Orality, Literacy, and Literature: A First-Year Composition Syllabus

So I’m not teaching my debt syllabus this semester, though we all greatly enjoyed it this fall (really!) and I will almost certainly use it again in the near future. I’m teaching 124, which is a composition-through-literature class, so I reused, and reworked, an old syllabus on the epic and turned it into a course that is almost like the first half of a first- or second-year, two-semester world lit survey in terms of the things read, but with an appropriate amount of writing assigned (and without all the passage-identification and reading-quizzing such classes generally entail). I do this because it’s fun, and also because I have an ill-concealed crazy plan to write a book that would serve as a secondary textbook for a world-lit course, i.e. a one-volume, radically selective critical history of world literature. (It sounds so arrogant when I say it out loud.)

First Week:
Kenneth Goldsmith, selections from “Soliloquy“; Michael Robbins, “On Sound and Language“; Tracie Morris, “On Composing Sound Poems” and “From Slave Sho to Video“; Fred Moten, “Here it Is

I am not an across-the-board fan of conceptual poetry. I especially resent the tendency of some conceptual writers to present themselves as the teleological endpoint of literary history, their prescriptive use of prediction (“The-future-will-be-just-like-me-and-so-must-you”), etc. Goldsmith is one of the worst offenders here. But Soliloquy, which is the transcript of everything Goldsmith said for a week in the mid-90s, is an incredibly useful way to make some of the traits specific to spoken language visible to students. I tell them to open the file and click around anywhere for twenty minutes, and jot down some observations about the traits of speech that seem more obvious when they’re written down; this leads into a more general discussion of the kind of information-sharing that are specific to speech—and to writing.

The Robbins piece is there to get students aware that Robbins is a thing, and because it is a good intro to the sonic effects that poetry depends on, but that students are often alienated from. Someday when I have more time I’ll work him into the course more thoroughly, and I’ll get Patricia Lockwood in there along with him. The Morris and Moten pieces are there to further refine our conversation about the expressive possibilities that are lost and gained as one moves back and forth between speech (the Morris poem loses a great deal; the Moten, I think, a little less). Also, hip-hop heads enjoy the Eminem quote in Moten. The brief writing assignment that goes with Morris is as follows: “Attempt to transcribe Morris’s “From Slave Sho to Video.” Do as good a job as you can. In a brief paragraph afterwards, give at least three examples of qualities within the poem that were hard to capture in writing.” Simple, but I think it prompts the discussion I’m trying to prompt.


Two minor notes. One, people who pay way more attention to intra-poet squabbles than such things really merit will chuckle, or goggle, at the idea of Robbins appearing in the same week of a syllabus as Goldsmith. The two of them seem to argue with each other on the Internet a lot. Qua poet, I’d rather read Robbins, and I tend to think his positions in their arguments make more sense. Still, for the specific pedagogical use I have in mind here, Goldsmith is terrific. 

Second, this is one week of my syllabus where I feel less secure in my grasp of the material than usual. I enjoy Morris’s sound poems but I am pretty sure that a lot of what she’s doing slides right past me.

Second Week:
Walter Ong, “Some Psychodynamics of Orality”; Christopher Logue, introduction and first two books of War Music

Yes, of course all that difference-between-speech-and-writing stuff was leading up to Walter Ong. If we had enough time I’d do a whole media-ecology unit; I’d bring in Neil Postman, whom I’ve taught many times over the years, and Nicholas Carr, and Maria Bustillos angrily dismissing Nicholas Carr, and allathat. I found literature that originates in primary oral cultures more or less incomprehensible till I became aware of Ong’s ideas. If I’d been made to read him as a first-year, it would have saved me years of blank staring at those damn Homeric epithets. I think his ideas should be part of a person’s basic literary-cultural armamentarium, right up there with what a sonnet is or which Simpsons seasons are the bad ones (post-eight). At the same time, I would love to have a chance to talk to someone qualified about whether/to what extent Ong’s arguments have been challenged, superseded, actually refuted, modified, sanded down, etc.

As for Christopher Logue, his is the most involving Iliad I have read. He achieves some of that effect through typographic means that aren’t compatible at all with the poem’s oral roots. Which only gives students more to work with in their first paper (see below).

Third Week:
Christopher Logue, War Music (remaining portions); bks. 22 and 24 of the Iliad in another translation

Readying for a close reading paper, which is: Take two versions of the Iliad and a) show a characteristic difference between the two translators’ approaches (i.e. something that occurs much more than once); b) put forward a hypothesis as to what that difference means, why it’s there. We like to make students compare and contrast things; it’s one of the immortal hoops of the profession. More than that, I want students to realize how much every translation is also its own new poem, one that necessarily betrays some features of the source text in order to keep faith with others. I want them to see that if translation is a window, it’s one made of very thick glass with lots of scratches.

Fourth Week:
Peer review for the paper, and all that good stuff.

Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Weeks:
Walter Ong, “Writing Restructures Consciousness”; Gilgamesh; excerpts from Genesis (the first book of the Bible, not the prog band); Popol Vuh (the Latin American creation myth, not the prog band); Mary Midgley, excerpt from Myths We Live By

Several strands here. One, I want them to interact with Ong’s theories about the ways that writing-related habits of thought shape both consciousness and social structures. Even though Gilgamesh is older than the Iliad, it is arguable that it shows more of the effects of these restructurings than you find in Homer, because Homer composed in a society still recovering (four to five hundred years later) from the devastation of the collapse of the twelfth century BCE. His audience was less literate than Sin-Leqi-Unninni’s. Or maybe not. Genesis and Popol Vuh give us other places on the spoken-to-written continuum to compare against Gilgamesh. Midgley is there to keep their thinking about “myth” a little more supple and nuanced; i.e., “myth” is a project to which we’re all inescapably committed, not a word for dumb stories believed in by dumb people who didn’t know how to Science. 

There’s a paper. Compare two myths, whether any of these or one of these plus one of Midgley’s myths that we live by. 

For the rest of the semester: examinations of the Norton Anthology (Volume 1)’s sections on classical Indian, Chinese, and Japanese poetry, with a paper on governing metaphors/God-terms; then a consideration of Hamlet in light of Montaigne and Augustine, with a paper answering the question, “What is the most perverse thing Hamlet does, in your opinion?”


An Advent Proposal

Dear White People,

Apparently it’s the fashion to address you (us) corporately at the moment. There are even movies about it! But I fibbed a little; my note is actually addressed to other white people who happen to be Christians, and more specifically to those white Christians who threw up when the grand jury findings in Ferguson were announced this week. I know I threw up. I was mad. I am mad. I even went to a couple protests, which is unlike me (crippling social anxiety) and probably not much help (I make any crowd look 36% less militant just by standing there with my Oh-that’s-a-very-interesting-point-you-just-made facial expressions).

So, anyway. Hello, white Christians. While I’m writing you, isn’t it strange that I can even say that, “white Christians,” as if we’re a determinable and delimited social grouping (and we totally are), when we supposedly work for a guy who sort of frowned on that? I’m not going to say that we’re all each personally equally responsible for that, but it bears some thinking about, anyway.

But that’s a digression. I’m actually going to talk about tithing. Which is perhaps the one topic more taboo in many Christian communities than racism.

One of the most spiritually inspiring books I’ve ever read was a work of fairly (though not gratuitously) dry sociology. It was called Passing the Plate, and it examined a very simple empirical question: Do American Christians tithe? If not, why not?

The answer to that question was not the inspiring part. In fact, Passing the Plate had little but bad news to bring on that subject. (One in four American Christians doesn’t give a solitary dime to church or charity in a given year.) The inspiring part came at the beginning of the book, when the three authors ran some projections on what kind of money would be made available, to all manner of worthy causes, if Christians (self-identified as “serious”) who can afford to tithe were to actually do so. (Their cut-off for “affording to tithe” was, IIRC, fairly lavish.) As of 2008, this modest, incremental change in peoples’ habits would have freed up $85.5 billion for dogooding per year. From this initial estimate, the authors project an utterly transformed world: one million new clean-water projects; polio and malaria nearly eradicated, everywhere; food, clothing, and shelter provided to every refugee then alive in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East; five hundred new prison ministries... The authors went on in this manner for several pages, and by the end still hadn’t spent all the money.

Truly, the Kingdom of God is within you.

I don’t know why this book (or at least a careful curation of its best factoids) hasn’t become a part of every pastor or Sunday school teacher’s standard repertoire. It made me want to tithe. It made me want to sell my almost-complete collection of n+1s to a book dealer and give the money to Oxfam.

Today, as my minister pointed to some of the good work being done by black churches in Ferguson, MO, to assist a freshly insulted and grieving community, I thought of this book again. I thought, What if white Christians tithed? And then: What if we tithed, in part, to those churches, or churches like them?

The idea won’t quite leave me alone, so I’m throwing it out here. What if every white person who considers him- or her- (or, since this is the ’90s, zim-)selves a serious Christian were to make a slightly more serious attempt to practice one of the most basic of Christian duties? For the sake of a thought experiment, let’s be a lot more pessimistic than the authors of Passing the Plate, who assumed ten percent giving for everyone above a certain cutoff. Let’s halve that, because if every middle-class-and-above American Christian gave five percent, that would still represent a world-shaking improvement. From the article linked above:

“Americans who earn less than $10,000 gave 2.3 percent of their income to religious organizations,” Smith, Emerson, and Snell write, “whereas those who earn $70,000 or more gave only 1.2 percent.” While the actual percentages are slightly higher for Christians who regularly attend church, the pattern is similar. Households of committed Christians making less than $12,500 per year give away roughly 7 percent of their income, a figure no other income bracket beats until incomes rise above $90,000 (they give away 8.8 percent).

I bet most of us can beat 1.2 percent. I bet we can do five. That’s about where my family is at, frankly, because, as the authors of Passing the Plate acknowledge, most middle-class and rich American Christians are up to our eyeballs in debt, so that our month-to-month fixed costs gobble up quite a bit. So, five percent. It’s a slovenly standard, but, collectively, I’m pretty sure we can meet it.

What if white Christians were to do that, and then give half of that five percent, no strings attached, to a black church?

