Friday, December 30, 2005

Whiplash (Cited at the MLA)

MLA was fun this year; it was great to finally meet many Valve people in the flesh, as well as Clancy Ratcliff, Charlie Bertsch (check out his pictures of Dupont Circle), and Michael Bérubé. Also pleasant to run into many old friends along the way (and make a couple of new ones).

The following comments are full of non-sequiturs, digressions, and random bits. But that is the nature of MLA, a great whirlwind of schmoozing intermixed with seriousness. Incidentally, the following shouldn't be taken as representative. I was only there for two of the four days, and made it to about eight panels -- about 1 percent of the total panels occurring at MLA.

--With regard to literature panels, let's start at the end, with a paper on Sapper's Bull-dog Drummond novels -- British thrillers from the 1920s and 30s with a know-nothing hero. Listening to this paper on one of his novels, I tried -- and failed -- to see what is so interesting about "Sapper" or his Bull-Dog Drummond novels. What is Ian Fleming without the camp-factor, or Kipling without the weighty epigrams? Merely Sapper, it seems.

--Richard Wright's Native Son was actually censored (editorially, not legally) upon its initial release. Sexually explicit passages were toned down, and a masturbation scene was entirely removed. You can get a sense of the kinds of changes made here (though the article, I'm afraid is not very good). Given the vulgarity of the uncensored passages, I almost prefer the censored version (but then, that was the version I first read, back in high school). And Wright did author the altered passages (which are not omissions, but actually totally different passages), so it's probably not quite right to say whether the uncensored version is the 'authoritative' text.

Somewhat relatedly, I find I like the censored versions of rap songs on the radio more than the uncensored, 'real' songs. The popular rappers write songs knowing full well that certain words are going to be bleeped, and certain kinds of references disallowed. The bleeping is done by the producer himself, in studio, for the "clean" radio version released on the single. And the bleeps become part of the rhythm of the song; they add something extra -- mystery, texture. But when I eventually hear the original song, I am inevitably disappointed: the unspeakable seven words are all too familiar and routine; hearing them, one realizes the true crude banality and redundancy of most popular rap on the radio. Censorship actually makes rap better...

Back to the MLA:

--I saw a paper on Conrad's Secret Agent, which piqued my curiosity to finally sit down and read that novel. It's a spy novel written in 1907, focusing on a group of leftist/anarchist terrorists. (The etext is here). A nice sample paragraph might be this one:

The knob of his stick and his legs shook together with passion, whilst the trunk, draped in the wings of the havelock, preserved his historic attitude of defiance. He seemed to sniff the tainted air of social cruelty, to strain his ear for its atrocious sounds. There was an extraordinary force of suggestion in this posturing. The all but moribund veteran of dynamite wars had been a great actor in his time - actor on platforms, in secret assemblies, in private interviews. The famous terrorist had never in his life raised personally as much as his little finger against the social edifice. He was no man of action; he was not even an orator of torrential eloquence, sweeping the masses along in the rushing noise and foam of a great enthusiasm. With a more subtle intention, he took the part of an insolent and venomous evoker of sinister impulses which lurk in the blind envy and exasperated vanity of ignorance, in the suffering and misery of poverty, in all the hopeful and noble illusions of righteous anger, pity, and revolt. The shadow of his evil gift clung to him yet like the smell of a deadly drug in an old vial of poison, emptied now, useless, ready to be thrown away upon the rubbish-heap of things that had served their time.

Conrad is at his best when characterizing people he loathes.

--At John Holbo's "Zizek and Christianity" panel, the most oft-cited literary text was Brideshead Revisited, which might seem to be an improbable choice. But apparently Waugh's novel is referenced by Zizek in On Belief as providing a powerful example of his (incoherent) neo-Christian-socialist ethics. The novel is full of passages like this one:

"But, my dear Sebastian, you can't seriously believe it all."
"Can't I?"
"I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass."
"Oh yes, I believe that. It's a lovely idea."
"But you can't believe things because they're a lovely idea."
"But I do. That's how I believe."

Incidentally, though I was sitting in the corner, at the panel I noted that John Holbo is left-handed. Explains something, doesn't it? (But then again, I am also left-handed; does that explain something about me?)

--Poets are using multimedia technology to transform the reading experience, and comment on the "materiality of the text." An example is the "Cave" at Brown University (read the PDF white paper here). A well-known practitioner and critic of "new media poetry" is John Cayley; he was cited by two of the panelists at a panel I went to on New Media and Literary Theory. I'm not sure what to make of this genre yet; my initial response is skepticism. Check out John Cayley's website; what do you think? Is there something to this?

--At the "Rethinking Rhyme" panel, the literary allusions were flying fast and thick. Jonathan Culler recited lines from Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" to illustrates rhyme's capacity to coordinate random images and bits of narrative.

Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
’cause the vandals took the handles

Culler also quoted John Hollander, as well as Robert Frost's "On Desert Places":

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

In Culler's view, the desolation of the image here is belied by Frost's vaguely comical choice to rhyme "spaces" with "race is." I tend to agree; it's not one of Frost's stronger efforts (but there are many problems with the poem).

In the same panel, David Caplan quoted quite a number of rhyming poets, including Missy Elliott ("Work it": "Boy, lift it up, let's make a toast-a /
Let's get drunk, that's gon' bring us closer / Don't I look like a Halle Berry poster?"), Harryette Mullen, and Justice Mike Akin of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court:

A groom must expect matrimonial pandemonium
when his spouse finds he's given her a cubic zirconium
instead of a diamond in her engagement band,
the one he said was worth 21 grand.

This was the actual text of the judge's dissenting opinion in a divorce case where a woman claimed the pre-nuptial agreement she had signed was nullified because her ex-husband had given her an engagement ring made of cubic zirconium. (Why this is being quoted in a paper at MLA is a long story...)

At the same panel, J. Paul Hunter cited Alexander Pope:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance,
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some rocks' vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow

Note how Pope's use of sounds (rhyme, but also consonant clusters and vowels) illustrates exactly the point he's trying to make. This website calls it "Pope's mimetic precept." I hadn't heard the term before (and the speaker didn't use the term), but it might be a useful way of describing this kind of self-instantiating argument.

--Finally, I saw Frances Ferguson enthusiastically reference Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song. I'm not quite sure I followed the substance of her argument (about the role of the news-media in mass-culture; and the interaction between journalistic truth and the conventions of narrative fiction), but her talk certainly made me want to read Mailer's book.

I also came across an interesting short essay by Ferguson on the mass-media here.

Whiplash, anyone?


nnyhav said...

Clive James does Bull-dog Drummond.

12:52 PM  
Anonymous said...

with the comment on rap songs, you're blurring the line between editing and censorship... and i assume you can tell the difference. what you're talking about is a rating system ( without labels. there are cases of censorship worth talking about, which of course avoid discussion. why not mention the introduction to animal farm?
why not mention censorship through indoctrination?

one example would be the difference between these two questions:

could we have done a better job with the war on iraq?

what right do we have to invade another country?

one of those questions gets discussed, the other is unprintable.

sorry for being anonymous! i live close to lehigh and stumbled across this blog whilst googling arundhati roy.... and don't feel like registering.

11:59 PM  

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