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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Critical Thinking Exercise

There are more than 6,000 African-American homicide victims a year. That is a very, very high rate, of about 34. (Those rates are usually given in numbers per 100,000.) The overall rate for the US is about 4 per 100,000. A civilized country like Spain as 0.8 per 100,000. A very violent country like Venezuela has 53; Honduras is worse.

Police killings of African Americans are in the range of about 100 per year. So what percent is that of total homicides. Let's see... [does math in head]: 1% is 60, so 2%, rounding up a bit.

Since we don't want police to kill unarmed civilians at all, even one such person in this category is too much. We are outraged, justifiably. It is an abuse of state power, and that brings greater outrage, because it makes all of us complicit in the crime.

Most child abuse is not by the hand of priests. Yet we are more outraged by their abuse than by almost any other set of child abusers. Why is that? The church is supposed to be better than that. So outrage at those scandals is actually a back-handed form of respect: we respect those institutions implicitly, police or church, and hold them to a much higher standard. Suppose parents habitually dropped their 11-year old boys and girls off at pool halls or strip clubs and other places of ill-repute. Yes, you would pretty much condemn that as bad parenting. We expect the Catholic church to be better than a pool hall. It might actually be safer than the pool hall, but when it isn't our reaction is predictably stronger.

The conservative argument attempts to minimize the importance of police shootings by comparing them to the much vaster numbers of killings, the 98% that is not at the hand of the police. The typical liberal argument carries the false implication that the police are the main killers of black people. Both those narratives are really kind of dumb. We are right to be outraged by any abuse of state power, and it doesn't matter very much that this is only 2%. On the other hand, if our main concern is with the violent loss of human life, then the other 98% is also significant.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Who's Lying

Who's Lying?

Mestre --Citroneta azul


En una citroneta azul
haciendo sonar el claxon de la luna
voy de regreso al pueblo donde mis amigos
salen cada noche a esperar los ovnis.

Sueñan en el cielo las estrellas
y las fugaces sombras de las niñas muertas
elevan en los prados sus cometas
con recados para los platillos voladores.

Todo esto se podría decir de otra manera
si allá tras las cortinas del espacio
existiera el silabario, el colibrí, la esfera
del vagabundo aerolito de los pájaros.

Yo no espero otra luz que la tristeza
de quien regresa a una escuela abandonada
donde aletean todavía en la pizarra
las mariposas blancas de la melancolía.


In a blue Citroen
honking the horn of the moon
I'm going back to the village where my friends
go out every night to wait for UFOS.

The stars are dreaming in the sky
and the fleeting shades of dead girls
fly their kites in the meadows
with messages for the flying saucers.

I could say all of this a different way
if there behind the curtains of space
there were there the syllabary, the hummingbird, the sphere
of the vagabond meteorite of the birds.

The only light I hope for is the sadness
of someone returning to an abandoned schoolhouse
where the white butterflies of melancholy
still flutter on the chalkboard.

Even More on Salaita

Chancellor Wise of UIUC, and the board of trustees as well by implication, has said that the (de)hiring of Salaita was due to the manner in which he expressed himself, not the content of his political views. Clearly the university cannot say that it is the content of his speech, since that is protected under the 1st amendment and academic freedom. So the argument has to be that it is the way in which the message was framed. It is a violation of tone, or etiquette.

I think that Salaita would not have been de-hired if he had tweeted in a different tone, or avoided skating on the the edges of anti-Semitic discourse in an ambiguous way. After all, a lot of the existing faculty members at Illinois are pro-Palestinian.

Here's where it gets a little tricky. Universities cannot discriminate against viewpoints (theoretically). But they discriminate against people either, based on religion, race, et... So a willingness to skate on the edges of hate speech would make someone a difficult hire for any university. Of course, UIUC has employed a racist (allegedly). I think they could not have legally fired him, even though I would not trust him to treat non-white students fairly. If this individual were hired by a department and the chancellor got wind of his views before the board of trustees voted, would she intervene?

Racism, as a political view, is protected, but discrimination based on race is illegal.

