January 2003 Archives

Out of Joint


Out of Joint

*I wrote this essay in about two hours this afternoon to demonstrate how a descriptive essay could be built from around ten minutes of Internet research. Nothing fabulous, just an example for my students.

A car passing by woke me up. I heard the sound and opened my eyes to see headlights on the pavement from a worm’s eye view. I looked at my watch and saw it was three a.m. I tried to stand up. It wasn’t right.

Under normal circumstances, the heel bone, called the calcaneous, contacts the ground and flexes against the talus stretching the Achilles tendon. Calcaneous means heel in ancient Greek, and just above it rests the talus, a small bone in the center of the foot that acts like the center of a U-joint in the lowest part of the ankle. But talus is also used to refer to the pile of rocks at the base of a cliff. The second meaning seemed closer to me, as I collapsed again to the ground, unable to support my own weight.

“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” A bad television commercial from years ago came rushing back in my head. If it wasn’t so embarrassing, I might have laughed. I moved my ankle back and forth. It can’t be broken, I thought, I must have sprained it somehow. I couldn’t remember. The last thing I remembered was waking up on the ground. My ankle seemed oddly disconnected from my body. It was clearly the weak link in the process of standing up. I could move it though, so I was sure it wasn’t broken.

The Dutch anatomist Verheyden first named the “Achilles heel” when he dissected his own amputated leg. According to myth, Achilles’ mother tried to make him strong by dipping him in the river Styx. She immersed him completely, except for one of his heels— leaving him vulnerable to attack there. But that’s not the only version of the myth. According to Homer, the great hero was vulnerable because of his excessive pride. My pride welled up after I fell down. The pain seemed secondary to the thought of being found helpless on the pavement of the parking lot.

I contemplated crawling the hundred yards back to my apartment. As I laboriously tested the limits of my limbs, another car passed by. Every time my tibia, the large bone at the center of my leg, the drive shaft that moves the leg forward, contacted the pavement it began to pipe a song of pain. Appropriate, really, because the word tibia is actually taken from a word for flute. Six flutes were found in China, the same year of my collapse, dating from 7,000 to 9,000 years old made from the leg-bones of cranes. Something was wrong, and the song of my leg told me so. I was reduced to crawling like a worm. After managing to travel the scant four-feet to the end of my car, I was in a cold sweat. It could have been shock; I’m not sure. I passed out. When I woke up, I looked at my watch again. It was 3:15.

It was at least thirty feet to the other side of the parking lot. I wondered if I would be squashed like a can on the pavement if I passed out again before reaching the other side. It was a tough decision, but my pride wouldn’t accept any other choice. I had to use my arms because any attempt to touch my leg to the ground created pain so intense I could not stay conscious. But I made it, and passed out on the other side on the comfortable grass.

I repeated the performance several times, finally arriving at my apartment by 4:30 a.m. where I slept in my own bed. When I woke up several hours later, I realized I needed to call for help. At the hospital, I finally found out what was wrong.

The primary ankle joint is composed of three bones: the talus, the tibia, and the fibula. My fibula, the small thin bone that makes up the other side of the primary ankle joint had sprung apart. Both my tibia and fibula were fractured and occupying different zip codes, leaving the talus a useless stone above my heel. It took thirteen screws and a long titanium strip to bring them back together, including a screw an inch and a half long to convince my fibula to stay in place and form an intact ankle joint. The word fibula actually means pin or clasp, and like a sprung safety pin, mine just wasn’t doing the job without help. Because of this experience, I received a crash course in the anatomy of the ankle joint. The doctor, though helpful, refused to say when I could walk again.

Three months later when they took the massive screw out the joint stayed together. Gradually, I was able to walk. My Achilles tendon had shrunken to a hard-knotted mass, and it seemed to take forever to get it stretched back into place. Only after I began to walk did the doctor tell me that it wasn’t a given. Many people do not recover from this sort of injury. I suppose for me, it was a matter of pride.


New York Dolls, 1973— Bob Gruen


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A Matter of Style

Watching My Generation, a documentary which compares the 1969, 1994 and 1999 Woodstock concerts the narrow telescope of history lights up to roast the ants. The biggest victim, I think, is the view presented of the 1969 festival. Don’t get me wrong, the film is relatively fair in presenting the facts— such as the Who demanding their money, cash in advance, before they would take the stage— but the view of the 90s interviewees when looking back at the previous festival shows a media-driven response to the hype of what Woodstock was in 1969.

Moby, for example, expressed his feeling that the youth culture of the sixties had not yet been co-opted by big business and that the spirit of sixties youth, although naive, was somehow more coherent. Another young girl suggested that the sixties was unified by fighting the Vietnam War, and the present generation has no war to fight against. It seems to me that this has changed since the release of this movie, but I can’t see that contributing much coherence to the present age.

I was eleven years old when the first festival happened, but growing up in the 1970s the hype had already begun to snowball about the “summer of love” and all that. I thought it was nice how the filmmaker chose to display a pissed-off Pete Townsend smashing a guitar while the interviews spouted the peace and love thing. Interviews with the middle-aged attendees of course were quick to point out how much more violent and nihilistic the 90s generation was. Of course being somehow “smarter” and more aware of the futility of political action— that there wasn’t any point in caring because the 60s really changed nothing— made the younger generation somehow “better” than the kids in the sixties, at least if you listen to them.

