new syllabus posted

Extremely psyched about my fall writing course for first-years, Writing About TV!

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Rick and Morty, or I Love TV

My partner got into Rick and Morty before I did, and at first, to the half-attention I paid it as I was cooking or scrolling through Twitter or doing other things, it seemed like just another one of the dozen cartoons-for-grown-ups on TV with an irreverent, puerile sense of humor. I didn’t get hooked until he put on “Interdimensional Cable 2: Tempting Fate.” The show’s premise is that grandfather/amoral-genius-scientist Rick Sanchez has invented technology that affords him access to an infinite number of alternate universes. This discovery allows Rick and his grandchildren Morty and Summer to bounce from universe to universe, having adventures—or, sometimes, as in the episode that first captivated me, to sit on the couch and watch hours of the interdimensional television that Rick has hacked.

There are two episodes featuring interdimensional cable, and each is a love letter to television itself, warts and annoying commercials and genre clichés and all. (There are echoes here of showrunner Dan Harmon’s last major project, Community—I’m reminded of Abed’s passion for TV, reflected in the show’s loving enactment of sitcom staples like the bottle episode, the mockumentary form, and the flashback episode.) Interdimensional TV has “a somewhat looser feel to it,” observes Morty, to which Rick responds, “Yeah, it’s got an almost improvisational tone”—the main improviser being co-creator and voice actor Justin Roiland, who plays both Rick and Morty.

The snippets of IDTV we see are too absurd for summary—you have to watch it to get it. My favorites are the trailer for Jan Quadrant Vincent 16 and the nonsensical, vaguely dirty How It’s Made-style show on the plumbus. Rick and Morty’s TV pastiche is just the kind of silly humor I like, and its parody is laced with knowing affection, not venom, for the genres it mimics.

The other thing that draws me to Rick and Morty, besides its self-reflexive TV-philia, is its embrace of all the possibilities of animation. In principle, the promise of animation over live action is the capacity to illustrate anything that you can imagine, without being limited by the laws of physics or biology. Cartoons are dreamscapes where literally anything that can be pictured can be realized—spaces of fluidity, metamorphosis, and animism, where even objects come to life. Sergei Eisenstein called it “plasmatic”—animation constitutes a “rejection of once-and-forever allotted form, freedom from ossification, the ability to dynamically assume any form.”

It’s not that often that contemporary cartoons for adults actually flesh out this plasmatic capability, though—more often they follow the same conventions that govern live-action realisms. I see a bit of it in American Dad!’s Roger the alien, whose protean costume changes and enactments of various “characters” he’s invented contrast with the stolid forms of the human characters. And I see a bit more of it in Bojack Horseman, whose vaunted psychological realism plays out in an imaginary world where humans and anthropomorphized animals of all sorts—horses, pink cats, golden retrievers, sexy dolphins—live in a kind of multispecies democracy.

Rick and Morty is perhaps the most plasmatic, though, and it takes the most joy in colors and styles and transformations for their own sake. In “Total Rickall,” the family is invaded by a host of alien parasites who can alter human memories to make it seem like they have been part of the family all along. It’s a transparent excuse to invent and draw a bunch of weird, goofy new characters, who populate the background and multiply themselves in a free-for-all of color and form.

Eisenstein saw something liberatory in animation, an escape from the grey, rigid, mechanical modern world. Maybe that’s why the improvisational, multiplicitous, plasmatic world of Rick and Morty appeals to me. There’s a Walter Benjamin quote about film that I wanted to put in a recent essay I wrote, but I couldn’t fit it in:

Our bars and city streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories seemed to close relentlessly around us. Then came film and exploded this prison-world with the dynamite of the split second, so that now we can set off calmly on journeys of adventure among its far-flung debris.

One might say the same thing of a good cartoon. When the world seems ossified into something mean and small-minded and unhospitable, and when the cinema seems unable to do much other than rehash its own past in a feeble attempt at the comforts of nostalgia, animation blows up the walls that hemmed in our imaginations. It says: annihilate realism; forget what you’ve been told is possible; imagine a different, freer universe.

