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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Kitten gray is my favorite color

Paint color namer is another one of my shadow careers (along with baseball statistician and forensic osteologist). As with those other two, I have no qualifications that would make me good at such a position except curiosity. Paint color namer and perhaps baseball statistician require large amounts of faith in the new new thing: Moneyball, meet Pantone and their 2008 color of the year, blue iris. From the NYT story, some dissent:
“It’s very good for publicity, and it certainly shows a lot of bravado,” said Margaret Walch, the director of the Color Association, a forecasting group founded in 1915, when the vast majority of its members were milliners, glove makers and hosiery suppliers. Because consumer tastes and values are under a variety of influences — economic, environmental, global — anointing one color isn’t all that meaningful, she said. Is there a color she might have picked instead? Ms. Walch laughed lightly, as if to say, “O.K., I’ll play along.” She answered, “My color for 2008 is bamboo.” A yellowed green, chosen from the association’s interior palette, she said, it “represents the stable green that is most on people’s minds.” She said it’s similar to a hue called Vineyard, adding: “I feel it just has a power. You know, these are very insecure times.”

(I want to know what Color Association meetings looked like in 1915--unions! working conditions! no, mauve's at the top of the docket--don't you think Dawn Powell could have done something great with this idea?)

I have a strong memory of my parents painting the rooms and trim on our house when I was about five years old in Austin. I'd stand in front of the paint sample cards at the hardware store and imagine what color my room could be. My parents would tell me I could pick out five sample cards to take home, and I could entertain myself for a good half hour or more trying to choose just five. To their exasperation, I wanted to pick my color of yellow based on its name. After that, it was art supplies, fabrics in clothing catalogs, ice cream flavors, semi-precious gemstones, (currently) varieties of tea--I was really delighted with the process of naming things in a set. This scheme is the only joy I get out of buying makeup, although I admit that's becoming a lot more fun when I think about it this way. I'm still skeptical of the exoticism in the lipstick names, though--see below for the Indian Red problem at Crayola.

Flash forward to the Duane Reade drugstore twenty years later when I had to buy markers. I stood in the school supply aisle for a long time, weighing the option of quantity in the cheaper packs with the adorability of the names for colors written on the Crayola brands. I opened the package of Crayola markers to see what I could be working with. One of the employees saw me and warned, "You can't test those out in the store."

"I'm just seeing what they named the colors," I protested.

There they were: the unlikely crown jewels of the Crayola marker package, copper penny and kitten gray. I love the color copper, whether it's metallic or not. And someone had realized that children need the color gray for all sorts of things--buildings, clouds, gargoyles, rocks, and, yes, kittens. 'Kitten' was a little precious, but it was modifying the color gray, the least precious color of all.

Crayola likes to keep me on my toes by retiring colors and adding new ones every few years. Crayola's history of their crayon colors is a truly amazing site.

For example, I learned that 1957-71 saw an increase in shades of browns and reds, including the addition of Indian Red. "Flesh" became "peach" in 1962. The Crayola site explains, "Indian Red is renamed Chestnut in 1999 in response to educators who felt some children wrongly perceived the crayon color was intended to represent the skin color of Native Americans. The name originated from a reddish-brown pigment found near India commonly used in fine artist oil paint."

Crayola's retirement of maize, lemon yellow, blue gray, raw umber, green blue, orange red, orange yellow, and violet blue in 1990 was my first taste of nostalgia as a ten-year-old. Charles Schulz did a great Peanuts strip about it (according to the site, his favorite Crayola color is copper). Remember the Sesame Street trip to the crayon factory to make the orange red crayons? Well! Crayola retired orange red and replaced it with several other shades that approximate the color, but I remain nostalgic about the whole thing. There's even a color for that feeling: bittersweet, a pinker version of orange red (introduced in 1949).

With the exception of bittersweet, Crayola had been naming the colors descriptively until 1993, when they mounted a consumer campaign to name new colors with more whimsical appellations. There's some good ones: asparagus ("a green beyond greens"), macaroni and cheese, timberwolf, robin's egg blue, shamrock, tumbleweed, Granny Smith apple, wisteria. I think Purple Mountain's Majesty (Sen. Rick Santorum's favorite) and Tickle Me Pink may be a bit overstated. Also, mauvelous? This is an interesting book about the accidental invention of the color mauve in 1856--it's one of those microhistories that has to inflate its importance self-consciously, but there's some good stuff about the many uses of dyes there.

More inspired additions in 1999: antique brass, manatee, shadow, eggplant. They named one outer space--years later, cosmologists would determine the color of outer space as something more like Crayola's sea green. From the 2002 NYT story:
''From one perspective, it's surprising that it turns out green, because there are no greenish stars,'' said Dr. Karl Glazebrook of Johns Hopkins. ''But it's the large numbers of old red stars and young blue stars in the universe that gives us the green.''

Although it takes a mixture of blue and yellow to make green in pigments, light sources combine in a different way. A blend of blue and red produces what Dr. Glazebrook described as ''the standard shade of pale turquoise, but a few percent greener.'' Dr. Glazebrook and his colleague, Dr. Ivan Baldry at Johns Hopkins, conceded that they were having ''a bit of fun.'' But they had a serious purpose, as well. They said the research could help assess theories of star formation and evolution.

In 2003 Crayola retired colors "it considered redundant or unattractive" (magic mint, blizzard blue, mulberry, teal blue) and replaced them with mango tango, jazzberry jam, inchworm, wild blue yonder. How is inchworm different from Granny Smith, though? (Or, rather, I think those two should be switched because the Granny Smith doesn't appear to have very much yellow in it.)

After a vote on the site, burnt sienna was saved the indignity of being retired. I love the testimonials from crayon users. There's the synesthetic colorer: "For some reason this color crayon sounded different than all the other colors, in both name and when coloring with it. It almost sounded like it was scratching the coloring book paper." The insecure colorer: "My sister always says her eyes are cereleun blue like my Moms, and I have plain brown eyes. My Mom made me feel better when she said my eyes are not brown. They're the color Burnt Sienna. I like the color Burnt Sienna." (Which reminds me of going to Sephora, when the woman trying to sell me eyeshadow asked what color my eyes are and I said "brown." "They're not brown, they're hazel," she said. "You should have more confidence.")

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Blogger SPG on Tue Dec 25, 03:42:00 PM:
Oh, I love, love, love this post. I too would gladly devote my life to naming makeup or crayons or paint colors, etc. I remember asking my mom when I was a kid how I could get that job. She had no idea.

