that wasn’t either 17th century or high modernist. They had goggles on so thick that it seemed incredible to me that they could function in the real world, where literature actually thrives on and depends on context. I’ve learned to get over that chip on my shoulder a little bit, and thinking of those guys again brought something into focus. It made me think of the relationship of critical schools to speech-act theory [bear with me on this].

The fundamental why behind any communicative act is to provoke an effect. Speech-act theory splits this into three phases— locution, illocution, and perlocution. Locution is the utterance itself; the ground in which the “new critics” like Empson, Leavis, etc., staked out their ground. It’s actually a lot like hard-core scientific linguistics— useful, but rather dry and boring. New critics refused to deal with any concept of intention on the part of the speaker/author. That is in the realm of the illocutionary act. Of course, New Historicism, and later schools attempted to add back in context and usually infer a motive for why the speaker would craft an utterance— a guess at what the intention might be based on genre, etc. Oddly enough, many postmodern critical strains have much in common with the New Critics in that they want to remove individual intention from the equation— communicative acts are rooted in the social and market forces that created them, rather than any motive on the part of the author (Benjamin anticipates much of this). What is important to most postmodern accounts is not what was intended, but what actually happens as the result of a text— the perlocutionary sequel.

To twist this observation mercilessly, what is going on in the locutionary and perlocutionary level does not involve an “author” in the slightest— in other words, no “agent” for the action. One level is linguistic, and the other level is sociological. No one wants to confront the concept of agency much. In writing, a sentence which has no agent for its action is called passive voice. It’s discouraged, except in cases where you want the utterance to recede from the rest of the text. The “silence of the critics” that Herman laments is not silence at all, but a passive drone of a life free from the presence of people. That’s why both the New Critics he loves— and the Postmodernists he hates— are, to me at least, just flat out boring. Don’t get me wrong— I find both approaches to be useful in many circumstances, but it just doesn’t generate “edge of the seat thrills” for reading.

Writing without people is an unnatural act.

We?

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The Royal We

I always get nervous when a mythic “we” enters into things. Reacting in part to Alex Golub’s latest screed on blogging, Steve Himmer asks:

What are we writing, and how are we writing it? What constitutes good writing on the web, and is it determined by the same criteria that determine good writing elsewhere?

The easiest answer is the Tonto trope: “Whatcha mean we, Kemosabe?” What I find fascinating about blogging is the unmediated environment. I think that most people find that difficult to cope with and force their own mediatory constructs on the process. It represents a double metonymy of sorts— we internalize our own concept of “good writing” based on the criteria we are most comfortable with as we percieve it in others— a necessary illusion, because without mediation there is no standard. The impact of education cuts deeply. Alex’s anti-academic claim for blog valuation takes its core values from academic writing.

Worlds Apart is an insightful empirical comparison between the nature of academic and workplace writing. The primary difference noted by the authors is that school writing practices are “dominated by the epistemic motive and the need to rank” (224). Texts are created primarily for the purpose of short-term evaluation and ranking within a specified time frame. Ultimately, though the perception of audience is shifted in Alex’s model, the goal remains the same. It’s academic. Sort of like speaking up in class with just the right comment at the right time, rather than providing a complex dissertation on a topic.

Sometimes I think that the discourse of blogs doesn’t really reach that high. It’s more like show-and-tell— like kindergarten. See the nice link I found? Admit it, show and tell is fun and most outgoing adults still enjoy it. Some blogs stake out that territory and stay there— it’s comfortable and non-threatening. To an extent, it’s academic too. Say hello to the class and show them something so they will like you. Link heavy blogs create persona through a process of selection, of valuation. It’s interesting that this is perhaps the longest surviving mode of blogging, which does not show much sign of fading— I remember when I started that this seemed mostly bush-league. It takes guts to put yourself out on the commons without any trinkets to sell.

Workplace writing on the other hand is focused on record-keeping and task oriented activity— it is seldom ranked. There is a pressure to conserve space, to provide strictly useful information. I find this commonplace with the growth of professionally oriented link logs targeted at subject specific areas. Valuation is strictly based on ease of access, conciseness, and many of the attributes that Alex suggests— but the insistence of valuation is the worst sort of academic hangover. It goes to the construction of a necessary evil— an author to provide the agency. I think the correct question to ask is not what but why. As there are as many answers to why as there are writers on the web, the question of valuation becomes pointless here. It can only be understood within genres of writing. I remain unconvinced that because we use the same tools, we’re all building the same house. Most of us learned our tools in school, and the repercussions of that continue to be felt.

