Walt Whitman’s Brain

Walt Whitman’s Brain

The American Anthropometric Society was established in 1889 at a meeting which
took place of the residence of —. The founders were : Harrison Allen, Francis
Xavier Dercum, Joseph Leidy, William Pepper, and Edward Charles Spitzka. The
chief object of the society was the preservation of the brains of its members. Three
of the founders of the society have since died and their brains were duly removed and
preserved as were those of members who subsequently joined the society and are now
deceased. In the order of acquisition, the list of brains in the collection included the
following :

  1. Joseph Leidy.
  2. Philip Leidy.
  3. J. W. White, Sr.
  4. Andrew J. Yarker.
  5. Walt Whitman.
  6. Harrison Allen.
  7. Edward D. Cope.
  8. William Pepper.

The brain of Walt Whitman, together with the jar in which it had been placed,
was said to have been dropped on the floor by a careless assistant. Unfortunately, not
even the pieces were saved. The brain of Dr. White is not in good condition. The
brain of Dr. Yarker had been allowed to remain in Muller’s fluid ever since 1892 and when found was badly broken. Fortunately, there exists an excellent cast of the undissected brain which had been made soon after hardening under the supervision of
Dr. Dercum. With the utmost care I was able to restore some of the parts so as to
delineate considerable portions of the mesal surfaces as well as to expose and make
casts of the insulae. It is to be regretted that like opportunities were not afforded in
the case of Walt Whitman’s brain.

From “A Study of the Brains of Six Eminent Scientists and Scholars Belonging to
the American Anthropometric Society, together with a Description of the
Skull of Professor E. D. Cope,” by Edw. Anthony Spitzka, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Ser., Vol. 21, No. 4 (1907),

I run into the strangest things while doing research . . .

Elemental and Elementary

Elemental and Elementary

I’ve been looking at an anthology called Reading Images edited by Julia Thomas (2001). I ordered it by mistake. It mostly contains material I’ve read before (Foucault on the panopticon, Barthes from Camera Lucida, etc.)— pretty elementary stuff in contemporary approaches to visual theory. Reading Images is part of the “Readers in Cultural Criticism” series whose general editor is Catherine Belsey. I hadn’t encountered her before. The first line in the “general editor’s preface” stopped me in my tracks:

Culture is the element we inhabit as subjects (ix).

Belsey goes on to explain what she means by “subjects” pretty clearly, but she leaves the term “element” mostly undefined. It made me think—a lot.

Usually, I think of “element” as something physical with an irreducible component—the chemical definition. Obviously, Belsey doesn’t really mean it in this sense because the process of cultural criticism is to tease out those “elements” present in culture that interact and convey meaning. She doesn’t write culture is an element. She writes culture is the element. The usage seems to be quasi-metaphorical; some properties or implications of the term “element” are projected upon the subject “culture”—a form of source-target mapping. If this is the case, then what properties or implications of “element” are involved? While it would be easy to say that culture is elemental it is harder to say that culture can be nominalized as the element we inhabit.

However, to nominalize culture seems exactly what Belsey goes on to do. “Culture is the location of values, the study of cultures shows how values vary from one culture to another, or from one historical moment to the next.” Here, culture is a site which dynamically varies over time. “Culture does not exist in the abstract”—it is concrete and textual. However, this is paradoxical if one transfers another set of implications from the term elemental that she encourages by emphasizing the transitory nature. The “element” of culture can also be mapped as analogous to the concept of weather—the wind and rain are elements as well. Though they exist in nominal form, their true definition is one of transition or action. This, I think, fits Belsey’s usage better than a chemical definition.

”Culture is the atmosphere which we inhabit that acts upon us as subjects” is yet another metaphor that might be offered as paraphrase. I think it matches fairly well with her group of assertions:

If culture is pervasive and constitutive for us, if it resides in the documents, objects, and practices that surround us, if it circulates as the meanings and values we learn and reproduce as good citizens, how in these circumstances can we practice cultural criticism, where criticism implies a certain distance between the critic and the culture? The answer is that cultures are not homogeneous; they are not even necessarily coherent. (ix)

I think that the metaphor of cultural criticism as a sort of meteorology is fairly productive. What meteorology doesn’t study is why we like some types of weather and don’t like others. Though cultural criticism studies values in transition, it does not offer much to establish why those values might be preferred beyond a sort of comfortable look out the window at the landscape beyond being bombarded by changing values. The homogeneity and comfort of the viewer’s position is fixed from their room with a view—the place from which they write.

