Apr 5 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 02: Materials for Investigation

Mark Twain in Athens

Midwest Mod Squad no. 02: Materials for Investigation

(Read no. 01 in this series here.)

Let’s now see who the subjects of investigation are:

New Pop Lit is a publishing organization putting out contemporary short fiction. As a publishing group it appears to be placeless and ageless, for there’s nothing on their About Page to indicate otherwise. Incidentally (or as the investigation proceeds we may say, not so incidentally) three of the six stories I read from here all took place within a school setting. New Pop Lit appears to want plot-driven stories over style evangelists and politics disguised as fiction. The first six writers I read were:

  • Jon Berger of Saginaw, Michigan and his story “Eighty Pounds.”
  • Kathleen M. Crane, a contributing editor at New Pop Lit, and her story “Red Panties and a Guitar.”
  • Tianna Grosch from the woodlands of Pennsylvania and her story “Unraveling.”
  • Clint Margrave of Los Angeles and his story “The Fetus.”
  • A. K. Riddle of “in the Middle of Nowhere, Illinois” and her story “The Professor.”
  • Don Waitt of Tampa and his story “Raquetball.”

*****

Five on the Fifth is also an ageless, placeless publication putting out contemporary short fiction. One recent story I read was a horror (?) tale “Jonah and the Frog,” set mostly in a (New Orleans?)  bar by James Wade. I’ve read at least half-a-dozen stories of his over the last few years, and he happens to be someone I know personally. I know he’s from Texas and is currently engaged in a cross-continental drift across America. And this reminds me of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s memoir, A Life … Well, Lived (2015) where he reflects on how, sometime between the 1990’s and the Aughts, it became better to be called an American songwriter, rather than just a Texas songwriter. Therefore, I don’t know if I would call James Wade (or if he would call himself) a Texas writer.[1]

*****

The Masters Review is a publishing house out of Bend, Oregon. Its sixth volume of contemporary short fiction contains ten stories selected by Roxane Gay, two of which stood out well in front of the others. Coincidently (or not), not only do these two stories both fall under the genre of historical fiction, but both writers are from New York:

Chris Arp is a rather unknown quantity (much like Pop Lit and Five on Five), but he does disclose graduating from NYU’s Creative Writing Program. His story “Gormley,” is set somewhere in the mid-nineteenth-century British Empire. Nicole Cuffy is a New York based writer with a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from the New School. Her story “Steal Away” takes place in the early twentieth-century sharecropping South.

*****

Belt Publishing of Cleveland, Ohio is an outfit that caters to readers and writers of all things Midwest. I’ve recently read two chapbooks that they’ve put out, but don’t let their small size fool you. The contents of both Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern (2016) and Mark Athitakis’s The New Midwest (2016) are quite concentrated and deserve multiple readings.

McClelland is based in Chicago, and his is a book of regional language and dialects. Athitakis lives in Phoenix but is a native Midwesterner. His book surveys the literature from that region from about the last 100 years with a focus on works since 1960.

Like Alfarabi’s four questions, mentioned in no. 01 of this series, I will mostly be using these two books as tools to analyze and understand the stories under consideration.

*****

The next post in this series will begin to analyze all of what’s mentioned above.


NOTES

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[1] Ray Wylie Hubbard with Thom Jurek, A Life Well, Lived, (Wimberly, TX: Bordello Records, 2015).


Apr 5 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 01: Method of Investigation

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Midwest Mod Squad no. 01:
Method of Investigation

I don’t believe all art is political, just as I don’t believe all political activity is artistic.

Alfarabi (872–950 CE) was a medieval philosopher from Persia. In The Attainment of Happiness, he asks four questions that political science seeks to answer––a particular kind of political science meant to be understood in terms of the ancient city (polis), not the modern nation-state.[1]

The modern global Anglophone culture contains within it a North Atlantic culture,[2] and within that North Atlantic culture is a regional culture called the American Midwest. The Midwest is certainly neither a single city nor an entire nation-state (it even includes parts of Southern Canada), but the recent short fiction coming from this region reflects some of the culture of the American heartland that I think are worth writing about and reflecting on.

Following Biblioklept’s hybrid of meditation and manifesto toward writing a better book blog, I will begin an investigation of writers and books concerning the Midwest using Alfarabi’s four questions as an initial guide. For each work of short fiction under consideration, my investigation will ask:

  1. What is the work? What is the essence of each story, each book?
  2. How does it work? How does each particular publisher and author contribute to what that essence is (however it may be defined)? How is each story told? How was it published?
  3. From what did the work come from? Author’s origins, regional influences (or lack thereof)?
  4. For what purpose was each work written?

