best of pop (till you puke) 2009

Anyone who knows me in meat space can testify that I am addicted to music even more than bourbon. You can take my shelter, you can take my food, you can take my booze. But if you take away my music—my speakers and headphones—I think that would be akin to death. Nothing brings me more joy than good music (well, I can think of a person or two sitting next to me who does more, but that’s another post). This year in music did not disappoint. I’ve tried to winnow down what I liked this year to ten albums—which was torture. Believe me. I had ten albums, but then realized I had spent five hours working on this, so I deleted the last two. So, below is my top eight picks for this year’s pop albums (I could come up with lists for other genres, but I need to reserve my writing for, uh, making a living). Please feel free to comment with your own recommendations. I probably won’t disagree. Here are the albums that I found myself listening to the most:

Antony & the Johnsons, The Crying Light: Antony Hegarty’s main outfit has released yet another powerful album of storytelling songcraft that defies description. I could go on, but I worry whatever I say would do damage to the strange beauty Hagarty manages to create with his unusual arrangements and torch-song stylings. This is late night, contemplative music—slow, contemplative, and searching. And it’s unquestionably a very sad album, but there is a weird joy in this sadness. Frankly, I’m not sure how to describe this album except to say it is moving and not for easy listening. Sit down with this album when you have time to think and feel. Hercules & Love Affair this is not. This is the closest to beautiful a pop album can get.

Avett Brothers, I and Love and You: This threesome is the darling of the independent music press, but I must confess this is among the most genuine Americana rock albums of the year (even better than the Drive-By Truckers b-side collection this year). Listening to this album reminds me of early Jackson Browne albums (“Doctor My Eyes” comes to mind), but it’s still unique in youth and sensibility and harmonics. Piano and organ and guitar in equal measure, this is heart-felt songcraft about love and longing and traveling and hope. I’m so terrible at describing music, so I’m left with comparisons: think here of Neil Young on living life everyday, on feeling weary, on the kind of living that leads you to think you don’t need to shave today—that shaving is not what’s important. The title track really does capture the mood: three words that are hard to say, so two “ands” are inserted to make it ok. This is country-ish in tone, but only in that California country way. If you like the Eagles or Nash, I cannot recommend this album enough. Hell, if you like American folk rock, this one is a must. Better than Wilco’s entry this year. Seriously.

The Church, Untitled #23: It’s hard to let go of the memory of the Church’s “Ripple” video, tripped out on acid with friends in my bedroom . . . at that moment we were all convinced of the band’s genius. I saw them live in Minneapolis in graduate school, and my jaw dropped at how good they were, absent the radio hits and drugs and them just playing their normal, non-hits. Since that live experience, I’ve kept up with the Church and have, for the most part, really admired their work (ok that double-album was not so good, I agree). I know folks think these guys are past-beens, but Untitled #23 really proves that assumption wrong. This album is so smart, so well put together—so tight—that I’m almost outraged to see it not mentioned in anyone’s best-of lists for the year. The signature, hypnotic guitar work is still there, the signature breathy vocals are still there, but the Church keep evolving, writing, thinking. There are so many good songs on this album, but the stand-out track is “Anchorage,” a torch song that should win back any lost lover—intense. This is dark, jangly pop at its best. La Roux (below) had stolen my best album of the year spot, but this is a very close second. Seek it out.

Fever Ray, Self-titled: I picked up Karin Dreijer Andersson’s The Knife albums many years ago and have been a fan. It’s not quite dance music, but not quite pop either; the Knife occupied a sort of intriguing middle space between mood music and Sheik Yer Bootie. The last Knife album had a couple of moody pieces that hinted at what Fever Ray was to be: contemplative, electronic mood music. This solo project by Karin opens with a looped drone (sounds like a cello) with “chopped and screwed” lyrics (that is, vocals slowed down to crate a low, male voice effect), that gives way to a song with tinny female vocals with an intonation that reminds one of popular Asian music. This is a hypnotic and repetitive moody album, dark to be sure, but in a way that is crisp and thoroughly postmodern (ok, so what does that mean? Well, it means . . uh. . . give me some time to explain). Nothing on this album sounds organic—it’s all very synthetic and cold; the vocals range from “scream-happy” female chants to slowed-down speech (such that the vocals become a kind of melodic moan). This album walks periously close to ambient were it not for the vocals and percussive elements. It’s late night music, to be sure, and thoroughly intoxicating. I know Andersson is from Sweden, but there’s definitely an Asian aesthetic going on here . . . .

