Friday, September 30, 2011

Cogs lately, 3

These art deco cogs are from the main lobby in downtown Chicago where ACM (Associated Colleges of the Midwest) has its offices. I captured these after Friday evening meetings and thought of them Saturday morning when the ACM Vice President invoked pejoratively the expression "cog in the machine" into his opening talk for a day of workshops for us ACM-Mellon postdoctoral fellows. The cog may be pejorative mostly today, but in the era of serious art deco the cog was an object of delight in engineering brighter futures. These cogs are still highly polished and illuminated in the foyer, yet largely repressed when people can pass them daily and wield the pejorative cog in their discourse.
"Cogs lately" is therefore my attempt to display the repressed that hangs out all the time in plain sight.

Cogs lately, 2

This large cogwheel was in a shop window on Broadway in New York City just south of Madison Square Park and in the same block as the Uniqlo Pop-up store. Purple Japanese fashion and a cogwheel in the same block: talk about the concrete jungle where dreams are made, oh!

Cogs lately

Cogs sprouting everywhere! Really, attune your vision to cogs and you will notice them proliferating as if they were spilling out of Kafka's machine at the end of "In the Penal Colony," when the inscription-punisher breaks down and cogs spill out of its mysterious interior like clowns from a Mini Cooper...

These cogs comprise the window display at the Duty Free Shop in the Detroit airport. Paired with Penelope Cruz no less. Clearly there's a designer in Detroit with the highest taste!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Three Levels x 2

When I find myself inhabiting a 3-story building, I cannot resist mapping the building’s stories onto Freud’s triad as well as Lacan’s.

In this case, Valders Hall of Science has three stories. In the basement, where Id is constructed and hangs out, there are the physics labs, closed and locked doors assigned to individual professors who push around fundamental particles.

On the main floor, classrooms and study areas, the physics department proper, and cabinets of taxidermied nonhumans, the preservative chemicals of which whisper gently to the olfactory organ when you pass by them and their glass eyeballs. In Hitchcock’s Psycho, the taxidermied animals were aside from the home structure, in the office of the motel—here the Biology department is in the attached new building. When I walk past the cases of dead nonhumans, I consider why they are installed at the level of the Ego. This is largely how we move as objects through the world of objects, imagining those other objects as not quite so privileged as we are, yet we are compelled to observe them—they dazzle us gradually as Emily Dickinson, the em-dash mistress—put it. The world is a group of specimens behind a glass screen. This is the balanced ego alive.

Upstairs: Psychology and Environmental Studies. My office is here at the level of Superego. Ecology making its meaningless demands and the psyche striving to make meaning of the meaningless and meaninglessness.

In the Lacanian register, I suppose the particle physics basement is the Imaginary, the main floor of class rooms and communal study areas is the Symbolic where we socially transform the Imaginary into the Symbolic. And up here in Psych and Environmental Studies, we wrestle with the Real, that unrepresentable remainder.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Freud's letters

I have self-prescribed a daily dip into Sigmund Freud's letters to Wilhelm Fliess, likely a result of Peter Galison's discovery that Freud gained a crucial insight into linguistics of repression by self-observing letter writing practices under conditions of strict censorship.

Only a few letters in, I am struck by how Freud always uses a piece of the precious compact space to talk about his first daughter, Mathilde. These are touching moments, attesting to the multiplicity of life when one is a researcher, writer, husband and father. As I desperately miss the physical presence of my own first daughter, Sofia (Chofi), Freud's letters provide a gentle and subtle comfort.

But there are little oddities like: "I have at the moment a lady in hypnosis lying in front of me and therefore can go on writing in peace..." 28 May 1888.

Liberal Arts Education and Critical Thinking

Last weekend I was in Chicago for an ACM (Associated Colleges of the Midwest) workshop related to my current Postdoc post. A daylong multiplicity of conversations about what a Liberal Arts education and Liberal Arts institutions are and how we, as Postdoc Fellows recently graduating from R1 universities are making the transition. Quite an engaging opportunity for concentrated thought and exchange about what we do, might do, and why!