I remember being annoyed with that Sesame Street episode...I was so excited when they went to the crayon factory, and then they chose to feature ORANGE RED?! I HATED they color, and kind of still do.

Do you recall a Young Adult book from when we were kids in which the mother's job was to name china patterns? At the end, the main character (who had some sort of self-esteem issue) came up with a stellar name (i think it was "Evergreen"?) that won her mom a lot of money.
Blogger Jeff'y on Wed Dec 26, 01:11:00 AM:
Burnt sienna FTW! (Apologies to Jude Law.)
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Dec 26, 01:13:00 PM:
I loved this! Thanks! I too am obsessed with colors, but I've never actually gone into color coding and color history. One of my favorite colors when I used to watercolor was Payne's Gray. You use it instead of black which expert watercolor painters never use. It's ideal to give the effect of shadows and when used properly is helps watercolors look like photographs:'s_grey

Monday, December 24, 2007

It's not enough that I gave him Karabakh?

Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in an official state of war for twenty years over a disputed territory, Nagorno-Karabakh, that is entirely enclosed within Azerbaijan but has a majority Armenian population. Though there has been a cease fire since 1994, people are still plenty mad about it, and citizens of each country are generally excluded from visiting the other, and even Americans with Armenian-sounding last names like Petrosian, Egoyan, etc. are often refused visas to visit Azerbaijan.

That's the backdrop to a recent post by Gregory Levonian on his blog describing interactions between these two peoples when they are in a third country, Georgia, which has friendly relations with both of them:
One of Tbilisi's [the capital of Georgia] most famous attractions is its sulphur baths... I've gotten to know the owner of the particular bath I go to, Gulo, quite well.

The thing is that Gulo, like almost of the people that work at the Sulphur Baths is Azeri, and thought she certainly knows I'm Armenian (and this usually surprises many Armenians and Azeris from Armenia or Azerbaijan), in Georgia Azeris and Armenians from get along great. Well, at least most of the time...

Gulo: "Don't hand me the money like that!"

Me: "OK, then how?"

Gulo (showing me): "Like this!"

Me (Switching my hold on the money): OK, here, Can you change this?"

At this point one of the guys that works there giving massages , also an Azeri, comes over and in a good natured way says: "Gulo, why do you always hassling this guy, huh?

Gulo looks up at him smiling and says: "What? It's not enough that I gave him Karabakh?"

...The week before last, an Azeri taxi driver, when he found out I was Armenian, pulled over and made me listen to his favourite Armenian singer before he would let let me out of his cab.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Gloves in a cold climate

I have two pairs of beautiful cashmere-lined gloves, which were given to me as an unexpected and extravagant gift this fall. They've become something of a luxurious curse, though, in that every time I wear them or even think about them, I worry so much about losing them that I forget how lovely they are. I clench my fists when I wear them so I'll remember what it's like to have them on, so I won't leave them on a counter or a library shelf. That my hands would be cold would not be reminder enough, apparently.

When I was growing up, we had a box of countless pairs of one-size-fits-all purple gloves from Wal-Mart in the hall closet, and my brother and I would pick out one or two to replace whatever we had lost on the playground that day, week, etc. I would like for life to still be this simple. I still prefer this method for umbrellas: why would I buy a nice umbrella if I know chances are good I'll lose it, sometimes in the same rainstorm that I've bought it? I don't think anyone who lives on Riverside Drive can really take their chances with a nice umbrella, either, as the wind off the river has whipped my just-purchased deli umbrella into a sad bat corpse too many times.

Somehow I manage to hold on to scarves--I keep mine on indoors, so that's a way to remember.

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Blogger Meg on Sun Dec 16, 04:25:00 PM:
The good thing about umbrellas is that you are as likely to find one on the subway as you are to lose one!
Blogger Katy on Mon Dec 17, 11:04:00 AM:
Target sells stretchy gloves and mittens in packages of two for $1.49. I bought a whole stack of them. They're warmer than I expected and perfect for layering.
Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Dec 24, 04:30:00 PM:
Alice is getting 2 packs of those Target gloves (the bright green striped ones) in her stocking. I bought them before I read this column, but maybe I should get some more....
Blogger Marina on Mon Dec 31, 05:16:00 AM:
I think it should be acceptable for adults to have their gloves on ribbons or elastic, like Toddlers do. I mean, it could even become a statement: I am thinking of higher things, so I require help with my gloves?

I lose gloves, too. It's always a sadness.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

4:40 in the 3rd

4:40 in the 3rd. That's when the crowd started shouting "Fire Isiah!" at Saturday night's Knicks-76ers game. Ben was very generous and gave me his tickets--he got high culture at BAM, I saw the lowest of the low at MSG (but it was amazing). The Sixers had yet to win two games in a row this season before that night; the Knicks were sluggish and barely looked like they were trying. When the chants started, I exclaimed to my roommate, "I've been waiting for this moment all night!"

I don't really need to go on about how awesome the seats were--except that I do. The seats were behind the basket near the Sixers bench. I could hear the players talking to one another. Fat Joe was seated not far away. During the halftime break, he stood out on the court and greeted each player with a hug. I can't remember, but I think they may have used "Lean Back" to try to drown out the boos. They played it at least once during the evening.

A few other notes from the game:

The heady atmosphere at court level made me totally OK with ordering an $8 22 oz. Budweiser.

Nate Robinson is small, but he's playing with more enthusiasm than any other Knick. He scored 25 in the second half after not playing at all in the first.

David Lee is also good.

Great line from the guys seated next to me when the Jumbotron did some sort of feature on Eddy Curry and Jamal Crawford: "How 'bout showing me some '94 Knicks instead?"

From the guys behind me:

A: I'd play against Robinson and score on him.
B: I'd play against Crawford and score on him.
A: He'd fuck you up and save something for dessert.

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Blogger Ben on Sat Dec 15, 04:12:00 PM:
My impressions from watching a preseason game at MSG were the same as yours: Nate Robinson and David Lee played well; Marbury, Randolph and Curry, not so well.

