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The lute lies rusted in its green case odor of pines is synthetic; sweeteners artificial; even salt!  our tongues crave something dif...

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Tier Two

Once you realize that tier 2 activities are supportive of tier 1, then the former will seem less onerous. So I always resist cleaning, but if I can think of it as something that will create a conducive environment for productive work- / love- / music- making, then cleaning seems more valuable.


I continue with life hack #1, which is to do something life-changing or impactful every day. I've cleaned my home office and started on the office here on campus and the bedroom.  I'm continuing to aim to complete a major article / chapter / proposal every month. I have one planned for Dec.


Also, interviewed (with my own department) to be Chair.  I will need to institute some hacks if I am chosen for this position.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Disturbing encounter

At the airport, picking someone up, I had a disturbing encounter. I was at terminal C and I woman approach us as we were loading suitcases in the car and said, "Are you going to terminal B." I said no and she said, "the n.....s" are going there." She was about 60 and spoke with a possibly Eastern European accent.  She kept repeating that sentence and all we could do was just tell her in several different ways that she shouldn't be saying this. My companion told her she was disgusting. I'm sure she was mentally disturbed in some way.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Another useless notion

Another fairly useless notion is "non-Western." Ouch. What could this possibly mean? A hat-rack and a picture frame and the air in a balloon are "non-liquid." You can't define things but what they are not.

The "Western" is itself a dubious concept, but what do all the parts of the world that aren't Western have in common?  Nothing at all.


Blogging belongs to tier 1, for me.  Getting a comment from Bob, Olga, Leslie, or Thomas makes my day, even if it is a depressing comment.


Book proposal is being read at Routledge!


Another life /work hack is to write an article or equivalent every month. It could be a major keynote address or a book proposal.  You might not be able to sustain it, but it is a way of writing yourself out of a funk. I've been doing it since September. The last time I did it was in January 2006, and the result was the renaissance of my career.


Your weaknesses will be most apparent to yourself,  in many cases.  As long as you can some up with good results, it doesn't matter that you have weaknesses that made it harder for you. It matters to you, but not to others.

There are several approaches to weaknesses:

Defensive: you can deny them or attempt to conceal them (usually making them worse in the process!).

Opportunistic:  you can identify them and work to remedy them.

The approach I've taken often is to ignore them and making my strengths so strong that the weaknesses won't even matter any more.  This "works" to a small extent, but then doesn't allow as much personal growth.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Footnote to awesome life hack 2

If you are in a relationship, or any kind of friendship, then that can be in the top tier:  something you live for.  It can be in middle tier as well: something that sustains you. If it is in the bottom tier, then it is a bad relationship, of course. Most good relationships have to have elements of tiers one and two. Instinctively, without even thinking about it, I put my love relationship on the top tier, as something valuable in an of itself, not as something with a merely utilitarian purpose.

I think happiness is the wrong goal. The goal should be doing as much in the top tier as possible. So it's not that music or love make me happy, but that these things are happiness.

Many things serve a dual purpose: they are ends in themselves and are also sustaining and enriching. Friendship is one such thing.  The more hours devoted to tiers one and two, the better.

The chance juxtaposition

An idea can come from the chance juxtaposition of two things. I found a quote I needed to write something, then found an even better quote:

In the broadest sense, art doesn't have a function for homo sapiens — it is a function of homo sapiens. Humans perceive-and-generate patterns in biologically and socially inseparable processes which generally precede application of those patterns. That's what makes the species so adaptable and dangerous. Even in the most rational or practical occupations, we're guided to new utilitarian results by aesthetics.Software engineers, for example, are offended by bad smells and seek a solution that's "Sweet!" 

 Then I picked up, on the way out of work, a book someone had left for anyone to take, on the Invention of Primitive Culture.  The idea is that primitive culture simply does not exist, is not reconstructable in any meaningful way.  If there is no primitive culture, there is no primitive art either. So I had an idea to write an article called "Theses on the Anthropology of Art."  The ideas for this started to form in my head.  Of course, I know nothing of the anthropology of art, so I would have to do a lot of reading.

Awesome Life Hack 2

Ok.  Here is a second life hack.

Take a piece of paper and on the top half, list things that you live to do. Making music, reading poetry, being in love, fucking, looking at art, cooking, mentoring other people... Whatever it is.  This is your top tier. Things you would do all day long if you could design your own life with no financial or any other kind of contingency. You don't think of these things as beneficial because they lead to other results, but as inherently valuable.  

Don't think of it as "life-work balance." The top tier of life includes things that belong to professional life (if you're lucky) or to personal life, if you're lucky.  What I am suggesting here is a balance of another type.  

