Sam Anderson takes to the pages of the New York Times to praise Roland Barthes, “the man who essentially created cultural criticism,” from the systematic analysis of novelistic structure to the TV recap:
Instead of constructing multivolume monuments of systematic thought, Barthes wrote short books built out of fragments. He was less interested in traditional coherence than in what he called jouissance: joy, surprise, adventure, pleasure — tantric orgasms of critical insight rolling from fragment to fragment…
His critical metabolism ran unusually high: he would flit from subject to subject, defining new fields of interest (semiology, narratology) only to abandon them and leave others to do the busywork. He treated canonical French works with such unorthodox flair it drove conservative professors crazy…
In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France — a sort of mission statement for the most prestigious academic post in the country — Barthes announced that he aspired above all to “forget” and to “unlearn” and proposed, as a kind of motto, “no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom and as much flavor as possible.”
I have a hard time giving up knowledge so easily — and really, Barthes did too. (I think it’s mostly the pretense to knowledge, the use of knowledge as a cudgel, that he saw as the problem.)
The part I probably love best and most fully endorse is the section on what a critic is supposed to do:
“Mythologies” is often an angry book, and what angered Barthes more than anything was “common sense,” which he identified as the philosophy of the bourgeoisie, a mode of thought that systematically pretends that complex things are simple, that puzzling things are obvious, that local things are universal — in short, that cultural fantasies shaped by all the dirty contingencies of power and money and history are in fact just the natural order of the universe. The critic’s job, in Barthes’s view, was not to revel in these common-sensical myths but to expose them as fraudulent. The critic had to side with history, not with culture. And history, Barthes insisted, “is not a good bourgeois.”
The pairing of these things, the genuine jouissance and the relentless critical awareness, the ruthless crusade against the conventionally obvious, is what makes it all work.
Never just a cheerleader. Never just a killjoy. Something beyond either. And listing always in favor of flavor.
PS: Mythologies was just published in a terrific new edition/translation which is like twice as long as the bowdlerized version we’ve had in English for forty years. That’s the occasion for the essay.
I was at a conference called NewsFoo this past weekend. In sessions and in conversations throughout the event, folks shared a number of impressive or memorable cultural artifacts they’d encountered; I wrote down as many as I could. I often stupidly neglected to note who pointed out what. Where I’ve remembered the source, I’ve included her. Thanks to everyone who shared!
As a follow-up to my earlier compilation, “The Two Mayors,” here is the stunning conclusion to the story of @MayorEmanuel. He won the election and as predicted by Mayor Daley, vanished into a time vortex in order to save the multiverse.
I’ve also been boning up on my @MayorEmanuel backstory, and man, it is totally batshit in the best possible way. There are layers and layers to this thing that I couldn’t even guess at, and a few I’m probably still missing. In short, the anonymous author(s) of the thread have been building towards this science-fiction/comic-book resolution of the story for a while now, first planting the seeds months ago, then grinding them up like fine celery salt.
You can read a quick-and-dirty PDF of all of @MayorEmanuel’s tweets here, assembled by @najuu (h/t Carla Casilli). I’m not Storifying the whole thing, because 1) Twitter’s archives have a hard time going back that far in the Storify interface and 2) even if they did, I’m not stupid. But I would like to do my small part to gather the limbs of Osiris just here at the end. Enjoy.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has been my favorite writer to read on this Rand Paul mess. (Short version — Ron Paul’s son won the Republican primary for a Senate seat in Kentucky, after which his candidacy kind of fell apart after some really clumsy and embarassing interviews where he tried to say that he was against the Civil Rights Act banning segregation, but that he wasn’t a racist, would have marched with MLK, and thinks a free society means people/businesses are free to do despicable things.) Here are the key bullet points:
- Why can the media only focus on how bad this looks for Paul politically, rather than try to engage with his opinion as a serious position? “[W]hile I expect politicians and their handlers to think in terms of messaging, I also expect–perhaps foolishly–for media to be in the business of pushing past that messaging to actual ideas. What we get instead is a faux-objectivity, that avoids the substance of issues and instead focuses on how that substance is pitched. In that sense, much like the relationship between entertainment and many entertainment journalists, it’s really hard to see media as more than quasi-independent extension of campaign apparatus.”
- Why can’t Paul and his conservative/libertarian supporters actually engage with this stuff more seriously? “What I’m driving at is raising the question about methods is never wrong, to the contrary it’s essential. That process is undermined by people who raise those questions, without having thought about them, without being able to speak to their nuances, and are mostly concerned with tribal signaling. People were dragged from their homes, raped and murdered over civil rights. Talk about it, by all means. But talk about it with the intellectual seriousness it deserves.This is not a third grade science fair project.”
