Looks like I've got a Jones for Anthony Bourdain. I've been watching mostly Parts Unknown, but also A Cook's Tour, and I've even gone scouting for stuff about him on Google Scholar. And, yes, there is an academic literature on cooking shows and travel shows and he's discussed in it. But that's not what this is about. I just wanted to share this interview with Bourdain and three of the production team, Tom Vitale (Producer/Director), Zach Zambonie (Director of Photography), and Todd Liebler (Director of Photography). As you might imagine, there's lots of Bourdain interviews out there, and I've seen a few. I'm posting this one because it's not just Bad-Boy Tony.
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Edit, later afternoon, 22 Feb 2017: It was pointed out to me that I'd misspelled Frye and Ransom when I first ran the charts. So I had to redo them. These are the new charts.I decided to do some Ngram searches on the names of important literary critics. Let's start with Northrup Frye:
He published The Anatomy of Criticism in 1957 and that, I believe, is the book that put him on the map. He tops out in the late 1980s.
Here we've got Frye, plus four other critics, Hillis Miller, George Steiner, Stanley Fish, and Harold Bloom. Frye outpaces all of them except Bloom, and Bloom passes him only in 1994 or so, where Frye is coming down and Bloom is at his apogee. Harold Bloom outpaces Fish, Steiner, and Miller, presumably because he developed a general audience readership that they did not. Notice as well that the other three (Hillis Miller, George Steiner, Stanley Fish) peaked in the 1990s.
Now let's add Derrida to the group:
Not surprisingly he sends them all to the showers. Of course, he's not a literary critic. He's a philosopher with a strong interest in literature and, of course, who exerted a strong influence on literary criticism.
Notice, in passing, that Derrida also outpaces Noam Chomsky, sometimes touted as the best-known intellectual in the world (as much for his politics, if not more, as for his linguistics):
Finally, let's recontextualize Frye and situate him among the New Critics:
John Crow Ransom is there at the bottom, while Frye rises above the others in the middle and late 1960s. Both Brooks and Warren had been students of Ransom and, of course, they had their names on two of the best-known undergraduate textbooks for literature, Understanding Poetry and Understanding Fiction. Warren also won Pulitzer prizes in both fiction and poetry (the only one to do so) and had a novel, All the King's Men, made into a major motion picture. Still, since 1970 Frye was mentioned more often in books than any of the New Critics.
Tuesday, February 21, 2017
This is a superb interview. Well worth listening two, all 73 minutes of it.
Elizabeth Drew is the author of Washington Journal, one of my favorite books about Watergate. Drew covered the story as a reporter for the New Yorker, and the book emerges from the real-time, journalistic diary she kept amidst the chaos. As such, it does something no other Watergate book does: tells the story not as a tidy tale with a clear beginning and inevitable end, but as an experience thick with confusion, rumors, alarm, and half-truths.Of late, I've heard a lot of people comparing the early days of Donald Trump's administration — with the strange scandals around Russia, the fast resignation of Trump's national Security Advisor, and the mounting pressure for investigation — with Watergate. And so I asked Drew, who is now a writer at the New York Review of Books, to provide some perspective on whether that comparison makes sense, and how to think about the Trump scandals that are unfolding, slowly and haltingly, right now.Books:-Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America
-Andrew Schlesinger’s The Age of Jackson
Drew emphasizes that, whatever Trump is, it's something we've not seen before, so comparisons with Watergate are of relatively little value. Her sense is that it, whatever it is, can't be sustained for four years. But she's unwilling to speculate about what will bring it to a stop. We've got to let it unfold. Not that we should be passive, but simply that we cannot prejudge how to act and react. It's a new phenomenon.
In 1989, a young professor named Gary Taylor published “Reinventing Shakespeare,” in which he argued that Shakespeare’s unrivalled literary status derives less from the sheer greatness of his plays than from the cultural institutions that have mythologized the Bard, elevating him above equally talented Renaissance playwrights. “Shakespeare was a star, but never the only one in our galaxy,” Taylor wrote. [...]
