The Leap

I would like to be able to describe the exact nature of the thing that brings me back to blogging. Is it inspiration? Necessity? The desperate desire to shout into the wilderness?

It is not a surfeit of time, I can tell you that much. Neither is it a deep and abiding confidence that writing here will about-face the daily announcements of calamity facing our shared values of compassion; reasoned engagement with one another; truth, both material and metaphysical; human autonomy and the public good. For now, it’s just a feeling—a feeling that there are things in the world that are delightful and wondrous and strange, and they are worth contemplation and the words expended to describe their sublimity, no matter how minute. A feeling, an impulse, a vague glimmer of a notion far away on the horizon.

My current delight: the Sundance short documentary “Ten Meter Tower,” which centers on a central conceit: people climb up the ladder of high dive and confront the fear of jumping. In its first minutes, it seems almost absurdist; a static camera records the platform and captures the silent contemplation of the perhaps-divers, one after another. As the video continues, however, something else emerges. Out of the array of responses to the challenge of fear comes a pattern of bravery. We cheer for those who take the leap, urging them toward the edge, reading their various rationales and rationalizations in real time, hoping for the sign that they’re resolved to go over. (I confess that my current favorite is the young man who takes the time to tell his compatriot “I’m not really present” to her encouragement, even as his knees buckle beneath him.) In a NYTimes article, the filmmakers, Maximilien Van Aertyrck and Axel Danielson, note the dual poles of the short. On the one hand, they describe it as  “a portrait of doubt,” and yet, the triumph of the series of leaps speaks to the desire for a unifying essentialism: “Overcoming our most cautious impulses with bravery unites all humankind.”

“Ten Meter Tower” makes us feel that hope for essentialism and suspend, for a moment, our necessary and intimate grappling with the realities of difference. I cheer for our leaps and everything necessary to convince us to take them.



Faculty Learning Community Teaching Demo

In anticipation of Jose Antonio Bowen’s visit to the Mount next week, I’ve been re-reading (and reading more carefully) his 2012 book Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning. The book itself functions primarily as an argument for the seismic shifts to the landscape of higher education (akin to those in the music and print publication industries), and goes on to suggest ways that many of us in academe–professors, administrators, and by extension, staff members–can begin to adapt our practices to acknowledge the uses of technology and our students’ experiences and expectations of it, while at the same time preserving and reimagining the delivery of our core liberal education values. Don’t let Bowen’s emphasis on the culture and practice of higher education fool you, however. Throughout the book, he offers an array of practices to experiment with in the classroom, in the online version of the classroom, and programmatically.

For the purposes of this 10 minute teaching demonstration, I was struck by Bowen’s emphasis on two concepts: customization and curation—both key phenomena of the digital era. Customization is the process we experience almost every day: it’s evident in the way that the Waze app (or any GPS program) can instantly give us directions from our current location to the place we want to go; or the way that ads from a website that we’ve visited continue to appear on our favorite news feeds or Facebook walls; or the way that produces recommendations for our next purchase. Bowen explains the way that we can anticipate and adapt to this phenomenon as we teach: “Technology presents teachers not only with more content than ever before, but also more routes into that content…We can certainly almost certainly improve learning by offering more choices for preclass first exposure. If the point is to introduce material or learn content, then offering students a choice of preclass reading, an audio podcast, a video podcast, or an activity will improve their preparation for class” (54-5).

The second concept is curation. Here’s a good definition, courtesy of Maria Popova, editor (or “curator”) of the site brainpickings.  “Just as its origin in the art world, curation online is premised on the idea that a curator with a point of view culls content around a theme that he or she deems of cultural significance. A museum can make a name for itself by being consistently reliable in hosting these conversations (take the MoMA); likewise, a curator can make a name for herself by being consistently compelling in catalyzing those conversations (take Paola Antonelli). But the museum is merely the enabler of that conversation, the curator merely its catalyst, and the cultural conversation itself takes place largely outside the walls of the museum and the control of the curator” (see Popova interview 2011). Instead of producing content, a curator brings his/her expertise to bear in the process of locating and arranging existing content in the hopes of creating a meaningful conversation around the objects. Bowen adds this process to his list of new roles for faculty members: “The job of faculty needs to become more focused on designing learning experience and interacting with students…Now that technology has created a cheaper way to deliver content, faculty should spend more time finding the right entry point, creating a supportive environment, communicationg high standards, and guiding student learning…Faculty must become curators, performers, directors, assemblers, and pedagogues” (246-7).

The teaching experiment that follows, then, is an attempt to design a learning activity that forwards customization (as a part of the student experience) through the use of curation (on the part of the faculty member).


The purposes of this assignment are threefold:

  1. To identify and articulate, in your own words, the key ideas—both literal and metaphoric—of David Foster Wallace’s essay, “This is Water.”
  2. To compare the benefits and drawbacks of different media on the transmission of those ideas
  3. To reflect on your own learning preferences, and to make inferences regarding the medium that works best for your first contact with new material.