La Roux, Self-titled: I have to thank a RoseChron reader for urging me to listen to this gem (thanks Diane!!!!!). Elly Jackson (and a team of writers, although most of this album is decidedly Elly’s craft) has put together one of the most marvelous albums never made since 1988. The synth-work is definitely retro (think Sega Master System), but the sensibility and lyrics are not: from the opening track “In for the Kill” to the fiendishly addictive single “Bulletproof,” Jackson’s knack for a pop melody with a postmodern cynical edge are unmatched. Nothing I’ve heard this year sticks in your head as much as these songs. This is pop genius, there’s just no denying her talent or knack for a riff. Her voice is raspy, not necessarily beautiful or altogether feminine—sometimes it sounds as if she’s about to lose her voice. Her voice’s sense of toughness and intimacy reminds me of Cyndi Lauper in tone, but the sound is altogether unique, bluesy at times but also on the top and reluctant (again, there’s a sort of 80s brittleness to the vocals). It’s Hall & Oates meets cynical reason and a soul, but with a hot red-head. This album should be on your work-out rotation, and your pump-up for going out “mix tape.” I’ve had it on non-stop in the car to work and on work-outs. This is my top pick for 2009. Seriously: if you like pop music and synth, this album is a must have.

Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions, Through the Devil Softly: When I was a boy, before I lost Jesus and he lost Music, my father was fond of acoustic guitar and artists on the Windham Hill label (in part because their early discs were fully digital when the standard were all analog to digital). Windham Hill is most known as the label and principle outlet for the work of Will Ackerman, who wrote simple, slightly melancholy instrumental folk songs, sometimes with the accompaniment of strings and the occasional flute. Unfortunately, Ackerman’s music got stuck the label “New Age,” which has limited its exposure. Former Mazzy Star mumbler Hope Sandoval’s new album strikes me as Windham Hill with vocals—what melancholic New Age might sound like with a voice. The comparisons to Mazzy Star go without saying, but still, the soothing cleverness of Sandoval’s stylings bring a smile. Hands-down the love-making album of the year.

Gossip, Music for Men: The fourth album from this three piece is a genuine surprise. 2006’s Standing alerted us to the power of Beth Ditto’s insistent diva-ness, but I honestly thought that would be the peak and the band would topple under their three-chord charm. Boy did I misjudge. This year’s Music for Men is a soulful, dance-floor wallop, heavy and insistent but . . . surprisingly experimental! Amid the dance tracks are a few rockers—heavy drumming, heavy strumming screamers! Clearly Gossip (formerly The Gossip) have embraced their queer culture appeal—the title of the album references the album’s single promise, an anthem to gay club rotation—but this is not a “sell-out” (I’m thinking of Erasure here, who have given up on the universal appeal of queer sensibility). The funky, bass-heavy tunes register a self-smugness, but they never fail to deliver on a good groove and infectious melody, and piano and synth riffs have made their way into the mix (as well as a few, well-placed shout-outs to soul hits from the past). This is a great, feel-good punk disco with a few rock tunes thrown in. You cannot help but move your ass to these tunes. Ditto’s voice would convince anyone to make out with her; she’s just delicious. Very, very good.

School of Seven Bells, Alpinisms: “Dreampop” is a term that has been around for some twenty years, affixed to Cocteau Twins and Slowdive and Lush, meaning . . . well, breathy voices and swirly guitars. Formed by twin sisters and a defector from the Secret Machines, the School of Seven Bells make the kind of music us acid-dropping shoegazers used to put on heavy rotation. The twins harmonize over drones and twingly guitars, with unique percussive beats in a way that cannot help but invite the label—and dammit, I like it. A lot. There’s not much “new” here musically, except a rather innovative return to a musical idiom that many of us feared was long gone. The music is beautiful and moving, if not altogether unique. The album ender, “My Cabal,” is perhaps one of the most perfect dreampop songs ever recorded—I regret I’m too old to get down with psychadelics. But if I had some mushrooms . . . . Fans of Lush, early Blur, Lucious Jackson, please take note!

a former self

Music: Lusine: Language Barrier (2007)

I think one can file this post under “narcissism,” but I’m not sure. Then again, given the dynamics of blogging, I’m not sure one can exempt any post from this label, an observation in keeping with the overall trend toward what we might term the Mirror Function of Internet sociability. Nevertheless, I persist.

One of our best and brightest Ph.D. students recently interviewed at my undergraduate alma mater in Washington, DC. The chair of the department formerly known as “Communication” sent back a copy of a paper I wrote for him in 1995. It appeared in my school mailbox mysteriously the week before school let out, and until our student emailed me to explain why it was there, I was a bit baffled. She said my former professor kept the paper because it was one of his favorites.

In 1995 I was a 22-year old junior at the George Washington University, double-majoring in communication (interpersonal focus) and philosophy. The paper I wrote was for a class titled “Persuasion,” and subliminal or unconscious persuasion was a topic we touched on in class that intrigued me. I remember for this assignment we were to analyze a print-ad for unconscious prompts and subliminal messages. My paper begins:

The knowing advertiser, armed with knowledge of the weak points of the American consumer—his or her fears, appetites, drives, and vanity—seeks to conquer all the battles of economic survival, without fighting. Fighting would be too honest, for it would force the advertiser to reveal his/her strategy in a rational, clearly understood way. I want you to buy my product and here is how I am going to get you to buy it. In an ideal world, all our advertisers would fight.

