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Music: Kirlian Camera: Still Air (Aria Immobile) (2000)
As I detailed in the previous post, I’ve been thinking about a course I’m developing for next spring for the College of Communication Senior Fellows program, which is an honors program designed to give gifted upperclassfolks a more intimate and challenging classroom experience. I’ve never taught one, but I’m told the class is conducted like a graduate seminar with adjusted expectations. I’m sharing the description I developed, and then after that, some thoughts and concerns about the course (and content). Here goes:
Is Communication (Science) Fiction?
Whether we figure “communication” as the exchange of information, a form of symbolic inducement, a process of understanding, or the means by which we exchange, induce, and understand, each definition is informed by what John Durham Peters describes as a centuries old “dream of communication as the mutual communion of souls.” This philosophy of communication seminar grapples with the dream of communion through the idiom of science fiction. The goal is to help participants not only come up with their own answer to the titular question of the class, but perhaps more importantly, to help students toward a stronger understanding of what the question means.
As an idiom, science fiction references various attempts in the domain of popular culture to speculate about the future. Although for most of us “sci-fi” is synonymous with galactic battles, planetary exploration, and spaceships, a dominant theme is the possibility of communicating with extraterrestrial intelligences or “aliens.” Read as a social commentary, we can substitute the figure of the alien with “other people,” such that the theme is also a question: can human beings communicate at all? The question is not as simple as it initially seems. The College of Communication itself is premised on a positive answer to this question, however, science fiction asks us to consider the alternative.
In this seminar we take up the alternative by studying communication theory and speculative fiction in tandem. Participants will be introduced to the history of the study of communication in the United States, including the formation of the field in the early twentieth century and the history of the College of Communication at the University of Texas. Students will learn about how early scholars attempted to situate communication at the center of public education, as well as the assumptions made about idea of communication in doing so. We will be comparing theories of elocution and public speaking, speech hygiene, general semantics, semiotics, and “communications” (e.g., broadcast technology) to the ideas advanced by speculative fiction writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin, Bram Stoker, and Stanislaw Lem. We will also be viewing and discussing a number of “hard sci-fi” popular films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, to see if we can extract the implied theories of communication these advance. Special attention will also be given to government-sponsored attempts to communicate with intelligent life in the universe in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life (SETI), Pioneer, and Voyager programs.
As an honors course, this is a “graduate-style” seminar designed to encourage critical thinking by engaging “big questions,” setting-aside the pursuit of specific or practical skills. Students should enroll expecting challenging reading and no definitive answers from the course material. Throughout the semester, students will be expected to formally share their responses and reactions to course material and to help organize class discussion. The seminar will culminate in a rigorous term paper in which each participant develops his or her own answer to the question, “is communication (science) fiction?”
Fortunately, there’s time enough to tinker with the description, and I can think about what books I shall assign for the next . . . [Brief pause: I must remark on the beautiful sunset happening right now in Austin; the skies are overcast with purple clouds, a cheering orange glow peeps around the edges, getting brighter and then dimmer and illuminating this keyboard with kind of slowly pulsating pink light—a sci-fi scene, indeed.] Where was I? Oh, yeah, I have seven months to think about the books to assign and read them.
Although it’s still a bit hazy—and it probably should be—the goal of the course is nothing more than what I’ve already sketched. In part, one could describe the goal as the proverbial “pulling out the rug,” as they say. Grads in our college have assumed, from day one, that communication is a thing, event, or process, that it’s possible, and that it’s mostly positive. Some colleagues teach the “darkside of communication” literature, as its called, but even that work tends to assume (though not all of it) that communication occurs. I think it may be helpful for students (that is, students who want to) to question the fundamental assumptions of our curricula.
To what end?
Well, if I specified that I suppose the course and it’s guiding question would not be a seminar, but something else. Even so, purposefully bracketing the point of questioning the assumptions behind the idea of communication, I’m not beyond questioning the point of my going to science fiction as an illustration. My chosen pulp-era magazine covers for this post are deliberate. I worry: to what extent is science fiction a masculine appeal? We know, for example, that the formative marketing of the genre in the states was aimed primarily at adolescent boys and that choice has been lock-step with Hollywood film. Regardless of the merits of the stuff we’ll be reading (and there are many), should I worry about a skewed, male enrollment?
