Thursday, April 27, 2006

Help me with my homework

I'm working on an essay this weekend about the spoiled milk moment of literary exchange - "This smells awful! Get a whiff of this." I have one friend in particular I always give books I hate, not entirely sure why the impulse, but its there, and so I'm writing an essay about the value of hating books.

Hopin' I can impose upon any that I can rope onto this patch of blog estate to help me out by telling me about some book you just hated and why. Hated its politics, hated the ending, hated the stupid stupid narrator, hated the way it made you cry into the night, whatever. But, especially if you've ever said "This book sucked - you should read it."

I'll even start. I really hated Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead because by the time she reached the sea, the sky and Howard Roark I had long since gotten her damn point, and I don't like being hit about the head and shoulders.

(Funny anectdote - a friend of once threw Rand's Anthem at me across a cafeteria table like a throwing star because he hated it so much and I had loaned it to him. See, there is a power in hating pieces of literature.)

Oh, and I rea-hEEEEEEE-lly hated Left Behind - I mean, shit, the Jews were siding with the AntiChrist by page 100 - but I've made people read it.

If you can spare a moment and share, I'd appreciate it.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Black Dancers Are Funny Poets

Two statements I have heard this week:

Describing a poet scheduled to do a reading at a local college - “As he says ‘I’m black, Jewish, and a Buddhist.’ So, he’s an interesting poet.”

Describing a swing dancer performing for a select audience in Seattle – “Well, he’s black and he’s from Detroit, so what else do you have to say?”

I heard the former statement after the latter, and I heard the latter repeated twice in a single evening. They both have been stuck in my craw to varying degrees since hearing them.

Perhaps I should cut the poet statement a little slack. After all, it was made to a class of English majors that collect experience with different cultural and literary traditions like birders collect sightings. (“Why, yes, I have read Carribean lesbian poetry, and found it fascinating. Are you into Eastern European literary collage?”) There is, when studying literature, a tangible value in acquainting oneself with diverse traditions, so I should be willing to allow that might have been the intent.

But, it wasn’t, and I don’t cut it much slack atall atall.

The dancer statement might bother me more if it made any fucking sense. Are black guys from Detroit particularly good swing dancers and I didn’t know? Is it that their gigantic penises help with the turns? Add a little extra torque? It’s just such a ridiculous statement at the face, I can’t take it as seriously as maybe I should. Clearly, it is a nervous white moderate middle-class attempt to sound enlightened and saucy and safe, and while rooted in a need to Other, not much to get all post-colonial about. Just a silly cracker.

When it is from someone that should ostensibly know better, that gets me. Somehow the speaker allows their self-satisfaction at being enlightened and progressive and Right, g-ddamnit (and they love their g-d usage, I tell ya, it’s taken on its own little canonical status) to blind them to the objectification of a poet being interesting because he’s black and Jewish and a Buddhist as opposed to, I don’t know, his friggin’ poems. Which, hell yes, are informed by every bit of his subject position, even whether he had acne as a kid, but that isn’t the why of his value as an artist.

Seems like in each case the speaker was trying to make a shortcut, flash a wink at their audience, those in tacit agreement with the speaker’s ingrained preconceptions (case 1 – art is it’s socio-cultural value, case 2 – those negroes are excellent dancers). At least the dancer statement speaker is a little aware of it, knows he grips his car keys a little tighter in certain parts of town, while the poet statement speaker kids herself it isn’t demeaning to pat a poet on the head.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Hardball Softball

My wife asked me the other day if I had any interest in playing in a softball league again. Every time the weather breaks, I mention how much fun it was the last time I was in a league that played a couple summer evenings a week – fresh air, beer, and usually, a complete contrast to my high school sports experience, an above-average player on a below-average team.

I could tell by her smirk that there was more coming, but decided to bite. “Yeah, sure, why?”

Her friend from work organizes a team for a gay softball league, and each team is allowed up to two straight players, the only stipulation being that straight players can’t play in the championship in their first year in the league.