Well, fourteen years ago I see I was a little more pugnacious than I am today; reading the paper, however, I also see the roots of a nascent Freudian. I’ve uploaded a PDF scan of my paper here. In the paper I can see I’ve already embraced a number of Freudian insights about the drives.

What’s a surprise to me about getting this paper is that it ruptures my own scholarly self-narrative. I have often described my interest in the psychoanalytic as beginning in graduate school and coming from three sources: A course I took on Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in the cultural studies department my last semester of coursework; reading Kenneth Burke; and reading Fredric Jameson. I have tended to think of my detour (hat tip to Jim) through Zizek, then Lacan and Freud, as a recent one that began after my dissertation was complete. Now I see, however, I was drawn to thinking about psychology and early formative experiences much earlier.

In the previous post Jim Aune asked the question, “is there a psychoanalytic dimension to why we choose our theoretical lenses?” Certainly there is, of course, as well as a dimension for a certain refashioned intellectual past (one that forgets an interest in a theoretical lens much earlier than one says).

Remembering what it was like to be in this undergraduate class, as well as my decision to go to graduate school, there is a certain compulsion to confess. Foucault notwithstanding, I think one of the reasons Freud’s writings resonate with me is because of his obsession with the question, “what is a father?”

on theoretical allegiance

Music: Pieter Note: Our space (2006)

I’ve been having a lovely time this holiday break seeing friends and family. Yesterday I visited with my grandmother in the home, then with some folks in Buckhead for early supper, and ended the evening chatting with a dear friend at her home in Decatur. Within the last few years so many people I adore have moved to Atlanta or Athens, and so coming “home” now affords social opportunities that makes visits literally whoosh by.

Last night my friend challenged me with a question: why psychoanalysis? She noted that my discussions of popular culture on RoseChron always resort to a psychoanalytic lens, and much of my analysis seems to point toward a form of universalism, as if I’m after the answer. “This was never how you taught seminar,” she noted, saying that my blog persona contrasts starkly with who I am in the classroom. “Not everything is about mommy, daddy, and penises,” she said jokingly. Explanations of events are multiple, complex, and historically specific.

I didn’t disagree with her; I worry, however, that things here appear dogmatic after her comments. I noted that this blog is often a place to “try out” arguments and test things out. I’m often deliberately polemical and not as careful as I would be, say, writing for publication. We discussed the differences between those of us with a debate background and others who haven’t been trained to think in terms of the autonomy of argument. She thoughtfully suggested that perhaps part of the resistance folks have to psychoanalytic scholarship is its style of argumentation; it carries the tone of “the answer.” Of course, this “I’ve got it!” tonal quality is central to the argumentative tradition rooted in Speech Communication.

Do you really believe, she questioned, that early childhood experiences affect behavior in the ways your arguments seem to suggest? My answer was yes, I do have to believe at some level there is a coherent truth to some of the things I argue here (and in scholarship). But I stop short of saying a psychoanalytic approach to criticism is the only approach, or that it is mutually exclusive to other approaches.

In graduate school, my coursework with Ed Schiappa taught me a lot of things, and one of them was an understanding of “theory” as vocabulary. Following Rorty, the idea is this: different theories comprise different vocabularies or “language games” that yield meaning in this way or that way. Psychoanalysis in the theoretical humanities comprises a vocabulary for formative experiences and affects that allows for certain kinds of discussions, but does not allow for others. For example, psychoanalysis has a lot to say about the individual subject. It meets a limit when we attempt to use psychoanalytic vocabularies to talk about social movements—it just has not been theorized (very well) to address questions of that scope (hence, the Freudo-Marxisms of the 20th century). Deleuzian approaches to popular culture begin from different premises (e.g., no constitutive lack) and therefore comprise a different vocabulary allowing one to make meaning of an event alternatively; Deleuze’s philosophy lends itself more easily to making claims about social movements because of its affiliation, for example, with complexity theory.

I’m not sure I did a good job explaining to my friend that I did not embrace psychoanalysis as a kind of religion, but rather, as a perspective that allows me to answer certain questions. Fundamentally, I think psychoanalysis has an excellent explanatory mechanism for understanding persuasion on an individual-to-individual level, or individual to group. I do think more Deleuzian/Foucauldian approaches lend themselves to answering questions about larger social or group processes, the suasive forces of discipline and control, the function of norms, the constitutive assemblies of various dispositifs and they way they work, and so on. Theoretical fidelities should be chosen on the basis of what kinds of questions one wishes to answer.