- This post, “Towards an abstract courage,” is my favorite, because it addresses the idea that certainly, Paul and every other decent person would have been allies with King and other desegregationists to bring segregated businesses down, without the federal government stepping in. “Now, after the police dogs, night-sticks and fire-hoses have been beaten back, Rand Paul wants to reopen the question, while, to be sure, claiming that he would have had the ‘courage to march with Martin Luther King.’ This is a common strain of courage. It chiefly shines through in men born 50 years too late. Presently among the crowd, they are distinguished at that decisive moment when queried about wars they won’t have to fight, in times they will never live. These men populate our history books. They are all on the wrong side.”
- To that end, “Towards a manifested courage” tells the story of Joan Trumpauer, one of the white freedom riders arrested in Jackson, MS for integrating a lunch counter.
Coates links to Charles Lane in the Washington Post, who writes:
Suppose an African American customer sits down at a “whites only” restaurant and asks for dinner. The owner tells him to leave. The customer refuses and stays put. What are the owner’s options at that point? He can forcibly remove the customer himself, but, as Paul concedes, that could expose the restaurateur to criminal or civil liability. So he’ll have to call the cops. When they arrive, he’ll have to explain his whites-only policy and ask them to remove the unwanted black man because he’s violating it. But they can only do that on the basis of some law, presumably trespassing. In other words, the business owner’s discriminatory edict is meaningless unless some public authority enforces it.
Conversely, it is precisely because of this nexus between private discrimination and public enforcement that the larger community, through the political and judicial process, acquires a valid interest in legislating against discrimination. The public is entitled to say whether their tax money should pay for arresting black trespassers on whites-only property.
This, for me, is a huge point, since it establishes that segregation and desegregation aren’t at substance purely a matter of freedom of association or the content of characters/hearts, but a matter of recognition under the law. What we see are the people, those angry faces — but what makes the invisible infrastructure for all of that anger is the law.
To see how important — and how slippery — this point can be, read this NYT editorial excoriating Paul, then Chris Bray at History News Network, who justly slams the NYT:
[T]he American history of racial oppression and brutality is a history of government. The founding document of the republic privileged slavery as a lawful institution, and government served that institution for another seventy-eight years after that. The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free all American slaves; it freed slaves in states engaged in rebellion…
After the abandonment of Reconstruction, “redeemed” southern governments rebuilt structures of oppression through law and the institutions of government. Jim Crow laws were laws; the regime of racial segregation was not simply a set of social choices. That guy standing in the schoolhouse door? He was a governor. Why is that so hard to figure out?
I think it’s because we’ve seen the pictures of the dogs and the firehoses and the angry men and women behind them, and we’ve assumed that that’s what discrimination looks like, to the point that we can’t understand anyone or anything as racist unless it looks like that.
But I don’t think that’s it at all. It’s a secret history of the invisible that we’re tracing. And the thing about being invisible is that it’s pretty easy to be everywhere.
The photos at The Big Picture are always stunning, but these pictures of Mount St. Helens are, I think, especially so. Sometimes it feels like we’re living in an age of one ecological disaster after another, and then it’s always instructive to remember the sheer, uncanny, unearthly power of these things. (It helps to have a great Mirah song for your soundtrack.)
This comic (by Apostolos Doxiadis, Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donnais) is the best graphic treatment you will read that summarizes and explains both the life and ideas of Claude Lévi-Strauss and the great Aeschylus trilogy The Oresteia. It is also probably the only comic strip you’ll read that talks about topological transformations, and the “algebra of action.” I think I can say that with some certainty.
The nerd/insidery factor is high here, but speaking as a quasi-expert who’s always looking for ways to make obscure lit/theory intelligible, I think it actually really does a good job of clarifying some of this stuff. And it actually works as a little three-page comic, too.
Every so often, Twitter feels less like a service I use than a place where I hang out — and one of the users that I feel like I would love to hang out with (in that sort of detatched, ambient way one does in, say, a college dorm or TA office) is Tom Henderson, aka @mathpunk. At some point in the not-too-distant past, I found him or he found me. Yesterday, I was delighted to be pointed (also via Twitter, but not by Tom) to an interview he gave technoccult.net where he sketches a bit of what he’s about:
Many students want teachers to “show me the steps.”
They want a sequence of steps that they can perform that will give them an answer. This is not unreasonable; they know that their performance on exams, and therefore their performance on the All-Seeing Grade Point Average, is largely determined by being able to Do The Steps.
But “The Steps” are cargo cult mathematics.
The Steps are seeing the sorts of symbols that count as “right”, and trying to replicate that dance of steps. It turns out that the easiest thing in the world is to look at a student’s work, and tell the difference between “Knows what’s going on, made mistakes and dozed off” vs. “Can memorize steps, has no idea what’s going on.”
Now, the way that I explain mathematics, it sort of looks like I’m torturing the poor bastards. I handwave. I refer to certain groupings of symbols as “Alphabet soup” and write it down as a wild scribble with one or two symbols around it.
Because I’m trying to avoid showing The Steps and instead show them enough of The Idea that they can reconstruct what the steps MUST be.
Many students want to know the formulas, so that they can float them on top of their short-term memory, ace the exam, and then skim them off. Why do they want to know that?
