on friendship, continued

Music: This Mortal Coil: Filigree & Shadow (1986)

[T]he great canonical meditations on friendship . . . are linked to the experience of mourning, to the moment of loss.

—Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship

This past weekend was a social one. Strangely, in many moments, surrounded by the friendly, I felt estranged—or at least a certain kind of distance. This was not a continuous sense of apartness, just the fleeting sort of alienation in which one thinks to oneself, after eating a brain-bud of cauliflower dipped in something fattening, ” I don’t think there is but one or two people here I could call if I were in jail.”

I don’t regularly have such thought experiments in a crowded room, but for some reason my mind went there. Well, y’all know I do know the reasons, but I’m not about to be that disclosive on a public blog. Even so, think about it: finding yourself in jail is embarrassing, whether it is for the right reasons (civil disobedience) or the wrong ones (DWI). Whom would you feel comfortable calling? For most of us, I suspect, we could count the friends we trust with that sort of embarrassment on one hand.

Different scene, same weekend: I happened to be in a crowded living room—a space of intimacy, the space of friendship—and I noticed the virtual’s sporadic colonization of the meat: instead of looking at and speaking with others present, three guests were staring down at their laps into the liquid crystal portal of an iPhone, connecting to the absent other (or rather, presencing them, as if to expand the living room to ghosts of [an]otherwhere).

I have been in intimate conversations when someone suddenly attended their mobile “networking” device. This is increasingly common.

I realize that in our now “networked” culture, the norms of public intimacy are changing—few would question this. But as unique as our smart-phoned socialization is, I tend to recoil to my (post)structural habits: such feelings of alienation (however minor) amplify already rooted modes of intimacy. Last year, in preparation to a visit with a friend’s class at another university, I read Derrida’s The Politics of Friendship, and it’s been murmuring in the background of my mind all of this time. In preparation for an essay revision this weekend, I’ve been reading Joshua Meyrowitz’s No Sense of Place, a classic and incredibly prescient rumination on the ways in which electronic media are reconfiguring our understanding of intimacy, public and private. My social experiences this weekend somehow made these two books have a conversation with each other in my head.

Many years ago I ruminated on the topic of friendship, by way of Aristotle. Thousands of years ago “The Brain” characterized friends into three camps, which really reduce to two: there are the friends for whom you wish the best, and then, friends of “utility.” The lingo of social networking has really brought such distinctions into naked relief: on Facebook, you have “friends” in your social network. The majority of them are friends of utility. These are friends who you would never dream of calling when you are in jail. A very small minority of one’s Facebook friends are real friends—those whom you would call and detail things that reveal an innermost (human) flaw.

I got to thinking: what are the ethics of networked friendship? Friendship implies a complicated apparatus of logics over a plane of intimacy. All of us know that “friending” someone on Facebook is, at some remove, a routine gesture: “Oh, yes, I know this person. Why not?” But the word “friend” itself carries with it a certain meaning that is not evacuated by the superficial gesture. For example, about a year ago I went through my “friends” on Facebook and deleted those people whom I rarely spoke to in “real,” meat space. One of them emailed me immediately, professing hurt. This was not a person I would ever dream of asking to bail me out of jail. Yet, she protested that I had violated some sort of tacit bond. And so I “re-friended” her. (Case in point: I would not expect her to read this blog.)

This networked dynamic of intimacy is unquestionably yoked to the conception of “friend.” The word itself carries a certain force, an intimate force that afflicts us with a profound unconscious gravity that the electronic interface encourages us to ignore. I’m just not sure how to make sense of it. In some ways, I suppose I am privileged (as are many of you) by having grown up in a non-Internet era—I can feel, in my body, in my bones, the difference between interpersonal or perhaps “vocal” intimacy and that of the digital kind. Perhaps there is a distinction to be made between “analog” and “digital” forms of intimacy, and the ways in which either mode configures friendship. For example, “friend or no friend” versus degree of likeness might be a way in which we could differentiate the two. Understanding friendship in terms of degree, seems to me, the meat-space norm, contrasts starkly with the “yes” or “no” province of the digital.

