<= 2004.11

2005.01 =>

[DECEMBER 2004.]

be just

I'll be in Arizona and Mexico until 4 January. The Internet does exist in these places, but I don't have a good way of accessing the site because I never got around to updating the bootleg CGI version of Blogger that I wrote in order to post from Guatemala. All things considered, I'll just wish you some very happy holidays and see you in the new year.


anatomy of criticism/a murder

Heh, there's this overblown novel out of Australia called "Seven Types of Ambiguity." I hope "The Intentional Fallacy" isn't taken yet.

It turns out that Stanley Fish, of all people, writes an "inside academia" column for the Chronicle of Higher Education. It's a bit silly, but insofar as it's about the silliness of academic life, I suppose that makes sense. Somewhere in there he talks to an administrator who describes professors as "infantilized," which is probably true, even if it's a Hobbesian playpen.

I was on the Chronicle's site because I wanted to know who is hiring fiction writers for academic positions. As it turns out, the answer is St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. I spent two days trying to reconcile myself to the idea, then ran across a friend from Minnesota and asked her what she knew about the city of St. Cloud. She thought for a moment and said, "I think they have a lot of birth defects." But it turns out I'm not even qualified for that; they want someone who has taught nonfiction writing too.


your title here

The idea is to do one thousand words a day, for the next thirty days. At times this will involve writing in awkward environments such as Mexican buses, but by the end of it the work should be far advanced, and I will actually have a fighting chance of finishing it this year. I expect thirty thousand words to take me about halfway through the third section—at least it had better get me that far. This book is getting LONG.


weight gain 4000

My last paper is finished and requires nothing more than a grammatical sanding down, which will not mitigate its essential sloppiness but will provide a bit of cover. Rest? No no! Just new and, one hopes, more rewarding work. Starting today, that word count up there ought to move by leaps and bounds. If it does not, you have the right and perhaps the obligation to send a comment or email and demand that I start pulling my weight.

There's also a big stack of reading that I haven't got to, because I have not read so much. Today I am reading Descartes. From the year 2004, it's pretty easy to mock his faith in formal inference—you throw Wittgenstein at him and he melts like an ice sculpture—but it's better than constructing syllogisms out of Scripture, which once upon a time was an acceptable thing for grown men to do. What I like most about the Rules for the Direction of the Mind and Discourse on the Method is that they're essentially workout videos: Descartes will help you think HARDER! FASTER! BETTER! On anyone who follows his method, "In a short time he will see with amazement that he has made much more progress than those who are eager about particular ends, and that he has not only obtained all that they desire, but even higher results than fall within his expectation." On repeated trains of inference: "In fact the memory, on which we have said depends the certainty of the conclusions which embrace more than we can grasp in a single act of intuition, though weak and liable to fail us, can be renewed and made stronger by this continuous and constantly repeated process of thought." By the end of the book I expect to be bench-pressing extension, figure, and motion with my forebrain, all at the same time. Rar!


wake up

People have such an odd relation to hype. Last week we were trying to find out about the Arcade Fire and it seemed like everyone we asked would say "Yeah, they sure are hyped. What's with all the hype?" and then admit, as if slightly embarrassed, "Yeah, the record's pretty good." Myself, I've been out of the loop for so long that I don't mind occasionally jumping on a Hot Band when they're still on the ascendant—it's nice to feel part of a nascent cultural trend, even if it's something as ephemeral as a new band. When I was living in my bubble circa 2003, the only way I would find out about a record would be when Amazon noticed that all the kids were buying it—and half the time I would end up with something like Death Cab for Cutie and wonder what the fuss was about.

In fact the Arcade Fire is really good. They strike me as a lushly orchestrated Canadian tincture of the Pixies, by which I mean the epic Pixies ("The Happening") rather than the rawk Pixies ("Oh My Golly" or whatever). J. took the lyric sheet, but a lot of the songs seem to be about their relatives dying. The good people at Merge have three mp3s up.


When a lot of entries like those preceding pile up in rapid succession after one another, it is usually a sign that something has gone awry; I have started to look at the world in the wrong way and have lost my equanimity and compassion, which are the important things. I think the necessary adjustments have been made.

