Featured Post


The lute lies rusted in its green case odor of pines is synthetic; sweeteners artificial; even salt!  our tongues crave something dif...

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Justifying the Humanities

Reading Resina's article "Cold War Hispanism"--he says something to the effect that the role of the humanities is to justify themselves: "Could it be that the perennial crisis of the humanities is a trope for the inherent insecurity of this bundle of disciplines that exist, precisely, in and through the never-ending effort to legitimate themselves?" (emphasis added). This makes sense. Just as the "canon" only comes into view when it is a problem, the humanities only thrive in crisis mode, because they are the disciplines whose primary function is to confer value on their own subject matter, to certify and credentialize forms of cultural capital. "Prove that what you are studying is worth while." "Justify your own existence." No wonder we are so defensive! Now I am understanding why nationalism is so strong in the humanities. That is a default justification.

This also explains why the default mode of the humanities is the weak leftism of cultural exceptionalism. That requires a whole 'nother post to explain. Briefly, we are the dominated part of the dominating class, as Bourdieu points out.


I can argue for Lorca's relevance through Spicer or O'Hara, Ginsberg or Duncan, or even Billy Strayhorn. But of course that is already assuming the value of these American figures.

Saturday, March 30, 2013


Self-plagiarism, discussed here in a post from language log, is something that I have to avoid, since I am the type of scholar who returns to the same ideas and authors repeatedly. Since people only read all of what I write when I am up for promotion (something that will never happen again) I think it's fine to duplicate ideas in different contexts, as long as I cite myself amply. I have eight work of JM in my current bibliography for my project. Looking at it now I see I need to include at least two or three additional books and articles. Instead of seeing that as a sign of egotism, it could be a sign of a certain honesty in revealing that I draw from my own previous ideas and obsessions.

I often feel there is more duplication than there really is. For example, I could think that three chapters of my book Twilight are ways of saying the same thing in different ways: "The Avant-Garde and Its Discontents," "Three Apologies for Poetry," and "Poetry, Politics, and Power." But really, they represent distinct analyses. The same goes for my two essays on Valente and his precursors: one looks at Celan, the other at Beckett. The structure of the argument is very similar, but I think writing both was justifiable.

Whenever you find someone who has published a lot, you will find some duplication of intellectual frameworks and ideas, modes of analysis. Often I stop reading a book when I feel I've gotten all that it offers, even at the expense of some additional information or analysis. I wouldn't be surprised or unhappy if others treated my work like that.

I could go back and publish a book out of my remnants, articles that never became book chapters, but I don't think it's worth it. I like the fact I have articles that never found a home in a book. I do think there is enough for a book there, though. I just went back and counted 17 articles. The problem, paradoxically, is that they aren't either coherent or miscellaneous enough. Any way of grouping them would reveal too many connections, but there would be too many things that did not fit.


(I am postdating this post to when the search should be over.)

The last campus visit for the Portuguese position featured someone giving a talk on narratives of cultural confluence. I was really well prepared to listen to this talk (which was very good, by the way), because I had been studying forms of cultural exceptionalism for several months. All the language about zone of contact, transculturalism, or whatever, was very familiar to me. I recognized all the moves, the reference to Doris Sommer and Brazilianness, mestizaje.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Mito del carácter nacional

The anthropologist Julio Caro Baroja, the nephew of the novelist Pío B., wrote a book with this title (1971) reviewed here in the ABC, the Monarquist newspaper, in 2004. Although ABC is right-wing more than left, and this review appeals to the notion of Spain's normality, I still find myself agreeing with Caro Baroja's skepticism. A book I will have to read for myself in any case. I also found an article by Juaristi on Menéndez Pidal.


From November 8 until now, I have been extremely productive even by my own inescapably high standards and have come up with ideas that surprise me. The book What Lorca Knew snowballed and now contains several completed chapters; it might even be done by the end of 2013. I even feel my writing improving. It will be a very polished book. I'm giving myself a month to finish each chapter, and then making sure I schedule additional time to make sure all the footnotes and references are complete and accurate.

The preface, introduction, and first two chapters (4 separate items) form a coherent whole devoted to the duende, mostly. Next, I have one essay on Lorca's influence in Spain, Chapter four which is a follow up to Apocryphal Lorca, and a chapter on "Queering Lorca." Finally, an epilogue with the title "Elegy for Modernism." The main intellectual heavy lifting and additional research will be the chapter on cultural exceptionalism and the chapter on Queering Lorca. I have a month by month work plan, which I change virtually every day.

My idea for the day is to link "exceptionalism" with "queering." Structurally, they obey a very similar logic. How to have an identity politics based on pure difference, with no attackable essentialism? Don't expect me to work it out today, because I only just thought of it. When I first thought of the queering chapter, two or three incarnations of this project ago, I had not yet developed my ideas about cultural exceptionalism.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Commentary on my poem

I guess I can interpret my own poem, right?

The speaker in a typical poem nowadays is like an idealized version of the self. My speaker is like a de-idealized Mayhew, kind of peevish. I have those peevish impulses, like everyone else, but I try to rise above them sometimes. The complaint is a trivial one, that people use the word "surreal" when they really mean "unreal." You surely shouldn't hate people who do this, even if you wouldn't use the word this way yourself!

There is an expectation that the speaker will also be sincere. An idealized self seems insincere, if too idealized, but so is a de-idealized self. The self always positions itself at a particular angle, there is no "straight-on" self. I gain some sincerity points, though, by making the self a little more petty than it needs to be, anxious about trivial stuff.

A second expectation is that for anecdotal material to lead to epiphany. Here, the anecdote reveals only peevish annoyance at moths in the pantry.

The speaker also resists a third expectation, for metaphor and symbolism. A simile would have totally ruined this poem, because it insists on things as they are, not things as they are as changed by the blue guitar.

At the same time, there is a metaphorical warning against metaphor: if things are not allowed to be what they are, and nothing more, then there will be no room for the tomato paste in the pantry. The poem says yes, feel these things for their emotional weight, but don't overinterpret them. The pantry moth doesn't symbolize a thing, it is just an example of a trivial domestic problem. The tomato paste just returns us to that immanent situation.

A fourth expectation, for rhythmic recurrence, is fulfilled but ironically so, in the trivial refrain, hate them with a passion. There are a lot of 'p' sounds, but not so many as to be obtrusive.

By frustrating all these expectations, the poem fulfills expectations of another kind of reader, one who generally hates conventional poems with an idealized speaker, an anecdote leading to an epiphany, and a couple of similes that serve to show off the poet's poetry-writing chops. It doesn't just frustrate those expectations by not fulfilling them, but by gesturing toward them and mocking them, in a way that aims for an understated wit.

Such a reader might also recognize, in herself, the prejudice against the supposed mis-use of the word "surreal." He is likely to know that there was a surrealist movement, and relate the non-sequiturs in the poem to a kind of "surreal" feeling. A reader could see the absurdity of the linguistic peeve, or say yes, I hate that too. Either way.

The poem also fulfills an expectation for statistically unfamiliar combination of words, like "Los Angeles with its petulant physicality." Post-avant garde poetry tends toward this kind of off-beat phrasing. Someone who liked this style might like my poem, or else recognize it as being in a style sh/e likes in genearl, but think it falls short.

Over subtle

I used the worry that my ideas were rarefied and over-subtle. But not really. You have to work up to your full potential. I noticed yesterday in class when students were trying to come up with Althusserian examples (of ideology), a tendency to fall back on a sort of easy denunciation of right-wing ideas, that almost anyone could come up with. It was hard for them to distinguish between examples that really illustrates Althusser's ideas, versus simple examples of right-wing ideas they found objectionable. Only a few students could really do it.

I remember very vividly in Grad school, taking my first theory course, and having a student in the class make the statement that scientific ideas in a capitalist society were produced in the same way that products were. When I asked for an example, she said that science was used to justify racism, or something like that. Not at all an example of the generalization she had made. But nobody seemed to notice! I didn't argue that point because I didn't want to be a jerk and I felt a bit humiliated, in fact. Of course I knew about misuse of science for nefarious ends! That wasn't my question at all.

New York talk (1st paragraphs)

When I tell people I am working on Lorca in New York, they often assume I am talking about Lorca’s 1929-1930 sojourn in the city, when he wrote Poet in New York. In my talk today, however, I would like to address the presence of Federico García Lorca in the New York school of painting and poetry, and in American arts in general. I will address three representative figures, the poet Frank O’Hara, the composer Billy Strayhorn, and the painter Robert Motherwell. The common thread in these three figures is that all of them approach Lorca in a way that undermines cultural hierarchies or confuses habitual boundaries. Lorca’s modernist poetics, transposed to the American landscape, is repurposed in unpredictable ways.

