What’s Good

That other writers describe as art things outside the subject [of a speech] and that they have rather too much inclined toward judicial oratory is clear; but rhetoric is useful [first] because the true and just are by nature stronger than their opposites, so that if judgments are not made in the right way [the true and the just] are defeated [by their opposites]. And this is worthy of censure. Further, if we were to have the most exact knowledge, it would not be very easy for us in speaking to use it to persuade some audiences. Speech based on knowledge is teaching, but teaching is impossible [with some audiences]

Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.11-12 George Kennedy trans

I was summoned for jury duty a while ago, and sat in a room viewing a film about modern justice. It was narrated by Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer, so I assume that it was probably produced sometime in the 80s. The gist of the matter was this: in the old days, people were tortured or drowned to get at the truth, but now we give them a jury of their peers.

Everyone in the room was from the Syracuse suburbs, and I’d say about 90% were affluent and white. We all had to march three flights to the courtroom. The accused was a thirty year old inner city black man, who seemed to be deeply involved in the process hanging over his attorney’s shoulder reading our questionnaires during the selection process. I couldn’t help but notice that on the “In God we Trust” placed on the wall above the judge’s bench in stick on lettering, the “T” in trust had come lose and was hanging askew. I was among the first summoned into the jury box. The juror questioning process seemed like a review of several sections of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. I answered a question posed to me about examining all the evidence before rendering a decision, and listened quietly while other jurors firmly insisted that they could tell if someone was lying just by looking at them.

I wasn’t selected. I looked up the results later, and those who were found the man guilty.

None of the other arts reasons in opposite directions; dialectic and rhetoric alone do this, for both are equally concerned with opposites. Of course, the underlying facts are not equally good in each case; but true and better ones are by nature always more productive of good syllogisms and, in a word, more persuasive. In addition, it would be strange if an inability to defend oneself by means of the body is shameful, while there is no shame in an inability to use speech; the latter is more characteristic of humans than is use of the body. And if it is argued that great harm can be done by unjustly using such power of words, this objection applies to all good things except for virtue, and most of all to the most useful things like strength, health, wealth, and military strategy; for by using these justly one would do the greatest good and unjustly, the greatest harm.

Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.12-13 George Kennedy trans

I find it hard to trust that the good and just are always stronger. I did not weigh the evidence or participate in the decision, but Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer assure me that my presence there was of great importance to the polis. At least they sent me a check for $40 today to compensate me for my service.

Slurping the Money River

Uncle Sam's Island Home
Thousand Islands region, Saint Lawrence Seaway

“Life is hard enough, without people having to worry themselves sick about money, too. There’s plenty for everybody in this country, if we’ll only share more.”

“And just what do you think that would do to incentive?”

“You mean fright about not getting enough to eat, about not being able to pay the doctor, about not being able to give your family nice clothes, a safe, cheerful, comfortable place to live, a decent education, and a few good times? You mean shame about not knowing where the Money River is?”

“The what?

“The Money River, where the wealth of the nation flows. We were born on the banks of it—and so were most of the mediocre people we grew up with, went to private schools with, sailed and played tennis with. We can slurp from the mighty river to our hearts’ content. And we even take slurping lessons so we can slurp more efficiently.”

“Slurping lessons?”

“From lawyers! From tax consultants! From customers’ men! We’re born close enough to the river to drown ourselves and the next ten generations in wealth, simply by using dippers and buckets. But we still hire the experts to teach us the use of aqueducts, dams, reservoirs, siphons, bucket brigades, and the Archimedes’ screw. And our teachers in turn become rich, and their children become buyers of lessons in slurping.”

“I wasn’t aware that I slurped.”

Conversation between Senator Rosewater and Eliot Rosewater in God Bless You Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut, p 121-122

*For the record, I was raised in a desert of sorts, where the Kern River is mostly choked off by a dam. My mother and father taught me not to slurp.

Detective Stories

Put it in Wilson's head and smoke it.
This is not a pipe.

I can’t help it. I like to ferret out sources/origins/facts about things. I suppose my favorite part of “scholarship” is the chase, the search for the evidence that might support/refute a concept that has popped into my head. One of my first mentors, R. Paul Yoder, told me that he always wanted to teach an introduction to literature class (core for English majors) built around Conan Doyle and the Sherlock Holmes novels: sort of a frame tale where one read detective stories to become a better literary critic/detective. Laurie Anderson’s claim that in detective stories, the hero is already dead in the beginning and human nature is thereby avoided seems counter-intuitive. It can be argued both ways. (How rhetorical!).