Below, there are three versions of the same essay: one in print, one in audio, and one in video. Before you begin, think for a moment about which medium you prefer to start with, and why. Jot down your reasoning. Then, read/listen/watch the one that you’ve chosen. As you are working with the piece, try to identify the most compelling pieces, and jot these down on a piece of paper. Which quotations, images, or ideas grab your attention? Write these down! When you get to the end, look back over your notes. Choose three of your ideas that you noted. What do these three have in common? If you had to explain this speech to a friend, what would you say that it is about–what’s the overarching concept? How do your three noted ideas connect to that overarching concept?

PRINT: “This is Water


(to 5:48)

(to 6:13)

The “Real” and the “True”

I’m currently in the sixth week, or a third of the way (!) through, my contemporary narrative class.  I’ve drafted my students into the service of my current obsessions, and so we’re tracking the ways that a select set of contemporary narratives thematize reading/interpretive processes as methods of evaluating truth.  My intrepid students are going great guns, of course, and are finding all sorts of examples and avenues that never would have occurred to me.  Case in point: how to do we articulate the complex relationship between realism and the truth in any given narrative?  How does the former shape our expectations of the latter, and to what extend does the ambiguity of the latter force us to question the former?

To fully understand that question, you’d need to have an idea of the kind of texts that I’ve been asking them to endure.  To some extent, whether they are novels or television serials, they have largely cohered, thus far, to the genre pithily described as “mind-fuck,” or, in more genteel language, what Thomas Elsaesser calls the “mind-game.”  In essence, I’ve asked students to dig into narratives (Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut, Heidi Julavits’s The Uses of Enchantment, and now Moffatt and Gatiss’s Sherlock) that actively present a series of internal questions about which of many narratives or perspectives is true, OR real, or both.  Still confused?  (So are we.)  In Mr. Peanut, for example, we begin with a compelling and horrifyingly ambiguous image of a woman who has died from anaphylactic shock: death by peanut.  Her husband is present, with a bloody hand.  The question: did he shove the peanut down her throat, or did he try to prevent her from swallowing it?   The novel goes on to consider the complexities of married life, the emotional weight of a desire for freedom, and along the way, retells one of the famous American uxoricide cases, that of the Sheppard murder made famous in the television series and film The Fugitive.  Thus, the details of the protagonist’s daily life and the “ripped from the headlines,” crime scene evidence of the Sheppard case accumulate, attempting to verify these tales of matrimonial mayhem. It doesn’t take much to see how the status “the real” serves to support “the true,” until the processes of interpretation and abstraction are brought to bear: how do law enforcement officials assess guilt?; to what extent does the desire to kill one’s wife differ from the actual act?; in what ways does the indecipherability of one case reflect on another?  (And just when you think you’ve got a handle on those in this novel, we move on to the next one.)

The class, thus far, has enthusiastically assessed these narrative strands in each text, weighing them against each other in order to argue for the one that seems believable (we also like the word “possible,” along with “plausible”).   We marshal our evidence to make claims about where we stand as readers when we close the covers; we integrate the evidence that others provide to alter our own readings.  What we have yet to be able to do, however, is to consider the ways that the conventions of realism enter into the conversation.  Or to put this another way: it’s all we can do to get a handle on what is “the real story” of the text; identifying the mechanisms that get us there is beyond the pale.  Who designed this class, anyway?

And yet, the question remains.  For all of the retro-postmodern ambiguity these narratives possess, they also rest on a 200 year history (give or take) of a realist tradition: a painstakingly-constructed, historically and culturally situated, ideologically-rife set of conventions that registers to readers as “real.”  Where does our current cultural fascination with reality—our own dissonant belief, for instance, that “reality tv” is both a constructed falsity, and yet somehow also true—stand in relation to that history?

Stay tuned, true believers.  We’ve still got 12 weeks to figure this stuff out.

Wallace and Ellis?

There are any number of literary allusions in Infinite Jest.  In addition to the ubiquitous Hamlet references, we get glimmers of everything from Joyce’s Ulysses to Wittgensteinian logic (Stephen Burn tracks these like a pro).  And while I’d like to note the classics, now and again, I’m slightly ashamed to note that the probable allusion that caught me was to one of Wallace’s contemporary, namely, Bret Easton Ellis.

In the last half of the novel (pp 538 or so), we get spend an extended amount of time with Randy Lenz, one of the residents of Ennet House.  [Spoiler Alert!]  Lenz, the narrator tells us, “has found his own dark way to deal with the well-known Rage and Powerlessness issues that beset the drug addict in his first few months of abstinence” (538).  In the following section, we watch Lenz stalk and kill first rats, then cats, and move on to dogs.  The apotheosis of his process (and a crucial plot point for the Gately narrative) is a blow-by-blow description of Lenz luring and then slitting the throat of a dog.

Sound familiar?  Lenz, in his dress shoes and his Polo top coat, with his raging coke addiction only needed to add animale torture to his character profile before he began to sound a lot like Patrick Bateman in Ellis’s American Psycho. In this Google books Link to the novel, you can see versions of Bateman’s own rage and powerlessness issues, despite the fact that they stem from very different causes than Lenz’s.  It’s not an exact description-for-description fit, I grant you, but Wallace did have some choice comments about Ellis’s work that make it clear that he’d read the book and it left an impression.