This seems like an elementary proposition.

Theory, Gender, Blah Blah

Theory, Gender, Blah Blah

I’ve become increasingly reclusive online and discussions like this one are one reason why. I’ve never done a gender breakdown on my data sample (hundreds of blogs listed here, hundreds looked at occasionally through bloglines). Mainly, because I know my preferences. Most of the “academics” I read regularly are women—in fact, the percentage is probably something like 90%. Most of the men I read are ex-academics. Overall though, on the average I’d probably guess that the blogs I read most often are probably about 75% women. I haven’t got a clue what the real percentages out there are, and I don’t really care. I do know, however, that I like women. I’ve never thought of it as a gender bias per se, but more a matter of “thoughtstyle.” Most men are boorish, although many women are too. I know that my perception is probably based on skewed life experiences and doesn’t really reflect an real and accurate appraisal of “data”—that’s why they call things like this opinions.

Calling yourself an “academic” doesn’t mean you automatically lose opinions and gain objectivity. The abstract speculation that George’s post cites is part and parcel of constructing theoretical models. It doesn’t create facts; experiments or data collection are done to further abstract speculation, otherwise, what would be the point? Imagining that you enter into a study with no opinions is pretty pompous and arrogant if you ask me (but no one did). However, drawing conclusions based on abstract speculation is worse than that—it’s downright stupid. Blah blah blah.

There, I’ve said it. I have always avoided saying anything about the “gender gap” stuff as it flies around incessantly. I want no part of the “boy’s club” and I lack the requisite equipment to be part of the “girls club.” Ultimately, I would be seriously suspicious of any club that would have me as a member. I find gender theory fascinating because of the way that it deals with issues of representation. I think it makes a really strong contribution to theoretical modeling. Such theories automatically abstractly speculate that there is a difference, otherwise the theory wouldn’t exist at all. But theory doesn’t impact the choices I make in writing or reading in any meaningful way— though it does impact the things I choose to study. I read people I like. Of course, that’s just an opinion.



I can’t stop thinking about an article in Critical Inquiry by Stanley Fish, Theory’s Hope. It provides a staunch critique of “interdisciplinarity”:

As Chandler observes (correctly, I think), the totality of disciplines should be thought of not as “a set of parallel functions… but as a network of relatively autonomous practices in asymmetrical relation to one each other.” This does not mean that disciplines have nothing to say to one another but that the interest one discipline might have in what is being said in the precincts of another will be a function of the first discipline’s already-in-place investments and goals and not of some ambition or general effectivity all disciplines share or should share. To a great extent (and this is my observation with which Chandler may or may not agree) disciplines are linked only by the accident of their being housed in the same university structures. This cohabitation has not been the result of design and surely not of any philosophical design; it just happened as a consequence of the fortuitous success of various interests in securing space, research support, and a piece of the curriculum. It follows then that any attempt to find in this ramshackle collection an underlying unity either of practice or purpose is at once misguided and quixotic. Interdisciplinarity—as a project rather than as the mere fact of occasional and opportunistic borrowings�is just a nonstarter.

I do not intend this as a merely negative statement, for I believe that it is by focusing narrowly that we have the best chance both of getting it right and of speaking with power to the constituencies we do not directly address and, indeed, refrain from addressing. And I am sure that when we expand our focus and broaden our aims we lose whatever rigor we might be capable of achieving.

Composition (as the teaching-focused nexus of rhetorical studies) finds itself wedged right in the middle of this. The aim of departments focused on composition seems doomed to a lack of rigor by this definition because they are faced with communicating across departments “with a unity of practice or purpose”— which Fish finds “misguided and quixotic.”

Fish has a strong point about overly ambitious research agendas. Opening any of the professional journals, one could easily find examples of the type of theory Fish indicts:

Borrow a little of the Freudian model there, a little Habermas or Apfel, here and whenever you need a transition�say from the mirror stage to global capitalism or terrorism�throw in one of the more elastic bits from Rorty or Zizek or, better still, go on for a while about performativity. It’s all great fun, easier than falling off a log (and with the same problem of traction), pertinent to any point you care to make, and therefore pertinent to no point whatsoever.

Fish suggests that global extrapolations from theory are best left to the reader, rather than the researcher. The best research is specific and directed at solving particular problems located within a discipline. When the discipline emphasizes something diffuse and general (like “writing”) then the research agenda suffers accordingly. The problem is finding the specific in the midst of “misguided and quixotic” generalizations.