I think it’s easy to make the case that mid-century detectives (Marlowe et.al.) are antiheroes, and the victim (and resultant lust for “justice” in the reader) are indeed the heroes of the tales. The gradual accumulation/revelation of facts is the motive force: human nature, if it intrudes at all, is historical rather than of current importance. This is particularly the case in the CSI-style crime drama, where “science” solves crimes by the incessant (and infallible) revelation of data/facts. It was strange to read the (disputed) Wikipedia page that claims that late-century detective stories are driven by human nature in a way that the early/mid century versions are not (conveniently post-1984, after Laurie Anderson’s observation). The danger of such a claim is that it reeks of a sort of progressivism or evolutionary perspective that usually turns out to be wishful thinking. On the other hand, I find nothing wrong with such a claim when accompanied with evidence— moving it into the realm of historicism.

Of course, I digress. How I got here was a tantalizing moment in Assouline’s HCB biography. He describes Cartier-Bresson at 19 as “a man of principle — but not the same principles as everyone else’s” (23) who failed his baccalaureate exams three times, each time progressively worse, because of poor writing and disinterest in the curriculum. This thwarted his family’s plan for him to join the family business (of thread manufacturing!). Cartier-Bresson preferred contemporary writers, reading them constantly rather than his “proper” studies. His family tried to discourage his literary obsession, but:

It was all in vain, for nothing could keep young Henri from his reading. Family mealtimes were often tense. His father would repeatedly tell him that he must learn to control his impulsive nature, but such reprimands fell on deaf ears. Henri’s instinct always got the better of him, and this was taken for insolence. One day at the table he could no longer contain himself, and dryly responded to his grandfather’s criticism by quoting Hippolyte Taine: ‘One doesn’t ripen, one merely rots away in places.’

The white moustache of the patriarch quivered with rage, but his only reply was to summon the bewhiskered butler: ‘Would you please take Monsieur Henri out of here.’

Pierre Assouline, Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography (2005), p. 24

As I find myself in a particularly reflective mood lately, I immediately loved that quote from Hippolyte Taine. I have found myself rotting away in places from time to time. Things that I once knew so solidly slip away. Just who wass Taine and where does this quote come from, I wondered. I never found it, but I found other tantalizing bits reading through some of his books. Turns out Taine was the father of literary historicism. What a delicious contradiction.

Taine’s appraisal of Chaucer is worth considering from his History of English Literature:

Here for the first time appears a superiority of intellect, which at the instant of conception suddenly halts, rises above itself, passes judgment, and says to itself, ‘This phrase tells the same thing as the last—remove it; these two ideas are disjointed—bind them together; this description is feeble—reconsider it.’ When a man can speak thus he has an idea, not learned in the schools, but personal and practical, of the human mind, its process and needs, and of things also, their composition and combinations; he has a style, that is, he is capable of making everything understood and seen by the human mind. He can extract from every object, landscape, situation, character, the special and significant marks, so as to group and arrange them, to compose an artificial work which surpasses the natural work in its purity and completeness. He is capable, as Chaucer was, of seeking out in the old common forest of the middle-ages, stories and legends, to replant them in his own soil, and make them send out new shoots. (130)

. . .

In love and satire he has experience, and he invents; in what regards morality and philosophy he has learning, and remembers. For an instant, by a solitary leap, he entered upon the close observation and the genuine study of man; he could not keep his ground, he did not take his seat, he took a poetic excursion; and no one followed him. The level of the century is lower; he is on it himself for the most part. He is in the company ol narrators like Froissart, of elegant speakers like Charles of Orleans, of gossipy and barren verse-writers like Gower, Lydgate, and Occleve. There is no fruit, but frail and fleeting blossom, many useless branches, still more dying or dead branches; such is this literature. And why? Because it had no longer a root; after three centuries of effort, a heavy instrument cut it underground. This instrument was the Scholastic Philosophy.

Beneath every literature there is a philosophy. Beneath every work of art is an idea of nature and of life; this idea leads the poet. Whether the author knows it or not, he writes in order to exhibit it; and the characters which he fashions, like the events which he arranges, only serve to bring to light the dim creative conception which raises and combines them. (132)

So, after all this I began to wonder about the effect of “postmodern” (as if that were a coherent concept) philosophy upon literature. It would tend to explain Laurie Anderson’s conception that the human nature is superflous in modern genres such as the detective story or science fiction. It would also, in my mind, have a certain explanatory power regarding pervasive images of the detective.