The question of reading behavior that Steve moves toward is also addressed in Worlds Apart— it’s a foundation of their perception of difference. In school, we read to evaluate. At work, we read for necessary information to get the job done. On the web, these models collide playfully with a need for entertainment, which is another complex matter to consider. Some people prefer short poems. Some people prefer long ones.

Lazy Days

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Edward Weston — from Steichen’s 1955 Family of Man exhibit

Charity

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Blowing in the Wind

I always feel guilty walking past the bell ringers outside the supermarket. My father is a generous guy though, and every Christmas he donates a substantial sum to the Salvation Army. I have no reason for the guilt, largely because I have no money.

But I had a dollar in my pocket when I walked past. I was thinking about my father, remembering the way he fondly talked about voting for FDR: “He didn’t live long after that, but I was glad I got the chance— he did a lot for the poor people in this country.” It was a strange little tangent for my mind to take, and as I looked across the parking lot I thought for a moment that I might leave the cart in the parking space. But then I thought, “what would dad do?” He’d put it in the right place, of course. So I braved the whizzing traffic and pushed it across.

On the trip back, a car stopped and started honking at me. I looked back, and the man behind the wheel was about the same age as my father. He was pointing frantically at the pavement. I looked down, and saw the dollar bill blowing in the wind. I felt rather silly chasing it; I felt like the baby on the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind.

The next car in line stopped and asked: “Was that money blowing across the road?”

Yes, I said.

I really should have given it to the guy with the bell. It would have saved the traffic disruption. But I’ve had less sympathy for those guys around here. I found out last year that because so few people volunteer to be bell-ringers these days, most of them around here are paid to stand there and make shoppers feel guilty. The incident also reminded me about the difference between Arkansas and California. In California, I wouldn’t have had to chase the bit of green paper because no one probably would have mentioned it. They would have waited until I left and picked it up.

Teaching Writing

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I love teaching writing

Besides generally goofing-off for a few days, I have managed to get a couple of things done. I uploaded more major updates to my research site, including a page dedicated to Archibald MacLeish providing some bibliographic information, more excerpts, and fleshing out his positions on the timeline.

Grading a bunch of papers (and wondering why one class always does better than the other) I found a bit in a reflective essay that makes it all worthwhile:

At times, the course became confusing as to whether it was teaching “Writing for Work,” “Poetry,” “Literature,” “Rhetoric” or “English.” However, I found the common denominator soon enough to make a general relationship between them.
Sometimes, as my Blake instructor was fond of saying, “confusion is the best response.”

My approach often seems chaotic to people, but if I dig into things deep enough I can usually ferret out enough of a connection to make things work. I do like to make things up as I go along; it’s just the way I am. But I don’t think that even my twisted brain can connect the other things I wanted to remark about in this hurried entry (grades are due soon).

Trashlog is expanding! One of my favorite sites on the web is now soliciting international submissions for The Global Trash Collection Project, providing even more trash for the Internet. An admirable pursuit, in my estimation.

I was also quite taken by Pascale’s pointer to an item of interest in the Washington Post. Interesting is one of my favorite words. I must type interesting about a hundred times any time I try to write something. Then, I’m faced with the task of editing it back out.

Of course it’s interesting, you doofus! Otherwise, why would you be writing about it?

Cool

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Ben Shahn, Ohio — from Home Town by Sherwood Anderson

I’ve added and changed a few things on my research site. The most signifcant addition is a page collating information on Ben Shahn.

Sophisticated

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Sophisticated

If all who are engaged in the profession of education were willing to state the facts instead of making greater promises than they can possibly fulfill, they would not be in such bad repute with the lay public. As it is, however, the teachers who do not scruple to vaunt their powers with utter disregard of the truth have created the impression that those who chose a life of careless indolence are better advised than those who devote themselves to serious study.

Isocrates, Against the Sophists

I went to a thesis defense yesterday. Kiriaki Asiatidou, a Greek woman from Athens who is both stunningly brilliant and stunningly beautiful, carefully laid out her development of a pedagogical strategy for teaching first year composition. I’ve had a few classes with her, starting with a Blake seminar nearly five years ago. She pointed out that Greece, past high school, rhetoric simply isn’t taught. There’s a fear of it most places. The fear that it just isn’t a serious subject at all. I write this because I want to remember her name (I’m terrible with names). She’s returning to Greece now, and most of the staff is going to miss her.