Late last year, Taylor shocked readers once again. The New Oxford Shakespeare, for which Taylor serves as lead general editor, is the first edition of the plays to credit Christopher Marlowe as a co-author of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” Parts 1, 2, and 3. It lists co-authors for fourteen other plays as well, ushering a host of playwrights—Thomas Nashe, George Peele, Thomas Heywood, Ben Jonson, George Wilkins, Thomas Middleton, and John Fletcher, along with Marlowe—into the big tent of the complete works. This past fall, headlines around the world trumpeted the Marlowe-Shakespeare connection, and spotlighted the editors’ methodology: computer-aided analysis of linguistic patterns across databases of early modern plays. “Shakespeare has now fully entered the era of Big Data,” Taylor announced in a press release.
It’s no longer controversial to give other authors a share in Shakespeare’s plays—not because he was a front for an aristocrat, as conspiracy theorists since the Victorian era have proposed, but because scholars have come to recognize that writing a play in the sixteenth century was a bit like writing a screenplay today, with many hands revising a company’s product. The New Oxford Shakespeare claims that its algorithms can tease out the work of individual hands—a possibility, although there are reasons to challenge its computational methods. But there is a deeper argument made by the edition that is both less definitive and more interesting. It’s not just that Shakespeare collaborated with other playwrights, and it’s not just that Shakespeare was one of a number of great Renaissance writers whose fame he outstripped in the ensuing centuries. It’s that the canonization of Shakespeare has made his way of telling stories—especially his monarch-centered view of history—seem like the norm to us, when there are other ways of telling stories, and other ways of staging history, that other playwrights did better.
* * * * *
Out of curiosity, I took a look at The New Oxford Shakespeare. They're offering, not one, but two versions of the complete Shakespeare. One version, Modern Critical Edition, seems to be a standard critical edition consisting of eclectic texts with supporting apparatus. The other version, Critical Reference Edition, is for hard-core Shakespeare scholars:
- A two-volume Complete Works that assembles primary resources in one place
- Presented with original spelling, punctuation, capitalization, abbreviations, typographical contrasts, ambiguities, and inconsistencies
- Footnotes identify and discuss any editorial corrections in the early documents
- Marginal notes record press variants and key variants in different documents
- Songs are presented with the original musical notation, when available
- Cast lists identify the length and type of each role, discuss potential doubling possibilities, and note essential props
Sunday, February 19, 2017
If you’ve heard of Dan Everett at all, most likely you’ve heard about his work among the Pirahã and his battle with Noam Chomsky and the generative grammarians. He went into the Amazon to live among the Pirahã in the mid-1970s with the intention of learning their language, translating the Bible into it, and converting them to Christianity. Things didn’t work out that way. Yes, he learned their language, and managed to translate a bit of the Bible into Pirahã. But, no, he didn’t convert them. They converted him, as it were, so he is now an atheist.
Not only did Everett learn Pirahã, but he compiled a grammar and reached the conclusion – a bit reluctantly at first – that it lacks recursion. Recursion is the property that Chomsky believes is irreducibly intrinsic to human language. And so Everett found himself in pitched battle with Chomsky, the man whose work revolutionized linguistics in the mid-1950s. If that interests you, well you can run a search on something like “Everett Chomsky recursion” (don’t type the quotes into the search box) and get more hits than you can shake a stick at.
I’ve never met Dan face-to-face, but I know him on Facebook where I’m one of 10 to 20 folks who chat with him on intellectual matters. Not so long ago I reviewed his most recent book, Dark Matter of the Mind, over at 3 Quarks Daily. I thus know him, after a fashion.
And so I thought I’d address an open letter to him on my current hobbyhorse: What’s up with literary criticism?
* * * * *
I’ve been trying to make sense of literary criticism for a long time. In particular, I’ve been trying to figure out why literary critics give so little descriptive attention to the formal properties of literary texts. I don’t expect you to answer the question for me but, who knows, as an outsider to the discipline and with an interest in language and culture, perhaps you might have an idea or two.