It shouldn’t be hard to find one. As our friends at the Pew Research Center put it, “African-Americans are markedly more religious on a variety of measures than the U.S. population as a whole, including level of affiliation with a religion, attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer and religion’s importance in life.” And most of that religiosity takes Christian forms: the same study finds that 78% of African Americans call themselves Protestant, for example. The people worst-served by Caesar are understandably eager to grant divinity to someone whose cops don’t murder their children.

Now, of course, when I say this, I don’t mean to make some sort of blanket endorsement of black Christianity in America. As many cultural critics, black and white, have pointed out, the black church certainly has its issues with prosperity theologyhomophobiavindictive afterlife revenge fantasies, and personal behavior indistinguishable from the nonchurched world.

(Yes, every single one of those links leads you to something that pertains to white people. Womp-womp. I don’t feel like being subtle today.)

So in other words black churches are exactly like white churches, except that they’re working from far smaller resources (e.g.) to minister to people who, in addition to coping with life, must also cope with racism. I.e., with the cops murdering them and getting away with it. If Michael Brown didn’t prove that to you, then we can talk about twelve-year-old, armed-with-a-toy-gun Tamir Rice. Or, closer to (my) home, we can talk about Aura Rosser.

So that’s what I’m going to do, or try to do: increase my tithe and then split it with a church that ministers to the kinds of people the cops get away with murdering. Those of you who read my blog regularly know what “resolution” means coming from me. “I’m definitely gonna finish my novel in 2012.” “I’m gonna just work my way through the library shelf by shelf.” Oh well. I will do the best I can.

I point out the likely weakness of this public declaration partly to embarrass myself into actually carrying it out, and partly to take some of the air of what otherwise may sound like pompous moralizing. I hate how much this post probably sounds like A White Guy Saying Hard Things About Race, because that usually means that he’s simply using black people to call attention to his moral virtue. Don’t look at my moral virtue. I don’t have hardly any. I know the world is miserable and I blow money on recorded discs of a cheaply-made BBC sci-fi show that I can watch for free on YouTube. I am not so great.

And it’s harder than it should be to tithe. One of the points made in Passing the Plate is that that difficulty doesn’t always have to do with garden-variety selfishness. Being middle class at all these days means that debt conquers so much of your attention, so much of the basic shape of your worldview, that you can’t even see past it. (That’s one reason why the poor are more generous, across study after study. They’re not given as much credit to manage. And they haven’t had the chance for the pains of poverty to become less real to them than the social consequences, mostly comparatively minor, that come with defaulting on your mortgage. When I was twenty and my dad was sanding parts for a living and I lived among crackheads not to be “edgy” but because it was where I could live, I was terribly generous, to the point where sometimes I lacked rent because I had given all my money to a guy whose child, he insisted, had “scarlet fever.” I was a soft touch.) It will take some personal discipline and restraint for me to just get to five percent. I’ll probably fuck it up. I do that. But I’m going to try.

I was originally going to wrap up this post with a list of some of the churches in Ferguson that have attracted media attention for their good work. But the more-helpful, less-grandiose way of doing this would probably be for everybody to find someplace closer to home. It’s not like you can’t find similar problems in your city. And if you don’t like my racial angle here, then find yourself one of those working-class rural mostly-white parishes where they can’t even afford a regular celebration of the Eucharist and throw them a half-tithe. Our country is literally suffering from an unequal distribution of Christ’s body and blood.

I guess there’s nothing more to say than that, really.

New piece on Sarah Coakley

The Christian Courier is doing a series on contemporary theologians, and I’ve contributed a (fairly personal) reflective piece on Sarah Coakley, whom I greatly enjoyed reading this summer.

(Which reminds me: I’ve gotta get back to that whole contemplative-prayer thing again. That’s part of the reason I wrote about doing it in the essay: so I wouldn’t be able to welsh on it later.)

PS: The comma after “On finding myself” in the third sentence shouldn’t be there. I don’t know if I did that or they did.

“America Loves Pregnant Women”: On GONE GIRL, the Justice System, and Likable Characters

My wife and I went to see Gone Girl. (ICYMI: Mystery film about a woman who disappears. It sorta looks like her husband did it; then it doesn’t. Based on a well-regarded bestseller, which I haven’t read, by the screenplay’s author, Gillian Flynn. Every kind of spoiler ahead.)

It was OK. The plot is fairly ingenious, though Flynn and Fincher’s film shares with the works of Christopher Nolan and (sometimes) Stephen Moffatt, among other auteurs of our plot-twist-obsessed age, a certain carelessness as to how seamless the gnarled fabric will appear once it’s stretched out complete. My wife and I both appreciated the liberal helping of cynicism that the film applies to our country’s justice system, which deserves it; but I found some of the dialogue unbelievable, in a nobody-speaks-in-Twitter-ready-aphorisms sort of way. And holy shit, is this film ever misanthropic. As we left the theatre, I thought of my favorite David Fincher movie and remarked to my wife, “Zodiac had a richer and more complicated view of human nature and that was literally a movie about the Zodiac Killer.