So, in this sense, the decision to de-hire Salaita does depend on a parsing of his tweets for both tone and content. If the university lawyers can argue that his tweets are hate speech, and thus that he is likely to discriminate against students of a particular religion, then they might get a sympathetic hearing. The problem here: I myself, who abhor Israeli policy, saw his tweets as anti-Semitic. (I am anti Israeli and philo-Semitic.) I had to read and argue with others over the course of many days to even see why the other interpretation, the intended one, was likely. I got impatient with people who said that the intended meaning was somehow obvious. Since I think I'm pretty smart, you can see where equally and less smart individuals, or those motivated by malice, could, like me, need a lot of convincing to see that they are wrong.


The central analogy justifying Salaita's hire, and a lot of his own work. is that Palestinians and Indians are both indigenous in a parallel way, both the victims of "settler colonialism" in their respective situations. This analogy breaks down at some key points. For example, some Jews are also indigenous to Palestine. Others, Sephardic or Arab Jews, were kicked out of Arab countries (or left voluntarily, seeing the writing on the wall) after the founding of Israel. They are indigenous to Med. region, whether Morocco or Turkey, but not to Palestine / Israel, except by their distant ancestry of course.

We can see this as a reshuffling of populations in the wake of the dissolution of the Ottoman empire and the end of WWII. How does this compare to European colonization of the New World? Not very exactly. Where does this tie to classic discourses of anti-Semitism? The idea that Jews are not indigenous to anywhere, that they are rootless and cosmopolitan. Of course, this rootlessness stems from the fact that they were kicked out of everywhere. A Syrian Jew living in New York could probably trace her ancestry to Spain.

My final point here is that Anti-Semitism is a real thing. It's not just some cloak exploited by the Israeli govt to exempt itself from criticism (though it is also that). The emancipation of Jews happened relatively late in European history. People like Martin Luther were violently anti-Semitic, and this was not even seen as controversial until after the Holocaust. We're still trying to get a Facebook page on Jewish ritual murder taken down, under their own policy about hate speech.

Sunday, September 28, 2014


Jussives are indirect wishes or commands. Long live the queen, things like that.

Let's look at two controversial tweets:
The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.


You may be too refined to say it, but I'm not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.


Both make implicit reference to very recent acts of violence, a mass shooting in a Navy shipyard and the kidnapping and murder of three West Bank settler teenagers. Both take the form of wishing violence on a group of people (literally) but less literally, what they probably meant to say is something more like this:

"If NRA members' own children were victims of gun violence, maybe they would understand the effects of the policies they lobby for." [This is dumb anyway because many gun owners and NRA members already have dead children as a result of guns.]

"Those right-wing settlers are an awful obstacle to peace. They are taking over land that belongs to the Palestinians. They shouldn't be there in the first place so I'm going to save my compassion for the Gaza strip."

A jussive of this type is one step below a threat. It's something like an indirect threat. If you don't object to these utterances, then would you change your mind if it were something like "I wish a few more asshole abortion doctors would go missing" (after the murder of one of them)?

Of course, the intention of these tweets according to their authors (and defenders) is to make a political point in rhetorically strong and expletive deleted way. The argument is that nobody would take them as actual threats or incitements to violence, or sincere desires. Guth doesn't want anyone else to be shot, simply for more recognition of the consequences of gun violence. Salaita doesn't want every settler to be kidnapped and killed, but for the settlements to be dismantled, etc... The pro-life tweeter would say he just wants abortion to be illegal...

Because in their literal form such utterances are desires for more violence to occur, they stand at the very crossroads of where incivility (or mere rudeness, lack of social refinement) is separated from "fighting words." Where you draw the line, dear commentator? What I argue should be protected (as academic freedom) is different from what I personally respect as a form of utterance. I am pretty dogmatic both that all forms of expression should be protected, and that these particular tweets are vile. After all, this form of freedom only exists if it protects utterances that numerous people would object to.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Is Incivility a Good Thing?

We know that the ideal civility is (among other things) a tool of power. If an institution can enforce civility, then it is restricting speech by confusing the substance of the speech with the manner in which it expressed. It is "tone policing." It is also selective, in that some forms of "incivility" will be disapproved of, and others not.

Incivility is bad, we also know, when used by the more powerful against the less; when designed to intimidate, threaten, or harass. We also recognize that civility should be "normal," in the sense that it is the most frequently encountered attitude to take in one's everyday dealings with anyone in the university community.

