Recent Fiction

I’m really enjoying teaching English 419: The Twentieth-Century Novel as a sort of break from what feel to me like the more pedagogically and rhetorically challenging classes in digital technologies and composition and rhetoric that I usually teach. Teaching has its persuasive components, as any good teacher knows—students who are invested in the material learn better and more easily, so part of my mission is to engage students and persuade them that the material is worth investing in—and novels, for undergraduates in particular, I think offer a more direct rout into engagement through the simple pleasure of reading. And in my teaching evaluations from students, my most commented-upon characteristic for the past 20 years or so of my teaching has been my enthusiasm, and sometimes enthusiasm for the pleasures of the text (even when coupled to the difficulty of the text) can provide a more direct route into that engagement. In the courses I usually teach—rhetoric, composition, digital technologies—my enthusiasm often translates into arguments along the lines of “Look, this is important!” whereas this semester, my arguments have been more like, “Look, this is cool!” That’s an oversimplification, of course, but I guess a way of me saying, I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to have said, over and over again this semester, “Look, this is cool!” as we’ve made our way through

  • Jean Toomer, Cane;
  • Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street;
  • Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49;
  • Toni Morrison, Sula;
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire;
  • Bharati Mukherjee, Jasmine;
  • Louise Erdrich, Tracks; and
  • Ishmael Reed, Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (starting next week).

And of course, discussions of canonicity and its problems have come up. One argument I made in class, after talking with the class about how I’d researched a lot of other syllabi in planning this one, was that of imagining possible alternative reading lists for the syllabus. I proposed that one easily imaginable syllabus for The Twentieth-Century Novel (in English, since it is a class in the English Department, and I don’t want to poach from my colleagues who teach literatures in other languages) might look something like this:

  • Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
  • D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
  • James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
  • William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
  • Joseph Heller, Catch-22
  • Jack Kerouac, On the Road
  • Don DeLillo, White Noise

In other words, I imagine a non-academic audience looking at that list and saying, “Yeah, that seems reasonably representative of some general agreement on some of the canonical novels of the 20th century.” I suspect that for many, it’s a list that would be more easily acceptable in a course on the twentieth-century novel than, say, the following list that revises my syllabus—which is a list I would be much more enthusiastic to teach, and one with which I would have a lot more fun:

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Glenn Close, Like a White Girl

I’m sure I’m not the only one from the DC area who had that thought watching the Oscars. I was delighted to see her shout-out to the city’s official music, and I wonder how many people who aren’t from DC recognize the genre or even remember the song.

The post’s title, of course, invokes another hit by E.U.: 1989’s “Shake It Like a White Girl,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to that era’s intersections of race, music, and dance in the nation’s capital, on the album that also had “Buck Wild” and a re-release of the collaboration with Salt-N-Pepa, “Shake Your Thang.”

Go-go’s syncopated swing has made other occasional forays into the musical mainstream. Prominent examples include Kurtis Blow, Morris Day and the Time (with “Skillet,” the addition of rock guitars by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis seemed inspired in that late 80s/early 90s moment, a la Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat” or Cypress Hill, but has not aged as well), and even a couple of more recent hits by Beyoncé like “Green Light” and “Crazy in Love”: listen for go-go’s defining snare and bass drum dotted quarter-and-eighth rhythm during the verse.

None of those forays, to my mind, had the force and power of the 7-second snippet of Trouble Funk’s “Pump Me Up” that Hank Shocklee used as the intro to Public Enemy’s galvanizing “Fight the Power” from Do the Right Thing, a song still quickens my pulse every time I hear it. For those unfamiliar with the genre, “Godfather of Go-Go” Chuck Brown’s Go-Go Swing Live is likely the smoothest introduction, but the high-energy live recordings by Trouble Funk and Rare Essence, the latter with its absolutely scorching cover of the Bar-Kays’ “Holy Ghost” at 15:54, are more my speed.

And a few weeks before the Oscars aired, I was in DC with extraordinarily fortunate timing, in that I was able to catch the cherry blossoms in full bloom for the first time in decades.

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Contracts and Capital

I just completed teaching a section of first-year composition using labor contracts, and I have some thoughts. I originally intended to post this last Saturday for thematic appropriateness, on May Day — but like I said, I just completed the semester, and so I was a little swamped — a little overworked, let’s say, which takes us back to thematic appropriateness.

I’ve written in the past about the labor theory of value and its implications for the economics of composition, and I’ve been following Asao Inoue’s work on labor contracts with excitement. I’m definitely planning on further investigating the applications of grading contracts in my future first-year composition teaching and theorizing, both as a result of my economic interests and as a result of the persuasiveness of Inoue’s arguments, but there are some aspects of the way Inoue theorizes labor contracts that differ from my own understanding.