I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend “Psycho” as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.

[from Larry Mcaffrey’s 1993 interview with Wallace, first published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction]

Ouch.  Suppose, for a moment, that Lenz is a kind of reference, if not homage, per se, to Ellis’s character or worldview.  What I like about the possibility is, of course, the way that Lenz—as a feature of Ellis’s blank, black world—works to catalyze Gately’s struggle with violence and recovery.  Allegorically, it positions a dark and stupid world, and the cynical attitude that accompanies it, as a potential vehicle for a struggle to be responsible and human, and to make choices that bring people into the difficulties of the world, rather than standing outside of it.  In other words, Lenz a la Ellis sets up the conditions in which an “illumination of the possibilities for being alive” can occur.

I’m not sure that I fully buy Wallace’s assessment of American Pyscho, for the record.  But I do like the idea that their characters might exist and affect each other in the same literary universe.

Not-so Infinite Summer

So while the good people over at Infinite Summer are sedately working their way through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest at the reasonable pace of 75 pages per week, the students in my ENG 590 class have committed to reading all 1079 pages of the novel in three weeks. Where’s their prize for the speed round?

In keeping with their hard and earnest work with this behemoth (which they’re assiduously blogging and wiki-ing as well!), I thought I’d try to keep up with them, so here are my rather scattered thoughts on pp. 198-299. Primarily, this section gives us detailed information about Joelle Van Dyne and the lead up to her suicide, as well as Hal’s reaction to his father’s suicide. [Basically, there’s a whole lot of suicide going on.] In addition, however, we get the back story on Orin—his shift from tennis to football, his relationship with Joelle; we also get our first clear look at the culture and rhetoric of AA at Ennet House. From a pedagogical perspective, I had a brief moment of panic: what are we going to talk about in class?!! Not much “happens” in this section. Needless panic, of course. Judging from the blog posts, the students are off and running with their own theories about characters and relevant themes and the overall reading experience of the novel itself.

For my part, I find that I now want to go back and re-examine prior passages to see if new information lends them new significance. In particular, I can’t get this description out of my head:

“locating beauty and art and magic and improvement and keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux of match play is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern… a matter not of reduction at all, but — perversely—of expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth—each well-shot ball admitting of n possible responses 2n possible responses to those responses, and on into what Incandenza would articulate to anyone…as a Cantorian continuum of infinities of possible move and response, Cantorian and beautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent, bent in on itself by the containing boundaries of skil and imagination that brought one player finally down, that kept both from winning, that made it, finally, a game, these boundaries of the self.”

Since we’ve been talking a bit about form and the experience of reading the novel, and since some of the students have pointed out the ways in which tennis can stand in, on a meta-level, for reading strategies, I wonder if there isn’t room to think a bit about how the quote above outlines a model of an infinite text. For all that we’re encouraged to see the deep structure of the novel (e.g., Sierpinski gasket, etc.), here we see a “game” that’s both infinite and contained by the self and its own boundaries—the infinities of choice and reactions to those choices. Incandenza spectrally speaks to the aesthetics of expansion without pattern—unmappable excess that can still have limits. Readers certainly find their own reflections of their own proclivities in this novel and its encyclopedic tendencies. Is it a text that promotes reading as a system of choice? If we’re good readers, we’re bound by the limits of the text, and yet have choices and responses to those choices that guide our interpretations, our foci within our individual experiences of reading. The self bounds the text, as the text reciprocally bounds the self?

Virginia Woolf Speaks!

Courtesy of The Guardian UK, The BBC announced this week that they’re releasing CD’s that feature audio recordings of famous authors, including Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, a drunken Raymond Chandler (surprise), and the only known surviving recordings of Virginia Woolf.  At the link itself, you can hear a snippet of her discussing writing.  I have to confess that she sounds nothing like I expected, and I suspect that’s entirely because of my modern ear.  I think I wanted something at once more dulcet and a bit less posh.  But there is a frisson of hearing her characteristic prose in her own voice.  Here’s a brief self-transcribed snippet from the bit you can hear at The Guardian (which begins at about 1:40 or so).

Do we write better?  Do we read better than we read and wrote 400 years ago, when we were unliteratured, uncriticized, untaught?  Is our modern, Georgian literature a patch on the Elizabethan?  Well, where are we to lay the blame?  Not on our professors, not on our reviewers, not on our writers, but on words.  It is words that are to blame.  They all the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all of these.  Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries.  But words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind…

There are some complicated thoughts here about the place of the modern writer in the teleological trajectory of literature, and it would be no small task to articulate Woolf’s representation of the Word itself.  I’ll leave this for the Woolf scholars to sort.  In the meantime, I think I’ll call up the library and ask if we can order the CDs.  I can’t wait to hear the full 8 minutes of Woolf’s recording, as well as the others.

As a sidenote, this came my way via Tina Brown’s new venture, The Daily Beast.  (Some might remember Brown as a former editor of the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.  As with all things Brownian, it’s big and theatrical and snarky.  But it’s also looking for the intersections of politics and culture in ways that I think many political blogs (like the Huffington Post) don’t quite manage.  Give her a read.