I expect this investigation to be a series of an undetermined number of blog posts. Applying what Alfarabi asks to what I’ve read does not mean I will engage in any political criticism of contemporary fiction.

Here and there will be mention of outliers, that is, writers and their work (usually contemporary short fiction) not from the Midwest. It may seem that I mention more outliers than insiders, and that may even be true in the beginning. But once momentum is attained, I expect the investigation to narrow its focus.

Lastly, I am not an expert on anything of or about the Midwest, just a curious observer and occasional visitor, nothing more.

(Looks for the Wendigo in the woods  of Michigan)

Continue to “Midwest Mod Squad no. 02

NOTES

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[1] As Alfarabi puts it:

[The political philosopher] should make known what and how every one of them is, and from what and for what it is, until all of them become known, intelligible, and distinguished from each other. This is political science. It consists of knowing the things by which the citizens of cities attain happiness through political association in the measure that innate disposition equips each of them for it….

This happiness is virtuous, and what is virtuous, continues Alfarabi, is useful:

There is a certain deliberative virtue that enables one to excel in the discovery of what is most useful for a virtuous end common to many nations, to a whole nation, or to a whole city, at a time when an event occurs that affects them in common. (There is no difference between saying most useful for a virtuous end and most useful and most noble, because what is both most useful and most noble necessarily serves a virtuous end, and what is most useful for a virtuous end is indeed the most noble with respect to that end.) This is political deliberative virtue. The events that affect them in common may persist over a long period or vary within short periods. (Alfarabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, trans. Muhsin Mahdi, (Chicago: Agora Books, 1969), “The Attainment of Happiness,” p. 24, i, ¶ 20; pp. 28–29, ii, ¶ 28.)

[2] See Charles Taylor’s definition of North Atlantic culture in A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007) 1, 15.


Mar 30 2018

Two Quotations on the Language of Leadership

London - Georgian Apartments

Two Quotations on the Language of Leadership

Just two quotations today, two to compare and comport and contrast within everything else that has been read and seen and consumed online. The first is from Eric Hoffer (1902-1983)’s The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951):

Charlatanism of some degree is indispensable to effective leadership. There can be no mass movement without some deliberate misrepresentation of facts. No solid, tangible advantage can hold a following and make it zealous and loyal unto death. The leader has to be practical and a realist, yet must talk the language of the visionary and the idealist. [1]

But compare the “shrewd realism” of George Woodcock (1912-1995)’s Mohandas Gandhi (1971):

Most Indians (whatever their caste or religious background) agree on Gandhi’s shrewd realism….

As Gandhi once remarked, in this life the ideal is never achieved. And those who seek to realize the ideal die either in the loneliness of unfulfillment or in the solitude of having betrayed the ideal of grand illusion of fulfillment. The latter fate was Lenin’s and Nehru’s; it awaits Mao Tsetung and Castro. The other fate, of dying alone, unfulfilled but essentially uncorrupted, was that of Kropotkin and Che Guevara and Zapata; it was also, despite all this triumphs, that of Gandhi. His successes were immense if one judges them by the goals of the majority of men; judged by his aspirations, he failed, yet his failure was a sign of the magnitude of his vision.[2]

 

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[1] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §91, p. 107.

[2] George Woodcock, Mohandas Gandhi, (New York: Viking, 1971) 9, 49.


Mar 18 2018

What I Intend to Read Today: March 18, 2018

Western book stack

What I Intend to Read Today: March 18, 2018.

Today’s reads have to do with Russia, information theory and warfare, democracy, racism, and religion:

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By the way, SXSW 2018, that is, the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, has been one wild, crazy week:


Feb 24 2018

What Germans Thought of American Football Coaches 100 Years Ago

la casaWhat Germans Thought of American Football Coaches 100 Years Ago:
(At Least According to Max Weber):

Written in about 1917:

The American boy learns unspeakably less than the German boy.

In spite of an incredible number of examinations, his school life has not had the significance of turning him into an absolute creature of examinations, such as the German.

For in America, bureaucracy, which presupposes the examination diploma as a ticket of admission to the realm of office prebends, is only in its beginnings.

The young American has no respect for anything or anybody, for tradition or for public office—unless it is for the personal achievement of individual men.

This is what the American calls “democracy.” This is the meaning of democracy, however distorted its intent may in reality be, and this intent is what matters here.