Still under the influence of OOOIII, I was struck by the one unanimous element of the day: Critical Thinking is a primary (and unexamined) goal. At OOOIII, numerous people were raising fundamental questions about the era of "Critical Thinking"--in relation to the Kantian knot as well as concern over this particular and singular model of how we think about thought as well as change. All of this on the heels of a good and brilliant friend's reader remarks on one of my essays that really pushed me to try articulating what ideological criticism really offers in the way of change--not a binary of action versus thought, but a question about our belief in critical thinking and critique: When do we meet the quantitative shift to the qualitative? When will there be just the right amount of critique to change things?

I don't have my answers. I feel like I'm just opening this area of thought, and it's like riding inside of a Percy Shelley poem: one second your in the cosmos observing the music of the spheres, then you're looking at nanocogs, or maybe you are a nanocog.

Disorientation like standing underneath Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate and looking up while moving slowly in a circle.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mate Afternoon

The fall equinox descends and the sky darkens early. The clouds veil all the stars from view, removing the illusion of endless distance and space, turning the lifeworld into a claustrophobic intimacy. It could be enough to make Dietrich Bonhoeffer get the blues. But, put on some Roberto Goyeneche (maybe "Naranjo en flor"), take in a round of good mate and some aromatic black walnuts, and you'll feel right as rain, as the Oracle once said.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Canadian Bacon, Sauerkraut, and an "Indecent Proposal"

The photograph, in the context of Decorah, Iowa, clicks in the mind’s iPod John (then-Cougar?) Mellencamp’s “Little Pink Houses.” But this house wasn’t always pink…

As another sample of my psychogeography uncanny re-experience of Decorah, I have been passing this house—technically apartment-house, a number of times lately. Last night I was out for a late night walk when most of Decorah is dark and deserted. This stretch of neighborhood was dark and deserted too, and then I recalled a particular night when I delivered a Happy Joe’s pizza to this address.

It was a Canadian bacon and sauerkraut pizza, and it was the sketchiest delivery I ever made. (With the possible exception of the married teenagers at the Midtown Motel who wanted to give me a “prayment” in lieu of cash.) Let me be clear about this "Indecent Proposal": I returned to Happy's with my bow-tie and integrity fully intact and the pizza bill paid in cash!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The other big Other

When I returned to Decorah after the Object-Oriented Ontology Seminar (OOOIII) in New York, the Luther College wind turbine was up! From many vantage points in town, it appears atop the bluffs. Stand on the dike next to the Upper Iowa River and you see its triple-pointed curves and cylindrical base in the distance, for the moment standing still, counterpointed by the sounds of the river running over rocks.

Look the other direction at the downtown of Decorah, and you will see cross-tipped church steeples rising highest amongst the human-made-architecture.

Look out of my office window in Valders Hall of Science, and you will see the cross atop the Center for Faith and Life (the CFL) and behind, slightly to the left, larger and higher, two complete and one partially-obstructed turbine blade and their attachment to the base.

The new sight reminded me of a recent visit to Salt Lake City in which one of my handlers explained to me that from outside the city one used to see predominantly the Tabernacle, but that the bank/finance buildings have dwarfed the temple in stature, so that now driving into Salt Lake City one sees the concrete housings of specular capital.

In Decorah, the Christian crosses still stand tallest when one looks to the town, but turn from town and the turbine rises high into vision.

From my office they are closely juxtaposed, yet they do not seem in competition. The cross is affixed to a brick building nearby, and the turbine is in contact with the clouds and points at the limestone bluffs in the distance, yet it is connected, wired to us.

Rather than competing symbols, I see an other big Other, watching over the town, or, more succinctly, another symbol through which we project our self-watching.