My problem is that no discipline exists in any university which specifically studies what interests me. My interests are split across literature, rhetoric, art, etc. It isn’t so much that I am interested in “composition” in the general sense, but rather I am interested in very specific applications of composed texts (documentary studies), which, alas, has no department to dictate standards of rigor.

No Future

Never mind the Future, It’s the Budget Cutbacks

(PRWEB) April 2, 2004 — The Association of Professional Futurists has learned that the University of Houston-Clear Lake (UHCL) has begun a process to discontinue its graduate program in Studies of the Future due to budgetary cutbacks. Founded 30 years ago, the Futures Program currently enrolls about 30 students, all of whom will be given the opportunity to graduate in a reasonable amount of time.

According to Dr. Peter Bishop, Associate Professor of Human Sciences and Chair of the program, while UHCL will admit no more students into the Futures Program, it will continue to operate until all students currently enrolled have been given the chance to graduate.

“It is the only stand-alone degree in Future Studies offered in the United States, and one of only a few in the world,” notes Dr. Bishop. “Enrollment in the Futures Program has always been low compared to other degree programs, but it had a unique role in preparing graduates for professional practice. However, smaller budgets for higher education force universities like UHCL to increasingly focus its resources to support programs with higher enrollments.”

When I read this, I heard John Lydon’s laugh resonating in my head. No future, indeed.



I felt like I should take a moment to collate some things from surfing the past few days, so that I can move forward rather than dwelling on them for now. The time-slices are thin.

I’m sure there are other things I’m missing, but since I really must return to visual rhetoric and get away from all this digital stuff for a little while, I wanted to drop some breadcrumbs to return to. My blog is being transformed from a footstool to a notepad, for the moment. Of course, that never lasts long.

Conversation (redux)

Conversation (redux)

I went to a seminar tonight about getting published in a particular journal. I think it is a really great idea for people going into a field. I was introduced to the editorial board, and each member stood up to say “what they looked for”in article submissions. Of course, everyone said that they looked for the same things as the other members on the board. That was the fun part. It was like one of those things where a person whispers something into someone else’s ear and when you get to the other side, it never comes out the same.

The first panel member said “edgy.”By the time it got to the third, it became “I see my readers as busy adjuncts who haven’t got the time to read everything and they don’t want to feel stupid because they haven’t.”Okay, fair enough—however, if you don’t know what the mainstream is, how can you have any sense of the edges? Gradually, “edgy”was transformed into “practical.”Naturally, everyone has a slightly different idea of what practical is—for some, practical and theoretical are fairly synonymous. For several of the panelists, “historical”was practical. People need to know what has happened in the history of the discipline. For others, classroom practice (particularly case studies) were practical.

But the master keyword that survived all these transformations was “situated.”They all want innovation situated against a traditional backdrop. It seemed really paradoxical to me. The core of scholarly discourse is that new ideas are welcome, if and only if they are situated against a traditional background. Otherwise, it breaks the flow of the conversation. There is no room for radical innovation, only carefully considered revision. I found that interesting. It wasn’t news to me at all, but it was really fun to listen to it play itself out.

Continue reading “Conversation (redux)”


Starting a Movement

For some reason, when I read this article on MIT’s OpenCourseWare I thought of Arlo Guthries’ song, “Alice’s Restaurant”:

Publicizing all of MIT’s course materials on the Web is only half our mission,” admits MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) program director Anne Margulies. “The other half is to do it in a way that enables others to follow in our footsteps. If we’re the only ones publishing all our course materials, we will have failed. Our ultimate goal is to start an open knowledge movement that will put a vast amount of educational material on the Web—not just MIT materials.”

Aha! So giving away priceless educational resources isn’t all they’re after—those crafty professors and administrators at MIT are out to start a movement!

Okay, so it doesn’t sound like such a devious plot after all, but Margulies says she’s used to having the OCW idea greeted with suspicion.

“I go through the whole story, and people go, ‘Okay, I get that, but why is MIT really doing this?’” she laughs. “It truly is intellectual philanthropy.”

Somehow, I like the sound of this better than the “business models” proposed by some of the department heads I spoke to last week. It seems to me that when people like the University of California and MIT start taking an academic commons seriously, those who don’t will end up out in the cold with their insistence on a “pay to know” model. But as Guthrie’s song goes, it takes three to make a movement. Two is good� three would be better!