We know incivility can be rhetorically effective or rhetorically ineffective. It depends. The same with civility itself. A rude come-back to an insult can be a zinger. An angry response can make you look foolish or merely angry. A very strong statement made in calm, polite way can be very effective. Humor can be effective too. I often get a laugh in a meeting even when I'm not trying to tell a joke.


Hyperbole and litotes can both be effective, rhetorically. Knowing when to use which is key. If you are known to use hyperbole than your words will be discounted by just that much. I will get the emotional truth of how you feel, but I won't take you literally.

You're so vain, you think this post is about you


Civility run amok

First, a blog post in which a philosopher states what her own conduct will be:
In particular, I will treat other philosophers more junior and/or professionally vulnerable than myself with respect.
I will make clear, in public, that in my opinion behaviour which does not meet the basic standards described in 1 is both unprofessional and unethical.
On its face, and explicitly in a disclaimer, this is entirely a statement about her own conduct:
For clarity: it’s not my intention here to suggest that these or similar pledges should be made by every philosopher. These are statements about my own intentions.
Of course (!!), this statement was seen as a direct attack on Brian Leiter. Leiter himself responded with a bizarre email to her.

Contextually, I guess Leiter is right. He is so notorious for being disrespectful, he must believe, that anyone setting a standard of respect for herself and herself alone must be automatically calling him out. For all I know, she was doing so, but for him to take the bait seems absurdly narcissistic. Does he think he's the only narcissistic bully in philosophy? If I had a post about my habit of not throwing kittens into rivers would I get attacked by kitten murderers? Wouldn't they just be outing themselves?

I do enjoy heated rhetoric. Pullum is one of my favorites. I have enjoyed Leiter's own attacks in the past when they were directed at deserving targets, though I always wondered whether the rumors of his bullying might be true.

See also here.

It's Not About You

Most things are not about you. It isn't raining to spoil your picnic or parade. It just happens to be raining. A large step in mental health is just to realize that only things about you are really about you. Even then, the incompetent waiter might affect you, but the reasons why he is doing what he is doing are not really about you, personally.

I care about how people perceive me, for pragmatic reasons. But I have somewhat overcome caring about how I am perceived for existential reasons. In other words, it is convenient to be perceived well, because it can bring advantages, but I don't need that approval to bolster my sense of self. I once did. As a consequence, I can just do what I need to do without worrying too much. Ironically, when I did worry in a more existential sense I often made pragmatic mistakes that caused me to be less well regarded.

Once you isolate the things that really are about you, then you have a smaller subset of things to worry about.

Pinker on academic style


Pinker cites one of my favorite books on writing, Clear and Simple as the Truth.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Negative Bias

Suppose you have a long academic career, publishing many articles, and having others rejected or given a "revise and resubmit." If twice in the your career you have really bad experiences with reviewers, and you have another subset of reviewers who are ok but mediocre, and you the rest of the time you have really insightful reviewers, what are you likely to remember most?

You will remember the really bad reviewers, who are least typical, the most often, because negative experiences are more salient. If a reviewer says my work is fine, and I get published, I don't even remember much later about what s/he said. It could be a bad reviewer, even, but I won't care.

There is a cognitive distortion in the direction of negativity, and this distortion seems reasonable to us in some cases. Suppose a murderer claims that the murder is very atypical of his overall behavior. In fact, if the murderer has killed one person, you could rightly say that there are thousands of days, or even tens of thousands of days, in which he did nothing of the kind. But you would reject this argument because, well, the person is a murderer.

Another mechanism, though, is for the severity of bad experiences to fade in time. You can laugh over very bad experiences in the past (sometimes) that were very painful to live through.


Lorca's Musical Legacy: From Strayhorn to Golijov

This paper will examine various musical adaptations of Lorca's poetry and theater in Spain, the United States, and elsewhere, in the context of the overall creative reception of his legacy. I will consider two central tendencies in this body of work: (1) adaptations of Lorca in the Flamenco idiom, and (2) works that re-situate his poetry in other musical genres. I will link these two tendencies to the tension in Lorca's legacy between "centripetal" and "centrifugal" impulses, between the creation of a unitary "Lorca myth" and the fragmentation of Lorca into multiple images.