Lately I’ve been moving into discussions about media ecology and “thing theory” too—I may be adopting these vocabularies because of questions I am now starting to ask (e.g., what is the role of technology in influencing how we understand speech today?). I don’t see myself as inextricably wed to psychoanalysis as a scholarly identity, even though I know I have been branded with this dreaded “P” word. I wonder to what extent my own argumentative practices—here and in scholarship—contribute to this brand, and to what extent the way disciplinarily seems to work in my field contributes to this brand? Obviously it’s a little of column A and a smidge from column B. I suppose I have never really thought about the import of how one’s work and thinking is branded until last night. I’m grateful to my brilliant buddy for pressing the issue and making me think more deeply about the consequences of one’s theoretical pieties, whether actual or attributed.

religion and politics on solstice

Music: Antony and the Johnsons: The Crying Light (2009)

In a couple of hours I’ll be giving a speech tonight at my Masonic lodge for our holiday party and potluck. In the spirit of the holidays, I thought I would share.

[Later edit: the speech seemed to go over well. The WM remarked “you really like to push the envelope, don’t you?” with a nervous laugh. I didn’t see this as very risky, but I suppose it could be. Anyhoo, I’ve revised some things from comments after the speech, and from comments here]:




Thank you, worshipful, for that introduction and for the opportunity to address you this evening, most especially this particular evening, which is auspicious.[1] I want to begin with a provocation: it is often said by Masons, as well as our mothers, that two topics are not allowed for discussion at the dinner table: religion and politics. In keeping with the contradictions that plague any three hundred year old organization, I intend to speak briefly about precisely these two things: religion and politics.

First, religion: Today is the winter solstice or what some have termed “midwinter,” and by midnight, the earth will be tilting farthest away from the sun. Consequently, today is the shortest day of the year for those of us in the northern hemisphere, and it is the day that is most deprived of what Masons cherish: light.

The winter solstice is important to Masons, however, because of its regularity. For us, the solstice is also a reminder for us to be upstanding, to follow-through on our promises, and give our love with unrelenting consistency. Because astrologically the winter solstice is unfailingly reliable, this is also why this day marks the beginning of some of the most significant religious holidays around the world: From the Japanese Amaterasu celebration, to the Incan Festival of the Sun, to Christmas, the days around the winter solstice have been religious for billions of people around the world for centuries. No matter what your faith, this evening encourages a good mood, which is simply another way of saying goodwill, and goodwill toward all people is what our holidays this season are about.

And speaking of religion, tonight is also important because next Sunday we celebrate the Feast of St. John. The feast of St. John is in honor of the Apostle of that name, also known as John the Evangelist, who is likely a composite of different Johns in the Christian tradition.

As many of you know, Lodges are symbolically erected and dedicated to the Holy Saints John. The other John is John the Baptist, who is often described as the “voice in the wilderness” that prepared the way for Christ. We are told it was John the Baptist who first saw the light of Divinity emanating from Jesus. John the Baptist was a stern and unrelenting believer in the gospel, and it was his unwavering fidelity to Christ’s teachings that led to his beheading. Masons celebrate John the Baptist for his fidelity of faith in midsummer, and it is in honor of him that our Masonic calendar in Texas begins on June 24—the first feast of St. John.

John the Evangelist, however, is very different from John the Baptist. His Sunday feast is fitting for this holiday season because he is the apostle most closely associated with brotherly love. The Evangelist is sometimes described as Jesus’ favorite because of his devotion and chastity. It was John the Evangelist whom Jesus allowed to rest his head on his breast, and it was John the Evangelist whom Jesus trusted to take care of his mother after death.

The apostle is among the most elegant writers of the new testament, and it was John the Evangelist who so closely associated the metaphor of light with speech—or as my profession would have it, with rhetoric. His gospel begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” While at one level St. John is attempting to stress that Christ is the embodied word, he also goes on to equate speech with light: “What has come to being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and darkness did not overcome it.” It is thus from John the Evangelicst that Masons receive their most fundamental metaphor—light—and it is from him that we understand this light as both knowledge and love. Knowledge and love combined is divinity.

I’m especially pleased to be speaking to you tonight because I try to model my own conduct in accord with St. John the apostle, rather than St. John the Baptist. For me, brotherly love is more important than dogma and a strict adherence to a certain way of thinking. Nevertheless, I think both saints are important to Masonry because they represent two ways of being good. It is important to stress here that Jesus loved and honored them both.

Symbolism in Masonry is complicated and it’s easy to get things confused. To help me remember the symbolism of the Saints John, I like to think of each one as a pillar on the porch of Solomon’s Temple. We know these columns as Jachin and Boaz, the former often representing beauty and the latter, of course, strength. There is much disagreement among scholars as to which column is “right” or “left,” and this leads me to the politics of my discussion.

