Application Mania

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I’ve volunteered to be on the admissions committee this year, and I’m really in the thick of it now. My own work has been put on hold for a week or so as I read through the last round of applications. Even within the last group there are sharp distinctions: those who are OK, those who are inhumanely talented, and those who have left me mostly scratching my head. Reading all these files is an exhilirating and demoralizing process. Especially when you run into an applicant who really has his or her shit together; it makes you wonder how you got in.

When I applied to graduate school I had only the vaguest idea of what awaited me. I knew lit. theory as well as anyone else, and I had a very strong sense that I was destined to be a “postmodernist” (while at the same time knowing that I rejected the term’s usefulness, as any good postmodernist should do), but my research was less than thorough and my sense of what programs were like was paper-thin.

It all worked out for me, which is obviously cool, but the process of realizing how much I didn’t know has put me in a position where I find that I don’t necessarily value the very polished applications as much as other people might. I am more interested in the “diamond in the rough” applications–applications where a very powerful mind is struggling against his or her own state of not-knowing.

But these sorts of evaluation are so subjective. Oh, well. The grads don’t actually have any formal say in who gets in, so I can’t screw things up too badly.

Public Intellectuals

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I attended a poetry reading by Bruce Andrews, one of the founding members of the language poetry movement (sometimes written as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E). Afterwards, I went to a dinner with him, my advisor, another graduate student, and a visiting scholar. I learned that, in addition to his years of poetry-writing, he had a career as a political scientist. I mentioned that I was a fan of the idea of doing work as a public intellectual, and we kind of dove into a conversation about whether such a thing as a “public intellectual” was a good idea, or even a possible. What exactly does it mean to say that you are a public intellectual? Do scholars abuse their status as academics if they begin talking about topics which do not belong in their areas of specialization?

I suppose one theory of the public intellectual takes as its foundation a notion that intellectuals in one area or discipline have some sort of generalized cognitive capacities which enable them to make arguments about topics outside the domain of their official specialization. This, I think, is clearly faulty reasoning. Someone like Steven Pinker comes to mind: his book, The Blank Slate, whatever its virtues, has an awful chapter on literature and the arts. Really amazingly bad. So I would agree that being good in X doesn’t mean that you’re good at Y. But it doesn’t follow that a scholar cannot justifyably write for the public about those domains which he or she happens to know well; moreover, I think every person has an obligation to speak as a citizen: that even intellectuals have the right to give their opinions on matters of significance, or on any matters, really. The issue becomes then whether people give more credit to intellectuals because of their accreditation. I think that this isn’t a real problem, most of the time.

I, for one, am very committed to the idea of writing (if not FOR the public [because I find it kind of condescending to say that you’re writing for anything or anyone, as if one had the sense of edifying the ignorant masses] then) IN and WITH the public (which suggests what is obvious: we all live in the same world and have an interest in what happens in it). This, I think, is entirely appropriate, worthwhile, and–in fact–a duty for anyone who takes engaging with the world seriously. I want to write both about my area of specialization (late twentieth century literature and cultural production) and other things that I’m interested (politics, mainly). However, I don’t take the label “intellectual” very seriously–least of all for myself–but it’s a good word for describing people who happen to make their livings in univeristy-type jobs.

O Blog!

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I have been thinking a lot lately about the status of this blog in relation to my academic work. When I began this blog, I had the idea that it would be a nice way for me to formalize my note-taking process and create a space within which I could test out ideas before committing them to paper and to the process of peer-review. Lately, however, I have begun to wonder if blogs, as one of many public fora, might work against my professional development. Could something that I write here in this blog, even if it is cast as only tentative, cause problems for me in the future? Might someone I inadvertantly criticize or discuss someday be on a job committee that would consider whether or not to hire me? Could what I take to be an offhand or lighthearted comment get contrued as damning evidence of my stupidity or incompetance? These are risks we all take every day, just by having conversations with people, but the problem with blogging is that there is a public record of things that I have written, warts and all. Perhaps the only problem is my writing about academic matters–if I stick to my personal life, then perhaps the boundaries between personal blogging and professional argumentation would be more clear. At the same time, I feel like my professional identity will always involve a very strong component of public writing–writing for a public and also writing in venues that are not peer-reviewed. What is one to do? I am open to all ideas. My feeling, for now, is that I am going to keep writing this blog in the way that I have been writing. I’m willing to take this risk right now because I believe in the things that I am writing. I stand behind them. Or at least stand behind the good faith in which I propose ideas tentatively in this space.