Billy Strayhorn, George Crumb, Dmitri Shostakovich, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Enrique Morente, and Osvaldo Golijov are among the most prominent musical figures who have taken an interest in Lorca, providing a rich body of material for analysis.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


Wynton has always left me cold. I saw him in person the first time last night. Everyone enjoyed the concert, which was pretty much sold out. I enjoyed it too, but it did not change my reaction to Wynton. He still leaves me cold. He plays excellent jazz, and I love jazz, but I just don't respond to him as a player.

If Wynton does not leave you cold, then you are not wrong. I just don't feel it, and I am 100% correct in my evaluation of my own response.

One hypothesis: what gets in the way for me is the impulse to recreate historical styles of music, playing them tal cual. You can recreate the style, but that original style was not a recreation of something else, but its own thing. Nobody 50 years from now will be recreating Wynton's recreation of Art Blakey.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Here is the latest one.

Four Ideas about Lorca (IV): No Secret Codes

The last idea is that Lorca is using concrete reality (images) whose primary meaning is in the particularity of the thing itself, not in a cryptography. He thinks in images. Let's read him, first of all, for what he seems to be saying. So Yerma is a play about an infertile woman, not a play about Lorca's psyche.

Four Ideas about Lorca (III): Rising to his Level

The third idea is that we should rise to Lorca's level (or aspire to that). Lorca criticism should be just as intelligent as Lorca himself, neither condescending nor unnecessarily subservient. The way to do this is to be the best we can be, as ourselves.

Four Ideas about Lorca (II): Plurality

The second idea is to have a plural notion of Lorca. He wrote in diverse genres and styles, so we shouldn't try to reduce it all to a central essence. Let him be himself, but let him explore various options without trying to reduce everything to one thing.

Let's see his subjectivity as fractured, not unitary. Let him be a dramatic writer, with different characters, even in his lyric, 1st-person writing.

Four Ideas about Lorca (I): Desacralization

I am developing a set of four ideas that define what I think the right approach to Lorca should be. The first is desacralization. By this I mean: do not treat him as a sacred figure, a Jesus Christ of Spanish democracy and transcendent genius. He is a genius, of course, but when you mix the genius factor with the martyrdom, you get all sorts of foolishness.

Another Salaita post

Here's a good post on Salaita. (Hat tip to Leslie on whose facebook feed I found it.)

He also think affirmative consent laws are a mistake. Me too.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Work Log

Here's what I've been doing in the month since I turned 54. I've decided to keep a log to keep track of what I am working on. I'm not teaching right now.

I reviewed two article manuscripts, read a dissertation and participated in the defense, finished a talk I'm giving next month, and did my university senate duties.

Monday, Aug. 25:

re-viewed article for [redacted]
read MGP dissertation

Tuesday, Aug. 26:

MGP defense
Social media meeting
looked at Spain flights

Wed., Aug. 27:

Lorca keynote

Thursday, Aug. 28

Lorca keynote
meeting with provost
reservations for Spain

Friday, Aug. 29

Lorca keynote
wrote email to [redacted]

Sat. Aug. 30

Lorca keynote

Mon, Sept. 1

Lorca keynote

Tues. Sept 2

Lorca keynote
SenEx meeting

Wed. Sept 3

Lorca keynote
meeting with vice-provost for diversity
reviewed issues related to faculty code

Thurs. Sept 4

meeting about faculty code
graded ma exam

Friday, Sept 5

Lorca keynote
email on social media

Tuesday, Sept. 9

FacEx meeting
Lorca keynote
arrangements for Higuchi re-imbursement

Wed. Sept. 10

Lorca keynote
looked at chapters 1-3 of Lorca book

Thursday, Sept. 11

Faculty and university senate meetings (prep for meetings)
Look at “Queering Lorca” / other chapters to assesss progress
Lorca keynote (finished first draft)

Tuesday, Sept. 16

Looked at keynote
Held SENEX meeting

Wed. Sept 17

Social media
queering Lorca

Monday, Sept 22

Interview with UDK
ACLA Lorca ideas / brainstorming

Tuesday, Sept. 23

SenEx meeting
read and reviewed article to review for [redacted]
ACLA Lorca ideas / brainstorming


