On the matter of numbers

Mindful of other deadlines, I finally applied pressure to my felt-tipped pen while in transit, on a quiet Sunday morning subway-car. I felt unsuited, ill-prepared, to start writing. No notes to work from. Just a folder full of documents unrelated to this blog post. I did have, for better or for worse, an inky pen with a soft point (ballpoints are better for business) and the blank surface of a manila folder. I began drafting this contextual blog post for the “Writing About Numbers” faculty roundtable that Bill Ferns and I will co-run next week. I ended up with this: drawing out, crossing out, sketching again, a recurring discomfort I’ve had since grade school. The story of this recurring feeling is not particularly remarkable, one that is not so dissimilar from my impulse to avoid the freshly opened new word-processor document on my laptop screen (blankness). The story:  I am immediately stunned by numbers and, in defense, my mind triggers a blank.


This anecdote is a roundabout way of saying that the initial discomfort I sense when writing in a familiar language is, in some ways, akin to the perceived challenges I feel when encountering figures and languages that I am less literate in (i.e., numbers, data, French). It is, quite frankly, the discomfort–some blending of vulnerability and responsibility–that arises when one communicates while learning, thinking, processing. There is always recourse, though, to leave things blank or to remain silent.

* * *


But what does writing, discomfort, and silence (blankness) have to do with numbers and data? I’ll try to explain by turning to a context, by relating my academic work in literary study to the subject of numbers. I study Atlantic slavery and its relationship to literary production. The archival materials and texts affiliated with the Atlantic slave trade have been read as documents that reveal the ways in which lives of the enslaved were reduced and dehumanized by violent abstraction. That is, ledgers, balance books, nautical journals and other accounts of the transatlantic slave trade converted captives into commodities, lives indexed by numbers and figures. Take for instance Stephanie Smallwood’s description, in Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (2007), of how ledgers rationalized the violent logic of the slave trade:

 “The ledger’s double-entry pages and the neat grid of the invoice gave purposeful shape to the story they told. Through their graphic simplicity and economy, invoices and ledgers effaced the personal histories that fueled the slaving economy. Containing only what could fit within the clean lines of their columns and rows, they reduced an enormous system of traffic in human commodities to a concise chronicle of quantitative ‘facts.’… Instruments such as these did their work, then, while concealing the messiness of history, erasing from view the politics that underlay the neat account keeping” (98).

In spite of the violent accountings of the slave trade, practitioners of the humanities–historians and literary scholars in particular–have been able to supply nuance, variation, and interpretation to realities that are gestured at but not revealed by the neatness of numbers, charts, and graphs. In the area of slavery studies, robust and incisive work has emerged from scholars who engage with and rethink the politics, ethics, and historical contexts that adjoin the quantitative facts and the administrative records of the slave trade. This is evidenced by recent scholarly gatherings, like “‘Against Recovery?’: Slavery, Freedom, and the Archive,” and digital projects, like Vincent Brown’s cartographic narrative of an eighteenth-century slave revolt.

To return to the question: what does writing, discomfort, and silence have to do with numbers and data?  Writing is a practice in working through the discomfort of learning whatever our subject of study might be. If there’s discomfort, I’ve told students who are silent or on the brink of giving up, it’s because learning is challenging and that thorny realities are involved in subjects we choose to study. Whether working on a formula, or analyzing a set of statistics, or deciphering the mind of Milton’s poetry, writing sets into motion a cycle of processing, self-assessing, and renewing material.

Because writing is a striving for the precise combination of words and signs that correspond to a thought and, simultaneously, an exercise that invites feelings of vulnerability and responsibility, it seems to me that writing is a practice of ethics and politics. In other words, through the process of writing, we reflect on the matter that characterizes whatever our study might be and, as a result, learn a bit more about the limits and the possibilities in what matters to us.


 Works Cited

Smallwood, Stephanie. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,  2007.

Source of image #2 and #3: The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record (Click on images for exact url address).

When the heart wants art

“What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie,” asks Dylan Farrow in her open letter printed in Kristof’s blog on February 1st. Annie Hall! The part where they’re on her roof. . . ha! . . . with the  subtitles! . . . oh my gosh, and how much would I kill to be able to pull a Marshall McLuhan from behind a movie poster when I need him?! . . . wouldn’t Zizek love to be fished out in those circumstances?. . . the best! . . . and I looooove Duane: “I tell you this as an artist because I think you’ll understand. . .” ha! Ha!


In the days after Ms. Farrow’s letter I read every blog post: the response; the response to the response; the Vanity Fair articles; posts of those in the know, in one inside circle or the other; the posts of those who authorized the posts; and tried to fathom the details made public to us.  Like you, I engaged in debate over those tenuous details. Woody Allen’s guilt or innocence suddenly was at the silent center of taste. Do I love the films of a child molester?  It was the question behind Dylan Farrow’s initial question: what’s your favorite Woody Allen film?  And therefore, something came to be at stake in Allen’s guilt or innocence in the way that the art that we love becomes a part of us, no simple affiliation.  People declared their outright disgust, rejecting his body of work, condemning everything he’s ever made and maybe even claiming it testament to the crime. Others claimed his innocence, displaying encyclopedic knowledge of the original 1993 allegations and the proceedings of the investigation.  And then others still went for a plea bargain, allowing that his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn was socially unpalatable but that didn’t make him a criminal.  This would perhaps be followed up by a reference to Charlie Chaplin’s marriage to a rather young lady, which lasted the rest of his life.

Important discussions about sexual violence, abuse, divorce, and the power of Hollywood erupted around the recent articles. And another longstanding problem in regard to art reminded itself to us as well.  What do ethics and art have to do with one another?  The image of the good artist who is also a “good person” is less familiar to us than that of the suffering artist type.  Take a few from Allen’s own films: the growling and miserable Max in Hannah and Her Sisters or the members of the lost generation drinking their way through Midnight in Paris, for example.  What we call selfishness or self-destruction in others often gets the rap of romantic in the artist.  We mind so little that our artists often end up with a shotgun in their mouths that we might even come to expect it.

But again, how do we resolve the problem of art and ethics, or what do they owe to one another?  Charles McGrath, in his June 21, 2012 article in the Times, “Good Art, Bad People,” asks the uncomfortable question of the relation of good art to the bad person, creating a regular rap sheet of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries:

Probably the most frequently cited example is Wagner, whose anti-Semitism was such that he once wrote that Jews were by definition incapable of art. Degas, a painter often praised for his warmth and humanity, was also an anti-Semite and a staunch defender of the French court that falsely convicted Alfred Dreyfus. Ezra Pound was both anti-Semitic and proto-fascist, and if you want to let him off the hook because he was probably crazy as well, the same excuse cannot be made for his friend and protégé T. S. Eliot, whose anti-Semitism, it now seems pretty clear, was more than just casual or what passed for commonplace in those days.

[. . .] Norman Mailer in a rage once tried to kill one of his wives. The painter Caravaggio and the poet and playwright Ben Jonson both killed men in duels or brawls. Genet was a thief, Rimbaud was a smuggler, Byron committed incest, Flaubert paid for sex with boys.

The article begs the question of who really suffers for art:

A more extreme example is Hemingway, whose domestic record is less inspiring than his artistic one: four marriages and at least two screwed-up sons. In November 1952, just after his 21st birthday, Gregory, the youngest (and arguably most talented) of Hemingway’s three children, wrote to his father: “When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons — Hadley, Pauline, Marty [Martha Gelhorn, Hemingway’s third wife], Patrick and possibly myself. Which do you think is the most important, your self-centered shit, the stories or the people?”

Tim Parks approaches it from another angle in “Writers Into Saints,” from February 11 in the New York Review of Books:

Over the last ten years or so I have read literary biographies of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Hardy, Leopardi, Verga, D. H. Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, Moravia, Morante, Malaparte, Pavese, Borges, Beckett, Bernhard, Christina Stead, Henry Green, and probably others too. With only the rarest of exceptions, and even then only for a page or two, each author is presented as simply the most gifted and well-meaning of writers, while their behavior, however problematic and possibly outrageous—Dickens’s treatment of his children, Lawrence’s fisticuffs with Frieda—is invariably described in a flattering light. We’re not quite talking hagiography, but special pleading is everywhere evident, as if biographers were afraid that the work might be diminished by a life that was less than noble or not essentially directed toward a lofty cause.

However, Parks’ resistance, immune to the halo effect produced by art he loves, no more solves the question than McGrath’s condemnation does.

Beyond the editorial verdicts, France graduated this moral judgment to the fully social scale when the Ministry of Culture was forced to cancel the official celebration of French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline after a public backlash around his anti-semitic writings.  The government responded by quietly removing his name from the list of figures to be honored that year.

What will the Oscars look like this year?  As questions post to blogs about whether or not Cate Blanchett’s Oscar hopes will be dashed by the recent scandal and MGM tries to assuage my fears by embedding quotes from Annie Hall on my Facebook account, the question is still misguided.  The chasm between aesthetics and ethics remains one we are troubled by.

What role should art play?  Should it be purely mimetic, recording what we live as we understand our living it with all the questions we struggle under ourselves?  Or do we want an art that gives us answers?  Should it be responsible? Do we feel like it fails us when it’s still just a human being creating the condensed version of our feeling, providing us with so much humanity only to learn we can’t admire their failures in the real version of what they create better by illusion?  We want much better truths. Isn’t it the myth and not the mythologist that we love anyways?

As though we don’t want anyone to know we didn’t know it was a myth.  We still believe in stories maybe especially because we’re disappointed by life.

Like Alvy Singer says, “You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life”.

McGrath ends his piece with a real shrug of the shoulders, a note of disappointment that the figures he names have failed to live up to the humanity that they create.

“It reminds me of that old joke- you know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs.”

On gravitating and levitating (part one)

I’ll begin with a passage from James Joyce’s “The Dead” to illustrate reading as  an embodied experience in movement:

“Her voice strong and clear in tone attacked with great spirit that runs which embellish the air and, though she sang very rapidly, she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer’s face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”

I gravitate to the text’s directive “to follow the voice.” I repeat the passage aloud and experience the accumulative effects of soft, sinuous sounds that bring the words “attacked” and “rapidly” into sharp focus. At first it seems like an attack, a forced act, to merge my voice with the text. Oh, but those quickened syllables–rapidly–that delicately punctuate the legato of “embellish” and “grace notes”! The pitter patter of saying “rapidly” out loud makes me realize that my reading is a kind of running: my voice chases after my sprinting eyes. I jump in; the text springs. “Her voice” is faceless because it becomes “the voice,” our voice. Together, the text and I, we “feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”


I frequently feel and share texts, as many of us do, on and through the internet. If an article, image, or video is moving–if it’s infuriating, amusing, or inspiring–you and I engage by commenting, upvoting, and reposting: we share. This all happens, rapidly, at speeds that make it easy to forget that reading and writing are embodied movements, activities of relating.



It’s a pity that kids these days are all getting involved with ____.

Sexting? Catapults? That thing that electrocutes your abs? All-you-can-eat shrimp for $4.99? Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II? (Come on, guys, clearly a throw-away.) The miracle of childbirth? Hmmm.

Some people seem to be natural joke tellers. They have mastered the genre. They know how to draw attention from a crowded room. They know how to set up expectations and develop a story. And, most importantly, they know how to surprise expectations with an unexpected punchline. They can tell when to go silly or ironic or vulgar; they can read an audience. They are, in fact, they’re expert rhetoricians, who can use these varied sensitivities to touch their audience’s funny bone. For the rest of us, there’s Cards Against Humanity.

Image shows a raucous gathering between White house including then-president Ronald Reagan and veep George HW Bush. Caption reads “. . . and then we announced trickle down economics and they swallowed it without any questions”. Credit for this meme goes to blogger charlesfrith.blogspot.com

Cards Against Humanity is a party game modeled after the award winning Apples to Apples. It works on the same basic principle. Every round one person plays judge, drawing a card with a prompt that the other players will respond to. In Apples to Apples, prompts are an adjective, like “melodramatic” or “spiritual,” while in Cards Against Humanity they are fill-in-the-blank sentences. All players have a hand with random nouns, potential answers to the prompt the judge exposes each round. (The full starter pack of Cards Against Humanitiy is available for free download at http://cardsagainsthumanity.com/ )

Image shows two Cards Against Humanity cards: the black “prompt” card reads “In his newest and most difficult stunt, David Blaine must escape from __.” The white “punchline” card reads “My inner demons.”

These games remove most of the tricky bits of joke telling and reduce it down to pure, specific rhetorical savvy: know what will make a specific audience laugh. No more worries about delivery, pacing, set-up–just deliver the perfect punch line to suite one audience-member’s taste: no need to worry about pleasing the whole room, either–you just need to size up one person’s taste and craft the perfect joke. Does this judge like irony? Is he cued in to pop culture enough to get this celebrity reference? Is she old enough to remember Shaquille O’Neal’s acting career, or is it safer to go with a sex joke? Does he like his punchlines silly, vulgar, dark, sly, clever? The only “right” answer is the one that wins over the judge, that earns the point. All other answers, no matter how thoughtful or clever, are wrong. The more rounds you play, the better you get to know each judge’s taste. And if you pay close attention, soon you’re pitching each judge the perfect joke.

Recently, at a game night with friends, I got to thinking about how games like these could be used in a writing classroom to teach students some important lessons about rhetoric and persuasion. One of my advisors, Mark McBeth, plays a game with his students to teach them about classical means of persuasion–ethos, pathos, logos. He puts his students in a scenario where one has a dollar and another student tries to come up with the right argument that will convince the first student to hand over the dollar. Will it be a sob story, a reasoned argument, a claim to honesty, a song and dance . . . what interaction will lead to the desired result?  After a few rounds of the panhandling game, students go away to read and write about rhetoric with a newfound understanding of the practical challenges of knowing your audience and the tactical advantages of planning your argument with savvy and skill.

Like Cards Against Humanity, Mark’s panhandling game removes many of the tricky bits of real-life rhetorical situations, allowing players to focus on their choices as rhetors, rather than on, say, the pressure of initiating an encounter or the fear of rejection. It’s just a game, after all. But unlike Mark’s game, these rhetorical party games, because they’re about telling jokes and making people laugh, allow players to get to know one another as people with complex and idiosyncratic sensibilities–a great bonding experience in a writing classroom. It gives players a concrete understanding of what it means to appeal to an audience–often a difficult concept for students to grasp in the abstract or on such high-stakes tasks as essay writing.

So, could games like Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanities be used in the writing classroom? I think so. I’d have to be careful, of course, about designing the activity and an appropriate followup writing project to build on the experience. I think it’s certainly worth a try. Let’s play! Might be funny.

In a World… of Uptalk, Sexy Babies, and God

Why do you speak the way you speak? Are you aware of your voice being marked by region, gender, or age? Do you consciously try to modify your voice, or do you just let it flow?

small_question mark pic

We know that word choice, inflection, and pronunciation telegraph our personal experiences and identity in multiple ways. I’ve struggled to temper the nasally short A  and hard R of a Western New York accent (though this recently popular NY Times quiz about word choice and pronunciation accurately identified  my city of origin). In her collection of personal essays Crossing Ocean Parkway, Marianna De Marco Torgovnick discusses feeling ethnically marked in academe because of her Italian heritage and growing up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

What is our responsibility to students to help them increase their vocal awareness?

I feel compelled to let students know when they engage in persistent “upspeak” or “uptalk” –the rising pitch shift at the end of a sentence that makes statements sound like questions. This vocal trend is so common that it often goes unnoticed, particularly among millennials. I like to tell students who are unconsciously using upspeak that it sounds like they are asking the audience if what they are saying is correct, when, in fact, they have done the research and therefore they are the experts.

Lake Bell’s 2013 romantic comedy In a World tackled the issue of how gender politics impact vocal styles and what U.S. society seems to want from  male and female voices. Here is the trailer:

In her interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Bell surmises that reality television has popularized what she calls a “sexy baby voice” (from 19:30-21:20 in the interview is particularly relevant). This multidisciplinary social science website The Society Pages took a look (or listen!) at the question of “The Sexy Baby Voice vs. The Voice of God” –gendered vocal styles taken to their extremes.

The same website also profiled the research of Tom Linneman, an associate professor of sociology at The College of William and Mary, who conducted a study of how gender affects use of uptalk and determined that, in his sample,  women used a rising intonation almost twice as often as men and actually increased their use of it when they were succeeding at a task (in this case, answering Jeopardy questions). This was perhaps “because women continue to feel they need to apologize for their success.”

On the other hand, the freelance journalist Jessica Grose, who often writes for Slate’s The XX Factor, found that her use of upspeak helped her sound “egalitarian and accepting” which was a benefit for some interview contexts. But when it came to hosting a podcast, those same vocal patterns annoyed listeners and undermined her credibility.

The Australian voice coach Victoria Mielewaksa, who has worked on several Hollywood blockbusters, offers a more generous interpretation of uptalk, suggesting that this vocal pattern “has something to do with the way we want to involve our listener… It’s the ‘you know what I mean, I’m trying to be nice, I want to include you in what I’m saying.’” Mielewaksa’s observations resonated strongly for me. I realized that when I am giving students a new assignment I often use upspeak as if to ask “Are you getting this? Do you understand?” But, maybe I should just ask those questions after I’ve explained the assignment without relying on upspeak.

The video with Mielewaksa’s observation is embedded in a recent  LinkedIn post. The post is worth a look. It summarizes a Pearson survey of bosses that showed employer use of upspeak can affect hiring and raises. It also highlights something I never knew, which is that upspeak is also called Australian Question Intonation (AQI) and is not considered a mark of gender or age in Australia, it’s just considered Australian.

What I learned in my international archival research

This break, I spent time in Moscow, conducting dissertation research. This archival trip has been useful, not only for my dissertation research, but in a way I never expected: helping my pedagogy seemingly unrelated to my research topic.

(requisite image of St. Basil's for any post about Moscow)

(requisite image of St. Basil’s for any post about Moscow)

As a foreigner in Russian archives and libraries, I expected some bureaucratic red tape, therefore I planned ahead. However, no matter how much you try, bureaucracy will always find a way. Even with very helpful librarians and archival specialists, I faced multiple forms, access requests, and unexpected hurdles. This post is an attempt to record my experience.

I won’t go into the forms needed just to enter Russia, as there are many websites dedicated to helping with that. But I will just say that you must begin preparations months—six months would be ideal—in advance. Once you arrive, make sure that you have all of your documentation: Passport, Visa, Migration card, Visa registration, Letter of introduction from your home institution, Russian phone number, Russian address where you are staying. Got all of those? Good, you are ready to head out to your research site.

Beloved Dostoevsky guarding the entrance to the main Lenin Library in Moscow.

Beloved Dostoevsky guarding the entrance to the main Lenin Library in Moscow.

In a nice bit of Gogolesquery, in order to enter most libraries and archives you will need your propusk [pass]. In order to get this propusk, you have to register with the library past the guard’s station where you need to show this propusk. For some libraries, the process is simple as telling them that you are a new reader and going to register. Other places require calling the librarian on duty to come and escort you to the office where you apply for the propusk. The good news is that the librarians in charge of issuing these propuski are generally very helpful and quick. So it shouldn’t take more than an hour or so to get your privledges.

Despite a national set of “Rules for the Reader,” (a multipaged set of bureaucratic rights and privledges that you either are asked to read or given a copy of at each location), every library or archive has its own system for carrying out those rights, registering its readers, requesting materials, and requesting copies. Since you will be asked to read over these rules so quickly, best to familiarize yourself with them well ahead of time.

Hand over your letter of introduction, printed on official letterhead and specifically stating the subject and dates of your research topic. Turn in your passport, visa, migration card, and visa registration. Fill in the registration form, which could be as simple as a notecard or as long as a couple pages and require an attached photo. And hope you filled everything in correctly. You will then, if all goes well, receive your official propusk with a blue official stamp.

Good to go!
(image by Damian Yerrick cc-by-sa)

Next comes the request for materials. While collections are starting to be indexed on computers, the main way to find documents is still an extensive collection of handwritten and typed (but not digital) indexes (putivoditeli). These are similar to finding aids you will find in US archives, but the yellowing pages and corrections entered in pencil cultivate a sense of history I have rarely felt when working with the more familiar MS Word docs and slick websites or even the physical card catalogues. Each collection (fond) has its own putivoditel or shelf of putivoditeli that indexes the sub-collections (opisi), files (dela), date of deposit (data), and number of pages (listi) in the delo. Some archives vary slightly in what these elements are called, but these are the elements you will need to request a file. Depending on the archive, you may also need the (very lengthy) description of the delo. (In my research, many of the descriptions would not fit in the space provided on the requisition form. We will see if my attempts to abbreviate worked.) Be prepared to fill out the forms multiple times. The smallest mistake can cause you to have to fill out the whole form again. But the archivists are very helpful in checking for you and will let you know if anything is out of order on your request. Turn in your requisition form, and then wait. Anywhere from one to three days. According to law, they aren’t supposed to make you wait longer than three days, but I have heard stories of requests that took longer because the files had been sent into storage outside of the city.

Remember how I mentioned the date of deposit? This seemingly unimportant piece of archival trivia is indispensable for researchers hoping to access “personal files” (lichniye dela). Personal files and files containing potential state secrets have been sealed for a period of 75 years from the date of deposit. This is something that is not well publicized on the websites of the collections, but which the archivist at RGALI was very helpful in pointing out. Supposedly, you can request access earlier than this date with the permission of the subject or the subject’s family.

When you finally receive the files, personal photography (a real time- and money-saver in my previous archival research) is usually prohibited. So be prepared to take your copious and extremely detailed notes or cough up for the $1-$3 per page copying service.

No cameras

After this experience, I definitely have a greater understanding of what my students must feel going through a completely new bureaucratic system like our libraries here in the US. I knew that I needed to provide support to my students when requiring research for class projects, otherwise I would just get a lot of Google-search-based papers. But I thought providing links to the helpful guides already provided by our libraries would be sufficient. However, my experience attempting to navigate an unfamiliar library system showed me how beguiling (and contradictory) mere documentation can be when encountering a new library for the first time. My contextual knowledge of how to navigate US libraries and archives was of limited use. My ability to “speak library” stopped at the border, and I had to learn a new way of maneuvering through these collections.

[Navigating library catalogues doesn't have to be scary]

Rather than merely pointing my students to online resources that outline what services our libraries provide, scheduling a class period to meet with the subject area librarian no longer seemed like pedantic overkill. For students who are not used to navigating the idiosyncrasies of multiple databases, physical and digital collections, as well as the technology resources available in our libraries, just learning where to start can be confusing. And this is without the hurdles due to class, linguistic, and past educational background biases faced by many of our students.

Take heart

Bobby Voelker swung slow and heavy as William “Patolino” Macario continued the fight with all the ease of adrenalin. Macario’s shortly shorn, bleached-out blond Afro had sponged the blood now covering both UFC fighters and the audience watched it turn an unnatural Kool-Aid red with each passing round. Blood dried in patches on both of their torsos, splattered the white vinyl of the octagon, and freely poured from the nose of Voelker, whose vision was also compromised by the constant flow both above and out of his nose so that when he swung it was without the precision that his opponent now knew was his advantage alone. The commentators spoke with a slight pitch of pity as the ref stepped in twice— the cutman attempting to control Voelker’s loss of blood, an accidental finger to the eye—but then it all painfully and professionally resumed again. Loss inevitable for the fight favorite Voelker, Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg spoke with a certain resignation in their voices as though they wondered why he didn’t tap: “he has heart,” the two concluded.

As the blood dripped in long syrupy ribbons from Voelker’s open mouth, an expression of fortitude and exhaustion, a whole different mood was evoked. Rogan’s and Goldberg’s voices subsided into a sort of painful admiration and the play-by-play was abandoned, something I’d never seen before, to briefly discuss Voelker’s heart (they kept saying it) before they lapsed back into calling the shots. Something so other than title belts and fans and all the money was happening and it was—emotional.


Take heart. You don’t hear that much anymore but it is transitive and it addresses this dual position of the heart as a place of courage and of emotion—the paradox of strength and weakness. The heart is a metaphorical center of our language: we look into the heart of the matter; learn things by heart; put our hearts into it; have the heart to do or not do things; and have our heart in the right place, hopefully. We are young at heart, bleeding hearts, all the while wearing our hearts on our sleeves. You get the picture.

Here, in stark relief to a masculinity that has little expression for it, was all the feeling in the fight and something I had never noticed before, having believed that all this punching people in the face for money was exactly heartless. Whereas I believed the whole spectacle of UFC, and MMA more generally, to be a rehearsal of “taking it like a man” and leaving feeling aside, the metaphor of heart used so generously as the commentators spoke was informed by a use of the term that was maybe a little too athletic for the likes of literature, with the exception of Hemingway, of course, and Pindar.

The complex sense of heart that fills the discourse of fighting conflicts with sentimental expression because it is so quiet. Outward declarations nullify what it wants to express. Having heart is the counterpart to will: hoping the ref will not call the fight prematurely because of your injuries, preventing you from being in it. Not everyone has heart; some fighters are violent and destroy everyone and win. In spite of victory, they are hardly anybody’s hero. Fighters with heart, however, get close to some sort of failure and it is their proximity to failure that is interesting. The real sense of opposition applies. What is at stake contracts in the slow moments when a fighter is closer to failing the match and more importantly, themselves. We slow into the moment, into the very idea of what being in it has to mean besides the win.

On Disorganizing and Reorganizing

(Or, “8 Things That Listicles Tell Us About Process”)

  1. If I begin with a list, I’m about to start a project— maybe tonight’s dinner, tomorrow’s trip, a draft, or a revision. “This is what I need to do,” I assure myself.
  2. The word “listicle” is odd and ugly. But I don’t mean ugly in the same way that Stanley Fish means it when he says: “…‘blog’ is an ugly word (as are clog, smog, and slog).”  The word, listicle, is crudely formed by smashing together “list” and “article.” It’s an article that plays on a system of classification.  The writing (thinking) process, the drafting of ideas, and evaluating of information can be uncomfortable, clunky, and uneven procedures. The word “listicle” honestly reflects the messiness of process.
  3. A list is a familiar form of writing and a tool of organization. Some examples: What do I need to get at the grocery store? How many more course credits do I need? What don’t I know? What do I know? A list is a useful genre for prioritizing tasks, assessing objectives, and discerning values.
  4. A list is a familiar form of writing and a tool for organization. A retail worker uses it to check a store’s inventory. A bartender scribbles a list of what to restock a bar with. An administrator of any rank is an expert in the form. A syllabus is a hybrid list. A student can use it to brainstorm.
  5. I make lists to remember. I realize I haven’t talked about what makes the word “listicle” an odd word… It shares sounds with unexpected words, like tickle, pickle, and popsicle. Listicle also conveniently rhymes with mythological and ideological.
  6. To create a list is to create a mission, a manifesto of some sort. Perhaps a list is content in desire of form; maybe it’s knowledge impatiently in want of coherence.
  7. A numbered list implies order. But sometimes the order seems arbitrary or trivial. “23 Signs You’ve Lived In New York City,” “31 GIFs That Will Make You Laugh Every Time.” Why 23? Why 31? Lists draw on the appearance of structure, but maybe they’re just disorder masquerading as (or maybe they’re new shapes waiting to supersede) order.
  8. A list can be a form of critical inquiry. Place two lists next to each other— one for pros, the other for cons— and a one person debate can commence. Art is in “listicle,” tactically obscured from view, and it’s present if one wants (or has) a poetic mission. A list can be a form of critical inquiry: a “to do” list might actually be a “to know” list. Or maybe a list is, at its core, a performance of: “This is what I do and this is what I know.”


A confession and some brief notes on my pedagogy:

This blog post is an attempted exercise in demonstrating how meaning is built into form (which is what I tried to do with my previous piece on the mixtape). It is also an excuse to quarrel with an Internet form that I have long been ambivalent about.

In my classroom, students and I spend a lot of time discussing form and structure. Meaning, I tell them, is not just located in content and plot: meaning is also mediated through its structure. This might be obvious, especially for those who specialize in literary criticism, but it can be a challenge to get undergraduates to think about structure in concert with content. In our more dynamic and fruitful discussions, students and I merge our close-readings of a narrative’s texture and relate our collective reading to that narrative’s structure. Chapter seven, “Structural Principles: The Example of the Sonnet,” of Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form has been particularly helpful in getting students to think about form and structure, not just in terms of poetry, but also in terms of shaping their own form(s) of critical inquiry.

Performing Poor

Being poor is demonstrable. Poor people wear their lack all over them and demonstrate it in all their actions. Pierre Bourdieu, the French Sociologist was one of the few academics that understood this well and wrote about it and its self-governing aspects. Maybe because one of the aspects of being poor is that it doesn’t allow expression.
Linda Tirado is learning this. Last week Ms. Tirado found herself an overnight internet starlet and spokesperson for the poor because of her paradoxical talent for expression. She posted a comment on Gawker about being poor and wound up published on the HuffPo:

Her experiences read like a practical, quotidian explanation of Bourdieu’s keen understanding as explained in his conclusion to Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste:

“Dominated agents, who assess the value of their position and their characteristics by applying a system of schemes of perception and appreciation which is the embodiment of the objective laws whereby their value is objectively constituted, tend to attribute to themselves what the distribution attributes to them, refusing what they are refused (’that’s not for the likes of us’), adjusting their expectations to their chances, defining themselves as the established order defines them, reproducing in their verdict on themselves the verdict the economy pronounces on them, in a word, condemning themselves to what is in any case their lot, τα ηεαυτου, as Plato put it, consenting to be what they have to be, ‘modest’, ‘humble’ and ‘obscure’.”

Immediately, she was contacted by a literary agent, began a daily blog, had considerable monetary donations made to her so she could focus on writing, and started manning a Twitter account. People wrote from around the world beginning a constant conversation about how it was that she could know how to talk about being poor in a way that only someone who has experienced it knows how to recount its nuances, asking simultaneously how she had the skill to do so. Poor people don’t have time for self-reflection, it’s true, whereas Ms. Tirado has the audacity to know that she’s fucked and that’s suspicious, if not altogether middle-class. She knows too clearly that being poor means that you are temporally bound insofar as not having the right to a future, that it is about being tired but knowing that wanting rest makes you seem lazy and that eating poorly, as Bourdieu points out, is cyclical wherein necessity breeds taste. Poverty has so much to do with taste. That is where she is best at explaining why poor people make bad decisions. We begin to like what we become accustomed to and even think we choose it in that Nietzschean logic that Foucault later realizes creates structures of power. And that is why it is hard to shake being poor should one ever have the chance to escape.

If you’ve seen that documentary, The Queen of Versailles, there are some interesting moments where Jackie Siegel, who grew up poor in Binghamton, directs her limousine be driven thru at McDonald’s. She may have been building the largest home in America modeled on the palace of Versailles but the girl needs some chicken nuggets and doesn’t even think of hiding it for the many cameras turned on her. She doesn’t seem conscious of her incongruities, ignorant to the fact that women with a closet full of Versace should not be caught dead at McDonald’s. High and low culture find equal status in her consumption and it all results in a democratic hoarding that would lead people to belive that she has no. . . taste. Gatsby did it better when he pursued the American Dream. He was careful never to give himself away.

And so is Ms. Tirado. In the most astounding section of the blog she now posts to daily she asks for advice. Her post is titled “In which I try on a new class. Advice, please.” When Ms. Tirado replaces her missing teeth, treats her bad skin, and degreases her hair, ever sheening from the fryers from her job as a cook will she, as she becomes a different “sign-bearing, sign-wearing body” as Bourdieu calls it, fortunes will change. She asks what she knows is a fickle audience that will likely move on to the next internet darling at any moment to invest in her:
“But I want to know what healthy feels like, and I want to experience the difference in a marked way rather then a bit here and there that I could miss. So I will be posting all the little changes and adjustments, and I will be doing this thing in December to see if a month of sleep and nutrition and only some coffee and not so much smoking and a regular schedule will turn me into someone that I do not recognize. I would like your help, because I am trying to identify and eliminate my class markers for this. I want to see how differently the world reacts to me if I have a manicure and a hairstyle rather than chipped nail polish and hair that is greasy from the fryers. I want to see if sleeping enough to get rid of the haggard look will be an effective strategy of getting a clerk’s attention more quickly at a store. I wonder whether I will get quite so many comments about what a good mom I am when I am out with the kids, as though it is something surprising and not the default assumption, if I look wealthier than I have done.”

And people answer. 154 people answer, this having gone up from 119 people yesterday. They are eager to help. StudyingStudent advises drink water; middle class people are always drinking water. A lot of people give advice on shampoo—no “poo”—and makeup—keep it minimal if you don’t want to look cheap—and the difficult question of whether or not to mani/pedi—pedicures turn out to be a must in the summer. One should make sensible shoe choices, take up yoga, watch their posture and put their napkin in their lap immediately upon sitting down in a restaurant. Less Emily Post than a regular 21st century doing up of Eliza Doolittle, the myriad of answers adds up to a shocking self-congratulatory disgust toward poverty and how to get rid of the signs of it. It is a spontaneous sociological study that makes it impossible to call America classless, if anyone still thought it was, evident by the enthusiastic and unhesitating advice of the internet’s welcome wagon to “the good life.” (pssst, Lauren Berlant has bad news for her; it’s already gone).
I want to mention that many people take this space to thank her, many commiserate and appreciate her voice. While she is a lapsed member of the middle-class who found herself in poverty, many people have always “known their place,” and never gotten the education they can’t imagine knowing what to do with anyway that might allow them to form the voice to say what she does. For them she is very important because she makes them visible and so many don’t really want to be seen. Poverty has that way of making people willingly invisible.
As her article gains status on HuffPo as “most e-mailed,” I can’t help but think of Zizek’s little anecdote on why we donate money to those starving children in unnamed countries, swarmed by flies. We do it to ease our consciences, he perhaps cynically explains. We don’t know if those children live or die, if they ever have a proper meal in reality, but we’ll be damned if we haven’t done our part. So let the ideology behind this not go without notice, and hopefully, the greatest discomfort. We the people of the Internet have rehabilitated one unfortunate and worthy person who showed a willingness not to make these bad life decisions any more. But will people remain interested in their Fair Lady or will the rags to riches story grow tiresome in narrative form? Will Ms. Tirado really make an impact on people who suspect that poor people are stupid or possibly degenerate or just enjoy failure outright? Or are we watching the simple satisfaction of people doing their part?

A Babel Mixtape

Adrian Tomine, "Society Dictates" (2001).

Adrian Tomine, “Society Dictates” (2001).

Rewind. A context When I was in middle school, I didn’t realize that I was witnessing a shift in communication. The shift seemed ordinary. Our neighborhood mail carrier, whose mouth gripped a lit cigarette and hands skillfully shuffled through envelopes between houses, facilitated a steady flow of free-trial AOL discs to my home — discs that were later tucked in dust behind the tower of my family’s shared desktop. The discs gradually disappeared. They belong to a period in my life when the U.S. postal system didn’t seem so fragile and my best friend left me coded messages, gibberish to my parents, on the answering machine.

Fast forward, to high school. I live in the same house, on the margins of suburbia, but now I instant message in the evenings. One night, as I type in the dark, I notice that many of the AIM screennames, mine included, share one common adjective, one common unit: “azn.”

Fast forward, to November 11, 2013. Play: It’s November in New York City and, with warm breaths clutching the cold air and the population of shopping bags booming, all signs point to winter’s arrival. Though summer seems to be at a distance, a scene from this past August lingers still on my mind.

Movie still of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, "In the Mood for Love" (2000)

Movie still of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, “In the Mood for Love” (2000)


Rewind, August 23, 2013. I was at a retrospective screening of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, a movie I’ve seen many times before. This viewing experience was different, not only because it was the first time I saw it projected on a screen. This time I couldn’t immerse myself in the Cantonese script, so I straddled between reading the English subtitles and following, whenever I could, the dimming warmth of the Chinese language. There is a scene where the female lead, Mrs. Chan, makes an observation to the male lead. Mrs. Chan’s words sound familiar, but conjure a strange image in my head. I imagine a glistening net of golden honey threads, formed like a three-dimensional word bubble. Then, clunky and literal, words crystallize: “You’re like my husband. Your mouth is sweet and your thread is smooth.” The white letters, the subtitles, tell me: “You’re like my husband; he’s a sweet talker too.”

Pause. A reflection on the form and content of my cac.ophony blog posts: I try to maintain the formal expectations of voice and brevity, of personal tone and notation of  (my writing, thinking) process. Fragmentations and serialities mark the varying tempos of learning, an ongoingness of learning shaped by a historical present. Realizations, to invoke Mrs. Chan’s emotional articulation, can “sneak up on you,” catch you off guard, at a later time. The posts also depict my unfinished thinking with Lauren Berlant, Edward Said, Paul Gilroy, and Raymond Williams. The links embedded in each post are citations of the texts, online resources, and images I’ve been thinking through.

In terms of content, I’ve been trying to cohere some thoughts about the relationships between labor and exposure, between culture and capital, in a digital age. How do these relationships inform the shifting languages of the internet and the communities created around varying idioms and practices? The question that I’m formulating here is one that relates to my academic interests in race and labor:  how do the conditions produced by internet communication affect communities tangled, or aligned, along the coordinates of race, gender, class, and sexuality?

In terms of pleasure, I confess, I delight in the tentative thrill, the brush of potentiality, that comes with being derailed, reoriented, by the simple acts of scrolling down a newsfeed, swiping through images, and clicking on embedded links. Play.