Too Cool for Internet Explorer

on discerning a field

March 31st, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Phillip Boa & the Voodoo Club: God (1994)

Over on The Blogora I have already posted the entry that follows. Please go on over there to make a comment to help encourage discussion. You can comment here, however, for a more “private” audience, I reckon. Comments here will be seen by about 15-50 people (I never understand why some posts spike and others don’t). Comments over there will be read by potentially hundreds.

Here goes (again):

Rhetorical studies in the United States developed from an “innate bisexuality,” as Freud might say, but with nods to Judy Butler, not before the law. The law is, “rhetoric is not that!” or as Robert L. Scott might say, “in the beginning was the error!” With its drives focused on the erogenous zones of English and Speech, rhetorical studies has been an interesting partial object to say the least.

Alternately stated, I discern a parallel between bisexuality and rhetorical studies because of the often-irrational anxieties folks in the field have about its imminent demise (elsewhere I’ve described this as apocalyptic, but we’ve been reading Butler in class so my mind is on identity politics). There’s no mistake in noting our academic attractions aim in different directions; and there’s no question many would have us “choose” only one. Put yet another way: rhetorical studies has always been interdisciplinary, and it’s only becoming more so. In fact, the Rhetorical Society of America is attractive to many of us because it provides a kind of umbrella (what the Alliance of Rhetorical Societies did) and exposes us to the very different ways those who identify as “rhetoricians” pursue teaching and scholarship. And for a number of us who attend NCA or the 4C’s, increasingly RSA is feeling more like “home.”

Nevertheless, I constellate two events this week that point up the anxieties of rhetoric’s “innate bisexuality.” First, a faculty meeting. Early this week the governing faculty met to discuss our department’s publication standards. We discussed how NCA journals were no longer the appropriate “center” and that journals like RSQ or Communication Review should count as prestigious venues, not just The Quarterly Journal of Speech. We decided that we would try something different: faculty will now submit a three-year plan of their publication and teaching goals. Part of this plan will include a discussion of what venues a faculty person plans to publish in, and an explanation for why the venue is appropriate. We all agreed our larger field (communication studies) was becoming so interdisciplinary that such a document would be helpful for the senior faculty making judgments on annual reports and merit pay.

Second, a job market-related controversy. After class yesterday, some graduate students asked me if I had seen “he hubbub on the communication-rhetoric job wiki.” I said no, whereupon a student explained there was some upset concerning Northwestern’s recent hires (two folks) for a single rhetorical studies position. When it was announced NWU hired Jasmine Cobb and C. Riley Snorton, a person posted the following anonymously:

As an NU alum, I am impressed with the accomplishments of these hires, and I have no doubt that they will be successful in their fields–too bad their fields are not rhetoric. I can say, too, as someone who will be chairing rhetoric search committees in the next few years, I will no longer consider NU PhDs.


Another anonymous person followed-up with this:

(I second the poster above in praise but also concern. There seems to be a growing trend where “rhetoric” programs are not hiring “rhetoric”-trained faculty. While interdisciplinary is a good thing, I find this disconcerting for the rhetorical tradition, which might be falling to the wayside…)

Robert Harriman, chair of the department of Communication Studies, responded to these comments by noting he was “stunned by the apparent ignorance and complete lack of professionalism” of the anonymous alum. Hariman said he was willing to have an “open, candid, and serious” discussion of the NWU program as well as the “prospects for rhetoric in the 21st century.” Perhaps this venue can provide such a space?

Now, here’s the issue for me: both criticisms of the recent hires at NWU are warranted by the belief that there is something stable called “rhetoric,” that there is some standardized curriculum in rhetorical studies, or that there is a consensus about its methods or objects. There is a failure here to reckon with rhetorical studies’ “innate bisexuality,” its rootedness in multiple institutional histories and it’s ever-debated status as “big” or “small” or “global” or what have you. There is no clear or discernable “rhetorical studies” other than its institutional histories.

I wish every graduate student working in the areas of speech-side rhetoric were made to read and study Pat Gehrke and Bill Keith’s books on the history of rhetorical studies in communication. These institutional histories quickly dispel (like, in chapter one for each) any sense of conceptual continuity or intellectual “tradition” in “the field.” I welcome my colleagues on the English side to recommend institutional histories for me to catch-up on, too. I’d like to know the story from my other side!

I consider my own work under the rubric of “rhetorical studies,” however, I have a fat file folder full of manuscript reviews that say, “this is not rhetoric” or “this is not communication studies!” An especially nasty, recent attack on my scholarship asserts that my approach to theory and method is to blame for a contemporary incoherence in “the field,” but, again, I would say any cursory understanding of the history of our fields would reveal, like turtles, it’s incoherence all the way down.

I applaud my department here at the University of Texas for thinking about changing its evaluation methods for publication. What this signals is a recognition that communication studies (and by extension, rhetorical studies) is protean, dynamic, and ever changing, and one might say fiendishly adaptive; our service courses, in fact, encourage us to be this way.

Our interdisciplinarity may have been a liability in the 20th century (for explaining what we do to deans, etc.), but this quality of our field is emerging as a real asset in the postmodern and corporatized university. It seems to me the ceaseless yearning for a rhetorical studies that is, well, “straightened out,” not only ignores our fundamental queerness as a field, but would closet that asset of intellectual dexterity we have learned to wield so well.

What do you think?

on flying from fargo

March 27th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (2011)

It’s something about the eyes and the intensity of contact. Not windows, but indexes. Of neurons, serotonin . . . dopamine. A missing clutch, as Laura would say.

Some weeks ago I walked into the front office at school and this kid, barely eighteen, maybe, this kid tells me his film just got into some sort of festival, but he can’t go because he’s heading for the valley.

“The valley?”

“Yeah man,” he says. “you know, prison.”

“Well, good for you!” I toss in a fake laugh so he knows that I’m kidding, grab my documents from the main printer, and head back to my office just around the corner. I was thinking about class and Foucault (and how I enjoyed reading Foucault, although folks don’t tend to think so) and was in the mode of rush—mean, mean stride—so it didn’t occur to me something was amiss. He smelled of days-old sweat.