After hearing her defense, I really wish I had talked to her more while she was here. Our classroom strategies seem very close. Her thesis was built on Protagoras, Isocrates, and of course she had to give props to Cicero too. She called her approach a “New Sophistic Rhetoric.” I picked up a lot of ideas from her regarding using mediatory essays in the classroom. Another thing that I’m thinking of amplifying is the promotion of a more international point of view— forcing students to write about issues that do not relate directly to the United States or its interests— promoting the idea of international citizenship, rather than just awareness of our own spot of ground.

The intellectual value of the Sophists has fluctuated over time, and just the day before I had been thinking about the only word in common usage that has connections with “sophistry” that does not have a negative connotation: sophisticated. It got stuck in my head after listening to Firehose’s cover of “Sophisticated Bitch” by Public Enemy. I didn’t get around to looking into it into today. I had a feeling that the positive value of “sophistication” had to be a recent development. I was right. According to the OED:

  1. Mixed with some foreign substance; adulterated; not pure or genuine. [1607-1897]

    1. Altered from, deprived of, primitive simplicity or naturalness. Of a literary text: altered in the course of being copied or printed. [1603-1963]

    2. Of a person: free of naïvety, experienced, worldly-wise; subtle, discriminating, refined, cultured; aware of, versed in, the complexities of a subject or pursuit. Also transf. of a play, place, etc., that appeals to a sophisticated person. [1895-1971]

    3. Of equipment, techniques, theories, etc.: employing advanced or refined methods or concepts; highly developed or complicated. [1945-1979]

    1. Falsified in a greater or less degree; not plain, honest, or straightforward. [1672-1861]

    2. Of a printed book, containing alterations in content, binding, etc. which are intended to deceive. [1862-1952]

  2. Comb., as sophisticated-looking. [1925-]

Kiriaki is sophisticated in the finest sense of the word.

O2 Collector

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The wife of a serviceman at work in the Baytown Refinery, Baytown, Texas, 1944—Edwin Rosskam

Making the Grade

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Making the grade

I just finished the first round of grading and I’m amazed. So far, I’ve handed out about eight A’s. The attrition rate for classes this semester was abysmal, with nearly a 50 percent drop rate. For some reason, that doesn’t bother me. Most who managed to stick it out ended up significantly better as writers. I’m thrilled. Even the most trivial of topics were well argued and not inflated. I told them that falling short of the requested length was a more forgivable sin than bloating the paper with useless, boring, crap.

They actually listened. I’ll never get over that I suppose— talking to a room full of people that actually do listen to you and act based on what you say. Maybe it’s because I’m easily amused— or maybe it’s because life outside a classroom just isn’t like that most of the time. One of the reflective essays had a fascinating question in it:

“Why do you care about this stuff?”

The student who wrote it has had a complex life— eight years in the military, time in prison, conversion to Islam, and then back to school. He was fascinated with the way I confronted hard questions about racial and gender equality.

I deal with these issues not because I am promoting a political agenda in the classroom, but because the rhetoric surrounding these issues is so fascinating and strong. I find it useful to examine the basic assumptions (backing and warrants in Toulminian terms) which undergird political arguments. Examining the Declaration of Independence in particular is useful, in my opinion— both as an example of an enthymeme and for the things it leaves unsaid. It says that “all men are created equal” and yet avoids defining just what a “man” is. I suspect that no one really thinks about that much in high school, or in general— it says we have “unalienable rights” and yet it doesn’t say how those rights are apportioned— do women count? Not in 1776. Do people of color or Native Americans count? Not in 1776. I find it fascinating how Americans accept this document without wondering exactly what it meant. Now that’s effective rhetoric— it slips right past people, unnoticed, as a mythic declaration that every American assumes includes them. It doesn’t. After hundreds of years of struggle, the situation may be better— but the rhetoric is still hazy, and intentionally so. It’s more effective that way— if you don’t question.

The student’s question was a good one— why should I, as a person “automatically guaranteed entry into the white male patriarchy with all its attendant rights and privileges” (as one of my professor’s is fond of reminding me) care about things like gender and racial struggles? He really wanted to know if I started caring about this stuff because of school, or because of real life. The answer is real life, mostly. But it’s hard for me to separate the two. Right now (and hopefully for a long time to come) school is my real life. And I like it.

