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.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

blogissimo

After going through 48 hours of withdrawal (quivering fingers, overly alert eyesight), erc has finally found internet access in Italy. Grazie a dio!

In brief, Rome is "totally awesome." Italians are attractive and sort of lazy-looking. Everyone stands around the piazzas all night, checking each other out and smoking cigarettes.

I promise more poignant, intensely xenophobic posts soon, but for now, I leave you with this picture of Chad and I in front of Piazza ______ .

Saturday, March 10, 2007

buy the book

I was intrigued by the aldaily blurb for this short Chronicle piece, "Trading Up With Gilgamesh":

"Who says academics 'can't write?' David Damrosch argues that a clear prose style is perfectly consistent with the highest levels of academic thought and expression..."
Marrying readability and erudition? Sounds like the principal (and most often failed) objective of erc's academic/blogging career! I'm reminded of one of the evaluations of my senior thesis:

"...it's not surprising that the language of the essay often mimics the abstractions that characterize post-structuralist writing. I would have liked...a more sparing use of semicolons."

Anyways, Damrosch--a former Yalie--recently finished a history of the Epic of Gilgamesh, not a rambling 35-page dissertation on unintelligible poetry. "Trading Up with Gilgamesh" begins with an exploration of the tenuous relationship between academia and commercial publishing. Damrosch insists that scholars desperately want to convey their ideas to the public (and make ton$ of dollar$), but are often unwilling to sacrifice the esoteric language that often accompanies detailed academic analysis in order to "start turning out sound bites in prose."

Like any good contemporary theorist, Damrosch's prose corresponds to his argument (uh oh, here comes another semi-colon); his writing is clear and entertaining, but never cliche. The article begins by describing the germ of his book's concept, or his frustration with "the rhetoric of a 'clash of civilizations'" proffered by the right and parroted by the press before the war in Iraq. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Damrosch points out, demonstrates the common background of Western and Islamic cultures, as its influences can be seen "in Homer, the Bible, and The Thousand and One Nights."

The article then transitions into Damrosch's struggle to find a publisher who would assist him in communicating his undeniably arcane subject matter in a lucid, interesting manner. In telling the story of his pursuit of the "perfect publisher," he situates himself as a sort of intellectual Goldilocks--the first press was too "hard-core" academic, the second was too commercial, and the third, Henry Holt, was "just right."

For some reason, I found this article to be strangely off-putting. The first time I read it, I couldn't ascertain the source of my discomfort; upon re-reading it, I realized that I felt betrayed by the structure of the narrative--the abstract beginning and specific ending. There's nothing unusual or wrong about an academic writing an article that endorses his or her trade book, but the offhand allusions that began cropping up halfway through the article--the subject matter, the names of the publisher and editor--simply took me off guard. It's like watching a guest on a late night talk show who begins by discussing politics and ends by yelling, "Yo, my album drops this week." Also, I realized that the piece was linked under "Essays and opinions," not "New Books."

Which isn't to say that this isn't a good piece (it's interesting and will take you about five minutes to read), but rather that I shouldn't form preconceptions about things based on blurbs.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

the first actual post about the elm city ever

With spring break around the corner, Yale students--as a second semester senior, I can't tell the difference between 99% of my classmates and New Haven middle-schoolers--have begun to trickle out of the city. It's like watching a gross case of acne finally clear up (to continue the pre-teen allusions).

I always feel lame and self-centered when I describe the city as "emptying" as vacation nears (we students are, of course, only a small sector of the large-ish Elm City, home of the pizza, the hamburger, the erector set, and--GET THIS--Starter jackets). I'm similarly irritated when people talk about New York being "filled with Yalies." It's like, yeah, if by New York you mean a handful of Murray Hill apartment buildings.

Nevertheless, the 3-4 blocks I walk through every day are growing desolate. The absence of upsetting conversation with other Yale students ("So I had my second interview with Goldman. I was like, 'I'm kind a big deal.'") has only stressed the piquancy of my multifarious interactions with New Havenites.

ERC: Medium coffee, please.
Starbucks Employee: You mean, "grande."
ERC: Oh. Sorry.
Starbucks Employee: Hey, great hair.
ERC: Thanks.
Starbucks Employee: How do you make it look unwashed like that?
ERC: ....