But he was wearing shoes.

I realized that not all of my notes printed, and so I tried again. When I entered the office there he was again, asking something of one of the office staff. I thought to myself this was one of their son’s friends. Tall (-ish) and lanky, wearing jeans and a green t-shirt, tight tight t-shirt, cropped hair, the smell of days-old sweat.

The smell of days-old sweat. Everyone has her thing; this is not one of mine. I remember thinking that, and I don’t have a good sense of smell.

I have to interrupt his conversation with the office staff to get my (hopefully complete) document, freshly printed beyond them; the only way was through. She catches my glace and her eyes widen larger than seems humanly possible, eyebrows are arched toward the “trouble” furrow in her brow, and then I realized the issue.

“Hey, are you are professor here?” the kid asks. He’s oddly charming. More odd than charming.

“Sometimes,” I said, in full knowledge I was rescuing my front-office colleague from an uncomfortable something. What was that something, exactly? “Mostly I just pretend.”

“How do you swing sexually?” he asks abruptly. And there it is: the eyes. I looked there. I looked there and I normally do not with strangers, in general, except to signal serious intent to know. But I had to look. I had to—that sweat smell of laundry, but with a body in it. His eyes were big, but not as wide as those of my worried colleagues (the other office executive glanced over too, no blinking), but his were still wider than normal. Green. A dark, forest green trending toward brown; the globes twitch nervously when the iris is clearly locked. Uncomfortably locked. The eyes almost appear to spin, like pinwheels, flashback to Jungle Book, but I don’t trust. Eyes like a hypnogogic with such a pressure or focus or intensity or whatever that I can imagine he is often successful in getting those of us who are not “on the same level” to engage him. My first thought is that he is stoned.

“I’m sorry, I think I misheard your question.”

“Can I come talk to you in your office?” He looks friendly and desperate. Days-old sweat. No, he’s not stoned. He is lost in the matrix. I’ve seen the look before, sadly in eyes of, um, in the eyes of “exotic dancers.” But he doesn’t want money. It’s love. And the more you think about it, money is love for some people. Hell, it’s apparently “speech” for the Supremes (Aune’s affectionate term for the justices of the Supreme Court)

“I’m sorry buddy”—he did look friendly—“but I’m actually on my way to class.”

.

I looked up further up and to the left, an escape from those wild, deep green lasers, and there is my chair, white wisps of hair almost to his shoulders, deceptively tall (he’s much taller than one tends to remember), bewhiskered and saying in his peculiar, un-rejoined drawl: “Can I help you?”

I was late for class. I reasoned my chair has it under control, and as much as I wanted to see this little drama unfold, I tend to cleave to my responsibilities first, like a boy scout. (I am an Eagle Scout, and I do try to do a good turn daily).

Later that day, my colleague emailed to report the “crazy kid” had two warrants for his arrest and was apprehended in the hallway. He was then found again in the adjoining building the next day, and arrested again for trespassing.

“Poor kid,” as said to her when I was in the office again later that week. “I hope he gets help; there’s a charmer underneath that haze.”

“Er, I don’t know,” she says, rolling her eyes.

______________________

Some weeks ago I was on a second date that didn’t lead to a third one. Cute. But that stare was unnerving; dark brown eyes. They didn’t twitch like the “crazy kid,” they just seemed inappropriately lingering. Not that there are hard-and-fast rules or anything, but three seconds of contact is usually enough to make it clear you intend to flirt. If it’s four seconds, you both better be buzzed or something, because we’re in the American Creep-out zone. Five seconds is enough to concern. He was a five-seconder, maybe longer. It was disconcerting until he diagnosed himself as an “Aspie.” I had to Google the term later, and once I did I felt a softness for him after the online education. But it was too late.

_____________

In the Fargo airport they finally called for “all rows,” so I got to . . . stand in line. Lines from the north and south were forming, and so, like merging on the highway in Minnesota on-ramps, I thought it would be polite to alternate people from each side. When it was my turn, however, I broke the emergent norm and let the elderly lady across from me go first. “Thank you so much,” she said in a higher-than-expected but still gravely voice. She was a tall, thin woman who had died her long hair an orangey-blonde, which she had sort-of wrapped up like a used towel on top with hair bands. She acted strangely, almost as if she was drunk. I don’t think she was drunk, but she definitely had some issues with balance.

Given the turbulence that greeted us on the way to the ceiling, I should have been drunk.

She was dressed strangely. I reasoned she was in her late sixties, because of her face and taste in bauble-like silver jewelry (her wedding ring—if it was that—was monstrous and flashy, like a Ring Pop, except it looked like a cave formation). She had poured herself into very tight blue jeans—her legs were like long pencils wrapped tightly in faded blue—and was wearing the kind of shirt a late night musician would wear, with rhinestones and flash. Her face was excessively wrinkled and leathery (a former smoker, probably). She had two, overstuffed, yellow-ish canvas bags with Native American art on the sides (a buffalo, some recognizable Sioux-style designs), and as I followed her down the ramp connector little bits of paper kept falling out of the bags, receipts, an itinerary, gum wrappers. I picked them up with the intention of giving them to her when we got on the plane (I forgot to). Instead of heading toward the plane at the end of the connector the she turned right, where the oversized carry-ons were collected.

“Wrong way lady,” screamed a guy in a fluorescent vest with ear muffs on. “The plane is over there,” he said, pointing to an empty and welcoming cabin door, a much better alternative to the 15 foot plummet that waited on the other side.

“Oh,” she said, and hobbled onto the plane. As she navigated this newfound complexity I noticed a black stick jutting out on the side of the plane. “DO NOT WALK,” read a sticker of above the stick. “Heated Probe.” I wondered what that thing was, and even considered asking. But I was interrupted by the continued dramas of Elder Orphan Annie. As she entered the silver pill she dropped her ticket and seat assignment, which a steward fetched and returned to her. “You’re in 5B,” said the steward, pointing to the exact seat about five feet in front of her. I was not pleased. This was a puddle-jumper, and I was in 5A.