At the next ACLA we are doing a Lorca seminar with the following people. Needless to say we are going to kick some serious ass here:

Andrew A. Anderson, Professor of Spanish, University of Virginia

Gabriela Basterra, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Spanish and Portuguese, New York University

Silvia Bermúdez, Professor of Spanish, University of California - Santa Barbara

Melissa Dinverno, Associate Professor of Spanish, Indiana University - Bloomington

Candelas Gala, Charles E. Taylor Professor of Romance Languages, Wake Forest University

Anthony Geist, Professor of Spanish and Portuguese (Chair) and Comparative Literature, University of Washington (Seattle)

Travis Landry, Associate Professor of Spanish, Kenyon College

Jonathan Mayhew, Professor Spanish, University of Kansas

Roberta Quance, Senior Lecturer in Spanish, School of Modern Languages, Queen’s University Belfast

Evelyn Scaramella, Assistant Professor of Spanish, MLL, Manhattan College

Harry Vélez-Quiñones, Distinguished Professor of Hispanic Studies (Chair), Puget Sound University

I am Quoted

UDK article about Social Media.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Salaita and Kansas

Contractual* issues aside, the Salaita case presents a very close proximity to the Kansas Board of Regents' Social Media Policy. The justification for firing / not hiring this professor is found in the Pickering case. Leiter summarizes the issue quite succinctly:]. In a court case:
The University will argue that the refusal to hire was based on a reasonable prediction that Salaita's vitriolic attacks on Israel and Zionists would disrupt his ability to deliver education to the students and work with his colleagues, and that it was this concern that motivated the University's revocation of the job offer.

The KBOR policy also quotes from Pickering:
3. The United States Supreme Court has held that public employers generally have authority to discipline their employees for speech in a number of circumstances, including but not limited to speech that:

i. is directed to inciting or producing imminent violence or other breach of the peace and is likely to incite or produce such action;

ii. when made pursuant to (i.e. in furtherance of) the employee’s official duties, is contrary to the best interests of the employer;

iii. discloses without lawful authority any confidential student information, protected health care information, personnel records, personal financial information, or confidential research data; or

iv. subject to the balancing analysis required by the following paragraph, impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary, impedes the performance of the speaker’s official duties, interferes with the regular operation of the employer, or otherwise adversely affects the employer's ability to efficiently provide services.

In determining whether an employee’s communication is actionable under subparagraph iv, the interest of the employer in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees must be balanced against the employee’s right as a citizen to speak on matters of public concern.
I just spoke at length with a student reporter about this issue. I'll post a link to her story when it comes out.


*I don't understand the contractual issues very well. His appointment was contingent on Board of Trustees approval, but there is a theory of "promissory estoppel" which basically says that you cannot induce someone to take actions on a promise and then yank the rug out from under them. For him to have first amendment rights not to be fired, he first has to prove a contractual case, in my opinion, but I am very unsure about that.

Leiter's point is that once the case goes forward, the university will have to settle, because the discovery phase will reveal a lot of embarrassing things in how this was handled.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Academic Freedom

From my position of University Senate President the issues are clear. I am in favor of academic freedom without reservations. That means freedom for positions I disagree with.

The Salaita case is interesting for several reasons. We find people lining up behind Salaita because

a) they share his politics

b) they stand for principles of academic freedom and basic contract fairness

c) a and b

People opposing Salaita might do so because

d) they oppose his politics and / or don't think much of his scholarship and don't care deeply about academic freedom, or think academic freedom is for me but not for thee

I would love to talk about how abhorrent some of his twitter posts are, or might seem to many, or my misgivings about him being hired in a department of American Indian Studies. I won't do that because I am in category b.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Yet another attempt

I left this comment on a previous post, but maybe it deserves a blog post of its own:

I guess you could say the purpose of a painting is to cover a stain on the wall. That might be true for any given painting and wall. It might also be true that the entire debate makes little sense (Vance) or that not everyone shares the existential wonder about the very existence of music or poetry. In fact, my experience in academia shows me that my own position is not universal even among people who devote their lives to that study. I fear I have fallen into "Mayhew's fallacy" again: the fallacious universalization of my own experience. Curiously, I am most prone to this fallacy when I am trying to arrive at statements that are completely bland and non-controversial, like "the purpose of poetry is to be wonderful poetry."