Monday, December 10, 2007

"Prologues to What Is Possible": Wallace Stevens does the Year in Ideas

The New York Times Magazine's Year in Ideas issue is always one of my favorites, and this year did not disappoint. I wasn't surprised to note how many of the articles concerned emergent phenomena: for example, the vase constructed by bees, digital search parties for Steve Fossett and Jim Gray, and mob jurisprudence. Furthermore, many of the articles were about the possibilities of "scaling up" or "scaling down" a procedure or an effect to see what would happen. The dielectric elastomer may be a way to capture the energy outputs from ocean waves, and "while the energy output was a paltry five watts, the firm hopes to scale up." On his company's attempts to capture lightning in a bottle, Donald Gillespie is working on an idea that controlling scaleability is the key to mastery: “Given enough time and money, you could probably scale this thing up,” he says. “It’s not black magic; it’s truly math and science, and it could happen.” (Another scientist interviewed for the article notes that while the electricity generated in a thunderstorm is immense, the electricity that reaches the ground is dissipated--thus the scale isn't the only problem in this experiment.) Then there's the lovely examples of fake tilt-shift photo sets on Flickr, which can make pictures of landscapes or cityscapes look like a tiny scale models--what a delightful play with perception of scale!

I loved Steven Johnson's Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and have found much of his vocabulary to be provocative even for my own weird study of eighteenth-century error correction and footnotes. I use his vocabulary of zooming in and zooming out to talk to my writing students about places to close-read a text and places to incorporate a wider sense of perspective. It's neat to see how these ideas play out in other contexts.

I was particularly interested in a throwaway reference in Clive Thompson's "Knot Physics" article about physicists who have developed a different kind of string theory: "In October they published their results in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with a title worthy of Wallace Stevens: 'Spontaneous knotting of an agitated string.'" Wallace Stevens is a great poet of scaleability (and not just cool titles for his poems): many of his poems are about shifting human perspective to see the earth or a landscape from far away or really close up, when its thing-ness becomes or threatens to become unrecognizable. How does language work then? Here's "Chocorua to its Neighbor":
To speak quietly at such a distance, to speak
And to be heard is to be large in space,
That, like your own, is large, hence, to be part
Of sky, of sea, large earth, large air. It is
To perceive men without reference to their form.

Stevens is also obsessed with hidden orders, as in "Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue":
...If ploughmen, peacocks, doves alike
In vast disorder live in the ruins, free,
The charts destroyed, even disorder may,
So seen, have an order of its own, a peace
Not now to be perceived yet order's own.

That interest is also apparent in "The Connoisseur of Chaos":
A. A violent order is disorder; and
B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)
A. Well, an old order is a violent one.
This proves nothing. Just one more truth, one more
Element in the immense disorder of truths.

(See also "Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas" and a great poem about earthquakes, "Chaos in Motion and Not in Motion")

So I decided to pair a few of the articles from the Year in Ideas section with parts of Wallace Stevens poems, just to see what would happen when you read a poet who's interested in how "the truth seems to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them" (here's Wikipedia for the cite) with people who are trying out ideas in very much the same realm.

Ambiguity promotes liking: "Why? For starters, initial information is open to interpretation. 'And people are so motivated to find somebody they like that they read things into the profiles,' Norton says. If a man writes that he likes the outdoors, his would-be mate imagines her perfect skiing companion, but when she learns more, she discovers 'the outdoors' refers to nude beaches. And 'once you see one dissimilarity, everything you learn afterward gets colored by that,' Norton says.
"Of Modern Poetry":
The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

Cardboard bridge: "Though the bridge resembled a life-size erector set, its diameter and curvature were modeled on the classic proportions of the Pont du Gard’s arch. 'It was an interesting contrast,' Ban says. 'But it was both a contrast and a harmony.'"
last stanza of "To an Old Philosopher in Rome":
Total grandeur of a total edifice,
Chosen by an inquisitor of structures
For himself. He stops upon this threshold,
As if the design of all his words takes form
And frame from thinking and is realized.

Edible cocktail: "Arnold calls this kind of cucumber a 'flash pickle,' as the changes in texture and flavor that can take days to produce with salt and brine take about two minutes in the vacuum machine. Each spear has roughly the same amount of alcohol as a standard martini. To serve, he sprinkles the spears with celery seed, grated lime zest and flaky Maldon sea salt."
from "Someone Puts a Pineapple Together" (my favorite title)
Universal delusions of universal grandeurs,
The slight incipiencies, of which the form,
At last, is the pineapple on the table or else

An object the sum of its complications, seen
And unseen. This is everybody's world.
Here the total artifice reveals itself

As the total reality. Therefore it is
One says even of the odor of this fruit
That steeps the room, quickly, then not at all,

It is more than the odor of this core of earth
And water. It is that which is distilled
In the prolific ellipses that we know...

Indie-rock musicals: "Why did he and his theater peers choose to work with indie rock? It may be because the idiom’s technical tics and idiosyncrasies lend their productions a feel of eccentricity, and of endearing amateurism, qualities still largely alien to Broadway."
from "The Comedian as the Letter C":
The lutanist of fleas, the knave, the thane,
The ribboned stick, the bellowing breeches, cloak
Of China, cap of Spain, imperative haw
Of hum, inquisitorial botanist,
And general lexicographer of mute
And maidenly greenhorns, now beheld himself,
A skinny sailor peering in the sea-glass.
What word split up in clickering syllables
And storming under multitudinous tones
Was name for this short-shanks in all that brunt?
Crispin was washed away by magnitude.
The whole of life that still remained in him
Dwindled to one sound strumming in his ear,
Ubiquitous concussion, slap and sigh,
Polyphony beyond his baton's thrust.

Pixellated stained glass: "an abstract composition of 11,500 identically sized units — at 14.5 square inches each, they are frequently compared to pixels — in 72 colors, the arrangement of which was determined randomly by a computer program."
from "As at a Theatre":
Another sunlight might make another world,
Green, more or less, in green and blue in blue,
Like taste distasting the first fruit of the vine,
Like an eye too young to grapple its primitive,
Like the artifice of a new reality,
Like the chromatic calendar of time to come.

Self-Righting Object: "They began looking to see if they could find a naturally occurring example; at one point, Domokos was so obsessed that he spent hours testing 2,000 pebbles on a beach to see if they could right themselves. (None could.) After several more years of scratching their heads, they finally hit upon a shape that looked promising. They designed it on a computer, and when it came back from the manufacturer, they nervously tipped it over, wondering if all their work would be for naught. Nope: the Gomboc performed perfectly. 'It’s a very nice mathematical problem because you can hold the proof in your hands — and it’s quite beautiful,' Varkonyi says."
"Man Carrying a Thing":
The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:

A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists

The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived

Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,

Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,

Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror thoughts that suddenly are real.