The mistake is to become too invested in the hoops that one has to jump through. If writing a final paper feels like a parody of scholarship, that's because in my case it is a parody of scholarship; my interests lie elsewhere and I shouldn't expect to be producing anything more than an exercise. Which at times feels like a step backward. But this is the way of the world.


the lean years

Once upon a time, before the expulsion from Eden, I could excuse my spotty intellectual background by explaining that I was an artist whose interests lay in some vaguely defined "elsewhere"; now I am apparently turning into a regular old intellectual, the kind that sprouts in your vegetable garden, and I'm not even very good at it. I ought to disappear for a year and do nothing but read before I can pretend to hold my own, and even then I don't think my capacity for certain types of argument would be improved.

I dreamt that handing in my final paper was something like an art show; I had framed the pages and was hanging them on a gallery wall so that people could wander through and look at them. It was a nice party, champagne and hors d'oeuvres, the whole deal. My professor showed up and, after reading what I had hung up, said, "This one doesn't really have any original thought or interesting argument. You'd better go home and write something else." He went on to explain in detail what I should write. It was awkward to leave my own party and humiliating to be told what to do, but of course he was right; the paper was no good. I had three hours to write something better before the deadline.


J., playing devil's advocate, asks do we want a state of affairs where professors are starting the revolution? Well, no. But some of them seem to think that's what they're doing. Maybe it's all Marx's fault. Or Adam's. Curse that knowledge tree.



You probably remember when Arts & Letters Daily, an excellent weblog in its own right and the source of most of my links, back when I linked things, was holding those Bad Writing Contests for terrible writing in the academic realm. In 1998, its last year, the first- and second-place winners of its last year were, respectively, our own Judith Butler and Chicago's Homi K. Bhabha. The academy wrote some angry letters about this kind of thing, but what you may not know is that last year they actually came out with a book in response: Just Being Difficult?: Academic Writing in the Public Arena, brought to you by the good people at Stanford University Press. The journal Philosophy and Literature at Johns Hopkins, which sponsored the original contest, has gamely reviewed the book; this last article has been making the rounds at the department this week.

The terrible thing is that the book appears only to confirm all the misgivings about academic writing that prompted the award in the first place. It confronts a jokey Internet gimmick with monumental humorlessness and self-importance; it pretends to offer discussion and debate but actually toes a rigid ideological line; and under the pretense of stepping back, questioning assumptions and opening new avenues of thought, it simply airs its own prejudices. Obviously some theorists are worried about encroaching irrelevance, but you do not combat a charge of bad writing by pretending to interrogate the assumptions behind the idea of "bad writing." You do it by writing well.

The most damning part in the whole article is the excerpted beginning of Butler's statement of purpose for an MLA council: two sentences, two subject-verb disagreements. It's one thing to deform language in interesting ways for particular purposes; one of the loveliest things about written language is its pliability, and even if people like Lacan and Derrida intermittently drive me up the wall, they wouldn't be half so interesting if they didn't write as they did. But when you can't even put together a simple professional statement on the order of an average business letter without screwing up your grammar, it demonstrates that the standards by which your work is judged bear no relation to those of everyday writing. The theorists might as well be on the moon.

This would be all right if it weren't for the preponderance of armchair radicals insisting that their work is somehow helping to bring about social justice. It's a weird historical accident that literary criticism has gotten embroiled with leftist politics, and now for some reason we're all supposed to pretend that cultural theory can feed the hungry and stop women from being battered and keep monomaniacal administrations from starting pointless wars. Now and then you see genuine and brave attempts to cross the bridge into actual society—I've mentioned before my admiration for Edward Said. In the developing world, too, intellectuals aren't so cloistered—Mario Vargas Llosa can run for president of Peru, which maybe wasn't the best idea, but at least it's actual engagement. Around here there's a lot of pallid wanking.

I should note there's also plenty of good scholarship being done, and that the demise of the humanities is not imminent: see the Good Writing Contest here for instant. That's constructive. I don't have anything constructive, other than the (vague, personal, very minor) hope that my distaste for jargon will keep me from writing things with these particular failings. There are an infinite number of other ways that it could go wrong. It seems to be a dark month for everyone around here. All I really want is four months of peace so I can finish my novel and determine whether it has worth—thus determining, by implication, whether my life has worth—because armed with this knowledge I could make some decisions. As it is, all I do is eat tofu and kvetch.


marginal notes

I wrote a really cranky entry this morning and then commented it out. All I really meant to say was that if I complain about the uninteresting work of others or being made to do uninteresting work myself, the unvoiced corollary is that with sufficient time and resources I could do something more interesting on my own. This corollary is made of gossamer; it is almost invisible; and I have hung so many lead weights from it that it might have snapped years ago without my noticing.