I figured I’d start by quoting a fellow linguist, one moreover with an affection for Brazil, Haj Ross. Then I look at Shakespeare as a window into the practice of literary criticism. I introduce the emic/etic distinction in that discussion. After that we’ll take a look at Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the course of which I introduce the question, What would I teach in a first level undergraduate class? I find that to be a very useful way of thinking about the discipline; I figure that might also appeal to you as a Dean and Acting Provost. I conclude by returning to the abstractosphere by distinguishing between naturalist and ethical criticism. Alas, it’s a long way through, so you might want to pour yourself a scotch.
Haj’s Problem: Interpretation and Poetics
Let’s start with the opening paragraphs from a letter that Haj Ross has posted to Academia.edu. Of course you know who Haj is, but I think it’s useful to note that, back in the 1960s when he was getting a degree in linguistics under Chomsky at MIT, he was also studying poetics under Roman Jakobson at Harvard, and that, over the years, he has produced a significant body of descriptive work on poetry that, for the most part, exists ‘between the cracks’ in the world of academic publication. The letter is dated November 30, 1989 and it was written when Haj was in Brazil at Departamento de Lingüística, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte . He’s not sure whom he wrote it to, but thinks it was one Bill Darden. He posted it with the title “Kinds of meanings for poetic architectures” and with a one-line abstract: “How number can become the fabric on which the light of the poem can be projected”. Here’s the opening two paragraphs:
You correctly point out that I don’t have any theory of how all these structures that I find connect to what/how the poem means. You say that one should start with a discussion of meaning first.That kind of discussion, which I have not heard much of, but already enough for me, I think, seems to be what people in literature departments are quite content to engage in for hours. What I want to know, however, is: what do we do when disputes arise as to what two people think something means? This is not a straw question - I have heard Freudians ram Freudian interpretations down poems’ throats, and I think also Marxists, etc., and somehow, just as most discussions among Western philosophers leave me between cold and impatient, so do these literary ones. So, for that matter, do purely theoretical, exampleless linguistic discussions. Armies may march on their stomachs; I march on examples. So I would much rather hear how the [p]’s in a poem are arrayed than about how the latent Oedipal etc., etc. In the former case, I know where to begin to make comments, in the latter, ich verstumme.
You’ll have to read the whole letter to find out what he meant by that one-line abstract, but I assure you that it’s both naïve and deep at one and the same time, mentioning, among other things, the “joy of babbling” and the role of the tamboura in Indian classical music. At the moment I’m interested in just those two opening paragraphs.
While I got my degree in literary criticism and understand the drive/will to meaning, I also understand Haj’s attraction to verifiable pattern/structures and his willingness to pursue that even though he cannot connect it to meaning. Yes, meaning is the primary objective of academic literary criticism and, yes, justifying proposed meanings is (deeply) problematic. I also know that the academic discipline of literary criticism was NOT founded on the activity of interpreting texts. It was founded in the late 19th century on philology, literary history, and editing – that is, editing the canonical literary works for study by students and scholars. Roughly speaking, the interest in interpretation dates back to the second quarter of the 20th century, but it didn’t become firmly institutionalized until the third quarter of the century. You can see that institutionalization in this Ngram search on the phrase “close reading”, which is a term of art for interpretive analysis:
Figure 1: "Close reading"
And that’s when things became interesting. As more and more critics came to focus on interpretation, the profession became acutely aware of a problem: different critics produced different interpretations, which is the correct interpretation? Some critics even began to wonder whether or not there was such a thing as the correct interpretation. We are now well within the scope of the problem that bothered Haj: How do you justify one interpretation over another?
That’s the issue that was in play when I entered Johns Hopkins as a freshman in 1965. Though I had declared an interest in psychology, once I’d been accepted I gravitated toward literature. Which means that, even as I was working as hard as I could to figure out how to interpret a literary text, I was also party to conversations about the problematic nature of interpretation. As I have written elsewhere about those years at Hopkins  there’s no need to recount them here. The important point is simply that literary critics were acutely aware of the problematic nature of interpretation and devoted considerable effort to resolving the problem.