Every speaker clearly serviced their own rhetorical need to feel above the excesses of the generation opposed to them. It’s all such utter crap. The situation at each of the festivals was unique. I suspect that the “peace and love” vibe sold by members of the crowd at all the festival’s incarnations was primarily marketing. As for the generational differences in attitude, I think old-timer Todd Rundgren put it best, loosely paraphrased:

In the sixties, the in style was to act like you cared. In the nineties, it’s more hip not to care.

I sincerely believe that there is probably very little quantitative difference in the involvement of either generation. It’s largely a matter of fashion, of style. The punk fashion (sold by the media, not manifest in reality) which emerged in the intervening years was one of apathy. A quick survey of most of the music which emerged in the whole DIY aesthetic would fill books with its involvement in resisting corporate culture, not through violent means, but by the creation of a new culture. The short-circuited hooligans of the last Woodstock are victims of not just one, but two media stereotypes— that the present generation is powerless against big business, and that punk is entirely about “fucking shit up.” It’s a pity, really.

To forge a culture, people come together. If there’s a Budweiser sign hanging in the corner, then it should be suspect. The lack of corporate sponsorship in the sixties does not make the people of the sixties any smarter— I suspect that if big business had been involved in the original festival, the vast majority of the attendees would have done much the same thing as the later shows. No generation has a monopoly on being young and stupid, and as for the apathy, well— most of the people I knew in the seventies who talked of the sixties counterculture didn’t talk about political action, peace, love, or any of that crap. Like any group of young people, they talked about partying and getting laid. It’s amazing how the lens of history can forge coherence that never really existed.



Walker Evans: A Gallery of Postcards

I got this curiosity recently— an aluminum box filled with a small number of postcards, made by Walker Evans as a promotion for the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. At the time, he shelved the idea but it was released in 2000 to amplify the sort of hysteria that surrounds Evans:

Like a poet refining an idea word by word, Evans often clarified and intensified the meanings of his pictures by trimming his prints just slightly to present the leanest possible image. With the postcards he took that impulse to another level. Evans was a master of the edge and one of the medium’s greatest precisionists. . . . The postcard prints are superb examples of this philosophy, framing as they do virtually new and often “better” pictures from the photographs that already attested to Evans’ meticulous eye.

Jeff L. Rosenheim, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The essay accompanying the box shows the usual idolatry without providing much in the way of useful information. It says nothing about the fact that Evans collected postcards and found signs and objects, so obviously making his own version of these artifacts was hardly a stretch. It fails to mention that he also frequently trimmed his negatives with scissors to make sure that they were printed correctly at the FSA, a practice that annoyed the archivists there. There is little of interest in the “edge” manipulation of the examples presented, and only a couple of the photographs present singular details— the scenes pictured are hardly fragmentary in any way, and entirely in step with his visual approach of copious tiny parts that present a coherent whole. Actually, they are nearly indistinguishable from any of his other work, regardless of the technique or size.

I suspect that the real value of these 3x5 artifacts is that they demonstrate conclusively a sort of fractal self-similarity with his entire body of work, neither amplifying nor detracting from it. They are just Evans postcards, no more clear or ambiguous than any of his work, neither “better” or less important— they merely demonstrate the coherence of his decision making.


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Fitful Dreams

I had such a horrible time sleeping last night. I’m reasonably certain it was the book I was reading: The Matrix of Modernism by Sanford Schwartz. A person likes to feel that they know who their friends are. I’ve made such a career of demonizing Eliot and Pound— and now I find myself sympathetic. I’m so confused.

Russell Murphy, editor of the Yeats Eliot Review recommended it to me years ago. He knew how much I loved Yeats and detested Eliot. I suspect he also knew that this book would strike at my weak spot— philosophy. I’m starting to find things to admire about the well-thought out nature of Pound and Eliot’s philosophical take on representation, and this is hard for me. Even if I still don’t care for their poems, I can’t think of them as total assholes anymore. That sucks. I’ll need new straw men to beat up on.

The other thing that sucks is complicating my view of metaphor right before I need to lecture on it. Gestating in my head is a new way to look at Walker Evans and James Agee— it seems like Evans overlaps a great deal with Pound, philosophically, and Agee overlaps with Eliot in the strangest ways. They form an interesting matrix of representation, which hopefully I can try to write out sometime soon. The world doesn’t really need another treatise on Evans, but the paradoxical nature of Pound and the paradoxical nature of Evans fit too damn well. It warrants at least a mention. Eliot’s “objective correlative” also fits with Agee’s endless inventories of household objects, and tension over his own subjectivity. My head’s a mess just thinking about it.

I’m beginning to narrow the focus of my thesis to captioning practices in the photographic books of the 1930s. It’s a small piece of the larger puzzle which might be more easily completed in the next year. Simply stated, it has to do with how photographs work as units of meaning in the format of the book. Evan’s rejection of the caption has much to do with his ideas of how reality, and photographs should be read. Though other books before Let Us Now Praise Famous Men refrained from captioning, the reason why Evans was resistant to captioning was far different. Strange to find even greater depth and complexity to that choice in a book which explores the theories of Nietzsche, Bergson, Hulme, and William James compared to the poetics of Pound and Eliot, but whatever works I suppose.