We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motnionless in cold.

Wave energy: "Imagine a cable of elastomer with one end tied to the ocean bottom and the other attached to a buoy on the surface. When the buoy rides up a crest of the wave, it stretches the elastomer. When it sinks into a trough, it contracts and then generates a pulse of electricity."
"The Place of Solitaires":
Let the place of the solitaires
Be a place of perpetual undulation.

Whether it be in mid-sea
On the dark, green water-wheel,
Or on on the beaches,
There must be no cessation
Of motion, or of the noise of motion,
The renewal of noise
And manifold continuation;

And most, of the motion of thought
And its restless iteration,

In the place of the solitares,
Which is to be a place of perpetual undulation.


Sunday, December 09, 2007

Au Revoir Parapluie

I saw a brilliant dance performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last night called "Au Revoir Parapluie." It was like a mash-up of Charlie Chaplin (the director and star is Chaplin's grandson), Harold Pinter, David Elsewhere, Penn & Teller, Cirque du Soleil and Terry Gilliam. The audience was gasping and hooting, including lots of children, which is a rare thing for serious dance to achieve.

The show runs through Sunday, Dec 16 (2007).

From Ben Brantley's review in the Times:

Mr. Thiérrée’s character believes he has lost his daughter, only to discover she is on his back; he swirls into a waltz with what he thinks is his wife, then realizes she is not with him. An idyllic trip to the seashore is booby-trapped with blades of grass that turn into weapons and a giant predatory fish. Such images have the resonance of fragments from nightmares. (The next morning, I found I had twice written in my notes, “I DREAMED THIS.”)

Giant fishhooks figure memorably in this production, as do a rainstorm of badminton birdies and what has to be the most fabulous costume of the year: a spinning white hat and matching Victorian dress with an animated train worn by Ms. Sendow.

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Letters from Mars

Yesterday in the Times, he always sublime Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote that reading Doris Lessing's science fiction has inspired him to envision the other book he is reading, the 18th century letters of Mary Wortley Montagu, as if they were written on an alien planet in the future:

What struck me was the impact of reading Montagu as if she were writing from the future. For one thing, it helps undo an inherent chronological bias peculiar to our own time — the belief that we live on a progressive timeline of steady advancement. It’s too easy for us to assume that the past is merely precursor to the present, as if we had absorbed all its wisdoms and replaced its outmoded tools, rendering it irrelevant.

Science fiction of Ms. Lessing’s sort is the comparative study of civilizations, and that is one of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s purposes, too. Pretending that Montagu is writing from centuries in the future allows me to see her civilization in its own light, rather than as just a diminished version of ours.

It is hard to remove an artistic experience like reading Montagu from the context of what you assume about her time and what it means to you. Maybe what is valuable in Klinkenborg's exercise isn't the specific setting provided by Doris Lessing's sci-fi, but just that he is using some context for Montagu other than the one he would normally assume.

(Side note: Jonathan Lethem, Octavia Butler and others who complain that "sci-fi" is unfairly treated as a literary ghetto are right, even in this day of admired crossovers like Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I played the party game "Celebrity" during Thanksgiving, and was roundly shouted down when I called Doris Lessing a science fiction writer.)

Like everyone, I'm sorta ambivalent about avant-garde and experimental art, but Klinkenborg's essay makes me wonder if I've been expecting the wrong things from it. I've always assumed the intention of avant-garde art is to upend my expectations and confront me; thus I fault it when it fails to make a clear case that I'm wrong about something. But I haven't thought about the value of just presenting familiar themes (justice in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, maybe, or parenthood in Harold Pinter's The Play about the Baby) in an unfamiliar context.

In the NY Times Book Review today, George Saunders has an essay on a fascinating, newly translated Russian fiction writer named Daniil Kharms. Kharms's stories aggressively carve storytelling elements out of their usual context:
In “Blue Notebook #10,” for example, Kharms starts out conventionally enough (“There was a redheaded man ...”) but then, as if reacting against all the common ways a writer might further describe this redheaded man, veers off in a mini-critique of the descriptive tradition itself. This redheaded man, we learn, “had no eyes or ears.” Succumbing to a strange frequency in his underlying logic, Kharms begins Kharmsifying: “He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily.” By the end of the story — a scant two paragraphs later — our poor redheaded man has also been shorn of his mouth, nose, arms, legs, stomach, back, spine and insides. “There was nothing!” Kharms crisply concludes. “So, we don’t even know who we’re talking about. We’d better not talk about him anymore.”
Saunders describes Kharms's writing as something like authorial civil disobedience: not only is he screwing with the context the story takes place in, he's refusing to allow the reader the experience of reading a story at all.

Alice pointed out to me that David Fincher's film Zodiac explores some of this same ground. In Fincher's telling, the investigation of the killings starts as a puzzle to be solved but disintegrates into a mess where each new clue seems to be cut from a different jigsaw. Here and there, events burst the seams of the police procedural genre and spill haphazardly. As the chance for clear resolution becomes distant, some characters accept that this puzzle cannot be assembled, while others (and viewers) long so hard for closure that they tell themselves lies to force the pieces together.

Saunders captures a similar longing when he describes what it's like to read Kharms:
Exiting a Kharms story, we are newly aware of how hungry we are for rising action, and we have a fresh respect for, and (importantly) suspicion of, storytelling itself. We’re reminded that narrative is not life, but a trick a writer does with language, to make beauty.
Of course, one result of this was that Kharms has not been anthologized, isn't assigned to be read, isn't often translated, isn't often remembered. Artists who become famous for fighting against closure were able to be successful, partially, because they actually do admit some closure: Arnold Schoenberg's pieces sometimes broke from his professed dissonant formulas to give the listener consonant codas; Jorge Borges ends short stories with explanatory revelations (the killing was meant to be printed as a code in the newspaper, or the elaborate Babylonian lottery is actually a metaphor for chance itself); and Fincher, at the end of Zodiac, gives viewers a final scene that strongly suggests one of the film's competing truths is the correct one. I don't fault them for these spoonfuls of sugar, because they usually enhance the medicine. (Though in the case of Zodiac, the resolution feels like a cop-out.)

Finally, in celebration of freedom from false resolution, I wont bother to draw myself to a close!

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Seduction and betrayal

Elizabeth Hardwick, who died on Sunday at the age of 91, always struck me as a great comma-user. Here’s a good indicator of her comma prowess from her novel-memoir, Sleepless Nights (1979):
“Beginnings are always delightful; the threshold is the place to pause,” Goethe said. New York once more, to remain forever, resting on its generous accommodation of women. Long dresses arrogance, more chances to deceive the deceitful, confidants, conspirators, charge cards.