In the course of that problematic thrashing about, literary critics turned to philosophy, mostly Continental (though not entirely), and linguistics, mostly structuralist linguistics. In 1975 Jonathan Culler published Structuralist Poetics, which garnered him speaking invitations all over America and made his career. For Culler, and for American academia, structuralism was mostly French: Saussure, Jakobson (not French, obviously), Greimas, Barthes, and Lévi-Strauss, among others. But Culler also wrote of literary competence, clearly modeled on Chomsky’s notion of linguistic competence, and even deep structure. At this point literary critics, not just Culler, were interested in linguistics.
Here’s a paragraph from Culler’s preface (xiv-xv):
The type of literary study which structuralism helps one to envisage would not be primarily interpretive; it would not offer a method which, when applied to literary works, produced new and hitherto unexpected meanings. Rather than a criticism which discovers or assigns meanings, it would be a poetics which strives to define the conditions of meaning. Granting new attention to the activity of reading, it would attempt to specify how we go about making sense of texts, what are the interpretive operations on which literature itself, as an institution, is based. Just as the speaker of a language has assimilated a complex grammar which enables him to read a series of sounds or letters as a sentence with a meaning, so the reader of literature has acquired, through his encounters with literary works, implicit mastery of various semiotic conventions which enable him to read series of sentences as poems or novels endowed with shape and meaning. The study of literature, as opposed to the perusal and discussion of individual works, would become an attempt to understand the conventions which make literature possible. The major purpose of this book is to show how such a poetics emerges from structuralism, to indicate what it has already achieved, and to sketch what it might become.
However much critics may have been interested in this book, that interest did not produce a flourishing poetics. Even Culler himself abandoned poetics after this book. Interpretation had become firmly established as the profession’s focus.
As for the problem of justifying one interpretation over another, deconstructive critics argued that the meaning of texts was indeterminate and so, ultimately, there is no justification. Reader response critics produced a similar result by different means. The issue was debated into the 1990s and then more or less put on the shelf without having been resolved.
I have no quarrel with that. I think the basic problem is that literary texts of whatever kind – lyric or narrative poetry, drama, prose fiction – are different in kind from the discursive texts written to explicate them. There is no well-formed way of translating meaning from a literary to a discursive text. When you further consider that different critics may have different values, the problem becomes more intractable. Interpretation cannot, in principle, be strongly determined.
What, you might ask, what about the meaning that exists in a reader’s mind prior to any attempt at interpretation? Good question. But how do we get at THAT? It simply is not available for inspection.
What happens, though, when you give up the search for meaning? Or, if not give up, you at least bracket it and subordinate it to an interest in pattern and structure as intrinsic properties of texts? Is a poetics possible? Let’s set that aside for awhile and take a detour though the profession’s treatment of The Bard, William Shakespeare, son of a glover and London actor.
Saturday, February 18, 2017
This is one of my favorite cartoons. I've blogged about it quite a bit, and have packaged those posts into a working paper. About 2/3 of the way though there is a dance sequence that is one of the most joyous bits of film I've ever seen. The animation is superb, and so is the music. Given the date, 1944, the music is big band music, and this band plays like it's playing for live dancers. And the trumpet soloist, he plays like it's the third set of a good night.
And yes, sure, the cartoon is Orientalist, sexist, patriarchal, racist and a few other things as well. After you've gotten over that, look at the eyes and ask yourself, Why does the trumpet player get the girl? The cartoon's premise is that men are competing for the king's daughter. Why do the first three lose and thaelast one win? As I said, look at the eyes. What's that about? What values?
In various posts I've pointed out that interpretation didn't become central to academic literary study until after World War II. We can see that in the following Google Ngram chart on the phrase "close reading", which is the term of art for interpretation:
This comparison with "hermeneutic" is instructive:
They rise at roughly the same time, but the more technical "hermeneutic" quickly out paces "close reading". Why? Is this evidence for "physics envy" leading to the intellectually useless proliferation of technical jargon? Well, if you believe that literary criticism has no need of a theoretical infrastructure, then, sure, why not?
