Monthly Archives: January 2009

I, Celebrity blogger

Well, I’ve had my first interview as a result of my blogging, with the Pakistani Spectator, of all places.  Out of the blue, I hear from these folks saying they’d like to interview me and what I think about blogging.  Apparently it’s a group trying to make a go of blogging in Pakistan, with political and cultural commentary–a lot of it written in Urdu which i have no hope of reading.  It’s a bizarrely interesting site to my mind.  Advertisements for Pizza Hut and chances to meet Pakistani women ride alongside Islamic critiques of the Israeli war in Gaza (and, given that some of it’s in Urdu, who knows what else).  In any case, I’m sure you’ll want to check out my deep and profound commentary on the nature of blogging, as well as my admission that i know next to nothing about Pakistan.

We’re really getting desperate now

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a man walked into an English class at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis Tennessee and robbed 18 students at gunpoint.

Do thieves really have nothing better to do with their time than to rob a bunch of people who are learning how to read and write.  More, these folks will never make any money anyway, as amply demonstrated by their being English majors?

A theoretical side-note.  In my literary theory classes at Duke, I remember fellow students attempting to refute deconstruction by asking, “If someone held you at gunpoint, would you really sit there and deconstruct the gun?”  We may never know, but these students really have the opportunity!  I think the prof should take advantage.  This is one of those infamous “teachable moments,”  by which teachers usually mean “something uncomfortable and really unfortunate just happened, but let’s just turn it in to language!”

“How, John, did you see the gun–as a phenomenon in the moment of its appearance or as sign and symbol of our oppressive political dialectics…No thoughts?…Jane?…Jim…anyone?”

Bodies and Books

My good friend Julia Kasdorf wrote a book called “The Body and the Book,” broadly taking up the theme of contrast and connections between intellectuality/textuality and embodiment/materiality.  Karin Littau seems tolittau-theories-of-reading be mining a similar territory in Theories of Reading:  Books, Bodies and Bibliomania, a book I just started in on, though Littau is explicitly interested in reading as a bodily or material act, one in which affect more than cognition takes a center stage.

A couple of quotations and impressions from the early going:

Discussing early perspectives on novel reading on page 3–“William Wordsworth saw [the novel providing] ‘deluges of idle and extravagant stories.’ Insofar as ferocious novel reading also fostered disconnected and ‘higgledy-piggledy’ practices of reading (Schenda 1988: 60), it was thought that, ‘if persisted in’, it would have the effect of ‘enfeebling the minds of men and women, making flabby the fibre of their bodies and undermining the vigour of nations’ (Austin 1874: 251).  Like all addictions, those afflicted demanded more and more of the same:  more to read, more excitement, more tears, horror and thrills.  Bibliomania is therefore part of a larger cultural malaise specifically associated with modernity:  sensory overstimulation.  From the perspective of a theory of reading it shows that reading, insofar as it is either bad or good for the reader’s health, is in both instances conceived in physicalist terms.”

I think Littau is right here.  One of my commenters on yesterdays post apparently objected to the notion that we require permission to read.  But I really think I’m write about this for a big swath of Middle America.  There’s a long history of reading being seen as deleterious and slothful.  So in some sense we had to turn it in to a moral activity.  We had to quit reading for pleasure plain and simple and had to start reading for aesthetic experience, or meaning, or as a form or religion, or in order to improve ourselves.  This is deeply endemic to English deparments, and, I think, is one of our biggest failings;  we fail to account adequately for the grosser affective pleasures of narrative art which bring us our students in the first place.  Instead we have to imagine how literature improves their minds in order to justify our budgets.

I think that although I would grant Littau her premises here, that I would go beyond her simple statement of reading’s physicality to point out that these early and later continuing critiques of excessive reading have a moral dimension to them.  The sense that reading might have deleterious effects on the body, or, alternatively, that it awoke the passions and so had a deleterious effect upon self-control, both spoke to a much broader ethos than the simplistic enlightenment division between mind and body really captures.  There is a certain morality of the body associated with Christianity that isn’t captured in the simplistic notion that Christians despise the body.  Rather the body is to be situated and used and built up in particular kinds of ways because it is the temple of the holy spirit, and so forth.  Thus the physicality that Littau notes occasions a moral dilemma for the reader–one, frankly, that I still experience in a way.  Well, I’m reading, but I could really be out helping the homeless, or stumping for Obama, or doing other good works.  Or, more basically, I could be working out and trying to shave off all the pounds that I’ve put on over the course of my 49 years.  I truly suspect that if I read half as much and used the time to work out, I would be healthier (perhaps wealthier, perhaps wiser).  This is a judgment of relative goods, but the critique of reading isn’t as dumb and outmoded as it first appears.  How we use our time is an ethical conundrum, and so the fact of reading isn’t self-evidently justified, however many good moral benefits we may tend to attach to it as devotees of books.

From page 10–“Thus, the bulk of twentieth centiury reader-oriented theories, with some notable exceptions from within feminist theory, are concerned predominantly either with how readers make sense of a text (Culler, Fish, Iser, Jauss, Gadamer), how texts frustrate readers’ attempts at making sense (de Man, Miller, Hartmen, Bloom, Derrida), or how readers resist the meanings of certain texts (Fetterley, Radway, Bobo).  Thus, even when theorists turned away from an overly textualist approach to a more contextual, or politically engaged, approach, the production of meaning is still the primary concern.  By contrast, theories of reading before the twentieth century were also concerned with readers’ sensations.”