I will begin with a kind of “New Historicist” anecdote, of the kind that Stephen Greenblatt might employ. Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967) was a collaborator of Duke Ellington, writing compositions identified with the Ellington Orchestra, most famously his theme song “Take the A-Train,” as well as impressionist-sounding instrumental numbers like “Chelsea Bridge” and “Rain Check.” If Ellington is esteemed as one of the most prominent American composers of the twentieth century, then Strayhorn deserves no less, since many compositions associated with Duke were actually collaborations between the two men.

After I turned in the final version of my book Apocryphal Lorca to the publishers, I began to prepare to teach a course on jazz for the Honors Program at the University of Kansas. Reading two biographies of Billy Strayhorn, I came across (to my delight and horror) a story that should have been included in my book: Strayhorn had set to music texts for a production of Lorca’s Los amores de don Perlimplín y Belisa en su jardín, at the Artist’s Theatre in New York. I was horrified at my discovery, of course, for the simple reason that it was too late to include this information in my book. I was delighted because this anecdote confirmed many of its central themes: Strayhorn was an openly gay black man during the exact period at issue in my examination of Lorca’s impact on American culture, the 1950s. I had included sections on gay and African American responses to Lorca, along with two chapters on poets of the New York school of poetry, poets who were also involved in the Artist’s Theatre in which Don Perlimplín was produced.

This production of Don Perlimplín, in 1953, featured an all-black cast. Press reports were few and negative. I quote from Lawrence Jasper’s University of Kansas dissertation on the Artists’ Theatre: “Machiz’s serious miscalculation with the production [...] was his attempt to mount this delicate period-piece with an all-black cast of musical comedy / vaudeville performers--from the company of his summer production of Cabin in the Sky—who who were completely unfamiliar with 18th century period costume, movement, or manner, or with Lorca’s fragile theatre poetry” (Jasper 134). “Strayhorn’s Lorca” is typical in numerous ways of the American reception of Lorca. The problem, though, is that Strayhorn’s music had very little resonance for the later—or even the contemporaneous—reception of Lorca’s work in the US. The music was all but forgotten until a portion of it was rescued by the Dutch musicologist and biographer Walter van de Leur, from whom I learned of it.

Despite the obscurity of the anecdote, it does bolster my contention that Lorca is an early multi-cultural hero for the United States, before multi-culturalism itself came into being in its current form. In its very obscurity, the anecdote also indirectly supports my sense that Lorca’s poetry was more resonant for Americans than was his theater. Paul Julian Smith notes that an earlier production of Lorca’s Bitter Oleander was greeted with incomprehension by the New York Press. Whoever thought of producing Bodas de sangre with that title was not very well attuned to the expectations of the theater-going audience of that place and time.

The first thing that you will notice when you listen to the music Strayhorn wrote for Lorca’s plays is that it is not jazz. Let’s hear “The Flowers Dream of Love,” and "Love, Love" [play selections]. In other words, it is not written in the jazz idiom we associate with his Ellington collaborations. [play “Take the A-Train.”] Van de Leur, a Dutch musicologist reproduces the score of this music, noting that Lorca’s texts were of higher literary quality than the typical song lyric to which his music would ordinarily have been sung: “Even in translation, the quality of García Lorca’s poems for don Perlimplín surpasses in breadth and depth virtually every other lyric Strayhorn had set to music before” (125).

A Poem

Because of a post at Clarissa's place I thought of this poem I had written several years ago. I found it one of my former blogs, and noticed it was an apocryphal Lorca poem. Since I no longer remember writing this poem or what I meant by it, exactly. I like it in the way I like other people's poems that I like. It is my failure of memory that makes me like best the line that says "Los Angeles with its petulant physicality":


I hate people who say "surreal"
when they mean "unreal"

We killed dozens of moths in sticky little traps
in the pantry and on the piano

I hate these people
hate them with a passion

When things mean other things
instead of themselves--

the moths, the traps, the piano--
there is no room in the pantry for the tomato paste

I hate people who say "surreal"
when they mean "unreal"

You want to forget forgettable things,
Don't you?

Those towns you passed through
Los Angeles with its petulant physicality

I hate these people
hate them with a passion

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Cultural Studies Redux

What if we called Geisteswissenschaften "cultural studies" instead? In other words, all the "human sciences" having to do with hermeneutics and the interpretation of culture would be called cultural studies. The first thing that would do is expose the limitations of what is now known as cultural studies, conceived of as the study of anxiety as manifested in television commercials. That is just one way of studying culture. Secondly, it would point to the fact that the choice of a label is significant. The German name for this collection of fields implies Hegel and Herder, and a whole ideological baggage attached to German idealism. "Humanities" harks back to renaisssance humanism. Every label has a certain historical residue, and that's a good thing, I think, to be aware of. "Liberal arts" evokes an image of a tweedy professor. "Anthropology" is another name for everything we are concerned with, but that evokes yet other images.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


So the German word for humanities or humanities and social sciences together is sciences of the spirit, or Geist. (The French term is "les sciences humaines.") Makes me think of Hegel and Herder. We don't have in English a term for humanities and social sciences combined, nor do we speak of scientific rigor in the humanities, as they do in Spanish. We don't say "human sciences," very often.

I like "ciencias del espíritu" in Spanish.

(Naturwissenschaften are physical sciences.)


I have a friend in cultural geography. Whenever he talks about some project in his field, whether his or a colleague's or grad student's, he almost always uses the preposition "of." "The Geography of _____ " There is nothing wrong with that, but it is the equivalent of the anxiety in Cultural studies. Each field has its givens that are hard to see from inside. I don't even know what mine are though I have been trying to figure it out in the past few months.

Poems for the Millennium III

It is hard not to see this book as anything but an attempt to link European romanticism to the ethnopoetic sublime. The book is so overwhelmingly European in its contents that its attempts at "orientalisms" (that is actually one of the titles of a section in the book!) seem just that: orientalist. It would almost have been better to stick to Europe, because a little bit is worse than nothing if presented in such a weird way: to represent the East to the Western imagination. The Latin American and Spanish representation is laughably meagre. Even the US barely registers. Nothing is presented in the original language (except English language texts of course). It's one of those projects I want to admire but just can't.


Growing up, the most imposing critics were Bloom, Vendler, Hillis Miller, and Perloff, along with Jameson and Booth and a few others. I say growing up, because I was aware of at least one of these names even before I went to college. I subscribed to American Poetry Review as a teenager in the 1970s (not exactly a normal teenager, I know), and one day it came with a picture of Frank O'Hara on the cover, and an excerpt from Perloff's book Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters. F O'H was my favorite poet at the time, so I was very excited. Later, I figured out that it was unusual to treat him as a serious poet at all, in the context of academic literary criticism. Since then, I have been reading every Perloff book as it came out. The most significant ones, for me, have been The Poetics of Indeterminacy, The Vienna Paradox, Wittgenstein's Ladder, and The Futurist Moment. If I had gone into English, I would have been a minor Perloff disciple. Perhaps that is what I am anyway. My initial goal entering grad school in 1981 was to write The Poetics of Indeterminacy, but for Spanish and Latin American poetry. Not that book exactly, but something with that kind of impact.

The critical schools dominant in those days (early 80s) were avant-garde in theory, but had conservative aesthetic tastes. The idea was to do a really avant-garde deconstruction of a very canonical poem by Wordsworth or Keats or Wallace Stevens. Williams was considered still rather radical, so it was daring for J. Hillis Miller to catch up to him. Perloff changed all that by saying that Cage or O'Hara were worthy of critical attention. She was not "theoretical" in the same way, although she was (and is) theoretically astute in ways not always acknowledged. Her work met with a lot of resistance, but other critics ended up treating her poets seriously too, after a while. My generation was all Perloffian, because we accepted the legitimacy of Language Poetry and other forms of avant-garde poetics. At Stanford, when I was a graduate student, Denise Levertov opposed her hiring, simply because she thought the language poets were legit. She wrote a letter to the whole English faculty calling them "Gertrude Steinlets." Others continue to attack her even today. It still seems an affront to treat the language poets as serious poets and intellectuals, I guess, even though some of these poets have been active during parts of six decades.