That said, there is something about the character of friendship (for me, at least), which resists the binarist view. Friendship is (and should be) messy. For those of you unfamiliar with Derrida’s book on friendship, a large portion of it is dedicated to examining the political theories of Carl Schmitt, a German thinker whose most famous essay, “The Concept of the Political,” defines politics as an essential discernment between “friend and enemy.” Derrida upends such as distinction, as you might imagine, in The Politics of Friendship. But his point is not to dismiss Schimitt. Rather (at least as I understand it), his point is to show how Schmitt lays bare the way in which the political depends on such a binary—how the friend is conceived of the Aristotelian sense of “utility,” how “friend” is coded as a “like me” that evacuates difference. That the notion of “friend” entails a certain kind of contractarian thinking that abhors the degree.

Or as George W. Bush made famous, “you are either with us, or against us.”

Such a logic seems to be underwriting the Facebook “friend” mentality. If I neglect to add you as a “friend,” then I am in some sense your enemy. With Facebook and similar social networking interfaces, we are witnessing the emergence of a new form of blackmail. Although I would readily ascent to the objections of my more Foucauldian/Deleuzian, Tornoto-school media ecologist colleagues that new technologies open new possibilities for friendship (few of us would deny, for example, that Facebook has only made it easier to keep in touch with those friends we would call from jail), still, new intimacies trend toward new alienations.

And this brings me back to the notion of intimacy and interface: to what degree is social networking pushing us into a Schmittian understanding of friendship? To what extent has our rapid connectivity rendered our connection as such a valued mode of intimacy? Or worse, as the authentic signature of depth? To what extent does engaging at the level of “status statements” come to replace the laughter of two friends having lunch?

I don’t know. I’m just thinking aloud.

One of the fundaments of Derrida’s essay is that friendship is “cultural cannibalism” (to borow a term from Penelope Deutscher) When we have a friend, that friend is “appropriated” as part of ourselves. This is why Derrida suggests that to think about friendship entails a certain mourning: when we lose a friend to death, we experience the loss as a loss of self. We “consume” or “eat” our friends—they become a part of us. This is inevitable. The ethical reckoning is the realization that the incorporated friend “is not me,” that he or she is different, a discrete or unique being that we cannot say is “one” with our being. And yet, when I look to my Facebook homepage, I see I have incorporated hundreds of “friends,” many if not most of whom I could only mourn in their sameness or continuity with myself—that is, that I “know” them, that they are part of who “I know” and therefore part of self. In my accumulation of “friends” on Facebook, because of the term itself, I confront a strange guilt.

I think Aristotle was wise. For him, a true friend is one for whom you wish the best—sometimes at the expense of your own happiness. That is a respect for uniqueness. Social networking blurs the distinction that we must necessarily make between levels of friendship to be ethical persons, the distinction we must make between friends with whom we share a life—our sadness especially—and those with whom we are commingled for utility or circumstance. The irony of the binarist logic of friendship is that it forces an enemy when there need not be one. “Friending” on Facebook participates in an underlying logic of discrimination that, I’m coming to realize, is more alienating than I first supposed; it is premised on the possibility of an enemy, a zero. And publicizes it.

it’s synth-pop friday!

various randomness of blah blah

Music: radio in German Auto Center (currently “Big Country”)

back to ramen

I’m sitting, again, in the car repair shop. Not two days after I got my car out of the shop (replaced a bad water pump and timing belt for a tidy sum of $994.00), the “check engine” light came on again. I ran the car by Auto Zone for a free computer reading, and I’m hoping it’s a camshaft sensor that was knocked loose during the last repair. If it’s the actual camshaft I will have officially evacuate what little savings I have left after this past year (car repairs, unexpected hospital bill from two years ago, air conditioner repair, and other more-than-normal expenses have taken their toll). Since last July, repairs have cost me almost eight grand. I have a 2001 Volkswagen Golf 1.8 Turbo. Do not buy one of these.

Yes, I know I could have bought a new car by now. But, this one’s almost paid off. And once you start pouring money into a car, you think, “well, if I spend this then it will last me two more years,” and so on. It’s the psychology of car repair, I suppose. Then, before you know it, you’ve spent so much you cannot justify a new car—you ain’t got anything left for a down payment. And so, I will not get a new car next year as I had planned. Must wait two years to justify . . . .

