I would rather talk about the problems of ethics, value, trust, hierarchy, and labor in academic life than use cultural studies as an alibi, one more time, for the urgency of responding to the institutional pressures of the present that have rendered so many of us bitter or angry or tired or cynical or perhaps simply confused about what to do in this moment of intellectual expansion and economical downsizing in the United States academy. (9)

Berlant, Lauren. “Collegiality, Crisis, and Cultural Studies.” ADE Bulletin 117, Fall 1997, 4-9.

Attention

Yesterday was a lovely, quiet Saturday. I got up early, went through my morning routine, and then went for a walk in the park. I did laundry, I had lunch, I took a little nap. I spent part of the day with the book I’m currently reading (Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, if you’re curious), and then in the late afternoon started listening to a series of lectures from a Oxford U general philosophy course. The lecturer is really quite good, and the narrative he presents quite compelling. I’m listening to this course, in part, because one of the more woeful gaps in my education (of which there are many, alas) is labeled “philosophy”; as an undergrad, I let the introductory formal logic course — which you had to get through in order to be admitted to any further courses — deter me, and so I have embarrassingly little grounding in the history of many of the ideas I want to be working with. I’m hoping that this series of lectures might at least give me enough of an overview so that I know a bit more about what it is I ought to know, but of course I’m certain that I won’t really know much of anything without taking on a more systematic, thorough course of reading.

This seems obvious, and yet what’s painful about it is all bound up in what Tim Parks and Corey Robin have lately written about: an increasing difficulty with actually doing the reading I set myself to do. I find myself lacking both for time (of which I seem to have precious little) and attention (of which I have less and less). Whatever the reason, it feels increasingly difficult to sit still and read much at all of late. I can’t tell how much of that difficulty is the technology-assisted monkey mind described by Parks — constantly looking for the next bit of incoming information, the next thing to click — or how much of it might be the distractions provided by other parts of my life, or (what I most fear) how much of it might simply be an aging brain. Would my attention span be shrinking even without all my surrounding technologies, in other words, or are the technologies interfering in my attention in the ways that I sometimes fear?

I’m working on some practices (a little meditation; a little bit of writing time in the early mornings) that I hope will help me better develop and maintain the ability to focus my attention on what’s in front of me, rather than constantly grasping for the next thing. But as I started pondering this problem in a bit of journaling this morning, it occurred to me that there’s another side to the question of attention that I hadn’t really connected here before. And it may be that they’re only connected by a sort of linguistic coincidence, but it nonetheless seemed significant.

As I started writing about my concerns about reading and my seemingly diminishing attention span, it hit me that this is the kind of thing that in the not-too-distant past I’d have written as a blog post, that I’d have shared almost reflexively. I felt little to no inclination to do that today, and so I started wondering what has changed. Is there something else different in my relationship to attention — not just the attention I pay, but the attention I seek, or more generously to myself, the attention I want to bear? One can read throughout my posts here since spring 2011 a series of not entirely successful attempts to work through my sense that my new position required (or seemed to require, at least) a reconfiguration of my public presence, my sense that I was at times a little more visible, a little more exposed, than might in the new order of things be ideal. There have also been, across that same period of time, some changes in the climate that have made working ideas out in the open feel a good bit less easy than it once was. But whether the changes are predominantly internal or external, the result is that I’ve become reticent about thinking in public — and that’s a not just a shame but in fact a pretty painful irony, given that thinking-in-public is both the source of whatever impact my work has had and the thing that I was hired to support.

In that support role, though, I’ve retreated somewhat behind-the-scenes, and I find myself somewhat reluctant to share the things I’m working on, in part because I get so very little time to work on them that all my ideas feel desperately under-baked. But the combination of what feels like my shrinking attention span and my reluctance to be public with my thinking have me more than a little worried about how (in fact whether) my work might proceed from here. I am hoping to find some strategies this summer to get myself past both of these hurdles, to work my brain in ways that help to grow my attention span again, and to re-develop my bravery about drawing attention to my work as it happens.

Philosophical writers vested much of their identities and reputations in their printed works, so that counterfeiting, abridgment, translation, and piracy threatened them with far more than merely economic damage. The repute of the individual concerned — and of the knowledge he or she professed — rested on the successful negotiation of such hazards. Writers developed certain strategies to overcome these dangers. They might coalesce and cooperate as a group, for example, combining resources to protect themselves. Such a body might even become a corporate licenser, utilizing the conventions described in chapter 3 to distinguish its books as creditable. Another possible course was to invent new techniques of communication, such as the learned periodical, the protocols of which might limit the practical powers of printers and booksellers. Still another was to police not just publication but reading, in the hope of stimulating debate while limiting conflict.

Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book, 445

The most difficult implication of this idea is the need to outgrow our supposedly Benjaminian habits of reading against the grain — the phrase the functioned as a byword for theoretically informed criticism in the second half of the twentieth century. In its place would appear a reading that suspends judgment, that commits itself, rather, to the most generous reading possible.

Timothy Bewes, “Reading with the Grain”

Complexity

I’m in the midst of reading Dominick LaCapra’s History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory, as I revise my essay on David Foster Wallace, Infinite Summer, and networked reading, and have been finding a lot there that’s helping me complicate some of my claims about identification and empathy. But I just stumbled across this in a footnote on complexity, and (as I’m also in the midst of reading The Pale King) it made my head explode a little:

I have in mind the complexity of a significant novel or a philosophical or historical text rather than, say, income tax forms, although the latter in their complexity certainly call for critical analysis.

Though I Wish They’d Named It Something Else

I will begrudgingly admit that I’m intrigued by the Nook, Barnes & Noble’s new device, previewed today, which seeks to be an Unnamed Other E-Reader Killer (follow that link and scroll down; apparently the K-word was banned from today’s announcement). There are three things about it that have me most intrigued:

First, that it’ll be running Android. The open source platform means it’s arguably hackable and developable-for.

Second, that it’ll have some as-yet incompletely understood lending capability. How it sounds like it’ll work is this: I have a book, I share it with some friend who can read it on their Nook for fourteen days, and during that time I don’t have access to the book. After fourteen days, I assume it returns to me — which is more than I can say for a lot of books I’ve lent out.

And finally, and most interestingly, that it’ll apparently provide some kind of interface between the e-book store and the physical bookstore:

Both 3G and Wifi will be free in the store, meaning consumers can do digitally what they’ve alway been able to do: “flip through the entire book, in their favorite book store.”

Bob Stein was thinking about this not too long ago, attempting to imagine the “place for books” as we move further into digital textuality. The ability to browse and buy in the physical store is one of the things I liked best about the future imagined by the French publishing group, Editis, in their video, “Possible ou Probable?”

The Nook doesn’t as yet look as cool as those little leather folios, but it’s a fair step in that direction, I think, recognizing the multiple ways that readers want to interact with books. And its basis in Android suggests that it may be at least a small step in the direction of a device that interacts more flexibly with the internet as a whole.

On Teaching Infinite Jest

The following was originally published as a guest post on Infinite Summer.

As you may have seen mentioned in a countdown post here, this past spring I taught a single-author course focused entirely around the work of David Foster Wallace. And as one of you noted, we read pretty much all of it — the short fiction, the long fiction, the non-fiction — with the exception of a few uncollected pieces. (Although, to be honest, I’m pretty certain that almost no one in the class actually finished reading Everything & More, except for the four students who’d signed on to give a presentation on it.) It was alternately a terrifying and exhilarating experience, spending a semester that deeply enmeshed in a body of work as rich, allusive, and smart as this one. And it was also a risky experience, emotionally speaking; Dave was a close colleague of mine, and the course was meant to give me and a group of students the time we needed to engage with both the loss we felt and the astonishing legacy that Dave left us.

And I don’t think I’m exaggerating, or at least not by much, when I say that it was the best teaching experience of my career thus far. Not that it was easy, either for the students or for me; they had an overwhelming amount of reading to do (though for many of them, at least some portion of it was re-reading) and a lot of writing as well, and I had a lot of preparation and a lot of grading to do. And then there were moments when I just felt unequal to the task of keeping the course from turning into a sort of Cobain-esque spectacle of mourning, in which we could all stew in the horror of his death by ferreting out — okay, they’re not all that hard to ferret — every reference to suicide or depression or more generalized anomie.