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On the Writing that is Not Writing

I haven’t written any blog posts at all this semester. In fact, I’ve only written one since the world turned upside down on November 8. One story I tell myself about this silence is that I don’t have any words for what’s happening in the world; there are too many words circulating on social media and news media, and not enough understanding. I still don’t understand. I don’t believe it was Comey and I don’t believe it was Clinton’s failure to campaign in Michigan and I don’t believe it was Bernie bros and I don’t believe it was bad polls. None of those things are explanations for what goes on in the heart of a white person who would rather lose his own health insurance than see a black family insured through the state. Nothing in that list explains what goes on in the heart of a person who goes to church every Sunday and praises Jesus, then leaves church and praises a man who promises to turn away refugees from the same part of the world where Jesus lived. I didn’t have an explanation, and nothing else seemed very important at the time, and so I didn’t write anything.

That story is not entirely true, though, because I did write this semester, just not here. In January I reread Civilization and its Discontents, a book Freud wrote in 1929, a decade after World War I ended and a few years before fascists came to power in Europe. Freud saw civilization as fragile, always locked in battle with humans’ instincts toward violence. All of history, in Freud’s view, suggests that the commandment to “love thy neighbor” runs contrary to human nature. We don’t want to love our neighbors, and we don’t know how to love them, and we never have. It’s a pessimistic view, even for me, but reading the news, hearing the chants of “build that wall!”, I thought it might be true.

I wrote a new set of paper prompts for my freshman writing class, and a new syllabus, “Writing About TV.” The first week of classes, one of them asked if we could watch the inauguration on TV. I said, No, because we have an in-class assessment planned for that day. I didn’t say, No, because it makes me feel sick to watch a parade for a man who is bringing white supremacists with him to the White House.

I wrote comments on my students’ essays, all 433 essays I graded this term. It was exhausting. I reminded myself to find something kind to say on each one. Sometimes I forgot to say anything kind.

I wrote to my congresswoman to thank her for opposing the AHCA. And to my senators, asking them to vote against Jeff Sessions’ confirmation. He was confirmed anyway.

I wrote hundreds of emails for work.

I wrote two pages of an aborted article on Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

I read Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow. It was the only book I read for fun all semester. It was fun.

I wrote sarcastic tweets. I think that Twitter is just one big cry for help, but it helps to not be alone.

I wrote to my senators to ask them to investigate the president’s conflicts of interest. They didn’t.

I wrote a book review for a journal that will be published in 2018. I submitted it over two months after the deadline I had promised the editor I would meet. Luckily he was kind about it.

I wrote a research talk for a job that I didn’t get, and a research/teaching talk for a job that I did get (the same position I’ve been in at UT). I’m a little proud of those even though they don’t make an imprint on my CV.

I wrote to my senators asking them not to confirm Neil Gorsuch. He got confirmed.

I wrote a response to my readers’ reports on my book manuscript, laying out a plan for the revisions that I will complete this summer.

I wrote a poem at a Poets Society meeting (a student club I advise) about the beauty of invasive species—starlings, parrots, pythons. It’s a bad poem but I shared it anyway.

I wrote to my representatives asking them to protect the sage grouse. A small thing, perhaps insignificant, but it felt like a winnable battle, unlike everything else I’d been writing to them about.

I wrote a proposal for a course redesign grant. It’s unlikely I’ll get it, because they prioritize upper-division courses within the majors and I don’t get to teach those, but it was worth a try.

I wrote a silly P.G. Wodehouse parody called “Leave it to Arkady” about Sergey Kislyak as a clueless Bertie Wooster type in Washington, and the extremely competent and subtle aide who has to clean up his messes. It got rejected from McSweeney’s.

I wrote two pages of an aborted article on Junot Diaz’s “Monstro” and zombie capitalism.