I suppose I should get used to having my world view altered radically by books I read every few weeks, but I never do. It’s a shock to the system. Damn, the last thing I really wanted to do is start liking Eliot!

Kevin, Kim, and Larry

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Kevin, Kim, and Larry— 1993ish [nothing profound, just archiving]

Soup Questions


Soup Questions

Something has been bothering me. At the first meeting of my class in Theory of Technical Communication, the introductions were a bit strange. Though I only knew about 20 percent of the class, there was an air of tacit assumption that everyone knew me, by reputation at least. I’m not sure what to make of that. I’d like to think it’s a good thing, but I’m not sure. My professors sometimes come up with new coinages as well— last semester a text (The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan) was called “Jeffian.” The adjective, the way I understand it, was meant to mean that the author latches onto a seemingly insignificant detail or mundane object and runs with it endlessly, through a loop of history and theory, and then back again.

Around halfway through the class, the instructor remarked:

“Nobody reads the manual of Microsoft Word for fun— regardless of what you might think— not even Jeff.”

It occurred to me that I’d never read a software manual, with the exception of Adobe PhotoShop, because most software is fairly intuitive. The point was simple though— people read manuals to extract information they need.

I’m not sure if the comment was a positive one— in reference to my tendency to read nearly anything— or a negative one— as in, Jeff is such a total geek that he reads manuals. But the more I think about it, the more I think my reading pattern fits with a typical technical manual user. I read to answer “soup questions.”

For anyone who may have forgotten Finding Forester, Sean Connery chastises Rob Brown for asking him if he goes outside: “That isn’t a soup question is it— it fails the basic criteria of a question in that it does not solicit information that is important to you.” I seldom read for pure entertainment value— I never have. I read because the text I’m considering contains something that I think will be useful to me— just like the person who reads tech manuals.

Regardless whether it’s the back of a cereal box, a novel, a poem, or a dense book of linguistic theory— I read to answer soup questions. I read to find out things that are important to me. I suspect I write for much the same reason— to find things out, not to entertain anyone else. Entertainment is a rather nice side effect of some of these questioning excursions; I’m not opposed to it, I just seldom have the time. I’ve got too many things that I want to know, too many things that are useful to me.



It’s just gravy (or not).

I was tired and hungry. As usual, there was nothing in the house.

A quick inventory of the refrigerator revealed some mushrooms in need of use. There were some potatoes on the top of the microwave. That’s it, I thought: mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy. That would work.

I started to sauté the mushrooms. Gravity increased. I really didn’t want to peel potatoes. I could just eat gravy.

Perhaps I’m just too linguistically bound. There’s just something not right about that. No one eats just gravy. Gravy implies a surfeit. A person has too many things— so the rest are just gravy.

It’s an addition, a side-dish, a garnish— not a meal.

My legs were nagging. I needed something simple, and the mushrooms were nearly browned.

Suddenly, in a flash of inspiration, my gravy became soup. Soup is okay— cream of mushroom soup, that’s it! A little pepper, some flour, some onion . . . Soup is the catch-all cleaning the refrigerator type meal.

It couldn’t be gravy!


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*With apologies to J. Mascis

I was thinking about the Tom Robbins bit I used in class yesterday. I was thinking about Aristotle’s definition of definition.

For Aristotle, a definition was a proposition where the subject and predicate were completely interchangeable. Otherwise, the predicate is merely a property. Given Protagoras’ sophistic point of view, or the supposedly new postmodern one— definition is impossible. Examined under the light of speech-act theory, definition is similarly impossible. The act of speaking or writing is used to create an action— or at the very least, an effect. If an utterance isn’t novel— different in some degree from the state which proceeds it— there really isn’t a point to saying anything at all.

From the sophistic point of view humans are forever changing. Hence, an utterance that may be linguistically identical to another is perceived by a subject always becoming different hearing it the second time. We always become older, more experienced and bring a different context to bear upon extracting meaning. A rhetorical approach to definition is not to propose that an utterance is identical to another— but to control context as much as possible. Such control, from the postmodern point of view, is impossible— because repetition itself changes meaning.

While it may sound like I have my thumb up my ass here, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way Tom Robbins shifts the definition of “thumb” by the definitions he offers of other body parts which the thumb is not. It is not a brain— the fragile center of thought. It is not a navel— the scarred center of being. It is an organ of mobility, of movement.

I was thinking about blogs. I was thinking about the frequency with which many early bloggers screamed “I am not my blog.” I was thinking about how so many people would like to define blogging as a popularity contest, or a public rather than private thing— a blog is not a navel. I was thinking how people would like to define the blogosphere as a platform for ethical development, of intelligent discourse and thought— but alas, I cannot think of blogs as brains either. Too many of them are absent of the criteria of deep reflection connected with that mass of goo.

I begin to think that the blog is a thumb. An appendage, stuck out with the hopes of getting a ride. Sometimes, you stand on the corner navel-gazing. Sometimes you reflect on something you’re thinking about. But a blog is neither a navel nor a brain. A blog is a thumb.

But of course, any definition such as this is impossible, because definition itself is impossible. A writer is left with only endless predicates of properties, spinning toward definitions that they hope will be accepted without too much thought on the subject.

