Monday, August 10, 2015

Agresto — "The Suicide of the Liberal Arts"

– minor editing, Apr. 7, 2016


This is a response – what became an long response – to comments in a Facebook discussion on John Agresto's Wall Street Journal essay "The Suicide of the Liberal Arts" (located here). In its simplest, and greatly simplifying, this response is to the two ideas that (1) Agresto seems off base, and (2) that the problem lies in the business style administration that has taken over higher education.

I won't quote here the comments as I believe the only resulting negative might be a sense of absence as to what was leading in to this response (as though turning on a interview on a news show a few seconds late and missing the first exchanges of the conversation). The ideas below will not suffer for being taken out of that flow.


It is an undeniable that the turn to a profit-oriented system has done great damage to the university system. Though, I do question whether it is the the idea of 'profit' or if it is more the particular methods of profit-making (methods criticized not only in education but across the business world) that are to blame: an institution that is not in some way income-oriented is a not-long-to-live institution. But to blame all the ills of US education upon that alone is facile, perhaps equivalent to blaming a driver for the performance of their car's engine. There is one quite obvious question dodged right from the start by the over-tight focusing upon profit orientation: is the turn to a poor business model itself the effect of a deeper systemic issue? After all, it is difficult to use university business models to explain the miserable quality of K-12 education in the US.

I, from conversations with others, was apparently fairly lucky in my many years of collegiate education in that I escaped, pretty much entirely, ideologically dogmatic professors like that described by Agresto:

Instead of guiding young men and women by encouraging them to read history, biography, philosophy and literature, [those who would] rather debunk the past, deconstruct the authors and dethrone our finest minds and statesmen.

Now, normally here, I would briefly digress onto – if not sidestep entirely – how the word "deconstruct" here is being used wholly against the post-structuralist ideas from out of which the word comes. Agresto uses it in the commonly seen, derogative manner, of theory over-riding the practical aspects of reading a text (or being used to justify political readings of texts). In truth, though, the very core of post-structuralist thought is turned to opposite aims: the core point of learning to deconstruct a text lies in that it is learning, at a fundamental level, how to read. Normally, I would go there only as corrective digression. But this time I go there and stay, as the use of the word here is demonstration to the point(s) I want to make.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Lost, an Ex Post Facto Review

Let me say up front, I don't watch television. Though, here and there I use Netflix to check out television shows of the recent past, if just for the sake of basic 'cultural' (and in this context that word is inherently funny) knowledge: e.g., Once Upon a Time, which had a great premise that could only last a season, and did (and just barely at that); Fringe, which never really knew what it wanted to be and was unraveling from the start because of it (didn't make it through the first season); and, of course Daredevil, which was some of the worst television I've ever seen. (I did watch it all the way through, though, just so I could say, with evidence, that that was some of the worst television I have ever seen. And this is an age of reality television.)

So, recently I decided to check out Lost. (Previously, I perhaps had seen fifteen minutes of one episode, probably first season, maybe not. As I said, I do not watch television.) I made it into the second season, and only by forcing myself. The plot lines, such as they were, by season's end were getting, well, let's face it, stupid. But even more the cause was that I couldn't bear most of the characters. The acting of the boy, Walt, was terrible. I could rarely stand his presence on the screen. This might have been mostly the fault of directing and writing, though. (I say that if just for benefit of the doubt; I found the boy not well cast, personally; unable to successfully pull off the more emotionally or energetically charged scenes.) I found his father almost as bad, and perhaps here you see why I fault first directing and writing. The character was so cardboard, so limited he constantly fell into laugh-out-loud comedy (usually when he was supposed to be at his most emotional). The counter point was his engagements with Jin and Sun: in those situations, Micheal had something to do beyond the very empty and forced father-son engagement. Indeed, Micheal's character is best when the son is not on screen, as with building the boat with Jin. (Which is evidence to what I think is a basic rule of writing, the other Wil Wheaton rule: don't add a child into an ensemble of adults. They will never fit.)

Monday, July 20, 2015

Something I Read #15 -- Eugenio Montale

Something I came across last night; one of those moments of someone stating things in terms not thought before. From the Introduction to the Everyman's Library edition of the Mandelbaum translation of the Divine Comedy (12-13); originally the final address delivered April, 24, 1965, at the International Congress of Dante Studies in Florence, held to mark the 700th anniversary of Dante's birth..