My students, however, were way more than equal to the task. Having given them, the first week of the semester, Wimsatt and Beardsley’s essay on the intentional fallacy, along with Wallace’s essay on Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky and an interview Larry McCaffrey did with Wallace pre-Infinite Jest, we had a long conversation about the complexities of the relationship between any text and its author, and more importantly about the distinction between the author as we think we understand him from the text and the actually existing human being who set pen to paper, all as a way of getting at why the class was going to be focused on this figure named “Wallace,” and not on “Dave.” A solid subset of the class strongly resisted Wimsatt and Beardsley, and held tight to the idea of the meaning of a text deriving from some idea held by the author, but they all got the distinction between the imagined author of a text and the biographical person, and were more than generous in going along with my insistence that because we couldn’t conceivably know what Dave might have meant by something, an appeal to his biography in interpreting his writing wouldn’t help. What we had before us were the texts, and rather than use what we knew of his life to help make sense of them — or worse, to use the texts in an attempt to make sense of his life, in a way that would treat the work as mere autobiography, utterly discounting and dismissing the role of imagination in his writing — we needed to use the texts themselves, and the references and allusions to other texts that they contain, as the sources for our interpretation. And that’s what the vast majority of the class had signed on for. We all somehow understood without saying that reading these novels and short stories and essays as nothing more than evidence of the tragedy to come not only sold the texts themselves short but also missed the crucial point that the act of imaginative identification with someone outside himself was precisely what had kept Dave alive, and that we owed it to the texts to focus on their search for human connection rather than its failures.

I’d taught Infinite Jest twice before, as part of a course called The Big Novel. In that one, we read Gravity’s Rainbow, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and Cryptonomicon, attempting to think through the impulse of a subset of recent authors toward producing such encyclopedic novels, and what they have to do with the state of U.S. culture after World War II. In each go-round of that class, Infinite Jest was both a highlight and the odd-novel-out, the one that seemed to be most about us and who we are right now, but the one at the very same time not about how we got here, but where we’re going if we don’t watch out. Reading Infinite Jest this past spring, not in the context of Pynchon and DeLillo, but in the context of Wallace’s own previous and following work, took some of the emphasis off of the particular forms of cultural change the novel posits and focused it more on the philosophical questions that recur throughout his writing, and in particular the relationship between self and other as mediated by language, or perhaps that relationship as complicated by the impossibility of ever really saying what you mean, coupled with the absolute necessity of trying to do so anyhow.

But I was left with the puzzle of how to structure the class. If we read the texts in chronological sequence, Infinite Jest would fall much too early in the semester, and would threaten to take the wind out of the sails of everything that fell behind it. But leaving it for the end of the semester, as the culminating text, wouldn’t allow us to see how Wallace’s thinking developed after its publication. I finally settled on a kind of half measure: we started Infinite Jest at the proper moment in the chronological sequence of the texts, but stretched it out across the rest of the semester, spending one day each week on another of the books and one day working through another section of IJ. On the whole, I think it worked out really well, though I suppose you’d have to ask my students for confirmation. The hardest part of that schedule — for me, at least; for them it was no doubt the quantity of reading — was trying to figure out how to talk in sufficient detail about the 100 pages on the table for that week, drawing attention to the things I knew were going to turn out to be important, without giving away too much about why they were important. But as you can tell from my students’ blog, they had lots to say, lots they wanted to consider, and discussion only very rarely flagged.

The first semester I taught my “Big Novel” course, on the last day of class, I did my usual “any lingering questions that you’d like us to talk about” schtick, and one student raised her hand and asked me why I hadn’t had David Foster Wallace come talk to them while we were reading Infinite Jest. And I was so surprised that I wound up blurting out the truth: because I had never talked with him about the class I was teaching. Because he would have hated it, hated the idea that his work was being discussed in the very building in which he was trying to be someone other than the Famous Author of Infinite Jest. Because both of us suffered from a kind of self-consciousness that made it absolutely necessary for him to pretend like he didn’t know I was teaching the novel (and it was pretending, I’m certain; it’s a very small college), and for me to pretend like I didn’t know he knew, if we were going to be able to function. So no. No visits from Dave.

I thought about that moment all last semester, and the fact that I could only teach perhaps the best class I’ve ever taught precisely because he wasn’t there anymore. And I still don’t know what to do with that, but I hope that if he’s out there, wherever, he’ll understand.

Requiescat in Pace

Today is the last day of what has been alternately a difficult and an exhilarating semester. Honestly, it’s the first semester in I can’t remember how long that I’ve been sorry to see end, the first semester in several years in which I’ve actually felt good about my teaching way more often than I’ve felt badly about it. But it’s also been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. And a good deal of both the up and the down of it all has been attributable to the class I taught this semester on the work of my late colleague, David Foster Wallace.
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