Probably because, for their entire mathematical careers, math has been a sequence of Steps, and if they get them wrong, they get red pen, bad grades, No No No Look What You Did. Plus, bonus, there is no apparent relevance of these algorithms other than To Get The Answer.
What’s wrong with math education in the US? What’s wrong is, Whatever it is that makes my students uninterested in learning any more math than is required to minimize feeling stupid.
So that we’re clear, lots of my students are totally awakened to the interesting weirdnesses of mathematics. But, it takes some doing, and I can’t do it by myself. Hence the podcasts and the lunatic twitter stream and the plans for TV shows and online games and godknowswhat else.
I’m trying to get across that if you are highly motivating, if you have a high degree of fire and “Fuck yeah!” and “What, that’s impossible, but true!”, you can get students to express interest in theorems named after dead Hungarians.
I also love this idea, which seems important and true (particularly re: mathematics and its models):
Let me tell you a theory about math knowledge. A mathematical concept can be expressed in symbols (algebra), in pictures (geometry and diagrams), verbally, and numerically. This is a common theory; my additional spin is that math knowledge also exists as a performative concept. Like, the way that I direct the attention of the students (“If you ignore this alphabet soup for a minute, you can see it’s really just a product of two things…”) Or, the way I will use physicality. Like, the other week, I climbed onto the chair and then onto the desk while I was trying to explain slope.
ANYway, the theory goes that you don’t understand a mathematical concept until you understand it in TWO modalities. I do very well with visual knowledge, so my notes of understanding are full of color and pictures and mindmaps and arrows linking concepts, and I highlight the holy hell out of math books. However, I don’t believe I KNOW a concept until I can explain it verbally, because I can barely understand anything if someone just talks it at me.
First swipe is through my best modality, second swipe is through my worst modality. The whole “learning style” thing may be overstated, but it remains true that getting students to understand things in a variety of modalities seems like the way to go.
Maybe they don’t get the picture. So you ask them many verbal questions. (Questions, not explanations, 99% of the time.)
One of my favorite moments in Annabel Scheme is the party thrown by a mysterious musician known as “The Beekeeper”:
If you had electronic eyes and night vision—I had both—you would have seen slips of paper passing from person to person. On each slip was a phone number. Each one was different, and there were a dozen circulating in the crowd. Each wandered and blinked like a firefly as kids used their phones, torch-like, to illuminate the number, then passed it on. Here and there, then everywhere, they were dialing numbers, switching their phones to speaker-mode and pushing them up into the air like trophies.
The buzzing was coming from the phones. It was a low, rhythmic drone. At first you couldn’t hear much, but apparently, if you put enough phones on speaker all at once, it starts to get loud.
So that was the trick: There were no speakers because the crowd was the speaker. The bees did not sound so far-off now.
Scheme clenched her teeth. “This is hurting my face.”
Suddenly it stopped. The graveyard fell silent. It was a field of pale arms thrust to the sky, swaying like seaweed. Kids were bouncing silently on the balls of their feet. Waiting.
Then there was a count-off, a tat tat tat tat and then the music started and it was everywhere, megawatts of power flowing out of every palm and pocket. There was no focal point, so bodies were pointed in every direction, ricocheting and chain-reacting. Kids were losing it, jumping up and down, colliding and cuddling in the dark grass.
The music had a clear beat, but it was warped and scratchy, like someone was tuning a giant radio. Snatches of singing would ring out for a moment, then decohere. There was a trumpet that pealed from somewhere very far away…
The music was coming together as kids followed their ears. If your phone was buzzing with bass, you joined the bunched-up sub-woofer section. If it was sending high notes sizzling into the air, you joined the line that snaked around the crowd’s perimeter. The music worked its pattern on the crowd. It was both amazingly high-tech and totally pagan.
The first question I had after reading this was — I wonder if Robin knows about Zaireeka, the Parking Lot Experiments, or the other stuff that The Flaming Lips tried in the late 1990s?
I still don’t know. But I was reminded of that perplexity today reading this interview with Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson that’s all about the amazingly high-tech and totally pagan crap that the Lips tried before exploding with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin. Complete with YouTube videos, several of which were new to me.
If you were taken with either (Scheme or the Lips), try both.
I’m quite taken with George H Williams’s ProfHacker write-up of his experience using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service to transcribe some audio, all the more so since he followed FOS (Friend of the Snark) Andy Baio’s methodology. I don’t have any audio to transcribe, but if I did, I’d definitely give this a whirl.
Scott Eric Kaufman has written two good posts about Mad Men at the Valve, but I want instead to pull what he quotes from Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography, because it is true and because Gavin will like it:
Identity is funny being yourself is funny as you are never yourself to yourself except as you remember yourself and then of course you do not believe yourself. That is really the trouble with an autobiography you do not of course really believe yourself why should you, you know so well so very well that it is not yourself, it could not be yourself because you cannot remember right and if you do remember right it does not sound right and of course it does not sound right because it is not right. You are of course never yourself.
If anyone was ever equal parts Jacques Derrida and William James, it was Gertrude Stein.