Monday, March 5, 2012


One of the little treats I afforded myself upon securing my tenure track English Assistant Professorship was a day to devour Anne Rice's recent novel, The Wolf Gift. I'd heard Rice on NPR talking about venturing into the werewolf as a new territory for her, and I'd recently been reviewing my reading notes/marginalia in Capital, Volume I, where I had noted all of Marx's monsters, including werewolves. Marx's vampires are much more well known; the werewolves have on occasion been noted, but they to a much less degree, quantitatively and qualitatively with regard to sustained analysis. As it turns out, amongst the few werewolves Marx folds into that particular book is one of Martin Luther's werewolves. And Luther's three werewolves contribute to his vitriolic attack on the pope.

But, to get back to Rice's novel, one of my favorite elements of The Wolf Gift is the micro-literary history of the werewolf integrated into its narrative. The werewolves are themselves versed in this literary/cultural history and struggle with their own identity in relation to this ideology as it intersects with the material reality of their being. All of our classical monster narratives today cannot but be consumed with the literary/cultural history into and outof which they are inscribed. Yet, Rice's narrative makes this inscription explicit and finely nuanced--in fact, the novel left me wanting to know more from these characters on their self-consciousness of their being-in-monster-trope/tradition.

The other recommending aspect of Rice's novel is her treatment of liminal struggles. After the wretched 2010 film The Wolf Man, with its ending line: "It is said there is no sin in killing a beast, only in killing a man. But where does one begin and the other end," Rice's complex borders provoke rather than set off a gag reflex.

I read The Wolf Gift just months after reading Jacques Derrida's 2001-02 lectures The Beast & the Sovereign, much of which is devoted to what he calls a genelycology, and what I'd modify into genelycanthropology, in reference to Rice's novel, which is a little hyperlink of irony, since I always remember that scene in the film Derrida, where he is in his home library and is asked if he's read all the books covering the walls. No, Derrida replies with several Anne Rice vampire novels in his hand and explaining that these were a gift when he was doing lectures on vampirism, and he finally says to the effect, I have only read 4, but I read them VERY WELL.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Design Purge

Over the weekend of February 3 and 4, I presented a paper at an ACM conference held at Cornell College called "The Past, Present, and Future of the Book."

One of the serendipitous events was the purgation of something I hardly realized I'd been harboring. Back in 1999, possibly 2000, I bought a copy of Franz Kafka's The Blue Octavo Notebooks. I remember instantly hating it, even though the words on the pages were treasures to me. The feel of the paper, the deep sparseness of print on the pages, the very dimensions of the book: all awful. These are concerns of paper codex books in our hands and before our eyes.

At the ACM conference, I met a scholar/designer, Brad Coulter at the University of Iowa, who presented his own design work for publishing Kafka's The Trial, inspired by an unusual book from 1968 called The Trial of 6 Designers, which included 6 major designers' approaches to designing Kafka's novel for publication/consumption. A fascinating experiment all on its own.

Later in the conference we had a nice talk, and I brought up the blue notebooks, and we discovered a common disgust at their design. As a character in Kafka, but a character who makes it out of Kafka, I realize at last that the disgust was not only mine--not an alienation response, but a space for collectivity, or sorts.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


My Technology and Ecology in Literature class today worked with selections from Charles Darwin, Samuel Butler, and Richard Dawkins. They did a fantastic job exploring Darwin's metaphors and Butler's eerie proto-The Matrix. A highlight moment was talking these things through with them and then realizing we had a sort of machine consciousness, at least of the variety Butler is talking about (i.e. a governor) right there on the wall, right there inside the room, a conscious machine is calling us and it's right here inside the room with us!

Tonight, I picked up The Foundation Pit by Platonov for a little dinner-time reading, and felt compelled to post the following passage:

"Voshchev, just as before, did not feel the truth of life, but exhaustion from the heavy ground resigned him to humility--and he simply collected, on rest days, all kinds of petty and unfortunate scraps of nature, as documentary proof of the planless creation of the world, as the facts of the melancholy of each living breath."

Monday, February 13, 2012

Deconstruction, not Demolition

My good friend, Michael O'Brien sent me this link to a local story that brings together critical theory and my personal connections to Decorah, Iowa.

The story is entitled "Deconstructing 'Deconstruction'." The title hooked me--after all, I'm an English professor with a keen interest in Derrida. I've been methodically working through his The Beast and the Sovereign lecture series this academic year. Then I looked at the photo and knew the story's context. After decades in Decorah, long under the management of my grandfather and then of my uncles, Wapsie Produce has recently closed down and is now being deconstructed. Not demolished, as the article explains, because the deconstruction crews are dismantling the building carefully in order to save reusable materials.

There is a sadness for me in seeing this architectural manifestation of family history disappear, though I only had one summer of labor experience across the processes of processing capons. Yet, this glimmer of Derridean approach to this gradual event in a public forum is, at least for me, quite a eulogy.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Detective Writer TV Fever-Dream Pitch

Friday was an incredibly long night of fever-disturbed sleep, in which I would get no more than 40 minutes of consecutive rest before waking up to find a new position and adjust the covers. Not a lot to cherish there. But...