Poem-like things & Conceptual Art

One way of looking at a poem is to see what poem-like things are going on therein. People don't agree completely about what poems are better than others, but I think they do agree about what poem-like things might look like, in general terms. These are things like rhythmic structures, figurative language. A poem doesn't have to have irony but irony is a poem-like thing, because we expect someone adept in poetry to understand it and how it works.

Language has poem-like things in it already. A given language, for example, has a linguistic prosody. Irony and other tropes exist outside of poetry. We might think of dance. Ordinary body-movements are not wholly separate from dancing. Dancers walk, jump, move their bodies in ways that other people do too. Music is sound, and sound already exists outside of music. We still expect music to be organized in music-like ways.

John Cage had a brilliant idea: why not listen to sound as though it were already music?

People don't agree about how much and what kind of poem-like things they want in a poem. You might think putting in a lot of everything would be good. That's what Keats might have meant about loading "every rift with ore." But it is not a quantitative thing. Not everyone wants to write like Keats, even if they had the talent.

In the North Carolina poet-laureate controversy, the poetic community could not accept the poetry of a woman because of a kind of credentialism: she didn't have degrees in writing and didn't teach writing in a university, her books were self-pubished, she wasn't part of the community, she was probably Republican. Yet her poems are ok, in my book. They have stuff going on. The professional poets, with their credentials, who had been laureates before, are often just as amateurish in their actual poems.


Back to Cage. Well, he is one of the founders of conceptualism. What is this? Conceptual art makes a point about the status of art itself, often by playing with the frame that separates the ordinary activity (walking, moving about) from the specialized artistic version of the activity (dancing). Once you do that then you can draw a frame around anything and call it art, or poetry. After a while, people started doing conceptual things that did not even problematize the distinction between art and non-art, but simply called attention to some political point. I could film myself shaving every morning for a year, for example. If I came up with a proper narrative to explain that, then it would be art. In essence, the artist's statement replaces the art itself, because I wouldn't have to actually do this. Having the idea to do it and explaining why is the creative act. That's why it's "conceptual." This is a pretty shopworn artistic endeavor, though popularized more recently in poetry by Goldsmith. You might want to think about Duchamp, Warhol, and Cage; about the late great poetic movement called "flarf."

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Weird Trick about the Autonomy of Art

A Martian came to earth and wanted to know the "purpose" of music. He went to a musical performance or two and got some answers:

An economist explains that music is an economic exchange. Why do musicians play? To get paid.

No, actually musicians are expressing themselves, says the psychologist.

The evolutionary psychologist explains that music is a sexual display. The males play in front of the females to prove their worthiness as mates.

Well, of course music is a way of praising the gods; music is really just ritual.

Or of sticking it to the man, destroying fascism, expressing ethnic pride.

It accompanies movies (but what are movies for?)

By now the Martian is getting really confused about these different explanations. Of course, they could all be partially correct, or relevant for some but they don't really get to what music really is, he feels. He lacks the sensory organs to be able to "hear" music, but he suspects that something else is going on.

Finally, he comes to my office at the University of Kansas. I explain to him that there are some objects whose purpose is to be really good examples of the type of thing they are. The purpose of the musical performance is to be wonderful. He asks me about the other explanations he has heard. I cannot dismiss them, of course. Music has many functions and uses, secular and sacred, economic to medicinal. All those uses, however, depend on its being music first.


The Martian goes down the hall and talks to some other professors. They explain to him that Mayhew's explanation is a Western idea that doesn't apply to most artistic phenomena. The autonomy of art only arises late in human history. Before that art was always bound up with other human activities. So music really is just a sexual, ritual, economic, or some other thing. Pure music is the exception.


So the Martian comes back to my office again and gives me the cultural studies line fed to him by my brilliant colleagues. He is right that music is not "pure." But there is a weird internet trick I show him. It is true that the tribal drummer or potter does not have a modern Western sense of art being autonomous or pure. But it is also true that these creators of culture do not have a "utilitarian" view of art as simply being "for something else." This utilitarian idea in fact only arises as a reaction to the same dynamic that produced the idea of autonomy. So to say an ancient potter made a pot so that the Pharaoh would have an object to take into the other world is true enough, but that's like saying the rock drummer drums so he can get laid.