Manan sends some good cheer from Matt Groening. Thanks, man.



More news from Germany that's not about Germany—woo!

Coalition effort in Israel - power struggle in Palestine

PLO head Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have similar problems: their own people are making life difficult for them.

Until now the Palestinians had been coping fairly well with the transition into the post-Arafat era. They demonstrated unity in these delicate times, announced democratic elections for January 9, reduced force and spoke of resuming the peace process. A change was even noticeable in the media, where the agitprop [Hetzetiraden]against Israel decreased. For Mahmoud Abbas, who is being treated as the future President, things could not have gone better. But now the candidacy, just announced in the last moment, of Marwan Barghuti, the Fatah boss of the West Bank imprisoned in Israel, is putting things in uproar. As Barghuti is popular with the people [that doesn't sound like such a dumb tautology in German], he belongs to the so-called "Young Guard" within the Fatah movement. His veering into an independent candidacy could signal a division in the movement, where the representatives of the younger generation have already long been suing for a greater right of speech.

At the same time, it is not entirely clear what has disposed the 45-year-old Barghuti to his sudden change of intention. Just a few days before, he had declared his support for Abbas in the name of unity of the Fatah movement. It is rumored that his lawyer has advised him to this step, to strengthen his position against Israel and thereby raise his chances of release. Barghuti was sentenced to multiple life terms of imprisonment due to his role in the armed intifada. It might well be, then, that Barghuti will change his mind again before the election. But in any case his candidacy is a blow to Mahmoud Abbas, as it is to the overall Fatah movement.

Whereas the "No" that came for Ariel Sharon Wednesday evening in the Knesset was less surprising. The Israeli prime minister could not gather a majority behind him for the 2005 budget allocation, and thereupon fired his coalition partner Shinui. Now Sharon must look for new allies - either in the form of a "government of national unity" including the Labor Party and the ultraorthodox, or through the calling of new elections. The first alternative is more likely, as Sharon does not want to endanger the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip planned for next summer.

But new elections would once more delay the realization of his controversial partition plan. And so long as he stays this course, the left Yachad party in Parliament will want to support him. Sharon's greatest problems at present, however, are not against opposed politicians but rather - as with Mahmoud Abbas - his own people. Since Sharon needs the approval of his own party to suggest a grand coalition with the Labor Party, it is ever more at war with him. The dice will likely fall next week, when the Central Committe of Likud ought to decide whether Sharon may ally himself with the Labor Party. If not, the Israelis also will soon go to the polls.


putin's nightmare

Diarism is monotonous and boring right now, and there's no space left over for analysis, so for my own benefit I translated an article on the Ukraine from Die Zeit. It's pretty clunky and I haven't cleaned it up—you know, that special German syntax. Cheers.

The wonderful news from Kiev is: the freedom movement of 1989 lives again. Self-aware citizens and devotees of the pro-West ex-Premier Viktor Yushchenko are taking to the streets: for fair elections, for a legitimate government, for a democracy that deserves the name. The demonstrations serve as a brightener against the Western depression since September 11. Since the attacks on New York, the West has dabbled in freeing and democratizing dictatorships like Afghanistan and Iraq from above. But between the tense standstill in Kabul and open war in Baghdad no democracy can flourish. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the Ukraine are acting out the joyous counterexample: democratizing from within and from beneath.

The Ukraine must have meant to jolt Europeans awake. This country first appeared in the view of many Western Europeans as a local branch of Moscow's political power office, and was widely written off as such, even by Berlin and Brussels. Because Russia is so large, difficult to fathom, and easily offended, Europeans were careful about making offers to the Ukraine that might have annoyed the bosses in Moscow. The late-Soviet dramas of president Leonid Kuchma in the Ukraine also recalled Russia - the war of oligarchies and the murder of journalists. The result: Rumania is permitted to fully enter the EU as of 2007, the Ukraine is not even regarded as worthy of an association treaty. Now the demonstrators call for Europe - and bring the EU into the predicament.