She stopped to stow one of her two bags in the “overhead compartment,” the contents miraculously not tumbling out as I—and now everyone in eyeshot–had expected. To my dismay, she planted herself in my seat and started to make a phone call.

“I’m sorry M’am, you’re in my seat. You have the window,” I said. She gave a cheerful laugh. “Well,” she said, still laughing for breathing, “a girl can try, can’t she?” She moved over to her seat. Her eyes searched rapidly for contact. I give them some. They were blue. Pale blue, like the song, but I didn’t want to linger.

“You bet!” I said. “But I’m a big boy and you’ll be more comfortable if I’m right here, where I can ooze out into the aisle.” She moved over, jerkily hoisting her jangle over the armrest without touching those long legs on the floor.

“Do you fly a lot?” she asked as I settled in.

“Yeah, unfortunately. About five or ten times a year. Two years ago I think I had like thirteen trips in one year. It’s exhausting.”

“Well, I had a limo and sold it. I used to drive everywhere. So now I have to fly. I told her, ‘I’m flyin’ now.’ I’m a great grandmother. Can you believe it?”

“Oh wow,” I said. “You don’t look a day over fabulous,” I said, stealing a line from Steven Tyler on American Idol from last week.

“Aren’t you sweet,” she said. “Thank you. I have to fly now though, I’m not really used to it.”

I didn’t quite understand what she meant by the limo, and nonverbals didn’t help. Was she a famous person and I didn’t know it? Surely not. I bet she used to drive a limo or something; she didn’t act “flashy” like people with money do—especially working class and poor folks who come into money later in life. I tended to my iPhone. There wasn’t any email to read or friends to “text,” but it was a place to put my eyes.

As we waited I touched this and that app, settling finally on Bedazzled. I mean “Bejeweled.” I dunno why I always think the game is “Bedazzled.” The woman rummaged through the remaining bag half under-the-seat, rummaging and rummaging with her elbow coming over into my zone repeatedly. The portly flight attendant with stylish glasses (the 50s are back, must be Mad Men) glared over. I saw in the what-ever-it-is haze zone of the periphery something plopped to the phone.

I mean plopped to the floor.

Seconds pass.

“I’m sorry, sir, I dropped my phone somewhere. Do you see it?”

I looked on the floor and it was directly under her right foot.

“It’s under your right foot. I’ll get it.”

I fetched the phone and thought of Matt Sorensen’s grandmother. On the way to Fargo I watched a couple of season-three episodes of Friday Night Lights. Matt Sorensen, the quarterback of the Panthers, had just filed court papers to become an “emancipated minor” so that he could legally become the guardian of his grandmother, who was suffering from dementia. Memory of watching that show was still fresh, and the likeness was there, in the seat next to me, but younger, and I thought about having to take care of this woman for the rest of her or my life. I handed her the phone and smiled.

“Thank you. You’re being so nice to me. I really appreciate that,” she said. I moved back to my game of Bejeweled, which is not as much fun with the sound turned off. No “ka-ching!” noises when you line up three or more jewels. My new companion had lots of bangles on, perhaps I could have asked her to shake her fists every time I scored? An internal joke, of course. Talking to her—Annie, I’ve decided—talking to Annie risked the vaginal ear and that penetrating life story. I’m not adverse to that; I often enjoy it. But not today. I’m not sure Annie would make any sense. Today I wanted to access my inner isolationist; faculty meeting tomorrow, then vetting, then letter writing, then class prep. It would be nice to be Bejeweled for a while. To get to level ten. I have not achieved level ten. I have advanced degrees, in the academy and in Freemasonry. But I cannot discern the inner-algorithm of Bejeweled’s tenth level.

We were instructed to turn off our gadgets, as the cabin door was closed. This was when Annie decided to make a phone call to “Hildie.” I couldn’t tell who Hildie was, but they were both concerned about a third woman who doesn’t call them back. And Annie complained of missing calls all the time, even when she was in the same room with the phone right next to her. I have this problem too. Even with the ring tone set on its highest setting and vibration set to “on,” I’m more likely to miss a call than answer one. I suppose I could carry my phone in my coat pocket, or in my breast pocket, but my mother told me “they say” not to do that. Cancer.

Annie talked to Hildie—loudly, and we were in row five, no first class—she talked to Hildie right through take off. The attendant was oblivious, but I think two rows fore and aft were not, as neighboring passengers were gazing. I could feel it. I wondered if I should tell Annie to hang-up. I started to think she had not been on a plane before. All signs pointed to “yes.” Thankfully, as the plane was still climbing, she told Hildie she loved her and hung up.

At cruising altitude, at that blissful “dong” that alerted our attendants we were almost free to move about the cabin, I donned my headphones, iTunes my way to the new Low album C’mon, and checked out and into the final pages of Charles Burns’ Black Hole.

Minutes pass, I see a cart coming, and Annie is now bespectacled in shades and hunched over in her lap, readying for sleep. Tray down, diet coke settled into its sticky grey, plastic depression, Annie goes deeper. She is hunched over, and with each breath she seems to sink deeper and deeper, swerving closer and closer, slumping, slumping. Then slump; her left shoulder and head are in my space. I see her roots. She is, in a phrase, sleeping on me.

I can no longer concentrate on my reading. My new companion as, however unwittingly, cozyed up. I anticipated her arm reaching up to clutch my right shoulder. It was unnerving. I thought about norms of personal space and how they differed in different countries around the world. I looked behind me, to the passengers to my left. No one noticed the thin, elderly woman hunched and heaved to my side. I wondered if the attendant thought if she was my mother or grandmother; if someone had seen us, they would have thought we were together or friends or family. Sleep is a thing of intimacy and the lonely on airplanes.

I sat up more rigidly, in part for my own comfort, in part to see if she would wake up. I wanted my space back. She responded, awaking just a bit to move back into her seated zone.

