southern drawal rhetoric conference

Music: Kontrast: Industrie Romantik

Minds are in momentum and there is a meeting of them: my colleagues at Texas A&M seem to be on board with the idea of co-hosting a graduate student rhetoric conference in the spring of 2008 or fall of 2009. I thought about the possibility after the dean here announced last year that there may be funds for such a thing. I had long heard about such conference co-hosted between Iowa and Northwestern, and always thought such an exclusive meeting was both a neat idea but also somewhat, well, needlessly exclusive. The idea for our conference would be to have Texas A&M and the University of Texas co-host, but to open the meeting up to our good friends in English departments as well and, given the scope and funding available, open the conference up to any graduate student that would like to attend and had something to share (well, there must be some kind of quality control, but the point of the conference is to both help professionalize as well as think together).

So why another conference for grads? First, there’s money for it. Second, it’s an opportunity to apply for “grants.” As most rhetoricians know, getting grants in our area is pretty tough, and as most junior faculty know, all one hears these days from college administrations is “get grants [repeat ad nauseum]. So this will be an opportunity to seek out funding for me and a couple of juniors who need the vita hit. Third, I really think it is a shame to have so many programs within driving distance from Austin that have no “network.” As rhetorical studies contracts, it’s increasingly important to develop connections between our departments—to encourage guest speaking gigs and semesters at each other’s institutions, and so on. Yet these reasons are minor compared to the fourth.

The fourth reason to host such a conference is to help set the agenda for research. In a field as small as ours, only a small swell of folks in group-think can force all of us—especially those of us who make it our goal to stay up with “theory”—to be reading this or that theorist. Recently, owning to the efforts of a small cabal of professors and their larger group of students, the work of Ernesto Laclau has become a major site of reading in the field. I reviewed for three divisions for this year’s NCA conference in San Antonio, and over half of the submissions I read were about Laclau’s work. It’s quite bizarre, really, to see how two programs reading agendas become the “national” agenda for us in two short years. Although I find the work of Laclau interesting and potentially useful, I really do not dig the notion of learning one’s Lacan from Laclau, or of reading Lacan only to understand Laclau. It’s irritating to me. So, having a Texas-style graduate conference can pool together us folks down here who are not so much into this Midwestern program of “hegemonic politics” and establishing “chains of equivalence.” While Christopher was visiting, we schemed about a possible agenda of reading that ties together our local interests. He thought of “structuralism,” you know, pretty old school modernist structuralism. The more I thought about it, the more he was right: what unites the faculty at my department is a commitment to discerning structure; what interests me in psychoanalysis is structure; and poststructuralism is really a kind of structuralism, so, yes, that’s it: structuralism! Who can claim to understand the project of the posts without an understanding of structuralism? No one. Having this foundational understanding pushed will benefit all of us, and with the added benefit of bringing more people to the discussion table.

the drama of secrecy revisited

Music: The Today Show

Last Friday the New York Times decided to publish a story about a secret government program that monitored a financial database known as SWIFT in their seemingly never-ending quest for “terrorists.” Sunday partisan politicians blasted and defended the move, and on Monday both the president and vice-president publicly slammed the Times for compromising “national security.” The story marks an increasingly emboldened—but not emboldened enough—press, no doubt a consequence of mounds and mounds of evidence of sanctioned (in both senses) abuse and torture by various U.S. federal agencies ever since Herr Commander declared a state of exception on September 20, 2001. In the name of a war on a rather abstract but highly connotative noun, it would seem one can prolong this state of exception indefinitely as long as evil lurks in men’s hearts.

After the widely publicized abuse of “prisoners” at Abu Ghraib, the U.S. sponsorship of anti-humanitarian efforts has been hard to ignore, and I daresay many of us have been inoculated—if not downright worn-out—by all these stories of my government’s turn to the darkside . . . or should I say, the public turn to the darkside? Regardless, this particular story intrigues me because the defense of secrecy is at issue. The Grand Wizard of our country maintains secrecy is what allows the U.S. government to prevent events like Nine-eleven. Representative Peter King of New York said that the expose on Friday was really the attempt of the editors of the New York Times to advance “its own arrogant, elitist, left-wing agenda before the interests of the American people.” So-called democrats have defended the Times by suggesting the CIA/Treasury department program is abusive and part of a tradition of secret abuse that stretches back to the phone-tapping surveillance that began shortly after Nine-eleven.

