Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Quote of the Day: Saussure

Ferdinand de Saussure, whose Course in General Linguistics (really a book that is a conflation of his students' notes of his lecture) spawned the movement we call "structuralism" (and, therefore, also "post-structuralism") that has been so influential in linguistics, anthropology, mythology, etc., has an interesting one-liner when talking about the fraught, ambiguous, and ultimately arbitrary relationship between language and writing:

Writing is not a garment, but a disguise.

His point is that often, particularly in French, a written word has absolutely no relationship to its phonetic representations--his example is the french oiseau ("bird") that does not have a single letter that corresponds to its pronunciation [wazo]. But I wonder if we can take this further a bit, and say that not just writing, but language is not a garment, but a disguise. By altering one's speech, one alters one's identity, others' perspective of you--rightly or wrongly about your gender, your class, your level of education, your geographic origins, your nationality. While speech may function as a garment, perhaps an imposed one, in socializing you, in letting others know particular information about you (much like clothing itself does), you can also use it to hide, to transform yourself, or, knowing how people perceive or preconceive particular speech patterns, to mislead.

March Madness: The Tournament of Books

I just saw this in Salon, for all of you voracious readers, or anyone looking to expand their reading horizons:


The grandaddy of them all, however, is the Tournament of Books, mounted by the Morning News Web site and now in its sixth year. Unlike DABWAHA, ToB doesn't offer prizes to readers who make the most accurate predictions, and unlike all the other contests, it doesn't rely on polling readers to determine the winning books. Instead, a single guest judge selects the victor in each bracket, while the tournament's overseers, Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, serve up commentary garnished with the occasional dab of sportscaster lingo ("quintuple toe loop"?). There's even an official statistician who crunches such questionably significant numbers as (I think I have this right) the ratio of an entry's length to its likeliness to ascend to the next round.

The ToB has a healthy sense of its own absurdity, evidenced by the fact that the first round put Hilary Mantel's doorstop historical novel set in the court of Henry VIII, "Wolf Hall," up against "Logicomix," a graphic "novel" by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou about Bertrand Russell's effort to establish the logical foundations of mathematics. Both could be called historical fiction, but beyond that, the notion of weighing them against each other is so silly that it effectively pegs the entire contest as a goof. ("Wolf Hall" won that round, by the way.)

Because the competition itself is essentially meaningless, ToB is a Trojan horse. Under the guise of a sports conceit, it encourages people to read outside their comfort zones and reflect on the often knee-jerk judgments they make about books they've never even cracked open. In what other circumstances (besides having a job as a book reviewer) might someone wind up reading both John Wray's "Lowboy," a novel about a schizophrenic 16-year-old, aptly likened by judge Andrew Womack to a "cool indie flick," and Kathryn Stockett's best-selling book club favorite, "The Help"?


Quote of the Day: W.H. Auden

"Most people enjoy the sight of their own handwriting as they enjoy the smell of their own farts."

(W.H. Auden, "Writing," in The Dyer's Hand)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Religious vs. Spiritual

Norris Chumley, a friend of mine, has an article in the Huffington Post on the Pew Forum, "religious," "spiritual," and the important distinctions between them. Check it out here.

Weaponized Chili Peppers?

From AP:

By WASBIR HUSSAIN, Associated Press Writer – Tue Mar 23, 7:19 am ET

GAUHATI, India – The Indian military has a new weapon against terrorism: the world's hottest chili.
After conducting tests, the military has decided to use the thumb-sized "bhut jolokia," or "ghost chili," to make tear gas-like hand grenades to immobilize suspects, defense officials said Tuesday.

The bhut jolokia was accepted by Guinness World Records in 2007 as the world's spiciest chili. It is grown and eaten in India's northeast for its taste, as a cure for stomach troubles and a way to fight the crippling summer heat.

It has more than 1,000,000 Scoville units, the scientific measurement of a chili's spiciness. Classic Tabasco sauce ranges from 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units, while jalapeno peppers measure anywhere from 2,500 to 8,000.

"The chili grenade has been found fit for use after trials in Indian defense laboratories, a fact confirmed by scientists at the Defense Research and Development Organization," Col. R. Kalia, a defense spokesman in the northeastern state of Assam, told The Associated Press.

"This is definitely going to be an effective nontoxic weapon because its pungent smell can choke terrorists and force them out of their hide-outs," R. B. Srivastava, the director of the Life Sciences Department at the New Delhi headquarters of the DRDO said.

Srivastava, who led a defense research laboratory in Assam, said trials are also on to produce bhut jolokia-based aerosol sprays to be used by women against attackers and for the police to control and disperse mobs.