The American’s conception of the teacher who faces him is: he sells me his knowledge and his methods for my father’s money, just as the greengrocer sells my mother cabbage. And that is all.

To be sure, if the teacher happens to be a football coach, then, in this field, he is a leader. But if he is not this (or something similar in a different field of sports), he is simply a teacher and nothing more. And no young American would think of having the teacher sell him a Weltanschauung or a code of conduct.

Now, when formulated in this manner, we should reject this. But the question is whether there is not a grain of salt contained in this feeling, which I have deliberately stated in extreme with some exaggeration. ––Max Weber (1864–1920)[1]

 

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[1] Max Weber, “Science and Politics,” From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, translated by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1958) 149–50.


Feb 18 2018

We Will Always Think Together (Even If We Don’t Think Alike)

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, ItaliaWe Will Always Think Together (Even If We Don’t Think Alike):
Or, Relying on the Resemblance of Others to Think for Ourselves

catena: n. A string or series of extracts from the writings of the fathers, forming a commentary on some portion of Scripture; also, a chronological series of extracts to prove the existence of a continuous tradition on some point of doctrine. (Oxford English Dictionary)

As I have previously done here and here, what follows is another cantena of thoughts supplementing Alan Jacobs’s How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (2017) and his point of how it is impossible to think for ourselves because we always rely on the thinking of others in order to think for ourselves.

However, the further I plod along in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), which Jacobs refers to (sometimes in agreement, sometimes not), the more I suspect that the quotations below, as well as those in my previous posts, may not compare as well with Jacobs’s point as I initially thought. They may not because I may be falling for resemblance bias, for all the quotations I give are based on my limited recent reading––which itself might constitute a combination of what Kahneman calls the availability and priming heuristics.[1]

In other words, instead of relying on the words of others so that I can understand Jacobs’s book, perhaps I’m really just relying on the resemblance of the words of others as they compare to Jacobs. Either way, here it goes:

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At age 33, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1808–1882) recognized: “I suppose my friends have some relation to my mind.”[2]

At age 37, Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980) taught that our convictions are worthless until we encounter others who dare challenge our convictions:

Ultimate convictions are often inconsistent and can be refuted. They cannot be proved. But they can be responsible or irresponsible. They are irresponsible if they are arbitrary and blind. They are responsible if they have grown out of encounter after encounter. And in the end we can only ask others to expose themselves to the same encounters—and, if after having done this they do not agree with us, expose ourselves to their criticisms. [3]

At age 44, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) knew that, even the artist-as-author must rely on others to render creation. The working artist cannot be isolated but must come into communion and let the surrounding community contribute to the work at hand:

The reality of the final moment, just before shooting, is so powerful that all previous analysis must yield before the impressions you receive under these circumstance, and unless you use this feedback [of the cast and crew on the set] to your positive advantage, unless you adjust to it, adapt to it and accept the sometimes terrifying weaknesses it can expose, you can never realize the most out of your film…. If the camera operator spoils a shot, it can be done again. The thing that can never be changed, and the thing that is the make or break for a picture, are those few hours you spend alone in the actual place with the actors, with the crew outside drinking their tea.[4]

At age 66, Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) explained how Hegel got it wrong: that we cannot think in pure isolation:

No one has fought with more determination against the particular, the eternal stumbling block of thinking, the undisputable thereness of objects that no thought can reach or explain. The highest function of philosophy, according to Hegel, is to eliminate the contingent, and all particulars, everything that exists, are contingent by definition. Philosophy deals with the particulars as parts of a whole, and the whole is the system, a product of speculative thought. This whole, scientifically speaking, can never be more than a plausible hypothesis, which by integrating every particular into an all-comprehensive thought transforms them all into thought-things and thus eliminates their most scandalous property, their realness, together with their contingency. It was Hegel who declared that “The time has come for the elevation of philosophy to a science,” and who wished to transform philo-sophy, the mere love of wisdom, into wisdom, Sophia. In this way he succeeded in persuading himself that “to think is to act”––which this most solitary occupation can never do, since we can act only “in concert,” in company and agreement with our peers, hence in an existential situation that effectively prevents thinking.[5]

At age 77, Daniel Kahneman shared in Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011):

Many of us spontaneously anticipate how friends and colleagues will evaluate our choices; the quality and content of these anticipated judgments therefore matters…. The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.[6]

NOTES

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[1] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). For Kahneman, “systematic errors are known as biases” (3–4), while “the reliance on the ease of memory search” is called “the availability heuristic,” (7). “They were primed to find flaws, and this is exactly what they found,” (58) is one of Kahneman’s examples of the priming heuristic.