I’ve been thinking about the questions of sci-fi’s “male appeal” as I’ve been reading the “greatest hits” of science fiction from the 50s forward. Much of what I am reading, insofar as it doesn’t aspire to art or philosophical reflection, advances a phallocentric and, frankly, racist ideology (and this is not surprising). As I read into the 60s, there’s a more self-conscious effort to explore (and explode) gender and race categories, and I appreciate that. Even so, this “male-focused” sense I get reading science fiction is something beyond the marketing, certainly more than the themes of “xenogenesis.” Woman is present, indeed, ever-present in her absence (think of Psycho or Fight Club here, but change out the protagonist with Ender or Lem’s Prof. Hogarth in His Master’s Voice ). I reckon what it comes down to is why does this stuff appeal to me so much? And does that something have to do with masculinity? I suspect it does.
Just thinking aloud, but, I will need to figure out this masculinity issue for myself—beyond an all-too-easy or obvious critique of masculinity chest-beating or anxiety (the adolescent male fear of, attraction to, and oppression by masculinity)—before I teach the course. It may very well be that there is no way to even approach the question of communication’s possibility without seriously interrogating gender. Indeed, were I to teach this through a Lacanian lens, the there would be no way out, only through (since communication would be, as it were, poised on sexuation—no desire/need for communion without difference). But this isn’t a class from a psychoanalytic vantage.
Music: The Caretaker: Patience (After Sebald) (2011)
For those who know me outside of RoseChron, at first blush this titular question is a rhetorical one: understood as communion or a real connection between two symbol-using critters, communication is indeed a fiction (cf. John Durham Peter’s Speaking Into the Air). Since I read it in grad school, I’ve always found Richard Rorty’s explanation of communication as a kind of coordinated dance, or an attuning of behavior or a squaring of “squeaks” and “barks,” rather persuasive. Communication might be better expressed as a coordination of behaviors via symbolic means (which would imply, obviously, that left-handed Tantra is not intercourse after all—ha ha ha). Yes, I think communication is a fiction from the standpoint of popular parlance. But if you get inside the question to ask, semantics aside, if understanding—not as abstract, but as a kind of open-sourcing of the Other—is possible, the question gets pretty interesting, and I recognize this is why all that dialectic-bashing is so appealing today for so many (with nods to Gilles). I tentatively qualify “fiction” with “science” here to point to that “interesting” aspect of the query, and my current reading of Stanislaw Lem’s novel, His Master’s Voice, has really got me thinking this weeked about the question and, by extension, the foundational promise of my chosen field and profession.
Lem’s curious (and emotionally difficult) novel crystalizes a theme I’ve been encountering repeatedly in my recent attempt to survey and digest the most celebrated science fiction of the twentieth century: can we communicate with aliens? Of course, if anything, sci-fi is a philosophy of futurity, so this quixotic theme is really about whether humans should trouble with communicating with each other. Lem fascinates me because he is among the first authors I’ve read who is explicitly negative on this question; I’ve not finished His Master’s Voice yet but, so far, the moral is something like, “humans cannot communicate with aliens because they cannot communicate with one another.”
The novel is darkly comedic, which is to say, it is deathly serious. It concerns a renowned professor of mathematics, Peter Hogarth, and his involvement with a secret, Pentagon project to decode an assumed neutrino blast (read: radio-like transmission) from extraterrestrials. Like just about every zombie story, the real plot here is not the transmission, but the imbecility of humans grappling with a constitutive outside. Lem skillfully paints, through a first person narrative by Hogarth, how impossible it is for humans to communicate with one another because of the power of projection: the narrator is so self-absorbed (and self-loathing) that anything approaching an openness to the “outside” seems impossible. So far the book reminds me of Sartre’s Nausea, however, the melancholy is traded-in for a kind of abject cynicism. The novel is fascinating and difficult to put down, even though Hogarth is so unpleasant. I don’t know how the thing will end (so don’t spoil it for me), but the hilarious account of how the “message” or “letter from the stars” was received—basically as the consequence of a kind of EVP get-rich-quick spectacle in popular culture—brings to mind, immediately, Konsantin Raudive’s serious, well-intentioned 1971 study, Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication With the Dead.
The fascination I have with Lem’s work follows on my reading of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, 2001, and 2010, all of which concern the ability of humans to communicate with intelligences beyond their capacity to comprehend them. Like Lem, Clarke is something of a pessimist, but he also has a profound hope in the possibility of transcendence (while an avowed anti-religionist, religious themes flower all over the place in his books). The irony here is that, at least in a formal or compositional frame, Lem seems fixed on comedy, while Clarke is resolutely tragic. Clarke finds hope in failure; Lem finds comedy in hope.