Mmm...chili kind of makes me hungry. I wonder if these chili tear-gas grenades can be used to spice up your food? Make a huge vat of bland chili, and then throw one of these babies into the mix, and, voila, ready to serve.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Who Owns/Protects Antiquity?

I just received the following announcement about an event at CUNY. If anyone is in NYC on April 7, it might be worth a couple hours of your time:

Who Protects Antiquity?

James Cuno, Lawrence Coben, Lawrence Rothfield

While archaeological sites from China to Peru are being destroyed by looters in search of saleable antiquities, those charged with custodianship of the past are locked in fierce debate. Archaeologists, leaders of cultural heritage organizations, and ministers of culture, dealers, collectors, curators, and museum directors cannot come to terms. Who is responsible for preserving cultural heritage?

Participants include James Cuno, Director, The Art Institute of Chicago and author of Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage; Lawrence Rothfield, author of Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum and Associate Professor of English at The University of Chicago; Lawrence Coben, Director of the Sustainable Preservation Initiative, and faculty affiliate in the department of archeology, University of Pennsylvania. Moderated by Joel Allen, Professor of Classics and History at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

Wednesday, April 7th, 6:30pm

The Proshansky Auditorium

The Graduate Center, CUNY

365 Fifth Ave (btwn 34th & 35th)


No registration. Please arrive early for a seat. 212-817-2005

The problem of "who protects antiquity" is all wrapped up into the thorny issue of "who owns antiquity" with all the attendant issues of Elgin's marbles, Nefertiti's bust, etc.

Luck o' the Irish

Thomas Cahill has basically a condensed, one-page, version of his book from years ago--How the Irish Saved Civilization--in the NYTimes. The article is astounding in the assumptions it makes. Let's take a few of these:

Upon their entrance into Western history in the fifth century, they were the most barbaric of barbarians, practitioners of human sacrifice, cattle rustlers, traders in human beings (the children they captured along the Atlantic edge of Europe), insane warriors who entered battle stark naked. And yet it was the Irish who were around to pick up the pieces when the Roman Empire collapsed in the West under the increasing assaults of Germanic tribes.

The first assumption is the false dichotomy between "barbarian" and "civilized." "Barbarian" is basically a dustbin category for those "not like us." I hardly think that by contrast the practices of Greeks and Romans particularly marks them out for "civilized." They were quite savage as well. Think, for example, on the arena: let's watch gladiators hack each other to death for fun! Popcorn anyone? There were plenty of "traders in human beings" in the ancient world to go around from all places. Stories of human sacrifice show up in all ancient literatures as well: Hebraic, Greek, Roman, etc. Whether they occurred when written may be a different matter, but they likely reflect earlier traditions. The Irish are not particularly unique on any of these scores. They are just like the "most civilized of the civilized." We could say the Greeks were SO BARBARIC: they exercised stark naked (Gymnasion means the "naked place"). Moreover, the Irish, like the archaic Greeks, have a bardic tradition reaching back millennia. So, "barbarian" is not a particularly illuminating category. It is simply a rhetorical category, something to call someone else, a pejorative slur. What is interesting is that Cahill (his name should give away his ancestry) is calling his own ancestors "barbarian" rather than the "other." But it is a past "other." His NYTimes story reads like a national conversion narrative. Conversion narratives always like to highlight that bad and nasty before coming to the new religion and emphasizing the good and beautiful afterwards, ignoring or selectively forgetting the good before and the bad after. Another thing, along with the whole "conversion narrative" aspect is this dramatic "fall" of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire in the Western portion had been on a fairly steady decline for centuries. In fact the Germanic invaders had great respect for those whom they invaded and were not the "barbaric" stereotypes. The entire area was already unstable. It was more of a symbolic defeat than any material change.

So if this is not really a "barbarian" versus "civilization" question, because, on closer analysis, the difference is one of fighting words, of posturing, rather than of any substance, the surprise of the Irish saving "Civilization" with a big "C" lies elsewhere. What is probably most surprising is not their practice--the most savage of peoples can come up with great literature (Iliad, anyone?)--but their location: they were isolated, remote from the literature that they would eventually be copying down.

There are some additional interesting observations and assumptions when Cahill speaks of Irish scribal activity--something that is a fascinating topic, especially in their beautiful illuminated manuscripts and bits of marginalia:
The scribes also contributed jokes, poems and commentary to the works they replicated, saving for us a world of fresh insights. One scribe, tortured by the difficult Greek he was copying, wrote: “There’s an end to that — and seven curses with it!” Another complained of a previous scribe’s sloppiness: “It is easy to spot Gabrial’s work here.” A third, at the bottom of a tear-stained page, tells us how upset he was by the death of Hector on the Plain of Troy. In these comments, sharp and sweet by turns, we come in contact with the sources of Irish literary humor and hear uncanny echoes of Swift, Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Beckett.