I wrote more emails.

Every few nights I wrote in my bedside journal, “I am so tired,” or “Today was good,” or “Made it through today.”

Last week’s New Yorker has a piece on Grace Paley, the short story writer. She lived until 2007 but her last collection of stories came out in 1985. She was a political activist, protesting war and nuclear weapons. The writer suggests that politics might account for Paley’s abandonment of fiction: “Activism, like alcoholism, can distract a writer from the demands of her desk.” But Paley continued to write nonfiction and poetry after her last story collection. She kept protesting, too.

E.M. Forster gave up writing fiction after A Passage to India in 1924, though he lived until 1970. Some critics think it was because he found love with a married policeman; others note that he turned to radio broadcasting and political commentary in the 1930s, so it’s not as if he were idle. He also kept a diary, published posthumously, which gives a rare look at what it was like to be a gay man in repressive mid-century England.

It would be unjustifiably presumptuous to compare myself to either Paley or Forster, two of the best writers of the twentieth century. But I find myself thinking of them, of the way one vein bled out but others did not, so that their words followed a different tributary later in their lives. I’ll finish my book this summer, and I’ll teach at UT again next year, and I don’t know what comes after that. I don’t know if the words will come back to me, and if so, what form they’ll take. I’m not sure if literary criticism will still be the right genre for me. Maybe the words will flow in some other direction.

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Night of the Animals

Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals is the novel I needed as 2016 ebbed and we began waiting, scarcely daring to breathe, for the Trump presidency to begin. Lives are hanging in the balance as a Republican-dominated Congress works by night to strip the protections of the Affordable Care Act, the president-elect meets with vaccine skeptics, and his Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobil, dodges questions on climate change and his company’s role in sowing misinformation about climate science during his confirmation hearing. It doesn’t take a visionary to see where all this is going: more sickness, more death, a poisoned planet. What’s harder is to imagine any form of redemption, and that’s why I needed Night of the Animals.

Broun’s vision of 2052 London is in some respects familiar dystopian terrain. It’s a world in which our current inequalities have sedimented into a division between a restored aristocracy, led by tyrannical king “Harry9,” and powerless Indigents, constantly looking over their shoulder to avoid the attentions of the brutal Red Watch police force. Democracy is essentially dead; the Positive Disenfranchisement Act of 2028 has rolled back over a century’s worth of social reforms, while the free press has been replaced by WikiNous, an “implanted, all-purpose comm-network that grew within human tissue,” allowing people to read “Harry9’s official views and a boorish brand of light ‘newertainement’” on their own skin (“SkinWerks”) as advertisements and alerts pop up, unwanted, on their corneas. Wild animals are almost entirely extinct, and the London Zoo is the last zoo left standing in the world, a modern ark for the last lions, gorilla, and leopard on earth. In some ways, Broun’s story world is a mash-up of Margaret Atwood and Black Mirror, a nightmare of environmental degradation, political despotism, and questionably spelled technological products functioning as a new opiate for the masses.

At the center of Night of the Animals is Cuthbert Handley, a poor, elderly, mentally ill drug addict who is also the last inheritor of the Wonderments, a mystical gift inherited from his Black Country ancestors that allows him to speak to animals. Or maybe it’s just the Flot talking, the hallucinogenic drink that Cuthbert is hooked on. It’s not really clear, and it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that Cuthbert hears the animals of the London Zoo pleading with him to set them free. And, over the long night of the novel’s title, he does just that.

There’s a further wrinkle in the story: Heaven’s Gate suicide cults have become enormously popular, and they make a practice of staging mass suicides in which each member kills a dozen animals before offing himself or herself. They believe that their souls will travel to a higher plane, “the Evolutionary Kingdom Level Above Human.” Cuthbert has a feeling that the cultists are coming for the zoo animals, an intuition which seems to prove true (though, again, it’s not really clear). Cuthbert’s quest to free the animals, then, is a battle of life against death, of vibrant animal existence against those who would sacrifice it in the name of the abstract soul.