This sleeperly intimacy continued for the entire flight. During those two hours, I alternated from annoyance to paternity to an intellectualization of the situation that veered toward romanticization. I had never had a stranger share her sleeping with me—on me. During the flight, I thought about what Michael Warner calls “stranger sociability.” And I have been reading Diane Davis’ book, Inessential Solidarity, which draws heavily from Levinas. Levinas theorized something he called, confusingly, “face.” I won’t go into the details, but these thinkers have been thinking through interpersonal intimacies, a primary relationality that comes before meaning and speech and representation. I think I was feeling what they were talking about, in a way, that this stranger was claiming a “non-appropriative relation,” or something like that, and that my annoyance was languaging getting in the way. Fragility became something like an affective theme for the flight. About half-way into the flight, Annie’s head was on my arm, and I could see how meticulously her hair was colored, that there was a root “touch up” recently, and I almost managed to wrestle through the annoyance of violation to acceptance. Almost. But I’m writing about, ain’t I?

Back to reading Black Hole, Annie practically nestled over there, in 5B, I realized the conundrum and the insight. The conundrum was that my script for feeling through it was just that, a script: either Annie was an annoyance and incapable of observing the tacit norms of travel culture, or she was a frail old woman whom I needed to embrace and take care of. A little or minor violence either way you feel it. The insight was the problem of the rule. I wanted to cut though it, to just be with this stranger and tell her it was going to be okay.

Or to get offa me.

Benjamin was right about how film made visible the unconscious optics of daily life. Writing with light may very well be the closet homologue to cognition, which may be why it has taken over our languaging of memory. Freud was determined to return the dream image to speech; rationality was at stake, in the way Kant fought with those damn Neoplatonists.

I remember watching Lost in Translation during a transatlantic flight from Berlin. I wept. And I didn’t let myself fall asleep, because I didn’t want my tendency to snore when I am exhausted to disturb the strangers around me, flying and suspended in all sorts of ways.

_______________

It was only a brief moment, but the sky was wicked blue, the kind of blue that activates a fierce lust for spring and green and dusting the house (finally) and outside adventures. And camping. Yes. I am going camping in just one week! And maybe some barbeque. Ok. Definitely barbeque. Then a cigar. Outside. With a bourbon spot. And a cigar. And live music. Live and free. And I had already had a bourbon, so the warm fuzz was descending, a sign of the first buzz in a while, the kind in which reminds you, “hey, this is nice. I like this.” The kind that makes you sit there for five hours and just fall in love with the ones you are with, because, you know, you can’t be . . . .

I thought maybe, perhaps, sitting there and happy and blue wild charging in the sky-blue periphery, I thought there was the hint of a gaze. Three seconds? I don’t know. It’s not in my gaze, it’s from no-where unless I shift to study it. But it’s not the kind you can return, or meet, or worse catch. I can’t return or meet or catch this gaze. There are rules. Rules man. I have rules. Rules are a problem, they have been my problem. But I know other people with rules, and they think similarly, and so my rules are not bad rules, but rules with company.

Still, it’s the kind of gaze you sense, because there are things you see but cannot, you know, represent. Like when you get hit in the back of the head with a shoe at an outdoor concert—you knew it was coming, but you only recognize you knew it was coming after it came. Tuche and automaton; rarely tuche: “Oh yeah, the shoe,” you say. “That Michael Jordon high top. I didn’t think they made those anymore, but this one was brand new. And it was meant to hit the back of my head.”

In the end, though, I have too much freetime on my hands (how did this happen? Oh, right—a plane). I think my hope is getting ahead of me. I wish the gaze I sensed was real, and not just, you know, what I wished. I’m both glad and at the same time embarrassed to be writing and sharing this, because my wishing is so deeply cliché, I mean, down in it, pretty hate machine style, like in the movies or television shows when a sex-starved character attacks a boy she has been crushing on megabomb and tears off his clothes, and then the spectator realizes, with the magic of clever editing, it was just a fantasy and there she is in the hallway with those awful, should-be-banned institutional fluorescents and the jock mockingly says to her, “what’s up Heather Locklear?” and walks past her with a thoroughly undeserved arrogance.

I bet in five years we learn that fluorescent lights cause cancer. You just wager.

Not that my fancied gazer would be so cruel; thank god we’re no longer in high school (I have just read Black Hole on the flight in, and let me say it was just so very brilliant, capturing high school in a way I’ve yet seen done, so accurate of feeling but bizarre in story). Not that he or she (I can’t tell you this time) could even do that, with a sky that wicked blue and the vibe so fuzzed. But at some point there was a touch and wondering about its innocence I tossed a glance just to see, just to see if it was met and there it was and it was . . . one, two . . . three seconds. There. I did it. But how long was his/her stare before I met it and then chickened out? And what’s the difference, really, between that gaze I so desire and the one that that tells me of a different or perverted or syndrome-driven intensity altogether?

I suppose it is the difference between a stranger and a familiar.

And days-old sweat. And the lock and twitch.

I realize the importance of contact, but I’ve been noticing myself not making it—a lot. I don’t think I am a shy person, but there’s something very true about seeing-relations. I haven’t thought about Satrre’s riff on this in Being and Nothingness for years, but now that I have I remember even as a college senior Sartre’s rumination on “the look” really made an impact; I think for weeks after I just stared at people to see what they would do. I didn’t encounter Lacan’s versions until I was in graduate school, but Lacan is not so much concerned with “the eye,” but rather, the split between that thing and “the gaze”—not even the gaze of eye, right? But I’m talking about the eye, literally. The eye of another person. I rarely realize I am gazing, or have met one, until long after it’s over (or I don’t notice it at all). But lately I’ve been hypersensitive to gazes. I don’t know why, exactly, except meeting these strangers, even the ones I want for myself, you know, the ones I want to feed and bathe and take care of.

Possession and control can be a troublesome sort of violence. That’s the problem, on both sides. The problem of “giving in.”

William—Bill, whatever—it was really nothing. Really. And John, I’m only dancing.

________________________

“I haven’t been assigned a seat yet,” I said to the agent. She had a new hair cut, a black bob, and she knew she looked good. Ruby lipstick. Brown eyes. She looked at you normally, or at least in a way I am accustomed to. “Your hair is lovely.”