Behind the protests in the Ukraine, the opposition between East and West, long believed overcome, crops out again: the misunderstanding between political technologists who bake themselves parties like pierogi, and realists who know that democracy - once unleashed - is difficult to stop. The chasm between Russia and the EU is once again breaking open over this. In the Ukraine it appears that Russia, upended in 1991, has other goals than the EU. For Moscow, to gain freedom of action does not mean to grant other freedoms. Here collide two woldviews [Weltanschauungen]: the authoritarian against the democratic model, dictation against cooperation, Greater Eurasia against finely partitioned, plural Europe.

Eurasia: The breakup of the Soviet Union today appears to most Russians as a catastrophe. That the Ukrainians founded their own state three times in the twentieth century, as soon as Moscow was weak enough, many regard as provincial silliness [lit: a province-cricket]. Even in 1990, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn himself denied that Ukraine had the right to independence. Since his accession to power five years ago, Vladimir Putin has pursued the continuation of the Soviet Union by other means. While the Kremlin was fetching Stalin's imperial hymn out of the shellac plate-cupboard, Russian concerns bought into the Ukraine's mining and energy industry. A year ago in Yalta, Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan signed into an economic and trade community.

Yet the assimilation of these systems is critical for the European Union. This year presidental elections took place in all four states: in Russia, in Kazakhstan, finally a referendum on the presidency in Belarus and now the election in the Ukraine. Ahead of the doctored ballots came the consolidation of the media and the preventive shutting out of the opposition. The first appearances of civil society were nipped in the bud.

So the elites of these states want to reserve power to themselves for the next decade. This is known. In spite of the Soviet collapse of 1991, there was no change of power in most of the individual states. What the reigning clans exchanged was socialism for state capitalism, central committees for presidential cabinets, cement-gray double-breasters from the Ivanovo textile combine for night-blue Cool Wool Suits by Ermenegildo Zegna. In new garb, Eurasia shall arise as the Eastern Bloc of the EU.

Precisely in this moment the Ukraine is veering off course. One must picture the horror in Moscow: the Ukrainian demonstrators against those of the government and the designated authorities of the President. They doubt the officially brushed conclusion of the presidentially certified electoral commission. In the Ukraine a debacle impends like the Georgian Rose Revolution of a year ago. Thus Ukraine experts like Moscow's mayor Lushkov ("Sebastopol is Russian!") are now traveling to the east of the country to spread the caricature, useful to the Kremlin, of a divided Ukraine and washed-up country. Nonetheless, even in the east Yushchenko's supporters are holding out in the streets. They and the EU ought to deter the arranged scenes of division.

Europe: Nothing would be more inappropriate than to shove a European sphere of influence against the great Russian game of Eurasia. The EU states simply do not require that. They have the power of attraction and the soft power [English in original] inherited from the Cold War that the Americans are today gambling away in the war on terror [Antiterrorkampf]. In many Eastern European, Asian, and African countries, freedom and democracy have value as desirable European trademarks - thanks also to the expansion of the EU.

Now the EU cannot issue a membership card to every neighboring country in revolt. But the diplomats in Brussels, after years of looking the other way and problems of inception, have in the last week acted rightly for the first time. They are interceding between the adversaries, they are not accepting the falsified vote and false victor. They are clearly demanding European norms of freedom in the Ukraine, even against Putin. They are not giving their blessing to what was prearranged, unlike the Federal Chancellor with the Czech election at the end of August ("Not to recognize any delicate troubles").

If it comes to a democratic (!) new election in the Ukraine, the EU should show the country a way toward Europe: participation in the European Economic Area, possible involvement with individual areas of the European Integration (legal norms, freedom of visas). The EU helps itself when it institutionalizes this status between membership and rejection. What will it soon offer to Serbia or Moldavia? This EU-Lite needs an office in Brussels and a prestigious name with which the states can bid for investors.

Must Russia really fear free elections in the Ukraine? No. Russian natural gas is delivered to Europe through new Ukrainian pipelines, if the opposition governs. Russian properties in the Ukraine remain untouched, if - Putin loudly thumps for this - the right governs. But does he really want that? The Ukrainian clans, who with Moscow's help deceitfully and falsely cling to power, stand for the continued breach of law. And in this they follow Russian custom. The Ukrainian opposition fears nothing more than to be defrauded a second time by the right through armed force or a loaded new election. What those in the streets of Kiev have been celebrating for ten days is the nightmare of their opponents: democracy.


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