On the middle of the paper, list things that are necessary but not necessarily pleasurable. For me, it's exercise and meditation, sleep, cleaning and organizing, and the less pleasurable parts of professional life. These things support the top tier. 

Now you might be lucky, and find that exercise and meditation belong to your top tier. Then you won't have to force yourself to do them.  For me, luckily, cooking is in the top tier, so I don't see at as a tedious chore.  Everyone's list will be different.   

On the bottom is your lower tier. Here binge watching netflix, drinking, or ruminating, randomly going through comments on a blog post on the internet... These fill time but are do not support the top tier, and may even undermine it, to the extent that they foster depression and anxiety.  

So two thirds of one's life, in this scheme, is positive: it is either what one lives for, or something supportive of it.

Once you have the paper filled out, then you can easily see what the next steps might be. For me, for example, it is obvious that I have to do more in the middle tier and less in the bottom one.  I can eliminate random internet browsing and limit binge watching of netflix to after 8 p.m.  


Another way to do this hack is to map out your life using other schemata: you don't have to follow mine. You can use a bookkeeping scheme to talk about assets and liabilities, or use the life / work equation that many prefer.  I prefer mine, because it shows the relation between the middle and upper tiers: a simple list of positives and negatives does not do that, but you might come up with something even more brilliant.  

Friday, November 25, 2016

Life Hack

Here is a life hack I am doing.

If you find yourself in a funk, then do one significant thing a day. For example, I sent out the final version of an article, the next day I applied for a job, the next day I sent in a book proposal to a publisher, and the next day I cleaned my home office out. I hadn't been even using it. I will keep doing things like this until I feel I am out of my funk.

They can be things like resuming a good habit that you have allowed yourself to abandon. Don't do things like "I am going to eat better," that are nebulous. Make them very definite. Don't do more than one change a day, and make sure that you continue if the change you make is one that involves habitual actions. If it something that is a one-time thing, like sending an article in or cleaning out a closet, then you don't have to worry about continuity per se.

If you can't think of anything else to do then you are probably all right: you will have gotten out of your funk. Certain things, like not doing as much as you would like to, are living in messy circumstances, are both the cause and result of depression. Hence you can do something just by addressing one thing a day.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Master Class

I want to do something special in my next seminar on the Monday after Thanksgiving.  I have no ideas except that I want it to be a master class of some kind.  That, a class in which, if you had never studied with me, would give people the best I have to offer in 3 hours.  Any ideas?


There is a naive view of language that claims that language must be ever more fine-tuned in order to represent reality adequately.  I don't know if you have noticed, but language is pretty abstract.  Even really seemingly concrete language is abstract.  So if I say the word dog, that seems concrete, but is it a big dog or a small one, what color is it?  How old is it?  Actually, the word names a category, not a concrete object. So language usually does not represent reality in any great detail. Or if it does it has to incredibly verbose description. This description exists, in realist novels, but usually not very much in other contexts. Really detailed architectural plans are not expressed in words, but in pictures, and for very good reasons We think we get a picture of the cat in WCW: when the cat stepped over the ... but we don't really.

There are systems of notation that are efficient, like musical scores. To dictate those verbally would be tedious: put a quarter note on the E of the treble staff...  Now a quarter note rest...

Systems of notation are conventional. They don't convey, by themselves, anything but information that can be decoded in a conventional way.

The use of language in identity politics is a residue of romantic ideas about particularity.  I think those ideas are fundamentally flawed.  Of course, I would say that as a white guy, but still...

Some more useless concepts

Nature. Nature is the name for everything not man-made. But it is a socially constructed thing, in the sense that the division between nature and everything man-made is a human invention.  If a Martian comes to earth, they would see different kinds of things, and a human artifact would not be different from a beehive or a beaver dam.

Some things that bug me

"I will use the theories of X, Y, Z [names of famous theorists]"

Followed by:

[plot summary of a novel, with no theoretical content]"


"Use the pronoun that the student prefers."

[Usually I address everyone with the same, non-gendered pronouns:  you, or .]


The confusion of gender identity with styles of gender presentation. The proliferation of identities that are more like styles.


Politics (collective matters) confused with individual preferences.


The reduction of politics to language, or the political correctness / incorrectness debate.  


The idea of a spectrum. Some things have a spectrum, others do not.  If we put something on a spectrum, we are trivializing the problem represented by the extreme end of the spectrum.

Monday, November 21, 2016


I was revising my book proposal.  Am about to send it out, and I am gripped by anxiety.  Heart-racing, out-of-breath levels.  I guess I am wondering whether I can still get a book published.

