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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.

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.

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.




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.


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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.

Sport and Spectacle


Sport and Spectacle

I’ve never been a sports fan. I can see the attraction, in some ways, but I struggle to see the deep fascination so many people feel for them, or gaming at all for that matter. The concept of sport and the concept of play are completely separate, but somehow sport always enters into concepts of male perceptions of play. Maybe it was looking at Francis Bacon’s riffing on Muybridge’s wrestlers that set me off. Sport, in Bacon, has homoerotic overtones. Between his “Two Figures” studies of wrestlers to the single figure depiction of a man’s position on the canvas, the element of struggle is constant, as is spectacle.

Or maybe it was the constant presence of Hulk Hogan, Shaq, and other sports figures on commercials these days. I’m not sure. I remember an epiphany a while back about football— I think people in America like it because it represents war with easy resolution. Teams campaign down the field, and are victorious or thwarted— someone wins, someone loses with little room for ambiguity. There are no worries about good guys or bad guys, only teams who test their skill. Football is not like life. Football, and most sports, is amoral. There are simple rules. Life is messy, and the rules are ambiguous. Sport carries with it the qualities of struggle, spectacle, and a narrative move to resolution.

Reading Roland Barthes’ thoughts on wrestling in Mythologies, I was struck by his separation of wrestling from temporal narrative resolution. Unlike boxing or judo, which have a narrative arc, Barthes argues that wrestling is not a sport but a spectacle which exists outside of time— it doesn’t matter that the contest is fixed, but rather that an adequate depiction of suffering and punishment occurs to satisfy our taste for justice. The wrestlers, like commedia del arte characters, satisfy basic cravings for good guys and bad guys, and for retribution for moral warriors. The concept of morality is central, rather than resolution. If the good guys always won, there would be no need to tune in next week to watch the struggle replayed. With train-wreck precision, wrestling fans tune back into the struggle and the spectacle.

Spectacle takes its meaning from frozen moments of images, of faces pressed to the mat or raised in triumph. At the basic level, I think modern sport emphasizes the triumph over the defeat. It is closer to spectacle than contest, though sport must have elements of both. It offers resolution and justice, outside of time.

I can remember a conversation I had with a professor from another university a few years ago. He lamented that we live in a culture where heroism is short lived, and we soon forget the accolades and accomplishments of most sports heroes. Only a few have cultural staying power. Perhaps its because we constantly must be immersed in the struggle of others, to distract us from our own. Once they step off-stage, they become surplus.

Sports are an avoidance of the realities of time. We don’t want to be reminded of the fact that we all fade, that skill is fleeting, and that the good guys don’t always win. The fakest of all contests may indeed be the truest, because at least it recognizes the moral play we find ourselves inside. We want justice from others, and from ourselves— and its a quality so hard to discover outside the realm of the stage. When we take center stage, we become the buffoon, and cannot bear to stay there. Ultimately, wrestling with oneself becomes comedic rather than tragic. That is, if you’re paying attention to the spectacle.



Early musings

I woke up today with a horrible sinus headache. One of the weird things about sinus pills is that they sometimes affect your balance, leaving you with a floaty sort of feeling. I turned on the TV, and Operation Dumbo Drop was playing. I started thinking about ears.

I remember when I was going out with D. She had two kids. One of them, G., was so much like me as a kid that it was scary. He was forever pestering people with useless trivia questions to assert how smart he was.

“How do you tell the difference between an Asian and an African elephant?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Asian elephants’ ears are shaped like Asia, and African elephants’ ears are shaped like Africa” he smugly replied.

As I staggered for a moment in front of the cappuccino machine, I thought of another weird fact. My father tried to join the Army during World War II, but he was refused because he had a perforated eardrum. How ironic that a hole in his head would stop him from getting holes blasted in his head. There’s something wonderful about ears.

Ears convert time into a perceptible quantity; little bones resting on a drumhead convert the periodic waves of vibration into impulses that we perceive as sound. The unique forms of music, perceived spatially, are unique in that they have a character of duration. Unlike a graphic or visual symbol, sound exists primarily in time. But the ear is remarkable not only as a translator of this time into space, but as our way of controlling our balance, stabilizing our position in space. It does it hydraulically. When the fluid is out of sorts due to excess pressure, the conversion of frequency remains relatively stable while our sense of position fails.

Where was I?