** Blame Stavros for my hitchhiking on this particular bit.

Ben Shahn

Resident of Smithland, Kentucky, September 1935— Ben Shahn

What it's not

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What it’s not

Aristotle is really clear in delineating the properties which may be used to describe something in Topics. The motive behind Topics is to identify the constituent parts of an argument. Arguments are derived from propositions that have both a subject and a predicate. If the predicate is interchangeable with the subject, then the proposition is a definition, otherwise it is a property. These properties are enumerated as quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, activity, and passivity.

Having a variety of ESL students in both of my classes, I think it will be a good idea to review many of the descriptive words used to list these properties. I hate flowery description, myself, and there are usually more than enough properties for any given subject to provide a good description without resorting to them. That’s my biggest fear about teaching beginning composition— the “writerly” types who want to load up every page with a bunch of fru-fru nonsense. It’s always best to start with the literal, before you try to start building up chops. Literal description begins with simple properties. The first step towards knowledge begins with arriving at propositions such as these. However, in order to evaluate statements, properties must be compared with the subject to test their scope, their similarity, and their differences from the subject.

It occurred to me last night that it is easy to get stumped when trying to describe something— watching my students scratch their heads when I asked them to make a list of things about themselves to share with the rest of the class made me wonder about ways to overcome that mental-block. I decided that the best strategy I could think of to describe something when you run out of things to say regarding what it is— is to start enumerating the things that it is not.

To that end, I’ve decided to use this fragment of writing by Tom Robbins to illustrate one way of overcoming that block. It also serves as a nice bridge between the literal and the metaphoric, the territory I’ll be exploring next week. It’s always a challenge to come up with ideas for texts that aren’t hard— I like things that are hard, a fascination that not many college freshmen share. Hopefully, this won’t be too challenging to start out with.

Catholic School

John Collier Jr., New Mexico 1943

Comp I

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Something Old

I was struggling most of last week trying to figure out how I might approach teaching Composition I. It came together today, on the first day of class. Strange how these things work. I was intrigued by Kiraki’s approach of using deliberatory and mediatory essays in Comp. I. One advantage is that it provides an easy way of introducing research as an invention strategy. However, the disadvantage is that first year students need to spend a lot of time on confidence building and using such complex targets takes away from the time you have to deal with the practical matters of style and diction. I wanted to incorporate some of her approach, but not all of it.

The problem is that arcing toward true negotiating skills requires the development of chops that first year writers usually don’t have— it would take a while to get there. I devised a plan, using five rather than the usual four essays assigned in Comp I:

  1. Descriptive essay
  2. Narrative essay
  3. Encomium
  4. Comparative essay
  5. Deliberative essay

When I was lecturing today, I backwards-engineered a great rationale for it. I like modeling the arc of a class against a classical method— in the case of Composition II I use the Ciceronian six-part essay, spending weeks on each of the sections. However, since the emphasis in Comp I is not usually on argument, that just didn’t seem right. Instead, I decided that my arc would be across the three branches of rhetoric— forensic, epideictic, and deliberative. Trying to give a short course in the history of rhetoric as a discipline today, it all began to make even more sense.

Not many first year comp teachers start with Corax and Tisias, but I did. The birth of rhetoric can be traced to the courtroom— the first trials by jury in Sicily in the fifth century BC caused a need for common people to be able to argue their case in front of their peers. Corax and Tisias set up schools to train them. The first rhetoric was courtroom rhetoric, and it was largely focused on the preservation of property in the present. A descriptive essay is classified as forensic because of its similarly present-directed argument. This is what it is— or isn’t. As the teachers (Sophists) spread further, the power of language to move people to political action became clear. One of the surest ways to move people was to stir them up over ancient battles and such, praising their heroes or blaming their enemies. Rhetoric begins to look back, telling stories of praise or blame. Stories are situated in the past— hence, the ability to write a narrative essay combines a talent for present description with the ability to arrange time in a coherent fashion. The most highly developed form of it is really the encomium— epideictic rhetoric in the public square.

To write a good encomium for something requires some research in order to really sing the full praises of your subject, but it isn’t totally essential. I can ease into it there— but as Aristotle enters the equation, the ability to compare things certainly means doing your homework. I want to do the comparative essay on a political topic, and ask them to be dispassionate about it. A deliberative essay should build on the comparison between two courses of action, so I’ll allow them to revise the fourth essay substantially into the fifth— I know how hard it is for first year students to be dispassionate about anything. But the ability to compare two positions is the essential stepping stone to deliberation on future action, and I think that is a nice note to close on— a sort of Isocratian landing spot for the whole class.

What I find the most fun about this is that it matches the historical development of rhetoric so closely— it begins with a need, moves into a fluffier sort of writing, and ends with a concerted look at future action. I love this stuff.

Chicago Daily News

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Image of a wounded soldier making a toy tank at Fort Sheridan Hospital in Fort Sheridan, Illinois— 1919

Photographs from the Chicago Daily News 1909-1933 is a way cool site:

This collection comprises over 55,000 images of urban life captured on glass plate negatives between 1902 and 1933 by photographers employed by the Chicago Daily News, then one of Chicago's leading newspapers. The photographs illustrate the enormous variety of topics and events covered in the newspaper, although only about twenty percent of the images in the collection were published in the newspaper. Most of the photographs were taken in Chicago, Illinois, or in nearby towns, parks, or athletic fields. In addition to many Chicagoans, the images include politicians, actors, and other prominent people who stopped in Chicago during their travels and individual athletes and sports teams who came to Chicago. Also included are photographs illustrating the operations of the Chicago Daily News itself and pictures taken on occasional out-of-town trips by the Daily News's photographers to important events, such as the inauguration of presidents in Washington, D.C.