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

detours

I have a sitemeter installed on this blog that tells me things like how long visitors are looking at the site and how they find it. Creepily, this enables me to see people's search fields for google. It's usually some combination of my full name and a derogatory word, but the misguided ones are funny--a guy looking for "steve nicks t-shirts" lands on one of my first entries--and the horribly misguided ones are even funnier, as when some perv looking for "junior high hotties" landed on this entry about my awkward middle school days.

At first, I was like, "Ha ha, fool! No kiddie-p**n for you!" Then I realized that lil 'erc is showing a lot of not-yet-needing-to-be-shaven leg in that picture, and freaked out a little at the thought of some perv staring at my 6th grade track picture. Then I saw--thanks to sitemeter--that the guy had immediately exited the site upon entry.

I'm not going to lie--I felt a little indignant on behalf of my 6th grade self.

Monday, March 05, 2007

keeping your (avant) garde up

It's Monday night, I'm in the periodicals room of SML, and there are four days, one mid-term exam, and six pages standing between me and spring break. The six pages are (allegedly) my thoughts on Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried's theories of minimalism, kitsch, and the autonomy of art; I figured I'd procrasti-blog before I got past the title stage (am I the only college student who invests time and energy into titling their essays?).

The Greenberg piece in question is called Avant Garde and Kitsch; I've studied very little history of art at Yale, but I've gotten the impression that it's one of the most important art-critical essays from the last century (My professor: "This is one of the most important critical essays of the last century.") Greenberg, whose prose is quite lucid and enjoyable, examines the advent of the avant-garde in the 1930's--a movement away from the bourgeois spurred by the development of a "consciousness of history," which revealed the constructed nature of societal values--then raises the red alert for the "future of culture." The culprit? Kitsch.

Briefly, Greenberg defines kitsch as popular, commercial art that targets the culture-starved masses; kitsch is pre-digested for our consumption. Kitsch already depicts the effects of artistic processes; the avant garde portrays these processes, then forces us to work at discerning their meaning and value.

Art History 101 aside, this is fascinating to me in lieu of my obsession with identifying and excavating the sources of my literary pleasure. My friend Kate once said that the reason we tolerate and/or enjoy white chocolate candy bars is because they're an acquired taste. I don't know if I agree with this re: white chocolate, which I remember finding delicious from the beginning, but her theory makes sense to me; there are a number of pleasures that are heightened by the manner in which they require the conscious investment of work: bitter vegetables like asparagus, reading in translation, walking thirty city blocks to a restaurant, Gertrude Stein. Part of the reason we derive gratification from such experiences is because we're trained to appreciate them; the other part, I think, is our self-reflexive perception of our own mental development. I like abstract art because I've learned to recognize its value. I also like it because this recognition makes me aware of my own growth.

This self-reflexiveness, I feel, is also the source of my disagreement with Greenberg's belief that avant-garde art is autonomous from socio-political influence (as opposed to kitsch, which is easily manipulable for such purposes). Admittedly, I always approach this issue with a bias, having written my senior essay on, um, the political utility of postmodern literature. But consider this: If avant-garde art makes its beholders work to apprehend its significance, and they are--or can be--aware of this change in apprehension (e.g., the aforementioned self-reflexive pleasure), then we can apply this perspectival shift towards the world around us. Recognizing our conscious efforts towards enjoying asparagus may not augment our abilities to critically read the signs that compose social, cultural, and political messages, but there is (and should be) experimental art that does this work--by making us work.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

strip tease

My first cartoon was published in the Yale Herald today! The comic strip is called "Funny Bunches of Notes," by Mina Krimez. While I rarely ask anyone to check out my articles (erc's mom, of course, regularly receives carefully organized clips in plastic slip covers in the mail), I basically ran around campus waving the insert in my friends' faces. I've chosen to believe that the most common reaction--"How long did this thing take?"--was a favorable response to the nuanced artistic detail rather than a critique of my excessive free time.

Anyways, here it is; click on the picture to enlarge the image. If you've never had the pleasure of grinding for its booty cam, Toad's Place is our local dance club/cesspool, or, as my friend once aptly said, "the devil's playground."