[2] Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, eds. William H. Gilman et al, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960–82). Vol. V (1835–1838), October 19, 1836, Journal B, p. 223.

[3] Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1958) 408.

[4] Strick and Houston, “Modern Times: an Interview with Stanley Kubrick,” Sight and Sound, 41 (Spring 1972) quoted from Stanley Kubrick Interviews, ed. Gene D. Phillips, (Jackson, MS: Mississippi University Press, 2001) 134.

[5] Arendt, The Life of the Mind, (1971), ed. Mary McCarthy (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking 89–90.

[6] Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow 3, 28.


Feb 13 2018

Seating at Dinner

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Seating at Dinner
(According to Martha Nussbaum and Larry McMurtry)

First, from Martha:

The domain of life that can be called the “Middle Realm,” a realm in which much of our daily life is spent: in dealings with strangers, business associates, employers and employees, casual acquaintances, in short people with whom we are not involved in relations of intimacy and deep trust, but who are also people and not legal and governmental institutions. A great deal of anger is generated in this realm, over slights to reputation and honor, insults or fantasized insults, and some genuinely harmful and awful behavior. Seneca’s On Anger depicts a typical Roman’s day as a minefield. Go to a neighbor’s house and you are greeted by a surly doorman who speaks rudely to you. Go to a dinner party and you discover that the host has seated you at a place at the table that others will view as insulting. And on it goes. [1]

And from Larry:

I wasn’t good at galas, either, being inexpert in the delicate metropolitan matter of placement. At my second [PEN] gala, held downtown in the old Customs House, both Susan Sontag and Peter Jennings (the late ABC anchor) left because they were seated with people who had no idea who they were. Such, I suppose, is the Big Time. Towering figures such as Susan Sontag and Peter Jennings must be seated next to people who want to sit beneath a tower. What could be more simple?[2]

Interior of a restaurant (1887)
by Vincent van Gogh (Wikicommons)

NOTES

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[1] Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2016) 138.

[2] McMurtry, Literary Life: a Second Memoir, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2009) 132.


Dec 27 2017

11 Books I Read in 2017 (Placed in 7 Categories)

book spines

11 Books I Read in 2017 (Placed in 7 Categories)

Books I probably shouldve already read a long time ago but somehow hadnt: For this category, I call it a tie between the Scotsman Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859–1930) Study in Scarlet (1887), which introduces the world to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the Anglo-Irishman Bram Stoker’s (1847–1912) Dracula (1897), which was certainly not the first book that introduced the world to vampires, but a staple of twentieth-century popular culture in the West nonetheless.

Best autobiography: ‘Tis Herself (2004) by actress Maureen O’Hara (1920–2015)––someone whose tough spirit, terrific behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the classic Hollywood era, and her proud (but also modest) part in promoting Irish independence made the telling of her own life stand out when compared to some other autobiographies I read this year, such as those by Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) and Giambattista Vico (1668–1744). Michael Morton’s Getting Life: an Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace (2014) was a powerful telling of justice (and its opposite) occurring in Central Texas, and was a close second behind Miss O’Hara.

Most useful book of the year: Baylor University’s Distinguished Professor of Humanities, Allan Jacobs’ How to Think: a Survival Guide for a World at Odds (2017) is a book I will be keeping within reach and often returning to, much like H. W. Fowler’s (1858–1933) Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926, 1965), or University of Texas English professor emeritus John R. Trimble’s Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing (1975, 2000). Jacobs’ book can, at times, be just as casual and amusing as Fowler can, but Jacobs is especially good at taking personal anecdotes and demonstrating that he has already applied to his own life the lessons he’s now trying to impart to readers in this book. All authors should be so self-applicable.

Most anticipated book of the year: this would be Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017). Dreher is a prolific blogger at The American Conservative, someone whom I’ve read weekly (if not daily) for the past 4–5 years. Like my observation of Jacobs, Dreher is also especially good at taking his own life situations and applying them to whatever it is he’s writing about. The Benedict Option, however, is a departure from Dreher’s typically personal style of writing. It is much more theoretical than his previous books, much more detached than even his particular blog posts on the Benedict Option that led up to him writing the present book. Dreher’s book is certainly not an indictment of the present-day United States, though it may be a lamentation.