I think Littau is really on the mark here.  I remember sitting around with Jim Berger at a coffee shop called Kiari’s when I was teaching at George Mason University.  Jim and I would reflect on the fact that we didn’t know how to talk with students about the pleasure of literature, and didn’t quite know how to lead students into taking pleasure in more complicated and difficult texts.  I know that one of the great benefits of my undergraduate education was certain the ability to make and discover meaning in texts.  However, another huge benefit was learning how to take pleasure in things I could never before have imagined as pleasurable (Joyce’s Ulysses is NOT a natural taste).  I think we’ve shied away from pleasure as beneath the “serious” pursuit of ethical and metaphysical views of literature, but I wonder whether there isn’t an ethical dimension to the means and manner and ranges of our pleasure.  Finding ways to take pleasure in things that aren’t in our inherited bad of tricks is, it seems to me, a sign of growth and maturity and even, in some sense, an act of opening the self to otherness, a kind of ethical stance in and of itself.

I’m interested in how to take our pleasures seriously, how to learn our pleasures and how to learn from them.

Censorship in Nigeria

One of my former students, Carmen McCain, continues her great work in confronting censorship policies in Nigeria, policies which are at least partially attendant on the implementation of sharia law in Islamic areas of Nigeria.  Carmen graduated from Messiah several years ago, has been a fullbright scholar, a graduate student at Wisconsin, an actress, writer, and activist.  She was Messiah’s distinguished young alumnus a couple of years back.  If you can support her work in any way, there’s contact information at her blog.

Scott McClemee on Rene Girard on Reading and Writing

Scott McLemee cites the following from Rene Girard

“And yet our cultural world is a far cry from Elizabethan England or la cour et la ville in seventeenth-century France. There is a reason for this, so simple and yet so obvious that no one ever mentions it. At the time of Elizabeth and Louis, one percent, perhaps, of the educated people were producers, and ninety-nine percent were consumers. With us, the proportion is curiously reversed. We are supposed to live in a world of consumerism, but in the university there are only producers. We are under a strict obligation to write, and therefore we hardly have the time to read one another’s work. It is very nice, when you give a lecture, to encounter someone who is not publishing, because perhaps that person has not only enough curiosity but enough time to read your books.”

Yes, I think this is right, and perhaps not only in academe.  I’ve mentioned before that I get a fair number of students who are interested in writing stories or poems, but don’t have much interest in reading anything.  How this comes to pass is beyond me, and it seems vaguely narcissistic.  We want desperately to express ourselves–and thus the triumph of blogging–but we have little interest in the expression of others.

Happy Anniversary to Me

Ok, this really happened a couple of days ago since I think I started this blog on January 3rd, a year ago.  In the interim I’ve had a few more than 52,000 hits, well beyond my wildest dreams. I think starting out I was thrilled to get ten people a day dropping by.  Now I’m depressed when I have less than 100 hits, although I realize that 52,000 ain’t squat compared to a lot of people who blog.

Clearly the vast majority of my hits were interested in the politically oriented blogs, so it’s probably fair to say that people are much more interested in reading when it is being done by Barack Obama or John McCain than when it is being done by me.  Also, general browsers are very interested in movies, judging by the random hits I get off of Google.  I don’tknow if all of this confirms my general theses concerning reading in America, since I’m not absolutely sure I’ve my general theses, but there you have it anyway.

Totally Pointless New Year’s Resolutions

Ok, I’ve been away from this so long that I feel I owe somebody an explanation, although I think my blog stats suggest that no one really cares that I haven’t been posting for more than two months.  I’ve got a lot of really good excuses.  First would be I’ve been REALLY REALLY BUSY.  But I was busy before, so that one doesn’t wash entirely.  Though, to be frank, it is the case that administrative work takes more takes more time and energy than I ever used to have to give to anything.  Still, I think it’s really more the case that I just lost some of my blogging mojo, not really thinking I had much worthwhile to say and not really having much interest in saying it.  This is a poor excuse since i started out thinking of this thing as just an interesting way to keep writing even if a lot of it was really bad and pointless.  It is however, the best excuse I have.

In any case, on to my totally impossible and pointless new year’s resolutions.  My first goal is to make resolutions I know will be impossible to keep because I will then feel less bad about breaking them.

I Resolve to Write on my Blog at least once a week–Actually this seems doable.  Why not.  No one says I have to be original or even interesting.

I Resolve to lose 60 pounds–Ok, this is what Oprah and I really need to do, but is beyond the realm of reality.  Still, maybe if I say sixty I’ll actually get to thirty.

I Resolve to read one book a week–totally implausible, but why not fanatasize.

I Resolve to be a better husband and father–this one is really safe because if my kids refuse to say that I have achieved this goal I can cut off their allowance and send them to bed without supper.  Ok, they are far too big for me to send them to bed without supper, but I could threaten.  As for my wife, well, maybe she will humour me.

I Resolve to regularly attend church–always good to have a resolution that you are already achieving.

I Resolve to give up smoking–always good to have a resolution to give up something that you don’t actually do.

Ok, enough.  Some good things that I have done in the past two months–

1. Wept on election night in November while watching the victory speech.

2.  Wept several days thereafter upon watching reruns of the victory speech.

3. Read several books–maybe I’ll talk more about them later.

4. Visited Pagosa Springs Colorado–in fact, I’m sitting in the Albuquerque airport at the moment writing this blog.

5. Started working out again after a two month hiatus–makes me feel better about overeating.  Also makes me feel better about going to the gym on January 2nd.  I won’t have to feel like one of those folks that joins the gym in January and lasts for two week

There’s more, but that’s all I can come up with for now.