The Coming Storm in Gender Studies

The idea of social constructionism is fine, but I don't think people have noticed that you cannot turn around and then claim that those constructs are sacred essences that you cannot question. This has always been a tension in feminism and gay / lesbian studies, and is going to be even more intense in trans- studies. If gender and even sex are socially constructed, then what makes my own private socially constructed identity so sacrosanct, so essential?

This is no longer even about group identities, since each individual can define for themselves exactly what is going on with that individual identity. But if gender and desire are infinitely fluid, then they also become meaningless. Those old devils masculine and feminine are lurking there, because fluid only makes sense if there are pre-established categories there to refer to. Otherwise it would be "fluid between what?"

This theoretical incoherence is striking.  How come nobody notices it?

The Last Formalist

That sounds a bit melodramatic, but almost everyone in my field does ideological criticism. So why do I cling to formalism? I've described the kind of work that goes on a lot, wherein the critic chooses themes and issues and then finds narrative packages (novel and film, less often plays) that illustrate those. I cannot get excited about doing such work myself. And shouldn't there be at least one of me?

Friday, November 18, 2016

Answer to a questionnaire

1.     Please feel free to add any additional feedback not previously mentioned in this questionnaire. Despite my negativity above, I feel that the project is admirable in some ways: the dedication to this work, and the level of detail in explicating it, is evidence of an enormous investment of time, energy, and intelligence. Unfortunately, this sort of effort does not translate into a scholarly monograph of high quality. The problem is that a scholar must know his or her public and be attuned to what sort of arguments / theories and what level of detail this public will respond to. This is a question of rhetoric, more than anything else. How do you convince a reader of the importance of the subject matter and of the relevance of a set of theories?  You cannot take these things for granted. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016


It is important to know one's weaknesses, because a weakness, properly identified, becomes an area of improvement. This is super obvious, but its consequences are striking.

*Gaps in knowledge.  Gaps in knowledge are easy to remedy, because all it takes is reading more. The less you know about something, in fact, the faster the progress. It is much harder to learn something new about Lorca, for me. I do learn new things all the time, but I have to wade through things I already know in order to get there.

*Bad writing. If you aren't a good writer, you can improve. A lot of it is just caring about it.  Once again, reading other people's prose critically and emulating or avoiding things you like or dislike.

*Bad work / organizational habits. Here the problem is to break bad habits, and habits by definition are  quasi-automatic and deep-seated. Here you must identify the flawed thinking that underlies the habit. For example, you might think: No use in writing between classes, I only have an hour.

*Bad thinking.  Bad thinking is any kind of cognitive bias that holds you down. For example: this journal is out to get me, they never accept my articles. Or, I can't publish as much as other people, because nobody is interested in my field.

*Intelligence. Can you become more intelligent? I don't know. There is so much under your control, but at some level some people are just smarter than others. That's what you might be thinking.

Yet people who think that success is the result of inherent talent tend to do worse than people who think success is due to hard work. So you are better off just outworking other people rather than assuming you aren't smart enough. People write dumb books, too. There are productive scholars who aren't good, but who just don't know it.

There are also concrete ways of being smarter than you already are. 
First: be around smart people, even if they make you feel dumb by comparison. Being the smartest person in the room a lot of the time does not make you smarter, but dumber, in the long run. Think of other people has the sharpening stone for your own intelligence. When I'm around dumb people I get dumber and more complacent about my own abilities. Read people's work who are smarter than you.  
Secondly: work at it. You get smarter by doing smart work. It is like intellectual exercise. 
Thirdly: be creative. Begin to paint or write music.  Have strong secondary fields of interest.  
Finally, be analytical about why you think you aren't smart. Is it because things take you longer to understand. What tasks cause you the most problems? Maybe you already have to be smart to figure those things out, but it might turn out that you are just less experienced doing certain kinds of intellectual tasks. If you are interested in doing them well, you will figure out how.   

Obama and Mayhew both

Here is one of my main weaknesses, but it turns out to be Obama's as well:

This may seem like a silly example, but I know myself well enough to know I can’t keep track of paper. I am not well organized in that way. And so pretty quickly, after I’m getting stacks of briefing books coming in every night, I say to myself, I’ve got to figure out a system because I have bad filing, sorting and organizing habits. And I’ve got to find some people who can help me keep track of this stuff. That seems trivial, but actually it ends up being a pretty big piece of business.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Political Correctness

Another concept that is dead, or ought to be, or is theoretically useless, is pc.

It ought to be dead from both perspectives: from the perspective of those who seem to be enforcing it, and for those who over-rate its importance for these very enforcers.