I like giving people the tools they need to fight for what they believe in— without guns, without fists, without hurting anyone. Yes, it can hurt to break down some treasured assumptions about what it means to be patriotic or a good citizen. But this is mental fight, and it needs to be raised to a higher level so that we won’t be embarrassed in the future by the hollow rhetoric of talking heads. I want to teach people how to take that junk apart and make better decisions. It isn’t about conveying politics. It’s about transmitting the tools needed to “not get fooled again.”

As long as some people are not free, none of us really are.

Archie's Letters

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Archie’s Letters

I got distracted this evening looking at some letters by Archibald MacLeish. There’s a letter from February 1930 that I suspect must have been written to Hemingway while he was residing in Piggott, Arkansas:

Dear Pappy:

Thanks for the warning about the mosquitos. Its a damn shame. I had wanted Ada to be near you and Pauline. But I can still take advantage of her father’s generous offer to put her up at Daytona and she’ll have the sun there if she doesn’t have anything else.

Met Dotty Parker Saturday night and think she’s swell. I have always been afraid of her because I thought she was the kind who would be affectionate to you with her right hand and murder you with her left. But she was so fine in talking about the Murphys and you and all her friends and so damn wise and intelligent about people that she took me in about eight minutes. She may be serving me up cold at the minute for all I know but I doubt it and if she is it doesn’t matter anyway . . .

The mosquito is the Arkansas state bird, and Hemingway spent a lot of time shuttling between here and Florida from 1929-32. Nice to hear that “Dotty” Parker is swell too. But that’s not really what I was up to here. I wanted to note a couple of MacLeish’s thoughts on Conquistador for Loren, in case he doesn’t have the letters lying about. In a letter to Robert Linscott in October of 1931, he was stinging over the failure of an earlier book, New Found Land to sell:

. . . I can’t help feeling that had New Found Land appeared in a regular edition and had been pushed it would have sold extremely well. What reviews I saw were favorable & the book was a book of short poems. As a matter of fact, if Hart Crane is not misleading me, the Bridge sold in the same year very very much better. Comparisons are ridiculous but what else is there in the world?

. . . After all, books of verse have been advertised in America— have been pushed. You know & God (if it isn’t an anti-climax) that I loathe blurbs & have no desire to see my name like Edna Millays with “Immortal Poetry” over it. But there are things that a publisher can decently do for a book which a poet can’t do— unless the poet is Amy Lowell & as rich as Amy & as gifted in self-publicizing. And those things H.M. [Houghton Mifflin] have never done for my books. Because you lose money on a book of verse anyway, you will say. But isn’t that a vicious circle?

But this is futile. I certainly can’t, & don’t wish to teach H.M. their business. But I have worked on Conquistador for many years. I believe it is going to be a really good poem— but certainly not a popular one. And I want to see it well treated by a publisher— not just issued with an item in trade paper & allowed to sell itself if it can. . . .

Mentions of Conquistador appear for years before this— MacLeish wrote everyone he knew asking if anyone else had ever done a long poem on the topic. He wanted it to be original. Evidently, Pound criticized it severely (but in good spirits). There’s more to be quoted from there, if I get the time. My favorite phrase about Pound from the letters was: “Pound is a unicorn who turns into an ass every time you look at him too closely.” I was curious about how MacLeish thought of the poem, because it is not nearly as “accessible” as most of his poems. I found the answer in a letter written to his mother, on the occasion of the death of John Hillard— a meditation on death written in February of 1930 which quotes approximately the opening line of Conquistador:

What I must do is step aside into the quiet & think. By thinking one begins to see. It is strange. Only by ceasing to see can I see. Myself I do not love but unless I behold myself once in these windows. I am nothing & never lived & the roar of the wheels will roll over me. Over us all. Over us all. And all that was young & lovely in the world. I am not afraid of death. But I pity it. I pity its silence. I sat for a long time in the vault of poor Harry Crosby. He had shot himself. He lay on a narrow couch under a dark red cloth. He had made a great noise with his death. But already I could hardly see his face. I had to turn back to see him.