Some of those aspects have to do with exigence: to me, labor contracts are an appropriate fit for composition because of the way I understand composition as economic: as I’ve repeatedly argued, technologies are defined by the ways they substitute capital-intensive processes for labor-intensive processes, and the substitution of capital for labor is definitionally an economic activity, and therefore — given that writing is a technology — all of composition studies is a suitable and necessary domain for economic inquiry. For me, that’s a methodological orientation. For Inoue, the exigence is not itself economy but equity: early in Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom, he gives a big-picture overview of his argument that “all grading and assessment exist within systems that uphold singular, dominant standards that are racist, and White supremacist when used uniformly,” and that “This problem is present in any grading system that incorporates a standard, no matter who is judging, no matter the particulars of the standard” (16). So for Inoue, the overriding exigency lies in working toward an ultimately anti-racist pedagogy — the ends, rather than the method.

I share the desire to work toward an anti-racist pedagogy, but I came to thinking about labor contracts from an economic perspective, rather than the ecological perspective Inoue explicitly aligns himself in his critique of the “false” belief “that grading is just an institutional necessity, something we can ask students to ignore, at least while they are learning” due to the way that belief “ignore[s] the way grades work in classrooms, how they shape many aspects of the entire ecology, how they influence students’ and teachers’ actions” (18). Certainly, “ecology” has been a popular and apt metaphor in composition scholarship of the past 20 or so years (Marilyn Cooper’s original article was 1986, but my sense is that the metaphor’s use didn’t really take off in terms of citations and published scholarship—Edbauer, Dobrin, Syverson, and others—until around the early 2000s), but if we’re talking about labor contracts, then it seems to me to be a curiously misplaced metaphor: while appealing in its derivation from the biological sciences’ definition of a system of organisms interacting with one another and their environment, the emphasis therein is on organisms and nature. I suggest we might borrow the insight from Raymond Williams that in such a sense, the natural is opposed to both the cultural (with its sense from culture of the artificial human tending of growth, whether natural or otherwise) and the technological, both of which senses I see as being more firmly tied to what happens in the composition classroom, and if we’re talking cultural and technological systems of labor, exchange, production, and capital—as Inoue is doing—then a focusing theoretical lens that operates as less of a metaphor, and less multiply mediated, would seem to offer more analytical potential. The composition classroom, and its associated pedagogies and theories, seem to me to be more reasonably constructed as economy rather than ecology. As Inoue demonstrates, there is considerable abstract and concrete value at the levels of exchange and use being generated and appropriated in the technological and cultural context of composition as a discipline.

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New Preps

Like most of us, I’ve been adjusting to the pedagogical, administrative, and interpersonal exigencies of COVID-19. Like most of us, I’ve found some of those adjustments challenging, particularly as they relate to making workload allowances for students and myself — for me, being a single dad for three to four weeks at a stretch without available daycare has required some re-thinking of priorities. In the fall semester of 2020, I found myself teaching our graduate seminar in classical rhetoric (which we’re in the process of re-thinking, especially in light of the recent conversations in classics among folks like Shelley Haley, Shadi Bartsch, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Mary Beard, and others about the problems of whiteness) and our Digital Technology and Culture courses on information structures and the history of digital technologies as a one-course overload, which led me to do some of that re-thinking of priorities. And our enrollments for this coming fall are still in flux, so I wound up with the opportunity to teach a couple of courses that I haven’t taught before, which is kind of nice — I’ve been feeling the need for a bit of a pedagogical reset.

I’ll leave discussing the first new prep for last, because it’s for me the most interesting and challenging. But for the second new prep, there were only a few classes in the schedule that were needing to be taught and that I felt like I had the expertise and desire to teach. The first possibility was an open upper-division literature elective that only fulfilled elective requirements, and I wrote up a proposal for an elective in postmodern and experimental fiction, since that’s where a lot of my MFA coursework was. And because we’re trying to increase or at least maintain our enrollments, we’ve been encouraged to advertise the courses we’re offering, and I decided to take the opportunity to fool around with Photoshop and try to teach myself more about using layer masks and such. Not a great first effort, but I’m happy with what I learned from doing it:

experimental and postmodern fiction flyer
larger version, full version

And yeah, you can see my protanopia, I think, in addition to the other dubious design choices—I had to ask for help re which colors went with which. Beyond that, though, in putting together the syllabus I took a look around the web at other college courses teaching postmodern and experimental fiction—and it was saddening to see how white and how male the reading lists were. I mean, I know all the problems with authenticity arguments and such, but still, beyond the inevitable and to-be-expected sexism and racism still visible in much of American academia, there are even female scholars who publish on feminism without a single female author in their postmodern/experimental reading lists. My own reading list is only somewhat less homogenous, I’ll acknowledge.