“Why thank you! Let me see, I’m not sure if I can assign seats yet.”

“I’m feeling very exit-rowy.” Big smile.

“Mr. Gunn, you’ve already been assigned a seat—11B.”

“Is that a window or an aisle?”

“That’s a window.”

“Err, could I possibly trouble you for an aisle seat?

“Yes you may!” She squinted at a screen I couldn’t see. “Yes, I have an aisle seat in an exit row. Will you be able to assist in opening the exit in the event of an emergency?”

“Yes m’am. Absolutely. I’m very thankful!”

“You are welcome, Mr. Gunn. Thanks for flying United.”

I decided, since I have all this room, I might actually use my laptop on the airplane. I have the biggest MacBook Pro Apple makes, and it’s unfortunately too big to open on most airplanes—let alone type. Yet, in 12C I can open my computer and type on it. The only thing missing, I suppose, is a Wi-Fi connection, but you know what they say about beggars: the other chooses you.

whatever, I guess

March 23rd, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Rosetta Stone: Foundation Stones (1993)

I’m never wont for something to say—or wanting to say something; tonight is no exception. It’s just that I’m tired, and wanting something to say and having the focus to say it—to belly up to the responsibility of focus—sometimes doesn’t line-up. That sayerly asymmetry produces, at times, some fairly interesting insights, or some naked feelings around or about the edges of words (or tired, slippery fingering about the presumably poetic, which I worry is more likely the pretentious display). I’ve noticed lately my time alone with a screen has diminished, which means I’m busier than I was in the past, and so I thought tonight I would set aside some time—after laundering and packing—to blog about things I’ve been working on (a talk on Jeremiah Wright’s rhetoric), or today’s seminar (about Judith Butler), or the state of educational politics in Texas. And I have a lot to say about those things. But sitting down I just think: I want to smoke a pipe of black cavandish and surf the Tubes and read my friend’s blogs before I hit the sack.

Put simply: I feel guilt for not blogging more in recent months.

It’s as if I’m letting my reflective self down. I don’t have a large audience here, I know. I mostly have been blogging these here thirteen years or so for myself; the narcissistic echo-chamber of blogging is well acknowledged. Still, I’ve been going at this steadily for so long—on average two posts a week—that my drop off in bloggish productivity is starting to wear on my sense of connectedness. I started blogging in 1998 on Livejournal, and this blog debuted in 2002 upon my move to Louisiana (the name of the blog is derived from a confederate soldier’s recipe for mint julips). Not writing for the anonymous audience enough seems like I’m letting myself down in some weird way.

I’m not sure how to explain the feeling, except that I’ve said a whole lotta nothin’ in its honor just now.

It’s true I have less time to do this than I did before. But it’s also true that I’m more keenly aware of the ways in which bald expression has consequences that I cannot predict. The democratization of expression (mostly because of Intertube technology) yields access at the same moment that it makes it possible to be policed. I’m thinking my busy-ness is not the only reason why blogging has shrinked. Some part of me has solidified the censor–odious censor, but the sentry is there. And I cannot keep pace with my past energies; I’m getting slower, in thinking and in doing.

It’s age, yes (gack! 38!). But it’s also a growing sense of emotional equity, of wanting to talk with you instead of at you. That is to say, as I want to get away from “me” and move toward “you”; I have much less of a compulsion to say this here.

That means I’m increasingly tired, but also increasingly less pissed-off. I hope that also means that I’m not resigned, just better connected.

cruising for librarians

March 19th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: The Townhouses: Backyard (2012)

Another teaser from my public speaking textbook in progress. This is a tickle from the chapter on researching your speech.

In 2008 and 2009, President Obama’s administration launched a number of rather large policies designed to reform the health care system. Because the policy changes in Obama’s health care bill were so numerous and complicated, his administration encouraged federal congresspersons to sponsor “town hall meetings” in which their constituents at home could discuss the proposed changes and ask questions. At one such meeting in Dartmouth, Masschussetts, congressman Barney Frank was confronted by a woman who argued that health care reform was akin to Adolf Hitler’s Aktion T4 program, which authorized euthanasia for the “incurably sick.” In a manner of speaking, Frank’s response to her is a reason for reading this chapter:

WOMAN: I think the administration is missing something in these town hall meetings, which is that it’s not just one group. The economy is collapsing. We have 30 percent real unemployment. Forty-eight states cannot balance their budgets. And they are cutting programs to the bone. This is the context under which the Obama administration has said we need health care reform.

(Applause) I’m not done. The reason why is because [sic] they say we need to limit Medicare expenditures in order to do that, in order to reduce the deficit. That’s the origin of this policy. This is the T4 policy of the Hitler, of a Hitler policy in 1939, where he said certain lives are not worth living. Certain people we should not spend the money to keep them alive . . . . So my question to you is why do you still support this Nazi policy? Why are you supporting it? [We need] a real solution?

CONGRESSMAN BARNEY FRANK: I will, when you ask me that question I am gonna to revert to my ethnic heritage, and answer your question with a question: On what planet do you spend most of your time? You want me to answer your question?

WOMAN: Yes.

FRANK: You stand there with a picture of the president defaced to look like Hitler, and compare the effort to increase health care to the Nazis. My answer to you is, as I said before, it is a tribute to the first amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated. M’am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it.

Frank’s somewhat humorous response to the woman was perhaps not politically savvy, because in general politicians should not appear frustrated in public; moreover, the video ended up circulating on the Intertubes for months (an important issue for public speakers that we’ll take up later in the book). Even so, Frank’s frustration illustrates the profound need for research in public speaking: nothing that the woman claimed was actually true. Frank was verbally frank in responding to her, and the woman was also booed and heckled by the audience assembled in the room. Why? Even though her brief, impromptu speech was articulate, her claims were too shocking to take seriously. She offered no evidence to support her claim that Obama’s health care reform ideas were inspired by Nazi policies.