What continues to nag at me, however, is how concerned this mass-audience popcorn crime film is with American literary politics. Three major characters are writers. The missing woman, Amy Elliott Dunne, lent her name and (more or less) her likeness to a popular series of kids’ books by her father; in adulthood she has come to resent his continuing “plagiarism” of her life. Her husband Nick, meanwhile, writes for men’s magazines, and, in the film, one token of his decline, and of the souring of their marriage’s initial promise, is his abandonment of the novel that he’s meant to be working on. We hardly see anyone in this movie read, or get any sense at all of how books have formed Amy and Nick as people, but we know that Nick aspires to the prestige of “writing a novel,” and that Amy loses a chunk of her faith in him when he gives up on it. But most of all, Amy herself is a writer. As the film reveals, she has stage-managed her own disappearance and the public’s reaction to it with the masterful, manipulative cynicism of a Michael Bay or a Dan Brown; she has constructed a potboiling real-life melodrama, on the Scott and Laci Peterson model, that succeeds in ensnaring the entire country. She has written an airport bestseller with real people in it. And in the course of this metaphorical “writing” she does plenty of actual writing: the “clues,” supposedly part of an annual scavenger-hunt that she does every anniversary, that point the police toward her husband, and an entire forged diary, among other things. Amy supposedly hates her husband, but she hates her audience more. The film’s voice-over contains many little asides on the manipulability of the American public, and Amy meditates obsessively on the “likability” that allows her so to manipulate. This subject, in turn, gets picked up on by her husband and his defense attorney, who coaches Nick on how to grieve for the camera. (The film is nowhere truer than in its insistence that unlikability on the stand and in interviews will send an innocent person to jail.) At one point, we learn that Amy has gone to great trouble faking a surprise pregnancy, all because: why? Because “America loves a pregnant woman.”

So here we have two Manhattanite media professionals, one of them the daughter of a publishing fixture, talking on and on about… likability. The word jumped out at me, because “likability,” and literary characters’ having it or not having it, was the grounds on which we play-acted one of the louder recent revivals of that ongoing Punch and Judy show, Low Art vs. High Art. (Nick and Amy are just the types of people you can imagine forwarding Slate thinkpieces on this very subject to each other, with snarky asides added.) It’s a fake debate for hundreds of reasons: because it’s conducted at a level of vague abstraction so high as to amount to mystification; because, like so many American fights, it’s a Goliath-vs.-David campaign in which wealthy and powerful Goliath has gotten hit on the head a few times and started thinking he’s little, powerless David; because it’s premised on the false assumption that knowing recognized classics of literature confers half as much social capital, in most everyday encounters, than being up-to-date with reality shows and “edgy cable dramas”; because the important distinction is between good books and shitty ones, not between genres; because genres, anyway, aren’t the same as bookstore categories like “literary fiction”; because everyone ultimately knows this, and then promptly forgets that fact so that we can have another round of thinkpieces;  because it’s all about the fucking pageviews anyway; etc. It’s a fake debate, and so was the debate over “likable” characters in novels, which, you’ll remember, began when a famous author of romantic comedies attacked other, less famous writers, most of them female, for having the audacity to create characters that this particular writer didn’t like. She beat this drum hard for several years, to the point where other female writers, including some of her targets, began to push back mildly, in interviews, against the idea that every literary character should be likable. Whereupon this same writer—and this shit is so juvenile and trivial and insincere on all sides that it’s depressing even writing about it, but bear with me a moment—this same writer then complained that said female writers, who resisted the demand that every character be likable, were using “unlikability” as a mean-spirited coded way of attacking other women writers. (The idea! What woman writer would want to do that, besides the famous woman writer of romantic comedies who started this shit in the first place?)

Now there are many reasons to like a character, and many ways to be interested that have nothing to do with liking. Do I “like” Hamlet? Do I “like” Isabel Archer? Does it even come up? I find Isabel’s disappointments almost too crushing to bear, and I’m pretty sure, if I met her at a party, that I’d find her insufferable. I find enormous significance in Hamlet’s careen through life, and I know that my reaction to meeting him in the flesh would be the same as King Claudius’s: Lighten the fuck up, willya? Liking is a valid way to respond to a fictional character, but it’s obviously not the only way. Claiming that a fictional character should be likable is like claiming food should be tangy or that color should be peagreen.

I’m afraid, when I hear “likability” rhetoric, that what at least some readers are really demanding is a very particular kind of story: in fact, the kind of story Amy constructs. It follows a well-used sensational archetype—mysterious disappearance, smug husband, thorough comeuppance. The good person survives (or at least gets remembered prettily) and the bad person is punished. The bad person is just as important as the “likable” one. The other side of the demand for lead characters who are “likable” is always that someone else, usually the antagonist, be “unlikable,” preferably demonic. Because sometimes likability isn’t about characters at all; it’s about our desire to have flattering vessels in which to pour our empathy and identification, to give those qualities an appealing shape. “Likable characters” are those who, when we identify with them, allow us to like ourselves better. They’re like Superman, back before comes went all grim-n-gritty. “Unlikable characters,” meanwhile, are those who reinforce, via their persecution of the likable main character, our sense of secret superiority to those around us.