My conviction, however -- and I state it for what it is worth -- is that Dante is not a modern in any of these respects: which does not prevent us from understanding him at least partially, nor from feeling that he is strangely close to us. But for this to happen we must also come to another conclusion: that we no longer live in a modern era, but in a new Middle Ages whose characteristics we cannot yet make out. Since this is a personal conviction of mine, I shall refrain from discussing the reasons for it here, where it serves only as an hypothesis. The era which lies before us does not allow for short-term predictions, and to speak of a new Middle Ages is to speak equivocally at best. If the future sees the ultimate triumph of techno-scientific reason, even accompanied by the weak correctives which sociology can devise, the new Middle Ages will be nothing but a new barbarousness. But in such a case it would be wrong to speak of them as 'medieval,' for the Middle Ages were not merely barbarous, nor were they bereft of science or devoid of art. To speak of a new Middle Ages, then, could seem a far from pessimistic hypothesis to the man who does not believe that the thread of reason can unwind ad infinitum; and yet an entirely new barbarousness is possible, a stifling and distortion of the very idea of civilization and culture.

To understand this, you have understand the term "barbarous" (which he uses in a normal, historical sense). It is an interesting idea, one which I grasp through seeing the modernist period (and post-structuralist philosophy, philosophy always lagging behind art) as the climax of an aesthetic discourse that began with the Romantics and (and German Idealism); through seeing that that aesthetic impulse gave way, finally, to the more dominant current of what is here called a rising Middle Ages (whose origins lie as far back as the Enlightenment era). The question, though, one that is more narrow geopolitically, and more focused upon the idea of barbarousness, is this:

Can it be said that US, except for very localized moments that lasted only very short periods of time, has ever climbed out of barbarousness?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Something I Read #14 – Edmund Wilson

Read in the wonderful collection The Permanence of Yeats (1950). Originally from the also wonderful Axel's Castle (1931).

"And in spite of the immense amount of poetry published and read to-day, the personality truly and naturally poetic seems to be becoming rarer and rarer. It may be true that the kind of dignity and distinction which have been characteristic of the poet in the past are becoming more and more impossible in our modern democratic society and during a period when the ascendancy of scientific ideas has made man conscious of his kinship with the other animals and of his subjection to biological and physical laws rather than of this relation to the gods. It was easy for the lyric poet, from Wyatt's age to Waller's, to express himself both directly and elegantly, because he was a courtier, or, in any case, a member of a comparatively small educated class, whose speech combined the candor and naturalness of conversation among equals with the grace of a courtly society. It was possible for him honestly to take up a residence in an intellectual world where poetic images stood for actualities because the scientific language and technique for dealing with these actualities had not yet come to permeate thought. But themodern poet who would follow this tradition, and who would yet deal with life in any large way, must create for himself a special personality, must maintain a state of mind which shall shut out or remain indifferent to many aspects of the contemporary world. This necessity accounts partly, I suppose, for Yeats's preoccupation in his prose writings, with what he calls the Mask or Anti-Self, a sort of imaginary personality, quite antagonistic to other elements of one's nature, which the poet must impose upon himself. It is hard to imagine a seventeenth-century poet being driven to such a theory -- a theory which makes one's poetic self figure as one of the halves of a split personality [. . . .]."

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Something I Read #13 – Bernard Benstock

I have been brought back into the dreamworld of Finnegans Wake. These from Bernard Benstock's Joyce-Again's Wake:


It logically then follows that the sons in the Wake are at various instnaces unified into a single figure, are themselves as a pair, and are multiplied by Joyce's "inflationary" process into a trio. In the last group they are most often the Three Soldiers, therefore Tim, Dick, and Harry (an obvious threesome in "thump, kick and hurry" [285.6], but disguised as two in "tomthick and tarry" — 291.7); Shem, Ham, and Japhet ("shame, humbug and profit" — 582.10); the Roman triumverate ("Oxthevious, Lapidous and Malthouse Anthemy" — 271.5-6); the three "musketeers" (64.22); the brothers in Swift's Tale of a Tub ("padderjagmartin" — 86.2); perhaps Pegger Festy, Festy Kind, and the Wet Pinter; or just A.B.C. ("Arty, Bert or possibly Charley Chance" — 65.16). As two they are the well-defined pair of hostile opposites, too long considered to be always in opposition, whereas there are many instances in which they are not in conflict necessarily, nor even distinguishable from each other. Horsa and Hengest have already been mentioned in this context, and so might be: Time and Tom; Olaf and Ivor ("an Ivor the Boneless or an Olaf the Hide" — 100.25-26; with Sitric they form a threesome: "Olaf's on the rise and Ivor's on the lift and Sitric's place's between them" — 12.31-32); Romulus and Remus ("rebulous rebus" — 12.34); and Saints Peter and Paul ("Sinner Pitre and Sinner Poule" — 192.13). On the individual level, they unify harmoniously for a jount purpose (usually the same one that creates three out of two: to plague the father) as Buckley, Tristram, St. Patrick, St. Kevin, Hosty, and the Cad. A single-minded view of Shem and Shaun exclusively as antagonists, therefore, dismisses various important ,ayters of significance in Joyce's scheme in the Wake, two of which are probably as significant as the Bruno theme: the overthrow of the father figure and the cyclical evolution of historical patterns.