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Himmlers of Hollywood

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I link to this Guardian article by everyone’s favorite Slovenian lit. critic Slavoj Zizek. He here criticizes the representation of torture on 24., with a particular focus on Season 4. Now I have all sorts of problems with the representation of torture on the show, for any number of reasons, but Zizek does a disservice to these arguments in what amounts to a really pretty confused account. It’s for me a paradigmatic example of what’s bad about the humanities right now; no one seems to be able to marshall a coherent argument to save his or her life. In this piece, for example, Zizek first says that 24 is ideological (and therefore bad) because it shows that people can live normal lives after torturing people; then he says well ok, maybe people can actually really live normal lives even after they torture people, but in that case 24 is even worse because its characters are able to detach themselves from the suffering they inflict; then finally he says, well, all this torture stuff used to be secrative, but what does it say about us that we’re no longer being secretive about the fact that we’re torturing people. It says that we’re all pretty bad, which is perhaps arguable (although I don’t know that open torture is worse than secret torture to the torture victim), but really has nothing to do with 24 as such. A shame.

Changes Keep Coming

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So my dissertation keeps changing shape and size. Based on the various critiques that I received at my colloquium, I have been thinking about whether or not the concept of “postirony” has enough in it to carry a whole dissertation. I mean, it seemed that I could do a very detail-level sort of analysis of the fiction of the late 1990s, but now I am beginning to wonder if my project would be better served by expanding the focus. One of the major observations that came out of my coll. was that the authors that were my focus were almost exclusively white, male, and heterosexual. This is absolutely true (although I had included Zadie Smith’s White Teeth in my final chapter) but it remained unclear how to resolve this problem, which is only ambiguously a problem when one realizes that the community of authors that I had been focusing on was largely self-constituted and this community of hip, postironic folk is indeed largely white, male, and heterosexual–and very very self-consciously so, almost to the point of paralysis.

I thought for a while that I could look at the often stiff relationship these mostly very liberal or left-leaning authors have towards non-white cultural artifacts and people: think of the number of postironic films today whose only non-white character is an adopted Sudanese war orphan or other Sally Struthers victim (I am quite serious: think of About Schmidt, Garden State, I [heart] Huckabees, etc. Think also of the mannered attempts at rendering African-American dialects in Infinite Jest.) Now, I am not sure if there is enough in this observation to carry a whole chapter–perhaps a part of a chapter.

The other approach, which I am seriously considering adopting, is to broaden the focus of my dissertation to examine hip irony as such. Doing so would allow me to move further back in time and do readings of books like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Thomas Pynchon’s V. The point would be to document the ways in which African-American culture of the ’40s and ’50s became the model of the hip. This is, after all, what Norman Mailer is after in “The White Negro”: the experience of blacks in America is no longer marginal–but, in an age of concentration camps and atom bombs–absolutely the norm. This approach seems more promising, because it would not involve bringing race, gender, sexuality into my project in a way not justified by the material itself.

Furthermore, I think I am going to bring in the term multiculturalism as a contested term in the ’80s. I realized today (while at the gym) that hyphenated culture-terms really have quite a lot to do with each other. So I think I am going to do a chapter on the relationships between the terms countercultural, multiculturalism, and subculture. I think these concepts are pretty intimately related and have everything to do with new conceptions of identity politics paradigmatic of the ’70s and ’80s. Having a chapter on these paracultures (my lumping term, for now) would set up nicely the intellectual and cultural landscape which the postironists found themselves in–and found themselves rejecting.