The purpose of a poem is to be wonderful

"The purpose of a poem is to be wonderful."

That's the statement that Andrew Gelman attributes to me (by implication, and as a summary of a post I wrote). Let's first assume that I agree that that sentence represents my views. I think it does, in fact. Let's break it down a little more.

Andrew thinks that this excludes other uses of poetry, so to speak, other purposes. I would think that in order to fulfill these other purposes, it first has to be a poem. In other words, it has to be that before it can do anything else. But does it have to be wonderful?

Obviously not. For example, there are lousy poems that fulfill other functions, and quite well. In fact, a propaganda poem is probably going to fulfill its purpose not so well if it is a wonderful poem.

So this leads us to a strange usage, in which we only want to call poems those that are "wonderful" as poems. Suppose I have a pencil case, but not a good one. You might say, "You call that a pencil case, that's not a pencil case, it's a piece of crap!." You would be wrong, because even bad examples of the category still belong to the category.

With poetry, though, the idea is that not every random utterance will be a poem, but that a poem will be language heightened in some way. Something has to be going on in the language for it to be called a poem. A poet might ironically write a poem that has nothing going on, to make a point. We call this "conceptual poetry," in fact. That is, to make a point about how it is no longer possible to write poems with a lot going on, rhythm, metaphors, etc... This conceptual poetry (or the branch of it that does this or similar things) does not disprove my contention that poetry is language where something interesting is going on. In fact, it proves my point, since it is making a meta-literary point based parasitically on the more traditional definition.

A math professor and I were talking about what he did last night, at a faculty reception. He said he counted stuff. I'm sure it's more technical than that, but basically he told me that his branch of mathematics involved counting things and comparing results, looking for patterns.

So, to be super non-technical here, the study of poetry is the study of "what's going on" in the language of poetry. How it communicates emotion, meaning, how it is structured, etc... The purpose of the poem is to be a poem, wonderful or not, and then also do whatever else any poet or reader wants it to do, like change the world, or win the heart of a lover. Since language is used for many other purposes, then it follows logically that we want poetry to do something extra special, not covered by those other uses.

There's an implicit Poundian ethos in this viewpoint. What I mean is that Pound said that poetry was language charged with meaning. Language + some heightened or improved elements. We are all Poundians, in that everyone more or less agrees that interesting rhythmic structures, or concrete images, etc.. provide the shortest route to making a poem wonderful. It seems like Andrew, whose blog I greatly admire by the way, shares this ethos, because he is able to find these poems mediocre in a similar way as I do, pointing to clichéd language, for example. I don't particularly care if anyone agrees with my particular judgments about poems or poets, since those judgments will always vary anyway.

A poem that's not wonderful is still a poem trying to be more wonderful than it in fact is. When we read a bad or mediocre poem we want it to be better than it is, more fitting with what the purpose of the poem might be. It's no different from what the purpose of an Eric Clapton guitar solo is. It's purpose is to be a great solo, right? Or do we want to say that it's purpose is to fill up 16 measures?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Paragraph of the week

I submit this to you
More broadly, some members of the profession will be less likely to identify intelligence in someone with an unpolished social manner — though on the other hand others are more likely to expect smartness there. (Another race in which I have a horse, though one emphatically not ready to be put out to pasture: aren’t colleagues more likely to describe people their own age, rather than significantly older, through these and related positive epithets?) As these instances suggest, both judgments on “smartness” as well as other monolithic overall evaluations may screen other, less savory evaluations, whether or not the person making them is aware of that.
What's wrong with this writing? It is verbose, awkward, and doesn't really make a strong point. We might think rude people are also less intelligent (yes), but others think rudeness is associated with intelligence (maybe?), and we might think people much older than us are dumber (??). The parenthetical sentence awkwardly combines two idioms (having a horse in a race, and putting a horse out to pasture) in a confusing way. Why "though" instead of "and." The author is a professor of "poetics" of all things.