I’m still researching what I want. My inner fetishist wants the Volvo C30. You know, I have this thing for Swedes. But I realize that repair bills for this thing will be akin to my Golf five years in (after the warranty expires; reliability ratings for the c30 are mediocre). So, I will probably shoot for something more, you know, practical, since the sport car hatchback want isn’t really a need. Subaru?

take it to the scene, like a teaching machine

Today was the second day of class. I had my graduate seminar in rhetorical criticism yesterday, and things seemed to go well. I’m very excited I only have six students. Six! In eight years as a professor I have never had a graduate class with only six students. This makes me happy to no end, and a more intimate experience will be very nice for a change.

My undergraduate course on “Celebrity Culture,” of course, is the opposite: 190 students and counting. On the first day I lecture about the seedy side of celebrity, for the most part. I talked about the death of Michael Jackson, cultural fantasies (namely, tragedy), and rounded it all out with a discussion of narcissism and the Octomom. Some students looked bored. Some looked shocked. And so—with nods to Ellen Goodman—it goes.


Bad news about the budget trickles in slowly at UT—it’s like a slowly moving tide that has finally gotten just below the knees. They say we’ll never get up to our neck. Regardless, the university is doing all sorts of things to brace for cuts Gov. Perry has threatened. Folks have been “let go,” mostly staff. Some programs were cut or dissolved. A new “early retirement incentive” program pays you a lump sum has been installed. Faculty identified as “research inactive” will be forced to shift from a 2-2 to a 3-3 teaching load (whoa, won’t it be fun determining what “research inactive” actually means!).

One of the more unfortunate decisions that has been made concerns raises: merit pay raises have been frozen for, um, three years. The administration has decided to give out bonus checks in November to the most productive faculty to improve morale (based on the average of last two year’s performance. Notably, unlike salary enhancement, bonus checks are taxed as supplementary pay (%25)—and you don’t always get that back with returns.

Despite intentions, this approach is manifestly terrible for morale. It’s the kind of decision someone who makes six figures believes makes people happy—just like the stimulus check Obama sent when he got to office. It feels like a bone (and not a spirited one). Most folks would much rather just continue the freeze with the hope merit pay may return down the road. My colleagues and I voted to keep our ratings for as many years as it takes until we can turn them into real raises. I’m sure many departments are not doing that. And my worst fear: that this bonus system becomes the reward system, permanently. A friend and colleague says that this kind of crisis opportunity is never reversed in the business world, and insofar as the university is now a corporation, we should not expect things to be different. I hope he is wrong.

Finally, every faculty person I know would give up merit pay to save some staffers. No one, of course, was asked.

Now, I’m not whining—or if I am, it’s not because I think something can be done, or because I think this or that person is at fault. The problem with systemic crises is that the response is usually also systemic. Sure, someone not thinking right came up with this bonus idea, but that idea is also part of corporate culture in a broader context. I imagine for those of you teaching at state colleges and universities, this is all familiar. Every school is addressing the cash-flow problem in various ways, none of which are pleasant. And, in a meeting with the dean this week, there’s not much we can do because we don’t know what the legislature is going to do. Arts and education usually get whacked. Perry is apparently sitting on a major budgetary crisis in an election season, so gosh knows what’s gonna happen. Frankly: I hope the Longhorns do well this fall; the better they play, the better chance we’ll have in education . . . .

fall rush

Fall semester always seems busier than spring semester, much of which has to do with the bang of beginnings and the whimper of the end. It seems like every deadline is in the fall, every demand for service hits the heaviest in the fall, and so on (May, however, is Defense Month). If I ever get some sort of semblance of a sabbatical—some kind of leave, which I really really think would stave off burn-out—it seems to make the most sense to take it in the spring. In spring, there are less demands on one’s time. Well. I am cramming this weekend to make some grant and fellowship deadlines, so I’m thinking ahead. Yes, with a project like mine (NEH review termed it “ghoulish”) I don’t have a chance, but I gotta try just in case by the time I finally finally finish the damn book the “weird” will be normal and I can spend a semester writing the next book . . . .

Ugh. Whatever. Blah. Gotta try and write tonight.

yet even more american home shield blues

Music: Christian Death: Ashes (1985)

Well, the life of the 30-something academic is so exciting!

I admit at one level I feel pathetic continuing to update my adventures with home repair or, as Rob Persig might write, The Art of Air Conditioner Maintenance. On the scale of life’s many pains in the arse, this really does rank low. I know. My grandmother is on her deathbed. Writing about that would be much more relevant to everyone–including me. And I fear that will come. That is important writing.