To a large degree, Gone Girl turns out to be about the American justice system and its for-profit media arm (televised trials, endless clueless punditry, Nancy Grace), and these institutions’ skill in purveying and then critiquing the effectiveness of self-righteously sentimental, manipulative, one-dimensional commercial fictions. To this extent, and only to this extent, it is a critique of such fictions.

This was fascinating not only because of its implied relationship to the livelihoods and social worlds of its writer-characters, but because of the role Gone Girl, the book, itself seemed to play in the whole high-vs.-low conversation. It was one of those books, like Lev Grossman’s Magician novels or the Harry Potter books, that showed how “literary” a “genre” book could be. (Who didn’t already know this? Nobody, but we’re constantly discovering it anyway, like the Gnostic Gospels.) Gone Girl was, like, deep, man, but also involving and racy, a page-turner, qualities supposedly lacking in the daily diets of “serious” readers. (The most intimidatingly well-read critics in America are, almost to a person, fans of hardboiled fiction, and the only trait that our best-regarded experimental writers have in common is an obsession with fucking that would scandalize a thirteen-year-old boy, but sure, whatever.) It was a smart, improving book that wouldn’t strain your poor brain muscles. It was, in fact, the Cool Literary Novel. It was a serious book you could belch and watch Adam Sandler movies with.

Again, I haven’t read Gone Girl and can’t assess whether any of this is true. It may be a marvelous novel, or it could be the ugly curio of our era’s internet-enabled misanthropy that Mary Gaitskill describes reading in her excellent review of the book. (Speaking of “literary fiction” writers who could teach you a few things about sex and violence!) So far as the movie is concerned, though, I didn’t buy it. Because as much as it invites us to question our need for “likable” protagonists (real or imagined) plagued by “unlikable” villains, and as much as it invites our contempt for those easily-manipulated rubes who form the audience for this story, it ultimately was such a story. The real hero of Gone Girl is a stubborn, smart, incorruptible, honest cop, who is the first to see through Nick’s good-guy facade and the last to stop trying to show up Amy’s psychotic manipulations. She has no inner life, except being righter than everybody else. In this way, a film that is otherwise so usefully scathing about our justice system yields to our most damaging fantasy about it: the idea that there are, in every town, smart, honest cops who care above all about getting the right person. Such people exist, just as women who make false rape allegations also exist (Amy’s use of such allegations have caused some to call the film, and the novel, misogynist). Both would appear to be very rare. Most cops are overworked and underfunded and will go with the perp they can convict. Because they’re not monsters, they often convince themselves they’re right after the fact, and many of them come to believe they possess a “sixth sense” that allows them to know a bad guy when they see him. (This is also a myth, meaning it’s empirically wrong, and it ruins lives.) But that’s not the same as a Desire for Truth at All Costs; it’s garden-variety confirmation bias. Our love affair with the dogged, pursuing cop is a sentimental melodrama with real consequences. I wish that this film, in every other way so withering, had taken its misanthropy a little further, and made its hero a little less likable.

New book review: Matt Taibbi’s THE DIVIDE

This piece appeared about a month ago in the Christian Courier, a small but determined Canadian Reformed newspaper. (I fall in with the oddest crowds; life’s more fun that way.) I reprint it here with their kind permission. If for some reason you have Protestant leanings and/or like my work, consider subscribing. They are really cool people. 

What Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Justice in the Age of the Wealth Gap offers US readers is obvious: it lets us know, with relentless clarity, that our government has all the moral legitimacy of a bridge troll. It informs us that our Justice Department has a stated policy (google “Holder memo”) against prosecuting even obviously criminal activity when it is committed by giant employers (google “HSNBC cartel money laundering”). It tells of black people rounded up en masse and charged after the fact with offenses like standing in their own doorway. It tells of the effort required to fight these charges, effort that essentially precludes having a day job. It tells of welfare bureaucrats preemptively searching the homes of applicants, even rifling through immigrant women’s underwear to see if they own anything attractive enough to suggest unlisted male sources of support. (It’s all constitutional, by the way: 1971’s Wyman v. James found that the Fourth Amendment basically doesn’t apply to folks on public assistance.) It shows not merely that the US justice system is harder on the caught-red-handed poor than on the rich—who needs a book to see that? It shows us that our justice system willfully ignores the crimes of too-big-to-fail (or -prosecute) banks and actively aggresses against the poor:

If you’re the wrong kind of person and you get caught up in the criminal justice system, or stuck in the welfare bureaucracy, or mired in debt, you can’t get out without navigating a maze so complex and dispiriting and irrational that it can’t possibly even be mapped. … On the other side of the coin, the secret to conquering the financial bureaucracy isn’t savvy in a business sense, or the ability to spot a good entrepreneurial idea. Instead, it’s pure bureaucratic force, the ability to throw a hundred lawyers at every problem … In other words, you need to be a bureaucracy in order to survive a bureaucracy.

I hate violence and I distrust all talk of “revolution.” But by the end of this book I not only wanted to occupy Wall Street, I wanted to destroy it with my bare hands.