In all, the problem of identifying a Wake character by his associated historical or mythical prototype is often oversimplified and can be rather misleading. (19-21)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Something I Read #12 – A.D. Hope

From A.D. Hope's "'Tamburlaine': The Argument of Arms" as found in Christopher Marlowe: Modern Critical Views (ed. Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers: NY, 1986; pp 53-54); also found in A.D. Hope's collection of essays The Cave and the Spring. (The essay can be found online.)

In one sense the coherence of the play [Tamburlaine Pts I and II] resides in its poetry. Taken in terms of the action alone the play is not free of absurdity. If Tamburlaine were merely a supreme military genius, the argument which asserts his total superiority and perfection would be unconvincing. But Tamburlaine is a poet. He conceives poetry as concentrating in its highest conceivable form, the whole of beauty, imagination and music into 'one poem's period', just as he concentrates all power in himself. It is in this alliance of the poetic imagination with temporal power, in a sense of their identity, that the magnanimity of Tamburlaine consists. Poetry is his medium, as power is his nature and his genius. Poetry shares the supremacy of nature, for it is the natural language of beauty, of intellect and of power, the three perfect things. It is poetry alone which makes all three comprehensible:
Wherein as in a mirror we perceive
The highest reaches of a human wit—
The poetry of Tamburlaine is indeed the poetry of power, and the absolute morality of power which the play exemplifies is allied to the absolute standards of poetry, which it recognizes. For poetry accepts only success, and grants lasting life only to absolute success. It recognizes no gradations and no second best. What Hazlitt, in a very curious passage for an avowed republican, says of Coriolanus, is even more apt of the poetry of Tamburlaine:
The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Something I Read #11 – Michel Foucault

From "The Discourse on Language" (The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language; trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith; Pantheon: NY, 1972; pgs 223-24)

Within its own limits, every discipline recognises true and false propositions, but it repulses a whole teratology of learning. The exterior of a science is both more, and less, populated that one might think: certainly, there is immediate experience, imaginary themes bearing on and continually accompanying immemorial beliefs; but perhaps there are no errors in the strict sense of the term, for error can only emerge and be identified within a well defined process; there are monsters on the prowl, however, whose forms alter with the history of knowledge. In short, a proposition must fulfil some onerous and complex conditions before it can be admitted within a discipline; before it can be pronounced true or false it must be, as Monsieur Canguilhem might say, 'within the true'.

People have often wondered how on earth nineteenth-century botanists and biologists managed not to see the truth of Mendel's statements. But it was precisely because Mendel spoke of objects, employed mthods and placed himself within a theoretical perspective totally alien to the biology of his time. But then, Naudin had suggested that hereditary traits constituted a separate element before him; and yet, however novel or unfamiliar the principle may have been, it was nevertheless reconcilable, if only as an enigma, with the biological discourse. Mendel, on the other hand, announced that hereditary traits constituted an absolutely new biological object, thanks to a hitherto untried system of siltrage: he detached them from species, from the sex transmitting them, the field in which he observed being that infinitely open series of generations in which hereditary traits appear and disappear with statistical regularity. Here was a new object, calling for new conceptual tools, and for fresh theoretical foundations. Mendel spoke the truth, but he was not dans le vrai (within the true) of contemporary biological discourse: it seimply was not along such lines that objects and biological concepts were formed. A whole change in scale, the deployment of a totally new range of objects in biology was required before Mendel could enter into the true monster, so much so that science could not even properly speak of him. And yet Schleiden, for example, thirty years earlier, denying, at the height of the nineteenth century, vegetable sexuality, was committing no more than a disciplined error.