But sometimes, I feel a kinship with Andy Rooney. Really, I do. We share some issues with eyebrows. And we delight in the art of the frivolous complaint. (Needless to say, I am one of those people who love Andy Rooney. I know most folks find him annoying; I find him incredibly endearing. I’d love to go to a ball game with the guy.)

This week a colleague and I edited essays for a special “forum” section of a journal in my field, I tied-up loose ends on course prep for this week, and had a couple of orientation meetings. While all this was going on, my patience was tested in respect to my air conditioner. Just to be clear: thankfully, the air conditioner is working. We’re having triple digits in Austin, so more than a few people have expressed concerns about my “safety.” No worries folks: it’s chilling. The problem is that it’s chilling a bit too well—so well, in fact, the air handler is sweating water into my guest bathroom ceiling. This is bad for two reasons: (a) it has created water damage; and (b) it encourages mold. I’m fiercely allergic to the latter, so getting this problem resolved is becoming a top priority.

As I’ve already detailed in previous posts, this problem has been going on since late May. Because it makes no good sense to get angry about this, I’ve gone the route of comedy. I’ve discovered, in fact, going with the comedic frame has really been, well, sorta fun. If I only tackled all my irritations in this way—I think I’d sleep better. Anyhoo, for this route, I’ve employed an Olympus “Digital Voice Recorder” and a handy earpiece; I’ve grown quite fond of this little recorder (about the size of a credit card). In the state of Texas, it’s legal to record conversations, telephonic and otherwise, as long as at least “one party” consents. I’ve decided that I constitute that party who consents. And so for the past month I’ve been recording my conversations with AHS, technicians, and customer service representatives. In general, the conversations are not very funny or interesting. It’s the shear volume of them that invites a giggle.

So, (shout out to my bud Gretch), here’s the rest of the story: in May a repairman installed a new air handler to fix the water leak. The air handler, however, was the wrong size. It’s 1.5 tons, while my condenser is 2.0 tons. While one part of the “leak” was fixed (bad fitting), the new air-handler created it’s own water problem—it can’t handle the power of the condenser. The company that installed the wrong size air-handler, Dave’s Heating and Air, refused to come back out to address the problem. AHS called out their lawyers on him, apparently. Dave’s then agreed to come out, however, it’s been a weeks-long headache: they don’t call back, they schedule to come out, and then break the schedule. Here’s how it went:

1. Wednesday, August 18th: Pam from AHS calls to check up on the situation. Dave was supposed to come on Monday the 16th, however, Kayla from Dave’s called on Monday to say he wasn’t going to make the appointment. Here’s her message. I phoned her back and left a message that we rescheduled for Dave to come out on Thursday between 9:00 a.m. and noon. Let me just say that, through this whole ordeal, Pam has rocked.

2. Thursday, August 19th (approx. 2:40 p.m.): Dave was supposed to be out in the morning before noon, but . . . he never showed. I had to be somewhere at 4:00 p.m., so I phoned Dave’s as we neared the 3:00 p.m. hour to inquire. “Kim” answered and reported there was another emergency, and that we needed to reschedule. I reported I’d be home the next day, on Friday, but that I had an appointment at 1:00 p.m., so I’d only be around until 12:30 or so. Kim said Dave would be out before then. Here’s the call.

3. Friday, August 20th (approx. 10:50 a.m.): Dave didn’t show on Friday morning, and I was concerned he wasn’t gonna make it. I told Kim I’d have to split by 12:30, so I assumed Dave would be there before noon—and it was looking like more of the same. Instead of calling Dave’s, I decided to call Pam at AHS to put on the pressure. Here’s the message I left.

4. Friday, August 20th (approx. 11:45 a.m.): Kim from Dave’s phones to tell me Dave is on the way. She said she had me “down” for an appointment between 10 and 1:00 p.m. I reminded her I had an appointment at 1:00 p.m., and would need to leave by 12:30. Here’s the call.

5. Friday, August 20th (approx. noon): Not two seconds after I hang up with Kim, Pam from AHS phones. She reports that she called Dave’s and put on the pressure. She also told me that she was no longer able to help me resolve the issue, and has punted the case up to “executive office” and escalated the case to “our research department.” I tell her that Dave is apparently on the way, and fill her in on the back-story a bit. She says I should expect a call next week from the “research department.” I am sad to see Pam go. She seemed to give a flip. Here’s the call.

