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I’m in the thick of it now; two weeks until exams are over, and 1L year is done (well, except for a writing competition which I am not permitting myself to worry about yet). No time to talk about the process, or much else.

Also, my birthday was yesterday! Now I’m 27 years old. I’m told that this is the age of ‘peak mental acuity’, so if I seem extra keen in this year’s posts, you’ll know why.

But anyway, I was distracting from my studies earlier by a pretty great article about Mr. Kierkegaard. Since I talked about the subject recently, I thought it appropriate to link. You can read it here.

Enjoy!

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Digital futures

Some good stuff on das internet this week.

First, Larry Summers made some bold but also weirdly plausible claims about the future of higher education, the central point being that even though we’ve been teaching people more or less the same way for the past fifty years (with semesters, classrooms, and other increasingly obsolete fixtures), there are plenty of other ways that we might teach things and those (other ways)  might be better. My favorite part is when he speculates that students of the future will all listen to podcasts of the world’s elite lecturers, while all the rest of the teachers everywhere just answer questions and lead discussions and grade papers. That sounds good in some ways (except for those of us who love to lecture), but it also sounds a little like 99% of PhDs of the future are going to be adjuncts. Which, I guess, how is that any different from the way things already are?.

Then, Stanley Fish posted yet another article in a series of columns which have (1.) explained what the “Digital Humanities” are* and (2.) suggested that they are in fact the future–the Next Big Thing–in literary criticism and theory. There must have been some confusion here (I know I’ve been confused), because Fish has written several increasingly specific columns on the subject, of which the latest is by far the best because it includes a Practical Demonstration of Fish Fishing around in Milton’s Areopagitica. It’s a persuasive and a fun essay about why computers will Change Everything, and why the people who are concerned by that possibility (Philistines who want to preserve the integrity of interpretation**) should stop worrying and learn to love the internet.

All of which he says better than I can: “whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play.” Apparently, it’s the death of the author all over again.

*Which has been helpful for me because I don’t really know anything about the field, although I did attend a very interesting presentation by Franco Moretti in which he retold the story of Hamlet through diagrams like this:

and talked about what happens when you try “mapping” the story rather than “reading” it. I should add that these maps are also great for graduate seminars and classroom presentations, because you can put them up on the projector and give everybody something to look at. It has always been my suspicion that computers will serve much the same purpose in scholarship as they have elsewhere: entertainment.  You can read some more of Moretti’s work on this subject, including a very excellent essay called Network Theory, Plot Analysis in the New Review, but only if you have access through a University or through your very own private subscription. Or if you just want to shell out a stupid amount of money◊.

**My words, not his.

◊Not surprisingly, there are some who have speculated (just last week) that the internet has the answer to this problem, too.

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Christmas Books

It may (or may not) reveal something about the author of this blog that the two books my mom gave me for Christmas were D.F.W.’s Infinite Jest and On Wine,* by Matt Kramer. The former is a one I have been passively interested in reading for some few years now, and actively interested in since I was introduced to Wallace’s short fiction (Brief Interviews) and essays (An Extremely Fun Thing) in a class earlier this year. Wallace is actually very pertinent to this blog, since his pseudo-informal, heavily footnoted, first-person style is probably the conscious or unconscious model for half of the writers on the internet,** this blogger not excepted (for a great but not-entirely-fair discussion of this trend, check out Maud Newton’s article from earlier this year in the New York Times). That self-involved (some would probably say selfish) style has its weaknesses (J. Egan’s “celebrity interview” chapter in A Visit From the Goon Squad reads, to me, like an especially sharp jab at some of the moral dangers inherent in such self-centered writing), but it is familiar, and can be fun, and is well suited to the medium.

In any case, as a frequent scholar of English it’s probably my holy duty to read Infinte Jest, and now that I am only partially employed and am not bound by assigned readings, I have no excuse to prevent me. It is one of those big, imposing, Ulysses-like books that people claim to have read but never do. I once had a professor who said (without sounding at all pretentious, if you can believe it) that Ulysses is a book that changes you in the reading (which can, of course, be true of any book), that it was a book that reads you as you read it. And that’s an absurd statement, but there is something to the commitment and mental effort that go into reading a really big really challenging book, and it’s probably very good for you and, like playing sudoku, prevents early-onset alzheimers and puts an extra spring in your step and makes the whole world a smarter and better place.