As I write this, the NBC report about the melee between the Times and the Bush Administration story has just ended, and is now reporting (if you can call it that) about the Harry Potter Book series: “Will Rowling Kill off Harry Potter?” The report is about a publicity tease in which the author of the book series has hinted two characters would die in the final book. “I’ve never been tempted to till off Harry until the book seven,” said Rowling.

Now, since I’m horribly predictable, most of y’all know where I’m going with this: the stories about government secrecy and Harry Potter publicity are not merely coincidental: since the emergence of tabloid or “yellow” journalism in the late nineteenth century the sensational exposure and reporting of “secrets” has been the bread and butter of the Fourth Estate: as David Byrne sings, “same as it ever was.” The current melee between the wizards of the All-Seeing Sauron’s Tower and the Dark Tower of My Tax Dollars is merely part of an ongoing creation and revelation of secrets. Indeed, in our time of spectacle and surveillance, the art of politics can be defined as the interplay of secrecy and publicity. This is why Rep. King is wrong about the Times “left-wing agenda” (we need only point to their relentless critique of academics affiliated with the humanities in the last twenty years). This is why both brands of magic are premised on the delusion of novelty.

ghyll of antique childhood glide

Music: Fields of the Nephilim: Mourning Sun (2005)

cult of kim & thurston

Music: The Cure: The Cure (2004)

Last night, courtesy of Dale Smith, one-half-ringleader of that underground poetic pantheon-collective Skanky Possum, Scott Pierce, another poetic genius/publisher (Effing Press), and lowly, woefully unpoetic me were Very Important Persons at the Sonic Youth jam. Some years ago Dale received a “fan letter” and package from Thurston Moore, who had been reading “the Poss” and Dale’s accomplished poetic flights on the page from afar. Because Dale is a rock star for Thurston, our resident Poet Ph.D.-Candy-Daddy got to hook us up with the VIP treatment: can you believe I forgot to bring my motherfreakin’ camera? We were twenty feet away from the action! Wow, what a show!

I’ve seen Sonic Youth once before, probably for the Daydream Nation tour, I cannot recall (I was still into psychedelics then, and honestly don’t remember seeing it). So it was a real treat to see these legends sans the lysergic haze and, wow, what a great show! The sound was fantastic and the musicianship top-notch (what a difference thirty-years of experience and having a family can make on focus, heh?). I was surprised at how young the gate were, and the screaming that punctuated what should have been some more somber, melancholy tunes from the newer album (which I’ve not heard, but, if the show was any sort of glimpse, the newer album has a lot of Wire-like sounding songs, with percussion on the guitar and bass, that sort of thing). Kim was just a trip to watch: dancing around, flinging her arms with shimmy-style abandon, singing like Nico, but with that been-there-done-that vibe her a-tonal voice seems to hint.

Eh, I’m kicking myself I didn’t bring a camera. After the show, Steve and Thurston came out to meet the VIP wristband contingent. They were really nice and friendly, talking about, well, nothing. I got tired of seeing all these people kiss Thurston’s pinky-rings (he was really nice about it, you know, but the sycophancy was annoying). Dale was really, really excited to meet Thurston, and it was clear the feeling was mutual: they kept trying to talk about poetry, etc., and then some weedy schmoo would interrupt them and say, “oh, we emailed two years ago and . . . . ” It was cool to be “backstage” and all, but, eh, I dunno. I can see why people go all ga-ga over Thurston. He still looks like he’s 17, but he’s almost fifty. And Kim didn’t come out, which bummed us all out because, well, she’s hot. She’s got super-mean stair-master legs.

hell effin’ yeah!

Music: The Farm: Hullabaloo (1994)

My boy Shaun just reported the most fantastic news this side of Christopher’s announcement he’s relocating to College Station: Shaun took a visiting post at the University of North Texas in Denton! Hell yeah, muthafukka! Two best friends only a coupla hours away? Oh, oh . . . my liver may not be able to take it! Let me just say I’m really freakin’ happy about this news (and this means Shaun will also be in the running for a possible tenure track position there next year, too). Now, if the rest of you far flung best friends would apply for jobs in central Texas, I could really consider rooting here for good. Yay! for you Shaun! You RAWK!!!!!