This chapter is about how to go about researching your speech. It is also, however, about more than how, but also addresses the question why? Why does a speech need to be researched to begin with? Not all speeches do, of course (such as a toast at a family gathering, for example). But for speeches in which you are making factual claims or judgments, it is important to make sure what you argue is based on truth, your you may appear crazy. In most instances of speaking publically, appearing crazy is not what you want!

TRUTH FAILURES IN POSTMODERNITY

Before we look at the resources available to you for researching your speech, we should take a moment to think about why research is important. Pragmatically, speeches are more credible when they appear to have been researched or seem based on evidence from reliable sources. For example, it was later revealed that the crazy woman with which this chapter opened was a follower of Lyndon LaRouche, a life-long conspiracy theorist who is holds strange political views based on fabricated evidence—hardly a credible source.

Ethically, however, researching one’s speech is also a standard cultural expectation based on trust. Think about it: when a stranger is speaking, do you automatically regard what she says with suspicion, or do you listen with the presumption that what she says she believes to be true? Of course, there are always exceptions, but most of us tend to give new speakers we encounter with the “benefit of the doubt”—we’ll hear ’em out, so to speak. All of this is to say that the default setting of public speaking is that one speaks the truth.

“Truth,” of course, is a vexed word and introduces a complexity to public speaking most folks don’t normally consider. The question “what is truth?” sounds like something a philosopher would ask, but if you think about it, we all tend to assume an answer at some level of our consciousness. Whether you believe in absolute, capital-T “Truth!” or relativism, the fact remains that to get on with your day-to-day living you must assume, for example, that it is true your vehicle needs gas, or that if you don’t eat something you may get sleepy, or if you bathe you will start to stink.

The basic assumptions that we make about the truth-telling of speakers is clearly illustrated, again, with the Obama health care reforms of 2009: similar to the crazy woman’s claim about Aktion T4, a rumor began in political discourse that the reforms included the formation of “death panels,” staffed by federally appointed medical personnel, who would make decisions about the life or death of sick people. Political figure Sarah Palin made speeches in which she warned the public about these death panels, and Iowa Senator Charles E. Grassley also spoke publically about the menace of federal euthanasia programs. The fact remains, however, that there was no proposed legislation for setting up “death panels” in the reform policies proposed. This means, consequently, that hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of U.S. citizens were potentially misled, and precisely because we tend to assume our public speakers have “done their homework.” In our postmodern times, unfortunately, many public figures—sometimes deliberately but often unwittingly—don’t do their research and end up spreading untruths.

It should be mentioned, finally, that the character of our mass-mediated environment seems to almost encourage the communication of untruth, confusing opinion and fact. Think about this: how many times have you heard someone say the phrases, “well, that’s just my opinion” or “you’re entitled to your opinion?” Chances are these are familiar phrases, and they have something to do with the incredible, democratizing effects newer media technologies, such social networking and . . . .

it’s synth-pop friday (for me, at least–not in bed yet!)

March 19th, 2011 by slewfoot

on bullying

March 14th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Radiohead: The King of the Limbs (2011)

Thursday the Obamae hosted a conference on anti-bullying at the White House to bring national attention to a problem that is perceived to be escalating in youth culture. Every major national news outlet—networks and cable stations—devoted time to reporting the conference. The central message underscored by Obama in a highlighted address, and echoed by newscasters to screens in homes suitably tuned, was that bullying is no longer a “rite of passage” for young people. Most folks reading the Rosechron were smart kids in school, and most of us know that, in the United States, being the smart kid—or artistic, or “husky,” or queer, or all of the above—means that you likely grew-up with lots of taunts and teases. Most of us were taught by our parents that this was “normal” and to “brush it off.” Many of us were coached on how to throw a punch (not me). That getting picked on for being different was a “norm” growing up in my generation goes without saying. What this conference was saying, however, is that the norm has been distorted far beyond what parents think they see.

Last year’s seemingly endless series of young person suicides—caused by bullying—was the exigency.

“Now” bullying can lead to death. I’m not sure that wasn’t always the case, however, there is something to be said (as I’ve been saying for some years now) about the increasing trend toward psychotic cultures—cultures in which the gravity of hurting another human being doesn’t quite register, as when thinking about social life as video game. I was impressed with the White House’s symbolic display, which reflects a recognition of the rhetorical power a statement made by the presidential administration can have on social issues. I suspect many pass off the conference as a gesture only, but listening to the statements from the conference, something deeper is at stake in all of this. Values are at issue, inclusive of types of disposition or our orientation toward those who are different. The conference was both earnestly devised for practical discussion and a salvo in the subtextual culture wars that rage not-so-subtly in contemporary (media) politics. Unquestionably, this conference on bullying is articulated in the popular imaginary to a psychotic’s rampage in Tucson and the Obama birther conspiracy and border-issue xenophobia.

Last week Professor Jeremy Engels spoke here at the University of Texas, and this image was central to his talk:

Engels analyzed this image in relation to the “politics of resentment,” which he argued has become increasingly visible because of the mainstream media (and by implication, the speed of circulatory networks), but which has always been seething at the core of “American” statecraft. The face of hate in this image betrays an all-too-familiar logic of victimage, which many scholars have argued has been the emotional-stop gap solution for solidarity absent a peopled history (it’s identitarian logic on a stick—American Indians, African Americans, Japanese internment, etc.). Absent a common ancient heritage, the logic goes, we can bond over whom we elect to exclude. At bottom, this is also the basis of contractarian thinking (whether the excluded is the hated or understood as property; “who gives this woman to be married . . . “). Cue Agamben on homo sacer, press play.

Filtered through the media coverage of the anti-bullying conference, what Engels’ talk caused me to think about was audience. Resentment in an of itself connotes a kind of individual indignation; but a politics of resentment implicates the social—the spectacle of resenting another. In this respect it seems to me that bullying always has an audience, which is what makes it distinct from fighting and its attendant ecstasies. I have never been a fighter (always a lover), but I was in at least eight fights growing up (I remember them vividly, even as I turn 38 today). All but one was an instance of bullying. I was in a fight with my best friend Guy once, and it was just us two going at it. In retrospect I know now the fight with Guy was about sibling rivalry (his dad and mom often called me their “number two adopted son”). And even then, if I think about it, our fighting had an audience (his parents, even if it was only his parents installed in my head).