Cuthbert’s resistance to the suicide cults is one of the reasons this novel feels like the right one right now to me. The election of a climate denier who plans to pull out of the Paris Accords, the appointment of an oil man who would like to plunder the melting Arctic for more oil as our Secretary of State and an EPA head who would like to destroy the agency from the inside, the further empowerment of a Speaker of the House who is finally getting to fulfill his dream of repealing the ACA and stripping people of health insurance… I don’t think it’s overdramatic to say that this spells acceleration toward death, for other species, for ourselves, and for the unborn generation of human beings whose futures we’ve sold off. Trumpism is a suicide cult.

Bleak, I know. But Night of the Animals is also a story about redemption. Over the long night, Cuthbert becomes St. Cuthbert, the long-prophesied liberator of the animals; meanwhile Astrid Sullivan, a police officer going through the life-threatening Flot withdrawal period, becomes the Christ of Otters, protecting the animals and the asylum seekers at the American embassy in London from the Heaven’s Gaters. That these transformations are temporary and impossible to disentangle from the visions induced by Flot and Flot withdrawal hardly matters. Haven’t religious visions always been suspect that way? What matters is that Astrid and Cuthbert choose life: free, joyful, painful, vulnerable animal life, for others and for themselves.

Redemption in Night of the Animals happens through an ad hoc coalition of the abject. It’s the animals, the addicts, the indigents, the migrants, the sick, coming together on a single night to do no less than save England. That, too, feels like a message we need to hear right now. Salvation won’t come from a man living in a gold tower who promises that he alone can fix it. Maybe our best hope is to look to the margins as Broun has done, to reorient our moral philosophies around the most vulnerable: the old, the sick, the homeless, and the animals.

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Little Bird


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Chernobyl in photos

Earlier this year, to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a number of newspapers and magazines ran photo essays of pictures taken from inside the exclusion zone, the mostly deserted, highly radioactive area around the power plant. Here are a couple of them.

(I’ve been oddly fascinated with Chernobyl ever since I learned about it in high school–partly, I think, because it happened the year I was born, and so I feel a personal connection with those Chernobyl babies, the ones that survived and the ones that never were.)

The tricky thing about photographing Pripyat, the ghost town around Chernobyl, is that one wants to capture the radiation that makes the area so dangerous, but radiation isn’t visible. It is real–“that-has-been,” to borrow Barthes’ term–but it is one of the few things a photo can’t visually document. The exclusion zone photos, then, have to capture it indirectly, via a recognizable code that belongs to the mode of studium. Peeling wallpaper, a piano without keys, a pile of desks and chairs at an abandoned school, a decaying teddy bear on a child-size bed–these are images that affect me, but I interpret them through a familiarity with the gothic and the ghost story. At some level, they remind me of the Are You Afraid of the Dark? opening credits: an empty swing, a rattling shutter, an attic of forgotten toys. Intellectually, I understand that what happened at Chernobyl was much more serious, but as an enculturated viewer, I see these images from the exclusion zone through the conventions of the horror genre.

As an enculturated viewer, though, I also know, as I click through these photos, that radiation is there in Pripyat even though I can’t see it. Insofar as these photos prick me, it is because they make me think of the photographer, wandering through a contaminated waste where he or she is not supposed to be. Siegfried Kracauer wrote, in a 1927 essay, that photography is special because it can show us nonhuman perspectives:

For the first time in history, photography brings to the fore the entire natural shell; or the first time the inert world presents itself in its independence from human beings. Photography shows cities in aerial shots, brings crockets and figures down from the Gothic cathedrals; all spatial configurations are incorporated into the central archive in unusual combinations that distance them from human proximity.

For Kracauer, what differentiates photography from other art forms is that humans do not make it. The camera can capture aerial views and unusual perspectives that the human eye cannot normally access. It shows us a world without us. So do the Chernobyl photos–they show a world deserted by humans–but with them, I think of something different. Their punctum, for me, is of a second order: it is the thought of the photographer’s vulnerable human body, exposed to radiation, collecting images to bring back to the rest of us.