In the first place, it is a kind of linguification of real issues. If we can purify our language, then we can solve social issues. Of course, we should be careful how we speak, and what words we use, out of respect, but making that the main issue is never a good idea. Supposed people had a slur about people from Mars: the "Marties" and I accidentally said it when I was talking about mardi gras, or someone thought I did. So what?

Yet actually, people are usually not thinking about pc so much in the normal academic course of things, so the reaction to it is overblown as well.


It occurred to me recently, and this is really just a reformulation of other ideas I've had before, that a lot of work I see by young people in the field takes the following form:

a) A set of political / social / culture issues (colonialism, immigration, racism, queer identity...)

b) A set of theories and subfields about these issues

c) Novels and films, or fictionalized treatments of these issues. Sometimes it's plays or other cultural artifacts, like museum, buildings, whatever.  But in a whole lot of cases it's novels and non-documentary films.

The novels are the object of analysis; they exemplify and illustrate the theories and the issues.

Obviously this is not the way I work, but it is interesting that this works so well. Things line up pretty well, don't they? Often close readers of texts, literary and cultural critics, end up having more interesting things to say about the issues and the problems than those working straight in social science disciplines. So fiction, or imaginary narrative about real things, serves to get inside of these problems in a way impossible by other means.

It still seems odd, though, to make the analysis of novels so central to the study of pressing social issues.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Value Judgments

Everything we do in the humanities entails a value judgment.  Sometimes these value judgments are covert, and sometimes overt. The values can be cultural, political, aesthetic. By writing on a particular author or topic, we are conferring some value: this is something especially worthy of paying attention to.

Many arguments are framed in terms of legitimization and hierarchy. For example, I heard a keynote at the MACHL by Ignacio Sánchez Prado last week that argued for the legitimization of Mexican literature in relation to schemes of Comparative Literature that privilege German and French. He wanted Mexican literature studied as a whole, rather than piecemeal (picking out a few authors out of context). He had valid points, but it was an argument about academic politics in the US, essentially. If arguments get reduced to questions of legitimization, then a self-reflexive tone creeps in to the debate.   The humanities become about justifying their own existence as such. But, I would point out, we can only justify their own existence by being humanities, not mere proxies for other kinds of hierarchies.


Hence my resistance to anti-elitism. It seems to me that what the elitism / anti elitism debate does is to frame the question of legitimization in wretched ways.

So (position 1) the elite cultural product is better (elitism) because it is elite. That is, oriented toward a smaller, more selective, more educated group of people.

Or: because elitism is bad, this kind of product is to be denigrated. Anything popular (anti-elitist) is good simply by virtue of resisting elitism.

It is easy to see the crudeness of this thinking. An elite poem could be bad in its own way, because it could require a vast amount of literary culture to understand but still be quite bad in other ways.

A popular song could be good because it is good (not because it is popular). In other words, the value of the poem / song has no relation to the social value given to it by elitists (or elites) and anti-elites.

Ortega y Gasset praised the avant-garde because it was elitist, and thus had the useful function of separating the elite from his dreaded masses. He even says at one point in his essay that he isn't actually fond of this form of art, that it has not produced much of artistic value yet.

What I'm suggesting here is that aesthetic value is actually a more progressive and subtle instrument to use than the superimposition of political values onto the aesthetic.


On the bad poetry front, I've purchased a used copy of a Rod McKuen book. I'm planning an hommage.

Friday, November 11, 2016

My Weaknesses

I am irascible and unkempt

Given to lust, pride, and despair

Leaving behind piles of books wherever I go

A bad piano player & worse singer

Pedantic and self-involved, harmful to the environment

My weaknesses are visible to the eye

There is no point in concealment

Others are kind, though,

Ignoring my flaws a lot of the time

And even admiring my one good quality:

I am a non-violent man


Another thing that doesn't work is outrage.  Of course it works in the short term, but it then subsides again.  Trying to generate outrage out of truly outrageous things does not even work, but outrage over lesser evils is even worse. It could trend on Facebook that some newsperson said a bad word by accident. We can be angry and share a sense of solidarity over our disapproval. But is that going to be effective?

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


Another term that might not be very useful is safety. I say this in the wake of yesterday's tragic election.

I saw people focus on Facebook on protecting or providing a sense of safety to our students. We cannot do that. We cannot protect them or make them safe.  Life has risks. Safety might be defined as the (relative) lack of risk. So you are safer with safety belt in car than without, but you are not safe in any absolute sense, since the car is one of the most dangerous things in existence. Things that are really safe we don't even think of as safe. We don't have a safety watch, for example, because people don't cut themselves with a watch very often. We only have a safety razor, designed to produce fewer cuts than the old-fashioned straight razor. Guns have safeties to prevent them from going off accidentally, but my pencil doesn't have a safety.