What The Divide offers to readers outside the US is less obvious, but just as substantial. In journalistic terms, it’s an extremely impressive piece of reportage. In literary terms, it testifies to Taibbi’s increasing mastery over the arts of clear and simple organization and polemical prose style. Some readers got turned off his excellent previous book, Griftopia, wherein he does things like calling Alan Greenspan the largest bodily-opening-of-interest-to-proctologists in the universe (he may not have said it like that), or likening Goldman Sachs to a “vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” (I was about to call this a mixed metaphor, but it turns out vampire squids are a real thing. Who knew? Matt Taibbi, apparently.) In all of these cases, Taibbi provided more than enough history, context, and new reportage to justify such intemperate characterizations, but he forfeited that contingent of readers who equate passionate anger with journalistic unreliability. (Apparently some people live in a world where no fact, soberly analyzed, leads to rage. That’s cool. I live on Earth.) Those readers will get further with The Divide, which lets us construct more of the epithets for ourselves.

What the book also offers non-US readers is, I’m afraid, a vision of their possible future. In a mostly positive review of the book, the writer Maureen Tkacik—herself an essential chronicler of our political woes—takes Taibbi to task for failing to talk about neoliberalism, the ideology behind the conditions he decries. While I think The Divide is fine the way it is, I agree with Tkacik that our increasing global belief in the power of self-interest—uncut with any of Adam Smith’s passionate concern for human sympathy—is at or near the heart of all this. So is the neoliberals’ fanciful assertion that markets, if left alone by government (whatever that could possibly mean, given that governments make markets possible in the first place), will reach equilibrium at full employment. Everybody just manage your interests well, and we’ll all have jobs! In one virtuoso passage, Taibbi describes the “vast system of increasingly unmanageable bureaucracies, spanning both the public and the private sectors,” that have made it “literally a crime” to be poor:

[I]t attacks people without money, particularly nonwhite people, with a weirdly venomous kind of hatred, treating them like they’re already guilty of something, which of course they are—namely, being that which we’re all afraid of becoming.

But if the smart management of one’s own interests is our social contract, then need really does become something larger than a mere inconvenience—it’s a flouting of that very contract. You must not have been seeing to your own interests well, or you wouldn’t have lived in the kind of neighborhood where cops pick people up just, you know, because. And we’ll throw charges at you till something sticks, or till you miss a court date and thus acquire an outstanding warrant, or till you get so tired of being chewed-up in bureaucracy that you plead out. But your real crime was always need.

The more countries succumb to neoliberalism’s attenuated view of human nature and social order, which pretends to be science (read Yves Smith’s ECONned for more on that) while ignoring much of the evidence provided by, you know, actual history—it’s no accident that economic history has been marginalized within econ departments—the more transgressive simple human need becomes. This refusal simply to be the dependent creatures we are, and to acknowledge the legitimacy of the dependents around us: this is the truly militant atheism of our time. And it makes Richard Dawkins look downright huggable by comparison.

The Bible calls all this “grinding the faces of the poor.” But what kind of loser reads that?

Things That Can’t Be Described Head-On: On the Odd But Real Hotness of Robinson’s LILA

One of the many things I do when I’m not posting on this blog is c0-managing the Marilynne Robinson Appreciation Society tumblr. This morning, while I waited out a household-plumbing emergency, I posted a link to Michelle Orange’s review of Lila for Bookforum. I had some reactions to her comments on Robinson’s handling of sex that were too big to fit there (no double-entendre entended), so I put them here. Orange writes:

Desire. A bold word, perhaps, in Gilead, a world of worry, reverie, and exquisitely fraught interactions. … “Somebody,” I said, midway through Lila, turning, wide-eyed, to the man with whom I had spent an otherwise chaste week in a primly Christian maritime village, reading Robinson’s novels in quick succession, “needs to fuck somebody.” Instead, Ames and Lila ‘comfort’ each other, in two sentences that form Lila and its predecessors’ almost impossibly discreet reckoning with sexuality …

This struck me a) because that sounds like a rough vacation, even with the good reading material; but also b) because Lila is actually one of the hotter novels I’ve read recently—certainly far more so than most of the novels I’ve read that had as their explicit purpose being hot. When it comes to literature (other media are a different matter), I’m not necessarily put off by the label “pornography,” if a book is smart and well written—after all, that label has been applied to the works of Apuleius, Boccaccio, and Nabokov in their time. But such books rarely strike me as having, deep down, much of anything to do with sex at all. Certainly the canonical works of literary pornography—I’m thinking here of de Sade, Apollinaire, Battaille, and other French people they make you read in grad school—are concerned largely with rape, enslavement, kidnapping, savage beatings, abuse of children and animals, or, in the case of Sade, mass murder: acts that are nonconsensual and thus—if we take the commonsense position that sex is the ultimate collaborative act between and among persons—are not about sex at all. (Notice I say “between persons.” This is not a conservative website.) They’re about cruelty, about proving your importance by exploiting the vulnerabilities of another being; no wonder if they take aim at the place where we’re all most sensitive. Of course loveless, self-aggrandizing power would aim ultimately at the effacement of the very borders between its body and mine; that kind of power can’t tolerate otherness. Sex, on the other hand, absolutely requires it.

