Sunday, December 31, 2006

fotojournalism

Even at the Seattle Aquarium, where the mysterious world beneath the sea is exposed to us, where marine habitats glow in dim luminescence, where alien-like creatures swim, slither and waddle behind murky panes of glass, not everything is as it seems.

Not pictured: the line of irritated mothers and screaming children shooting hateful looks as they waited for me to finish channeling my inner-octopus (re: generic super-excited) face.

Not pictured: a small girl, most likely separated from her mother, trying to get the attention of these surly, disgruntled teenage volunteers.

Not pictured: The other children at the arts and crafts table, who were complaining that I was hoarding the only working gluestick. Also not pictured: my fish-hat, which obviously turned out way better than theirs.

Happy New Year's,
erc

Saturday, December 30, 2006

fighting the man (which man?)

Regular readers will note that the last few days have been particularly fruitful ones for this blog, in terms of quantity (apparently, no one wants to comment when I brag about my mad crossword skillz). This is, of course, in no way correlative to the dearth of e.r.c.'s social life; my days at my grandparents' house are filled with activities, including, but not limited to: reading back issues of Good Housekeeping, playing electronic yahtzee, watching Man Vs. Wild, eating saltine crackers, spending hours deciding whether or not its worth my effort to put on pants. It usually isn't.

I was meaning to post an article by Walter Benn Michaels several days ago, but, like most Chronicle of Higher Ed. pieces, the original article was only temporarily available to non-subscribers. Fortunately, you can read "Why Identity Politics Distracts from Economic Inequalities" here.

If you click on that wikipedia link, you'll see that WBM is an academic of the Todd Gitlin variety, convinced that identity politics have supplanted the greater problems plaguing this country--namely, class inequality. This is the anti-theory stance he repeatedly assumes, and one that he advocates in the Chronicle piece; Benn Michaels attempts to justify the article by grounding it in Princeton's recent decision to "build up its African American Studies program." While he agrees that department-building does attract some students of color and talented faculty, he argues that it fails to address the real causes underlying the racial disparity in America's top universities.
But there's a more-important sense in which even African-American studies is a kind of blackface, a performance not only of blackness but of race itself. Asian-Americans are overrepresented in elite colleges like Princeton; African-American students are underrepresented. But no one's as underrepresented in those colleges as poor people.
His
numbers--less than 16% of Princeton's class of 2009 came from family incomes of less than $50,000--drive an argument for need-based (rather than blind) admissions process. He adds, albeit unconvincingly, that ethnic studies programs are still necessary, as they have the potential to remind us of the "limitations" of race.

Huh?

I agree with Benn Michaels on one count--I think admissions needs to grant more privileges to the financially disadvantaged (a piece I wrote last year). But, while I do agree that class is a significant issue in higher education that needs to be reconsidered and prioritized, I take issue with his insinuation that considering race (building departmental programs, promoting affirmative action) detracts from the fight against the financial inequality that plagues such institutions. His causal logic is inherently flawed, especially in a context (this nation and its education system) where race and class have been and continue to be so inextricably connected.

Benn Michaels claims that he wants to forge allegicances between the issues of class and race; this ambition reflects the situated diagramming I posted about last week. But his repeated valuation--his insistence that class supercedes race, and that both terms are inherently competitive--suggests a hierarchy rather than an coalition.

His argument reminds me of the brand of reductionist Marxism that Moyra Haslett critiques in Marxist Literary and Cultural Theories (my stocking stuffer--thanks, Mom!). While, like Benn Michaels, Haslett bemoans "the disappearance of class as an issue from contemporary commentaries," she admits that "one of the most significant problems with Marxist theories has been their insistence on the primacy of socio-economic class at the expense of other forms of social division."
Marxist theory urges us to consider the way in which the ideological is determined by the economic, but it reminds us that the terms are far from mutually exclusive. Benn Michaels should, I think, consider this relation.

Friday, December 29, 2006

first new year's resolutions

Yesterday, I asked myself: "Is the NY Times Thursday crossword getting ridiculously easy? Or am I just getting ridiculously smart?"

Then today's puzzle owned me.

1. New Year's Resolution #1: Strive for (or at least project) a greater degree of humility.
2. New Year's Resolution #2: Master Friday crossword.

Generation Y-r-u-famous?