The bullying I endured was always about some guy showing other guys (and girls, but rarely that) that he belonged because of a mutual recognition of my difference. I registered the social dimension of bullying even as a young person; I knew that if it was just me and the bully alone I would be, pretty much, left alone. I was a persuasive young fellah, and could often spare myself a punch one-on-one with a potential bully if there was no one around to watch me get beat-up (as a young person, my gift for gab led a number of my friend’s parents to predict I would be a politician one day). Which is to say, bullying is about recognition, about being seen being sadistic, which is in itself a cry for love. Bullying is the politics of spectacle, writ small and interpersonal.

When I was in grade school there was a kid who constantly bullied and harassed me on the school bus. I forget his name, and to be honest I had barely remember the situation (repressed as it is). I was talking on the phone with my father today, who reminded me of the situation: “you were so scared you purposely kept missing the bus!” He revealed that he packed a revolver and went to the kid’s house and told his father to discipline “the shit” or he would be back with a vengeance (my father is a very large man, and back then, pretty much the spitting image of Brutus from Robert Altman’s delightfully strange Popeye film). Apparently the bullying stopped. I don’t remember very well, honestly. But I do remember the kid came from a broken home, often smelled, and didn’t have clean clothes.

The more I dwell on it, the more I realize that part of the reason I chose the profession that I have is because of being bullied. In childhood, I was called “weird” or “faggot” in every context but the academic, so it makes much sense to me that I would build a life around the space and place in which such labels are not common or a bad thing. And I also know this: even when I was getting my head bashed into a rock in the ground in 8th grade by the new kid trying to “fit in” at Snellville Middle School, I never once considered suicide, nor ever worried that I would die. The thought of pulling a weapon out to defend or off myself never occurred to me either; that fantasy didn’t exist.

Bullying today is different than it was when I was a kid, and that’s not just because I am older. It has taken on a more intense and deadly character, and for reasons I’m not quite sure how to make sense of. Drastic fantasies are more intense. When I was growing up, the film My Bodyguard supplied the map of meaning; today, it’s high school shootings. The common thread is a yearning for recognition—for another to see the bullying as a display of power. I think if we are going to address the problem of bullying among young people (or between nation states), we need to understand it less as a pathology or font of aggression and more as failure of recognition. Does aggression happen without an Other? A bully is “acting out in groups,” to borrow a phrase, and it’s a learned technique of belonging; bullying shunts hormones into a meaning, and that meaning is perverse.

The art of diplomacy is the management of bullies who are acting out for love.

it’s synth-pop friday!

March 11th, 2011 by slewfoot

on aging

March 10th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Lyle Lovett: Live in Texas (1999)

I put on Lyle Lovett tonight for two reasons: the mood of the music and the thoughtfulness of the lyrics. Lovett is funny, but reflective and often fiercely brave (or simply comfortable with making it naked), and his lyrical expressions convey the depth of someone who often looks to catch your wandering eyes, as if to say, “be here now.” To say “depth” sounds cliché (well, anything I say I worry sounds that way—rhyme and sway), but I don’t mean the word in that sense. I mean the word as a moving reflection (not still, but still compared to the rush of magnetic stripes swiped across devices I don’t understand—not up and down, kids, not up and down). He takes a roll toward the dying like Ry Cooder, a hankering for the slow amble or a steel cylinder on the slow-make with a curiosity for the “outside.” The slide is on in his groove, but he seems to take the time to see all the people he moves past despite that side-sucking sound of commercial gravity, the force of recognition today that makes almost everyone else dismount with a thudding “ta-dah!” with arms outstretched and then the demand—always a demand— for a check, or at least hits on YouTube. Lovett is an amazing musician because he is both talented and honest. Even with commercial success, he writes (about) what he wants and sees.

It seems to me even in his twenties Lovett sounded like he was middle-aged. He’s always sang that way, anyway.

The exigency: my birthday looms, and it’s closer to official mid-agedom than what is considered “youth”—despite the stunted growth diagnosis of my ilk and the patterned life-plan that should have begun, more or less, with rearing something with someone (a sore spot, to be sure, but more so for the parents of an only child than the only child hisself . . . I think). And so I’ve been thinking about aging and (my) mortality—“health,” construed more broadly than my weight or the organic greens in the fridge or the fish oil. For me, being 35 meant you had a gram scale in the kitchen, and not for nickel bags but portions of blue cheese. I’m both flummoxed, at least in a body that does unexpected things now, and pleased to still be able to cogitate about my age and the significance of boundaries: how did 27 become “almost-forty?” It’s not a blur, mind you. There are regular and still felt punctures of pain and joy in reacting to the earnest faces of not-getting-carded and strange gray hairs in my eyebrows. Every once in a while I’m reminded I’m older than I think—or better, behave than—I am; my appearance is more dated than the gestures I find myself making or the questions I find myself answering (like when an acquaintance asks me if I’m working on an advanced degree). I’m fortunate that I’m assumed by the new and yet-familiar to be incubating for some metamorphosis, I reckon. But that stranger assumption cuts another way, too: at what point in living does transience give way to settling? Part of me, the 27-year-old part, abhors the thought of routine unmovement (this is why I love the academic job; every six months is a different rhythm). But part of me is also hankering for the “enough already, let’s sit still and enjoy the front porch.” I don’t, regrettably, have one of those (anymore). How to achieve the Lovett mood of being-here-now?

Like many folks turning the corner on 38, I find myself asking myself (again, in the kitchen): does that self-same metamorphosis look and feeling ever plate-up in a medium rare? I just heard the sound of distant thunder, and the sound still gets me excited, expectorant and wanting to sit outdoors. I want to say “no,” that the metamorphosis is the thing, and to find solace in that thing-ing, but at some level or remove one can’t quite give up the hanker: Gregor Samsa was a warning about going inside fearing a coming rain, but I recognize there is some comfort in knowing, finally, at least I’m a roach.