One scribe leaves us a charming poem about his cat, who hunts mice through the night while the scribe hunts words. Another, presumably a female scribe, describes a young man in four brief lines:

He’s a heart,

He’s an acorn from an oak tree,

He’s young.

Kiss him!

A third scribe (for they were not all monks and nuns) wonders who will sleep tonight with “blond Aideen.” (It’s quite certain someone will.)

The quotations above are English translations from the Irish, the first vernacular language of Europe to be written down. In this way, the Irish initiated what would eventually become the great torrent of European national literatures.

We have many reasons to be grateful to St. Patrick and his fierce and playful Irishmen and Irishwomen. So on this St. Patrick’s Day, remember them as they would wish to be remembered. Read a book.

Why does it have to be a female scribe? Why can't it be a male scribe who wants to kiss another man, in a moment of homerotic passion or longing? So, it is either a female scribe longing for a man or a male scribe longing for a man. How do we know that the "third scribe" is not a monk or nun? Surely we are not so naive as to think all who take orders follow them--as Boccaccio reminds us of the "truth" about friars.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

O Memory!

Ô souvenir,
Tes arbres sont en fleur devant le ciel,
On peut croire qu'il neige,
Mais la foudre s'éloigne sur le chemin,
Le vent du soir répand son trop de graines.

(Yves Bonnefoy, "Une Pierre," Les Planches Courbes)

Memory. It is something that fascinates so many ancient and modern thinkers. It is the basis of epistemology for Socrates/Plato: all knowledge is remembrance. It is the basis of the Self and where one finds God in Book 10 of Augustine's Confessions. The Bible constantly enjoins one to remember: zakhor, as the famous book by that name by Yosef Yerushalmi examines. It is the recollection of God's actions with Israel.

Augustine depicts memory as a vast cavern with nooks and crannies in which some memories are easily accessed and others are hidden and only elicited with great difficulty. Bonnefoy's image, however, is not of the space of stone that can be filled, but organic. It is not empty space to be filled, but the spring flowering buds on trees that fall as leaves take their place. The storm comes--the retreating thunder--and the evening wind blows, carrying these memory blossoms elsewhere, where they can sprout and expand into new trees. It is an image in which the memory is constantly expanding, branching out, seeding anew. It renews itself.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Proust on Writer's Block

If only I had been able to start writing! But, whatever the conditions in which I approached the task (as, too, alas, the undertakings not to touch alcohol, to go to bed early, to sleep, to keep fit), whether it was with enthusiasm, with method, with pleasure, in depriving myself of a walk, or postponing it and keeping it in reserve as a reward for industry, taking advantage of an hour of good health, utilising the inactivity forced on me by a day's illness, what always emerged in the end from all my efforts was a virgin page, undefiled by any writing, ineluctable as that forced card which in certain tricks on invariably is made to draw, however carefully one may first have shuffled the pack. I was merely the instrument of habits of not working, of not going to bed, of not sleeping, which must somehow be realised at all costs; if I offered them no resistance, if I contented myself with the pretext they seized from the first opportunity that the day afforded them of acting as they chose, I escaped without serious harm, I slept for a few hours after all towards morning, I read a little, I did not over-exert myself; but if I attempted to thwart them, if I decided to go to bed early, to drink only water, to work, they grew restive, they adopted strong measures, they made me really ill, I was obliged to double my dose of alcohol, did not lie down in bed for two days and nights on end, could not even read, and I vowed that another time I would be more reasonable, that is to say less wise, like the victim of an assault who allows himself to be robbed for fear, should he offer resistance, of being murdered.

(Marcel Proust, Guermantes Way, In Search of Lost Time, Vol III; trans. Moncrieff, Kilmarti, and Enright)

I find, in his final lines, the opposition between reason and wisdom, intriguing--that to be more reasonable is to be less wise. Who of us has not been conquered by all-powerful Inertia, by omnipotent Habit? Today we stare at a blank screen, rather than the virgin page, a virtual space of infinite possibility. Perhaps it is the fear of limiting that possibility. Once one word, then two, a phrase, then a sentence, a paragraph, and so on, has been committed, it is like a death. It is the death of all of those other possible words, clauses, phrases, and sentences we could have written that have now lost their potentiality. Even in creation ex nihilo, creation is predicated upon some sort of destruction, if not of Tiamat, then of possibility, of alternate realities and parallel universes.

Monday, March 1, 2010

What I've Been Listening To: Singer Songwriter Diane Birch

Lately I cannot get enough of singer, songwriter Diane Birch's album, Bible Belt. The full voice, the largely upbeat folk style are fantastic. I have seen her on the late night rounds, but I didn't really start listening until I got a free download of her song "rise up" on iTunes song of the week.