Puzzled America


Puzzled America

I read about half of Puzzled America (1935) by Sherwood Anderson today. It is an amazing bridge between 1919’s Winesburg Ohio and 1940’s Home Town. Several commentators I’ve read see Home Town as a sellout of sorts— a caving in to collectivism when Anderson had previously celebrated individualism and eccentricity in Winesburg Ohio. The book is an early example of “creative nonfiction,” and it bridges the conceptual gap. In the short personal oral histories in the book, Anderson clearly relates the changing face of America in the 1930s. In the story called “TVA” Anderson celebrates power:

There is wealth in the land which these people have tried to live. It is a new kind of wealth, the wealth of modern man, of the modern world. It is wealth in the form of energy.

Power— the coinage of the modern world!

There is plenty of power— the private companies have only got a little of it so far— flowing silently away, along the Tennessee, along the rivers that come down out of the hills to make the Tennessee.

Long ago, I’m told, army engineers went through these hills. They drew up a kind of plan, having in mind the use of all this wasted power in case of war, power to be harnessed, to make munitions, to kill men.

There came a World War and the building of the Wilson Dam at Muscle Shoals. That is where the Tennessee, in its wanderings, dips down into northern Alabama, thrusts down into the land of cotton. It is something to be seen. All good Americans should go and see it. If the Russians had it there would be parades, special editions of illustrated magazines got out and distributed by the government.

There it is, however, completely magnificent. You go down, by elevator, some ten stories, under the earth, under the roaring river, and walk out into great light clean rooms. There is a song, the song of great motors. You are stirred. Something in you— the mechanically minded American in you begins to sing. Everything is so huge, so suggestive of power and at the same time so delicate. You walk about muttering.

“No wonder the Russians wanted our engineers, “ you say to yourself.

The great motors sing on, each motor as large as a city room. There is a proud kind of rebirth of Americanism in you.

“Some of our boys did this,” you say to yourself, throwing out your chest. (58-9)

I find the narrative strategy here— placing the reader in the scene— to be quite interesting. But there is the note of caution, as the world gears up for another World War that this power is meant to produce bullets to kill people. That’s a nice touch— it plays on the patriotic sentiment while sliding in through the back door a note that this power was not initially designed to be beneficent. It says something about America, while it clubs you with patriotism.

The real shift in Anderson’s attitude about American individualism shines through in a subsequent story, “Tough Babes in the Woods.” In a conversation with one of the hill people, Anderson relates the contradiction between industry and individualism:

“This is off the record. Some may think I am a Socialist or a Bolshevik.”

Men’s minds pushing, somewhat timidly, into a new social view of physical America. How are they to tell the story to that lean mountain man? Let us say that he owns his few poor hillside acres. Who is to tell him, “Thou shalt not?”? The right to go on plowing, where plowing is sheer land destruction— the traditional right of the American individualist, big or little.

“It’s mine.”

“It’s mine.” (73)


Walker Evans, Hale County Alabama, 1936

Aristotle on Captioning

I was reading Aristotle’s Topics, and was struck by his puzzling over the correct use of phrases:

Sometimes a phrase is used neither homonymously, nor yet metaphorically, nor yet literally, as when the law is said to be the measure or image of things that are by nature just. Such phrases are worse than metaphor; for metaphor does make what it signifies to some extent familiar because of the likeness involved (for those who use metaphor do so always in view of some likeness), whereas this kind of thing makes nothing familiar, (for there is no likeness in virtue of which the law is a measure or image nor is the law ordinarily so called). So then, if a man says that the law is literally a measure or an image, he speaks falsely; for an image is something produced by imitation, and this is not found in the case of the law. If on the other hand, he does not mean the term literally, it is clear that he has used an obscure expression and one that is worse than any sort of metaphorical expression.

Moreover, see if from the expression used the account of the contrary is not clear; for definitions that have been correctly rendered also indicate their contraries as well. Or, again, see if, when it is merely stated by itself, it is not evident what it defines— just as in the works of old painters, unless there were an inscription, the figures used be unrecognizable.

The core values of Aristotle’s conception of metaphor are conflicted— as Paul Ricoeur has noted— he uses a model of metaphor as resemblance in Poetics and here, in Topics, but is not nearly so stringent about it in Rhetoric. But it is interesting to me that he invest a great deal in the power of a caption to clarify an image. I think the confusion reflected in this passage plays itself out well in the development of documentary photography in the 1930s.

Aristotle is concerned about obscure expression— is a picture without a caption more confusing? Not if it is metaphoric or literal— if its reference is clearly one or the other, then it seems unnecessary. But what if the usage isn’t so clear? It seems that according to Aristotle, without the caption there is no way to interpret the image.

I am reminded of the two extremes of the photographic books I’m considering— Doris Ulman’s 1933 collaboration with Julia Peterkin, Roll Jordan, Roll uses no captions; neither does Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The strange thing is that Ulman’s photographs are meant to be clearly metaphoric— whereas Evans work is neither literal or metaphoric. Evan’s photographs fall into the strange zone that Aristotle is writing about here. Are his photographs obscure because of this? I think that is a point to ponder.