Pregnant and mixed metaphors, I know. But I like to play pregnant and get mixed, because it bespeaks possibility, even with the cliché police. I sometimes worry when waxing in public someone will go to tea leaves; I’m just delivering affect to some words to share, nothing much more than that. You know. You know what I mean.

I’m at the tail end of that generation named for a drug that didn’t quite arrive until it was a little too late (I missed the hand-massager raving by a hair). I remember going to a dance club in DC with a best friend at the turn of a century (though we have not talked in years) and feeling somewhat out of place; I was sipping on my standard buddy while the throngs around me were “a rollin'”—and with angular elbows thrusting to music without a melody but an unrelenting, tyrannous beat. My friend is my age, but took a different path, which means he pulls a salary double that of mine, and that he is collecting the kind of wine I could never appreciate or afford, and crossing town in leather interiors. In some sense he was much more removed from the x-riddled crowd than I should have been, at least within that classed structure-of-feeling, but mobility is often more an issue of intoxicant access these days than it is a recognition of shared, material interests. The organ is a bloated cynicism, and some simply have it cut-out with money.

I’m not there yet.

on meeting Mic Taussig

March 6th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: X Marks the Pedwalk: Inner Zone Journey (2010)

Some years ago I was at a house party thrown by an acquaintance in the English department, and I happened to meet (in the kitchen, always a kitchen) Ann Cvetkovich, a professor here at UT whom I had read but didn’t know it at the time. Her widely praised and studied book, An Archive of Feelings has subsequently made quite an impact on my thinking (and graduate seminars), but perhaps not as strongly as the shear force of her personhood the last couple of years. After discussing our mutual scholarly interests (again, in the kitchen), Ann invited me to join a reading group of scholars strewn about the UT campus focused on “public feelings,” a deliberately ambiguous concept that orbits the way in which human affective response is orchestrated and directed in respect to any number of “public” issues. Since joining the group, my intellectual ambit has ranged far from my disciplined rearing in communication studies, and there’s no question I am better off for it. Discussions and readings with this group have taught me that my field is fiendishly pragmatic and wed to writing styles that hamper certain kinds of explanation or . . . experience. Of course, I’ve always struggled with the norms of writing in my field, but the group has taught me this is not uncommon—all fields have constricting norms in one way or another. Ann’s work is considered groundbreaking by many in the humanities, but within English here at UT (I gather) it’s regarded with suspicion—her style breaks the rules. As does just about everything we read in the group.

Therefore, I am a fan of Ann and this group; I’m fortunate to be included.

Last week the “public feelings” group got to hitchhike onto (or co-sponsor, intellectually) a visit from Michael Taussig from Columbia to the anthropology department. Katie Stewart, an advisee of Taussig and a tour de force in her own right, was instrumental in bringing him (back) to Austin, and so the group was oriented around his coming for some weeks. Stewart organized a “writing salon” at her home, where members of the reading group and grad-folks from anthropology could share work-in-progress with the visiting Taussig. I was extremely fortunate (and am very grateful) to be invited to this salon. I must say, after that meeting I don’t think I have been as energized to write in some years; the salon was just what I needed to get back to work on the book-in-progress (oh, the textbook too). Meeting Taussig and being in Katie’s living room was just the gift I needed to get back to that passion for thinking that had been flagging in the toils of administriva.

Here’s the thing: three weeks ago I didn’t know who Michael Taussig was. I had heard the name, particularly because I had devoted many years to studying the work Walter Benjamin in graduate school (after a very memorable seminar on his work directed by Keya Ganguly). But I had not read any of Taussig’s books. Alerted of his arrival, I checked out three books from the library and started reading. And I read. And read. And got moist. Frankly, I devoured. Reading his Mimesis and Alterity, I thought: holy shit! How has this author escaped me? Why has his work not been put before me? I was simply blown away.

Taussig’s talk focused on diurnal rhthms and the impact of mood on culture. I found him both brilliant and charming. His brilliance radiates in kind of childlike wonder and a writerly beauty: how many ways did he describe watching the sunset, but in a way that was so far from cliché it hurt? He has a gift, and I’m embarrassed I had not read his work or known about him until a few weeks ago.

In the workshop the next day, he was measured in his commentary. We spent some time discussing the constraints of writing norms in the humanities. He crystallized very quickly our predicament in a way that was both instantly obvious but not, well, instantly obvious: there are two types of academic writing, he said. There is writing to communicate, and writing to experience. I was reminded of the discussions in performance studies (of the speech tradition) as of late in respect to authoethnogphy (literature or bad poetry? expression or indulgence? And where does one draw the line between indulgence and expression?). One of the salon participants shared a very moving experience involving her grandmother; she worried aloud about being too indulgent, not knowing where to situate respect for the reader.

Interestingly, blogging arose as a form of writing that violates academic norms in a manner that is closer to the “writing as experience” model Taussig was talking about.

There’s really not much to report than what I already have here; so much of what was accomplished was about . . . well, about feelings vis-à-vis academic writing. But what I came away with was a conviction that the way I felt about academic writing was shared by many, and that we would like to do things differently. The next academic book I’m writing is something of a gamble; it’s about cultural mourning, but it’s also an intensely personal book in ways that are hard to explain. During the salon, I mentioned that my ethnographic work (some of it “auto”) was relegated to “interludes” in my first book, but that most reviewers mentioned them as distinctive and additive—that they enriched the more formal chapters that followed. I said that I was trying to integrate more fully my more personal and disclosive “interludes” into the chapters proper in this book. It opens, in fact, with an extended rumination on playing my mother’s records on my portable phonograph as a kid. I was worried that opening an academic book with “me” would be a bit too much. But it wouldn’t be for this group, the folks gathered with Taussig to discuss writing. And I realized last weekend this was the audience I was writing for.

The best gifts come without explanation and no expectation.

it’s synth-pop friday!

March 4th, 2011 by slewfoot