PS: Any of you Austin peeps going to the Sonic Youth show at Stubb’s tonight?

emo’s austin

Music: Siouxsie & the Banshees: Superstition (1991)

This summer is the last time I will teach the “Rhetoric and Popular Music” class for a smaller number of students. I developed the course one summer for intersession while a graduate student at the University of Minnesota (circa 2001), and I’ve taught it at least once a year every year since. Five years is not a bad run for a course, although, I would be lying if I say that I was putting it to rest: the class is simply becoming a large lecture course, with some significant assignment modification.

One of the assignments of the course that I will not modify is a group ethnography: five or six students descend on some unsuspecting venue foreign to them and observe and participate in the “scene.” The project does not focus on music as much as it does the “space” in which music occurs. The students are supposed to think about how the space of a musical venue helps to force a particular musical experience. To help them get ready for this project, I have a class field trip (which I stress is optional for them) to a local music venue. Since I’ve been in Austin, I’ve taken my classes to Emo’s, a local “alterna” music venue that runs along 6th street and Red River.

Emo’s is a great little music place for a number of reasons, if only because of their somewhat off-putting booking policy:

WE DO NOT book modern rock, alternative rock, rap metal, etc, etc…if this is your first time hearing of us, you probably don’t play the type of music we’re working with. We have a strict policy of the type of stuff that we do here…mostly underground stuff: punk/indie/emo/electronica/DIY hip hop/garage/etc/etc….

They do sometimes book, however, utter shite, such as the opening act on the late show last night . . . .

In any event, I cannot write too much about the experience last night because I don’t want to “spoil” the exercise discussion with the students on Monday. There were two shows, one that started at 6 p.m., and another that started at 11:30 (I could only manage it until midnight, when I simply had to jet home to sleep). I can say that I’ve never felt so “old” at a show before: this was an all ages event, and the major draw, the novelty-bubble-punk band Bowling for Soup (whose charm wore off by the third three-chord song-n-lyrical “ya ya ya ya la la la la” genius even Weird Al would tire of). Mothers and fathers milled about watching over their middle-schoolers. Earplugs firmly in place (thereby marking me as a geezer) I moseyed up to the stage to see the uber-slick The Vanished finish up their set, when two young girls next to me, visibly distraught by my stage-rushing agressivity screamed to each other: “God, look at all the old people here!” “Yeah, what’s the big deal?”

Of the six bands I saw last night, The Vanished were the most “radio friendly.” They were also the prettiest to look at. I predict if they can come up with a single that’s a little more gothy, they may do well. But, what’s with the freakin’ weird-ass mouth contortion? You must have to go to punk school to learn how to make your face look like you’re having an orgasm with every three chords of your repertoire! I mean seriously: the lead guitarist’s facial contortions were out of control( I fantasized of some fanatical high school girl running up on stage and stuffing a banana or something in it).

Regardless, last night was one riffy cliché after the next . . . a sure sign of my dotage: musical cynicism in a sea of pubescence. A gallery of the evening is here.

tenure tracking

Music: Brightblack Morning Light: [self-titled]

I am very fortunate to have landed a job that will provide a modicum of security if I can make good on the quid pro quo. Making good, in part, means that I have to keep publishing two peer-reviewed things a year in so-called “top journals.” That kind of pressure is somewhat irritating, if only because “top journal” reduces only to three or four (depending on which colleague you ask), and these journals do not seem to include a number of those journals that I regularly read. Fortunately, during tenure review you can make arguments about journals and what not (for example, I find myself reading Rhetoric Society Quarterly more than Quarterly Journal of Speech, but the latter is considered more important).

Regardless, I try not to worry about the mercies of peer review. What has me a little more (or less) concerned is the prospect of “letter writers” for third-year and tenure review. I’m sure those of y’all who just went through or have long been through the process have some wisdom to impart about this, but, here’s the trouble: one is supposed to develop a list of ten full professors who can fairly and accurately assess the quality of one’s work and its “contribution to the field.” (Said list cannot be directly submitted, but must be developed by a colleague who presumably comes up with the list without my input . . . I think.) Such a list should be comprised mostly of full professors from “peer institutions” (viz., research extensive and “equal” or “better than” the colleges’ bloated fantasies about its status; not to be down on the college, I’m just saying we’re not as all powerful and Sauron-like as we might have been in the 80s). From the way I understand it, the chair of my department will contact this list of ten people and see who has the time to review my tenure packet; those who have the time and who think they can fairly assess read my materials and write a cover letter about my value as a scholar. How scary is that?!!