Also, I don't know how I can protect my students since I am also unsafe. I cannot prevent them from hearing their uncle say something sexist, or from microaggressions from their fellow students. I can't be at a student party preventing people from unwanted sexual attention.

So there is no safety because we are in a struggle against things that actually are dangerous. The elimination of danger is not an option.

What other words have lost their meaning?

Tuesday, November 8, 2016


Teaching is transactional. The instructor is not feeding information to the students, teaching them that information, but interacting with them. A third element is the text in the class. The text is not inert, but active as well. For example, yesterday we were reading Olvido García Valdés, one of the best Spanish poets of the day. I could see the students rise to the intellectual level of the poetry itself, and it was wonderful as their comments got more and more brilliant.

One student brought up the idea that this poetry was "elitist," because it required a certain level of education to read and understand. Well, we are an elite, to be even in a graduate classroom reading anything at all, even non-elite poetry. For me elitism would be despising those who are not in the classroom with us, feeling that we are special because we get to spend our time like this.  To call ourselves "elitist" for this is a wretched sentiment.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Hatred of Poetry

It seems that a lot of people are getting the argument of Ben Lerner's The Hatred of Poetry wrong.  I think his argumentation, as far as it goes, is unassailable.  He claims that the so-called hatred of poetry is the product of an excessive exaltation of poetry. If poetry is put on a pedestal, then actual poems will disappoint.  So there is a weird logic going on. He confesses that he himself participates in this logic, and subscribes to it. This is an honest position, and it doesn't mean that he "hates poetry" in any simplistic sense. In fact, by exposing this logic, he pretty much refutes it.

Poetry itself is somewhat ridiculous. It is really absurd that it even exists, and most of it will be disappointing. What I find missing in Lerner's argument is something about the pleasure of actually existing poems, those that work their magic not only through the via negativa.

There is a wall of mediocre poetry that prevents people from being interested in the good stuff. If what is presented most of the time to us as poetry were all there were, I, too, would dislike it. I conceive of poetry as the enemy of mediocrity itself.

A really good poem just is good, in itself. It doesn't need only to gesture to some poetry that it cannot quite realize.

When we study poetry as academics, we do so historically, so we have to include the mediocre in with everything else.  We can also study, historically, the development of ideas like those of Lerner.

Theoretically Bankrupt Concepts

Ordinary language 

It is pretty obvious that the concept of ordinary language is theoretically void. If we understand ordinary language as "not poetic," then we have to have a concept of a language that is arhythmic, non-metaphorical / non-rhetorical... Where are we supposed to find this language?

We can talk about poetic language, but what we are doing is talking about language as it behaves in specific instances that we want to identity as poetic. That is not really different from talking about any other type of language usage.


Prose, as David Antin points out, is a system of notation. Since that's what it is it isn't a very useful concept theoretically unless we are talking about notation. Prose as "not verse" is a negative definition. In other words, we are defining writing by saying that it is not divided into lines of verse. Imagine if you notated music without dividing it into measures or having a time signature.  Or you just wrote rubato. It  would still be notated music, it just wouldn't have those cues.


Realism just doesn't exist.  We have some literary conventions associated with concepts of realism, and with "realism" as a literary movement. But there is not such thing as representing reality accurately in a piece of literary writing.  It just doesn't happen.  Imagine documentary film-makers filmed 200 hours of footage in order to produce an hour-long documentary.  So we get to see the half of a percent that tell the story that they want us to hear. There is no realism even in this genre.

The Self-Improver

Ok.  I am the classic self-improver. I take piano and voice lessons. I try to make every article better than the last one. The self-improver makes lists of weaknesses and addresses them systematically.  A weakness is usually an opportunity to do something different. If you aren't improving, you might be just getting worse, because without change things get stale--or simply decay.

This does not mean that I will improve in everything or never go in the opposite direction.

I know this is a bit corny, but it is really what I believe.

For example:

I could make a list of my strengths and weaknesses in piano playing:

*I have good basic harmonic knowledge
*I am familiar with a lot of songs
*I have nice melodic conceptions; I can write catchy tunes
*A good work ethic

*I don't have very much technique. I can only reach an octave
*My voicings are limited. I tend to be stuck in triads and don't have a mastery of quartal voicings.
*My comping is rhythmically somewhat stiff. I play a lot of whole notes and half notes.
*My improvisations are not particularly fluid

I am honestly more excited about my weaknesses, because those are things I can work on.