I did have a fever-fed dream of myself putting the finishing touches to a television screenplay (no doubt, inspired by the old Stephen J. Canell Productions closing logo from the 1980s series), and then I was in a studio pitch meeting trying to get tv execs to back my proposed series. The series would kick off with a cross-over episode of Castle (perhaps because on Friday I saw the newest Richard Castle hardcover novel displayed on the New Book shelf at Luther's Preus Library) and Murder, She Wrote, accompanied by an episode hosted by me featuring tv writers and producers and academics/public intellectuals, discussing the history of American detectives.

My aims were twofold: One was to bring public intellectuals into mainstream American media, and the second seemed like a desire to address the unaddressed lack of episodes of Murder, She Wrote in which Angela Lansbury's J.B. Fletcher was actually working on a novel. I cannot attest to the veracity of this claim. Nor do I have time right now for the complete DVD series to fact-check.

I guess I'm still nostalgically clinging to a past of network tv as the social, resisting for the most part this cable-facilitated Renaissance of television.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Sparkly Blue Lodge

I've got dozens of photographs of Mar T Cafe, some with me in the frame, some without me, but all from the pre-digital-camera days. I was just in Seattle last week for the MLA Conference, and it was one of the few times I've been in the Seattle area and not driven out to Snoqualmie and North Bend to do some Twin Peaksing. Fortunately, I had a night out for sushi with Tim Morton and we geeked out about Twin Peaks.

I experienced two doppelgangerish sentiments while in Seattle. First, this particular trip was an inverted reenactment of one week back in 2005 when my wife, Min, was getting her M.Ed. at Western Washington University. We drove together down to Seattle so she could attend the NAFSA international education conference at the same Washington State Convention Center where I was doing the MLA. On 2 of those days, I dropped her off early in the morning and then drove east to the former Mar T, now Twede's, in North Bend to have coffee and cherry pie before hiking up Little Si one day and a ways up Big Si on the other. The Little Si morning I was perked with coffee, which was excellent, because the fog was so thick I couldn't see where I was stepping even low on the mountain trail. By the time I got to the top, I was hiking with my hands out in front of me--it was, uncannily, laugh laugh, just like the scene Freud describes in "The Uncanny." On the way down, the fog was breaking up a bit and I began to notice the orangepink salmon berries just ripe and just off the trail. I picked a bagful--one must always carry bags when hiking in the PNW for such instances--and Min quite appreciated them later on the drive north to Bellingham. By the time I did these trips, I'd probably been to Snoqualmie and North Bend and most of the nearby filming sights many times--I recall the first time ever going there in 1992 and geeking out with a group of Japanese tourists who were also PeakFreeks. It was striking to be near yet outside the televisiogeography on those particular trips.

The second doubling, and I suppose there must be two of them, was that last week in Seattle I got to reflecting on my reactions to the transition of the Mar T Cafe, which was the Double R Diner on the show, to Twede's. The Mar T, when I visited in 1992 and before it burned down, looked so much like the Double R. Dark faux wood paneling, the juke box, the floor tiling...And the pies were still being baked by the woman who baked pie after pie for Lynch and crew. Like a real-life DVD extra, going to the Mar T felt like a little extension, a little extra time inside, of Twin Peaks and thereby of Twin Peaks. Twede's, on the other hand, has retained some production photos and memorabilia on the wall near the restrooms. Otherwise, the booths are in a new configuration and they are royal blue with outrageous sparkly flecks of gold, like a blue bowling call circa 1983. Stuffed Tweety birds hang from the ceiling. They still have pie and coffee, but the vibe is gone. Or is it? It was thinking and talking about Twin Peaks with Tim that got me thinking about potential aesthetic appreciation of Twede's as a disturbing plastic blue tint that resonates with the shift from the warm brown woody tones of the tv series to the cold tones of Fire Walk with Me. Perhaps the blue of Twede's need not be a melancholy color focused on loss but a canted coloring away from nostalgia and into potentialities.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Cogs lately, 10: Entartete Kunst edition

Two days after splintering my radius, I was unexpectedly back on the Luther campus, warming up in the Union before walking over to the regular Shakespeare sonnet event and then to teach on Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Unexpectedly there because I anticipated having surgery that day, but my wrist-area was still too swollen.

With the pain-management medication taking the edge off, I walked into the Union gallery to check out the latest student exhibition: Entartete Kunst by Cassandra Bormann. Among the first of this intaglio collection was a piece called “Martin Bormann Diptych.” The right panel is a man in a fedora from the neck up; the left panel is a perplexing conglomeration of cogwheels inside a black haze of ink so clotted thick it seems I can smell its seductive, toxic perfume.

As the collection continues, there are other pieces featuring similar assemblages of cogwheels, without humans. All titled “Untitled.” As if the cogwheels exceed or perhaps elude the verbal.

In addition to this repression of the verbal element, what fascinates me in these images is the dreamlike disorganization of the cogwheel machines. Does disgust at the Nazis manifest in a desire to represent them as mechanical (constructivist) rational state apparatus, but as an imperfect, flawed machine? If so, does this critical representation hold onto a desire for, perhaps fetishization of, efficient, good machines? Similar to the way our laughter at a Rube Goldberg cartoon actually reinforces an appreciation of efficient machines—we don’t laugh at the embranglement of machines and human beings so much as at any human beings who sufficiently miss the point of the machine to invent the wonky contraptions illustrated by Goldberg.

Bormann’s intaglio collection is quite an outstanding work.