Although it is not the song she sings on the late night talk show rounds (there she usually plays "nothing but a miracle"), I particular like the song "choo choo":

For a change of speed, check out "fire escape":

Or for a specular song, try "mirror mirror":

In my humble opinion, there is not a bad song on the album.

The Humanities Workforce: The Humanities Departmental Survey

The following was just sent to me from Paul Karoff of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It partially tells us what we already know--that the division of the humanities is undergoing a major shift in personnel, relying upon part-time and non-tenure-track faculty (although right now I would be happy just to have a job next year!)--but gives more precise information (particularly when you click on the link), which leads to essays on how this is working from field to field:

Humanities Enjoy Strong Student Demand but Declining Conditions for Faculty

New Data Available on College and University Humanities Departments

CAMBRIDGE, MA – The humanities continue to play a core role in higher education and student interest is strong, but to meet the demand, four-year colleges and universities are increasingly relying on a part-time, untenured workforce.

Those are among the findings from the Humanities Departmental Survey, conducted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a consortium of disciplinary associations. The survey includes data collected from English, foreign language, history, history of science, art history, linguistics, and religion departments at approximately 1,400 colleges and universities. It is the first comprehensive survey to provide general cross-disciplinary data on humanities departments.

The results are available on the Academy’s Humanities Resource Center Online at

According to the Humanities Departmental Survey:

Across the humanities, but especially in English and combined English/foreign language departments, the professoriate at four-year colleges and universities is evolving into a part-time workforce. During the 2006–2007 academic year, only 38 percent of faculty members in these departments were tenured. English departments had the greatest proportion of non-tenure-track faculty (49 percent).

When minors are included, undergraduate participation in humanities programs is about 82 percent greater than counting majors alone would suggest. For the 2006-2007 academic year, 122,100 students completed bachelor’s degrees and 100,310 completed minor degrees in the three largest humanities disciplines—English, foreign languages, and history.

Reflecting the demands of a global economy, student interest in foreign language is strong – during the 2006–2007 academic year, foreign language departments awarded 28,710 baccalaureate degrees and had the largest number of students completing minors (51,670). Yet investment in a stable professoriate to teach and study foreign languages and literatures appears to be declining, with a significant reduction in recruitment of full-time faculty members (39 percent fewer recruitments for full-time positions in 2008-2009 than hires for 2007-2008) and fewer total graduate students than faculty members, the only surveyed discipline for which this was the case.

Turnover rates among humanities faculty were low (only 2.5 percent of humanities faculty left the profession through departure, retirement, or death during the two academic years preceding the survey). Combined with recently instituted hiring freezes on many campuses, career opportunities for the next generation of scholars (there were approximately 84,000 graduate students in the surveyed fields during the 2006–2007 academic year) are limited.

Approximately 87 percent of humanities departments reported that their subject was part of the core distribution requirements at their institution.

The survey results provide a snapshot of U.S. humanities departments at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. The survey covers a broad range of topics, including numbers of departments and faculty members, faculty distributions by discipline, courses taught, tenure activity, undergraduate majors and minors, and graduate students. The data provide new information about each of the disciplines; they also allow comparisons across disciplines. These data are especially important because the U.S. Department of Education has indefinitely suspended the only nationally representative survey providing information about humanities faculty (the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty).

Several national disciplinary societies collaborated with the Academy to develop, field, and interpret data gathered by the Humanities Departmental Survey: the American Academy of Religion; American Historical Association; College Art Association; History of Science Society; Linguistic Society of America; and the Modern Language Association. The American Council of Learned Societies and the American Political Science Association also provided important assistance. The survey was administered by the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics, which also performed the basic data analysis.

Even though the humanities disciplines represent an essential core of the liberal arts curriculum, they have long been data deprived. The empirical data now available in the survey, along with the rich collection of information already found in the Humanities Indicators, begin to fill that gap and to establish baselines that will allow stakeholders to track trends in the future. The Academy hopes that the Humanities Departmental Survey can be expanded to include additional disciplines and updated regularly, producing trend data that could be incorporated into the Humanities Indicators.

The Humanities Indicators include data covering humanities education from primary school through the graduate level; the humanities workforce; humanities funding and research; and the humanities in civic life. Modeled after the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators, the Humanities Indicators serve as a resource to help scholars, policymakers, and the public assess the current state of the humanities. Launched in January 2009, the Academy continues to update and expand the Humanities Indicators.

Those who wish to receive announcements of new data and research on the humanities can subscribe to an email alert system at

NOTE: Please use the following citation for data contained in the Humanities Indicators: “American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators,”