I am hurting you with these words. Forgive me. Believe me. I am not what you think. I am an evil person. I take no happiness in anything on earth but the sonorous sounds of certain words. It is a very wrong thing. Poetry is not always in me & sometimes coming out. I go to it as a man goes to what he loves & is ashamed of. I go to it out of my life. I come back ashamed. You do not understand. Do not try to. “How do the winds follow unfortune”— I write that & my heart is smooth. What at all have I written? Well, I am a poet. I do not describe myself by this word. I do not speak it. No one speaks it to me. But I am that thing. And it is agony. It is not wisdom like a quiet light in the brain, nor wisdom in the ankles of the body. It is no wisdom. It is thirst. Only with this wine— And only I can make this liquor. Out of what? Out of— Oh be still, be still. I do not write letters such as this. I am not to speak so. Never answer it.

I once said things much like this when I was working fervently as a photographer. I never felt like it was a good thing either. It just was.

Young People

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“Williamsburg young people were lovers of music without the benefit of radios and record players” — Cook Collection, ca. 1885

PA Adrift

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PA Adrift

Eyes Adrift on Friday night was about what I expected. I was thrilled, but I suspect the majority of the crowd were rather disappointed. Eyes Adrift was not Nirvana, Meat Puppets, or Sublime. They were much closer to the spirit of bands that were traveling around before the pre-packaged punk in the wake of Nirvana started filtering onto the air waves. The show had a lot in common with that period of time in the late 80s when people actually played music because they liked it, instead of as a stepping-stone to being a corporate lackey.

As a fervent indie band supporter of the late 80s/early 90s, what I mean by saying that the show had a lot in common with that time is that it was fucked-up. The small venue quickly filled up with the all-ages crowd of grunge wannabees, with their knit caps and flannel. Laguardia (the Philadelphia one) took the stage and nauseated me with the sort of whiney college-band crooning that drove me from the scene way back when. But they got better. When they weren’t trying to be Wilco, they were actually pretty good. It was the keyboards that got me most of all. The natural sound of a keyboard is a drone. I don’t go to a club to be droned to death— I like rock, not atmosphere. Mercifully, after droning a bit, they picked up guitars. The next tunes were reminiscent of the paisley underground crowd, Rain Parade in particular. It was a cool tone, and fair tunes. I just tired of the self-involved nasal whine that never seems to go out of fashion. They were just on the loud side of what the house PA could handle, but the sound was good overall.

When Eyes Adrift came on stage, it all went to hell. They were much quieter, and the guitar was nearly non-existent. Curt Kirkwood couldn’t hear himself either, and the drums sounded like beating on polyethylene tubs. They stopped partway through the first song to get the guitar working, then soldiered on without much ado. It took until halfway through the set before the sound was passable. But the tunes were strong, and the desire to play them was stronger. Once I could hear him, Kirkwood’s guitar playing seemed as good or better than ever. Novoselic was his usual dry self, though he did loosen up before the end with some of his signature clowning. It was punk rock. I don’t think the crowd was ready for that. I mean, it was sloppy, heartfelt, touching, and not factory-fresh perfect crunching. I had a great time. The crowd was cool and distant, until the last Grateful Dead style guitar freakout. They loved it. I could have survived without it.

Still, it was a great break from the plastic music world of today, with its strings and horns and drones and whines. It was a good set of tunes, played under the worst of circumstances without complaint. I don’t know what happened. The sound guy at this venue is usually great, but something got screwed. Laguardia got a better go of it, and it makes me sad that there was an opening band at all. Laguardia fit with “today’s sounds” and Eyes Adrift were completely out of step with the market trend. That’s why I loved them. I don’t care for much of what I’ve heard in the last few years, because it all sounds the same. Eyes Adrift don’t sound the same as their previous bands, or the current crop. While I’m not going back to the club to pick up my jaw from the floor —I brought it home with me intact— I did have a good time, fuck-ups and all. It seemed more like real music that way.

Representing Crisis

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Representing Crisis

A beta version of the website collating my research is now up and accessible. It is now more friendly to lower bandwidth users, and more extensively linked. Testing the earlier version revealed something I had long suspected: typical users are much smarter than Jacob Nielson gives them credit for. They had no difficulty using the navigation, and inspired me to make more intra-page navigation available.

This is just the first step toward a more logical arrangement for the material that I’m gathering. I realize it is difficult for even long-time readers of my blog to figure out how the pieces I occasionally post fit together. Eventually, I will link from the timeline and other indexes that I will be adding to the blog entries. Blogging my research has been great, but it is very difficult to set up logical categories when you have no idea where things fall, or what the categories are when you find pieces to the puzzle.