I don't like change. When I was ten, I was loathe to trade in our family's Mac Performa for a PC (mostly because I was afraid I wouldn't get to play Odell Down Under anymore). When I was 13, I wisely refused to abandon my Lee flared jeans (which I had to beg my mother to buy) when Jnco's came into vogue. I wore the same hairstyle--a pair of braided pigtails, trailing down my back like the twin ropes of a swing--from ages three to eleven. I ate the same lunch--a grilled cheese sandwich and a choco pie--throughout elementary school. Today, I own five black v-neck sweaters, seven tubes of the same reddish-lipstick, and four pairs of black flats.

I suspected this resistance to novelty might explain my irrational distaste for youtube, but then I thought about my enthusiasm for other forms of artistic democratization--music sharing networks, graffiti, blogging--and reassessed my hostility. Sure, I don't love watching video (or television programs) in blurry definition, but I did watch sixteen episodes of The Office on my computer in three days.

The Office, however, is a genius show, manufactured by the brilliant Ricky Gervais and a talented cast. With youtube, any schmo can become a star--Lonelygirl15 has a longer wikipedia entry than James Baldwin (although wikipedia itself is a product of the people, albeit one to whom I have sworn undying allegiance).

Herein lies the source of my stubborn antipathy. Even when music (filesharing), writing (blogs), dance (public performance), and the visual arts (graffiti) are democratized--when the middle man is removed, creation, production, and publication are compressed, and the arts acquire a sense of rawness and immediacy--they still necessitate some combination of talent and innovation in order to sustain an audience. No one is willing to sit through comically bad music, read awful writing, or look at crappy artwork for that long. But with video, that last, most current, most exploitable medium, millions are mesmerized and amused by crap that would draw blank stares if aired on the television. Low definition, it seems, breeds low standards.

If Generation X grew up on The Real World, where cast members were pre-selected for charisma and their daily existence was edited and moulded into compelling art, Generation Y is growing up youtube--unfiltered, uninventive, unimaginative.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

vital humours

Things that other people seem to find really funny, but I generally do not:
1. Will Ferrell--especially Anchorman
2. Quoting popular movies--especially Anchorman
3. Engrish (or, for that matter, jokes that rely on Asian stereotypes, except for those that expose Asian/Black dynamics or Asian women talking about their mothers)
4. Dane Cook
5. Jokes about the difference between men and women
6. The film Thank You for Smoking, which was boring and uninspired

Things that I find really funny, but other people generally do not:
1. The long clues in crossword puzzles that comprise the overarching theme and are usually double entendres
2. Puns in conversation
3. Bitchy waitresses, bored clerks, bickering siblings
4. Poorly-timed photographs
5. Products that replace the letter "c" with "k," or substitute "ex" with "X"
6. Ruining the ending for others

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

group think

Many people have alerted me to this piece in the Dec/Jan New Yorker, which is about "rap's new drug obsession"--cocaine. Critic Sasha Frere-Jones justifies the creation of the genre by insisting that its existence is more than topical. Rapping about dealing coke, he claims, forces lyrical experimentation, compelling hip hop artistes like Clipse and Young Jeezy to write "complex poetry: songs that simultaneously broadcast and hide their meaning." So double meaning and allegory assume a sense of urgency when underwritten by illegality: Therein lies the real connection to a poetic tradition.

Musical genres are funny things. I've never felt comfortable answering the question, "What sort of music do you like?" The category "indie rock" feels simultaneously pretentious and prosaic, so I usually try to veer into the overly specific ("ugly-bearded-weirdo-singer-songwriters).

Allmusic.com has some interesting lists of genres. Here are my five favorites:

1. Quiet Storm: "Urbane sophistication and subdued soulfulness"; pants-dropping R&B
2. Truck-driving Country: "hard-driving" honky tonk from the '70's
3. Happy hardcore: post-rave music for drugged-out clubgoers
4. Songster: a blues tradition that evolved in the South after slavery
5. Madchester: psychedelic 80's brit rock

On a related note, I thought of two new band names I would consider if I sang or played an instrument. "Dr. Mina and the Free Radicals" and "Literary Allusion."

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A Christmas Story

12/26/2006

9:00 am: Wake up. Forgot to take contact lenses out. Day already ruined.
11:30 am: Take a walk with Dad (pictured) around Seward Park, which abuts Lake Washington. We pass a group of eight people playing flag football, and Dad insists that, with my "throwing arm," I could have started a girls' team in junior high. He is dead serious.
12:00 pm: Dad asks if I have a boyfriend. Reply, "No." Long pause. "Good," he says.
1:30 pm: Back at the house, we learn that we will eat dinner at 4 pm. "Really?" says Isaac.
3:30 pm: Christmas dinner is served. 5 out of 8 dishes involve mayonnaise.
5:00 pm: Nap while lying in a fetal position by the heater.
7:30 pm: Finish Muriel Spark anthology, read first 100 pages of The Year of Magical Thinking.
9:35 pm: Mom, Dad, and Isaac are laughing hysterically at a gameshow called "Deal or No Deal." Watch distractedly for a few minutes; it is retarded.
9:55 pm: Mom screams, "NO DEAL!"