5. Friday, August 20th (approx. 12:15): To use a southern idiom, low and behold Dave himself arrives at the door, with only fifteen minutes to spare. I decide to be as nice as I can be, and to probe Dave a bit about his side of the story. Dave says that AHS is the one who ordered the wrong part; it’s very clear that he is passing the blame on to AHS. At first, when he’s inspecting, you’ll hear him trying to figure out how to do as little as possible. He suggests adding a second condensation pan (which is ridiculous). I finally offer to hire a carpenter to open up the ceiling and patch it up. He then agrees that putting in the right size part is the way to go. Here’s the recording.

6. Friday, August 20th (approx. 12:30): Dave leaves. He reiterates he will call AHS to order the correct size handler and have it installed. Now, let me just say this: Dave’s diagnosis is the original diagnosis he gave back in June: we’d have to open up the ceiling and install something that is much larger than the original. He told me the exact same thing the first time he came out. He also said that AHS is the one who ordered the smaller 1.5-ton (that is, wrong size) air handler the first time. While he seems like a nice fellow, I’m not so sure this is AHS’s error. I suspect he is the one who ordered the wrong size in the first place. It will be interesting to see how AHS responds. Thankfully, I now have Dave “on tape” saying that it was AHS who ordered the wrong part. I also have Dave’s customer service reps—Kayla and Kim—distorting the truth on tape. Memory is choosy. Recording, well: recording imprints what was actually said. Here’s Dave’s parting remarks.

it’s synth-pop friday!


even more american home shield blues

Music: Cocteau Twins: Blue Bell Knoll (1988)

Picking up where I last left off, my ever-persistent attempts to have my air conditioner repaired continue in this triple-digit Austin heat. The short version of the story thus far: in June I discovered my upstairs air handler was leaking water into the ceiling, creating water damage. Dave’s Heating and Air was called out by my home warranty company, who replaced the air handler with a new one—but the leaking continued. AHS subsequently called out two additional, different companies, both of whom concluded thusly: the air handler Dave’s installed is 1.5 tons, while my compressor is 2 tons. Consequently, the air handler cannot really “handle” the strength of the compressor’s chilling, and is thus generating condensation like the proverbial sex worker in church. AHS wants Dave’s to address the problem, since they made the mistake. Dave’s, however, doesn’t want to do the job. AHS called their lawyers out, and Dave’s reluctantly agreed to come back out.

Or, at least, that’s what Dave’s was telling AHS.

On last Wednesday (August 11th), my fearless AHS representative “Pam” phoned to tell me that Dave’s agreed to come out and within the week. Of course, Dave’s did not call on Wednesday to make an appointment.

On Thursday, however, I returned from a screening of Inception to discover a business card from Dave’s on my patio, as well as a caller ID indication that they phoned about 6:30 p.m. in the evening.

1. August 13, 2010 (approx. 10 a.m.): On Friday I decided to call Dave’s to inquire about their visit on Thursday evening, when I wasn’t home. I got Kayla again, whom I confess I lost my temper with. I tried to suggest that if they are going to come to my home, they should make sure I’m here and give me due warning. Kayla tried to suggest that she had set up an appointment with me for Thursday—which, of course, was not true (I have, er, all these audio recordings to prove it). I’m not sure if her memory is choosy, or if there’s an attempt at deception here. Either way, our conversation was interesting. It ended with a familiar statement: Kayla will get with Dave and get back with me. Here’s the call.

2. August 13, 2010 (approx. 11:30 a.m.): I called AHS and left a message for Pam after I got off the phone with Kayla. Pam called on her own, however, to follow-up. I reported the phone call I had with Kalya that morning (notably, I misremembered some of the details; isn’t memory choosy in one’s favor?). Pam vowed to contact “contract relations” again and to put pressure on Dave’s to make an appointment. Here’s the call

3. August 14, 2010 (approx. 8:30 p.m.): Kayla phones to let me know Dave can come by on Monday the 16th to diagnose the problem. Here’s the call

4. August 16, 2010 (approx. 3:45 p.m.): Kalya phones to say that Dave is running behind; we reschedule for Thursday morning. Here’s the call

There is a great song for my experience. With a smile:

hollister is (for) the pits!