Aside from deconstruction, the other dominant school, as I perceived it, was Marxism.

Marjorie, on the other hand, is a formalist and an empiricist. Her roots in formalism (not just quasi-formalist New Criticism) have given her a distinctive voice in criticism. Her first book was on rhyme in Yeats! (The New Critics weren't great prosodists, generally speaking. They were formalist in the sense that they wanted to see literature as autonomous, but not formalist in attention to the actual form of the poem.)

She is empiricist in the fact that she pays attention to the facts on the ground, rather than letting theory bulldoze a path of least resistance. It is good that she is not a Marxist or deconstructionist, because there should be one major voice apart from those otherwise dominant schools. There is a difference in seeing postmodernism as a symptom of "late capitalism," as Jameson did, and seeing postmodern works as having their own individuality, their own distinctiveness that is not co-terminous with ideology. It is Perloff who is the more historical critic, because she looks to document what happened in art and culture and not just impose a theory of history on the documentary record.

If you've read all of Perloff, as I have, you will notice repetitions of rhetorical strategies, of ideas, of modes of analysis. It would be hard to have written all those books and not have favorite strategies of analysis or critical moves. I've even read her early book on Yeats. Some of her books seem to be saying the same thing as other books, at bottom, though each one also brings a distinctive perspective not repeated in the others.

She has made major contributions to the study of Russian and Italian Futurism, Cage, Beckett, O'Hara, and Pound, among many other writers. Her native language is German, but she grew up in the US after escaping the Nazis in Vienna with her family as a child. She knows French, Russian, and Portuguese as well. She is perceived as being too limited in her taste, when actually she has a far huger range of interests than almost anyone else I can think of within the field of modern comparative poetics. I'm kind of glad she doesn't do Spanish too, because who could compete with that?

All this is a roundabout way of saying is that if you try to debate me about Perloff on facebook, I will destroy you.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Can Cultural Studies Do Without Anxieties?

Can cultural studies do without anxieties? One very common trope in this field is the idea that a culture, as a whole, is worried about something. People are anxious about something happening (or what they think is happening, or will happen soon) in the "culture," and so different movies, or television shows, or popular songs, express or reflect this general level of anxiety. Usually, it is about women going back to work, or gender roles in general, or sexual boundaries, or race or class.

I'm not saying this is not a valid way of looking at culture, but it strikes me that I have rarely if ever seen it theorized or argued. It is just taken for granted that this is a valid model of how a culture works. All the cultural critic has to do is find out what the source of the anxiety is, and go to work finding symptoms of it. But does culture really work this way? How do we know this? Is this a Freudian model, in the end? The culture is like a guy with some complexes, some anxieties, which he expresses through some cultural symptoms, like making movies about monsters eating New York.

I haven't looked, but I can guarantee that I could find a cultural studies article arguing that zombie tv shows and movies express a cultural anxiety about whatever the critic happens to think people are worried about.



The odds of picking the winner of a basketball game blindly (without knowing which team is better, more highly ranked) is 50%

The odds of picking (in advance) winners of a four-team tournament is 12.5%. You first have to guess right in the first two games, so you are at 25% there, and then also have picked in advance the winner of the final game.

Now with 8 teams, you have to pick four winners in the first round correctly. You have 1/16 of a chance to get that right. If you do, then you have a 1/4 chance of picking winners for the next round, and, again, a half and half chance of getting the final game right. So 1/16 x 1/4 x 1/2. I would guess, then, that with every round you add onto the tournament, you multiply the difficulty exponentially by 2 to the power of y, where y is the number of the round you added.

The Ethnopoetic Sublime

I coined that phrase here in a review of Poems for the Millennium. I had misremembered it as the ethnographic sublime, but no matter. Either way, it is the Western habit of valuing third world poetics inasmuch as they reflect our Western wet dreams of tribal culture, our fantasies of the primitive.

Now I am realizing I have been interested in cultural exceptionalism for longer than I realized.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

More Jusdanis

From Belated Modernity:
At the initial stage of nationalism literature can assist a people in constituting an autonomous state free of external domination. But since literature, like modern art in general, aspires to a negative function as well--to criticize all totalities, including the national one--it occupies a paradoxical postion in simultaneously mediating identity and reflecting on it from a distance.
Once again, insightful as far as it goes but not exactly how I think of it. The national literature is always created and defined by an elite social group. This elite group is modernist (in modern times) almost by definition. It is engaged in the project of mediating between national identity and modernity itself. The elite group creates its own definitions of identity that seem inherently self-critical, but that ultimately build rather than destroy national identity: Whitman, Williams, Pessoa, Unamuno, Ortega, Zambrano, Paz, Lezama Lima, and Lorca are examples of this dual imperative.

National Poetry

I have my copy of Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics out and I see and article by Jusdanis on "National Poetry."
While the Epic of Gilgamesh, the verses of Sappho, or Aztec poetry were composed and rooted in their respective langs. and societies, they were neither considered a reflection of their cultures nor regarded as autonomous aesthetic artifacts. National, poetry, on the other hand, is a paradoxical entity, both a self-conscious aesthetic form and a participant in social life.
Of course, these works were not originally "considered" to be "rooted" in a particular society either. They were not considered autonomous artifacts because autonomy was a subsequent debate, culminating in the 19th century, but the poetry of Sappho was always pretty close to what we consider artistically self-sufficient lyric poetry. It doesn't seem to be ritualistic or a vehicle for the retelling of myth. I am also confused about why being self-conscious aesthetic form and participant in social life is seen as a paradox. National poetry can only participate in social life on the condition of its being a self-conscious aesthetic form. Those are not two separate things, after all.

The rest of the article is very good, though focused a bit too much on Jusdanis's own speciality, modern Greek. He says that national poetry "was syncretic while all the time claiming to be monocultural." I would put this a bit differently: "it often claims to be syncretic while still advocating for a single understanding of a national culture." There is an uneasy tension between syncretism and monoculturalism that cannot be explained by an either / or. The idea of writing about national poetry (rather than a national literature) is useful for my purposes.

Now I realize I must read his book Belated Modernity.

New Historicism

Now I wonder whether I could extend my critique of cultural studies to "New Historicism."

The historicity of New Historicism is a fiction, I want to say. Not that this group of scholars is wrong about history, in the factual sense, but that they constructed fictional constructs in order to explain how other things are culturally constructed. Why not apply the same logic to their own enterprise?

Now on the one hand, this is a super-obvious point. It only matters, in some sense, if we can show that they were wrong about something in particular, otherwise it is just the same critique we can make of any hermeneutics. It is not the absolute truth. We would need a counter-narrative that explains things better, not just the cheap shot that New Historicism is yet another hermeneutical enterprise. So what?

The critique, then, would be that it pretends to be historical (better than other hermeneutics) in a way that it fails to live up to.

To say early modern texts are about gender, or colonialism, or whatever, is really to say that WE are about those things. They matter to us in particular ways. That is the filter we decide to use. There may be many areas of the "hermeneutic invisible" where we simply can't see things we aren't looking for.

Elitism / Anti-elitism

The biggest internal contradiction in my tribe is between elitism and anti-elitism. To be a scholar in the first place is to have accumulated a lot of cultural capital, and the traditional function of education in the Humanities is the transmission of such capital. It is hard to see how a superficial commitment to anti-elitism could tip the balance in the other way. I found Avelar yesterday using "beg the question" as though it meant "raise the question." This immediately disqualified him in my eyes, but that is a dumb reaction on my part, because in principle I think such shibboleths are over-rated.

The study of popular culture does not make us non-elite.


Here is a good quote for my project: "The academic practice of Hispanism ... has been closely connected with different cultural nationalisms, and with exceptionalist readings of different national histories and national 'missions' or 'destinies.'" (Faber 64). Not something I didn't know, or a new idea, but a good "confirmatory" quote.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Culture is a Fiction

If you think studying "culture" is something different from studying literature, that it leaves literature behind, I have a different perspective for you. While you may be studying rock songs or comic books, or the gendered construction of bicycle riding in the 1920s, you are still doing it from a literary point of view, because you are practicing a literary genre (the essay) to construct a culturally constructed narrative, a fiction. It is tautological to say that culture itself is culturally constructed, that the narratives we invent to explain our culture to ourselves (or someone else's culture to ourselves!) are essentially fictional or mythic, that they depend on certain archetypes, plot structures, and tropes.