The major reason for doing things this way is because some of the figures I’m researching are well represented on the web— such as Lewis Hine, who was the first sub-page added. Right now, it mainly collects the most useful links I’ve found. I want to add a more detailed bibliography to print articles later. Other figures, like Edwin Rosskam, have little or no presence on the web, a situation I hope to remedy. I want to place representative samples from his books online. There is a lot of work to be done, and by doing it this way I’m getting a bigger sense of how these things are related to each other. This will help my writing process.

The address to the front page will remain constant as material is added, so linking to it is fine now. Right now, it covers a lot of material in a shallow way. The depth will come later. I mainly wanted to get my approach and navigation issues sorted out. Suggestions for additions, or any error reports are welcome. This is a major step for me, after six months or more of gathering stuff— some items probably won’t make sense to everyone, because they are part of my larger thesis though not specifically representational in nature. It was nice to step back for a second, and gather them together.

The pages validate, and are designed for at least 1024x768. I haven’t tested on a variety of browsers yet. I did resort to tables for positioning so I hope it won’t present a problem for the usual suspects. I’ve only checked it with Mozilla and IE 6.

Cereal Killers

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Cereal Killers

I was standing in the kitchen and I couldn’t stop reading. Of course, the selection was limited. Looking at the back of a cereal box, I noticed this:

Kraft: Real Help in Real Time — Postcereals.com

Real time help for dealing with cereal? Okay, I’ve just got to look. I saw no evidence of a help screen, let alone online help. I tried the search box:

Now that is downright irritating. People all over the world are looking for help, and yet no recipe contains it. I was finishing up writing my time-wasting blog post about the whole deal, and I decided I’d better comb the web page again more carefully, just to make sure. The closest thing to help I found on the page was A message from our lawyers:

Okay, now I’ve done it. I’m liable to get scary e-mails. I really do wonder though about the viability of preventing people from modifying publicly posted recipes. I’m sure that there are lots of cereal killers out there.

Ego where I go

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Ego where I go

Yesterday, I started thinking about the second writing class I took when I returned to college. I needed to take the second core course in writing, the same class I’ve been teaching for the past year or so. I signed up and found that because of a misprint I was in a class for English as a second language students. While I usually feel pretty foreign no matter where I am, they wouldn’t let me stay in that section. All the other sections were full. Several people in the department suggested that I take Persuasive Writing instead— it was a junior level class, but they assured me that it would be okay even though I was still a freshman. I signed up, but I was nervous as hell. The first day, the professor proclaimed:

All writers are self-absorbed, egotistical, and childish— and those are their good qualities.

The class was a trial by fire. The teacher constantly berated the writing of most of the students (which in retrospect, was pretty horrible). He was positively mean spirited about the whole thing. I felt largely ignored, though I was one of the few in the class who consistently got A’s on all my essays. It was good to be ignored in this situation. I’ll never forget the look of shock on his face when I told him it was my second writing class ever. I wrote the most scathing evaluation of his class that I’ve ever written, and cursed about it for years afterward. But the strange thing was, I learned more in this class than any other writing class of my undergraduate career. The professor didn’t avoid theory, as most writing teachers do— he taught straight out of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. It occurred to me yesterday that I’m doing much the same thing, though I tend to lean harder into Cicero and Quintilian. But I don’t berate my students.

I was reminded of this class for a couple of reasons. One of my students was trying to praise me for improving her writing. I complained that I really didn’t think I deserved that much credit— she was responsible for the improvement, not me. I was thinking of the classes I’ve taken where there is a palpable wall between the front half of the classroom and the back, and those that are more like discussion groups. I always got more out of the latter. The key to learning is doing, not spectating. I don’t say this to undercut the role of having good mentors, but rather to assign the credit where it is due. Some people forget all too easily. It’s part of that self-absorbed writer thing. When a “writer” stands at the front of a classroom, they can’t help but give themselves credit. That’s why I try to switch into a reader role when I’m there. The second reason was Luke’s prompt regarding the bashing of NaNoWriMo writers. Luke centers on this bit:

I am a writer. I just get terribly, terribly frustrated when something I have devoted my life to is treated in as cavalier a manner as Baty seems to be doing. To be a writer is not a right, it's a privilege. And you cannot buy that privilege by writing "50,000 words of crap" in a month. The price is much, much higher than that.