Reading Clarke and Lem reminded me of my first encounter of the “Pioneer Plaques,” which went out in the early seventies on Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, now billions of miles in space somewhere. The golden plaques indicate hydrogen, our solar system, human beings and their limbs (apparently we are white), and so forth:
You visual rhetoric mavens will quickly discern why these images were controversial (and I don’t mean the fact some folks got pissy the bipeds were nekkid!). The plaques represent the views of Carl Sagan about communicating with extra-terrestrials, who was instrumental in their design (his wife, apparently, rendered the drawing). Perhaps even more intriguing was the creation of the Voyager Golden Records, which were launched in 1977. They are inscribed with sounds from earth and say a lot of something about our prior faith in analogics. Sagan thought, even though the likelihood these messages would reach aliens was low, they nevertheless represented the “hope” central to human being.
Wondering aloud: how has the character of that hope changed because of the apotheosis of the digital?
The longer I think about rhetoric, persuasion, and (the possibility of) communication, the more I am torn between Clarke and Lem’s visions. For me, the most inspiring component of science fiction is that people turn outward, exploring together. That attitude toward the unknown is constantly threatened by the temptation to turn inward—to explore the innerspace of another human being as if to discern her inner mystery. Clarke is good with the exploration part, but Lem is much better at showing how too easily that becomes an interrogation of the Other, with terrible and comic consequences.
I’m also thinking about this question, “is communication (science) fiction?” because it looks increasingly probable I’ll be teaching a course by this or a similar title for the honors college in 2013 (advanced undergraduates in a seminar-like setting). Which is to say, I guess, that the course is about “love” by another name.
Music: Kate Bush: 50 Words for Snow (2011)
I know you came here looking for my musical love—and a shared hatred for the commodification of human emotion.
But frankly, girl, I’m just not feeling it. I am feeling love for you, and certainly a profound distaste for cardboard hearts. But I somehow couldn’t muster the energy to sit for hours in front of my mixing deck this year, as I have in years past. It’s as if I didn’t want to feel for such an extended period of time this weekend, with that familiar, enveloped intimacy of headphones. Next year, I’m sure I’ll have endurance (and, with luck, the inspiration).
I reference my aversion to enveloped intimacy with the admission that music is central to my life—it’s constantly on at my house—and because of its remarkable ability to evoke affect. I watched the Grammys on Sunday, and the power of music to do this to us was celebrated, first of course with a number of tributes to the late (and tragic) Whitney Houston, and second with the deservedly lauded song-craft of Adele, whose album 21 swept no less than six awards. Although the song “Rolling in the Deep” was featured, just about everyone I know really falls apart with this song:
If one hasn’t already been deadened by the compulsion to repeat “Someone Like You” on the radio or television incessantly (good songs are frequently ruined this way), the tune is remarkably moving—so much so Saturday Night Live lampooned its power to induce throat-lumps in a skit:
The humor of the skit doesn’t simply trade off of the song, but our compulsiveness to feel and the enjoyment of yearning, the way music is a catalyst for what Jacques Lacan termed jouissance. I think Adele’s song and the skit says something interesting about Valentine’s Day: the embarrassment of wanting to feel and using something artificial—something contrived—to get there. We love to deride this commercial holiday because we enjoy feeling whatever it is “Someone Like You” seems to inspire, but are embarrassed or register some kind of guilt for the fact that artifice can get us there, that something “artificial” can get us off.
The NPR show All Things Considered broadcast an intriguing story yesterday about the ability of music to inspire deep feelings. The spot featured music psychologist John Sloboda, who argued certain musical shifts he terms “appoggiatura” (Italian for “to lean”), a hard-to-define musical concept that refers to a sort of tension-release change-up in melodic structure. Sloboda isolates appoggiatura in the way in which Adele sings “you” in the chorus to “Someone Like You.” “The music taps into this very primitive system that we have which identifies emotion on the basis of a violation of expectancy,” Sloboda argues. “It’s like a little upset which then gets resolved or made better in the chord that follows.” The argument here, however, is familiar to rhetoricians as the (dis)pleasure of form, which Kenneth Burke defined as the creation and satisfaction of “appetites” in auditors; affect is heightened and the satisfaction is sweeter to the degree that satisfaction is frustrated. Appoggiatrua would appear to be, then, a musical theory of foreplay.
Sloboda describes our affective response to Adele’s crooning as “primitive” and “hard-wired,” however, Adele’s co-writer Dan Wilson insists on the import of the song’s lyrics, too: “With Adele, we wrote this song that was about a desperately heartbreaking end of a relationship, and she was really, really feeling it at the time, and we were imaginatively creating,” Wilson says. “That walked her back through that experience. And when you and l listen to that song, we walk through her shoes through that heartbreaking experience — but it’s in our imagination.”