Talking to an emeriti faculty, he told me another person had “run the numbers” and discovered the turbine would be lucky to break even for Luther College. “It’s largely if not wholly symbolic,” he criticized. For me, the experiment is part of a larger, and yes perhaps utopian, project, but why is its symbolism a point for denigration? The symbolism is an aesthetic function of the machine—one function among many of the machine.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Objects, Encounters, Space

Taking sustained and speedy walk around Manhattan for a few days shortly after moving from Davis, California (pop. 61,000) to Decorah, Iowa (pop. 8,000) set into relief the transition I was making in how to be one object among many having some encounters in space. Furthermore, these NYC walks were largely organized around an Object-Oriented Ontology Seminar at The New School.

As one object among many in Davis moving on trajectories of my own and intersecting at times with those of others, the flow of movement entails encounter at the level primarily of occasional eye contact but very rarely verbal address or physical contact.

In Decorah, the encounter type is typically quite different. For one, the many other objects tend to be in motion at a decidedly slower pace than I-object am. But more to the point, eye contact is practically mandatory, as if eye-aversion or eye-apathy are forms of snobbery and/or threat. Add to this a high frequency of verbal address. I must admit that I find it requires a significant transition in energy-levels to move amongst other objects in this way.

In New York, (can one say that phrase without hearing Jay Z and Alicia Keys?), there is rare potential for eye contact and really zero for verbal address. Objects are moving fast yet with a high alertness to and awareness of the other objects. Trajectories are far out in front, pulling the objects projecting them out there to the projected space yet with the flexibility to elide a plethora of other objects.

I got to feeling, maybe strangely, that the New York walking was a way to think about objects encountering each other in a way more intimately than the other two. Counterintuitively so. There is less verbal discourse and eye-contact cueing, which might intuitively be the avenues to intimacy of the other moving objects. But, they can also be insular modes of non-intimate encounter as opposed to the intimacy of moving around space with other objects that project their trajectories and move along them rapidly yet navigating that space.

You can sit on a park bench and watch people, or you can walk speedily along the city sidewalks and get intimate with people, and concrete textures, and traffic light patterns, and zippy scooters…

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Marxist Hotdoggin'

Lunch Break at OOOIII at the New School on September 14th, I walked south to find Gray's Papaya for a little William Gibson Spook Country urban encountering. I found the Styrofoam cup of papaya-drink the strangest object of the day---

A micro-chapter of sheer genius and zaniness in Spook Country. From reading interviews with him, William Gibson’s background in literary theory and criticism is clear, though more often than not he emphasizes ideas on Interpretation, reveling in the multiplicity generated by every reader interface as well as his own writerly interfaces through writings and revisions. In the documentary film about him, No Maps for These Territories, he references Fredric Jameson, but only as a glancing mention of postmodernism. In Pattern Recognition, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Lacan, Jameson, and Habermas make a somewhat superficial appearance, and in such a context that one cannot ascertain Gibson’s relationship with literary and critical theories (67). Not surprising in itself as Gibson seems to cultivate an authorial presence constituted by the absence of positions/commitments.

The appearance of critical theory in Spook Country, while still without disclosing an authorial position, is absolutely yet subtly hilarious. In Chapter 26, entitled “Gray’s Papaya,” the NSA-like figure known only as Brown takes his hostage-translator, Milgrim, for a Recession Special at the famous hotdog stand in New York City, for which the chapter is named. This is the one place where Brown relaxes enough to talk to Milgrim about matters other than barked demands for translation services:

“He’d have the nonalcoholic pina colada with his franks and lay out the origins of cultural Marxism in America. Cultural Marxism was what other people called political correctness, according to Brown, but it was really cultural Marxism, and had come to the United States from Germany, after World War II, in the cunning skulls of a clutch of young professors from Frankfurt. The Frankfurt School, as they’d called themselves, had wasted no time in plunging their intellectual ovipositors repeatedly into the unsuspecting body of old-school American academia. Milgrim always enjoyed this part; it had an appealing vintage sci-fi campiness to it, staccato and exciting, with grainy monochrome Eurocommie star-spawn in tweed jackets and knit ties, breeding like Starbucks.” ---p.126