Let’s take this apart carefully. “I am a writer”— just what is this supposed to signify? To write is to send a message through a grapholect; a high percentage of the world can manage this communication skill. The arrogance of stating it as if it were somehow “special” reinforces my professor’s comment about the personality traits of writers. The easiest reply is to say “So what?” She might as well have said “I wash dishes.” A certain group, including AKMA and Jonathon might say that they don’t appreciate that some people treat the proper washing of dishes in such a “cavalier” manner. Writing, or washing dishes, is neither a right nor a privilege and to state it in these terms denigrates both rights and privileges. There is only one factual statement in this paragraph. To write is to communicate, and to communicate does extract a price: the price of being judged both for the quality of your coding (language) and your message (concept). How high the price is depends on the size of your audience.

Wood s Lot recently pointed to an article about the lack of readers. Pungent commentary by folks like Joe Epstein regarding “writers” and ranting like this about online novelists is on the rise. I like to believe that we are not moving to a time when everyone wants to talk and no one wants to listen. Sometimes, it’s hard to say. But I am heartened by my experiences with online writers. Everyone has links on their sidebar. They seem to both read, and write.

There is a difference between operating in reader mode and writer mode. Russ’s reaction hits the nail on the head: “Most offensive is the self-righteous, entitled sense of possession.” It’s a “writer” talking, not a reader. Those qualities are essential to writing, but positively destructive to reading. Let go. Live a little. Listen to someone else for a change. As Luke observed, a writer has to write a lot of crap to get better— that’s just how it works. The only one required to read the crap is the writer, that is, unless you’re in a class where a teacher can cut you to shreds over it. What makes a good writer is writing, not bitching. To read effectively, you have to quit thinking of how you would have written it and dig deeper into what the writer is trying to tell you. Hopefully, they’re not just putting their ego up on display— though a great deal of the time— that’s precisely what it is.

*Part of the divisiveness revealed in the two attitudes reflects the split between literature departments and rhetoric departments. Unlike what you might think, literature departments tend to underwrite this egocentric view of authorship. Though they are largely in the reading business, they treat authors as somehow above the crowd. This drives most literature students to desire this lofty, egocentric position. Rhetoric departments are focused on more practical aspects of writing. As one instructor of mine recently put it, “My students will change the world by writing grant proposals and influential documents. Will the poets you train ever do that?”

I sit in the middle between the extremes. I believe that the best poets can and do change the world. Not because they are privileged and special— but because they are sensitive, reading focused humans who force us to confront deeper truths. The best poets get past the necessary self-involved stages and look to the world, instead of just themselves, to convey a message.

Subway Portraits

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Walker Evans, from the subway portraits 1938-41

Busy

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Busy Signal

Everything always gets jammed up at the end of the semester. I have so much crap to create and do in the next week that I think my head may explode. It’s all fun stuff, really, I just wish I didn’t have to do it so damn fast. Sometimes I regret my motto of never do today what you can put off until tomorrow.

One of the things I’m working on is a web site, which I need to do some usability testing on tomorrow. For anyone who would like a preview, it is primarily a timeline of key events in social documentary work from 1890-1941. The main test page is here. Apologies to those on dial-up, eventually I’ll break things up a bit more and add more detailed sub-pages. But right now, I need something to test with human subjects. I would appreciate if no one linked it right now, since it will be greatly refined in the next week. Comments are welcome, however.

I decided that my blog note-taking just wasn’t enough. I wanted to arrange the material in an indexed chronology. In the next few days, I’ll be adding indexes to the authors and texts. There are still lots of events and texts missing, but I wanted to get the basics of my work so far. This thing keeps expanding away from my center in the twentieth century, with a lot of theoretical background still to be written. But that will have to wait until the break. Right now, I just want to consolidate some of the research and complete a document design assignment at the same time.

Bear in mind that this is purely an alpha-test. I always feel guilty when I don’t write at least something here in my blog, so I thought I’d offer up the premature debut. I’m just so freaking busy lately. I’m going to force myself to take a break to enjoy Eyes Adrift on Friday night though. All work and all that . . .

Queen Silver

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The Godless Girl

While the subject of feminism is flying about, I thought I’d suggest a Queen Silver website. I stumbled on it a while ago while researching something. The site is maintained by one of those (seemingly) dread feminists, Wendy McElroy who has an infrequently updated McBlog. The site is hours of fun for the whole family, including some scans and PDF’s of Queen Silver’s Magazine.

My favorite part is Queen Silver’s Theological Dictionary, which continues in the spirit of Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. Here are a few examples of her definitions: