Wednesday, June 06, 2007

the inevitable conclusion

First, a confession: I don't like to read other people's blogs.

For many people, the bookmarks on their browsers (for Mozilla users, the tabs under the search box) are indicative of their priorities and paranoias. For me, the lineup parallels my "real" life mental activities: google and wikipedia (ego), gmail (communication), NYC subway map and weather (forethought), thesaurus (super-ego), thefacebook (belief in other minds), ebay (id), and this blog (self-justification). My homepage is the New York Times (delusional phobia), so that I seem conscientious when I open my computer in public places. None of my tabs, however, are blogs--not even my friends' blogs, which I do usually get around to reading eventually.

Like any buzzword (is "blog" even a buzzword anymore? Writing that phrase makes me feel like a forty-something columnist for Entertainment Weekly), the meaning of the term shifts: Blogs can be rambling diaries with lengthy entries, they can be collective endeavors, they can harp on a single issue or idea, and they can distill information. The only real qualifier for the medium is the need for a loose motif, either topical or tonal (sounds like I'm describing anti-itch creams). At their best, then, blogs present something that is both additive and coherent, offering a unique perspective, an original concept, or a novel way of organizing/filtering others' perspectives and ideas. ERC, of course, did none of these things (but hey, she did post some funny stuff about her family!).

Setting definitions aside, I'll admit that it seems narcissistic to keep a blog without maintaining an interest in others; if the computer is an analogy for the mind, and the browser corresponds to consciousness (the thoughts whose navigation we control), then my blog-solipsism would seem to translate into utter self-absorption--disinterest in the minds of others paired with an obsession with the workings of my own.

The reasons for writing a blog, however, are different from the reasons for reading one. A few months ago, an anonymous Yalie sent me a letter, asking me why I started ERC (i.e., asking me why I would openly expose my idiocy and megalomania to the ridicule of my ever-judgmental classmates and peers). I responded:
"Putting one's writing on the internet, like the construction of any online presence, is a product of two objectives: A localized, medium-specific utility (for example, the use of thefacebook as an address book or means of tracking birthdays) and a desire for self-representation (the use of thefacebook as a means of manipulating words and images to form a coherent portrayal of the self--an avatar, if you will). Depending on how much Freud you've read, you could attribute different purposes to the latter objective.

I suppose I blog for the same reasons. As someone who wishes to become a writer, having a blog is an impetus to practice my craft on a regular basis and a vehicle for me to hammer out the theoretical ideas that plague my academic work. You could argue that I could keep a diary instead, but writing with an awareness of audience is an entirely different animal. And, as with thefacebook, blogging is a means of self-representation. Obviously, the nature and content of my posts--the self-deprecation, the literary theory, the occasional pictures of myself--reveal both my insecurities and the aspects of my character I wish to project to the public..."
This probably seemed like an affected response, but, in retrospect, it's true: I wrote because I wanted to write, and I wanted other people to read what I was writing. It's pretty simple. And, over the course of my year at Yale, I tried to develop a style and a voice. Strains of thought emerged, sputtered, and evolved: theories of artistic and literary pleasure, a preoccupation with defending the value of postmodernism, an aversion to essentialism, and some ideas of ways to encourage people to read (check out this cool website that serializes books--looks like someone out there in internet-land was listening!) and to enjoy art.

So while I don't think ERC deserves a tab on anyone's browser (unless montages are an integral component of the way you perceive the world), I do think it was an educational (for me) and entertaining (for me) tool of procrastination. But now that college has ended, and I've left the Elm City for good, I'll also be leaving this strange little bundle of my neuroses and interests behind, a time capsule of my final year at a place where I learned a great deal.

My friend Adam likes to remind me of the first time we met, at Yale's freshman orientation, when I complained incessantly about having to study poetry to fulfill the requirements for the English major. While the story is embarrassing, having someone--or something--around who reminds you of how you've changed is also affirming, like a yardstick that shows how far you've come, and how much farther you can grow.

And even if that yardstick is a blog that no one reads anymore, it's still there.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

erc commencement issue

Of all of the rites and transitions I've undergone in my young life, graduating from Yale has been the most anti-climactic and the least affecting. I'm serious: I felt more changed after buying my first (unnecessary) training bra and going on my first date (a group outing to see Speed 2: Cruise Control). I felt more nostalgic when I left my first job, as a line cook at Bagel Nosh; I still experience fond recollections when I catch a whiff of fresh lox cream cheese.

It may be because the ceremony is stretched out over the span of several days, and because the events reeked of institutional self-glorification and money-mongering (see: Yale secretly sending advertisements for the 3 hour long commencement musical to my parents, leading my father to "surprise" us after dinner with pricey tickets) rather than a celebration of the students. When it comes down to it, erc loved Yale--the campus, the teachers, the classes--but she doesn't feel the need to celebrate that love by marching around the Yale Corporation Board for four hours and sitting through 500 allusions to Yale's "awesome relationship with China." By the time it was over, I felt like I had to graduate from graduation.

Yes, I've already used that line that many times.

Perhaps the highlight of the festivities is the Class Day Speech, which is given by a "famous" Yale alumnus who gets paid next to nil for flying to Crack Haven to "inspire" a crowd of over privileged kids wearing stupid hats (the bottom picture is of erc in her hat, a Salvation Army-enabled concoction). Regardless, you can see why Yale's repertoire is less than star-studded--vs, say, Harvard's tag-team of Bill Gates/Clinton.

This year, the speaker was Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International and an all-purposes political pundit (it's safe to assume that 90% of the senior class has read that wiki entry I linked). The guy's on television, so he speaks articulately and eloquently; he opened by alluding to a Yale student's criticism of his selection as a speaker in the Daily News--a move swiped from Matthew Fox's speech at Columbia! Everyone seemed pretty impressed by his bland land-of-opportunity rhetoric, but the speech was pretty insubstantial. Apparently, this country's "open borders" can be analogized to keeping an open mind after graduation. Also, taxi drivers can teach you things, and America rocks and will keep on winning at everything.

I may or may not blog my cliche high school valedictory address, recently rediscovered with the recovery of files from my childhood computer, for your reading pleasure. Until then, here are some words of advice for future sons and daughters of Eli:

1. Don't shop astronomy courses when you're desperately seeking a
group IV, even if they have cool names like "Planets and Stars." They involve HUGE numbers. Plus the tiny ones that look like apostrophes.
2. Don't live in my apartment building/tenement, unless you enjoy water heaters from the 19th century, neighborhood halfway houses, and a basement dweller who blasts the theme from Star Wars at 4 am.

3. Don't trust the doctors at DUH. They want to harvest your organs for the Yale Sustainable Food Project.
4. Don't trust your Teaching Assistants. They want to use you as a paradigm of a student who they "reformed from a C- to a B paper."
5. Did you consider Stanford? It's not in New Haven...

Sunday, May 27, 2007

new web ideas

Riffing off of the overrated, largely unfunny website Overheard in New York, my hilarious friend Joe has devised a couple of permutations--Overheard in American Apparel, Overheard in Book Trader (the self-parodic art student-heavy cafe I work/live in)--over the years.

(Example--actually overheard in Book Trader yesterday)
Surly female employee: Isn't it funny that Joey from nsync's last name was Fatone? Because he really was the Fat one?

On that note, erc is already late for her Baccalaureawhocares ceremony, during which she is sure to "overhear" very little, as Yale students these days seem to be incapable of insights beyond "Oh my god, I'm totally afraid to graduate, everyone is so stupid everywhere else!"

Thursday, May 24, 2007

new gem on the internets

In a sea of long-winded mp3 blogs and grammatically unsavory foodie diaries, here's a brilliant concept: Every few days, this guy responds to a missed connection posting on craigslist (readers will remember erc's encounter with the website), using the same four words as a means of provocation.

Responses range from the polite to the indignant to the ebonic, but they are almost always misspelled, and always hilarious.

What other phrases come to mind? How about, "I know her--she's a dude, bro."

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

critics at large

A little less than a month ago, Michael Connelly--an author of mass market detective mysteries, the likes of which you'll find sandwiched between the 99 cent birthday cards and the frozen food section in your local Safeway--wrote a piece for the L.A. Times lamenting the recession of book reviews in prominent newspapers and magazines. Connelly contends that the publications' decision to print fewer reviews is masochistic, claiming that it contributes to the growing threat of obscurity that print media faces today. "The publishing industry has always relied on reviews and on the commentary of great critics in newspapers to champion the new voices of literature as well as regional and genre writing," he writes. "The reading public has gone to these venues to make discoveries. Now where will new voices be discovered?"

A few weeks later, the Times printed another piece about the "war of words" between established book reviewers and bloggers, a critical fracas arising from verbal blows between Michael Dirda, a "Pulitzer-Prize winning book critic" for the Washington Post and lit-blogger Edward Champion (with a name like that, one can only assume that he's also a lit-porn star).
"If you were an author," remarked Dirda, "would you want your book reviewed in the Washington Post and the New York Review of Books, or on a web site written by someone who uses the moniker NovelGobbler or Biogafriend?"

Finally, a couple of days ago, The Times--seriously, someone at this newspaper must have been moved from the Colin Farrell beat to this story--printed a horrible op-ed by RIchard Schickel, who is, in addition to being a professional critic, a professional a-hole: In an elitist tone, his article whines about the democratization of book reviewing (readers may remember erc whining about the democratization of television), claiming that the shift from printing critical analysis by writers with theoretical backgrounds to the academic "wasteland" of the blogosphere will engender the elimination of standards, and the death of intellectual literary reviewing. "
We need to see something other than flash, egotism and self-importance. We need to see their credential," he writes.

The principal trait shared by Connelly, Dirda, and Schickel, besides self-importance and an obvious hatred of this gosh-darn-newfangled technology, is a sense of paranoia--a fear of the effects that the changing shape of media will have on their work's relevance. Attributing the demise of reading to the rise of online media and blogging invokes a false relationship of causality: People will continue to write, and people will continue to read, but the way we write and read and think about books will change.

In evolutionary terms, those who adapt to this transformation (novelists who--like Connelly--take advantage of podcasts, web-based publicity, book clubs, etc) will benefit, and those critics who refuse to justify or modify their contributions to literary culture will face the big cut. Good, in-depth book reviews, ones that are additive rather than merely derivative, will still find an audience--erc, for example, regularly reads print content for the new york review of books, etc., only online. The only reviews that will be "replaced" by blogs will be those that fail to contribute anything that isn't offered by concise, smart blog posts.

As my friend Matt pointed out, Schickel's piece does touch on a legitimate problem that faces the democratization of publishing, an issue that I've taken to calling "the right to review." Possessing this right, however, seems to transcend categorical differences; a reviewer for probably offers more insight than a reporter for my home state's newspaper, the Arizona Republic. The dichotomy of standards, then, is not between diverse media, but between intelligent and unintelligent criticism. While I worried that youtube was lowering the standards for television, permitting unintelligent programming to filter into our brains, I don't think that book-blogging poses the same threat; because reading requires more cognitive effort than drooling in front of a fuzzy television screen, most people won't wend through bad criticism simply because it's online.

So when it comes to reviewing, the strongest--the most clearly written, the most interesting, and, in some cases, the more web-friendly--will survive unscathed. But the real winner is, of course, the reader, who emerges with a greater diversity of options, and a broader gateway to new and different types of fiction. In the evolutionary analogy, I guess erc is Darwin, the reader is DNA, and Richard Schickel is a dodo bird.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

pure brilliance

Matt: Remember when there used to be Magic Eye kiosks in the mall?
Mina: (laughs)
Matt: That's what I want to commission for my apartment: A portrait of myself, but done as a Magic Eye.

Friday, May 18, 2007

What would the Times' "Vows" Say?

Foreign Policy's list of the Top 100 Public Intellectuals is several months old--RIP Baudrillard--but it's still worth a look. Skepticism aside (Fukuyama over Zizek? Posner over Kristeva?), the most troubling aspect of the catalogue is, of course, the dearth of female names. Granted, some of these academics are probably women whose multi-syllabic, vowel-heavy names I can't identify as feminine. But still.

ERC has devised an innovative idea that will reignite a female intellectual renaissance: The return of the Boston Marriage, which is defined as follows:
"a marriage-like relationship between two women—"New Women" in the language of the time, women who were independent, not married, self-supporting (which sometimes meant living off inherited wealth or making a living as writers or other professional, educated careers)."
My first recommendation is that Martha Nussbaum and Elaine Scarry shack up. Barbara Johnson would provide a feasible, albeit less photogenic, alternative.

on the appeal of the academic novel

While riding the train back to New Haven yesterday, I finished Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, the second book I’ve read for pleasure as a quasi-college graduate (stay tuned--the Kimes family descends for commencement in two weeks). After reading American Pastoral, Goodbye Columbus, etc., I admit I think Roth is a phenomenal author—undoubtedly, one of the best living novelists—but this novel left me feeling intensely uneasy, and I’ve been wrestling with attempts to explain my dissatisfaction.

The simplest answer would be alienation. At its most basic level, The Human Stain is about an older professor (a classicist, no less) who has an affair with a younger woman; with the exception of Coetzee’s Disgrace, I’ve historically found myself drawn to, yet repelled, by the trope, which practically demands its own shelf at Borders. Contemporary fiction abounds with ambiguously named northeastern liberal arts universities teeming with professor-protagonists (professagonists?) who pursue adulterous or unorthodox affairs, which generally lead to disaster/self-discovery/awkward sex. As a younger, educated, female reader, I can’t help but find myself distanced from such narratives, which tend to demonize female academics, vaunting women who are, for lack of a better idiom, “in touch with nature”—females who have chosen raw sexuality, motherhood, or physical labor over the artifice and faux-masculinity of academia.

In The Human Stain, for example, we have Delphine Roux: a petite, brunette, young feminist scholar with an affinity for French post-structuralist theory (obviously, that hits a little too close to home), whose hated of the professagonist is motivated by sexual desire—Delphine really just wants a man to love her, you know? And on the other side of the campus, we have Faunia Farley, a veritable milkmaid.

Gender-based indignation would justify literary estrangement, to be sure, and a deep distrust of the male pen, but it’s not only males who craft such professagonistic (seriously, the ny review of books should credit the invention of this word to erc) narratives: Zadie Smith, for example, offers a similar plotline in On Beauty, even the unnatural academic/natural mother binary. Which leads me to consider the possibility that it wasn’t alienation that generated my unease upon reading The Human Stain, but identification—identification with a sentiment, rather than a character.

So what is this sentiment--the source of my love-hate relationship with the genre?

The Human Stain purports to be a novel about the pervasiveness of impurity—a “stain” that bleeds across class, gender, and sexual boundaries. The story of the male professor and the female janitor is sandwiched between Roth’s ill-fitting moralizing about the Clinton scandal; their fate isn’t an allegory, however, but an indictment, a narrative finger pointed at those who don’t believe in fallibility, who refuse to accept the universality of sin.

But this isn’t a novel about sin and forgiveness; it’s a novel about desperation, about the ever-widening gap between the natural and the artificial. It’s about a protagonist whose life is entirely constructed—who has spent his entire adult life pretending to be a different race--and, subsequently, desperately craves an experience that exists beyond the realm of representation, a relation that “just is.” This, I think, is the sentiment we relate to--the fear that the ivory tower shields us from other spheres of experience; that simulacra and cybernetics and semiotics, by destroying our faith in “the human condition," have segregated us from our humanity. The portrayal of this longing is I think, the reason why, as a “student,” I’m simultaneously repulsed and attracted to the existential crises of these “professagonists”: When reading a Robert Frost poem, one can derive great fulfillment from parsing the philosophical questions, but such analysis is inevitably accompanied by the fear that the recognition of the referent—the beauty of what “just is”—is lost in translation.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

promising light

Out here in Northern Virginia, or, as my dad would call it, the "sticks," the environment just isn't conducive to blogging. The internet blows--who would have thought that suburban families could learn how to secure their wireless?--my parents' imac isn't compatible with blogger, and my mom keeps distracting me with plates of freshly cut fruit.

Plus, I miss my normal font. I can't think with all dem serifs!

That said, in the tradition of Laurence Sterne, I will promise some "chapters" that I'm obviously not going to deliver on:

1. More wince-inducing images gleaned from erc's formerly untouched crypt of junior high photographs.
2. Some thoughts on the last two novels I read--The Master and Margarita and The Human Stain--and literary pleasure.
3. Some thoughts on online vs. paper book reviews, and a conversation I had with frequent-erc-commenter Matt about who has the "right to review."
4. A post about American Idol, which is basically all my parents and I discuss.

Keep on truckin,' readers. For now, I'll leave you with the most disgusting picture of all time.

Saturday, May 12, 2007


Flipping through the catalog I received in the mail yesterday, came across:

Think her outfit's from Anthropologie, too?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

death becomes her

I'll be the first to say it: this blog has been disappointing lately. Between the throw-away links to funny science articles, the admittedly lame regular installment idea, and the fact that I'm clearly investing more thought and effort into post titles than the posts themselves (some people procrastinate with youtube; erc puns), the thought-provoking posts in erc are growing few and far between.

In many ways, the Tristram Shandy comparison is inevitable. Like Laurence Sterne, erc promised to tell the story of elm rock city and digressed immediately; the "New Haven" gimmick has served as skeletal structure upon which I've hung my fully-fleshed opinions and ruminations. Like the novel, it's hard to tell where the narrator ends and the blog begins (this is what happens, naturally, when one uses the same acronymic moniker to refer to both herself and her body of work). Also like Tristram Shandy, erc was conceived with a morbid awareness of its own impending demise. In 20 days, I shall graduate, move to New York to begin my new job, and leave this fine city forever.

All great things, readers, must come to an end.

While the utter abandonment of erc isn't set in stone (as some have suggested, a simple name change might be in order), consider this as a turning point--a wake up call of sorts, like the beginning of the last trio of volumes in Sterne's book, when Tristram, confronted with his corporeal frailty and impending demise, flees through Europe. Time is precious, too precious to be wasted with links to funny animal stories (the title of that last one is a gem) and posts on topics appropriated from my studies. I fully intend to spend my final days at Yale squirreled away in my room with the shades drawn, blogging about new material like there's no tomorrow.

That said, time to finish reviewing Tristram Shandy for my last final exam.

Saturday, May 05, 2007


There are very few experiences as pleasurable as playing an album you haven't listened to since high school (when you used to keep it on constant rotation in your minivan's 6-deck CD player) and discovering that you still know all of the lyrics.

Friday, May 04, 2007

fowl play

People often ask me if I have any long term goals in journalism. I'm generally too lazy, or fearful rather, to put a great deal of thought into this question (Write for The New Yorker? Win a Pulitzer? Break a government scandal?), so I usually evade the question by muttering something about editing Cat Fancy or landing the Lindsay Lohan beat at Star.

From now on, when anyone asks me what sort of material I want to write and what level of journalistic proficiency I hope to achieve, I shall point them to this impeccable piece in the NY Times, "In Ducks, War of the Sexes Plays Out in Evolution of Genitalia." Because brilliant reporting is about securing brilliant quotes, like:

Gazing at the enormous organs, she asked herself a question that apparently no one had asked before.

“So what does the female look like?” she said. “Obviously you can’t have something like that without some place to put it in. You need a garage to park the car.”

For once, erc isn't being sarcastic--this is the greatest Times piece I've ever read. Although a word of advice to my readers: Unless you want to vomit, don't google image search for pictures of a "duck phallus" after reading the article. Not that I, um, looked for them.

Monday, April 30, 2007

abridge too far

Some things can afford to be cut down a bit:
1. The price of cereal at Gourmet Heaven.
2. The 'tudes of the women who work in the law school cafeteria.
3. Franzen's The Corrections, The Land Before Time franchise, any rap CD with skits, Anne Hathaway's career (ERC finds her toothy and smarmy).

Classics of the Western canon? Not so much--at least, not in the eyes of the "indignant literary purists" cited in this Times UK article, which describes a recent line of "Compact Editions" released by a UK publisher called the Orion Group. The heavily abridged books, which rewrite novels like Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, and David Copperfield, promise to eliminate the excessive "padding" one encounters in canonical texts. "You're not supposed to say this," said the publisher, "but I think that one of the reasons Jane Austen always does so well in reader polls is that her books aren't that long."

At first, I thought I had come across a decidedly un-funny British version of the Onion. I mean, really? The editor, who is quoted as saying things like "We realized that life is too short to read all the books you want to and we were never going to read these," begs to be portrayed by Hugh Grant (screenwriter's notes: foppish womanizer, devilish grin), with the role of the independent bookseller--"It's completely ridiculous--a daft idea!"--going to a foxily taciturn Colin Firth. But people seem to have warmed up to the idea, at least in the "comments" section that follows the article (Reading the comments sections of online media is often more enjoyable than reading the articles, as they often devolve into incoherent conflict or sexual intrigue).
"If one really loves literature and wish to see it thrive, then it would seem to me one would be overjoyed to see people reading the classics--even if it's an abridged version. I'd much rather see someone read an abridged version of Moby Dick, than watch a few weeks of Survivor." -Dar, Macomb, IL
It goes without saying that this is an overtly silly concept; because the meaning, or value, of literature inheres in both its content and its form, making severe changes to the latter while conserving most of the former is still tantamount to complete artistic revision. More interesting, I think, is asking what even positing the idea says about why we read, or about contemporary culture's attitude towards literature. Severely abridging "difficult" texts serves two purposes:

1. It makes such works accessible to groups that lack the necessary education or time to comprehend them.
2. It thrusts our experience of literature into the material realm, fully implicating books as objects of commercial exchange.

The second justification, or the commercialization of of "having read," speaks to a larger phenomenon in consumer culture that's more difficult to address. If people view War and Peace and Crime and Punishment as notches on their literary bedposts, then more power to them, so long as they've actually read the texts rather than the Great Illustrated Classics. Fetishizing books as titles, after all, will most likely translate into an inability to speak intelligently about the ideas they convey.

The first justification--which addresses a dilemma that's similar to the "incommensurability" problem of public art that I discussed earlier--raises a question that deserves consideration, but poses a flawed solution. While it's a worthy cause to facilitate the dissemination of high culture to the lowly masses, such works should not be abridged and revised--essentially, lowered--to meet the public; the general reader should be hoisted to their level. Widespread structural changes (i.e., better public education) aside, a feasible way of promoting such cultural uplifting is, as with the the "better wall text" I advocated for public sculpture, the improvement and aestheticization of "packaging"--materials that are auxiliary to the texts. Although the practice is relatively rare, newspapers still publish serials of contemporary fiction; why can't publishers print segmented versions of the classics (if they want to alleviate the aesthetic concerns raised by the second justification, or eliminate the stigma of reading an "easy" version, imprints could bury the segmented/explicated nature of the text in the interior)? And shouldn't there be a way of deftly inserting explanatory material without resorting to pages and pages of academic footnotes?

I'm interested in hearing plausible solutions and suggestions for this...

Saturday, April 28, 2007

TIWMANH vol. 2


SPRING FLING: As ivygate points out, Yale and its brethren--Brown notwithstanding--regularly churn out stunningly awful line-ups for their Spring Flings. For those of you who don't know, SF is a sort of nerdish simulacrum of an actual music festival, in which elite Northeastern schools hire bands to perform for the students. At Yale, this means everyone collectively plays "normal" for a day--the pale, scrawny student body breaks out their abercrombie cargo shorts, drinks forties, barbecues--before returning to their pitch-dark hovels in SML for the rest of reading period. And by "everyone," I mean me, of course.

Anyways, this year, the Yale College Council hired T.I., Sister Hazel, and the Format. I guess T.I. is kind of a big deal--the only song I've heard of is the one where he grunts, "WHACHOO KNOW BOUT BLAH BLAH" over and over--but, needless to say, the one-hit-wonder-ness and obscurity of the other two acts has caused a bit of an uproar. I'll defend the Format--they only cost the YCC about three g's, and they're from erc's hometown--but paying $17,500 for Sister Hazel is humiliating, to say the least.

With $17,500, the YCC could have paid 100 masseuses to walk around Spring Fling for an hour, giving deep tissue massages. They could have bought 250 kegs, or 4500 pints of Ben and Jerry's. They could have given the Flower Lady a semester's worth of a Yale education. The only way I'll feel okay about this is if T.I.--who appears to be some sort of thug--jumps onstage at the end of Sister Hazel's set (how can you play a "set" if you're a one-hit wonder?) and busts a cap on them. Then busts a cap on the YCC. Basically, I just want to see some caps busted, then I want to return to my hovel.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Maya & Me

A couple years ago, I was standing on the corner of York and Elm when a crazy guy (the tall, lumbering fellow with the beard and the broken glasses) approached me and told me that I "reminded him of Maya Lin."

Obviously, the first thing I did when I returned home that afternoon was to google image search Maya Lin, who, of course, looks nothing like me. I chalked it up to white people thinking all asians look alike and homeless people being starved for conversation and forgot about the affair.

I recalled the experience yesterday, when a class of mine screened Maya Lin: A Clear and Strong Vision, a short documentary about the controversy surrounding the design and reception of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Very interesting subject matter--the piece raises questions related to the accountability of public art, the purpose of a memorial, the ability of artistic innovation to reform its audience, the profits of a conflict-based discourse--with a very strange leading lady. Essentially, Maya Lin seems totally nuts: She wears wacky outfits and floppy hats, her hair is constantly flying in various directions, she speaks in an absurdly low voice, her face twitches a lot, and she smiles at the wrong moments.

So it all comes full circle: In saying that I "reminded" him of Maya Lin, the homeless man was pointing to our shared awkward demeanor/physical comportment rather than some race-based similarity. In retrospect, I wish I had responded by telling him he looks like Bruce Vilanch of Hollywood Squares infamy rather than pretending I didn't have any spare change.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Thursday, April 19, 2007

enemies of the people

Somewhere in Chicago, a public sculpture installment--composed of sixteen "waves" of concrete, each weighing over a thousand pounds--will be displaced to "make room for new landscaping. This short Tribune piece describes the city council's struggle to find new homes for the waves, which cost a hefty $400,000 collectively. The Des Plaines aldermen, some of whom "oppose the waves as public art" and are loathe to stomach the financial loss, are even more hesitant to stomach placing the sculptures in their own backyards. One volunteers that he has a summer home.

As a liberal, philosophically-inclined sort, it's safe to say that my knee-jerk reaction is to immediately defend the freedom of artistic expression and the importance of proliferating culture. But the pervasiveness and contentious nature of the issue demands more attention.

While "The Malignant Object: Thoughts on Public Sculpture," by Douglas Stalker and Clark Glymour, was printed in Art and Society in the 80's, the article poses a pragmatic, self-reflexively "philistine" argument that's so simple, it's timeless: Public art is for the people, but the people don't like public art, so public art should be suppressed." The "people's" distaste, argue Stalker and Glymour, is quantifiable; we frequently come across petitions, assemblies, litigations, etc. that oppose such works. "Claes' Oldenburg's 'Lipstick' was so thoroughly defaced at Yale," they recall, "the sculptor retrieved it." The trend continues: The Des Plaines aldermen can't even dump such art on people for free.

Glymour and Stalker examine the possible defenses for public sculptures--moral and artistic worth, instructive value, the stimulation of intellectual discourse, economic value, and the eventual development of tolerance--and attempt to debunk each of them. The "intellectual lessons" conveyed by such art, they write, are not only trivial in comparison to real moral/social/academic ideas, but also rarely transmitted to the masses. After all, only a "small coterie of aesthetes" walks away from a Richard Serra installment thinking "Wow--his engagement with material! His creation and manipulation of space!"

I can't really speak to whether or not public art is economically valuable, and tolerance is indeed a lame defense, but the question of whether or not such works a. present intellectually compelling ideas and b. successfully communicate them is an interesting one. As an example, Glymour and Stalker point to Oldenberg's "Batcolumn," which consists of a column of glass boxes filled with mundane objects. According to the authors, the message--the idea that the frivolous underlies the self-important--is not only lost to most spectators, but also a "patently trivial thought...would not a small sign have been in better taste?"

This part of their argument rings completely and obviously false to me; asking whether or not a "small sign" would suffice is tantamount to asking why and whether we need art at all. The more compelling claim, I believe, is the problematic idea that the people fails to apprehend the meaning of public art; as someone who, despite having taken courses in the history and philosophy of art, still struggles to comprehend much of what she sees while walking to class, this strikes me as a pressing question.

If Glymour and Stalker are right on this count (and I think they are), the most patent explanation is that public art's inscrutability arises in a lack of public education. The majority of passerby don't understand such pieces because there is a dearth of instructive, lucid, and accessible information about their meaning: When was the last time you saw high-quality wall-text outdoors? If governments and institutions are willing to spend $400,000 on public art, they can spare another chunk of change on expository material that's both aesthetically pleasing and intellectually approachable. And the media, when covering such issues in papers like the Tribune, should deign to attribute the works and give some indication of their meaning.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

google omniscience

Just checked my gmail account and noticed that the sidebar provided me with a disturbingly accurate collection of advertisements:

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While I'm perfectly aware that sponsored links are calibrated to my email content...Jesus Christ. Google knows me better than I know myself.

p.s. pretty excited about all of the google hits I'm going to score for using "jesus christ"

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Constancy is for the weak

Although my readers rarely chime in with constructive criticism (when this does begin to happen, prepare for erc to wield her "delete comment" key with the force of a thousand mouse-clicks), someone once mentioned to me that it might be nice if I devised some sort of regular installment. While the only regularity I've established thus far is a smattering of quasi-funny conversations with Mom and a detestable penchant for linking my own posts, this actually seems like a good habit to pick up. The guys over at Yesterday's Salad do a great job, bringing you titillating columns like Word of the Day and Who Should Write Superman?

So, with the intention of finally fulfilling this blog's hastily chosen name, I bring you the first regular feature at erc: THINGS I WON'T MISS ABOUT NEW HAVEN. It's timely (I'm graduating in one month), relevant (according to sitemeter, most of my readers live in the Elm City), and, of course, a pleasant outlet for my favorite pastime--things have gotten a little too mushy here at erc (see last post).

Without further ado:
1. The stupid weather: Much like the zombie schizophrenics who lumber up and down Elm Street, New Haven weather is simultaneously unpredictable and unpleasant, often changing from sixty degrees and sunny to forty and freezing in the course of a miserable morning.
2. Arriving at Union Station: Even typing the words "final stop" gives me the chills.
3. Koffee Too?: As much as I support local business, this place smells like moldy diapers.
4. Yale Post Office Workers: Speaking of diapers, the surly Star Jones look-a-like who runs the package counter recently taped a picture of her baby, lying in a disturbing playboy-type pose on a blanket, so that it faces away from her and towards the line, thus compelling me to stare at it for five minutes.
5. The jocky guy in the Davenport gym who changes the channel while I'm watching Jeopardy: The next time you climb onto the treadmill for your ten minute jog and flip to Laguna Beach, I'm going to rip your UnderArmour t-shirt off your back and strangle you with it.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

on compatibility

A couple days ago, while a very charming philosophy professor of mine was lecturing about fictional constructs of the self, he alluded to the age-old superpower question: If given the choice, would you choose the power of flight or invisibility? Your selection, he added, is not only revealing of his or her temperament/motivations, but an indicator of whom you're compatible with; ultimately, people who choose the same superpower shouldn't be together.

While I won't divulge whether or not my own relationships have demonstrated such a harmony of differences (erc never blogs about her personal life!), the ideas evoked by such an edict are far more complex than simply saying "opposites attract." Everyone knows that a relationship necessitates some form of variety in order to sustain itself--internal variety between partners, not blindfolding your significant other to "spice things up"--but what this variety entails is complicated. As in, I could never be with someone whose values were completely different from my own (fascists, homophobes need not apply), but I could potentially see myself with someone with different skills and interests (math? good health?) from my own, or at least variant tastes. And, according to my professor and armchair psychologists everywhere, I should be looking for this--the invisible woman marries mister fantastic, after all.

While Nick Hornby books and Yale philosophy professors have taught me that compatibility doesn't reside in homogeneous tastes, I still consistently find myself fetishizing similarity (I think this is a common practice, although I may be projecting). If I meet someone at a bar, and he tells me that he's training for a marathon, or developing a new, low-cost agricultural system for third world countries, or that he's a neurosurgeon, I'll think, "Ah--what an interesting person." But if I meet someone at a bar, and he tells me that he loves Guided by Voices and Donald Barthelme, I'll think, "Ah--my next boyfriend."

Pretty screwed up?

I was thinking about this while reading the following passage in Austen's Sense and Sensibility, which occurs when Willoughby (the dashing, rich young neighbor) begin to court
Marianne (the sister who is guided by her "senses"):
"They speedily discovered that their enjoyment of dancing and music was mutual, and that it arose from a general conformity of judgment in all that related to either. Encouraged by this to a further examination of his opinions, she proceeded to question him on the subject of books; her favourite authors were brought forward and dwelt upon with so rapturous a delight, that any young man of five and twenty must have been insensible indeed, not to become an immediate convert to the excellence of such works, however disregarded before. Their taste was strikingly alike...He acquiesced in all her decisions."
Spoiler Alert: Willoughby, who turns out to be a complete cad, goes on to totally ditch Marianne for a wealthier woman, essentially performing the 18th century equivalent of blocking her screen name and defriending her on the facebook.

This account seems to corroborate the superficiality of similarity, or like-minded tastes, as a basis for real romance. But Austen's critique is more complex; she isn't arguing that love cannot blossom from shared preferences, but rather that love, or true human connection, can't form when shared preferences are derived from artifice. The characters' coinciding tastes result from their respective failure to conceive of other people; Marianne's method of examination implicates her desire to transpose her own beliefs and fantasies onto her partner without seeking his true qualities, and Willoughby's passive acquiescence/mimicry reveals his lack of self-knowledge, or his willingness to mirror Marianne's character. Using a device she often employs, Austen applies the general--"any man of five and twenty"--as a means of imputing the specific--Willoughby--as a figure who feigns an interest in books that were "disregarded before."

While I'm hardly a trustworthy peddler of romantic advice, I think Austen's got it right. It may be true that, as a girl who would choose invisibility (obviously) I should seek fly-boys--partners who would bring a different perspective to the table, and who might prove more complementary and less competitive. Ultimately, however, it's more important to view potential mates as individual entities rather than consider them relationally. Instead of looking for someone who likes the same things as I do, or someone who likes different things from me, I should choose some who is perfectly confident in declaring what he likes: Self-knowledge makes for the best company.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

...then I guess I gonna sell it!

Okay, so it's a bit hypocritical of me to post a youtube video after hating on the website a few months ago, but this is too hilarious not to share with the world (re: my smattering of readers).

Basically, I posed a strikingly similar argument to my parents when I was her age. Only I was asking for the complete Dragonriders of Pern series, not an pregnancy, and arguing that I was making too many visits to the public library to borrow the science fiction books, not sleeping with 3 dudes.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

interesting ethical dilemma

After my Italian class on Friday morning, I stopped by Durfee's Convenience Shoppe, hoping to supplement the sparse contents of my pantry--gum, diet coke, oatmeal--with some of the other comestibles I masticate on a regular basis --cheese, cereal, wheat-thins. They say grocery lists are revealing of people's personalities and lifestyles (cue stereotypical images of single, depressed women hunched over pints of Haagen-Daz). Mine only betrays my lazy reluctance to purchase food that needs to be prepared or cooked.

Anyways, I walked into Le Shoppe, and the lights were turned off. The doors (there are two entrances--one on Old Campus and one on Elm Street) were both mysteriously open, but no one was manning the register, save a hastily written sign with "GOOD FRIDAY--CLOSED" scrawled on it. As I walked around looking for an employee to ring up my selections, other students began entering Durfee's. Eventually, there were about eight of us milling around the aisles, giving each other quizzical stares.

Moments like this--social situations that deviate from normalcy, like an excessively long line at the DMV or a black-out at work--can stimulate three different responses: genial bonding between strangers, awkward hostility/suspicion, or intellectual collaboration. At Yale, a breeding ground for sociopathic geniuses and toolish morons, one generally expects some sort of mixture of the latter two effects.

A hypothetical for my readers: It's noon, you're hungry, and you're in an empty retail shoppe that's fully stocked with delicious wheat-thins and tantalizingly mild cracker barrel cheese. The other patrons are discussing whether or not the security cameras are on, and, let's face it, you're suddenly thinking like a kid who just won the Nickelodeon Super Toy Run sweepstakes--does one go straight to the expensive organic aisle? shoot for bulkier items?--as you listen to your peers. WHAT WOULD SHELLY KAGAN DO?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

star struck out

While I was perched in my usual roost at the Book Trader counter yesterday afternoon, Peter Gallagher--aka Sandy Cohen from the O.C.--walked into the cafe and into my life. Needless to say, it was the highlight of my day, if not my senior year at Yale.

I always imagined that, if I met a celebrity whose work I had admired as much as P.G.'s (and by "work," I mean seasons 1-3 of the O.C.), I would somehow FORCE myself to hatch an interaction with him or her. At the very least, I'd like to ask Sandy, er, Peter, the following questions:

1. How do they* get so big?
2. Didn't you ever want to slap Seth in his smarmy, Garden-State soundtrack listening-head?
3. Didn't you ever want to slap Kirstin in her Botoxed, vodka-chugging face?
4. Would Sandy consider giving a master's tea?
5. What does it feel like to be the moral compass for our generation?

*the Eyebrows, of course

The fact that my fantasies completely ignored the prolific acting career of P.G. is a testament to the strength of the well-known essay I was reading that fateful afternoon in Book Trader, Kendall Walton's "Fearing Fictions" (and you thought this was going to be a fluff post, reader!). Walton's essay--which seems more like a psychological study than a philosophical one--attempts the unravel why works of fiction can elicit emotional responses. The fact that representations produce literal reactions (fear, sympathy, butterflies in the stomach) generates a paradox; while most (re: everyone but celebrity stalkers and live-action-role-playing gamers) readers/viewers are aware of the fictional nature of what they are reading/watching, they still respond in a very real manner. Why does this happen?

Walton rejects several potential explanations: the idea that we "half-believe" what in what we see (after all, our heartbeat doesn't "half-increase" when we watch The Exorcist), the possibility that we suspend our disbelief (non-delusional subjects notwithstanding, we are completely aware of fictionality), the prospect that we are motivated by a "gut" belief as opposed to an intellectual one (our response, while motivated in part by physical indicators, does involve cogitation), the theory that we experience fleeting, momentary shifts from reality (nope--the emotional response is usually drawn out).

Walton's solution to the paradox (if you have access to the Journal of Philosophy, it's in the Jan. 1978 issue) subverts the typical conception of the subject/object relation; rather than converting fictional representations into reality (believing what we see is true), he argues, we convert ourselves into part of the fictional experience, merging with the work to form a "larger world." This act, writes Walton, is partly involuntary and partly willful; our comprehension of the principles of "make-believe" and our material response (butterflies et. al) are implicit factors, but our willingness to play along, to "impersonate" our own real emotional states," is a conscious decision.

So when I see Sandy, the ultimate television dilf, giving sage advice to the misguided youths of the O.C, acting the perfect husband, and demonstrating impeccable legal ethics on the silver screen, my heart flutters; despite my awareness of his fictionality, I experience an internally tangible response, I obey the principles of make-believe, and I impersonate myself in l-u-v. But what the hell happens when Peter Gallagher strides into MY WORLD, collapsing the fictional and the literal into each other? Is my reaction--which feels the same as when I watch him on TV--real, half-real, or make-believe?

And, more importantly, why didn't I take a camera phone picture of him?

Saturday, March 31, 2007

poetic justice

It's been one week since I posted on this blog, and, as BNL so adeptly put it, "You have a drumstrick and your brain stops tickin.'" (The drumstick in this analogy is the sense of complacency I've settled into after finding a job, an apartment, and a lazy disdain for things like getting out of bed, doing reading responses, arriving to lectures on time, wearing shoes that I have to bend over and tie, etc.)

Fortunately, there are still articles out there that grease the hands of my mental grandfather clock, like this thought-provoking piece in the New York Review of Books by everyone's favorite Norton Anthology editor, Stephen Greenblatt (lately, it seems like the Bard's the word--April's Harper's cover promises to tell us "How Shakespeare conquered the world"). He opens his piece with a too-good-to-be-true anecdote featuring former Prez Bill Clinton, who, according to Greenblatt, recites lengthy soliloquies from Macbeth and drops intelligent commentary on Shakespearean drama without batting an eyelash (cinematically speaking, he's either characterizing Clinton as an impassioned English teacher at an inner city high school or a devious super villain).

But Greenblatt is, of course, more concerned with the intentions and ideas of another Bill. Demonstrating his admirable grasp of the canon, the New Historicist turns to Shakespeare's work and elicits myriad examples of villains who have willfully sought power, heroes who have wrestled with its consequences, and intelligentsia who have shied away from it. As an astute critic of Shakespeare, Greenblatt transcends high-school aphorisms (power...corrupts) and penetrates the author's deeply nuanced viewpoint--often, his deliberate unwillingness to express a single-minded attitude at all--towards issues like the sanctity of kingship, the utility of democracy and elections, and the plausibility of an ethically-sound system of governance.

This purposeful ambiguity, according to Greenblatt, is intended to encourage a context-bound assessment of morality. He writes:
"The conclusion towards which these stories tend is not the cynical abandonment of all hope for decency in public life, but rather a deep skepticism about any attempt to formulate and obey an abstract moral law, independent of actual social, political, and psychological circumstances."
Greenblatt supports this stance, which is firmly entrenched in New Historicism,
with beautiful examples such as the story of Brutus, the righteous protagonist in Julius Caesar who participates in the assassination of the titular dictator, his close friend. Brutus' failure, writes Greenblatt, isn't that he was coerced into believing the act was morally justified, but rather than he believes he's ethically autonomous; the Roman senator fails to apprehend the social influences and consequences that precede and follow his deed, waves of events and relations that ripple far beyond his self-contained conception of good and evil (are you listening, George W?). Whether or not one has this awareness, according to Greenblatt, is the true determinant of the relationship--positive or negative--between morality and power.

Therefore, New Historical critics are the ideal inheritors of the throne.

Like any good critical essay, "Shakespeare and the Uses of Power" presents a moderately specific question--how does the Bard approach the issue?--that evokes Big Questions about the relations between ethics, political power, and literature. The article stimulated a quasi-interesting discussion about the first two terms on The New Republic's blog, but it's the association between 1 and 3--ethics and literature--that has occupied my interest as of late, especially after reading an infuriating (this is how I know I've officially become a nerd--I call academic essays "infuriating") piece by Richard Posner, "Against Ethical Criticism."

Rather than delving into all of the unsubstantiated points in Posner's piece (which is intended to argue against the inclusion of literary criticism of law), I'll boil his argument to its core argument: Literature cannot be morally instructive, because writers and their characters are hardly moral paradigms, fiction doesn't spur us to do anything, and Martha Nussbaum's cognitivist approach--the idea that identification may induce us to sympathize with individuals in different situations--is both weak and ethically culpable (we identify with evil and corrupt characters). Tonal, stylistic, and logical problems aside, I think I find arguments like Posner's infuriating because they pose needless ultimatums (Is literature THE correct means of ethical instruction?). Similarly, I find essays like Greenblatt's piece enlightening because they debunk such totalizing queries.

Is literature the perfect, self-constitutive vessel for a moral education? No. Can fiction demonstrate and transmit shaky notions of right and wrong? Of course. But does this mean the medium is totally incapable of conveying such lessons? The sympathetic imagination, which is most readily activated by fiction, is completely fallible, corruptible, and not always strong enough to spur literal action, but so is
any cognitive process that drives judgment and alignment. If nothing else, we can depart from a work of literature having learned, as Greenblatt demonstrates, the loss of ethical autonomy that accompanies the acquisition of power; what we choose to do with this knowledge lies in our hands.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

lights, camera, humiliation

Although I'm usually wary of devising rubrics that divide people into distinct "types" (partly because it makes me feel like a quiz in Teen magazine, partly because I'm far too self-conscious of which camp I fall into), my recent sojourn homeward has spurred me to develop the following schema.

There are, I believe, two types of Suburban Families*:

Since most of my family's habits fall into the latter group, I've always assumed we were a Suburban Family of the classier class. While rifling through the meager remnants of my childhood that my mother saved, however, I came across a skeleton in our (literal) closet that swung us over to the wrong side of the tracks. A particularly glamorous skeleton....

No, that's not a capuchin monkey--that's little erc!! What the hell were my parents thinking?! I seemed to have repressed the memory of partaking in the sordid deed, but taking glamour shots--or school pictures that use "laser effects" backgrounds--is the defining characteristic of the first kind of family. Especially glamour shots as bad as this one, where I seem to be auditioning for a role as Christina Ricci's understudy in Black Snake Moan.

*As of late, I've noticed an alarming tendency in my writing to use Capitalization as a lazy invocation of Quirkiness. Note to self: Salman Rushdie called, he wants his stylistic devices back.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

I <3 Mom

Before the clock hits midnight, here's a special 60th birthday shout out to erc's Mom*, in a poetic form that hearkens back to my crappy birthday presents of yore:

S ome moms just don't
U nderstand when their daughters
N eed solitude, chewing gum, and hours of uninterrupted

M acBook time. Omma, even though
I know you detest the aforementioned habits, I
N ever take your tolerance for granted.

K eep on rocking
I n a free world, you, my beloved
M other, who was born in an
E ast Asian country now run by a totalitarian regime.
S ixty years have gone by, 21 of which I have loved you.

*May she never, ever find this blog.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

paradise lost

If my life was a romantic comedy (ha!), then these few days would constitute one of those scenes where the "city-gal" heroine, clad in all black and chain-smoking like a fiend (pictured: a strung-out Demi Moore as a depressed writer in Now and Then) returns to the home of her youth.

For erc, however, this home has already been stripped of sentimental value, as my parents essentially THREW MY CHILDHOOD AWAY when they discarded and donated half of our family's "clutter" before moving to Korea. Gone forever: at least half of my Berenstain Bears book collection, a box of unusual-looking rocks that I saved, a letter I wrote to myself when I was 11, the words "Read at age 18!" scrawled across the seal in childish script (to be fair, I opened it when I was 13). The few items of memorabilia that remain, scattered around their big, vacuous new home like stale bread crumbs, are those that have been deemed worth saving by my parents.

Their judgment bewilders me.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

the disquieted american

I have a clear, vividly embarrassing memory of visiting the National Gallery of Art when I was 11 or 12. I don't remember if I was on a field trip (Isn't it strange how the quality of elementary school field trips depends on one's home state? I was lucky to grow up outside of D.C.), but I do remember searching for the least representational, most abstract painting I could find--I think it may have been a Rothko--and sitting in front of it for a while, furrowing my brows and trying to appear pensive.

In retrospect, this awkward performance betrays two desires:

1. A genuine wish to unlock the meaning of a work of art that I had been told was complex and interesting.
2. A genuine wish for passerby to think to themselves, "How bright and sensitive she must be to appreciate such difficult art! How unlike her female peers, who, despite their more advanced physical maturation, lack this girl's emotional depth!

Over a decade later, I still recognize the same motivations--minus my ardent jealousy of my classmates and their training bras--when I visit or tour cultural sites. It's inevitable: I arrive at any museum/gallery/landmark burdened with at least ten different prescriptions' worth of anxieties, including my desire to think historically, my desire to think theoretically, my consciousness of the viewers around me (as in, I don't want to act like the dumb tourists
taking cheesy pictures), and my self-consciousness of my own overdetermined response. And then there's the lingering fear that I'm simply thinking too damn hard instead of just enjoying the experience, like John and Jane Doe from Iowa, who are talking too loudly, wearing the souvenir t-shirts they bought yesterday, and taking pictures of each other replicating the sexual poses in statues and paintings.

Since arriving in Italy, I've seen the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, the Forum, the Piazza Navona, the Fountain of Trevi, St. Peter's Basilica, and the Vatican. I've gazed at the Pieta (small and gleaming) and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (small and dark). After studying the relevant art historical periods at Yale, I feel intellectually prepared for these sights; such knowledge, however, only plays a small role in my ability to withdraw inspiration from them. I've found a greater sense of awe in basic things like sheer size (the piazza in front of St. Peter's Basilica, which is pictured, could fit a cozy neighborhood), intricate detail and workmanship, mandated silence or darkness, and a communal sense of wonder.

It's difficult to say if education and maturation have made erc a better tourist. A snobbier one, certainly. But while I'm no longer conscious of how others perceive me, I've grown regrettably self-conscious of my own perception. And also deeply resentful of John and Jane Doe's seemingly unadulterated spectatorial pleasure.