I started earlier today with a pen in my hand–I have resolved to use this book to conquer my fear of writing in the margins, even if that means I fill the pages with every inane association that pops into my head– and read the first chapter while drinking a mug of Earl Gray (my stronger spirits are collecting dust back in Boston). Thus far I’ve noticed a few things worth talking about, but maybe especially Wallace’s way of building these really perfect half-metaphors to catch small details (like at one point–I can’t find the exact quote now–he mentions how the motes of lint and dandruff and other miniscule detritus are tossed about by the room’s air conditioner and sparkle in the sunlight like bubbles rising from a seltzer, and then maybe two pages later he very casually refers to “the carbonated silence” in that same room during a particularly awkward pause. And at another moment, our hero is lying supine staring up at the afternoon sky in Arizona, about to be carted off to the hospital, and he has the following series of observations: “The jet’s movement and trail seem incisionish, as if white meat behind the blue were exposed and widening in the wake of the blade. I once saw the word KNIFE finger-written on the steamed mirror of a nonpublic bathroom. I have become an infantophile. I am forced to roll my closed eyes either up or to the side to keep the red cave from bursting into flames from the sunlight.”

All of which may not, actually, strike the reader (you, I mean) as something especially special, particularly when divorced from context like this, but you know it’s the little things that make the whole so impressive. I’ll report in, occasionally as I read through this monster, and since the rest of the American literati have already read it, you can follow along at home and we’ll have a little book club.

*Actually, the complete title is On Wine: A Matchless Collection of Columns, Essays, and Observations by America’s Most Original and Lucid Wine Writer; a subtitle which I am in no position to contest but which seems, one might dare to speculate, a little superfluous; methinks Kramer’s editors are trying too hard. The book is a collection of bite-sized essays written by Kramer over his career as a columnist for Wine Spectator, of which I have read the first six or seven. Those first few are collected under the title “Through Two Lenses” and purport to address the differing perspectives of New World and Old World wine makers/drinkers. The writing is both fun and educational (I love wine with the sort of untutored enthusiasm that I also devote to opera music and corny action movies: I know what I like, but I don’t precisely appreciate it. Hence the reading material), even if it is peppered with genuinely terrible sentences (“One of the most treacherous instruments to play is banging the drum of chauvinism”) and De-Tocqueville-esque generalizations (“We Americans have always had a fondness for British ways of doing things”). In a wine writer, maybe, we have to look for the Wine first and the Writer second.

**And, interestingly, half of the OK Cupid profiles: the semi-intellectual recently graduated single female who dabbles in creative writing and wants to project her cool cynicism about the whole digital romantic endeavor–while still attracting Mr. Right–as often as not describes herself in terms that read like DFW fan fiction.The success of those efforts, at least as evaluated by their ability to garner a “hey girl, how you doin'” message from this Mr. Right (and who could be righter?),  depends upon (in ascending order of importance) 1. how well-written the fan fiction actually is, 2. What books she has, and doesn’t have, on her “favorite books” list (JRRT=Yes, S. Meyer=HellNo), and, 3. Her Profile Picture (Needless to say, if she’s a scruffy former tennis star with a toothy grin and a bandanna, she’s a shoe-in).

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Proviso

I enter this blog with high expectations, but also a healthy amount of skepticism. I have blogged in the past, and usually I find out very quickly that it is much more gratifying to go into the world and eat and drink and enjoy the warmth of human companionship than to remain in digital isolation. Also, I spend hours upon hours every day in front of this computer screen, and the prospect of further time online makes my already-atrophied leg muscles twinge in protest (they dream of cavorting over green fields; they long to gambol in the sun!). Haven’t I ruined my eyesight enough with webcomics and MLA-generated PDFs? Haven’t I already courted carpal-tunnel syndrome, almost to the point of no return, in the service of the digital age (and, of course, in pursuit of minesweeper glory)? Don’t I have more important things to do, like seeking my fortune and finding True Love and writing the Great American Book of Literary Criticism about the Great American Novel (all sources carefully cited)?

Probably. And really, so do you. I hope we can both enter this thing without any illusions, then. This blog (like the wine which fuels its composition) is a fundamentally unhealthy affair, and although it might end in a classy but slightly out-of-control night that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives, we’re all more likely to just wake up tomorrow morning with a dry mouth, a mild headache, a sense of time wasted, and a strong craving for burritos.

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