The NPR story thus foists our affective response to broken-heart ballads as a contest between the hard-wired brain and cultural fantasy, physiological response and narrative structure. Of course, the way music can deeply affect us is both of these—body and mind; the wedding of the two is why we cherish art so much. I think the music psychologist is on to something here by pointing to cognitive processes and essential features of the song’s chord structure, timbre, and melody, however, I think Wilson captures the suasive appeal of the song in terms of a cultural fantasy we all know: the music evokes feeling, but also meaning, and that meaning is the imaginative scenario Adele paints in the song. Someone whom we loved—or didn’t know we loved—has “moved on.” On the side of meaning, Adele expresses the yearning registered in the loss, not simply of a lover, but of the possibility of sharing a life with someone.
No one, as the saying goes, wants to die alone. Sadly, although we don’t like to admit it, we also know that all of us will.
“It’s just a song.” Right?
The song “Someone Like You” manages to yoke the body to meaning in the sign of “the cry,” which was Freud’s term for the “satisfaction” that results from a (dis)comforting experience of powerful tensions and releases. Crying can (and often does) spout from sheer exhaustion, acting as a release from some unbearable tension. But tension cuts both ways, or at least is experienced as physical and psychological. Freud would agree with Sloboda that the affect is “primitive,” or more to the point, infantile: the cry of the infant registers simultaneously the abject need or necessity of the Other (initially, the mother, to battle pain, satiate hunger, and so on) at the same time as it does a recognition of an irrevocable separation. The cry, as such, registers a kind of impossibility and a need to be delivered from and to that impossibility. That “Someone Like You” makes us cry is apropos of what the song actually is, in essence: a cry for love. The embarrassment we might feel tearing up to the song is that crying with it is an admission of a certain dependency at the core of our being. And perhaps most importantly, that cry for love is not for a “masturbatory concession,” the recognition of sexual desire, but something much more, shall we say, existential.
However cheaply the SNL skit delivers us from the cry to the laugh (from the tragedy of being to the comedic), the deeper truth of human affective response is still there: the skit ends with all of those moved deeply by the song expressing a mutual need for togetherness as a solution to “the cry.” (This kind of mutual recognition, by the way, is the “fellowship” Freemasonry and related fraternal organizations is self-consciously built upon.) It is, alas, a temporary solution or substitute satisfaction; full price buffalo wings may be the best we can hope for. Such is the disappointment of a commercial holiday that skirts above the surface ruptures of abjection, as well as our cynical enjoyment of celebrating or deriding its contrived exotica.
“What’s the whole point?” a friend exclaimed last week, only half in jest. “Am I supposed to fuck you more special or something? Such a silly holiday,” she said. But I’m not so sure. I think the sexualization betokened by red hearts and flowers has nothing to do sexual pleasure, but rather a deeper frustration sexual “union” appears to represent, this “cry” that murmurs just below the surface. It is a cry that too many think can be stifled by plugging the hole. As Lacan puts it, “the big secret of psychoanalysis is that the sexual act does not exist.”
I think that’s the big secret of love, too. Some months ago I was talking with a different friend who remarked he would likely get back with his ex-partner, despite the fact they were not really attracted to one another in a sexual way. I had thought to remark, although I did hold my tongue, that love is not reducible to genital pleasure—that it’s not reducible, period. Crying together is what it’s about, not plumbing the depths of another’s soul or interrogating their being for that secret something that makes the world shine in a different way.
Full price buffalo wings.
The same friend who lamented that she did not have a date for this evening and that the holiday was silly, nevertheless, gets it. She said she decided to have a special dinner with another date-less friend. Her dinner date said that “we each have a ‘get-out-of-jail free’ card for tonight. If either of us manages to snag a date with a boy,” she reported, “we can cancel our dinner.”
“That’s more than I got,” I said, smiling. “I’m poaching fish and buttering fennel and hanging out with the dog.”
What I didn’t say to my friend is that having a nice dinner with a best friend is precisely what celebrating this holiday should be about, and that a date with a boy would be much less fulfilling or enjoyable, in the end. Friendship. Everything else is coming up candy and roses, and too much of that eventually makes you sick.
One more, from our patron saint, for the road:
Music: Gillian Welch: Time (the Revelator) (2001)
Growing up I sometimes accompanied my dad to “work.” Although he is now retired and still takes jobs, he was a professional photographer. He made most of his living doing photography—and later video—for companies and couples. I remember, mostly, the couples, the large southern weddings with dozens of family and friends variously arranged on some churchy dias, or scattered about under large trees in a park setting. I carried his “camera bags.” I liked the time with my dad, although I worried (as did my mother) about how hard he worked (and how demanding some folks were and how poorly they would treat him) and . . . frankly, it was often boring to me as an onlooker.
Although I was off to college by the time the digital revolution hit, I noticed during the 1990s the gradual decline of the photography industry. Digital cameras got cheaper and cheaper and, soon, Uncle Bob could take thousands of photographs and at least have a dozen or so that were, by shear chance, of a professional quality. To compete, my dad shifted his business to focus on video and video editing (at this time, the most lucrative work in the professional photography business, however, that too is weaning). He also started charging just for the photography and the monies paid by companies and happy couples were for burned discs or USB drives with images instead of “prints.”
One would think that the steady march of DYI photography would have led to a revaluing of the photographer’s art, as more and more people came to appreciate the skill with which it takes to compose (and now edit) a good shot. Instead, however, what happened was a thickening of an attitude among the general population about artistic endeavor: that it is easy and that it is, more or less, “inspired,” that the creativity of the artist somehow springs from the head of Zeus and appears, like magic, on the page, screen, or stage. Musicians are keenly aware of this attitude and have been critical of it since the birth of the music industry since the turn of the 20th century, and it has really been at the center of the discussion of (Internet) piracy as of late.
The relatively recent emergence of “intellectual property,” spurred onward by innovations in design by high-tech companies, has made us more aware of the problem. Still, it persists, and we see the attitude toward intellectual endeavor percolating in the debates over higher education too, particularly in discussions concerning “teacher accountability” and “education reform.” Although the discussion has mostly been couched in terms of the well-known and well-documented failures of our educational system at all levels, primary, secondary, and higher, I think the root of the problem is still the generally shared attitude that mental exertion, thinking, is effortless, like magic.
Karl Marx recognized this attitude even way back during the emergence of industrialization, when sweat-labor ran the machines. In the first volume of Capital, when he describes “labor,” he is always careful to discuss human productive capacity in terms of muscles and brains. I suspect, in part, he always included the life of the mind as a significant form of labor because, as is well known, he wrote for a living and did not make a very good living writing (his children sometimes didn’t get to eat). Marx’s predicament is echoed by humorist David Thorne, whose exchange with a businessperson about his “design” labor is as hilarious as it is depressing (my thanks to Shaun Treat for passing along this nugget of guffaws).
Today, mental labor—creative or intellectual, as if you can disentangle them—is devalued and its devaluation is at the core of the now familiar cultural critiques of teachers and the professoriate. You see it in the high-stakes discussions of public education, in which teachers are chastised for not producing enough students that score well on exams, and yet these same teachers have “long breaks off” (which is not, of course, the reality of most teachers). You see it in the popular, cultural representation of the college professor, reclining in his or her leather reading chair in a lavish, book-lined office pontificating to a curious, respectful student sitting anxiously at his or her knee. You see it in television commercials by various “for-profit” universities, such as the so-called University of Phoenix, who feature “professors” with “real world, practical experience” promising personal relationships with students across the Internet via computer screens (“real world, practical experience” is code for a certain brand of market-driven anti-intellectualism, of course).
And I want to say you see this attitude toward the supposed non-labor of intellectual work in the requests of non-academics for expertise. The attitude is most stark in mainstream media requests for opinions and statements about this or that cultural event or thing: reporters asking for opinions about this political candidate, or television producers asking for a sound-bite about, oh, the historical links between the Ancient Mysteries and Freemasonry (note: there are none). In recent years I have declined a number of “interviews” from journalists about this or that popular culture event, or to appear on this or that television program, because of the expectation I would drop everything to take an hour-long phone conversation or take a day off to tape a show or assist with a workshop, without compensation. The appeal is usually that doing this or that gig is “good publicity” or a nice line to add to my resume.
There is value to offering one’s expertise for the good of a community or a welcome cause, I cannot deny this. And I also recognize the importance of publicity for one’s work or a larger, important project. But even so, whence the expectation that offering explanation or opinion or expectation is not work?
I’ve thought about this in recent years—even discussed it with my shrink. My therapist, recognizing the way in which academics are “trained” to work for free, made me sit-down and figure out what my base-line fee should be for all speaking engagements; she’s held me to this figure and, so far, I have too. I confess that when I am approached by someone for a speaking engagement—especially if it is a friend—I sometimes feel guilty saying, “I’d love to, but I do have a minimum speaking fee . . . .” I’m trying to get over that sense of guilt, and I have a feeling a lot of folks in cognate fields—especially artists—really struggle with it, trying to balance the need for publicity for their “art” or intellectual labor with the actual expense of one’s time.
So where does this expectation of free intellectual/creative labor come from? In part, of course, we can explain it in reference to the way capitalism works and the basic logic of the wage Marx explained over a century ago. But what is the ideology and its fantastic face? I can only conclude it has to do with that soul-deep conviction in something called “inspiration,” the recesses of the unconscious and the ways in which insight does often “spring forth” or “come out” in ways that, in retrospect, seems like possession. It’s almost as if labor or work is not supposed to be enjoyable, and to the extent that creative or intellectual labor is transportative or fun—like a good teaching day, when the whole classroom seems alive with curiosity—one is supposed to accept it as a “gift,” something for nothing. Why should one be compensated for something that is enjoyable?
Well, yes: If work is enjoyable or unenjoyable, it is still work. Labor is labor.
One thing my father taught me as I was growing up—and I suspect he doesn’t know this—is that you cannot give away your labor, however inspired, for free. He would sometimes do jobs for a good cause, or do portraits for free, just because of his generosity. As I watched his business develop and grow, I noticed him doing this less and less. I remember him saying, once, that the “free job” seemed like a good idea, but increasingly it created expectations that were undoing the business itself. Eventually, and painfully, I remember he came to the decision to stop photographing family events for free, or honoring requests by family members for free portraits. Well, not entirely. He still does this. But he did eventually come to the realization that he could not do it so much.
It’s a hard reckoning, to be sure, but: love is money too.
Such sentiments are sung better by Gillian Welch better than me:
Everything is free now
That’s what they say
Everything I ever done
Gonna give it away.
Someone hit the big score
They figured it out
They were gonna do it anyway
Even if doesn’t pay.
I can get a tip jar
Gas up the car
Try to make a little change
Down at the bar.
Or I can get a straight job
I’ve done it before
Never minded working hard
It’s who I’m working for.
Everything is free now
That’s what they say
Everything I ever done
Gotta give it away.
Someone hit the big score
They figured it out
They were gonna do it anyway
Even if doesn’t pay.
Every day I wake up
Humming a song
But I don’t need to run around
I just stay home.
Sing a little love song
My love and myself
If there’s something that you want to hear
You can sing it yourself.
‘Cause everything is free now
That’s what I said
No one’s got to listen to
The words in my head.
Someone hit the big score
And I figured it out
That I’m gonna do it anyway
Even if doesn’t pay.
Oh, and then there’s this delightful essay about the song and the way in which the issue of labor refers to loving, too.
Music: Anna Calvi: self-titled (2011)
The pace of RoseChron has slowed, hasn’t it? When I reflect on how much less I’ve shared on the blog over the past year, I realize that the trade off is unquestionably professional “service.” I have often used this blog as a space to work-through ideas, either on cultural issues of the time or in my own teaching and scholarship. When I’m not working-through here, it just means I’m doing work somewhere else. In recent years that somewhere else has been the space of others—graduates especially, but also colleagues as a blind reviewer for books or journal articles. When it’s my own work, I don’t have much trouble sharing “in public,” but you know, when I’m working with others on their work, it’s just not my place—this is not the place. For example, in a recent post I wrote about the work of others I had been reading—friends and students—and I almost didn’t post it because I worried it wasn’t my place (I decided that because the focus was on my worry, not their work, however, it was ok). In short: I’ve written less here as of late because I seem to become more invested in collaboration, in various forms, or alternately said, I’ve written less here because I’ve been writing less of my own in general.
This week, however, I’ve been working on my own stuff and am at that point where I can share some half-baked blatherings. Blogging about things I’m working on is often very helpful because of the way writing here causes a sort of switching-of-gears: here, the audience is very different from the one I write for on the page intended for print, or the audience I imagine sitting in front of me at a conference. The change-up in audiencing (who you are and whom I imagine), in other words, is helpful for the processes or labors of invention.
I was asked some months ago to share some work in progress with a panel of distinguished visiting scholars on the topic of technology, memory, and rhetoric, and that moment of sharing is swiftly approaching [insert panicked, muffled scream here]. I agreed some months ago to share my work, knowing that it would give me a kick-in-the-pants to start drafting a chapter that only exists in the form of a lecture for the twelfth seminar in “the object” course. The title, “du mécanique plaque sur du vivant,” is a phrase from Henri Bergson’s famous formula for human laughter as this funky intersection of the machinic and the human. Laughing “breaks the frame” when, for example, a person seems much too “rigid” for the situation, or we find ourselves or others behaving a bit too robotically, like when Eddie Murphy does his impression of “white people.” Bergson’s ruminations on the comic are elegantly written and just a delight to read. Although his 1901 examples no longer track with the structures feeling (up/of) our times (sex is now the orifice of the funny bone), his views nevertheless remain relevant: there is a very thin membrane between the hilarious and the uncanny, and total satisfaction on either side risks a deathly puncture (jouissance, of course). Faced with the proverbial ghost in the machine, if you are on the side of Bergson you laugh and if you find yourself on side of Freud you scream. The notion “peals of laughter” captures both nicely.