Now, I can easily think of ten full professors who could assess my work and its (mis)contribution to the field. But the one stipulation that makes this problem troublesome is this: you cannot have worked or co-authored with or worked with or under said professors.

Suddenly this list becomes a challenge! Most of the folks who have commented positively on my work who are of the “full” variety are my colleagues, my co-authors, or my friends. In a field as small as ours, as the saying goes, “birds of a feather flock together.” What is super great about being in a small field is that you’ll sometimes have a big name email you out of the blue to say, “hey, dug your essay, and lets have lunch at the next conference.” That’s how I met, for example, Tom Frentz and Janice Rushing (with the Shaunster running interference!). But being in a smaller field also means that I know just about everyone who is into my particular “groove.” The names who immediately come to mind are people I’ve written with or worked with or are currently writing with! Damn!

So, I was instructed to start thinking about people to tap for this thankless honor. And then I started thinking: uh-oh, I have “enemies” (only of the “mild” variety) as well. Friends have shared with me blind reviews of their work in which they are severely criticized for citing my work (I recall vividly a blind review of a friends’ work in which “Gunn’s research on Walter Benjamin is some of the worst in the field”—ouch). Recently at a conference I apparently walked into a charged bar scene in which, just prior to my arrival, scholars were critiquing my work and calling for my head on a platter (they didn’t intone their calls in my presence, however). So I worry, too, about tapping one of these secret castrators as well. In other words, part of trouble of being in a small field is that your (playful? largely harmless?) enemies have to keep their disapproval of your work on the down-lo to keep the peace.

Anyhoo, I have about seven names that I’ve jotted down. A number of them are fulls who interviewed me and who commented positively on my work (not at the places in which I didn’t get the job, though). A couple of them are reviewers of manuscripts who signed their names to positive reviews. And more than three of them I would consider mentors/friends who I’ve managed neither to publish with nor work with somehow. Alas, it’s a short list. Any of my academic peeps out there know of a full professor who writes glowing tenure reviews of everybody, regardless if they publish articles on psychics, zombies, and taking a poo–indeed, regardless if the reviewed scholar’s work is (for) shit?

onward (and outward) xian soldiers

Music: Cetu Javu: Southern Lands

NBC Affiliates were reporting today that a valedictorian’s microphone was cut off during a graduation ceremony last week because the young woman began proselytizing. After reviewing her proposed speech school officials (including an attorney) edited many parts of the speech that began to stray toward a more fundamentalist hard-line. Officials told Ms. Brittany McComb that her audio feed would be cut off if she began to preach during the graduation ceremony, which officials noted may offend the faithful who did not subscribe to her particular understanding of Christianity, and which crosses the line between the separation of church and state. During an interview this morning with McComb and her parents on the Today Show, McComb said that she and her family discussed the bait-and-switch maneuver. Her mother said they thought the censorship was “just a scare tactic,” and was surprised that her daughter’s remarks were silenced because they in no way suggested that they were condoned by the school district. The young woman’s father said that he intended to sue the school district for violating his daughter’s first amendment rights.

In a related story, Jim Aune of The Blogora reports that Bush’s main speechwriter for over six years, Michael Gerson, has left the building. As a story in The New Republic details, Gerson was responsible for Bush’s uncanny sense of eloquence since Nine-eleven. The article’s author says that Gerson’s departure was in part a consequence of the mis-match of the president’s word and deed over the past couple of years; the article seems to suggest that Gerson’s impact on the presidency was merely stylistic. That kind of thinking is stupid (that thinking that reduces the power of rhetoric to “mereness”). Gerson’s double-speak prose of spiritual warfare was in a large part responsible for garnering widespread support for Bush’s agenda of warmongering binarism. I’ve made the case here and elsewhere for the incendiary effects of Gerson’s righteous Christian prose, so I won’t detail further except to say this: that this silenced senior and her family feel righteous about their right to assert their faith in a state-sponsored event is unquestionably a consequence of the tenor of presidential rhetoric over the past six years. In this charged, polarized environment of righteousness, in my mind unquestionably catalyzed by the “good and evil” binarisms of Gerson’s born-again tongue(s) on the presidential teleprompter, evangelical Christians feel more emboldened than ever (except, perhaps, during the early years of this country’s settling, oh, and maybe the first and second great awakenings, and . . . um, the 1970s post-hippy recovery, and I guess probably the Reagan years, oh, and um . . . . ).