Saturday, December 23, 2006

home for christmas

Grocery shopping in middle America.

Grandma: (ticking off a list) Let's see...cole slaw, canned fruit, saltines, white bread--
Mom: (interrupting) Is there an organic aisle?
Grandma: (shudders) Mina, dear, is there any favorite food that you'd like me to buy for YOU?
Me: Um...diet coke?
Mom: Look! Shiitake mushrooms!

ladykillerz

On the plane trip from New Haven to Seattle (or rather, Hartford to Chicago to Seattle), I read Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray for the first time. Dorian Gray, in addition to meeting both qualifiers I set up in the last post--engrossing ideas, beautiful language--forges an interesting relation to The Elementary Particles, written almost exactly a century later. In the web of readings I posited last week, this fiber of connectivity would be the shared trope of the libertine.

In Houellebecq’s novel, Bruno, his middle-aged, modern incarnation of the figure (oh, how far we have fallen from Wilde’s aesthete and Donne’s wordsmith to Houellebecq’s paunchy, sex-obsessed loser) is only able to self-actualize by transcending materialism; Bruno's bildungsroman is structured as a romance narrative, albeit one that is enabled in strip clubs and orgies.

Nearly a century earlier, Dorian’s (Bruno's philandering forerunner) acquisition of subjecthood—his progression from a flat, impressionable pretty boy into a nuanced character—proceeds in the opposite manner; Dorian strives to dwell in materialism rather than rise above it—to supplant his awareness of his metaphysical decay with an attempt at a fully sensory existence.

He felt keenly conscious of how barren all intellectual speculation is when separated from action and experiment. He knew that the senses, no less than the soul, have their spiritual mysteries to reveal (106-7).

From Wilde to Houellebecq, then, we see the evolution of the modern libertine. But both authors are situated at different intellectual moments; for Dorian, the material can never truly escape the metaphysical, even if it is painted over, tucked away in the attic, and obscured behind a sumptuous tapestry. For the 21st century degenerate, however, materialism is both totalizing and meaningless; while his wish to fully reduce everything to its elementary particles (Lord Henry's assertion that "life is a question of nerves, and fibers" 171) has been achieved by science, he is inexorably aware of the limitations of corporeal pleasure (in Houellebecq's novel, violence is the next frontier beyond sexual bounds, but this too is marked off).

What does the libertine do, then, when both the sensual and metaphorical worlds are bounded from each other—when sexuality loses its significance, and meaning is impossible to attain elsewhere? Materialists of both centuries are confounded by the impossibility, and by the same fear:
'Death is the only thing that ever terrifies me. I hate it.'
'Why?' said the younger man, wearily.
'Because,' said Lord Henry passing beneath his nostrils the gilt trellis of an open vinaigrette box, 'one can survive everything nowadays except that.' (168)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

value rubric

I've never been intimidated when people ask me to name my favorite novel. Granted, I can't limit my answer to just one, but there's definitely an elite faction of novels in e.r.c's library, which includes Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, Coetzee's Disgrace, Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. And then there's the upper echelon--the "top shelf"--where Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Pamuk, Roth, Bellow, Kundera, Barthelme, etc. sit, perhaps discontentedly.

I've usually tried to whittle the qualifying difference between the A and B Team down to a simple pair of values: the quality of the prose and the quality of the ideas. I read Graham Greene and I'm overwhelmed: stunned by the mastery of his prose and and inwardly moved by the ideas the works convey.

With this prose/idea rubric in mind, I've been thinking about the last two books I read, A.S. Byatt's Possession and Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles. Both belong on the upper shelf; both fail to uphold both of the characteristics I attribute to great fiction. Possession, which won the Booker Prize in 2006, tells the story of a pair of scholars who uncover a long-hidden relationship between their respective figures of study; in the arduous process of literary excavation, the male-poet-expert and the lady-poetess-expert fall in love. Academia has never looked so sort-of-sexy.

Byatt's elaborate, Tolkien-esque fabrication of the poets' verses and letters (the novel is stuffed with carefully constructed, chronologically accurate excerpts) is admirable. One can easily get lost in the lush, beautiful language, which--paired with a tolerable literary-mystery and love story--propels the plot forward at a breakneak pace. But while the back cover declares that the novel is one of "ideas," I found a surprising dearth of conceptual intrigue. Both scholars in the novel claim to be more motivated by text rather than biography, but there's not a lot of textual analysis, and a whole lot of biographical unraveling.

The Elementary Particles, Houellebecq's (am I spelling this right?) detached, ostensibly nihilistic (apparently the New York Times called the novel "repugnant", intermittently lurid tale of a pair of French brothers with antithetical social disorders has the opposite problem: it is a novel of ideas, but not a work of enchanting prose.

These ideas, though, are fascinating. Houellebecq is obsessed with the question: How does the post-materialist man handle day to day existence? Once war has been conquered by religion, and religion has been conquered by science, and science by unknowability, humanity is left floundering in a post-structuralist pool of uncertainty, where it is unable to reconcile its physical needs (sex, existence) with its metaphysical ones (love, philosophy).

But, as with Byatt, Houellebecq attempts to anchor the novel with a device
that carries no real weight; this device is, per the novel's title, the scientist brother's (Michel) studies, which culminate in a post-humous retrospective on his discovery of the "elixir of life"--man's ability to reproduce asexually, rupturing the connection between sex and selfhood. The theoretical implications of this idea, when tied with the physical/metaphysical conflicts that drive the plot, are truly compelling. Claiming, however, that Michel discovered that love "was possible" (252) feels contrived and irreconciliable with the shallow scientific claims of the novel.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

it's a funny situation

This semester, one of my final term papers referenced an excerpt from Donna Haraway's 1991 book, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (click on the link, there's a great chart on wiki). Since reading this stuff, I've been obsessing about information science--specifically, the possibilities yielded by attempting to diagram different critiques of the same text.

Stan linked me to the site of a Yale Professor Emeritus, Edward Tufte, who has written a great deal about the visual presentation of information and statistics. Tufte's stuff is primarily concerned with how the aesthetics of mapping information facilitate the interaction between the creator of the diagram and its audience; I'm more interested in the relationships between the positions that are mapped--in the case of literary analysis, the disparate "readings."

Haraway comes up with a wacky little drawing of a "bush," which, she claims, yields a de-centered presentation of readings that offers "a diagrammatic model for indicating how feminist theory and the critical study of colonial discourse interact each other" (111). Or, in simpler terms, how different readings of the same text are connected/different. While her description supports her non-hierarchal theory of situated interpretations, the literal map of the "bush," like the physical referent it signifies, implies a root--an overarching starting point that she calls "experience"--which branches into multiple binaries. By virtue of this totalizing concept and the hierarchical structure it connotes, the "representational technology" (112) of her paradigm fails to to disrupt the system of reading she's trying to unravel (i.e., a linear anthology, or a structure that overtly attributes "correctness" to some readings). The bush implies fixed situations, a universal origin, and unidirectional affinities and differences; essentialism is an intrinsic attribute of each of these tropes.

I know very little about informatics/diagramming, but it seems to me that a practical paradigm of situated readings that better adheres to the theory's epistemological standpoint is a web of positions--a diagram that refutes order, origins, and binaries in favor of plurality and relational meaning. Such a diagram better reflects Haraway's desire to represent "an open, branching discourse with a high liklihood of reflexivity about its own interpretative and productive technology" (112). The utility of a web is derived from examining the fibers that stretch between its points--the affiliations and experiences shared by variant positions--and in investigating the nature and magnitude of the spaces between them, or the different perspectives produced by disparate contexts.

In using such a model, affinities and differences are recognized--not perceived as impenetrable. This poses, I think, a practical paradigm that addresses Stanley Fish's attitude towards tolerance, which I discussed earlier.


In laymen's terms, here's what I mean. My family is about to spend three weeks together (a biannual phenomenon). Naturally, this leads to a great deal of conflict; we all have very disparate tastes, dislikes. Consider, however, the web of situated positions I've created: You might notice that several Kimes's share affiliations--my brother and I both enjoy The Office, my parents like frappucinos.

Exploiting such differences--while either addressing or avoiding placing pressure on differences--can lead to a mutually favorable situation. Feminists and postcolonialists can construct coalitions from such bonds; my family can stave off fighting for a day or two if there's enough white wine to go around...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

parents' visit part deux

Yesterday afternoon, my parents flew up to New Haven for their second visit of the year; since they've moved back to the States (yes, writing "the States" makes me feel like a huge tool), my mom has taken to phoning me several times each week, often with "reasons" such as:

12/10 (5:45 pm) she wants to know if she should bring zip loc bags, or
12/10 (7:30 pm) sweat pants, or
12/10 (8:45 pm) canned goods. Yes, she knows I'm not a hobo. No, she won't call again.
12/10 (9:30 pm) am I sure I don't need zip loc bags?
12/10 (10:25 pm) forgot to say "good night!"
12/10 (10:45 pm) last question--what should she wear to the ceremony? oh right, we already talked about this.