The cause for Evans’ avoidance of captioning was to avoid the rhetorical posturing in the interim works. However, what is the cost? Is it obscurity?

A Milton Flashback

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A Milton Flashback

I was going through some old mail and stumbled on a link to an article in the NY Times decrying teaching Milton’s Samson AgonistesIs Teaching Milton Unsafe at Any Speed? The core argument is that the poem celebrates terrorism, or rather, that Stanley Fish’s reading of Milton accentuates the fundamentalism involved. According to the Times:

Liberals, he [Fish] says, believe in objectivity, disinterested consideration of evidence, procedural safeguards for justice and above all in the primacy of rationality. “Milton,” he argues, “believes none of those things.”

On September 11, 2001 I was preparing my notes for a seminar on Milton on the twelfth. I was supposed to teach “Lycidas,” a pastoral elegy. “Lycidas” is a flexing of his poetic muscles that neatly avoids the problem of fame by passing judgment on the worthiness of fame not to men, but to God. Its strategy of deferral is interesting, because Milton compares the fallen poet he laments (who he barely knew) to Orpheus. Though Orpheus could charm a stone through his rhetoric, it still didn’t keep him from being torn apart by the Maenads. I feel sorry for poor Milton.

Presenting an elegy on that day seemed so right. And it is a powerful elegy at that, one of the finest in my opinion. A few weeks later, oddly enough, I presented Samson Agonistes. Thoroughout the poem Milton undercuts Samson for his past deeds, and he is in torment that parallels that of Job. In the end, he tears down the temple based on the voice of the lord that he alone hears. Of course, Milton no doubt chose this subject because he was involved in defending Cromwell, and felt himself in a similarly embattled position. To teach a play that involves such single minded devotion to a God seemed really important in the light of September 11th. Right or wrong, who can really say. I haven’t had any conversations with God lately to judge by. Strike the poem from the canon? It seems as likely that we might neatly snip out the story from the Bible.

Milton consistently defers authority to God. I wonder if that might be the firmest lesson involved. Personally, I can’t see following any god that commands you to slaughter innocents. Obviously, Milton’s God condoned that sort of behavior— and he wasn’t Islamic. Does that mean I ask myself “What would Milton Do” just because I read and love his poems? Now that’s a really stupid question. Milton never claims any authority for himself, only for his God— and it really turned out badly both for him and the innocent victims. There is a lesson in there somewhere.

I was only sitting in on this seminar. I felt like I had missed something in my undergraduate career by not spending more time with Milton. I was glad I did, and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. What better way to understand the actions of some outraged fundamentalists than by reading another fundamentalist?

One Thing Leads to Another

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Dust jacket for One Thing Leads to Another— 1936

One Thing Leads to Another

I stumbled on this interesting book illustrated by Margaret Bourke-White that was published in 1936. Of course it triggered more research, which I’ll encapsulate here.

I'll Take My Stand (1)


I’ll Take My Stand

The opening “Statement of Principles” by the group of twelve Southern writers brought together in I'll Take My Stand, first printed in 1930 in limited quantity, bears close scrutiny by anyone interested in the argument over the role of the humanities in education. While it takes as its organizing trope the conflict of “Agrarian versus Industrial” it is easily recast into a modern frame by considering it in the light of the continuing debate over traditional versus vocational education. However, the rhetoric is easily pigeonholed as region-specific or time-specific. The resistance to industry reflected in these historic essays draws deeply at the well of the humanities, and the introduction seems incredibly cognizant of the wider implications— the book breaks the bounds of an anachronistic luddite artifact of a culture long since passed. Indeed, it seems prudent to examine the definition of “Industrialism” offered here:

Industrialism is the economic organization of the collective American society. It means the decision of society to invest its economic resources in the applied sciences. (x)
If the book is a battle cry against this movement in America, then like the first civil war, the South surely lost. However, the introduction speaks to an anxiety which in its own way anticipates deconstruction:
The word science has acquired a certain sanctitude. It is out of order to quarrel with science in the abstract, or even with the applied sciences when their applications are made subject to criticism and intelligence. The capitalization of the applied sciences has now become extravagant and uncritical; it has enslaved our human energies to a degree now clearly felt to be burdensome. The apologists of industrialism do not like to meet this charge directly; so they often take refuge in saying that they are devoted simply to science! They are really devoted to the applied sciences and to practical production. Therefore, it is necessary to employ a certain skepticism even at the expense of the Cult of Science, and to say, it is an Americanism, which look innocent and disinterested, but really is not either. (x-xi)

Curious distinctions are at work here— first, the identification of a schism between abstract and applied science. This is still true. Funding for pure research is hard to come by. It’s the economic focus that defines America— so by definition “science” in a real sense is hardly disinterested or innocent. Though carpal-tunnel is more of a threat in most modern professions than black lung, nothing much has been changed when it comes to the “burdensome” nature of applied science. The Southern answer to the problem of casting off that burden is leisure, and I must say I like that answer. The penalty of the endless work/leisure explosion is proposed as a two-edged sword:

Turning to consumption, as the grand end which justifies the evil of modern labor, we find that we have been deceived. We have more time in which to consume, and many more products to be consumed. But the tempo of our labors communicates itself to our satisfactions, and these also become brutal and hurried. The constitution of the natural man probably does not permit him to shorten his labor-time and enlarge his consuming-time indefinitely. He has to pay the penalty in satiety and aimlessness. The modern man has lost his sense of vocation. (xlii)

I can’t help but think of the way that the tempo of vocational education has entered into the humanities— hundred year spans are taught with a few choice predigested words which support the current critical trends, and there is precious little time for reflection. The best of teachers though do take the time to attempt the expression of the soul of literature and history— that yesterday indeed has and does invest itself in today. But I had to put myself under the magnifying glass when it comes to my own consumptive patterns.