The twentieth century (according to Kenneth Burke, at least) is ruled by the trope of irony and the emergence of detective-as-antihero seems to fit that. We aren’t meant to admire/emulate the hard-boiled detective as a chivalrous figure. Our admiration is ironic. And moreover, if we take lessons from deconstruction the best course of action in most cases is to look not for the human narrative, but for the contradictions inherent in them.

The benchmark figure, then, is not Holmes but Columbo. There’s always that one thing that’s bothering him. These contradictions among apparently established facts then frame the narrative’s resolution. We find the answer when we figure out why stories are not perfect. How very postmodern. Nonetheless, posthumanism seems yet a different project.


The view walking away from 4Cs1

I’ve long been resistant to profound declarations about ceasing/rededicating blogging activities. I’ve tended to just let this thing go in fits and jerks. It just doesn’t make much sense to me to talk about issues like “sustainability” anymore. I foolishly tried to raise that issue at the 4Cs conference in 2004 in the “blogging” special interest group, and no one really seemed to care.

It seemed to me then that the “models” for academic blogging available circa 2004 didn’t have much of a chance of continuing. By that, I mean that it seemed unlikely that institutions would embrace casual blog writing as evidence of scholarly worth (the dream at the time). It also seemed to me that the usage of blogs as “social capital” or networking tools was doomed because who really wants to read a stream of constant advertisement and self-promotion? What I didn’t anticipate was the sponsorship of linking/blogging/networking activities by clearly commercial concerns (social media, publishers and journals such as The Chronicle of Higher Education). No matter. It seems that when you try to define social phenomena they are already “over.” It happened with blogging, and then podcasting, and soon it will probably happen with twittering as well. Most of the people I talked to in 2004 were already beginning to think along those lines, scanning the horizon for the next new thing.

The real take away for me in retrospect is that searching for “what’s new” is the cornerstone of unsustainable activity. Someone in the profession remarked that people in rhet/comp discuss the same “problems” for decades of conferences. Seems to me that we’ve been doing that for more than a hundred years, actually. Such pursuits are deliciously sustainable. Does that mean that such problems are unsolvable? I think it’s more likely that they are insoluble— they just don’t ever dissolve and go away. That’s why they are of recurrent interest as pressure points. Jumping tracks back to the problems of blogging, it seems to me that the long tradition of carefully reasoned blogging “sign-offs” is more interesting as a symptom of the difficulties of sustaining writing rather than evidence of the impoverishment of blogging as a social activity. Sustain neither desires nor requires novelty. But the question remains: why have so many of my electronic friends signed off?

Talking to one of the blogging “pioneers” at Cs (who wasn’t among the group from 2004 previously mentioned) he supposed that the main reason why he blogged less that he was investing most of his energy in other writing projects. That makes sense; most of my blogging friends are, after all, writers— and no writer wants to write in the same form forever. There are more productive ways to spend words than scribbling moderate-length missives. Most of the really active bloggers have rechanneled their electronic writing energy into short-form tweeting or facebooking. Most still blog, just not as much. It takes a lot of energy to write fiction or scholarship, and any longer form ideas are better worked out there. But in my case, I think it’s something more fundamental.

I started reading Pierre Assoluline’s introduction to his biography of Henri Cartier-Bresson today (picked up from the wonderful show of his work at the High Museum in Atlanta) and he talks about the problem of disclosure. Describing his first interview with HCB, Assouline says:

At the moment of our parting I was moved by something difficult to describe; I felt frustrated by his reticence when it came to discussing the war. At the risk of offending his modesty, I questioned him again about his years of captivity in Germany, the overcrowded conditions, the failed escapes. He seemed lost in thought for a while, his gaze focused somewhere distant, and then began to talk again. The further he went on the more convinced I became that intimate confidences are most easily addressed to complete strangers. He himself told me that one day in a Parisian taxi he had unveiled to the driver secrets that he had never confided in anyone before, so certain that he would never see this man again

When he recalled the names of the comrades who had been denounced, tortured and shot, his voice choked. And when he murmured their first names, he turned his head away unable to keep back the tears.