What could be more brilliant than a right-wing American ranting about the dreadful invasion of the benignly capitalist America by the Frankfurt School with his mouth full of frankfurter, that German-born sausage which migrated from similar origins as Adorno and colleagues to become a primary food synecdoche for Americanness in its hotdog avatar! As such, the passage bears a complex resonance of global cultural (in)fusions, of dubious claims to origin, authenticity, and signification. The character Brown stands in for the debilitating blindness that accompanies a total readiness to simplify history, to simplify processes and the formations of subcultures. As a lateral thought here—one could easily hold up John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath as a highly influential literary sample of, albeit naively conceptualized, cultural Marxism arising from sites other than the Frankfurt School; not only that, but it intersects with the recession-element of the Spook Country passage as well as offering myriad detailed scenes of food preparation—flipping burgers was the equivalent to erotica in literature and film for early works during and immediately following as reflections on the Depression. Further out on the lateral vector--don't forget Pink's in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Back from that lateral, within a novel by the foremost contemporary speculative-fiction theorizer of the formation of subcultures, this depiction of a rightist conceptualization of cultural Marxism in America is a brilliantly twisted reflexive moment that causes a spatio-temporal pause within Spook Country—what might at first seem a throwaway chapter of perhaps ‘found’ dialogue becomes a node for interpreting the novel itself, and one with fantastic imagery and a hearty laugh!


OOO Bits...

Trying to think objects (and a world of objects) indifferent to whether or not they are/it is thought.

Objects irreducible to component parts & to relationships.

Reality is nonconceptual...

Is thinking the pencil on the table really weirder than the table holding it up? An approach to despecializing thought so that it is nontranscendental and it is everywhere.

The no-blood coldness of a broken toy sound--a sign of the inhuman world.

Tuning is the birth of a new object.

And, one from a taxi driver: "I do not understand how this Bachmann can lie like this and not face consequences. In my home country, a typical African failed state, the leaders lied to us like that, but we knew they despised us when they even bothered to acknowledge our existence. I came here to the States and now it feels like I left one failed state for another one."

Monday, September 12, 2011

Happy Moon Festival!

This year I am far from so many of the most important people in my life. But we will take in the same full/harvest moon tonight! =]
This Wang Fei classic incorporates lines from Su Shi's famous and fantastic moon poem.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Grasshopper Massacre: WWJD?

This afternoon I needed exercise and a change of work scene as I assemble the various “Teaching Philosophy” statements that each emphasize a different aspect of my literary scholar multiplicity. I had just wrapped up my very literary Americanist persona and was ready to begin my Modernist one when I left.

So, laptop, notebook, and pens in bag, helmet on head, I bicycled to the Trout Run Trail and headed out of town. Along a prairie stretch of the trail, the pavement suddenly became a slightly bumpier than 2-Dimensional mural of a grasshopper massacre. Dozens and dozens of live grasshoppers springing away as I approached, and as many or more grasshopper carcasses in various stages of decay, some flattened and many giving a slight texture to the tarmac-canvas.

One sprung up and clung to my jeans. Something in the position of its limbs was a visual analog to my daughter Sofia holding on to Papa or Mama. Nearly simultaneous a question popped up in mind: WWJD? But J for Jains not for Jesus. What would I do in this situation if I were a Jain? Plus, I’m now seeing this one grasshopper as delicate and trusting as my own daughter.

So, I slowed down. Not just slow: So slow that I could readily avoid hitting a single living grasshopper as I progressed through this horrid-Jackson-Pollock space. Bicycling for me arouses a lovely blank-mind flow, but that is usually at faster speeds. Today, I got the same gladness (in the Wordsworthian sense of “glad”) by bicycling almost unsustainably slowly but with eyes rapidly attending to each of the many lives I would not end.