I am a voracious consumer— not of status symbols, modern conveniences, etc., but of information. In the consumption of information, there is no satiety or aimlessness. The consumption of information is indeed a vocation. I find myself far more drawn to that than agrarian pursuits. The current trend in reading I’ll Take My Stand is to read it as metaphoric. I think this is a good thing; the appeal to tradition that it represents is heartfelt and erroneous. But the appeal for a critical appraisal of technology in light of what it displaces is important, even today in an information rather than commodity driven economy.

More to come, I’m sure.

Audience Analysis


Reading the audience

I was thinking about the first time I encountered “audience analysis” in school. It was my second writing class— persuasive writing. The instructor had the class bring several popular magazines to class so that we might guess what the “target audience” for these publications were. The easy way to do it is to look at the advertisements. Trends were easy to spot, with little actual reading involved.

Watching the History Channel this morning, I was enlightened by the troubled story of the M-16. I didn’t realize that it was created by a man with the surname of “Stoner” and built by the Armalite Rifle Company. Who watches this stuff? Non-stop stories of new and better ways of killing each other. Ah, maybe the ads provide a clue. The first ad was for the Q-Ray Bracelet. Perhaps the same people drawn to weaponry as a talisman of power are also drawn to mystical ionic ray bracelets that relieve all pain. The commercials found on these cable stations seem to have a big overlap with a publication that the instructor made some guesses about in that persuasive writing class— The National Enquirer.

The general consensus of the class was that the audience for supermarket tabloids is women with less than a sixth-grade education. I wonder how the History Channel’s marketing reps sell to these companies? Ozzy Osbourne is a big fan— perhaps there is a connection between ritual healing and ritual destruction? The question of audience is complex though, because the station does have many quality programs besides the constant barrage of war pornography. TV advertising is not nearly as monolithic as print advertising. Next to the ads for diabetes test equipment, teenagers cavort with day-glow cell phones. But there is an overwhelming tone of machismo to the bulk of the History Channel’s programming, so I really do wonder at the presence of the miracle bracelet. Do guys really buy this stuff?

But I wonder more about the statistics that Ampersand posted about our so-called “representative” government. I wonder if the typical member of Congress wears a Q-Ray bracelet to match their M-16? With all the talismanic saber-rattling these days, it would make a lot of sense.

You Live With That Engine

“You Live With That Engine” from Towboat River by Edwin and Louise Rosskam— 1948

Pare Lorentz


Government Issue

I finally got to see a couple of films I’ve been reading about for years: The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River by Pare Lorentz. I’m not sure what I think just yet. Maybe it’s my dislike for modern poetry, but I just didn’t find them as poetic as they’re cracked up to be. Visually, they are outstanding for the time. Verbally, they sort of grated on me— of course, the critics call them “Joycean.”

Maybe it was just the deadpan tone— sort of like watching one of those Prelinger Archive training films. However, the content was different. Not quite propaganda but certainly not objective, the first US Government funded documentary films are fascinating. I ordered them from a site called buyindies.com, which connected me directly with a company that consumptive (I think) linked to a few days later . . . . strange how all this works. But then I’m wandering.

I miss that. Wandering, that is. I’ve been feeling far too focused and industrious lately, rather than just rambling on with blog entries. Maybe it’s getting into the time-line phase with my research site that took it out of me. There’s so much I want to get down. But for now, I should stick to the topic at hand.

The Plow that Broke the Plains was my favorite of the films. It uses some pretty innovative montage techniques to contextualize the agrarian vs. industrial debate of the time. It reminded me of someone else I need to know more about— Ralph Steiner, who did the camera work. He was the man who trained Walker Evans in using the view camera too, by the way. The River was disappointing to me, but as I read through I’ll Take My Stand I can see how much it dealt with the problem of the south in relatively sympathetic fashion. The preface of the collection of Southern essays sets the opposition firmly: “Agrarian versus Industrial”

It amazes me how much these polemics miss the real point at stake— there is nothing inherently evil about technology. However, there are dehumanizing aspects to any technological growth which need to be highlighted and addressed. The controversy still rages today. I love to side with the humanists— but it is never an either or choice that must be made. Being a Luddite is no answer at all. The real problem is sucessfully integrating tools into our mode of living without losing something essential in the simpler mode that preceded it.

But even as I write that I wonder about the mythic “simplicity” of life close to the land. I personally find indoor plumbing to be much “simpler” than dealing with outhouse maintenance. Cooking with wood fires also seems to be much more complex. Maybe it’s just that the change from one mode to the other decenters us to the point where we always take the previous version as being simpler, when in reality it is not.