Laugher indexes two levels of experience that, I think, we can figure as repetition and representation—incidentally, the two approaches to “rhetoric” that seem to be vying for dominance in scholarly circles in recent years. I’ll be arguing a number of things on Friday (none of which can be developed in fifteen minutes), and among them a certain “psychoanalytic” extension or version of Diane Davis’s argument for “a rhetoric of laughter” in her brilliant book, Breaking Up [at] Totality: a rhetorical approach to persuasion, or suggestive assent, or whatever it is we decide it is that we study, is a kind of dialectical navigation or preservation that does not collapse on the side of the machinic or the classically humanist, but unsteadily and never finally reckons with both. As Judith Butler puts it somewhere in Gender Trouble (I’m too lazy to look for a blog post), immanentist approaches to materiality or performativity as a concept should not disavow representation—as if we can do away with representation anyway. And I know the tension or approach between representational and alternative forms of rhetorical studies is on a lot of folks minds lately (perhaps it always was?); just today Nate Stormer said he was putting something together on the topic for our annual convention on the speech-side of rhetorical studies. Anyway, back in 2000 Diane posed laughter as a fecund object for thinking through the struggles of rhetorical studies to mourn the death of the humanist subject (she’s always a decade ahead of the rest of us). Just let language “be,” says Diane, stop trying to control it or make it do violence; let the laughter in, whatever it is, this “tropiate.”
Of course, Davis doesn’t recommend the kind of total-topple into difference-reveling either. It’s to easy to advocate a party, and while I like a good party too we all know the damn thing can be quite destructive (cue scene’s of Woodstock’s aftermath). Embracing laughter entails the risk of many of those who embrace an affective pancreas (ignoring, for example, aggression can trend toward nihilism). I’m also quite taken with Alenka Zupančič’s approach to the comedic as an interplay between repetition and representation, and while I’m still not quite clear on the finer distinctions between Deleuze and Lacan on repetition that she is careful to outline, I think Zupančič’s lucid explanation of why Bergson errs too much on the side of humanism is compelling (Lacan is baby bear’s porridge, you see, between a hot bowl of Deleuze that is difference all-the-way-down, and a humanist’s representational pudding that stops at a spine or a brain, or something like that).
The challenge for me is to think these issues through the concept of memory, which is something that is assumed at the core of my current project but which is also something I’ve given short-shrift. Bradford Vivian’s work on public memory and repetition has been quite helpful to me today, as has Kendall Phillips work on the topic. In a number of publications Kendall has explained how collective memory is fundamentally a rhetorical fashioning (rhetoric as re-membering), and Brad has helped me to make some connections with Deleuze. But what of laughter: isn’t its seemingly automatic or spasm-like qualities associated with a kind of forgetting? Diane Davis suggests as much in Breaking Up, and to be certain there is a form of amnesia in our “laughing together” (and especially when it’s at the expense of something Other). Not that amnesia is all bad—or that we can do away with it.
Well, I’m sort of floundering around here, which is par for the course when mucking through a constellation of stars that I think I know but whose collective form (an animal? a god? a kitchen utensil?) I cannot quite make out. Without giving too much away, I think I’ll be taking laughter to the archive with Derrida: all compulsions, either the encyclopedic enterprise that is now “social media,” to uncontrollable laughing, drive toward death. Yeah, where repetition is concerned the death drive churns and chafes against. This, I think, is the skeleton key: I’m just not sure which way it turns quite yet, or if its going to catch.
So, a parade of concepts: laughter, representation, repetition, jouissance, the (death) drive, memory, and the archive. It’s a lot to cram into one short paper and, for the sake of sanity, I probably shouldn’t. But these are the concepts of the larger chapter, and at its center is a fun-canny object. Here’s a bit of the introduction I’ve been working on:
They probably found the Whistling Coon down by the Hudson, busking among the ferry-goers. For a small fee George Washington Johnson could whistle the popular tunes of the 1890s with alacrity and an uncanny accuracy. At that time New York was the seat of the entertainment industries, and gramophone peddlers were scrambling for those curious, cylindrical inscriptions that lured patrons to their coin-operated phonographs. Although a black man, Johnson’s vocalic abilities were novel and minstrelsy was increasingly welcome as white Americans confronted their racial anxieties in popular entertainments. He was paid twenty-cents for every two-minute song he recorded for the phonographers, which was a lucrative enterprise when you consider at that time every recording made was a master: only three or four cylinders could be inscribed at once, the horns of the recording machines arranged around Johnson’s resonant mouth. Within ten years technological innovation would enable the simultaneous inscription of multiple slave copies, even copies of copies such that, gradually, the master’s voice—the master’s recorded voice—became autonomous, needing that seat of inspiration, the diaphragm, just the once for innumerable ears. At first they desperately needed Johnson all day, every day, and then they didn’t need him at all. By 1905 Johnson’s recording career was over.