The commas and the nouns together, that deft play with parallel structure and the list format, interest in Hardwick's work. That passage reminds me, both in its commas and in its content, of my favorite pre-1983 short story, Katherine Anne Porter’s “Theft” (1929). Here’s the end of Porter’s story (so many of her short stories in this collection are good; she’s fascinating to read next Hardwick):
In this moment she felt that she had been robbed of an enormous number of valuable things, whether material or intangible: things lost or broken by her own fault, things she had forgotten and left in houses when she moved: books borrowed form her and not returned, journeys she had planned and had not made, words she had waited to hear spoken to her and had not heard, and the words she had meant to answer with; bitter alternatives and intolerable substitutes worse than nothing, and yet inexplicable: the long patient suffering of dying friendships and the dark inexplicable death of love—-all that she had had, and all that she had missed were lost together, and were twice lost in this landslide of remembered losses.
She laid the purse on the table and sat down with the cup of chilled coffee, and thought: I was right not be afraid of any thief but myself, who will end by leaving me nothing.

If the threshold is the place to pause, Hardwick pauses at the end of the book to consider how those commas and nouns both do and do not sound right after she’s written them. I came to Hardwick after reading her introductions to the Modern Library edition of Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Didion wrote the introduction to Hardwick's Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature. The "do and do not" of the first sentence of the paragraph is totally Didion's influence on me (maybe Porter's, also?); she's another great compiler of counter-intuitive but elegant lists. Here's Hardwick's closing paragraphs:
Yet why is it that we cannot keep the note of irony, the jangle of carelessness at a distance? Sentences in which I have tried for a certain light tone—many of those have to do with events, upheavals, destructions that caused me to weep like a child.
The torment of personal relations. Nothing new there except in the disguise, and in the escape on the wings of adjectives. Sweet to be pierced by daggers at the end of paragraphs.

Sometimes I resent the glossary, the concordance of truth, many have about my real life, have like an extra pair of spectacles. I mean that such fact is to me a hindrance to memory.

These paragraphs of Sleepless Nights give me a chance to reconsider the ways in which Katha Pollitt has both framed and destabilized her own "escape on the wings of adjectives" in her new essay collection, Learning to Drive. It's a connection I hadn’t thought about until I re-read Hardwick last night: both of them are unsure about the possibility of description as a way to record "the torment of personal relations." I’ve been struggling with Pollitt’s new book for a few months—-really-—because my first reaction to it was so ambivalent. Yet I keep returning to it. The book is a collection of essays, two of which were originally published in the New Yorker to some infamy. “Learning to Drive,” about her picking up the pieces after her former partner’s betrayals, and “Webstalker,” about her discovery of more of his betrayals through the use of Google, were both deeply personal confessions. Honestly, part of me didn’t want to read such personal work from her; I had really thought of her as my infallible hero from reading her columns in the Nation. Or no, not infallible, but something else: vulnerable.

Pollitt spoke to Anna Quindlen at a public reading at CUNY back in October; Pollitt expressed some reasonable indignation at the critical piling-on she’s taken for the book. She and Quindlen asked each other, and the audience, about the nature of the response: Why do we want women to be infallible? Why can’t feminists admit to moments of personal ambivalence or vulnerability? The connection between Quindlen and Pollitt seemed a bit strained to me; Quindlen made a career writing about her personal life as a working journalist mother for the New York Times, but her essays are much breezier than Pollitt’s. Maybe one of the reasons Pollitt’s writing provokes such strong emotions is that she isn’t trying to make the reader identify with her or even like her all the time—-and that’s not a comfortable position for the reader who’s eager to see her as the source of all practical wisdom and no-nonsense political analysis.

Reading Pollitt with Hardwick puts a lot of those concerns in perspective. Here's Pollitt in the title essay of the book, where the list functions not just as a set of observations but also turns into a litany of self-recriminations:
Observation is my weakness. I did not realize that my mother was a secret drinker. I did not realize that the man I lived with, my soul mate, made for me in Marxist heaven, was a dedicated philanderer, that the drab colleague he insinuated into our social life was his longstanding secret lover, or that the young art critic he mocked as silly and second-rate was being groomed as my replacement. I noticed that our apartment was becoming a grunge palace, with papers collecting dust on every surface and kitty litter crunching underfoot. I observed--very good, Kahta!--that I was spending many hours in my study, engaged in arcane e-mail debates with strangers, that I had gained twenty-five pounds in our seven years together and could not fit into many of my clothes. I realized it was not likely that the unfamiliar pink-and-black striped bikini panties in the clean-clothes basket were the result, as he claimed, of a simple laundry-room mixup. But all this awareness was like the impending danger in one of those slow-motion dreams of paralysis, information that could not be processed. It was like seeing the man with the suitcase step off the curb and driving forward anyway.

I hope that that's a fitting tribute to Hardwick: she made me reconsider other writers' work in a new way. There are echoes between the two writers in the content as well, as the narrator in Hardwick's novel looks back at a diffident relationship:
I was honored when he allowed me to go to bed with him and dishonored when I felt my imaginative, anxious, exhausting efforts were not what he wanted. His handsomeness created anxiety in me; his snobbery was detailed and full of quirks, like that of people living in provincial capitals, or foreigners living in Florence or Cairo. Worst of all was my ambivalence over what I took to to be the inauthenticity of his Marxism. In my heart I was weasel-like, hungry, hunting with blazing eyes for innocent contradictions, given to predatory chewings on the difference between theory and practice. That is what I had brought from home in Kentucky to New York, this large bounty of polemicism, stored away behind light, limp Southern hair and not-quite-blue eyes.

Pollitt and Hardwick share an attention to detail in describing the edges of seduction and betrayal. In the New York Review of Books, which Hardwick founded with Jacob and Barbara Epstein in 1963, Cathleen Schine reviewed Pollitt's essay collection positively and drew attention to her "poet's eye for detail." Here's Schine's rave about Pollitt's style:
Pollitt is constantly distracted by extraneous yet somehow essential details. But it is exactly this peculiar vision, so rich and so irrelevant, that drives the book and, one begins to see, drives the writer as well. ... Far from being a fault in her perception, this is her way of seeing the world. In constant pursuit of an ideology, a soul mate, the answer, Pollitt keeps finding poetry instead.