By this I don't mean that these narratives are false. After all, novels are only "false" in the sense that they are about made-up people. The real fictionality of fiction is not that the people and situations therein don't really exist, but that it offers ideological constructs that are only one particular way of interpreting reality. Fiction that is true to life is true to our ideas about what life is, our own fictions, as it were.

It is easy to see that certain right-wing cultural narratives are false, or that they are right-wing. Logically, however, narratives of which we are approve share the same narrative structures, the same tropological structures, as those that we condemn.

So cultural studies is the construction of politically edifying myths of culture, and / or the debunking of "bad" myths. It leaves literature behind because it tries to go beyond certain literary narratives of culture (those that privilege the creation of works of literature like plays, poems, and novels), but it is simply a new set of aspirational narratives about culture. These narratives try to find value in cultural expressions not part of the old aspirational paradigm, but what is at stake remains the same.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

I almost have enough ideas for another whole project on exceptionalism in the Hispanic field of academia / in Spanish literary culture generally. A lot of it is a familiar twist on very well-known tropes of identity. What I bring to it is a skepticism toward such narratives and a deconstructive sense of their reversibility. I am familiar with the whole nationalist debate in recent Spain, but not an expert on it. The idea would be to dismantle the rhetoric itself, not to engage in yet another round of rhetorical games.

I would need to learn a whole lot more about a lot of things to write it, but that is a good thing.


I found a book Reading Iberia: Theory / History / Identity (Peter Lang 2007) edited by Helena Buffery, Stuart Davis, and Kirsty Hooper. Hooper's own contribution to this volume is a study of "New Cartographies of Galician Studies: From Literary Nationalism to Postnational Readings." Hooper, a scholar at Liverpool, is one of the main scholars of Galicia who isn't Galician. She is a very good scholar, writing clearly and lucidly.

Hooper talks about how Galician studies itself is bound up in the project of cultural nationalism. A previous scholar, González-Millán, "despite his critique ... still sees the objective of Galician studies as the institutionalization of a Galician national literature (albeit more critically understood) and the creation of a literary canon (albeit one that is now more nuanced)" (128). What she proposes in her conclusion is a "transnational" approach, "focusing attention ... to cultural expressions rising from the newly reformed formations that transcend the nation-state and are instead transnational, intercultural or deterritorialized" (136). If I were a scholar of Galicia I would take this same approach, I think. You would look for voices repressed within Galician culture, for diaspora voices, for non-Galicians writing in Galicia, and for everything else that unsettles the institution.

Needless to say, this new conception corresponds to the ideology of contemporary literary and cultural scholarship itself, with its hunger for everything liminal, interstitial, deterritorialized, trans-, post-, and inter-. Galician studies would not even exist in the first place without the first impulse to institutionalize and canonize. It is the product of nationalism. The search for a more critical approach within this field, then, cannot really go so far as to dissolve the field itself as an object of study.


Within exceptionalist thought, the norm is at once the obscure object of desire and fearsome specter of an Institution and a Canon. It is Galician, Catalan, and Basque nationalism that is putting extraordinary pressure on "Hispanic" studies from one direction. The other pressure comes from the internal contradictions of the field. The critique comes from Resina, from the angle of Catalan nationalism, from Silver, with his commitment to the Basques, and internally from people like Elena Delgado, etc... A third area of pressure is from Latin America, which is also part of the field but exposes the field's internalized colonialism. Let me add that I think that this pressure on Hispanism is almost entirely a good thing. Not that I agree with every individual position taken, but that a more critical attitude is needed in general. Where my question arises is how far a critique can go without threatening the institution from which we derive our own paychecks.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


By making exceptionalist argument appealing to heterodoxy, Spanish nationalism opens itself up to challenges from peripheral nationalisms.

This isn't quite right yet. The centralist argument appeals more to orthodoxies.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Something else painfully obvious

The reason the discourse of exceptionality is powerful is that it reinforces the general mindset of literary humanists, the taste for everything counter-hegemonic. Even if exceptionalist discourse is hegemonic within academia, it must be seen as alternative.

I shouldn't be misconstrued here as advocating against the alternative and counter-hegemonic. After all, I am one of the tribe.


González Echevarría starts Celestina's Brood by saying it (La Celestina) is the most suppressed classic in the Spanish canon. That automatically gives him some "points." If it is suppressed, then it must be dangerous and radical. Furthermore, the critic who makes this argument benefits from the mystique or romance of un-supression, uncovering the repressed, and being dangerous and radical himself. (Right now I'm at the stage of figuring out how these arguments work, not with deciding whether I agree with any particular one.)

Later on, he says that Spanish-language writers like Rojas are radical, but that the theorists are not. Spain has no Bataille... I could also collect all the quotations where Spain doesn't have something (enlightenment, modernity, progress, theory). The collection of quotes would basically give me the answers I need. My MLA talk is already too long! Help!

Monday, March 18, 2013

How to cook without a recipe

Your list should consist of mostly things from the produce aisle. Nothing should be in a can or jar except some oil, mustard, or honey, things like that. Olives maybe. Then you can get some spices and herbs, enough for a variety of flavors. It's good to have a little bit of frozen vegetables so you can add them to dishes.

You should have some good quality cheeses, some eggs, and some pasta, and some beer and wine.

You can buy pieces of poultry, meat, or fish to cook for a protein source.

What I usually do then is just roast some vegetables together in the pan you would use to make lasagna. Just cut up whatever you have and cook it drizzled with some olive oil and spices. So usually it's whole cloves of garlic, smallish potatoes, brussel-sprouts, carrots, and peppers of various kinds.

A piece of fish can just go in the oven with some lemon juice or paprika sprinkled on it. I'll make a sauce with some wine or beer for a pork chop, which I cook on my grill pan or grill outside if it's warm.

Salads needs something green, and then grilled asparagus, or some avocado, cheese, and olives. Maybe nuts. The dressing is just olive oil, something acidic like vinegar or lime juice, and whatever fresh or dried herbs you want.

A soup is just a good stock and some vegetables. Stews are similar but with less liquid. For pasta, you just need to sauté some things in a pan and toss it with the pasta. For a stir fry you need small pieces of meat or tofu, and vegetables. An omelet is eggs and whatever you want to put into it.

The basic knowledge you need is how long things need to cook, and what things taste like. You want to bring out the natural flavors of the food, but also season with garlic, salt, acidic things like citrus juices, hot peppers to taste, and other spice / herb flavors. Even frozen corn taste good if sautéed in olive oil with garlic, cilantro, and hot peppers, then topped with parmesan cheese. Imagine that with a salmon filet baked in the oven with lemon and paprika, and a baked potato. It takes less than five minutes to put that in the oven, and then you can make your corn when everything is baked. I am extremely fast in the kitchen.

The Market and Art

I was reading an interview between Tàpies and Valente. Valente talks about the drawbacks of the marketplace and the painter answer that he doesn't think the market is all that bad. Otherwise, it would be only "políticos y funcionarios" who decided on the value of art. Of course, the difference is that a painter of that much prestige can make a significant amount of money from art. A poet can not. Tàpies goes on to say that owning art privately is not a bad thing, because the owner can derive therapeutic benefits from such a talismanic object. It would be quite nice to have a talismanic Tàpies at home for my spiritual benefit!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

My Tribe

My tribe likes things hybridized, mixed, liminal, radical, impure. Contradictory, paradoxical, heterodox, ironic, figurative, tropological, queer. We like exiles and diasporas, translations, transculturations, all things transatlantic, transgender, transnational. Everything starting with inter-, trans- or post- . Everything modern, postmodern, and "cultural." Confluences and complex negotiations. All things ambiguous, ambivalent, indeterminant. Everything anachronistic or out of place, intersticial, interdisciplinary, performative, diverse, different, other, eccentric, or subversive, peripheral or marginal, or problematic. (Though sometimes we call what we don't like problematic too.) We like slippages and aporias, transgressions, and borders. Have I left anything out?

Nothing unitary, monolithic, canonical, hegemonic, orthodox, simplistic, conventional, or typical can be interesting, only exceptions to the rule. Since everything we study is exceptional, we live in a weird world-in-reverse. Every non-canonical work has been repressed by the hegemonic system of which, obviously, we play no part, except when we are "complicit" in spite of ourselves. Yet every canonical work subverts the conditions of its own understanding if we read it "against the grain," as we inevitably do.

Of course, the biggest enemy is the academy itself, which represses our original ways of thinking, even though all the other academics seemingly share our exact taste for all things hybrid and liminal.