So these are some thoughts towards where my project is going. As always, I reserve the right to absolutely change my mind and scrap the whole thing. But the project seems to be on firmer historical legging now. It’s gone from a very narrow late ’90s project to something about the post-WWII period as such, with a special focus on the ’90s.

Transformations and Permutations

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I am back in the U.S. after a pretty cool–and rather sick–trip to Barcelona for the New Year, where they stuff their mouths with grapes in the seconds leading up to midnight.

My colloquim went off pretty well, although every member of my committee had mutually irreconcilable advice on where I should take my dissertation. I am thinking about the diss. again and am contemplating taking it in the direction of looking at Coolness as a concept across a longer stretch of time than merely the ’90s.

In fact, I have become enamoured of a new idea about how to do texual and literary analysis based on the development of a notion of “narrative economics” (as opposed to narratology) which takes a literary work as the amaglamation of a literal economy of textual tokens which come together in some structure. I am interested in documenting how narrative economies have real interactions with social and historical economies. To give you a simplified example of what I mean, think of a feature of narrative structure like length. A book that is “too long”–where too long is defined in relation to what is a socially normal length for a novel–will suffer a reduction in sales simply because people are less willing to devote substantial time to reading that novel. Correspondingly, however, a novel that is very long might gain in its status, which would feed back into its sales. This is the sort of analysis that I am beginning to find interesting and convincing as a way forward for literary studies. Maybe it’s just crap but that’s where I am right now.

How does this fit into a concept of coolness and postirony? Well, I’m not entirely sure. I am going to begin by writing a section on The Corrections. I am interested in the way that Franzen positions the novel as a kind of appeal to the “middlebrow”–a descent from literary heights–which he redacted when fully embaced by the “middlebrow” in the form of Oprah’s book club. I want to try to tie this positioning to the specific structure Franzen deploys in constructing the novel. It might all end up blowing up in my face.

If so, I’ll document that blowing up here on this blog.

Tomorrow’s the Day

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Tomorrow, my colloquium is being held. This is going to be the one and only time that the three members of my dissertation committee will be in the same room together. So I’m excited. I’m not, unlike the time directly before my orals, at all nervous. Tomorrow’s discussion will consist entirely of them talking about and me defending my proposal, which I’ve been working on for months now, and which I know inside and out–and which, based on preliminary feedback, they like a lot. I’ve been spending a lot of the downtime before my colloquium reading and working on my novel on the side. The novel’s growing into something substantial. Very pleased.

/patternHunter [/ph]

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I was reading the Wiki entry for William Gibson, and I discovered at the end of the entry a link to the website /patternHunter [/ph]. If, like me, you have an obsession with really sophisticated science fiction and emerging techno-cultural patterns of change, this site is something like an endless feast of fun.

I have been, while home for the Thanksgiving break, frantically writing my novel. I’m working on the dissertation colloquium too, but it’s mostly done–and my meeting with my advisors is on Dec. 13, so I have some time to write for pleasure. I’ve written 3000 new and pretty good words for my new novel. I’ve also had a revelation about the novel I began writing before I went to grad school; that previous novel I’d written 120,000 words of (out of a projected 160,000). I’ve decided to break it up into two 80,000 word novels, which means, essentially, that the first draft of the first novel is done. A little bit of editing, and I’ll start submitting it. I’m in a good mood about my writing.


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I’m clearly too personally invested in the topic of my dissertation. I have found a lot of the ideas that I’ve been working on sneaking their way into this novel I’ve recently started writing–the book is rife with hipsters, ironic cool, searches for political sincerity in a hypermediated world, and an out of control celebrity industry. If I’m not careful, the novel will end up saying more of what I want to say than the dissertation itself; or I’ll have to write a chapter about myself. I would title such a chapter merely “Solipsism.”

And There Was Much Rejoicing

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I have sent off a half-dozen copies of my pretty-much-complete colloquium paper to various readers. I am quite happy with how the process is coming. I am even managing to control my tendencies to write long, convoluted sentences with many relative clauses. More substance later, I promise.