But I don't believe that. I may not like the theoretical instruction literary criticism has created for itself, but that doesn't mean I think it is best done without such an infrastructure. And the steep rise of "hermeneutic" seems to reflect the general rise of a theoretical infrastucture. Without any particular evidence at hand, the term strikes me as being more useful in general theoretical discussion. Close reading is something a critic does; hermeneutics is something critics talk about.
Friday, February 17, 2017
If Elvis Presley had been elected President of the United States, what kind of president would he have been? We now know: Trumpian. If Michael Jackson had been elected President of the United States, what kind of president would he have been? We now know: Trumpian. As far as I know these two musicians never had political aspirations – though a pill-addicted Presley once tried to cajole Richard Nixon into appointing him as anti-drug ambassador to the nation’s youth – but, like Trump, they lived in the public eye and they lived within an entourage of associates and ‘minders’ who kept the world at bay.
Secure in this circle, the star could do whatever he wanted, as long as the money kept coming in. For Presley and Jackson the money was driven by record sales and ticket sales. THAT was the connection with the world at large. They gift the world with music and the world gifts them with money. As long as those things are roughly in balance, the beat went on, more or less. Sure, there’s also the personal quirks, indulgences, and localized craziness that fueled the gossip rags of all media. But as long as the money train stayed on the rails the rest was just noise. The entourage could handle it. Until the drugs got out of control and the entourage was useless.
Pre-Presidential Trump is a more complicated case. Initially, and with the help of Daddy’s money and contacts – little Donald was born to an entourage – he made his money in real estate development. He did deals, face-to-face. Then, over time, he transitioned to a franchise operation and a TV star. Showbiz! But, as with Elvis and Michael, as long as the money came in, nothing else mattered. A little scandal here and there – and as far as we know, The Donald has never been into anything comparable to Elvis’s pill habit or Michael’s cosmetic adventurism and child fetishism – but it’s just noise.
Now that he’s President, things have changed. Drastically. Money is no longer his connection to the world. To be sure, he’s still holding on to his vast business empire – Yuge, I tell you, Yuge! The best! – though he’s distanced himself from it by the length of a pinky. But, and here’s the crucial point, that business empire is no longer his lever on reality. That’s not how he judges his personal efficacy any more. Let me repeat that, with emphasis: That’s NOT how he judges his PERSONAL sense of efficacy.
Now that he’s president his personal sense of efficacy is linked to his acts as president. And that’s not working out so well. He’s finding out that, at every level and in every way, the world is not willing to jump at his command. In particular, the media isn’t presenting a picture of his actions and efficacy that is consonant with his intentions. All of a sudden we have a comedian (John Oliver) placing educational ads on his favorite TV shows – fake commercials full of true facts! Trump’s image in the media was one thing when his world centered on his ability to generate a money stream; in that context it played a secondary and subsidiary role – all PR is good PR. Now that that income stream has been shifted into a secondary role, all he’s got left is the media flow.
He signs executive orders and he expects the media to show him how dynamic, forceful, and all-around-wonderful he is. And, remember, this is now the main event. When the media doesn’t comply. What does he do? He goes on TV and delivers a 77 minute rant against media.
How long can he keep this up?
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
This is a fascinating little video. It's an interview with Paul Cohen, who played lead trumpet for Count Basie for years and years. The two men were very close; Cohen thought of Basie as a father. But there came a time when Basie "rejected" Cohen and Cohen left the band. Cohen's playing on "Poor Butterfly", which plays in the background during the interview, is gorgeous.
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Here's another draft fragment from my open-letter in progress. This fragment centers on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
* * * * *
Now I want to look at a particular example, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is one of the texts most frequently taught in undergraduate courses. Why? Well, it’s relatively short, 40,000 words, which is a consideration, albeit a minor one. Surely it’s the subject matter – roughly, European imperialism in Africa – and, secondarily, Conrad’s impressionist style. Still, why, why do those things matter?