Long story short, 492 is harder to fill than some of our other upper-division courses, and then the grad student who was scheduled to teach our course on the 20th-century novel while the usual faculty member to teach is on sabbatical decided not to, so I was asked if I’d be interested in doing that instead, and I said yes, with part of my thinking being that it would be a relatively easy adjustment to make in terms of content. Part of the question for me, beyond how to adequately represent the twentieth-century novel in English in a single semester’s readings, was then: how to represent those twentieth-century readings visually? I figure it’s not too controversial to select 9/11 as the marker of the cultural end of the 20th century, so then I found myself seeking visuals from around the beginning of the 20th century with similar themes, and a picture from mother of American modernism Georgia O’Keeffe seemed to mostly fit the bill, although with the actual painting dated 1926, I admit it’s stretching the bounds of contemporaneity. Certainly looks better than the first flyer to my amateur’s eye.

The 20th Century Novel flyer
larger version, full version

And you know what the biggest stumbling block was? Thinking I had to start with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. For whatever reasons—the zombie of the canon still rotting at the back of my unconscious, not being able to get past my own undergraduate experience, or whatever—that idea just would not get out of my head. Until finally, looking at that previous syllabus on Experimental and Postmodern Fiction and thinking about the problems with whiteness there made me stop and say: why do I keep thinking the twentieth-century novel needs to be defined by whiteness? How might it be otherwise? That line of thought helped me ask: what novel in English—American novel, I would say, because to my mind in many ways the twentieth century was the American century—would I want to define the beginning of the twentieth century? That was easy and immediate: Cane, and the metonymic way in which it embodies and anticipates so much of what comes after, culturally speaking. Once I recognized that, everything else fell easily into place, including the theming and the sequencing.

The cultural anxieties around race, truth, and trauma that I’ve been hinting at above and in the linked syllabi have been dominating my attention this past year, much as they have for many of us, and they coalesced in an alarming way around the 2020 election and its aftermath. The final course I’ll describe is one in rhetoric rather than literature, and it reflects and embodies those anxieties and the way I’ve been thinking about them since the events of January 6. Perhaps obviously, the tagline on the flyer—”We’re doomed. Now what?”—is shamelessly plagiarized from Roy Scranton’s book of the same name, but since I’m assigning Scranton in the course, I’m not going to worry about it too much. But yes, I’ve been trying to be mindful of the overdetermined nature of our continuing crisis, and examinations of that overdetermined nature seems to me to be part of what’s missing from many of the rhetorical analyses of and responses to that crisis.

flyer for English 460, the scope of rhetoric
larger version, full version

Here’s my take, and a big part of the animating spirit behind the design for 460: to my mind, the discourses surrounding the 2020 United States Presidential Election and its aftermath, culminating in the United States Capitol events of January 6, indicate a massive complex of problems in our national rhetorics. Writing curricula and the study of rhetoric—and especially academic programs in rhetoric and composition— offer possibly unique and powerful ways to respond to that complex of problems, potentially in ways that extend recent academia-wide conversations re-envisioning the democratic possibilities of the public land-grant university. This complex of overdetermined problems includes

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Fourth of July, 2020

I grew up with Americana as a musical genre. My parents would regularly have bluegrass playing on the radio, and I didn’t find out until much later that the voice introducing the songs, Dick Spottswood, was not only a local DJ and a Takoma Park neighbor but also a prominent researcher of American roots music. Later, in my teens, I got into gogo and hardcore, indigenous American genres that also came out of the Washington DC area. And racial politics were always prominent in DC. That’s part of what comes to mind when I read this poem, which I first encountered a long time ago—in junior high, I think. It feels particularly relevant today.

Let America Be America Again

Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

And Sowed the Ground with Salt

The old site at vitia.org is now mostly razed. I put up a custom redirect, partly for my own amusement (take a look if you like; it’ll bring you back here after 20 seconds), and partly to start re-training myself with those long-unused (and pretty minimal to begin with) skills in Javascript, PHP, and CSS3 that the redesign and integration here has lately stretched, even if it’s been largely template-based. I don’t miss using Dreamweaver one bit—it feels a lot more comfortable doing the changes by typing in a text editor.

Tink Departs

Tink had a good death. As uncomfortable as she clearly was in her last days, she persevered with her characteristic poise and quiet dignity. I was too sad to write anything about it a month ago, and I still miss her as much as I miss her sister Zeugma. Their pictures were the first two pictures on this blog. Here are some more.

