March 5, 2007

On Oprah

Filed under: criticism, culture, education — ted @ 1:08 pm

Essential reading in Salon: Peter Birkenhead on Oprah’s ugly secret

Has Oprah ever done anything that didn’t leave people with mixed feelings?

And at what point do we stop feeling like we have to take the good with the craven when it comes to Oprah, and the culture she’s helped to create? I get nauseated when I think of people in South Africa being taught they don’t have enough money because they’re “blocking it with their thoughts.” I’m already sickened by an American culture that teaches people, as “The Secret” does, that they “create the circumstances of their lives with the choices they make every day,” a culture that elected a president who cried tears of self-congratulation at his inauguration, rejects intellectualism, and believes he can intuit the trustworthiness of world leaders by looking into their eyes. I’m sickened by a culture in which the tenets of the Oprah philosophy have become conventional wisdom, in which genuine self-actualization has been confused with self-aggrandizement, reality is whatever you want it to be, and mammon is queen.

There’s no doubt that Oprah’s doing a lot of good with her South African project, and with many other charitable works. And yeah, I know, her book club “gets people to read,” and yadda yadda yadda. But there’s also no doubt that a lot of us have been making forgiving disclaimers like that about Oprah for years. And that maybe they amount to trains-running-on-time arguments. Maybe it’s time to stop. After reading “The Secret,” it seemed to me that there were basically three possibilities: 1) Oprah really believes this stuff, and we should be very worried about her opening a school for anyone. 2) Oprah doesn’t believe this stuff and we should be very, very worried about her opening a school for anyone. 3) Oprah doesn’t know that any of this stuff is in the book or on her Web site and in a perfect world she wouldn’t be allowed to open a school for anyone.


February 8, 2007

On Articulating

Filed under: criticism, literature, politics — ted @ 5:45 pm

On her excellent blog, Gwynn Dujardin considers what it means when white people call blacks “articulate” (referring to Lynette Clemetson’s Times piece, in light of Joe Biden’s description of Barack Obama). She makes a number of excellent points, and then launches into a fascinating study of language in Shakespeare. Noting that “Shakespeare himself was famously damned with faint praise when fellow playwright Ben Jonson praised him in spite of his ‘small Latine and Lesse Greeke.'”, she explains:

Shakespeare’s debts to the “white rhetorical tradition” he studied at his Stratford Grammar School are nonetheless evident in other forms of verbal dexterity. Students in humanist grammar schools would learn to write, and then orate, by imitating the style of their classical exemplars. In particular, students were taught to cultivate their own rhetorical style by putting the ancients’ ideas in their own words; the more copious – which is to say, the more faithful and prolific — the imitation, the more distinctive the student. When we laud Shakespeare for his ability to “see all sides” of an issue, we are marking his skill in “varying the phrase,” his ability to articulate any given idea in other (indeed many other) words.

In fact, I (personally) believe Shakespeare has endured as an icon because we cannot pin him down, with exact certainty, to any one position. Where Ben Jonson is relentlessly didactic, to the point of closing off discussion, “ambiguity” in Shakespeare enables us to keep talking about him, and to continue to discover contrasting points of view. Harold Bloom has thus described, and lauded, Shakespeare as “bottomless.” For a U.S. Presidential candidate, however, it’s known as “wishy-washy,” or “flip-flopping” (Slick Willie indeed).

January 24, 2007

Yay Existentialism!

Filed under: bookish, criticism, religion — ted @ 6:59 pm

In the Chronicle, Texas professor Robert Solomon defends existentialism from its critics and those who misunderstand its premise:

Only a few weeks ago I heard a radio commentator declare that the “nothing really matters” lyric from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” was truly “existential.” And I still hear pundits and some of my university colleagues decry existentialism as the source of our nihilistic gloom, the reason why our students don’t vote and why they experiment with dangerous drugs. I listen to such comments with a mix of amusement and horror because I like existentialism and I think that existentialism, not pessimism, is what America needs right now.

January 18, 2007

Made with love

Filed under: criticism, music — ted @ 4:06 pm

Whenever I need to explain why I love Joanna Newsom’s Ys so dearly, I’m going to point them to this article from Arthur magazine. Erik Davis, the writer who interviewed Newsom, must have poured countless hours of preparation and revision into it. Its length is appropriate to the depths of Ys, and his portrait of Newsom is sensitive to her genius. This passage is my favorite:

But though Newsom is a powerfully moving singer-songwriter, she is in no ways a confessional one. Ys is no diary, no sloppy heart-to-heart. Its baroque and inventive architecture, like its layers of the orchestration, act as a distancing mechanism that transmutes the emotional turbulence that inspired the work in the first place. Newsom’s language, for one thing, is intensely worked. Evocative and sometimes piercingly tender, her lyrics also reflect an almost obsessive attention to old-school poetic stuff like consonance, alliteration, prosody, and internal rhymes. In “Sawdust & Diamonds,” when she sings “mute” near “mutiny,” the words not only echo phonetically but advance the song’s themes of expression and rebellion. Later on in the song, after invoking the puppetry of romance, she introduces the image of a dove:

And the little white dove,
Made with love, made with love;
Made with glue, and a glove, and some pliers

The easy rhyme of dove and love reflects the hackneyed ease of the cliché, which she then promptly takes apart. The word glove is a splice of glue and love, held together, as it were, with pliers and glue. This wordplay is not just surface but sense: it reflects the provisional and patched-together quality that exists beneath our idealizations of love, as well as what Newsom calls the “the Frankenstein phenomenon” that emerges when that love actually creates a living being.

This is not overworked — it’s right on. Ys is one of the few records I’ve heard that stands up to the sort of criticism we’re used to giving novels and long poetry. This, I would argue, is the primary source of its greatness.

Thinking from the Gut

Filed under: criticism, politics — ted @ 11:35 am

Writing on the Oxford University Press blog, Cambridge professor Simon Blackburn considers the philosophical import of “truthiness” and attempts by policy-makers to distinguish their efforts from those of the “reality-based community.”

Thinking that authority comes from the gut is not quite the same as thinking that reality is at the behest of our own construction. The one vice is something like superstition or credulity. It can go along with knowing that there is a truth out there, it just supposes that the subject can divine what it is by consulting his or her gut feelings. Sometimes that describes something that might happen: what people call their gut feelings may be reliable emotional indicators of things they have latched onto. A gut feeling that the salesman is lying to you might be a valuable indicator that he is indeed lying. Unfortunately a gut feeling that the war in Iraq is going well is not a valuable indicator of success. Evolution may have grown us to be quick and good at reacting to face-to-face cues of deception. But it hasn’t grown us to be good at knowing what is going on half way across the world, not without help.

The whole piece is superb: short, direct, and deeply concerned:

Constructions, fictions, models, often have a place in our attempts to make sense of the world. One task for the philosopher is to keep them in their right cages; to make sure they don’t spill out where they have no business. Not easy. Help welcome.

January 2, 2007

Saddam’s Execution

Filed under: criticism, politics — ted @ 3:43 pm

Sometimes Christopher Hitchens is right on:

The disgusting video of Saddam Hussein’s last moments on the planet is more than a reminder of the inescapable barbarity of capital punishment and of the intelligible and conventional reasons why it should always be opposed. The zoolike scenes in that dank, filthy shed (it seems that those attending were not even asked to turn off their cell phones or forbidden to use them to record souvenir film) were more like a lynching than an execution. At one point, one of the attending magistrates can be heard appealing for decency and calm, but otherwise the fact must be faced: In spite of his mad invective against “the Persians” and other traitors, the only character with a rag of dignity in the whole scene is the father of all hangmen, Saddam Hussein himself.

November 21, 2006

Why ask Why?

Filed under: criticism, literature, poetry — ted @ 12:43 pm

English poets have long felt the need to defend or explain the importance of poetry. The first major example of this is The Defence of Poesy by Sir Philip Sidney in 1583, and the best known is Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, in which Shelley makes the famous assertion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Modern poets feel this strain particularly, for our age is one in which poetry is not frequently read and poets are cast to the sidelines of culture. (Whether or not this is the usual state of affairs for a poet — in any age — is up for debate).

A great example of the genre is an essay by Adrienne Rich from this past weekend’s Guardian. She begins by breaking free of a few of the traditional vagaries used to defend poetry, insisting that poetry “is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal Poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong.”

After summarizing and dismissing the argument that the power of poetry has been diminished in a post-Holocaust era, Rich attempts to stake out some ground for poetry, after recognizing the particularly contemporary difficulties it faces:

Poetry has been written-off on other counts: it’s not a mass-market “product”, it doesn’t get sold on airport newsstands or in supermarket aisles; it’s too “difficult” for the average mind; it’s too elite, but the wealthy don’t bid for it at Sotheby’s; it is, in short, redundant. This might be called the free-market critique of poetry.

There’s actually an odd correlation between these ideas: poetry is either inadequate, even immoral, in the face of human suffering, or it’s unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together – and more.

Critical discourse about poetry has said little about the daily conditions of our material existence, past and present: how they imprint the life of the feelings, of involuntary human responses – how we glimpse a blur of smoke in the air, look at a pair of shoes in a shop window, or a group of men on a street-corner, how we hear rain on the roof or music on the radio upstairs, how we meet or avoid the eyes of a neighbour or a stranger. That pressure bends our angle of vision whether we recognise it or not. A great many well-wrought, banal poems, like a great many essays on poetry and poetics, are written as if such pressures didn’t exist. But this only reveals their existence.