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Timescales – Philadelphia trip

I had a lovely weekend in Philadelphia at the TIMESCALES conference, hosted by the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities. I walked around the beautiful Penn campus and the Schuylkill River; visited the Penn Museum; and learned about deep time, the sixth extinction, bioacoustics preservation, my digital carbon footprint, and ethics in the Anthropocene.


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Punctum, the Unintentional, and Google Street View

In Camera Lucida, Barthes distinguishes between studium, the intellectual and cultural interest one might take in a photograph, and punctum, the more mysterious experience of being “pricked” or punctured by a detail in a photograph. To read a photo through the rubric of studium is, in a sense, to go along with the photographer’s goals; it “allows me to discover the Operator, to experience the intentions which establish and animate his practices,” explains Barthes. It is the docile, “polite,” educated way to encounter a photograph.

Punctum isn’t polite or educated. It’s a kind of ambush, and it has no regard for the photographer as artist. “Certain details may ‘prick’ me,” says Barthes, and “[i]f they do not, it is doubtless because the photographer has put them there intentionally.” The punctum is the accidental detail that escapes authorial intention and educated interpretation; in the face of it Barthes becomes no longer a philosopher or cultural theorist, but “a primitive, a child.”

I think Barthes would appreciate the project of Jon Rafman, who has selected photographs from Google Street View that accidentally capture touching details–girls jump-roping, a woman sitting in the middle of the street, a rider on horseback. I learned about Rafman’s collection through Avi Steinberg’s Paris Review essay, “The Grand Map.” Steinberg describes Rafman’s artistic project thus:

Rafman ends up being less interested in the detached mapmakers than in the individual who can explore the map for personal meanings and somehow reclaim the territory. Rafman accomplishes this himself by discovering accidental images marvelously embedded in the map. Wild horses running through a coastal cemetery. A nude woman standing by a rocky shore, contemplating the sea. A little boy hiding. These images are only more powerful for having Google’s imprimatur on them, for being captured at random and buried within the maze of images.

The Google Street View car might be the least intentional or clever of photographers. If Barthes were alive today, I think he might find in Rafman a kindred spirit, a fellow connoisseur of the accidental, a spectator open to the detail that pricks.

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The Becher Photographs

Roland Barthes proposes, in Camera Lucida, to develop a theory of photography through an intensely subjective form of introspection. “I resolved to start my inquiry with no more than a few photographs, the ones I was sure existed for me,” he writes. From this idiosyncratic beginning, he will “try to formulate the fundamental feature, the universal without which there would be no Photography.”

I find this approach to be charmingly arrogant—few critics would attempt something as ambitious as an inquiry into the Essence of Photography to begin with, and those who would might at least have the humility to start with the long history of others who have written about photography. And yet—why not? Why shouldn’t we, as learners in this class, make “what Nietzsche called the ‘ego’s ancient sovereignty’ into an heuristic principle” for ourselves as well, and begin our inquiry with the photos that exist for us?

This summer while visiting my sister in New York, I visited the Dia: Beacon museum and saw an exhibit of photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher. These black-and-white photographs, taken all over Europe between the 1960s and 1990s, feature industrial structures—mine towers, lime kilns, furnaces, pipes, shafts, mysterious edifices of petrochemical engineering. They are impersonal, inorganic, no living figures or whimsical details to humanize them. Yet for some reason, these photographs exist for me. I kept thinking of them long after I went home. Is it because they reveal a hidden beauty of geometric forms in an otherwise ugly environment? Or because they expose the ugliness of the industrial age? Perhaps it’s because they offer an eerie glimpse of a world after the extinction of humans: when we are gone, if we are ever gone, these are the structures we will leave behind.

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A rare glimpse…


Feeding behaviors of a wild Jasper

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