Jachin and Boaz are often said to represent deity; they are two columns that, paradoxically, represent one being. I think the Saints John are also described as pillars of Masonry because their respective virtues were not mutually exclusive; these holy men were compatible role models. That is why Jesus cherished them both.

In closing, then, I would like to suggest this: each of us leans politically toward strength, fidelity, and charity, as well as brotherly love. And although this is the time of year we celebrate brotherly love, that doesn’t mean commitment and regularity go out the window. We need John the Baptist too!

We are offered, then, the Saints John as two extremes or poles on a continuum of virtue. Being a good Mason requires that we figure ourselves between these columns, between the evangelist and Baptist, in pursuit of moral being. Sure, we may lean toward one pole or the other, and this is a literal parallel of the solstices and feasts: as we leave June behind and move toward December, our minds and hearts increasingly move toward the message of brotherly love.

This is a lesson that I think our political leaders could learn from Masonry. We have, at the moment, two parties vying over a health care bill designed to alleviate human suffering. It is not my intention to argue at dinner for or against this policy; I respect the spirit of the rule against talking about politics in the lodge. Rather, it is my intention to suggest this: our political system was crafted from Masonic principles, principles deliberately designed to promote fidelity, love, harmony, and peace. It is time for our political leaders to return to those principles. They can and should figure out how to meet on the level.

To put it metaphorically, these Masonic principles do not ask us to choose one saint over the other, or to embrace Jachin over Boaz. Whether or not you are a Christian—and I confess I am not—Jesus’ teaching is worth learning by heart: all good, moral people are worthy of consideration and love, regardless of their religion or politics.


[1] Typically, speeches are not “sourced” as scholarly papers often are. Even so, my remarks are heavily informed by the following two sources: Harvey L. Ward, “‘And Dedicated to the Holy Saints John’: An Inquiry Into the Designation of the Saints John as Patron Saints of Freemasonry,” Pietre Stones: Review of Freemasonry, available here; and Henry Wilson Coil, Coil’s Masonic Encyclopedia, eds. Wiliam Moseley Brown, William L. Cummings, Harold Van Buren Voorhis, and Allen E. Roberts (Richmond, VA: Macoy Publishing, 1996).

the political turn in commie rhetoric

Music: American Music Club: Mercury

A friend was teasing me yesterday because I said I was doing research instead of enjoying my holiday. I often feel like I’m “missing out” on the holiday, but then again, I’m also a bachelor and attending to the needs of others (well, with the exception of spoiled pets) is not a pressing issue. And I have come to expect working on the holidays as a part of the basic research academic lifestyle: during the semester, one focuses on teaching (my priority last semester with a new prep, that’s for certain), traveling, guest lecturing, and conferencing. The breaks between the semesters is when one attempts to get serious writing and research done (oh, and grading: hey gang, I’m working on them, but progress is slow). So, the past few days I’ve been reading and writing on a new project. I can’t disclose this entire project, as I’ve become somewhat paranoid about scholarly plagiarism, but I did want to share an argument that came to me yesterday—and discuss how weird the process of invention sometimes works.

I’m working on a project that thinks through the role of politics in scholarship. This week I was hangin’ out with Christopher Swift and we were talking about his work in this area. He gave a very smart and exciting talk on the disagreement between Adorno and Marcuse on the political in scholarship (it’s coming out next year in RSQ) for us here last spring. He recommended I go back and read the Adorno essay on Brecht and Sartre in Jameson’s Aesthetics and Politics collection, so I did.

Fast forward two days.

So, I get up in the morning and a song is playing in my head: The Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter.” It’s a very dark, apocalyptic song that Jagger admitted was about the Vietnam war, and it has this amazingly powerful vocal by New Orleanian Merry Clayton on the top that is almost terrifying (like a scream). They wrote it in the wake of Altamont, which I am always prone to argue was a death knell for 60s idealism. After that disaster, black metal took over—and from what I gather Jagger and Richards slumped into a kind of drug-hazed depression. (If you’ve seen the film Performance, this mood is very clear.)

I listened to the song a couple of times as I drank my morning coffee. I then started thinking about Vietnam and Richard Nixon, and then I remembered in grad school I read a debate between Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Forbes Hill presumably about Nixon’s Vietnamization speech. “What the hell,” I thought, “why not go back and read that today?” So I did.

Rereading the debate had an immediate resonance with the Adorno essay Christopher pointed me to: for Campbell, any choice in the critical act is a political choice, and to downplay one’s politics is a politics. Adorno agrees, however, Adorno warns outright politics runs the danger of propping the very conditions that gave rise to evil leaders in the first place. After Bush II, I am personally ambivalent about where I stand here and worry Adorno is right.