I said I was interested, of course. I mean, I love the Gays – such a colorful and musical people – and no doubt the uniforms were going to be slammin’ fabulous. But, the whole straight rules thing opened up a lot of questions for me.

Would I have to wear some kind of special insignia? Maybe an inverted black triangle?

Just how gay must one to not count against the straight-cap? Like, if there are two “straight” guys that work in theater, can they count as one? Can I claim celibate homosexuality? Because, I’m married with a toddler and could do a softball season worth of no sex standing on my head.

Or, OK, I understand that I can’t play in the championship in my first year if I’m straight, but what if I’m willing to receive a blowjob or will whack off in the sane room with a dude - would I be able to DH?

I’m sure there is some system in place to handle all of this, as the Gays are also an inventive and organized people, and I can't wait to see the challenge system.

“Ump, I’m telling you, that guy on their bench is straight, and he isn’t wearing his Forbidden Triangle, and there’s already two guys in the outfield that are, so unless he gets his sorry ass out here and starts sucking some dick, I’m filing a grievance.”

That beats the hell out of the NFL’s coach challenge for entertainment value, I’ll tell ya.

With school and child, I can’t see myself being able to play until next season. I’ll have to work on relaxing those gag reflexes in case we make a run through the playoffs.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

My Knee-Jerk Reaction to Knee-Jerk Reactions

I’m a bit the ornery cuss lately, mainly because twice a week I have to roll through 2+ hours of traffic to get to a class whose value becomes more questionable by the day, and immediately after the class turn around and drive and hour and a half back home. Tuuesdays and Thursdays are pretty much nothing but kid, driving and this bullshit class.

My main issue with the class is sloppiness. I hate decontextualized academic conversations, because they lead nowhere and mainly exist to air presuppositions. Challenges to ideas are unacceptable in such venues, unless you are spouting the party line with your objection.

Last night, we were discussing the Joyce Carol Oates story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The story is about Connie, a precocious and pretty teenager that sneaks out to the drive-in restaurant to meet and make out with boys. She notices a random boy one day, and on a Sunday whn she skips out on a family function to stay home by herself, the “boy” and his friend show up in the driveway. By degree, the “boy,” Arnold Friend, cajoles then coerces and menaces her out of the house, into his car to be raped and likely killed.

Not much direction, just discussing, so already I’m annoyed. And, the prevailing current of “I just don’t believe that she would just get in the car – why didn’t she run or yell for help or something” became just too much for me.

So, I point out that this one great power of literature is its ability to allow readers to get outside of their own subject position and see the world from other people’s eyes. I go on to say how much Arnold’s coercion reminds me of the method for turning out a girl that real pimps described in American Pimp, and the fact that if you are trying to prosecute a rape case, the last thing you want on your jury is women because historically they have a much higher tendency to think “I wouldn’t have gotten myself in that situation” or “In that situation, I would have acted differently,” and place a higher degree of blame on the victim than men tend to.

The discussion was about to move on when on of the grrrls that had been most vocal in questioning Connie’s actions says “This whole rape trial thing is bothering me. I just want to say that I would never have that reaction if this were an actual person. I just question the writer’s intent in writing this character.”

It is a testament to my famous restraint that I let this pass with just an internal flush of rage (that and the fact it was within five minutes of the end of class and I didn’t think it wise for me to go there as it would’ve taken WAY more than five minutes).

But, fuck me, are you kidding? An author writes a character whose motivations you wouldn’t question in a real-life context, which has to imply that you don’t find the motivations completely unrealistic, and you “question the intent of the author”? Huh? Was she worried that Oates was spinning a morality tale that says “Don’t be a slut” or that she is casting women generally as powerless in the face of male oppressions?

There seems a tendency among the theoryheads and the grrrls to make this kind of interpretive jump, that an author who writes a character who feels real is indicating that the character is a model for how people “should” act, or that all similar people necessarily do act this way. And this contrived belief that honest reflection of life within fiction can be looked at in such a way because the people aren’t real.