Music: Neko Case: Middle Cyclone (2009)

Many years ago my friend Mirko and I were in a shopping mall. We walked past an Ambercrombie & Fitch store, dance music blaring from the entrance. I’ve always felt a bit sheepish walking into this kind of store because, well, I’m too old to lurk in this kind of space and, frankly, the clothes have never appealed to me. Nothing is more annoying than having to scream at a check-out clerk because you cannot hear him or her (usually a her) because of the BOOM BOOM BOOM of the store tunes. (I confess I know this because I used to go to A&F once or twice a year to buy a cologne I really liked [“Woods”], which they discontinued). “Look!” said Mirko, pointing to the billboard-size graphic plastered on wall at the store’s entrance. “Maschalingus!” he said.


“Mas-kel-ling-gess,” he replied slowly, with a smirk. “Doncha wanna lick his armpit?” He pointed to the graphic, which depicted a shirtless, toned, hairless, young man with his left arm raised; he has virtually no underarm hair, which is not usual for U.S. men. Women, yes, but not men. Mirko explained that A&F frequently featured men’s arm pits in their ads.

In the years since this pit-sighting, I’ve noticed a preponderance of pits in A&F advertisements—so much so the raised pit seems to be something of a signature for A&F (oh, and the hairless body and relative absence of women). I first became aware of A&F’s advertising ever since a controversy broke over the A&F quarterly catalog (I bought the issue that was forbidden for folks under 18, primarily because Slavoj Zizek wrote the ad copy, but also because of the half-naked people); like Calvin Klein, A&F pushed the envelope by using naked people to ironically advertise their clothes, and I found their approach amusingly queer. I never noticed, however, all the pits. That is, until Mirko pointed it out. And now that I’ve pointed them out to you, you’re going to notice them—like, everywhere.

At a recent wedding I was discussing A&F’s pits with some friends, and more than one seemed surprised. “Really? Arm pits?” So, I thought I’d discourse here a bit about pittage—or rather, what is termed mascahlophilia, the love of armpits. Let me go on record to say that I find this “love” amusing and am not personally prone to being aroused by armpits (usually the opposite), although there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a classic example of the “fetish,” a term usually reserved for shoes or breasts in Western culture. For some reason A&F advertisers have decided the armpit would be their signature advertising fetish—or at least one of them (there’s the whole Aryan controversy to contend with as well, of course).

So why did A&F advertisers choose the armpit? The answer has something to do with the concept of the fetish itself. Papa Freud first theorizes the fetish in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexaulity, in which he examines the strange attraction of a piece of fur as a kind of substitute for childhood memories of the parental crotch (which is hairy and unlike that of the child’s):

The replacement of the object by a fetish is determined by a symbolic connection of thought, of which the person usually is not conscious. . . . No doubt the part played by fur as a fetish owes its origin to an association with the hair of the mons veneris . . . . Symbolism such as this is not always unrelated to sexual experiences in childhood.

Well, of course, there’s plenty room for doubt about some sort of actual memory of mum’s (or dad’s, or whomever’s) crotch. But Freud’s point is that a snatch of “fur” can trigger a memory of such a region in a way that is not conscious. In his book Fetish: An Erotics of Culture, Henry Krips continues:

The function of the fetish is as much that of a screen as a memorial. That is, it stands in the place of that which cannot be remembered directly. It substitutes for that which is and must remain repressed (verdrangt). As such, the fetish is also a site of disavowal (Verleugnung), and specifically of contradiction: we know that fur is not pubic hair, but even so, in a way that is never clearly specified, we know that it is . . . .

And, so, there you have it. Why the armpit? Because, it is both a reminder and a screen from the act of sexual intercourse. The classic (if not tired) reading of A&F’s use of armpits is that it is a classic metonym (metōnymía, “a change of name”). If A&F cannot show a nude crotch, the armpit is a good substitute: it’s culturally regarded as somewhat “dirty,” yet not offensive. It can be shaved to make it appear “clean” and devoid of “fur,” and still, it does the trick of innuendo—just like shoes might do in other contexts. (For example, Carrie Bradshaw has a thing for Manolos in a show titled Sex in the City). If you’re going to market clothing to the Great Teen-Age and you wanna use sex to sell, the last stop on the way to pornography is . . . the armpit.

Needless to say, any google search of “armpit fetish” will turn up countless hyperlinks to websites devoted to mascahlophallation and mascalophilemia. It’s a little noticed undercurrent in our culture, but once that undercurrent is pointed out, you start to notice it is ubiquitous in the advertising world.