The "ceremony" was my phi beta kappa induction which was, to say the least, hilarious. The highlight was probably learning the PBK handshake, which basically involves making the "trekkie" symbol and awkwardly forking another member's hand with your own. We also learned that Skull and Bones may have been started by kids who didn't get into PBK. Sweet: Instead of getting $20,000 and a lamborghini after graduation, I have the satisfaction of a vaguely sexual handshake and a swell GPA.

My mom loves taking pictures at inappropriate times (see: countless images of our family in parking lots, gift shops, waiting in line for national landmarks, etc) and has no qualms about asking random strangers to indulge her. To deter this habit, I've begun making my SUPER EXCITED face in every picture she asks people to take of us. At the ceremony, at Battell:

Unfortunately, this scheme has fireballed:

12/13 (7:30 pm) dad and her got home safe, don't worry!
12/13 (8:00 pm) could I email her the pictures?
12/13 (8:12 pm) thanks!
12/13 (8:15 pm) is glad that I'm "finally smiling" in pictures

In addition to the ceremony, we also dined at Roomba (3 stars/5) and Union League (4.5/5), and visited the newly restored Yale Art Gallery, gushingly reviewed a few days ago (apparently, Kahn is up there with Obama for the Times). While the review is a bit mawkish--"Everything here feels warmly alive"--the writer is right: the combination of artificial and natural lighting in the museum is amazing. For me, highlights included the print exhibit on the top floor (featuring some lovely, playful Jane Hammond and Kiki Smith works) and the Anselm Kiefer, Manet, and Gerhard Richter pieces. The modern and early european collections are pretty incredible.

Man, I'm lucky to be here.

Monday, December 11, 2006

my favorite NY times headline ever

"Turtles: Slow, but Built to Last."

Sunday, December 10, 2006

2006 winds to a close

The New York Times Magazine releases their "Sixth Annual Year in Ideas," a list of 74 literal and conceptual novelties that arose in 2006. Some of the pieces are a bit obvious--"living with guys makes women more likely to eat bagel bites and Easy Mac"--but some are quite interesting. My favorites:

1. Negativity Friendship. Apparently, bonds are more likely to be forged over a tall glass of haterade. This might fall under the "obvious" category, but it still confirms the universality of something I've long observed in my own relationships. There are, I think, gradations within this category for different subsects of humanity. Intellectuals unite over disliking ignorant or equally pretentious people; stupid people connect via their hatred for authority figures and inanimate objects; supervillains collaborate to fight x-men, kids enjoy foiling cereal-loving leprechauns together, etc.

2. Misery Chic. The Times calls celebrities out on their Africaphilia, insinuating that many of their chariable acts may be more performative than helpful. Adopting children from Namibia, a visually demonstrative act (the contrasting skin tones are a publicist's dream!) is like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound.

3. Olfactory Cuisine. Chefs are manufacturing scents in order to enhance a dining experience. Whatever, man, I've been arguing for years that Subway has special vents installed outside of the store that pump out the weird artificial bread smell. I also contend that, if the UN could somehow figure out a way to emit the smell of Cinnabon in areas ravaged by conflict and genocide, world peace would ensue.

4. Reverse graffiti. The masses embrace Keat's theory of negative capability; the government tricks artists into doing their dirty work.

On a related note, dictionary.com has opened the polls (until Friday) for voters to select the word of the year. The website has also released the list of the "most looked up words" of 2006, which range from the ironic/depressing ("naive") to the surprising ("quixotic").

When I was young, my father told me (while driving me to soccer practice) that his favorite word was "morbid." In response, I told him that mine was "delightful" (we had just passed a billboard advertising Sunny D). This year, I'll be casting my vote for "dictionary.com."

Monday, December 04, 2006

e.r.c goes m.i.a.

Dear peers, readers, Mom:

If you're looking for me between now and Friday afternoon, when my senior essay is due, you can find me here:



















That would be the 7th floor of SML, in a frigid cubicle.

If you're wondering to yourself, "How did that cracked-out looking hobo woman wearing five layers of clothing, surrounded by empty coffee cups and gum wrappers, get into the stacks?," you've found me.

<3 elmrockcity
p.s. please send gum, diet coke