Then there’s D.H. Lawrence, a supposedly erotic writer whose sex scenes are actually sermons about the Life Force. Or there’s Kathy Acker, whose pornographic passages are, like all the other parts of her books, really about her theories about writing and plagiarism and whatnot, which I happen to find a rather turgid subject.

In fact, the more I think about it, the harder it is for me to name a book explicitly concerned with sex that makes me want to go have any. I love the novels of Samuel R. Delany, for example, and a book like Phallos, or the sex scenes in the Neveryon sequence, are fascinating to me for their erudite essayistic meditations on sex, power, civilization, etc., but being intellectually engaged is, again, not the same thing as being turned on. (It’s a necessary condition, in my case, but not a sufficient one.) Here it may just be that Delany largely describes male-on-male couplings and I happen to be heterosexual. Either way, scratch him off the list. I’d seriously worry about myself if I got turned on reading Nabokov. Alasdair Grey is another excellent writer who plays with the tropes of pornography, but he’s anti-pornographic, at least to me, in his effects. A novel like 1982, Janine is moving precisely because it shows us a guy reading the kind of misogynist power-tripping porn described above, and then takes us through his entire sad life to show us how he became such an asshole. It’s about politics, about feminism, about personal history, about bullying and what it covers up for, but it’s not about sex.

Just once, leafing through a Dodie Bellamy novel, I ran across a description of women’s genitalia that was so lovingly accurate in its similes as to be worthy of its subject. It was hot. And that’s honestly about it for avowedly sexy books that actually managed to be, for me, sexy. But Lila, with its infinitely gentle, discreet references: that was just as hot.

Tentative suggestion: Sex would appear to be one of those subjects where evoking the thing and describing the thing are not merely distinct, but, at least a lot of the time, opposed.

And this brings me back to Michelle Orange’s review:

The murky status of Lila’s soul marks her with God’s grace, a sign most evident in her face, which she covers habitually. Ames marvels at the human face, especially Lila’s, “the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.” Lila finds horror in that same idea: “[A face] can be something you want to hide, because it pretty well shows where you’ve been and what you can expect. And anybody at all can see it, but you can’t. It just floats there in front of you. It might as well be your soul, for all you can do to protect it. 

Our faces: the more we inhabit them, the less we feel we know them. If you describe my face to me, I’ll only picture a bunch of pieces that don’t add up. Having read the entire Iowa trilogy, I can’t recall one description of Lila’s face, and yet I know exactly what she looks like. Sex is not the only subject that needs to be approached sidelong.

Debt, Obligation, and Forgiveness: A First-Year Composition Syllabus

Awhile ago a kind stranger on Twitter asked whether I planned on posting the syllabus for my first-year comp class. (I had been tweet-bragging about getting the damn thing finished, as one does, and geeking out about the writers I planned to teach, as I do.) I’ve been wanting to write more about teaching anyway, because it’s something that takes up a lot of my intellectual and emotional energy. So I’ll probably be doing that this semester, and I thought I’d start by honoring that stranger’s request.

A few preliminaries. I’m an instructor at University of Michigan. I’ve been here a year. Before that I taught at North Carolina Central University, the nation’s oldest public HBCU, for two and a half years, and before that I taught my way through grad school. I teach bread-and-butter first-year writing courses. University of Michigan allows instructors of these courses considerable leeway in choosing themes for their individual classes; as long as you assign certain amounts of reading and writing, and honor certain program-wide goals and regulations, you can do, say, a whole course on literary structure (which I’ve done), a whole course on orality and the epic (which I did last spring and will do again), etc.

Early this summer I was reading a lot about money and debt, and at the same time I was reading a fair amount of political journalism about student debt—an issue that will surely dog my students’ footsteps from here on out. I found that a syllabus was sort of throwing itself together in my mind. Once I broadened the idea of “debt” to include metaphysical obligations, or obligations to oneself—which the early chapters of David Graeber’s Debt helped me to do—I found that I had a pretext for teaching all sorts of pieces of writing that had, for a long time, hung together in my mind in that spiritual folder marked “Teach This Sometime.” And because the problems of obligation and debt tend to pose themselves sharply, again and again, in every generation, it wouldn’t be hard to mix contemporary with classic writings, as I prefer to do. (I want my students to join me in Borges’s library. And I want them to know that the acquisitions department never closes.)

I don’t give links here, or in my syllabus, for most of the essays. I went through a copyshop and ordered a reader, because it was important to me that the writers of these essays get some royalties. Also, this isn’t the full syllabus; the details of assignments are left out (for being boring), though some of that may come up in future posts.

First Week:
Freddie DeBoer, “Boy, I Wonder Why College is So Expensive.” During this week I also direct students to the Occupy Student Debt Fact Sheet and have them write a short essay adjudicating OSD’s use of its own sources.

The idea here is to raise the issue of student debt as something other than a metaphysical fact of life. DeBoer points out several possible causes, including the ridiculously ostentatious gym buildings with which schools attract the children of the wealthy. OSD makes a fairly standard left-wing analysis of the causes, but I want students to get in a habit of checking the references: do the links OSD uses say what OSD insists they say? 