I suspect that what has passed in this type of writing is an age of innocence where you never felt the suspicion that you would meet those voices in the dark. After around a decade of doing it now, I have met more than a few of those voices. It becomes much harder to search deeper for those passionate things that once came so easy. And it was those things, revealed perhaps purely because of naivete, that made blogging (as a form of writing) most interesting. It’s hard to continue to write, and even harder to reveal secrets, when you have a clearer conception of just who is reading you.

Perhaps that’s the reason for the goodbye notes that shut the door on so many blogging friends: when you’ve been caught in an embarrassment, or a truth, one feels the need to apologize before walking away.

1 I did not attend the 4Cs conference this year, though I was there in Atlanta when it was going on. I have stepped outside the profession to catch my breath.

Boxes, phase 2

Cherry Box for Grado HF-1 Headphones

My second box was significantly more elaborate than the first one. I had intended to go on with practicing dovetails, but I just couldn’t bring myself to build a box just for the sake of building a box. It had to be for something. So, the only box I could think of a pressing need for was a fancy container for my limited edition Grado HF-2 headphones (terrific sound, btw.). The problem was finding the right piece of wood for the top. Nothing I had was really big enough. It turned out that dovetails just weren’t right for this box.

I resawed a highly figured piece of cherry, but the resulting piece was still several inches too small to make a one-piece top. So I ended up doing this box with a plywood bottom and a frame and panel top. I used another piece of cherry carefully sawn, rabbeted and mitered so that the grain would wrap around the perimeter and be continuous on the top frame, with a slightly outward bow to the grain. The box is nearly flat, with the center panel about 1/64″ proud— but it doesn’t look that way. It looks like the top angles up, making the entire 3″ tall box look much larger than that. I’m pretty happy with it. The center panel is floating, so the top should remain free from warps for a few years.

Cherry Box for Grado HF-1 Headphones

There are some tool marks that I couldn’t avoid, and I still round things too much when I try to sand them— but reading David Pye’s The Nature and Art of Workmanship has been a real eye-opener about flaws. I mortised the hinges, and nearly made them machine perfect except for some slight slips of the chisel. I can live with that.

Cherry Box for Grado HF-1 Headphones

I’ve been thinking through a lot of things that I should go into more detail about, but it is a lot more fun to do things than to write about them. But just as a brief note, anyone interested in Ruskin, Morris, and the whole Arts and Crafts thing really should read Pye’s critique. In brief, he argues that Ruskin’s aesthetic theory fails miserably in its attempt to embrace workmanship, largely because Ruskin was clueless about making things. Instead, he ends up promoting a “rough taste” without understanding why/how things are made either rough or smooth. Cultivating taste is an essential part of any sort of education, craft or otherwise. But it’s one thing to look at things and guess at their surface qualities and yet another to really design/make/use them.

I am particularly enamored of Pye’s insistance that photographs fail to convey any significant data about workmanship in its deepest sense. You’ve really got to touch things to get the feel for them, on multiple levels.

Written on the Walls

I apprehend no danger to our country from a foreign foe. The prospect of a war with any powerful nation is too remote to be a matter of calculation. Besides, there is no nation on earth powerful enough to accomplish our overthrow. Our destruction, should it come at all, will be from another quarter. From the inattention of the people to the concerns of their government—from their carelessness and negligence. Make them intelligent, and they will be vigilant—give them the means of detecting the wrong, and they will apply the remedy.

Written on the walls at the NYPL



I was really shocked that Krista hadn’t seen Pecker, since she is a John Waters fan. Watching it toward the end of last week, I was reminded of just how much I love that movie. Few movies have really captured the joy of taking pictures quite so well. Though it’s been roundly panned by many people as Waters’ “sell-out” movie, I think they just don’t get the joke. Art is about doing what you like; doing what you like has consequences.

Looking around a bit, I found an old interview with Waters by Gerald Peary that demonstrates the durability and continuing relevance of one of Waters’ choicer bits of “symbolic action”:

Q-In Pecker, people from New York come to Baltimore and get “teabagged.” Is that a real thing?

It’s a “term.” I saw it once in that bar, when someone hits you on your forehead with their balls! All heterosexual women have been “teabagged,” if they had oral sex, or, accidentally, if a guy getting out of bed in the morning has to crawl to the other side! But I exaggerate: people don’t go to that bar to get “teabagged” or anything. Even gay people don’t know the term. It’s obscure, but I hope my movie will make “teabagging” a pastime. (Laughs) It’s safe!