It is always possible one could speak the truth in a void; one would only be in the true, however, if one obeyed the rules of some discursive 'policy' which would have to be reactivated every time one spoke.

Disciplines constitute a system of control in the production of discourse, fixing its limits through the action of an identity taking the form of a permanent reactivation of the rules.

We tend to see, in an author's fertility, in the multiplicity of commentaries and in the development of a discipline so many infinite resources available for the creation of discourse. Perhaps so, but they are nonetheless principles of constraint, and it is probably impossible to appreviate their positive, multiplicatory role without first taking into consideration their restrictive, constraining role.

There is a pdf of essay/lecture available at this link.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Review: Fincher's Gone Girl

Newly added to the Cabinet . . . .


I have been a Fincher fan since Alien3, and indeed I've considered him one of the top directors in the U.S. pretty much since he successfully followed up Se7en (and The Game) with Fight Club. In truth, I consider him one of the few who might be able to step into the void created in the realm of film as artwork by Kubrick's death.

Which is not to say he is without criticism. For me, while it is a very interesting go at a very restrictive genre, I think Panic Room falls apart well before its final moments. But of more concern for me – speaking as a fan – is that it seems that in the last few films he has abandoned aesthetic creativity for narrative realism. While I am still in consideration of my position on them, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo[FN], and, now, Gone Girl are to me a regression into cinematic realism. Visually, as films as opposed to narratives, they may be meticulous, technically well executed, but they are to me rather uninteresting aesthetically. Up until Social Network, you could track Fincher's directorial choices as an exploration of genres, moving from one to another, never back tracking: Alien3 = science fiction; Se7en = horror; The Game = mystery; Fight Club = psychological thriller; Panic Room = lady in a cage; Zodiac = (60s-70s style) cop drama; Benjamin Button = literary fantasy (that might be called magical realism).

Something I Read #10 - Wallace Stevens

I used this in a recent post on the PDC, but I'll put it here as well. From "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words" in Necessary Angel:

There is not a poet whom we prize living today that does not address himself to an élite. The poet will continue to do this: to address himself to an élite even in a classless society, unless, perhaps, this exposes him to imprisonment or exile. In that event he is likely not to address himself to anyone at all. He may, like Shostakovich, content himself with pretence. He will, nevertheless, still be addressing himself to an élite, for all poets address themselves to someone and it is of the essence of that instinct, and it seems to amount to an instinct, that it should be to an élite, not to a drab but to a woman with the hair of a pythoness, not to a chamber of commerce but to a gallery of one's own, if there are still enough of one's own to fill a gallery. And that élite, if it responds, not out of complaissance, but because the poet has quickened it, because he has educed from it that for which it was searching in itself and in the life around it and which it had not yet quite found, will thereafter do for the poet what he cannot do for himself, that is to say, receive his poetry.


One of the curious-not-so-curious subtexts that can be seen within the discourse of poppoetry is the effort to deny such a thought.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Shining Books

This is a new essay added to the Cabinet, which thus can also be found here. It is a bit I have been wanting to do for a while. A little something for you Shining obsessives.


What I want to do here is mostly point out a curiosity I noticed with Kubrick's The Shining as regarding books. It's nothing groundbreaking; mostly a curiosity. Though, with Kubrick's well known attention to detail I think it is safe to go beyond mere curiosity: these are not accidents within the film, but designed and attended to details. How successfully you can read something out of these details is a matter of what it is you want read out of them. I myself will intend only safe steps.

For me, I think there are three such places to go. First, there is the simple issue of visual effect. Second, there is a relationship between books and the characters of the movie. Third, I believe that relationship works if but as one piece of evidence (and not a terribly important one at that) to disrupting what I believe is a false idea about the Overlook Hotel: that is, I believe most people want to read the movie as a haunted house film, that there is something inherently evil about the hotel. I do not read the movie as such: I read it that while there may be evil within the hotel (room 237 is most definitely a negatively defined place), the hotel itself is, as a whole, neutral. Yes, as Halloran says, the Overlook shines. But shining is not in itself evil. Perhaps, to use a theme not absent from The Shining, the Overlook's shine is like a mirror: you get out of it greatly what you put into it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

There and Back: An Expeditionary Journey by Way of Manifesto

Something new to the Cabinet (you can find it here), an exploration of Sontag's "Against Interpretation," as well an indirect presentation of some of the ideas underlying the aesthetic modality. This was not my first engagement with Sontag's essay; but it is the fullest. (I will grant, it get's a bit confusing toward the end.)