The deodorant industry thus takes on a new valence. Of course, smelling someone’s underarm odor is, for most folks, unpleasant (especially in the workplace, and especially if it’s not your own). But sometime in the 20th century visual rhetoric came into the picture, so to speak. The “Dry Idea” brand of deodorant advertised their products under the slogan, “never let them see you sweat,” and commercials began to air in that linked confidence with dry pits. Somehow wet pits have come to signify a lack of self-control—a form of incontenence.

And so, well, there you are. Pitiful bloggin’, I know.

it’s synth-post-punk friday!

publishing: even newer irritations about bailing reviewers

Music: Sunshine (Music From the Motion Picture) (2008)

Since Rosechron has gone serial, I might as well continue the narrative of the manuscript I have in review at the moment. As I detailed in late June, I have had a piece in review for a very long time: at a previous journal, it took a year to get reviews back, but then the editor stepped-down, so I pulled it. At the new outlet, I inquired after thirteen weeks “where we are in the process.” The editorial assistant’s response was unintentionally insulting, which inspired a blog post about the responsibilities of timely blind reviewing.

A few days ago I thought I’d inquire again:

From: Joshua Gunn [slewfoot@mail.utexas.edu]

Sent: Monday, August 09, 2010 12:48 PM

To: Editorial Assistant

Cc: Editor

Subject: RE: Journal Title

Dear ___________,

I submitted my manuscript, “________________” twenty weeks ago
today. I’m writing to ask, again, where we are in the process of
review. You’ll recall I inquired about six weeks ago.



Instead of hearing back from the assistant, however, the editor (whom I cc’d) responded almost immediately with a kind message:

< Date: Mon, 09 Aug 2010 19:17:29 -0400

From: Editor

Subject: Journal Title

To: Joshua Gunn , Editorial

Dear Josh,

I’m so sorry for the delay with your manuscript. One review has been completed. The other referee notified me early in the summer that s/he would be unable to complete the review. As I’m sure you can understand, summer can be a difficult time to secure reviews, and my invitation to review your piece has only recently been accepted by a second referee. I would like your manuscript to benefit from two reviews, and thus I hope that you will be able to wait a while longer.

I appreciate your patience and please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have further questions.



This is exactly how editors should respond to author-queries: it is kind in tone, begins with an apology, and explains the reason for the delay. If only all editors would respond (if at all) to authors in such a professional way, the academic world would be a happier place.

That said, two questions come to mind: (1) why is it that bailing on reviews is such a common practice (at least in my experience), and are these absentees ever punished or called on the carpet for this? and (2) at what point does an editor need to step in an simply make a call?

Of course, I’m hoping Mary is lurking and might offer some perspective here regarding both questions. Regarding both: in my experience bailing reviewers is common. For example, my and Tom’s essay on Fight Club, recently published in the Western Journal of Communication, had two rounds of reviews at a previous journal. At that journal, a reviewer delayed and then bailed in the first round; and then, in the second round yet another reviewer bailed or simply failed to produce a review; it was about eight months. Tom and I pulled the essay. It was our belief that the editor should have simply read the review she had in hand and made the call herself. I’m of the mind, in general, that an editor who cannot make a call after six months—certainly a year—of reviewing is a weak editor.

I don’t quite know why reviewers bail on reviews. Laziness comes to mind most readily, but I suspect unexpected accidents, family issues, and so forth play a big part. When I was at LSU, I had a piece fail to finish the review process because the editor had a “nervous breakdown.” (This happens more than folks think; I can think of two other editors off the cuff who also had breakdowns.)

Perhaps a more generous speculation is that bailing reviewers are concerned about fairness: insofar as my writerly “voice” is recognizable, it could be that after a reviewer gets into the middle of the piece she figures out my identity and decides it’s difficult to pretend blindness and then begs off. I’ve had this happen before myself—even as recently as two weeks ago. I got in the middle of the review and realized I knew the author (who is a cherished friend). The way I handled this situation, however, is perhaps not typical—but it is what I usually do: I completed the review, and then sent it to the editor and said, “I know who the author is, but I think I was fair in my review; I will not be troubled if you decide to seek a replacement for me, however.” My reason for doing this is quite simple: rhetorical studies—well, even communication studies—is a small field. The longer you’re in it, the more likely it is you are going to know the author. This is especially the case, for example, with scholars who rely heavily on, say, Gilles Deleuze in their work. I can think of, maybe, seven or ten people who have the background to make a judgment about Deleuzian theory in “our field.” Same goes for psychoanalysis, Nietzsche, presidential address, and so forth.