Schine's review seems more like an appreciation to me: I see that Pollitt has an eye for detail, but I think there's a built-in critique of that descriptive power in the "Learning to Drive," where the telling details don't provide all the comfort they're supposed to, hence "observation is my weakness." That talent for picking nouns and arranging them gets worn out in the lists of anxieties and disappointments (Hardwick), catalogs of things lost (Porter), and personal recriminations (all three authors). The procedure turns back on itself at the same time that it enumerates the details so fastidiously. Here’s Hardwick realizing how people use description of particular details in a transparent, self-serving way as her sometime-attachment, the vaguely inauthentic Marxist, complains to her about being left by his longtime girlfriend:
Old English wallpaper, carpets, Venetian mirrors, decorated vases, marble mantelpieces, buzzers under the rug around the dining-room table, needlepoint seats: Alex was making an inventory of Sarah’s Philadelphia house before her mother died. Complaining that there wasn’t an Eakins ... Naturally not ... .They weren’t smart enough for that.

On he went. I cannot tell you how badly Sarah and her man have behaved ... The smugness, the cheapness ... Terrible, terrible clichés. Everything supposed to be of value turned overnight into an item of indictment ... My writing, my politics, my life, my friends ... Now listen, listen carefully. She had the nerve to say that it was not him... him... not at all. Merely the occasion ... yes, she’s capable of that phrase ... No, the thing with us had been for a long time, she said. Dead ... What a lie.

Everyone says that. I wouldn’t take it seriously.

He was getting drunk. Don’t tell me what to take seriously. I will take what I please.
He is leaving. Suddenly, at the door, a smile drifted through the darkness of his face. All the bones lit up and the melancholy eyes glittered.

It is pleasant to lay out the evidence.

Pollitt makes that evidence-collection into something manic in "Webstalker" when she tries to guess the philandering Marxist's password--a move that's thoroughly alienating and off-putting to read--but maybe that's the exhausted endpoint of seeing one's talent for generating nouns go to seed. Pollitt writes,
had his password--"marxist"--or did I? When I asked him what his password was, a few months before he left, he had cleared his throat and paused. I attributed this hesitation to modesty--he was embarrassed to claim such a heroic identity, or to use such a large, noble, world-historical word for such a trivial purpose. But perhaps he hesitated because he was afraid I would use it and find out his secrets--or was thinking up a fake password so that I couldn't. In any case, "marxist" didn't work when I tried to access his mail through did any of the other words I tried: "marxism," "marx," "karlmarx," "engels," "communist," "communism," "pannekoek," "korsch," "luxemburg," "luxembourg," "belgium," "chocolate," "godiva," "naked," "breast," "cunnilingus," "fellatio," or the names of our cats, his new girlfriend, his mother's dead golden retriever. My password is "secret," which is so obvious that e-mail programs cite it as the exact word not to choose, but which I liked because it was a pun--"secret" as a secret password, the word that is also the thing itself. I noticed he didn't ask for my password, but I told him anyway.

That turn to the word "secret" that contradicts the thing its supposed to refer to, the password, is almost a comment in and of itself on the key feature of the confessonal essay. The New Yorker labeled these pieces "personal history," but they read more like confessions--and that's what troubled many readers about them. Writing about Pollitt's book for the New York Times Book Review in an extraordinarily unpleasant review, Toni Bentley insisted that she didn't want to read these confessions: "It’s hard to tell if she’s coming into her own, trying to sell more books or has lost it entirely." On Salon, Rebecca Traister wrote a column about Bentley's review and other responses to Pollitt's work that takes up the question about why readers don't want to see this vulnerability.

I admit, I read the first paragraphs of "Webstalker" out loud to my mom when it was published in the New Yorker, and she shouted over the phone, "Stop it Alice, stop it! It's my birthday!" Neither of us are big fans of the confessional. I was especially interested in this Slate conversation between Laura Kipnis and Daphne Merkin about The Female Thing. The discussion is prickly, and each writer appears to be intentionally misunderstand her pen pal in every entry, as though they want to push the boundaries of what interpreting each other's confessions might mean into a stalemate. Here's Kipnis objecting to Merkin's question about why she doesn't insert more of herself into her analysis:
I feel on slightly thin ice here, as I'm corresponding with someone known for confessional writing. My own reaction to this genre is, I confess, a little mixed. Well, to be honest, I often find myself appalled—while also completely fascinated, of course. Not only by the magnitude of the narcissism, but by the losing battle between the requirement to display self-knowledge, and the vastness of what you simply can't know about yourself—most of which is usually all too apparent to your reading public. In today's literary confessionals there's generally a predictable structure: the passage from problem to insight; meaning that some variety of curative self-knowledge must be produced before a denouement can be achieved. One thing this means is that even self-styled bad girls—your essay on spanking, for instance, or Toni Bentley's The Surrender—end up renouncing some illicit sexual pleasure for the higher rewards of self-realization. (How depressing if it turns out that inside every bad girl, there's a reformed bad girl screaming to get out!) What's framed as daring truth-telling actually follows strict genre conventions, covertly appeals to the reader (or some higher authority) for approval, and the clichés structuring the self-realizations frequently seem to mirror the conventions of 12-step culture: the addiction-recovery-testimonial model.

(In her review of Pollitt, Bentley mentions both Kipnis and Merkin and ties them together; their conversation on Slate would seem to indicate that neither one of them wants to be compared to her mode of confessionalism.) I'm very much on board with Kipnis here, but reading her with Hardwick, Porter, and, yes, Didion, illuminates her play with the conventions of descriptive writing and with confession in a way I hadn't seen before. My mom is no big supporter of my Didion obsession; she frequently cites Barbara Grizutti Harrison's famous indictment of her writing as style masquerading as substance in those elegant lists. My defense of Didion, Hardwick, and now Pollitt is that all of those authors manipulate the style and show it not to work in some important parts of their writing. Pollitt, in that admission of bad observation and in the story about the secret, provides a hint of a critique of the confession at the same time that she's doing it, precisely by using those problematic lists to register what Porter called "bitter alternatives and intolerable substitutes worse than nothing, and yet inexplicable."

With Merkin and Quindlen, there's a lot of Barnard here, no (Hardwick taught creative writing at Barnard in the '80s)? I'll just throw in for closing that Margot, from Noah Baumbauch's new film Margot at the Wedding confesses to being an alumna. The movie is too painful to watch at times, but that connection to the writer who confesses and withholds at the same time seemed irresistable.


Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Dec 06, 11:29:00 AM:
Awesome, Alice!

I especially love when Barbara Grizutti Harrison refers to Joan Didion as being lost in some "Ayn Rand wasteland." I can't totally disagree, but then, it makes me feel dirty to read Didion, so I'm happy to live by my feminist contradictions.
Anonymous qotu on Mon Aug 10, 04:46:00 PM:
Bentley seems to hate, hate women - all the more so if they aren't beautiful in her eyes. Oddly enough, she goes after Pollitt for referring to the ex as "G" when the best she herself could come up with (punctiliously noting the Marquis de Sade's given name, Donatien, notwithstanding for chrissakes!) for the man who changed her life - or at least upon whom she projected all that - via all that anal sex, was "A-Man" - evoking ether some B-list superhero or Seinfeld's Kramer's Assman ,depending on one's cultural frame of reference.

Bentley's "The Surrender" withholds a lot. Interestingly the missing puzzle pieces are found in Bentley's critiques of others. It's pathetic and transparent.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Content as occasion

I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own at least three times in classes at Barnard. I also read it in my high school’s senior year Humanities class; my eighteen-year-old classmates insisted that the lesson from the book was, “women used to not have any rights, and then we gave them some.” I got predictably furious—-and ended up writing my college essay about how I figured out that indignation wasn’t the most productive classroom behavior and learned how to be a more thoughtful feminist. (Hello, Barnard!)

We read it as one of the first books in the Women and Culture First-Year Seminar; then again in a Centennial Scholars seminar that focused on interdisciplinary work; and maybe also in a seventeenth-century poetry class where we wondered about why Woolf had characterized Margaret Cavendish as "a vision of loneliness and riot ... as if some giant cucumber had spread itself all over the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death," when it was plain to see that she was awesome. Except in that last discussion, when we were critical of Woolf’s formulation of barriers and negative examples to describe a much richer history (that was indeed available to her), I never felt satisfied with these classroom discussions. They always seemed to have the same predetermined course toward the class bickering about whether Woolf was “right” or not. One possibly more productive way to look at Woolf’s description of Judith Shakespeare and the progress of women’s writing from that imagined example’s tortured status through angry Cavendish, to Anne Finch, to Frances Burney, to Jane Austen is to historicize it. Why did she make this argument at this point in time? What stake did she have in framing women’s literary history this way; why does her argument about the value of women's education depend on flattening the landscape of literary history in order to make the evidence for progress through education?

Maybe it’s difficult to focus on historicizing texts in an undergraduate and the other impulse is to go for "provocative" discussions ("how do we still see this process play out today?") or thematic discussions ("what do we think about women's oppression?"). I’m positive this practice isn’t unique to Barnard, or to discussions of Virginia Woolf, or to discussions of so-called non-canonical texts. But in debates about what students are learning--at Barnard, women's progress through education--somehow the non-canonical texts are the things that come in for criticism, not the particularities of the day’s discussion or the questions that are asked about a text. For this reason, I was interested to read Juli Weiner’s article from the Blue & White, "'Pretty Good' Books," about critiques of Barnard’s First-Year Seminar program and the school’s “Nine Ways of Knowing” curriculum.

There are a lot of critiques that get kind of mixed up in the article: students interviewed cite the problem of reading non-canonical texts, of not reading enough female authors, having obliquely conceived thematic seminars such as “Symmetry” or “Death,” sitting through poor classroom discussions, and living with their classmates if they are in a residential seminar assignment. Some of these concerns seem like reasonable critiques of particular classes, but it’s difficult to link them into a general critique of the curriculum. The main critique seems to be of the idea of using "content as occasion": some students worry that they’re not getting as rich an education because they aren’t reading the same Great Books syllabus as Columbia students in the Core Curriculum. Weiner writes,
Lit Hum and CC, the centerpieces of the Core, require the study of canonical texts with inherent historical, literary or philosophical value, while in the seminar program, the texts function as a springboard for discussion. "The emphasis is not on what we read," explained Mindy Aloff, a professor who currently teaches The Art of Being Oneself. "The seminars are to encourage skills in writing, reading, and speaking. The content is an occasion for helping people do something else."

But the "Content as Occasion" philosophy--namely, that worthwhile content is not a necessary component of meaningful discussion--contributes to the widespread dissatisfaction with the FYS program. The seminars are a jumble of disorganized syllabi, reluctant professors, and disillusioned students. Furthermore, when it comes to meeting their objective--providing an intellectual foundation outside the rigid strictures of the canon--many students say they fail. The disappointment is particularly acute because these are first-year courses. They should provide the means and the desire for four years of intellectual growth--one of the aims of the 9 Ways of Knowing. Instead they risk extinguishing any academic curiosity.

Lauren Saltiel, BC '10, characterized the collective disdain as a sentiment directed not at specific classes, but at the entire program. "I didn't really go into the seminar thinking it would be this great discussion class--it's just something I had to do and didn't have high expectations for." The lack of seriousness regarding the construction of FYS and the incoherence of the syllabi are evident in the administration's nonchalant attitude toward canonical considerations. "We like to say: 'Not Great Books, but pretty good books,'" laughed Robert McCaughey, looking down at his anchor-patterned tie. A current professor of The Beautiful Sea, McCaughey was the founding director of the FYS program from 1983-1987. Were this same statement applied to Barnard's intellectual mission the result would be offensive: Let's not produce great minds, but pretty good minds.

I think, although I could be mistaken, that McCaughey is being ironic in that quotation, and the extrapolation that "pretty good books" are linked to pretty good minds is a willfully ludicrous interpretation of the quotation.

Indeed, I find it difficult to predict whether a classroom discussion is going to be amazing. I wish they were always amazing! But I’ve been in classes about excellent books—-canonical texts and non-canonical texts alike-—where the discussion has fallen flat, and I’ve been in situations with books I liked less—-again, canonical texts and non-canonical texts alike—-where the discussions have been wonderful. The wonderful discussions far outnumbered the flat ones, but I'm willing to admit that my experience may be rosier than others'. Sometimes I even say that I like talking about flawed books more because I’m interested in finding the seams where books don’t fit together and using that gap as an invitation to discuss content and style. I think it’s my job either as a teacher or a student to capitalize on those moments as places for inquiry.