I’ll have to give Pare Lorentz credit for the slant of his films— he does not avoid the truly complex nature of the changes that the USA was dealing with in the 1930s. They are not monolithic pieces of cultural propaganda. His films are quite complex, and deserve much more than the scant words I’ve generated about them here. I suppose I should think about it longer, but damn it I miss writing!

Off the wire

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LITTLE ROCK (AP) Police say a former University of Arkansas at Little Rock student jumped to his death from the sixth floor of a parking garage at the campus.

University police identified the man as 30-year-old Michael Carter. Officials say he enrolled at the school in 1994. The death is under investigation by campus police, who say they do not know why the man was at the university on Wednesday evening.

Police said witnesses reported Carter knelt and yelled before jumping at about 7:00 PM. Officials said they believe Carter has relatives in Greenville, Miss.

Georgia Nigger

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Title page, Georgia Nigger by John Spivak— 1932

One of the neglected figures I’m starting to look into now is John Spivak, a reporter who “broke” the story of the abuses of Southern chain-gangs in the 1930s. I had never heard of him, but thanks to William Stott’s excellent treatment of him in Documentary Expression and Thirties America I felt like I needed to track down a copy of Georgia Nigger. This entry presents all the photographs used in the book, and some notes about the rhetorical perspective. The book opens with a postscript:

To have placed the scene of action of “Georgia Nigger” in some specific county would manifestly been unfair since it would have singled out for national opprobrium when it is no worse than many others in the state or other southern states; and to have presented a collection of factual, individual cases would have centered attention upon them and have left the many thousands of others as unknown as before.

Excellent studies in this field have been published by sociologists and penologists but they are too little known. I thought it wise to tell the story of David’s efforts to escape from a monstrous system, in the guise of fiction. But though all characters in Georgia Nigger are fictitious some of the scenes described are so utterly incredible that I feel an appendix of pictures and documents are necessary in this particular work. The pictures I took personally in various camps and the documents are but a few of the many gathering dust in the State Capitol in Atlanta.

Georgia does not stand alone as a state lost to fundamental justice and humanity. It was chosen because it is fairly representative of the Carolinas, Florida, Alabama— the whole far-flung Black Belt. Nor is the whole south as pictured here. There are many counties where conditions are infinitely better, and too many counties where they are infinitely worse.

I do not believe that the overwhelming proportion of intelligent and humane citizens of the south approves these conditions. In those representative southerners, white and black, with whom I discussed my investigations and showed the pictures and documents, I found a sense of startled horror and a desire to end these things.

To those who are vaguely familiar with the lives in Georgia Nigger from the shocking cases which reach the press from time to time, and who may think I deliberately chose sensational and extreme instances for David to see and hear and pass through, I make assurances that I have earnestly avoided that, not only because it would not have been a representative picture but because the extreme cases are unbelievable.

To those, colored and white, who helped me with introductions that opened up the doors of planter and sharecropper, peon and convict camp stockade, much gratitude is due.

The documentation in Spivak’s book is largely textual— state documents, many of which that describe the sort of abuses heaped upon prisoners as a matter of public record. Spivak presents them in the appendix, which opens with the letter which gave him entry to the prison system. Caution, the extended page displaying the photographs will load slowly because I wanted to present them at a size that was readable.

The Photograph


A Snapshot

A while ago I wrote a little story that talked about a photograph. In the midst of my cleaning today, I found it. It’s amazing how close I was to the original. Some things you just don’t forget.




Because the semester is starting in another ten days or so, I decided I had better do something about the compost heap in the floor. This is always a problem, and I’ve been putting off sorting out the articles and such that I really need to file— I noticed today that there were several essays on Chaucer. I haven’t studied Chaucer in at least four years. I suppose that goes to the sheer resistance I have to cleaning.

It isn’t unsanitary mind you, it’s just paper after all. No stale pizzas have surfaced, or unidentifiable sticky things, just paper. If I had a fireplace, I suppose I could bale it and keep myself warm for the winter.

Which reminds me of a story . . . There was a mailman in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains in California, who serviced the outlying areas of a town named Caliente. The town was oddly named, because it wasn’t really hot there, but I digress . . .

The winters were severe in Caliente, and one of the contract mail delivery route drivers who serviced the outlying areas came up with a plan. He saved everyone’s junk mail— failing to deliver it— and rolled it up into fireplace logs. He was saved from the jail term for this horrendous federal offense because the residents stepped forward to say that they really didn’t want that mail anyway.

Cleaning and creative thought don’t go together, and that is adding to the quiet around here. This should be obvious, given my complete lack of anything interesting to say.

Still Happy

The Bowery — Weegee

Happy New Year

I’ve been struggling along with my research, horribly remiss in my email practices, and in general been fairly normal and satisfied with the new year thus far. I want to thank those who favor me with kind comments, and wish everyone the best. Though I get so wrapped up in things I don’t always reply or comment regarding other blogs the way I should, this certainly doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the responses.

My time has been filled with puzzling over the timeline I’m constructing mostly, and generating more specific bibliographies on people like Jacob Riis. I’m trying to get as much done as I can before school starts again. Life is good. As one of my old bosses used to say when someone asked how he was:

“Can’t complain— nobody listens.”

This obviously isn’t the case in the mercifully small web of blog-culture. People do listen. This is a good thing.