Thursday, 23 October 2008

The high price of idealism (x-posted.) On this day in 2008, Jim Beaver—a.k.a. Ellsworth—commented on my post about the language of Deadwood. I know that’s not really historical, but damn it, it’s cool. Now for something completely historical: On this day in 1929, Ursula K. Le Guin was born to Alfred and Theodora Kroeber—though you wouldn’t know it from this article, in which no mention of him having fathered one of the 20th Century’s most influential science fiction writers appears. Her Wikipedia entry was adapted from a bad student essay, as is evidenced by how thoroughly the narrative of how-I-came-to-learn-this pervades it. Her mother’s biography of Alfred Kroeber, Alfred Kroeber: A Personal Configuration, is a good source for Le Guin’s early years and for the biographical elements in her late works, especially her interest in social anthropology. Bully on you, anonymous person, for evaluating your sources. That said, the aforelinked review ain’t much better. We’re told: Alfred Kroeber (1876-1960) is amply known through his works—more than five hundred publications of which eight are books—and he was familiar in varying degrees to students, because he taught at [universities]. I’ve edited out the list of illustrious institutions, but really, I wish I’d been an academic in an earlier era, when such sentences could be published. (Not too early, though—say, Post-Trilling-as-Columbia’s-sole-Jew or thereabouts.) But I digress. Alfred Kroeber, known through his 500 publications and by students, was a proponent of “salvage ethnography. Here’s a picture of him with Ishi, who claimed to be the last of the California Yahi: Cultural preservation takes a place of pride in Le Guin’s work, albeit backwardly, via her frequent evocation of cultural obliteration. In her anti-reform novel extraordinaire The Lathe of Heaven, she skewers the idea that society can be changed for the better. All progress, she argues, entails the destruction of a society whose current form is the by-product of an evolutionary process. It may not be a just society, but it’s not an invented one, and thus is far more stable than the proto-totalitarian imaginings of well-intentioned liberals. As Sean McCann and my adviser, Michael Szalay, argue, the novel offers an all but direct allegory in which a passive aesthetic sensibility comes to replace an illegitimate effort to transform the world through instrumental means. Le Guin’s George Orr discovers that his dreams change the world; almost nightly he has what he calls “effective dreams” that reshape existence. Upon waking, Orr is the only one who recalls what the world used to be like, the only one who realizes that each night his mind refashions the lives of the planet’s billions. Orr turns to government therapists to find assistance in ending his dreams, but is understood instead to be delusional and irrationally afraid of his unconscious. He is thus committed to the care of one William Haber, a state-employed psychiatrist who quickly discovers that Orr does indeed dream effectively, and who then tries to use Orr’s dreams to rid the world of misery. Orr objects, and Le Guin organizes this novel...
The fish in Jonah’s barrel? Shot dead. Below the fold you’ll find a copy of the paper I presented today. As I’ve said before, when I write a talk, I write a talk. I don’t write an essay that just so happens to be read aloud. I revise based on what I hear when I read aloud, so as to avoid speaking sentences that can’t be parsed on the fly like, say, this one: Tina told Mark that John thought Pauline knew what Sam had planned for Justine, but Pauline insisted she had no idea John believed that, nor whether the look Justine exchanged with Mark at work yesterday meant that Tina had inadvertently revealed Sam’s trap before John and his brother Adam could spring it. My shorthand’s pretty straight-forward: ALL CAPS means emphasis, en dash short pause, em dash longer pause, &c. Some of the sentences are, yes, ungrammatical when written down—but when read aloud, they make more sense. (There are complicated linguistic reasons for this vis-a-vis the relation of written language to spoken, and one day I might get into them, but that day ain’t today.) That said, my talk: I’ve taken the title of this panel–”Blogging and the Academy”–a little literally, but I’ve heard and delivered a number of talks about the role of blogging in the academy–about its intellectual utility and its community-building potential–but haven’t heard much discussion about what impact, if any, the public presence of academics has had on the general level of online discourse. With that in mind, here are the two types of academic bloggers I won’t be discussing here today: the first is best embodied by former UCI economist Duncan Black, a.k.a. Atrios, whose blog Eschaton is, by any of the various unreliable measures of online popularity—links, hits, page views, &c.—one of the most powerful voices out there; the second comes in the form of Thers, the pseudonymous proprieter of Whiskey Fire and an English professor at a small liberal arts college. Duncan Black I’m avoiding because at this point, Eschaton is little more than a link-aggregator, with his longest recent post logging in at a robust 94 words; Thers I’m avoiding because he deliberately lives up to his namesake, Thersites, and as such is blunt, surly, and coarse; the verbal equivalent of Homer’s powerfully ugly hunchback whose satirical mode is, as Laurence Sterne noted, “of a pelting kind . . . as black as the very ink ’tis wrote with.” Which is only to say, he responds to people like Jonah Goldberg with deserved venom. If you don’t know who Jonah Goldberg is, consider yourself lucky—or formerly lucky, as I’m about to introduce you to him. He’s the son of conservative icon Lucianne Goldberg, who first made her mark on the national consciousness spying on the McGovern campaign for Nixon, but who is now best known for having advised Linda Tripp to record her conversations with Monica Lewinsky and deliver the tapes to Ken Starr. Writing in defense of his mother for publications beholden to her, Jonah...

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