But when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder we are, to an almost physical degree, touched and moved. The imagination’s roads open before us, giving the lie to that brute dictum, “There is no alternative”.

Of course, like the consciousness behind it, behind any art, a poem can be deep or shallow, glib or visionary, prescient or stuck in an already lagging trendiness. What’s pushing the grammar and syntax, the sounds, the images – is it the constriction of literalism, fundamentalism, professionalism – a stunted language? Or is it the great muscle of metaphor, drawing strength from resemblance in difference? Poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom – that word now held under house arrest by the rhetoric of the “free” market. This on-going future, written-off over and over, is still within view. All over the world its paths are being rediscovered and reinvented.

You’d do well to read the whole essay. After that, if you’re interested in reading some of Rich’s own poetry, I would recommend Diving into the Wreck.

(The painting pictured above is “The Cremation of Shelley”, by Louis-Edward Fournier.)

October 31, 2006

The Uninitiated

Filed under: books, criticism, humor — ted @ 12:35 pm

You have to love this collection of reviews of classics posted on Amazon.

This one can be found in the comments section:

Jane Eyre is the scourge of literature

Reading this book was about as pleasant as a throwing knife to the face. I am going to be a senior in high school next year, and I just finished this book for my summer assignments for AP Literature. I literally took a victory lap around my house upon completion. I HATED this book. It was boring and rather pointless. No one cares about the romantic struggles of a fake character. This is basically the chick flick of books. I honestly believe this is the worst book I’ve ever read. I encourage everyone with a Y chromosome to stay as far away from this book as possible.

October 23, 2006

Sentimental Drivel

Filed under: criticism, literature — ted @ 5:03 pm

I’ve always found Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be pretty awful, at least as a work of literature. As a cultural icon, and a harbinger of change, it was quite successful — but reading it today is rather painful. James Baldwin, in a 1949 essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” berated Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality,” a critique I agree with wholeheartedly.

So it was interesting to read, in this weekend’s New York Times, two related considerations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. First, there’s an essay by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who thinks Baldwin’s “canonical critique [is] ripe for reassessment.” He makes a decent case, but doesn’t effectively address the novel’s crippling sentimentality, and doesn’t mention the poor quality of Stowe’s writing — I suppose he either takes it for granted, as something to be overcome, or doesn’t think it’s poor.

In a review of the The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which is edited by Professor Gates), critic Edward Rothstein summarizes past and present critical responses to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Again, his conclusion is less than satisfactory — he even makes a sentimental plea of his own.

It’s very interesting to me is that fact that one of the most popular influential novels in the history of the English language is so poorly written. We know that popularity and quality are not necessarily, or even often, bedfellows, and it’s worth remembering that influence and quality have a similar relationship.

October 20, 2006

More than Genes

Filed under: criticism, science — ted @ 4:52 pm

This brief report from today’s Seed has me pretty excited: How to Make Women Flunk Math. As the article notes, research on “gender differences” in the brains of men and women has been a hot topic of late, particularly last year in the wake of Harvard president Larry Summer’s comments concerning the dearth of women in prominent math and science research positions.

Basically, the study shows that women perform worse on math tests after reading fake “research papers” arguing that men were better than women at math:

New research shows that when women believe they are genetically bad at math, the belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

When it comes to mathematics, the divide between men’s and women’s talents may be due to misinformation more than genetic destiny, new research in this western Canadian city suggests.

A report published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Science showed that women exposed to theories saying females are genetically bad at math performed far worse on math tests than women who had not been exposed to such beliefs.

To me, this is yet another demonstration of the fact that information, and how we interpret it, is just as essential to our understanding and mental performance as the wiring of our brains. It’s only one study, and genetics is a brand-new field. I have little doubt that in fifty years geneticists will have proved things about our minds that now seem impossible. But I have to believe that, although there are plenty of tendencies instilled in us as a result of chemistry and upbringing, our minds are capable of rising above them.

This seems like an obvious, and even perhaps trite, observation, and I know that I am oversimplifying and that scientific data always wins. But determinism, as a philosophy, is far from dead, especially as genetics and neuroscience become more adept at explaining human behavior. Determinism will always be a tempting trap — but we must fight consistently, as Saul Bellow reminds us, to “emerge intact from the grip of those would-be dominators.” In Bellow’s work, the dominators were of the old-school variety: class, race, and sense of oneself. Chemistry, or in this case our understanding of it, is a more powerful foe — but, as this study shows, it is often our perception of our mind, rather than our mind itself, which defeats us.

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