Gerson may have left the building, but hundreds of thousands, if not millions, are taking to the public forum to spout off about the saving grace of a Jesus who will return soon to smite the unbelieving; Al Gore’s inconvenient truth is just that, cause Jesus is coming, and he ain’t a happy camper.

oh, the humanity!

Music: Milton Mapes: The Blacklight Trap

Austin-based Whole Foods Market announced in a press release last Thursday that they would no longer be selling live lobsters because it promoted the inhumane treatment of non-humans. Local celebrity and founder John Mackey said that the company places “as much emphasis on the importance of humane treatment and quality of life for all animals as we don on the expectations for quality and flavor.” A PETA spokesperson argued that this was a bold move on the part of the company, for dropping a lobster into a pot of boiling water was akin to “felony cruelty to animals if they were dogs or cats.”

The company relied on both a seven month report by the European Food Safety Authority , in which the authors concluded decapods feel pain, as well as self-commissioned, three-year longitudinal study by the local outfit, People for the Ethical Treatment of Edibles (PETE). By observing sample families from Austin and Houston, PETE conducted a comparative, ethnographic study to see how crrustaceans were used in Texas households. Their results, although not widely reported out of respect for Texas’ cultural diversity, were astonishing.

“Few non-Hispanics have any idea of the ritual import of lobsters for the state, and we were surprised to discover the third largest trading partners with central Texas region were in the state of Maine!” said Fulton Offenshite, director of PETE. “Over the past two hundred years,” reported Offenshite, “lobsters have replaced goats and sheep as the chief offering to Tezcatcatl, an ancient Hispanic deity that protects Mexicans from colonization and Anglo-American globalization.” The report details what many readers unfamiliar with Tezcatcatl rituals would regard as a barbaric rite: “On Friday evenings determined by positions of the moon, a very small platform with two-foot elevated cross is placed on the dining room table. The family—usually the youngsters—secure a live lobster to the cross by nailing its pincers to each side, and the lobster is left to hang writhing until Sunday, when its arms and head are ritually dismembered and eaten raw,” the report reports. Mackey said the news was shocking. “Although I respect the right of all peoples to worship as they please, Whole Foods cannot condone the ritual crucifixion of crustaceans,” he said. “The Jews no longer sacrifice cloven hoofed animals to Yahweh,” Mackey said. “I don’t want to forbid our Tezcatcatl-worshipping customers from worshiping their god,” he continued, “so we’re working with Morning Star Foods, Inc., to develop a tofu-based lobster-substitute for sacrifice.” Currently the lobster surrogate is too mushy to hang properly on the sacrificial crosses, however, a Morning Star representative said their company is making progress on fake lobster thickening agents.

driving home

Music: The Wrens: The Meadowlands

It was still in the nineties like a blanket when I got into the car, and I didn’t think to turn on the air conditioner on the short drive home. I was reading a friend earlier today who didn’t think much of the Austin landscape, nothing remotely deciduous you know, and everything grows low, and scrubby, and may stay green or go brown but it doesn’t fall off. And as I reared out the driveway and made it through the police barricade (some roadwork) I was noticing how the low lying trees gave good view, across the foothills in which the city sat, with large, elevated and curving highways and I was on one of them and it was dark outside and few of us were out there on the highway and I was heading due due east, and there was I think a glorious view (it reminded me of the cover of Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty). Off in the distance beyond all the cars as I was driving and feeling like I was in a contemplative scene in some cliché listening to the Wrens (I’m still listening to the Wrens) there were bursts and flickers of lightning in the clouds, flashy reminders summer had come a month too soon. She’s not really right, Austin does have its own beauty and maybe it takes doing three years time in a small town to get you to the point of appreciation, you know, but I’ve since met three people who still are down on Austin and I’m not so sure I get it; it seems so pretty in that Western way, although it is hot and there are annoying wealthy people and too many SUVs but its not so bad because I have faith there are more of us here. And then I had another one of those moments when I thought to myself I could keep driving, because this was nice, and pass up my exit and just go and go and go. But then I knew as soon as the album was over I wouldn’t feel that way anymore. And I have to teach tomorrow, and meeting a new friend for lunch to talk about alchemy and poetry and rhetoric (maybe). So I should try to sleep through this, you know, the insomnia thing . . . .