This is the tribe of academic literary critics. If you want to join I suggest you adopt this mentality. Please keep your sense of humor about it, though.

[moving to the front since I've added a few more buzz words to the post.]

The Theoretical Reading

The application of theory can make you "dumber," in the sense that you will only notice what the theory has told you to notice. That's my main objection about some standard uses of theory. Theory will be productive when it makes you notice things you wouldn't have otherwise. That's what we think of as the "creative" use of theory. The creative user of theory will notice how text rebels against prefabricated "approaches."

You could make two columns, on the left everything you notice in the text that supports your particular "reading" based on Barthes, or Foucault, or Gramsci. In the right-hand column you could list everything that is bizarre and doesn't fit any ready-made theoretical construct. That would be the "anti-matter" of theory.

It is said that if you don't have theory, you will be relying on an unstated theory, unreflectively. That is true. Not having a theory or not having theory will not make you into a creative reader! In fact, you are likely to have very dull ideas, in the same way that someone who knows nothing of poetry is likely to write a poem about flowers that rhymes.

“Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost"

That quote from Henry James is one I knew, first, from John Ashbery. At the most basic level, what I do as a literary is notice things that other people haven't noticed, and put those things together into a new narrative. Discovering things that exist, but putting them together in a way that is fictional, in the sense of being constructed.
The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it — this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, "Write from experience, and experience only," I should feel that this was a rather tantalizing admonition if I were not careful immediately to add, "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!"
You can point someone to something that really happened, and say, look, that is the truth. But if we are talking about social relation or man-made things in general, then that is a truth "to somebody" / "for somebody." Some detail that is not lost on me, but somebody else doesn't notice that because there is nothing there in that detail for the other person.


Suppose I see a friend of mine talking to a woman in a bar. I am wondering whether she is interested in him or not. My particular friend is not gay, but would come across as gay to most people. There is a short story here, and the "detail" would be something that catches my attention but maybe not everyone else's. If it were Proust or James, then you would discover that, of course, my friend really is gay after all. I could wonder (a) does he know he comes off like that? (b) If so, does he care? Maybe that is his secret with women? (c) Maybe he is gay, knows it, knows he comes off like that - but then why does he pursue women?


I used to wonder why the farmers thought they had to get up an hour earlier to milk their cows because of dst. Surely the cows wouldn't know that the clocks had been changed. Daylight savings time has no effect on the movement of the earth or the length of the daylight hours, it is just a social convention to call what is "really" 7 a.m., 8 a.m.. And I say really because, really, it is a human invention to divide the day into 24 segments, and to locate the middles or beginnings of those segments according to the rotation of the earth. There is only a true "noon," or point equidistant from sundown and sunup, at the middle of a given time zone anyway.

Hawthorn / Kafka / Borges

When Borges summarizes some plots from Hawthorne, he makes them sound almost as though they were written by Kafka. He doesn't make this particular connection in this article, but I can make it because I've also read his essay on Kafka's precursors, where he makes the point that several texts bearing no relation to one another all seem to prefigure Kafka's writing. Therefore the only connection between these various texts emerges later, in Kafka, and literary history is retrospective, created by the present to explain the past. This is the same insight as Annette Kolodny's that "literary history (and hence the historicity of literature) is a fiction." I can relate this to Gadamer's hermeneutics, putting this all together.

When I compare to things by relating them to a third, I am constructing what we might call the hermeneutic triangle. I am the fourth element in this relationship, and then if I communicate it to someone else, there are five elements. It is easy to see after a while that there is an degree of variability or chance at each step of the way. For example, someone else might not see Kafka in Borges's Hawthorne, but would draw other connections. Someone else might not agree with my reading of Borges.


I've always thought "Pierre Menard" has been interpreted rather badly. Standard interpretation depend on the notion that Cervantes's original text is a simplistic reflection of conventional ideas of its time. We know this is not Borges's actual view, if we've read "Magias parciales del Quijote." The Quijote, like Hawthorne perhaps, is already modernist before Menard's rewriting. Many interpreters also pass over the weird, antisemitic narrator of the story, and other devices that severely undercut the authority of the narrative voice. Nobody has noticed that Menard's other writings, many of them having to do with Paul Valery, are almost as fascinating as his rewriting of DQ. Here is another hermeneutic five-part relation, in reverse it would be: You, Mayhew, Borges (Menard?), Valery, Cervantes.

Friday, March 15, 2013

What is Context?

Seriously, I want to know this. Context could be sort of a general what's-in-the-air sort of thing. So it is significant, contextually, that Lorca would have been performed with Brecht and Stein in 1951. Or is context a stronger thing, a general interpretive framework that provides a strong hermeneutics for understanding what is going on? Like the cliché "nothing occurs in a vacuum" that I will scream if I see in another scholarly paper. You might have to accumulate a lot of the ambient kind of context in a thick description in order to make a stronger determinative statement about "context." A choice of context is a choice of interpretative framework. I can pull three or four out of a million things in the air and say that that is the context.

It helps when there is a dictatorship. For example, if there is a dictatorship, then that becomes the horizon of interpretation almost automatically. Franco Spain is Franco's. There are other big contextual constructs like that, the counter-reformation, for example.

Dialogue of the Mannequin and the Young Man

I read in a book on the Living Theatre that there was a performance of a play with this name by Lorca in 1951 in someone's apartment. Of course, my immediate reaction is that there is no such play. Apocryphal Lorca again! I'm guessing this is a fragment from Así que pasen cinco años.

For context, the same night saw performances of plays by Paul Goodman, Gertrude Stein, and Brecht. (Biner, The Living Theatre, 26).


Do you want to be taught math by a mathematician, in other words, by someone actually engaged in doing math, or by a math teacher? Do you want to be taught poetry writing by a poet, or by a teacher of poetry who has read a textbook on teaching Creative Writing? Do you want to learn history from someone who does historical research, who is engaged in finding out answers to the kind of questions historians ask, or by someone who has learned enough history to teach it at a lower level?

Are these all the same question? Does the level of the class matter? Your reason for studying the material? At what point does pedagogical expertise become less important than knowledge of the subject matter? If ever?

Is there a fundamental difference between high school and university instruction? Could we introduce the university ideal at a lower level of instruction, so that the student would care what the quality of mind is in a high school teacher? Or is this kind of concern going to be increasingly rare even in the university, where you don't start caring about that until the first two years of "developmental" education are done with? If we cease caring about the quality of mind in the instructor, then will this eventually become the norm even in graduate education? After all, there we are training instructors, and those instructors need only know enough of the subject matter to transmit it to the next generation efficiently and unambiguously?!? @#%^^#@^^%@#%!!!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Chalk and Talk

I learned the phrase chalk and talk from Thomas's blog. The idea is that you don't need much more than some human beings in the same place talking, and some kind of chalkboard or dry erase board to convey the spelling of a proper name once in a while. I found it interesting that the dictionary definition, and some other links I found, used it in derogatory way. The beauty of this approach is that it is simple. No bullshit theory about learning styles, how some people need to be tapping their foot when learning. Just the primary text, some human beings, and a place where they can meet together.

Even the way I use blogging is chalk and talk. It is must me, talking through my keyboard, and some people reading what I wrote. I'll put up an image only when I need to or feel like it. Powerpoint is nothing more than chalk and talk with some images and special effects added, and the text done ahead of time. I'm sure it's useful it you want a legible form of a mathematical equation, or are teaching art history. The same way a music professor needs a piano in the room and / or a way to play recorded music. There is no reason, however, for denigrating traditional chalk and talk methods of teaching. Socrates probably didn't even need chalk.


As much as I am suspicious of exceptionalism, appeals to normality are far worse. García Montero's "poetry for normal people,"* for example. So I am caught in between. Normality implies a norm, an ideological standard.

I am collecting statement about exceptionality. Here is one:
Nada más insidioso que nuestra pretensión de normalidad lograda, esta ficción de que esamos ya insertos en una cultura. No permite alabar al que ha sido excepcional, pues lo primero en la alabanza ha de consistir en decir que lo ha sido, y que por lo tanto no es parte de la normalidad que fingimos. Y no permite criticarle, ya que el sueño de la normalidad cultural es tan precario que no puede prescindir de elemento alguno ni aun durante el plazo ideal de la necesaria epojé cultural.
Carlos Piera, Contrariedades del sujeto 119.
In other words, if Spanish cultural pretends to be normal, it cannot recognize anything truly excellent because that gives the whole game away.


*Normal people don't read poetry, even normal academics. Reading an entire book of poetry is weird even for a graduate student in Spanish literature.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Don't be Afraid of Doing Things Really Well

We all hear of the dangers of perfectionism. You are just supposed to get your stuff out. There is a problem, though, with never having the feeling of having done something really well, of having gotten a piece of writing to the point where it hums along flawlessly. If you haven't done that at least once, then you won't know what if feels like and won't be able to reproduce that feeling again. I admit there have been times when I felt less fussy about style, but the times when I paid more attention to writing (most of the time) made me a better writer and carried me through those other periods. What I consider my badly written pieces are still better than a lot of yours are. There is no such thing as writing too well. I cringe when I find a bad sentence I have written in a published book review or article.

Some people's writing seems overly fussy. That probably is a good thing, for that sort of person. As a reader you understand the ethos of care for writing that went into that sort of style, and the results are unlikely to be bad. I would rather be eloquent but looser, taking a few risks, but, once again, that's a personal preference, an expression of my particular ethos of style. I could even go back and make sure I have at least one swear word, one preposition at the end of a sentence, and one sentence fragment in something I wrote. I'd rather use and interesting word when I want to, at the expense of smoothness. The blog lets me write in a fun way, with some eloquence, I hope, but with less fussiness.

A talk you probably missed

in Iowa City last week.

Alter Ego

The other Jonathan Mayhew is a Dublin artist. You can see a work based on Wittgenstein's aphorism, "The limits of your language are the limits of your world." We share the same name and a taste for Wittgenstein, among other things. He is my facebook friend and he recently asked me about Lorca so I could tell him to google himself and Lorca.

Of course, there is also this one. Most of my google scholar alerts lead back to him.

Canon / Federico García Márquez

It was a revelation to my students that most non-canonical works are not written by women or working class people, or racial minorities. Most of the non-canon is simply not canonical for no particularly socially or politically relevant reason. To study the non-canon, in fact, you have to make an argument for the value or interest of the material, usually on social, political, or "cultural" grounds.

It is hard to make an argument for Cozzens or Auchincloss, or Anthony Powell. It's not sexy like mass culture is (Madonna in her day). The "mid-list" is non-canonical because it is neither high prestige high modern stuff, or subversive counter-culture, or trendy in any way.


It struck me that the duende is the same as "magical realism." In other words, the key to Hispanic Culture for the English Department. We might make the composite figure Federico García Márquez or Gabriel García Lorca to explain this convergence. (I was reading Sylvia Molloy's article in Moraña's Ideologies of Hispanism).

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Primates or Cardinals?

If you had to join a religion, would you rather have it ruled by cardinals or primates?

Book Idea

I want to write a book that ranges over a lot of texts in the Hispanic tradition, kind of like Celestina's Brood. I think I do have that kind of mind, but have not had the self-confidence in my erudition to wander that far. Anyway, they would be things I've thought about a lot, not the sort of diletantish work that I despise. The only question is whether I want to make it about Anglo-American / Spanish comparatism or not. Once I formulate the question, though, it is obvious what I have to do.


I'm going to be spending a lot of Spring break in the library, or with library books. The paradox of the library is that you can get out 8 books and find that only a chapter or two in one or two of them is really what you need. A lot of what seemed relevant to you from a distance is not really relevant when the book is on hand. This is easily seen when you realize that all these books and articles are in order to write a 30 page chapter.

The part that's not relevant, though, provides a context. Learning extra things you don't have to learn to write a particular chapter could be useful in the future.

I am getting books on the history and theory of Hispanism, mostly. Hispanism is my own discipline, but sometimes I go through periods in which I hardly think of it from the metacritical point of view.

There is a moment when the reform of Hispanism seemed to be coming from French theory. That was about '90 give or take five years on either side. Hispanism can be critiqued on racial, class, gender, and nationalistic lines. It has its own ideologies and internal contradictions.

High and Low

The breakdown of cultural hierarchies known as "postmodernism" is often seen in a simplistic way. After all, just being open to the value of pop culture does nothing to break down the difference. Only someone steeped already in high culture can even merge the two in a significant way, so the cheap anti-elitism is not really what it's all about. The standard way of thinking about it is as a kind of dignification of the popular, but then that implies it needs dignity it doesn't already have. It gains that dignity, presumably, by being in the company of something more dignified. Hence the hierarchy remains intact. Even to have a shock value of Mickey Mouse meets Dante you have to have a sense that they belong to different worlds.

So the real story here might be something different from what we have been told. I think it might involve the missing category of the middle-brow. For someone like me, the existence of Billy Collins is more of an affront than the success of the latest pop sensation. Everyone more or less enjoys some forms of popular or mass culture, or at least has stopped caring that someone else enjoys it. A sixty-year old today was born in 1953 so you would have to be a generation older not to have grown up on rock.

The literature that's survived from the 1950s is not Auchincloss but Kerouac.


Cultural studies and postmodernism are two names for the breaking of hierarchy. Postmodernism is a label what the artists themselves do; cultural studies is the academic study of mass culture. I reject call "poststructuralism" "postmdernism." That is a social science terminology.


Philip Auslander's 1989 book on New York School Poets as playwrights is turning out to be very useful. I'm not crazy about plays not written by poets, and Auslander makes the convincing case that this is the first "postmodern" theater in America. This is exactly the transitional moment from late modernism to pop art that interests me. What makes this theater great is convergence of visual art, music, and poetry. The acting seems to have been the weak link in some cases.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Lorca's description of his work

Un libro antipintoresco, antifolklórico, antiflamenco. Donde no hay ni una chaquetilla corta ni un traje de torero, ni un sombrero plano ni una pandereta, donde las figuras sirven a fondos milenarios y donde no hay más que un solo personaje grande y oscuro como un cielo de estío, un solo personaje que es la Pena que se filtra en el tuétano de los huesos y en la savia de los árboles, y que no tiene nada que ver con la melancolía ni con la nostalgia ni con ninguna aflicción o dolencia de ánimo, que es un sentimiento más celeste que terrestre; pena andaluza que es una lucha de la inteligencia amorosa con el misterio que la rodea y no puede comprender.

I want to fight against this, a little. This is how Lorca wanted his Gypsy Ballads to be presented. It is an anti-Flamenco book. But that is not how the book has ever been received.


An ur-proverb would be a proverb that underlies many others. It would be the most abstract formulation of an idea found in many other proverbs.

Pathei mathos: Learning comes from suffering. (La letra, con la sangre entra.)

The ideology of proverbs is cynical conservatism. Powerful people will exercise their power. You will be judged by the company you keep. Older people know more than younger people do. You will suffer if you don't follow the customs of people where you are. Friends are likely to betray you. Any part of this folk wisdom will be an ur-proverb.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Monty Hall Problem

In the car today, I figured out that the Monty Hall Problem is correct. Obviously it is correct, but what I mean is that I figured it out for myself. I had never really believed it myself, even though I knew people smarter than I had figured it out.

Suppose you ask someone to choose between a, b, and c. They have a one third chance to choose correctly. Now, suppose a is the correct answer, you reveal that one of the incorrect answers they haven't chosen is, in fact, incorrect. (So if they choose a, you say that b or c is incorrect. If they choose b, you say that c is incorrect. If they choose c, you tell them that b is incorrect and let them guess again.)

Should they, at this point, change their answer? They have a one third chance of having correctly guessed a in the first place. So people who do not switch at this point have a one third chance of getting the right answer. People who have already chosen a wrong answer, though, will automatically win by choosing the other example. So 2/3 of people who switch will get the right answer.

In other words, you should switch on the assumption that you are more likely to be in the 2/3 of people in the same situation who guessed wrong than in the 1/3 who guessed right. You are exactly twice as likely to be in that position.

This is counter-intuitive to a lot of people, including me, before today. It seems that eliminating one possibility makes it a 50/50 guess. Since you've already made a guess, switching back doesn't seem to improve your chances. After all, you had no reason to prefer a to b or b to c before one of these possibilities was eliminated.

I found a way of making it much clearer, though.

Suppose you ask someone to guess a number between one and ten, a number you have already written on a piece of paper. They guess the number, and you tell them that it is either the number they have guessed, or "6." Should they change their guess at this point? (What you have done is thrown out 8 of the remaining wrong answers. If they guessed right, you throw out 8 numbers. If they guessed wrong, then you throw out 8 numbers. 6 is either the right answer or the one wrong answer you didn't toss out.) If they guessed right the first time, then switching to 6 will make them lose. But if they were wrong, then 6 is necessarily the right answer. So not switching their answer gives them a 10% chance of winning, and switching gives them 90%.

The numbers are different, but the logic is the same as in the Monty Hall problem. It is just easier to see when the numbers create an even less advantageous position for the person who doesn't want to switch.

Saturday, March 9, 2013


On the plane yesterday I got an idea for an article on Montejo. You could study his heterónimos as a kind of displacement of an avant-garde impulse. Montejo is a kind of mainstream post-vanguard poet, all about Essential Human Experience. He is very good but not particularly exciting.

So he shoves all of his avant-garde ideas into these other poetic voices, some of which are not avant-garde per se, but all of whom are different from Montejo-Montejo. The radical theories of language of Coll Blas.

Naturally you would compare the Venezuelan poet to Pessoa and Machado.

So you can have this idea if you want. I don't have time to write it. I would only ask that you say in the article that part of the inspiration for it came from me.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Translation

Here's a free translation of a Vallejo poem that I saw on The Coldhearted Scientist's blog last month. It is the last poem in Trilce.
So much hail falls, that I think
to multiply the pearls
gathered from the very jaws of
every storm.

Don't even think of letting this rain dry up!
Unless it could be given to me to
fall for it, or they buried me
wet from the water bubbling up
from every fire.

How far will the rain follow me?
I'm afraid one flank will still be dry,
that it will leave me without having tested me
in the droughts of its awesome vocal cords
which for harmony always make us rise, not fall!
And aren't we always rising down?

Sing, rain, sing, in this still sea-less coast.
I didn't look at any other translation to see what Eshleman did with it or anyone else. I wanted to get some of that awkwardness that Vallejo perfected, but not be too awkward either. It would be easy to "improve" the poem in translating it, in a kind dumb way.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

It gets even better

Strayhorn's incidental music for Don Perlimplín is called "Sprite music." The sprites in Lorca's play are called "duendes" in the original play. But they bear no relation to Lorca's "theory of the duende." They are just "sprites" here. Magical little creatures. Strayhorn's music here is not jazz. It is more like Debussy than anything else.

The sets for this production were done by Alfred Leslie, a 2nd generation New York School painter.

There are multiple cultural worlds colliding in this production of Lorca's play. Strayhorn's two biographers call the play "surrealist" (not really). It is set in the 18th century; it is a farce, but with delicate poetry. It draws on the theme of cuckolded husband, traditional in Golden Age drama. (Think Cervantes's "El viejo celoso.")

The actors performing the play were black vaudevillians. I don't know that White Vaudeville performers would have done it better.

John Bernard Myers, the art dealer and companion of the director Herbert Machiz, calls them "beautiful blackamoors."

A translation of the play came out a few years later, in a book edited by Eric Bentley.

The critics did not appreciate the play.

The whole anecdote has a "surreal" quality to it. If you invented such a thing for a novel nobody would find it believable. It is marvelous but a dead end. It is tailor-made for Mayhew, though he missed it the first time around.

Alien Tatters

Every time I think of or start re-reading Alien Tatters by Clark Coolidge the central conceit of a science-fiction novel I want to write pops into my head. This is funny because otherwise I have no active interest in this genre or in practicing it myself. The plot just occurred to me once as I read Coolidge, whose book of poetry is vaguely evocative of the feeling I would want to create in the book.

The idea is that the aliens are present off in the woods somewhere but are never actually seen. So the entire mode of narration tries to explain what has happened, but in a very indirect way. The narrator realizes that something has happened when he notices the children of the small city at the edge of the woods are speaking another language when they think the adults are not listening. The infiltration is gradual and insidious, manifested by the idea that certain zones of the city and nearby areas have become inexplicably menacing, or subject to sudden unexplained fluctuations in temperature and humidity. The effect is also felt by changes of rhythm, for example, in people being suddenly unable to walk rhythmically by alternating their two legs. Gradually, the new reality is accepted, when the aliens have essentially taken over. Each chapter will become progressively less "human" and more in the voice of the aliens themselves. The entire book is an allegory of alterity and the passage of time. I will call it Alien Tatters, of course.

I'm quite confident that this novel will be brilliant. I know I can write it and it will be altogether free from all science-fictiony stuff. Nevertheless, the odds are heavily against me getting around to writing it, even though the minute I start to think of it I am flooded with new ideas.

Literary History is a Fiction (Lecture Notes)

Literary history (and with that, the historicity of literature) is a fiction. That's from Annette Kolodny's famous essay "Dancing Through the Minefield."

A field itself is a fictional way of segmenting reality. Take Spanish literature. Please, take it.

It could be the literature of a nation state, Spain.

You could study Spanish literature as part of "Romance philology," European Studies, Comparative Literature, Mediterranean Studies, Hispanic Studies, world literature, Transatlantic studies, Iberian studies; or you could segment it into Andalusian studies, Castilla / León studies... You could see Catalan studies as part of a larger Iberian studies, or as part of European or Mediterranean studies.

You study it segments of it as part of women's literature, the history of drama. You would usually segment it into time periods, like medieval, early modern, twentieth century...

You could argue why some of these frames are more useful or fruitful or interesting or politically justified than others. Why study Spain apart from Portugal when you could study Iberian studies as an organic whole? Why separate the study of Spain from that of Latin America? Why take Arabic Spain as a separate object of study from Christian Spain? What you can't argue, I think, is that any of these options is simply "given" or inevitable. You can take geographical unity or proximity, language, genre, gender, or anything else as the criterion for marking the boundary of a field.

That's even without problematizing the notion of literature and culture themselves.

Latin American and Spanish American studies has the advantage of already including more than one nation state and region. So the nation and state are significant (Hugo Chavez has just died.) But only very specialized courses in the US are devoted just to Venezuela, or Mexico, or Argentina. Between Latin American and Spanish American, the only difference is whether Brazil is included or excluded. So here are two contiguous or overlapping fields.

So where does history come in? I believe the historicity of literature is more than a fiction. Kolodny is imprecise in her wording. What is historical, though, is the way in which literary history has been written. In other words, it should be possible to write a rigorous history of such fictions.

Translation Studies

Translation is a kind of weird thing to study. The issues are large, and it can be extremely interesting, but then you always have to bother with the actual words on the page, and the sometimes seemingly trivial issues those words bring out. A major translation can fail simply because of a pattern of slip-ups in the construal of the original text. The underlying issue of translation theory translation are hermeneutic, but you have to keep an eye on linguistic issues.

This is both an advantage and a disadvantage.

I find it weird, too, to focus on the status or dignity of translators as part of translation studies, as Venuti does.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Sometimes I think I have come up with a new idea and then a little while later I remember that I wrote about it in a book published 4 years ago, or an article from 20 years back. For example, I just remembered that I had critiqued national stereotypes in Apocryphal Lorca too. Sometimes the trick is not just thinking of the idea but re-remembering it and developing its full scope later on.


Really smart, well-educated Spaniards have deployed stupid stereotypes when dealing with me, like cowboys, or Indian reservations. That is helpful because then I am reminded being smart doesn't prevent you from reaching for the closest stereotype. I'm reminded of David Brooks who defends his work by saying, look, it "rings true," in other words, it resonates with one's internalized but ideologically based notions of reality. We can imagine a world populated by methodical Swiss, sensual but rationalist Frenchmen, alcoholic Irish cops, drawling Southerners, violent and noble Gauchos, passionate Latins, laconic New Englanders, understated British with "stiff upper lips," and so on. Even if these ideas "ring true" and are confirmed by experience from time to time they are still false and dangerous.


The usual response to a stereotype is that it is untrue or not verified empirically. That is not really the problem though. Or only part of it. Unsophisticated students love to study stereotypes, for example. The real problem lies elsewhere, in their ability to monopolize whole swaths of discourse around just about everything. Everyone knows they are false, that is an "open secret," but then the same people often come back and affirm the stereotype's essential truth. "Well, most stereotypes are false, but this one rings true." You can be a very sophisticated thinker and still come back thinking "typologically."


From a review of some translations of Neruda and Vallejo in the 70s. The reviewer is Hays, himself a pioneering translator:
We can speculate on why writers from the "underdeveloped" countries of the south seem to be capable of more sweep and passion than those of the states. The chief difference in our environments is technology. Our colleagues of the south remain closer to the jungle, the snowtopped peaks, the untamed rivers and the pampas than we. It appears we suffer from the castrating effect of our packaged civilization and even our emotions are in danger of being wrapped in cellophane.
Closer to the jungle and untamed rivers. I am not making this up. This is not even ironical.


I try to avoid boilerplate like "significant contribution to the field" or "as I have argued elsewhere." But on some level it is useful to be able to draw on phrases like this. If someone didn't know the boilerplate in the first place, sh/e would be at a significant disadvantage, not knowing how to say basic things that need to be said in the most easy and efficient way. You also need boilerplate argumentative moves, like distinguishing between the stronger and weaker versions of a claim. You can refute a lot of claims by showing that the strong version leads to unintended or absurd consequences, but that the weaker version is insipid and doesn't tell you anything useful.

So when I teach grad students, I try to get them to do the basic things they need to be able to do. For my own work, I try to get to a super-refined version of scholarship.

A Way Of Talking To One Another

Everyone has their own pet ideas and fetishes. Cada loco con su tema. Different Strokes for different folks. To each his own. One man's meat is another man's poison. De gustibus non est disputandum. There is an ur-Proverb that goes like this: "People are different from one another." Another ur-Proverb is "You are to be defined by the people you are with." Arrímate a los buenos y serás uno de ellos. Birds of a feather flock together. No con quien naces sino con quien paces. So put them together and you will have groups of people thinking in different ways but in groups of like-minded folks.

My emphasis on metanarratives is a way of placing people's particular obsessions in contact with one another. It helps that metanarratives are all about how one thing is different from something else, but that structurally they obey certain laws.

You'd expect modernization to run rough-shod over national differences. Indeed. Yet these national differences are themselves the product of a modern discourse, as well as a reaction to modernization.

Más metarrelatos

One thing I like doing is seeing what the metanarrative of my own career is all about. I guess I can afford that amount of navel-gazing because I have written a lot, been around for long enough, but still have a ways to go, assuming I want to retire in 15 years. That is two more "tenure cycles" more or less. That means I can write a few more books after the one I am on now. I have to think hard about what I really want to accomplish.

Anyway, the narrative of my book The Twilight of the Avant-Garde was the paradoxical survival of late modernism. Now I am thinking in a slightly different way about this because of my interest in the rhetoric of national exceptionality. Late modernism draws on this rhetoric quite heavily, so I am torn between my sympathy for the poetry itself and my suspicion of the narratives that justify it. Take Valente: no other poet works harder to inscribe himself in an aspirational narrative of triumphant modernity, looking Janus-faced toward "Europe" and toward Spanish mysticism--a Spanish mysticism interpreted syncretically in relation to Islam, Judaism, and zen.


Eco famously defined ur-Fascism in terms of a syncretistic "cult of tradition." New Age thought is implicitly Fascistic, then? That's what he says:
This new culture had to be syncretistic. Syncretism is not only, as the dictionary says, "the combination of different forms of belief or practice;" such a combination must tolerate contradictions. Each of the original messages contains a sliver of wisdom, and although they seem to say different or incompatible things, they all are nevertheless alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth.

As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth already has been spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.

If you browse in the shelves that, in American bookstores, are labeled New Age, you can find there even Saint Augustine, who, as far as I know, was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge -- that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.

Then almost everyone I know is an Ur-Fascist. Not that everyone is into everything New Age, but that generally there is a tolerance for just about everything, without much concern for the contradictions. This is just middlebrow multi-cultural college-town America, now. I associate our current American-exceptionalist Fascism more with born-again Christians who brook no tolerance for contradiction.

But anyway, Umberto Eco's remarks are a useful reminder of how cultural exceptionalisms (whether ur-Fascist or not, leaving that as a debatable point) are not incompatible with religious syncretism. Look at Lezama Lima. I was surprised by my first Grad course on American modernism when the professor, a Jungian, emphasized all the occult crap that modernists were into. H.D., Yeats, and even Pound. Surely that was the most embarrassing aspect of modernism, one that I felt should be swept under the rug. Now I see things differently. Not that I respect it any more than I did, but that now I see why it might have been necessary--and interesting to study.

Of course, the American exceptionalism of Williams or Ginsberg did not prevent them from identifying with the Spanish exceptionalism of Lorca. That was one of my main insights in Apocryphal Lorca. I also talked about "multi-cultural" Lorca. Now multiculturalism is also ur-Fascist, if we believe the author of The Name of the Rose. Exceptionalists are more likely to "respect" other forms of exceptionalism or Völkisch thought.

So aside from its anti-rationalist side, why is spiritual syncretism ur-Fascist?

Monday, March 4, 2013

1st two paragraphs of MLA talk

I learned Spanish in order to read the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Vicente Aleixandre, and Federico García Lorca. It was the late 1970s, and news of the Nobel prizes for Neruda and Aleixandre was still fresh. Every literary magazine seemed to contain translations from the Spanish. I was surprised, then, when I began to read criticism in the field as a graduate student, by books like Philip Silver’s La casa de Anteo. The implicit (or explicit) narrative of much criticism of modern Spanish literature and culture seemed to be a negative one. In Silver’s case, the central hypothesis was that poets like Aleixandre represented the maximum degree of “lo anteico,” or a lack of theoretical self-consciousness.

What gave this assertion its power and authority was the sophistication and prestige of the theoretical ideas behind it, taken from accounts of romanticism by Abrams and de Man. At the same time, this perspective did not resonate either with my own sense of the Spanish tradition or with my understanding of literary theory and history. Many years after beginning my study of the Spanish language, I continue to work through this cognitive dissonance. I now see in such narratives one of the distinctive meta-récits of Hispanism: the idea of the deficient modernity of the Spanish tradition. Of course, it is almost tautological to affirm that the narrative of this field concerns the problematical cultural identity of Spain herself, since the very idea of studying a “national literature” arises in conjunction with nineteenth-century nationalism. As the Peruvian essayist Mariátegui puts it, “El ‘nacionalismo’ en la historiografía literaria, es [...] un fenómeno de la más pura raigambre política, extraño a la concepción estética del arte. Tiene su más vigorosa definición en Alemania, desde la obra de los Schlegel, que renueva profundamente la crítica y la historiografía literarias.”

Saturday, March 2, 2013


On the first place of my book on Lorca I wanted to suggest that the bibliography on Lorca was rather uneven, with much of it being downright bad. The word I came up with, which I meant to be a translation of the Spanish adjective "accidentado," was "erratic." I am still proud of having found the right word for this.


I was rather timidly suggesting in my MLA talk that just maybe the metanarrative of Hispanism in its peninsular variety was the distinctiveness of Spain herself. Then of course I was reminded on the Cold Hearted Scientist blog that the concept of a national literature arises with nationalism itself. There could be no Hispanism in the first place without the idea of a Spanish national literature. Of course, you could have a Hispanism whose narrative was the Spain is no different from any other country. But what would be the fun of that? I suggest that such narratives would be motivated by the attempt to overcome exceptionalism, and thus be still in the same family. In fact, that is the Ortega y Gasset family narrative in El País in the 1980s. Look how European we are!

A little googling took me to the Peruvian writer Mariátegui:
El florecimiento de las literaturas nacionales coincide, en la historia de Occidente, con la afirmación política de la idea nacional. Forma parte del movimiento que, a través de la Reforma y el Renacimiento, creó los factores ideológicos y espirituales de la revolución liberal y del orden capitalista. La unidad de la cultura europea, mantenida durante el Medioevo por el latín y el Papado, se rompió a causa de la corriente nacionalista, que tuvo una de sus expresiones en la individualización nacional de las literaturas. El “nacionalismo” en la historiografía literaria, es por tanto un fenómeno de la más pura raigambre política, extraño a la concepción estética del arte. Tiene su más vigorosa definición en Alemania, desde la obra de los Schlegel, que renueva profundamente la crítica y la historiografía literarias.
I felt really kind of slow because of course I knew this. The claim I was making rather tentatively was a super-obvious one.

Friday, March 1, 2013

And yes, I begin my MLA paper

in March, even though the convention is in January. I think I should do it right after I turn in the abstract, so my ideas are still fresh in my mind. I will be laughing at people doing on December 25.

Narratives of Lack

I realized while writing my MLA paper that my own generation's narrative of Hispanic exceptionalism in the 80s and into 90s was that we needed to be more theoretical in the field to keep up with other fields. That is no longer the narrative. People no longer want to do "theory," but "cultural studies." That is the new object of desire.