I see a belief hidden in there that writers should always be writing the world as it should be, with empowered women and unoppressive men and children well on the way to self-actualization.

Heaven forbid that fiction try and get you to break out of the big pile of should you’ve hidden yourself away in, and attempt to negotiate your shoulds with the is in a more mature way, that fiction’s power over theory is its placement in a specific possibility.

It is simplistic to say Oates wrote a character that is weak and therefore damning to all women. And it is short-sighted to fail to see that this story, by focusing on the moment, allows the possibility to find sympathy for such a character, and to perhaps understand that bad judgment is not a rape-able offense (‘nother words, she wasn’t asking for it).

This knee-jerk reaction to passive-aggressively “question the intent” of any author who writes characters and situations outside your land of should galls the shit out of me. It is easy, the refuge of the over(post-modernly)educated and underanalytical.

And, shit, if we can’t react to well-drawn characters the same way we react to actual people, if we can’t see that other individuals are as much pieces of construction and illusion as a fictive individual, the fiction loses its power.

Saturday, April 08, 2006


I realize this study has been talked about ad nauseum of late, from the morning network shows to Jon Stewart to Izzle Pfaff. But, too f-in’ bad.

In an effort to expose as much authorial bias as possible, I feel it is important to start by admitting that I believe all committed disciples of Ayn Rand are douchebags.

I’ll even allow that support for or belief in Ayn’s Objectivist philosophy isn’t a necessary cause of douchebagness (bagotry?), but assert that a sufficiently high enough percentage of Ayn adherents are in fact douchebags to warrant a strong correlation.

And they are up to their usual douchebag antics, with the ARI releasing this letter (which I originally found linked from bOING bOING):

Dear Editor:

The Harvard medical study showing that prayer has no effect on recovery from heart surgery is shocking. It is not shocking that prayer has no medical effects--what's shocking is that scientists at Harvard Medical School are wasting their time studying the medical effects of prayer.

Science is a method of gaining knowledge by systematically studying things that actually exist and have real effects. The notion that someone's health can be affected by the prayers or wishes of strangers is based on nothing but imagination and faith. Such blind belief represents the rejection of reason and science, and is not worthy of serious, rational consideration. What's next? A study of the medical effects of blowing out birthday candles?

Every minute these doctors spend conducting this sort of faith-based study is one minute less spent on reality-based research--research that actually has hope of leading to real medical cures.

Dr. Yaron Brook
Ayn Rand Institute Executive Director
Irvine, CA

My issue with the ARI is largely the same as with all such dispensers of conservative rhetoric – it is filled with condescending accusations about opponents and in ignorance of the gaping holes within its own position.

Maybe the problem that Ayn’s school of though originally developed at a time when Uncertainty and the Relativity that followed had fully taken root within scientific, and by extension all reason-based, thought and practice.

There is a galling inability in this letter, and to my mind within most Objectivist writings, to recognize that the lines drawn between reason and faith are essentially arbitrary, built upon what we know at any given moment, and that to assert that those lines are static and not fluid is itself a statement of faith.

Every, and I mean every, appeal to objective truth I have come across at some point jumps off this cliff, boils down to some idea that is accepted by faith, be it faith in the unadulterated clarity of one’s own observations or faith vested in an external entity or concept.

The ARI believed prayer had no medical benefit not because of the application of reason upon observation that they trumpet, but because of the presupposition that prayer and medicine exist within mutually exclusive realms. In other words, they didn’t known this because they knew it, but because they believed it.

And then to adopt such a condescending tone, to attempt to enforce their doctrine while so clearly failing to practice what they preach, well, that makes the douchebags.

Look, Ayn herself claimed that rational self-interest was man’s highest moral compass, that laissez faire capitalism was the only proper economic model, AND that men will not knowingly harm others for their own benefit. She holds a belief that government can operate in a function that protects men from such violence.

Reasonable observation of exactly what actually warrants the belief that capitalist men of reason won’t, whether in spite of or in complicity with government, fuck each other over for a buck?