For this reason and others, some of the anecdotes in the Blue & White story trouble me for how the author wants to make them point to representing some fundamental problem with the “content as occasion” model. Frankly, I find it hard to take seriously any critique of a class where the students complain about not having anything to say about reading Borges. The “transcript” of classroom discussion indicates that the instructor asked unproductive questions, but the dead end seems like a sad resolution to “The Garden of Forking Paths”--or whatever the were reading. The text itself gets lost in the complaint. What happened to the students’ agency and responsibility in this anecdote, in this classroom?

The other question I had about this failed “Symmetry” seminar is: from these anecdotes, what do we learn about the kinds of limitations that thematic-based may discussions present? It’s been my experience that students are used to having thematic discussions about love, justice, women, oppression, and so on; I believe the thing that a First-Year Seminar should really focus on is learning how to ask good classroom discussions that will generate good essays. That means modeling thoughtful, specific questions as an instructor--something that isn't obvious at first and that I had to learn how to do--but it also means instilling in the students some sense of responsibility for class discussions. For this reason, I’m less apt to blame the syllabus for these negative experiences in First-Year Seminar than I am to ask the students, What would you do differently with that text? What would you recommend adding or changing about the syllabus?

In the passage I quoted from the article, I bolded "inherent" because... really? We're not going to treat that word like it's problematic? (Everyone's favorite word at Barnard.) I re-read John Guillory's Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation a couple of weeks ago because I was thinking a lot about the Core Curriculum, and I can't recommend that book more highly for anyone who's interested in the history of the canon. Gerald Graff's Professing Literature: An Institutional History is also excellent for its look at how colleges and universities have organized syllabi over the past two centuries and how people have debated the inclusion and exclusion of certain works from the canon. Guillory puts under pressure three claims that have been taken for granted on both sides of the debate:
1. Canonical texts are the repositories of cultural values.
2. The selection of texts is the selection of values.
3. Values must be either intrinsic or extrinsic to the work.

Having considered some of the debates about the Stanford Western Culture syllabus that took place in the late '80s and early '90s, Guillory writes,
A syllabus will necessarily be limited by the constraints of a particular class and its rubric, even by the irreducibly material constraint that only so much can be read or studied in a given class. In no classroom is the 'canon' itself the object of study. Where does it appear, then? It would be better to say that the canon is an imaginary totality of works. No one has access to the canon as a totality. This fact is true in the trivial sense that no one ever reads every canonical work; no one can, because the works invoked as canonical change continually according to many different occasions of judgment or contestation. What this means is that the canon is never other than an imaginary list; it never appears as a complete and uncontested list in any particular time and place, not even in the form of the omnibus anthology, which remains a selection from a larger list which does not itself appear anywhere in the anthology's table of contents. In this context, the distinction between the canonical and the noncanonical can be seen not as the form in which judgments are actually made about individual works, but as an effect of the syllabus as an institutional instrument, the fact that works not included on a given syllabus appear to have no status at all. The historical condition of literature is that of a complex continuum of major works, minor works, works read primarily in research contexts, works as yet simply shelved in the archive. Anyone who studies historical literatures knows that the archive contains an indefinite number of works of manifest cultural interest and accomplishment. While these works might be regarded as 'noncanonical' in some pedagogic contexts--for example, the context of the 'great works' survey--their noncanonical status is not necessarily equivalent in anyone's judgment to a zero-degree of interest or value. The fact that we conventionally recognize as 'the canon' only those works included in such survey courses or anthologies as the Norton or the Oxford suggests to what extent the debate about the canon has been driven by institutional agendas, for which the discourse of the 'masterpiece' provides such a loud accompaniment. The merest familiarity with historical context brings the continuum of cultural works back into focus and demonstrates that the field of writing does not contain only two kinds of works, either great or of no interest at all. For this reason the category of the 'noncanonical' is entirely inadequate to describe the status of works which do not appear in a given syllabus of study.

There's a lot of other good stuff in Guillory's book. (And if you wanted to get more out of Borges than shows up in the article, you might consider his Library of Babel with this idea of selection versus exclusion.)

I want to return to Woolf, though, because I think she's an interesting example of how the canon can be reified for particular social purposes, in her argument as a negative example. She's a fascinating author to read in a classroom that's conscious of the syllabus as a site of selection as different from exclusion, a distinction that Guillory is careful to explain. She refers repeatedly to not being able to access the works of Cavendish or other female authors because of institutional constraints upon her at the university and at the library. Thus the history she gives reflects her reaction to the institutions more than it does some lasting judgment on these authors' work.

Cavendish is such an apt example of this very problem--I don't think Woolf ever addresses this coincidence--because she writes, too, of being locked out of the Royal Society meetings in seventeenth-century London and thus imagining a "blazing-world" where she could oversee her own natural philosophical experiments and divide up institutional and disciplinary knowledge differently. Her definition of what would constitute a genre for knowledge-production would look different, too, from the transactions of the Royal Society that she criticizes in the material appended to the Blazing-World:
The end of reason is truth, the end of fancy is fiction. But mistake me not when I distinguish fancy from reason; I mean not as if fancy were not made by the rational parts of matter, but by reason I understand a rational search and enquiry into the causes of natural effects, and by fancy a voluntary creation or production of the mind, both being effects, or rather actions of the rational part of matter, of which, as that is a more profitable and useful study than this, so it is also more laborious and difficult, and requires sometimes the help of fancy to recreate the mind and withdraw it from its more serious contemplations.

And this is the reason why I added this piece of fancy to my philosophical observations, and joined them as two worlds at the end of their poles, both for my own sake, to divert my studious thoughts which I employed in the contemplation thereof, and to delight the reader with variety, which is always pleasing. But lest my fancy should stray too much, I chose such a fiction as would be agreeable to the subject I created of in the former parts.

The connections between these two authors as they write about exclusion, gender, and the genre of the essay has never struck me more forcefully than it does here. Content as occasion, indeed.


Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Dec 22, 10:23:00 PM:
i cannot say how refreshing (like a tall drink of ice water after landing in a desert of high altitude) reading this was. i graduated at barnard in your year - you may or may not remember me - and i found this when wondering what you were up to these days. an interesting article, pointed and smart. so glad to have found you writing articles that i can read at leisure.

also, my experience in Jennie Kassanoff's first year seminar was anything but unfocused. it was tough, interesting, and the discussions were as good as they could have been under the circumstances (i remember that first semester as being a period of a bunch of overachievers learning how and what to read so that we could, indeed, proceed with our education with our curiosity intact instead of squelched ).