Post Script: I stopped at a picnic bench near a rapids next to the Trout Hatchery and drafted/revised my modernist persona in a joyful spirit, affected by this little tableau, like Robert Frost after checking out that spider, that moth, and that anomalous heal-all on his own journey with non-human animals.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Social Security keeps getting cooler

I bicycle sometimes past the local Social Security office and last night noticed this cardboard promotional image just inside the door. Actually, I first noticed the cello-taped "No Weapons Allowed" sign. When I stopped I discovered the Trek-themed invitation to "boldly go" to the social security govt website. What sort of advertising antinomy is this? It strikes me as not so much misguided as mysteriously-guided in a place like this.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Chew bubble gum and kick ass

When I see these QR Code squares, I recall a time when such ideology technologies were objects of deep paranoia. The master, John Carpenter, made that wonderful film, They Live, about encoded messages to consume and obey that were hidden and required special sunglasses to discern. Today, we no longer want Rowdy Roddy Piper to show up to chew bubble gum and kick ass (and to be out of bubble gum). Today, instead of sunglasses, we iPad our vision to enjoy the warm hailing embrace of these QR invitations.

We're still inside the 1980s

The end of the NASA space shuttle program, for me, punctuated the real end of the 1980s. Then I started teaching my first course in Main 211. A few days before the semester began, I dropped in to check out the room dynamics and instantly felt the illusion of the end of the 80s dissolve. Attached to the wall was an Anti-Soviet student project that felt like something we might have been asked to produce before the Berlin Wall fell and we were all singing that Scorpions song.

But I asked a Russian professor, and this was made last year. It speaks to me with strange whispers co-mingled with loud shouts.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Now, Dude, that's a name no one would self-apply where I come from.

The occurrence today that reminded me clearly we're not in California any more was watching this student-produced promotional video for Luther College at a new faculty orientation meeting. I am not out to denigrate pop-country music here; I was simply taken aback that students would willingly, much less autonomously, self-apply pop-country music to a self-representation.


Psychogeography is a term I've personally come across primarily in film studies analyses of urban representations.

It remained largely academic to me until this evening when I took a long walk around Decorah, where I lived from age 10-18 and to which I'm returning now at nearly 38.

Specifically, there was one moment when my walking zen-vibe was disturbed by a house on Maple that I'd not thought of in a very long time. I was only inside that house once, and that was the first and only time I ever played Dungeons & Dragons. I do and do not look forward to the many walks I will take during my postdoc year in Decorah and to the psychogeographical annotations that will resurface for me as I encounter places recondite and on Water Street.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Location, Location, Location!!!

The injunction to "Eat Local" morphed deeply when I moved from Davis in Northern California to Decorah in Northeast Iowa.

I miss the apricots, plums, nectarines, peaches, dates, almonds, organic milk--the only organic milk at the grocery near me is from Santa Ana, CA.

Worm Neighbors

My office-neighbors are worms! (No, I'm not trying to emulate Boris Yelnikoff.) Every morning I pass the worm bedding bucket in the suite hall to get to my Luther College office. This morning the cylinder of sustainability materiality made me think of Sesame Street. Typically, if you mention Jim Henson and eco_ the response is Kermit singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” But today the worms got me thinking how Oscar the Grouch is a suggestive eco-resident. One of his best friends is Slimey the worm and he not only acknowledges but embraces that his life is literally surrounded by, bathed in, rubbish. He, too, is green (though originally a toxic orange). There are complex ecological lessons in the misunderstood misanthropy of this good-hearted friend of worms.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

in gear

Less than one month ago I filed my dissertation, The Hour of the Machine, at the University of California, Davis.

With English (Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory) PhD in hand, I have moved to Decorah, Iowa to begin my ACM-Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship joint-appointment in English and Environmental Studies.

This academic year I'll be teaching American Literature to 1860 for the English Department in the fall, an 4-week intensive "J-Term" First-Year Seminar that I'm calling "Screening Ecology: A Multi-Media Exploration" for Environmental Studies, and in the spring I'll teach an English/Environmental Studies cross-listed course I'm calling: Machining Greener Futures: Ecology and Technology in Literature.

I'm keeping this blog for predictions, reflections, and the occasional present-capture as I move through teaching and research, presenting and publishing, and transitioning from life at an R1 University with 30,000+ students in Northern California to a Liberal Arts College of the Church with approximately 2,500 students in a Northeast Iowa town with a population just sufficient to operate an aircraft carrier.