Second Week:
Reading: Matt Taibbi, “Ripping Off Young America”; Tressie McMillan Cottom, “The University and the Company Man”; Maureen Tkacik, “The Unconstitutional Forty-Year War on Students”

This comes with a fairly standard summarize-the-disputants’ cases assignment: I want students to get in the habit of fairly and accurately restating sophisticated arguments long before the first paper is due. I think all three writers, particularly Tkacik and McMillan Cottom, are brilliant expository prose stylists, and I plan some classroom activities that focus on breaking down some of their moves.

Also, I just love all these pieces. Tressie’s one of my best friends, so I don’t pretend to neutrality here. But then, I don’t pretend to neutrality anywhere.

Third and Fourth Week:
They have a paper coming up here—a causal argument about the recent student debt boom. These weeks’ activities have to do with basic research practice, evaluating sources, getting a varied info-diet, reffing between competing claims. Then peer review and conferences, and the first unit is done. 

Fifth and Sixth Week:
Mary Midgley, “Duties Concerning Islands”; Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”

If the first unit tries to show that it’s not so obvious what we mean when we say we “owe” X dollars to the bank, the second unit opens up what we mean when we say “You owe it to yourself to … [stop drinking; see Guardians of the Galaxy; accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior; take a lover; floss more]. Why does Rilke’s great poem end “You must change your life”? Why would the experience of the sublime pry open a person’s conscience like that? And then, once we’re done owing things to ourselves, what about our debts to animals, society, God, strangers? There’s also a mini-paper this week about duties to ourselves, followed by an exchange-and-response assignment: students read each others’ mini-papers, isolate a single argument, and address themselves to it in some way, agreeing, disagreeing, ramifying.

Seventh through Ninth Weeks:
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

I haven’t read Solomon since 2006, but I was certainly amazed by it at the time. And it’s a novel that raises questions of debt and obligation continuously—once you start looking, they’re everywhere. What is the Seven Days but a cold, straightforward attempt at ethical accounting, at rebalancing the books? What is Milkman Dead’s major problem, if it’s not his failure to fully appreciate and respect the fact that he is a derived being, the product of others’ sacrifices and love, to which he so often responds coldly? And there’s Pilate’s speech to him about what he owes Hagar’s memory and … it just goes on and on. The students’ second major paper deals with all this.  

Tenth Week:
Samuel Johnson, “Idler 22″; Chris Serres and Glenn Howatt, “In Jail for Being In Debt”

This last section of the course has to do more specifically with the state and its relationship to debt—as a punisher of debtors, as a guarantor of the legal and social systems that make debts enforceable, and last of all as a debtor itself.

As soon as I picked this theme I knew one thing: we’re gonna read Samuel Johnson on debtor’s prisons. Reading Samuel Johnson is an end in itself. The Serres and Howatt, which is a news article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, deals with the increasing use of jail time as a punishment for folks who don’t follow court-ordered debt-repayment schedules: i.e., the fucking return of fucking debtor’s prisons. Not to put too fine a point on it. 

Eleventh Week:
David Graeber, “To Have it To Owe”

This is a short statement of some of the main historical arguments in Graeber’s Debt, a fascinating book. His thesis, oversimplified, is that “debt,” in a loose, informal sense, is a fundamental part of human community and life—we come into the world already incapable of repaying Mom for nine months of misery and danger—but that precise methods of reckoning and enforcing debt turn it into a political weapon that impoverishes and enslaves human beings. Whether he’s right or wrong, Graeber’s ideas form a meeting place for all the different senses of debt the course has talked about. As his arguments are also likely to be new to students, I have them do a few short writing assignments where they identify a single claim of Graeber’s and describe its effect on them. I’m hoping that in this way I can help them get used to seriously considering uncomfortably unusual ideas. 

Twelfth Week:
Some boring but important stuff about national debts, and their political origins. Also, more training in basic research methods. 

Thirteenth Week:
Marilynne Robinson, “Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist”

Now that we’re talking about national debts, here’s my favorite living writer taking a blowtorch to the ideological foundations of austerity. I’ll walk them through this one slowly. 

Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at not badgering students when they don’t respond happily to work I like. I’ll be calling on those resources a lot this semester. 

Fourteenth Week:
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations”

As long as we’re talking about the senses in which a nation can be “indebted”… We finish with an essay that has been on many peoples’ minds this summer, and which, in the last few weeks, only seems more relevant. (Not to sound all Ken Burns, as white people apparently tend to do in Coates’s presence.) 

Since Coates’s essay provokes, from many readers, responses like “Slavery was a long time ago” [true, but redlining was last week] and “Everybody suffers” [true, but not everybody immiserates an entire people group for hundreds of years], I’m giving students an exploratory essay assignment here. I tell them, in effect, to take a claim from Coates and nudge it around a little. (Obviously, I give a little more instruction than that.) Don’t try to take a global position on his whole argument. It’s too big. I certainly don’t know what-all to do with it, and I’ve been more or less pro-reparations for years. 

I made the syllabus weeks ago, and I don’t mean to be more self-promotional than even a personal blog can sustain. But I have to say that the fact that I admire Coates to the point of inflicting this profoundly emotionally difficult piece on the thirty-six young souls entrusted to my care—well, that obviously made this even more of a day-brightener.