2017 as the year for reading history: In the Benedict Option Dreher writes:

I am a college-educated American. In all my years of formal schooling, I never read Plato or Aristotle, Homer or Virgil. I knew nothing of Greek and Roman history and barely grasped the meaning of the Middle Ages. Dante was a stranger to me, and so was Shakespeare (p. 154).

I recognize some of this as being true for me as well, particularly with respect to history. So this year I got through Herodotus’ (~484–425 BC) Histories, Thucydides’ (460–400 BC) History of the Peloponnesian War, and Livy’s (~64– ~17 AD) History of Rome (books I–X, XXI–XXX). I will say reading these have already helped me find things to write about and get published as I did this year with my essays “Custom Versus Culture: a Modest Distinction” by Real Clear News of Chicago and “Between History and Myth in Austin, Texas” in The Fortnightly Review of London.

Best reread of the year: former professor of philosophy at Princeton, Walter Kaufmann’s (1921–1980) Critique of Religion and Philosophy (1958, 1972) is a tour de force spanning all across the humanities. I found it much more difficult reading the second time, probably because I forced myself to read it at a much slower pace than I did about 5 years ago. I’m a better reader now than I was then, but there’re parts to Kaufmann’s Critique that still seem to slag, particularly the digressions on Aquinas and Niebuhr.

Most difficult book of the year: Certainly the winner of this category belongs to the Max Weber (1864–1920) anthology, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (1945), trans. by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1958)––a long book with a long biographical introduction to Weber––a book that requires many notes to be taken, reread, and thoroughly pondered before proceeding further. It was Charles Taylor’s titanic A Secular Age (2007) that turned me on to this collection of Weber’s work. I started Taylor in about June, and probably won’t finish until this time next year.


Dec 12 2017

Between Real and Unreal in Death and Pornography

Mark Twain in Athens

Between Real and Unreal in Death and Pornography

Beginning with Oscar Wilde (1854-1900):

Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away. You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats. Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly…. Ah! realize your youth while you have it. Don’t squander the gold of your days, listening to the tedious, trying to improve the hopeless failure, or giving away your life to the ignorant, the common, and the vulgar. These are the sickly aims, the false ideals, of our age. Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing…. A new Hedonism—that is what our century wants.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, ch. 2.

Now compare Alexi Sargeant, “The Undeath of Cinema: Why digital resurrection is so creepy–and how it’s hastening Hollywood’s decline into a soulless factory,” The New Atlantis, Summer/Fall 2017:

Peter Cushing’s performance in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is remarkable because Cushing died in 1994. Industrial Light & Magic’s computer-generated imagery (CGI) wizards digitally resurrected Cushing to once again portray the villainous Imperial Grand Moff Tarkin, a central antagonist of the original 1977 Star Wars, in which the character brutally orders the destruction of Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan. Recreating Cushing for Rogue One was experimental in two senses: Disney was testing out both the technology and audiences’ reactions to it.

And from Samantha Cole, “AI-Assisted Fake Porn is Here and We’re All Fucked,” Vice, December 11, 2017:

Someone used an algorithm to paste the face of ‘Wonder Woman’ star Gal Gadot onto a porn video, and the implications are terrifying….

And a followup to Cole’s piece by Rod Dreher, “Stop it with the Selfies. Really,” The American Conservative, December 12, 2017.

Returning to Wilde:

“My dear Gladys, I would not alter either name for the world. They are both perfect. I was thinking chiefly of flowers. Yesterday I cut an orchid, for my button-hole. It was a marvellous spotted thing, as effective as the seven deadly sins. In a thoughtless moment I asked one of the gardeners what it was called. He told me it was a fine specimen of Robinsoniana, or something dreadful of that kind. It is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things. Names are everything. I never quarrel with actions. My one quarrel is with words. That is the reason I hate vulgar realism in literature. The man who could call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one. It is the only thing he is fit for.”

The Picture of Dorian Gray ch. XVII

 


Dec 5 2017

Scottish Schadenfreude from David Hume

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Scottish Schadenfreude from David Hume

“[David Hume] loved to puncture convictions and to discomfit dignitaries. He was sincerely irreligious, but he also wanted to shock. Such Schadenfreude doubtless quickens a man’s perception of vulnerable targets, but in itself it gives no more, though no less, of a title to intellectual eminence than does the desire to reassure. Both can be motives to good, both to bad thinking. But the quality of the thinking has to be judged by its results, not by its motives.”

––Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976)

“Hume” (1956) in Gilbert Ryle: Collected Papers. Vol. I, (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1971).