Regardless, in the exchange, Hill critiques Campbell for having an political interest in Nixon’s deceptions. He prefers an “objective” Neo-Aristotelian approach to speech criticism that limits observation to an assessment of the immediate effects on the intended audience. Campbell responds that Hill’s approach:

hardly qualifies as objectivity. It is, in fact, to chose the most favorable and partisan account a critic can render. For example, it is to accept the perspective of the advertiser and applaud the skill with which, say, Anacin [a brand of caffeinated aspirin] commercials create the false belief that their product is more a more effective pain reliever than ordinary aspirin. As a consequence, the methodology produces analyses that are at least covert advocacy of the point of view taken in the rhetorical act—under the guise of objectivity.

Hill responded that “rhetoric is the study of our use of the means, not our commitment to ends.”

It seems to me Campbell’s argument in these four sentences was the right thing to say at the right time, thereby eclipsing the functional dominance of the good of “civic engagement” with a scholarly acknowledgement of political engagement. Yes, there were self-consciously political essays before this debate, and the Forbes/Campbell controversy comes at the end of about five or six years of critiquing Nixon’s rhetoric (Newman had a pretty barbed one in ’69). But this was the polemical exchange that created what we might call the “political turn” in communication-style rhetorical studies.

Campbell’s argument came at what must have been a very, very scary moment. “Gimme Shelter” really does capture the affect of the time I think—listen to it. That ominous key, and then Merry’s very scary and soulful wails, and the lyrical chant “War, children, it’s just a shot away.” The Golden Age of Television was arguably the 1960s, the first presidential debates were televised, and we had embedded journalists in Vietnam. Suddenly the media sped up as more and more graphic depictions of the war showed up in people’s living rooms. Nixon was a doing very bad things. Students were rioting and protesting—the war, misogyny, sexism. If we can imagine all of this, it must have been something akin to Nine-eleven in cultural tone. Taking this into account, Karlyn’s argument reads much differently to me now than it did in 1998.

It not only changed how we do rhetorical criticism by making our politics explicit, but like much of Karlyn’s work in the 1970s onward, it yoked critical work to socio-cultural exigencies in a way that sounded the death knell for disinterested critique. Suddenly studying texts or speeches for their own sake seemed less responsive or engaged (causing a struggle over object that culminated in the first public address compromise over “text”; the first attempt at one via genre theory didn’t work). Four sentences became a representational voice for what must have be a common sentiment of fear and desperation. I wonder if those of you who lived through the 60s implosion can remember what it was like, and if there is any comparison to be made to the apocalyptic mood after Nine-eleven?

In short, I’m arguing Karlyn Kohrs Campbell’s essay, “‘Conventional Wisdom—Traditional Form’: A Rejoinder” is my field’s “Gimme Shelter.”

it’s synth-pop friday!

josh are promotedid en tenyurd

Today I learned that, pending the approval of the regency (aka rubber stamping in May) I am to be promoted with tenure in the fall of 2010. While we were all expecting this outcome, still, I cried with the news. I’m thrilled! It’s just an enormous symbolic weight to have off of one’s shoulders. In celebration, I will be drinking some Bulleit Bourbon this evening. And, I offer the following interpretive dance of the tenure and promotion process:

it’s synth-pop friday!

a crisis of petulance?

Music: Marconi Union: 13 (2008)

The semester is winding to a close and the grading season (referred to some as “the holiday season”) has commenced. Earlier this week we’ve discussed Facebook and its relation to what we might term a “psychotic turn” in contemporary communication. The absence of limitation so noticeable (and amplified) in network technologies, the enflamed fantasies of omnipotence, are making their way to the classroom. Not only has the petulant demand arrived, but like that booger man in the Mucinex commercials, it’s decided to make itself at home. I can grouse and complain about it all I want, but the fact remains that entitlement culture is here to stay, there ain’t no decongestant for it, and it’s time to start thinking about teaching strategies that can accommodate the inevitability of the petulant demand.

I first blogged about the petulant demand three years ago, after my first semester at the University of Texas. By “demand” I mean to refer to a Lacanian notion, but basically, demands are always for recognition (at base, what goes by the name of “love”). The irony of the demand is that while it does produce results, it rarely results in recognition because of its internal contradictions (think Hegel on the Master/slave here). Of course, Laclau has theorized the demand as the basis of hegemony politics—and I kind of agree with some of what he has to say—but I am not dealing with the collective there. I’m referring to the individual psyche and a tacit infantilism: “mine!” “gimme a cookie!” and so forth.