This march of inscriptive technology maps, in an unintended way, Henri Bergson’s formula for laughter: “something mechanical encrusted upon the living.” With nods to the original French phrasing of Bergson’s formula (I dare not try to pronounce it unless you need a good laugh), we can also render laughter as something lawful encrusted upon the living. My remarks today will orbit a number of ways in which we can imagine the mechanical or lawful coming to bear upon that nominal domain of the human spirit, rendered variously as the “life impulse” in Bergson’s account and, as we will see, jouissance in the theories of Jacques Lacan.
Now, at first blush the mechanical encrusted upon the living human voice betokens that all-too-familiar dialectical tension between what Marx dubbed the relations and forces of production; that our livelihoods always seem beholden yet resistant to technological contradictions is a hopelessly familiar regularity. But there are the mechanics of respiration too, some autonomic, some purposefully labored, and the law that is figured between them as signification. I’ve really begun with Johnson’s example because his first, best-selling recording was not fixated on his unusual talent for whistling, but rather, on his ability to laugh in tune. Phonographers thought the racist song the “Whistling Coon,” coupled by the fact that Johnson was the first African American on record, would secure their riches. It turned out, however, that the companion song—or what we would term the “b-side” today—became the runaway hit: “Laughing Song” purportedly sold over 25,000 copies by 1894 and was among the most popular phonographic cylinders of the late nineteenth century . . . .
Music: Eluvium: copia (2007)
I just finished screening the first season of HBO’s now discontinued series, In Treatment. The series is about psychotherapist Dr. Paul Weston, , and four sets of patients who meet weekly for half-hour sessions. The show originally aired five nights a week on HBO, and judging from online reviews and stories about the show, was fairly well received. Although each character with which Weston interacts develops relatively independently, they are eventually woven together in three interrelated arcs that converge with Weston’s personal life, particularly in respect to his strained marriage and his relationship with his children. The dramatic dynamo of the narrative, at least for the first season, is the difficulty Weston has maintaining a boundary between the personal and the professional because, of course, the professional is so deeply personal.
I enjoyed the show very much, although I have the predictable quibbles regarding poetic license. I find it somewhat implausible, for example, that a therapist would let the countertransference work him or her so thoroughly (Weston allows himself to fall in love with a patient)—although we know it happens, especially in the history of psychoanalysis. But this and related quibbles are just that—quibbles—and knowing I am watching a television show and a work of fiction made the show enjoyable. I especially appreciated how the show wove resistance to the therapeutic method into the plot, often at key moments (characters most resistant to therapy, such as Alex’s father or Sophie’s father, ended up falling most dramatically into naked confessions in the manner of minutes).
As I was watching the show, part of the enjoyment was the triangulation of the script, my own personal experience in therapy, and what I know and have been reading from an academic vantage. I would enjoy talking with practicing psychotherapists about their own perceptions of the show, if only because it’s very unclear from what “school” of thought Weston is coming from (my own therapist hasn’t seen the show). For example: Weston almost never allows silence in a session, which is an important tool of therapy. Of course, that doesn’t work very well for television (I can imagine, for example, how poorly an episode would rate if it really did depict a psychotherapeutic session in which the client didn’t say anything for ten or twenty minutes, which has happened often in my own experience). Weston also interjects theories or interpretations when, I think, most therapists would remain silent or wait much longer to do so. The only analyst Weston ever mentions is Christopher Bollas, a well-known American-cum-British analyst, novelist, and cultural critic usually associated with the child psych/object relations school, but not associated with cottoning to a particular party-line. I suspect this is deliberate on the part of the writers, but still, after the first season the question remains: to what ultimate end is analysis put?
Well, we know that end is “good television,” and In Treatment is that. I’m anxious to see how the second and final seasons will play out. We cannot expect entertainment to cling to academic approaches or clinical experiences, of course, but it sure is fun watching something with that tacit promise. It’s a little, I guess, like science fiction: the promise of a practice, but without farts on the couch of innumerable butts.