Even so, barring these possible reasons, bailing on reviewing an essay you agreed to review is much worse than being late. In general, I think there should be a stigma to it. I think editors should keep lists of such people, and then pass these lists on to succeeding editors. I think reviewers who bail on reviewing manuscripts should be talked about at conferences so that their reputation is suitably besmirched. In my view, bailing reviewers are just as bad as those professors you have had who never return term papers to students. (On that score, I’ll admit I’m very slow—but my students do eventually get their papers back). In a word—and bracketing for the moment the above reasons—bailing on a review is shameful.

more american homeshield blues

Music: I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness: Fear Is On Our Side

I’ve been proofing and editing essays all day; fortunately this task can be completed while I wait on hold with the speakerphone, so I resumed my attempts to get American Home Shield (and affiliated companies) to repair my sweating upstairs air conditioner. As the back story demonstrates, the original repair call was made in June.

As an aside, I realize much of this chronicle is not “ha-ha” funny. I think, however, the shear cumulative effect of all the phone calls—the hours upon hours spent on hold and talking to representatives and technicians and so forth—is nothing short of comedy. It may veer into the absurd. Let’s wait and see!

One more aside: when making these phone calls, I did try to follow two rules: (1) I will not lose my temper and will strive to be as nice as I can be; and (2) I will try to keep the person on the phone as long as I possibly can. These folks have put me through, I estimate, about a week combined of phone work and waiting (for technicians, etc.); why not return the favor?

In the last installment of this bluesy yarn of meh telephonic tenacity, I had phoned AHS last Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to inquire about who would be coming out to repair my AC. I was previously told via email on July 26th it would be Dave’s Heating and Air (that’s their logo to the left), the company that originally diagnosed the problem as a decrepit air handler, and which they replaced. Every call last week resulted in the same response from the AHS customer service representative: “Dave’s Heating and Air will be calling you to set-up an appointment.” Last Friday I was even told by AHS that “Kayla from Dave’s is going to call you right now!” It’s clear that Dave’s AC is stalling and lying to AHS.

I decided to wait a few days before I tried my stealthy telephonic approach to this debacle this week. Today I scanned through my old caller ID numbers, as I remembered Dave had called me from his “on the road” cell phone a couple of times. When I was having trouble getting his company to call me back, I even phoned on July 5th (a holiday for many), and he sounded a little irritated. So, here’s where it all started today (requires Windows Media Player):

1. August 11, 2010 (approximately 10:00 a.m.): I phone Dave. Here’s the call. Apparently Dave has discontinued this cell number. I wonder if it was because of my calling him when his office didn’t call me back on the last couple of repairs ?

2. August 11, 2010 (approximately 10:30 a.m.): After coming to the conclusion that I was not misdialing, I looked up and phoned Dave’s AC. Kayla answered. When I repeatedly asked why she has not called back, I was put on hold. Here’s the call.

I’m trying to restrain my self from commenting on the calls, as they sort of speak for themselves, but this is one of the more amusing conversations. First, Kayla says the woman I should talk to “just left the room” and I could hold or she could call me back. When I decide to press her, I’m put on hold again and the automatic recording begins, “whatever it takes, we’re dedicated to providing excellent service . . . .” There’s even a moment when she picks up from hold and then decides she’s not ready and puts me back on hold. Evasive? Nahhhh.

3. August 11, 2010 (approximately 11:00 a.m.): Kayla at Dave’s said that she would have to call me back, as she needed to speak with Dave first about the situation. She said Dave and AHS were in discussions and she didn’t know what to tell me. So, I decided to work the other end and call AHS. I got a great customer service representative this time—perhaps the most helpful to date. Her name is Pam. Here’s the call.

4. August 11, 2010 (1:35 p.m.): Pam phoned my cell phone (which I never answer) and left a message. Apparently she contacted the “contract department” (doublespeak for lawyer-based unit) who contacted Dave, who in turn promised to come out and re-inspect the unit for diagnosis. Here’s the message.

Well, friends. We shall see. We. Shall. See.