Although I had experienced irrational student demands as a graduate student at Minnesota at least twice, I wasn’t quite prepared for the very personal, ad hominem attack from this first semester student in 2005. I’ve noticed the frequency of petulant demands have increased the longer I have been here. 95% of my students have been great, respectful, hardworking (or at least not prone to complaint), and the suggestion by my colleague John Daly that complaining and testing boundaries is part of the job of being a student is well taken. But that five percent is growing, and they’re becoming more conspicuous. I had four incidents this semester and it wouldn’t be wise to discuss them now; trust me when I say that they were all of a similar character: the charge is that I am “punishing” or “being punitive” or violating some sort of “right” (and usually over .8% of a grade or something like this). Again, this is a very small percentage of my overall student “load,” but the character of the petulant demand, of course, is that you take notice: it’s about recognition, it’s not about learning or content or product.

I spoke at some length with one of our academic advisors in her office today. She speaks with hundreds of students a semester and has noticed the trends. I learned a few days ago that next January she’s having a workshop with our graduate students to discuss “today’s student,” and so I popped in her office to get her take, to see if my perception that “this semester was the worst ever” was shared, and so on. Both of us have read the studies that have been coming out these past few years on “entitlement.” The consensus seems to be, first, “email” is the enabler: The immediacy of email and the ability to send it at any moment one has a question (say, about the syllabus)—and now, the ability to do so standing in the elevator on one’s phone—has enabled a situation in which the ritual value of office hour is rapidly losing its purchase. No longer does a student have to wait for a teachers office hours to approach her to ask a question. No longer does she need to go to the teacher. She can email quickly; and now, this student often expects an immediate response.

There’s more to the issue than the ease of email, however. It was pointed out to me that, from an advisors perspective, universities are often responding to the demands of students by placating them. Some universities have moved toward “instant message advising” instead of the face-to-face discussion. The shift to a customer service model, unfortunately, is only increasing, as opposed to stemming, the demands.

I’m also hearing from some of our grads that the “grade grubbing” and righteous indignation of that 5% is disenchanting them from teaching; it’s seeming less rewarding for some of them. I’m noticing something of a morale problem as a consequence.

Our academic advisor made a good point to me today: this is not going away. Either we learn how to teach with and among this “new student,” or we don’t teach. We have to figure out ways to manage, as opposed to “get rid of,” entitlement culture. I confess I think she is right. I regret that is the case, but I do relent. When I was trained to teach, I just didn’t experience this much. In Louisiana, that culture is so geared toward a respect of one’s elders that I never encountered it from undergrads (their parents would call me, but the students were rarely confrontational). But in the last four years, I am noticing a trend—and while without question my personality has something to do with it, others who are teaching are having similar experiences. Our students are changing. Again, I will say that I think our culture is moving from neurosis to psychosis, from Taylor Swift to Tom Cruise, and this is showing up in class: “Don’t be glib Josh!” I can hear student saying in the near future, wagging a finger. Ok, that’s a joke, but y’all know what I mean.

So, I guess the question is this: given the realities of the “new student”—and understanding that petulance is an expression of culture, not some innermost essence—how do we change our teaching practices to accommodate? I don’t know the answer here. We don’t only need to adjust ourselves, but we also need to adjust how we teach the teachers. How do we teach the teachers of tomorrow to manage this emergent culture of the demand?

Some years ago Katherine Hayles gave a talk here that really stuck with me. I think about it a lot, actually, which . . . has made me quite the fan. Her talk was about pedagogy and the need for multi-modal teaching styles (think about lectures like “surfing the net”) to accommodate the ADD-learning modes of newer generations. She did not advance an argument for the tail wagging the dog, but called for a sort of hybridity: hold on to the hard won, centuries long achievement of scholarly “depth,” but also try to teach in newer ways that engage students “where they are at.” I actually tried to do this with my new Celebrity Culture class this semester (we’ll see what the students say on the evals). I mean, I thought hard about this class; it was public sphere theory with Paris Hilton. Dunno if it worked–we’ll see. But, my point: Is there a way in which understanding emergent epistemologies can help us, in turn, deal with demands (the latter, again, having more to do with power and recognition, less to do with learning). Is there a pedagogy for the age of the demand that does not collapse onto the dominant “customer service” model? I mean, I’ve had a student go directly to the dean to complain about my course policies three times now—it’s akin to asking for the manager. How can we teach in such a way that displaces customer service with something else? Contract-based grading? What?

All I have are questions. I look to those of you who are smarter and more experienced than me in teaching and student interaction: what is to be done?

my so-called/social networked life

Music: And Also the Trees: Listen for the Rag and Bone Man (2008)

Some months ago I summarily “de-friended” all my colleagues associated with my job from my Facebook account, both graduate students and faculty. To make a complicated story simple, this move was in response to the second time someone at work contacted me about events on my Facebook account in a way that was not social, but professional. Because I am in a promotion year, and because I’ve been trying to “lay low” (you may have noted a decrease in posts, and less controversial posts at that), I thought severing the awkward social/professional implosion that is Facebook from my life, however temporary, was a shrewd move. Now I’m not so sure. I suspect it’s a move that communicates, however unwittingly, I’m not “with it.”