Tink at two months old.
Tink the kitten plays with a plush toy.
Tink the cat in a Christmas basket.
The cats Tink and Zeugma beg to lick the dinner plate.
Tink the cat washes herself in the window
An elderly cat rests on a heating pad

That last picture is on her last day, tired and thin, on her heating pad where she had a view of the birds in the back yard.

You were the brave and quiet one. I hope I gave you as many good days as you gave me. Go in peace, dear friend.

Move Complete

I’ve moved the weblog and database over from vitia.org, which will no longer be updated, and in the process I’m updating and tweaking a variety of other things as well. The most significant two tweaks, still somewhat in process but to be wrapped up in the next few days—new email is myfirstname at this domain and anonymous at this domain for encrypted, and putting together a self-hosted webfont stack rather than relying on external—have in common a move away from Google, which is perhaps much more understandable to those who’ve read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which has my vote for the #1 most important must-read book of recent memory. On the one hand, I do stuff with digital technologies, and I put effort into using integrated stacks of digital technologies (shell scripting, operating system scripting, URL hooks and scripting, keyboard automations, messaging and file system automations, et cetera) to make my life easier and declutter my headspace, and on the other hand, I teach classes that critically engage with digital technologies in ways (q.v. Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression; John Cheney-Lippold, We Are Data; Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora, Surrogate Humanity; Ed Finn, What Algorithms Want; Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum, Obfuscation; Frank Pasquale, The Black Box Society) that make what I used to think of as paranoia look increasingly like not only usefully cautious skepticism, not even only good common sense, but socially imperative just and caring practice toward ourselves and others. (And I continue to be so much happier having almost entirely abandoned short-form social media: no, Facebook, I don’t miss you at all, and yes Twitter, I’m absolutely fine not seeing you until my next academic conference.)

So now that I’ve got the overhaul done and the tune-up mostly complete, I figure it’s time for me to start putting this blog through its paces again and doing some laps before I take it out on the highway.

Vroom, vroom.

Maintenance and Moving

I’m moving I’ve moved vitia.org to a new hosting provider, and I’ll soon be changing changed the URL to integrate with my professional site at preterite.net. That means vitia.org will be mirrored at preterite.net for a while. This URL (vitia.org) should be good at least for the next few months, and I’ll have more details as I get the move finalized. Please consider the blog vitia.org now defunct and reincarnated in updated form at preterite.net/blog/.

Short explanation: I started this weblog as a graduate student way back in the early social media days of 2003 (!), when fabulous beasts like the Invisible Adjunct and Culture Cat and the Happy Tutor roamed the green hills of Academic Blogistan. In those days of MySpace and Friendster and LiveJournal and Movable Type 2.6, my default mode was that of grad student critique-ish-ness. The blog’s title, Vitia, indicated that splenetic mode in Latin, and its tagline translated the second declension neuter plural noun: “faults / sins / abuses.”

I like to think I’ve mostly moved away from that splenetic mode, especially with sobriety and being a dad. Thomas Pynchon fans will recognize the reference to preterition, which for me intersects with praeteritio, the rhetorical device (like occultatio) associated with saying something by not saying it or explicitly “passing over” it, as well as with the notion of grace.

Halloween Playlist

Shared on Apple Music.

SongArtistLength
1Koyaanisqatsi Philip Glass 3:27
2Tubular Bells (Opening Theme) Mike Oldfield 4:18
3I Put A Spell on You Marilyn Manson 3:37
4Dedication (Dark Trap Beat Mix) Nesyu Beats 1:36
5Ghostface Killers Offset & Metro Boomin (feat. Travis Scott)4:29
6Rivers Skinny Puppy 4:49
7Orgasmatron Motorhead 5:27
8The Pink Room Angelo Badalamenti 4:06
9Dream Song Ministry 4:48
10Somebody’s Watching Me Rockwell 3:58
11Black Wings Tom Waits 4:36
12Aerials System of a Down 6:11
13Floor 13 Machine Gun Kelly 3:15
14Gimme Back the Night Brodinski 4:14
15Cauterization (Instrumental) Dark Angel 7:18
16Every Day Is Halloween (Razed In Black remix) Ministry 4:55
17Ghosts (Comaduster) Front Line Assembly 4:59
18Seasons in the Abyss Slayer 6:34
19Night Is on My Mind Oliver 4:22
20A Daisy Chain 4 Satan My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult 5:31
21bury a friend Billie Eilish 3:13
22Peter Pan Death Wish Melkeveien 4:50
23Red Right Hand Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds 6:11
24Fade Holly Herndon 6:29
25I Put A Spell on You Natacha Atlas 3:41