I started thinking about Bakersfield again; I’m not sure why. Some things are best viewed from a distance. I’m trying to find perspective, and consequently I keep thinking about how strange it felt to return there in 2008. There’s a weird sort of oscillation, between near and far, between looking at something and yet through something. It’s a part of who I am, but at the same time I could be from anywhere. It’s just a place, among many places I’ve been. But it is where I’m from.

Or more accurately, I suppose, where I really grew up was here:

Breckenridge Mountain views

It’s more accurate to say that I found perspective by leaving town and looking back from a higher prospect. It’s the barrier here that interests me— white lines painted on the pavement. This cattle guard is a red herring at the base of of the climb up Breckenridge Mountain; further up the road, as I recall, there was a real one. One had to be careful navigating a bicycle across that one. The mixture of faux and real grates is the norm. I suppose it’s so the cattle won’t get wise and realize that they really can leave town if they want to. Or, I suppose you could think of the success of these “virtual” guards as a an intelligence test. Many of my friends growing up suggested that it wasn’t really possible for people from Bakersfield to leave. I suppose it depends on how easily fooled you are.

Secondhand World

30 year watch
My father receives his thirty-year watch for the benefit of the cameras

Deliberately, on every historic occasion, we piously fake events for the benefit of photographers, while the actual event often occurs in a different fashion; we have the effrontery to call these artful dress rehearsals “authentic historic documents.”

So an endless succession of images passes before the eye, offered by people who wish to exercise power, either by making us buy something for their benefit or making us agree to something that would promote their economic or political interests: images of gadgets manufacturers want us to acquire; images of seductive young ladies who are supposed, by association, to make us seek other equally desirable goods, images of people and events in the news, big people and little people, important and unimportant events; images so constant, so unremitting, so insistent that for all purposes of our own we might as well be paralyzed, so unwelcome are our inner promptings or our own self-directed actions. As a result of this wholly mechanical process, we cease to live in the multidimensional world of reality, the world that brings into play every aspect of the human personality, from its bony structure to its tenderest emotions: we have substituted for this, largely through the mass production of graphic symbols—abetted indeed by a similar multiplication and distribution of sounds—a secondhand world, a ghost-world, in which everyone lives a secondhand and derivative life. The Greeks had a name for this pallid simulacrum of real existence: they called it Hades, and this kingdom of shadows seems to be the ultimate destination of our mechanistic and mammonistic culture.

Lewis Mumford, Art and Technics excerpted in Vicki Goldberg’s edited collection Photography in Print (381-382).

I continue to be fascinated by Mumford’s iconophobia, as he channels Plato’s mistrust of mimesis. To Mumford’s credit, as the passage continues he makes it clear that what he fears is not the iconography of art and artists but rather the symbols created for and by the masses. What I wonder is this: is the smiling obligatory snapshot the symbol, or is it the watch?

30 year watch    

The damn thing never kept time. It never had any utility as a watch; regardless of the claims of the commercials. It was a symbol, and not a happy one for my father. My father always smiled in pictures, even when he was irritated. The whole concept of a secondhand world, filled with technologies (either of accuracy or reproducibility) would have been incredibly foreign. You took the watch that the world offered for your service, and you moved on. He was bitter, because in the end everyone he knew was dying and the company that awarded the watch would not grant him what he really wanted: a transfer back to his home state of Oklahoma. He wore cheap Timex watches until he died, but he never threw the Accutron away. It was symbolic.

The conferring of the watch was also symbolic, but not in any particularly damaging way. I think Mumford really exaggerates that part. Dad had to get dressed up and go to a studio photographer in town to get his likeness taken for the company newsletter. Mom happily hung onto that picture as well. The significance, I think, is not in the symbols but in the way we act. Symbolic inducement, to use the old speech-com term for visual rhetoric, is real. But what we do matters much more than what our social rituals symbolize.

We have never lived in a non-multidimensional space. Such theories of simulation (as manifest in Baudrillard more recently) are to me, worse than useless. They distract us from the reality of our rituals and the physicality of our products—especially our recorded products. The symbolic has never been the center of action, but its periphery.

A symbol-worker never grew a tomato. My father did. He didn’t live in a secondhand world. Symbols remained in their place, reserved for special occasions or filed in a seldom revisited drawer.

June 26, 2000