Gradually a number of grads contacted me, mostly on phone or in person, to inquire if I was angry with them or if something was terribly amiss. When I explained the situation( “tenure year, sorry, nothing personal”), most seemed understanding but remained, at some level, hurt. Recently I “defriended” a friend for spoiling the end of Battlestar Gallactica on my “status feed” because, after all, my status feed was something like, “Off to watch the final season of BSG; don’t spoil it!” “I hate to break it to you,” he commented, “they’re ______.” “Commence defriend sequence now!” I said. And poof, not a “friend” on Facebook. He emailed to apologize and went on, for some paragraphs, how my deeply wounded he felt that I would defriend him so callously. When I responded I was surprised, he reasoned that it was laughable that someone who reads “Derrida and Foucault” wouldn’t understand the significance of social networking.

Well, laugh away. I confess I am still sort of surprised at how important Facebook has become to those around me. I now realize I am not as deeply networked as they are.

I consider Facebook a social trifle, a fun way to waste time. Upon occasion I see it as a locus of political mobilization, but ultimately, I think Facebook is a place for the mediated organization of sentiment, and much of this sentiment is intimate in character. I am annoyed by colleagues who message me to conduct business there, and routinely tell them to use my official email address (if you message me on Facebook about business, you run the serious danger of never getting a response). I do not own an iPhone or Crackberry, nor do I suffer from a compulsion to “text” or to update my status with the funny thing someone just said. I don’t have, to alter a phrase from Derrida, network fever.

Last week Kayla Rhidenour (a grad here) delivered a thought provoking reading response that used Derrida’s Archive Fever to make sense of the compulsions of Facebook. Her argument was that social networking was ironically born by the death drive and a need to archive one’s life as if to preserve every moment. Recently, I read an essay by my mentor and friend John Sloop on Facebook that took an alternative, Foucauldian tack: Facebook participates in an apparatus that brings two forms of governance into play: the logic of self-surveillance, whereby one’s “friends” function as the imagined voyeurs, and the older logic of (institutional) discipline. If I follow him, the idea is that Facebook encourages the publicity of privates by various reward mechanisms, however, this paradoxically opens one up to institutional discipline. Moreover, as Kayla tacitly suggested, Sloop characterized networking as providing for “the expression of temporary emotions to a public which reads them as permanent, as part of one’s identity.” What was once a fleetingly human moment of frustration or anger becomes an archived dimension of self that, for others and oneself, persists, exposing one to discipline.

So, for example, let’s say I complain on my status, “argh! tenure takes so long! what’s wrong with all these committees!” The pleasures of confessional are clear, as immediately “friends” come forth to sympathize, to tell me to “hang in there,” and so on. However, the pleasures of this kind of friendly policing come at a certain cost, for tomorrow my chair will email and say he heard I was discussing my tenure case and badmouthing my employer, and so on.

I think both Kayla and John agree that there is a certain sort of compulsion at play. It’s this compulsion that interests me, as well as the relationship of this compulsion to feelings of injury and woundedness. How has “social networking” become a locus of identity so quickly and powerfully that people cannot keep themselves from tweeting or texting on the one hand, and from feeling deeply wounded when another person “deletes” him or her on the other? These are not idle or mundane feelings, but operatic affects. These responses are not the same of those watching, say, a film (although the latter can be pretty intense), and perhaps that’s because “social networking” is not on the side of the imaginary (where it should be), but for many, real life. Perhaps the fundamental paradox of Facebook is that it is experienced as a window, but it is fundamentally a mirror? This would explain, in part, why those who hurl headlong into pure expressivity are shocked later when they are confronted with some kind of consequence.

I want to say that anything, any technology, that evokes powerful affect is tapping into deep, infantile recesses of the psyche—formative memories and events that none of us remember but which, nevertheless, predispose—as opposed to determine—(re)action. As Larry Rickels argues in his Nazi Psychoanalysis trilogy, communication technologies are deeply articulated to the “Psi-Fi,” shorthand for the way in which gadgets trigger fantasies of omnipotence. Much like a two year old imagines herself the center of the world and that the world will bend to her will with magic, gadgets promise to bring the world to us, Jesus Jones style: “right here/right now.”

The magic—that is to say, the trick—of social networking is the fact that it is not truly social. Rather, it is an interface for projection: one crafts a persona and attempts to maintain it, much like a character in a video game. Your “friends” on this interface are really just other characters in the fantasy of your “network.” You add and delete friends much like you would manipulate people in a Sims world. Yet, the interface encourages users to forget it is a simulation of the social and, consequently, me-ness grows, unchecked, without a “no.” Disagreements on Facebook are intensified because one is not only dealing with a disagreement, but an intensification of affect because one’s crafted persona is in play—its my best me, and that me is not good enough.