Let’s look at a short statement by J. Hillis Miller, a senior and very respected literary critic. He is old enough to have gotten his degree at Harvard at a time when, in his view, when few in the English Department there were much good at interpreting texts and his is one in the first generation of deconstructive critics. Shortly after the turn of the millennium the Association of Departments of English honored him for his fifty years in the profession. Of his early days as a faculty member at Johns Hopkins, the 1950s and 1960s, Miller tells us:
English literature was taken for granted as the primary repository of the ethos and the values of United States citizens, even though it was the literature of a foreign country we had defeated almost two hundred years earlier in a war of independence. That little oddness did not seem to occur to anyone. As the primary repository of our national values, English literature from Beowulf on was a good thing to teach. 
Which is to say, literature is taught as a vehicle for cultural indoctrination. Of course you know that; you don’t need Hillis Miller to tell you that. But I just wanted to get the idea explicitly on the record along with that little irony about English literature in the United States (Miller had earlier pointed out that, at the time, American literature was marginal in the academy, at least at Hopkins).
Just a bit more about Heart of Darkness, which is a relatively simple story. A pilot, Charles Marlow, needs a gig. He calls on an aunt who gets in an interview with a continental firm, which hires him to pilot a steamer up the Congo River to a trading station that has gone incommunicado. Marlow’s job is make contact with the agent of the Inner Station, named Kurtz, and recover the ivory that Kurtz has, presumably, been accumulating. Marlow is our narrator. Actually, he tells the story to an unnamed third party, who then tells it to us, but we can skip that detail for awhile. That third party presents the bulk of the story to us as Marlow’s own words. Marlow’s steamer is crewed by native Africans and, in addition to personnel from the trading company, there are pilgrims on board.
Marlow is presented as a brilliant and talented man who went to Africa to earn enough money to make him worthy of his Intended; we don’t learn this detail until late in the story, nor are we ever told her name. We’re also led to believe that he has gone mad, setting himself up as a demi-god to the natives and taking a native mistress. As for those natives, it is clear that they have been badly treated by the Europeans.
Whatever else is going on, Heart of Darkness is an indictment of European imperialism in Africa. And yet in 1975 Chinua Achibe, the Nigerian novelist, set off bombshells when he delivered a lecture, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness” . How could Heart of Darkness be racist, people objected, when the text obviously condemns imperialism? Easy, goes the rejoinder, for Conrad deprives Africans of agency, depicts them only as victims, and never has even one of them speak. Now, NOW, we’ve got something to think and talk about. Heart of Darkness may be over a century old, but the issues it embodies are very much alive in this, the 21st century.
Monday, February 13, 2017
I've enjoyed both the episode on Tokyo, and that on Detroit, episodes 7 and 8 in season two of Parts Unknown. Tokyo:
Like a lot of non-Japanese, obsessed with Japan, Japanese food and Japanese culture, I've always been amused, occasionally appalled and always befuddled by the more lurid aspects of Japanese fantasy, pop culture and expressions of fetishistic desire. Popular comic books (manga), toys, films, advertisements and entertainments are loaded with images of bondage (shibari), hyper-sexualized school girls, rape, homoeroticism, violation by demons and tentacles – and more (all generally referred to as "hentai"). The honky-tonk Shinjuku district of Tokyo seems to promise galaxies of gratification – for flavors of desire that range from the simply eccentric to the absolutely horrifying. [...]
On one hand, the Japanese seem to have a much more open, nonjudgmental, less puritanical view of sex. Attitudes toward women's roles in the workplace and elsewhere, however, remain largely mired in the long-ago past. Rigorously conventional on one hand, batshit crazy party animals on the other, Japan will always confuse outsiders looking in. Even from close-up. [...]
So in many ways, this show is about fantasy – as much as anything else.
I hope this news will temper, slightly, the reaction of the more easily offended who watch this episode, as it contains images and subject matter of a decidedly "mature" and even offensive nature.
This is a "difficult" show. And I hope it doesn't frighten anyone away from one of the most fascinating and deeply enjoyable places to visit, experience and learn a little about on earth.
Bourdain claims that "it's easily one of the most brilliantly shot and edited episodes we've ever done." I can believe that. My one reservation is that it leaves the impression that manga is mostly about kinky sex. While you can certainly find manga that feature kinky sex, you can find manga about pretty much anything, appropriate for pretty much any audience. Kinky sex is just part of the mix.