As an essay, I have always enjoyed reading it – for the ideas, yes; but as much for the panache and bravado of the rhetoric, as well as for the pleasure of its structure of a layered expansion closed with a sudden contraction. But let there be no mistake: I would be the first to admit that Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation" carries with it certain difficulties. Because of its rhetoric, it can only ever have something of a disadvantageous existence within a dialogue on aesthetics: its rhetoric is, after all, that of a manifesto, of something intent more toward proclamation, declamation and mustering than toward a subtle or cooperative engagement of ideas. As Sohnya Sayres speaks of it: "To ears trained in the nuances of literary goodfellowship, this is sophomoric, rebel talk, written as if the critical mind itself held no fathomless ambiguities. [. . .] The aroused march of Sontag's essay is drummed along by her instinct for the essence of a polemic."

Which is not to say that reading, enjoying, or the value of "Against Interpretation" can never be more than rambunctious and inspiriting yowling. The essay does operate well as a kick in the backside in prompting the interested or obliged – if naïve – reader of literature to the possibility that there are other ways of engaging a literary text than as autobiography or as personal or cultural history. Yet, even as such there is an inescapable sense of its own limitations: "If she had an antiprogram in mind, she has lost" (82): all passage from the essay out into the greater discourse of literary aesthetics is cut short by the arm waiving and table pounding. It plays and winds through its own mechanics, spends the energy it has to spend, and hopefully prompts the reader toward possibilities not before considered, or charges the reader for whom the possibilities are already beyond considerations; then, after its flamboyant final gesture, the essay is left with nothing more to say, nowhere else to go, and no means to move beyond the momentary performance. What is there is what is there, and for all it is worth. To move beyond would require the addition to or substitution of the polemic with less a monologic and more openly dialogic text, a text less proclamatory and more participatory within in the greater discourse of art and the aesthetic.

"Or," as Sayres writes, "perhaps not."

New to the Cabinet: Redesign, and New(ish) Content

Half the purpose of the blog is to announce and present content new to my site, Hatter's Cabinet of Curiosities. But, online life being most shut down these last months (and for at least a couple months to come) there hasn't been much to announce.

But, as a form of mental cleansing, the last few weeks have been about some site redesign and reorganization. Nothing will reveal organizational flaws like an increase in volume, and the Cabinet's old design was straining. So I've combined and reorganized some drawers and changed the way the pages are referenced (now through indexes, which permit a more purposeful cross-referencing). As well, implemented some small visual changes, hopefully to improve reading.

Also, I brought a good-sized handful of the last year's Poetry Daily Critique posts onto the site through the "Best of" page. There still a couple I think I have passed over, but I think I'm mostly caught up on that little side project.


Two wholly new documents to the site.

First, an explication/explanation of the semiotics in "Myth Today," the theoretic essay in Roland Barthes's Mythologies, appropriately named "Barthes's Mythologies". The essay is a year or so old; somehow it never made it to the site. (Probably because it could use an semantic editing.)

Second, an much older essay that is an explication/exploration of the ideas in Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation," titled "There and Back: An Expeditionary Journey by Way of Manifesto". This brought to the cabinet as part of the ongoing effort to get to light some of my older scholarship. I will post that essay here, to follow this.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Traits of Christian Cultism?

This is written in response to "3 Common Traits of Youth Who Don't Leave the Church," as found on the Faithit site, here. I came upon the article through an FB post by a friend. I could not help but notice how the article was itself demonstration of the causes behind that migration which the article is addressing. Which is a kind phrasing for what for me is the central issue of the contemporary Christian religion.

It is imperfectly written. In a great part because I had thought to write a more formal response to the article. But I need to stem that desire to write "more formal responses" to everything. Nothing's getting done because of it. So I wrote this. The evidencing could go into more detail; but, the points made are sufficient to the simple purpose of this post (and response to the FB post). I may come back to this. (I certainly will comeback to its ideas.)


I read this article and can only laugh at why Protestant Christians can't understand why people like me laugh at them, when we are not shaking our heads in embarrassment for them. Or turning away in disgust. This is demonstration of why youth is leaving the church. And that because this is a spot on description of indoctrination as written from within the indoctrinated. It is demonstration of why people like me look at mainstream Protestantism and see a cult, in the very negative connotation of the word.