September 30, 2010

On the Corrosion of Character

Sennett's evocation of the nature of work in postmodern capitalism is spot-on in recognizing and explaining the alienating factors at play in a de-centered, job-based not career-based working world. In fact the book, a long essay, was in places hard to read because he evoked some memories of my own encounters with this world. It was harder to read also knowing that the research and the ideas driving the work were in place during the time of writing. Much has changed in ways that only amplify the alienation felt by workers. If, as Sennett claims, that the breakdown of the corporate structure is bad news psychologically for the worker -- where there is no clear antagonist in the workplace -- then the alienation is exponentially more evident in a world with ten percent unemployment. This essay was true when he was writing and the US economy was creating over a million jobs a year. The issues he explores are only more true now.

September 28, 2010

On Crazy Like Us

Watters argues that western medicine, aided and abetted by the western drug companies have systemically globalized the idea of mental illnesses that exist in those western companies as a universal set of conditions.

I have never thought of this, but it makes sense that the cultural conditions of a mental illness manifest in the cultural context of its origin. I have long thought of the universal nature of mental illnesses at all times and places. I have done this in spite of knowledge of old-timey mental diseases that are no longer in vogue. The very fact that each update of the DSM is a contentious process full of deletions and additions and refiguring the definitions of diseases show that mental illness is contingent on the cultural milieu.

Therefore, In Watters’ investigation, we learn that the mutability of mental illness is a problem because we in the west want to impose our definition and cure for diseases we have already named, even if the underlying conditions and symptoms are not a perfect fit with western views of the course of the diseases. This is problematic because whether or not it is for altruistic or profit reasons, we have ignored key issues underlying the diseases. Not only does this globalization ignore the root cause, it imposes questionable treatment regimens that may or may not help.

I am not sure if Watters proves his point. First off, there are only a few specific incidents he highlights, and these separate incidents seem to hinge on the testimony of one or two researchers. For me the specifics are interesting, but I am not sure if they speak to a generalization that can be proven. Secondly, the problems he addresses can be shifted so that treatment of mental illness is done with full cultural awareness, but I feel that this is just an issue of globalization inexorably happening but being done backwards. This is exogenic cultural change, done from the top. It does not look pretty, but it is what is happening. I cannot help but think of the famed Cargo Cults as we just look at different ways that east reconciles with west.

September 21, 2010

On the Second Foundation

I read the book _Second Foundation_ and finished it a couple of weeks ago. I have sat on writing the review for the main fact that I will largely be antagonistic towards a series that is highly lauded and in fact won awards for being such a fantastic trilogy. I have not read, nor do I have plans to read, the surrounding books that prop up the universe that Asimov created for the Foundation series. The following review will look at all three books of the central series

First off, I have to give Asimov credit for looking at technology as an emancipatory element. Nuclear power in the series gives those who control it a wonderful command over the physical universe. Many of Asimov’s contemporaries in the genre were much more pessimistic about the future of the technology and the human race. I am thinking here of apocalyptic thrillers and thought-exercises like Neal Schute’s _On the Beach_. In spite of my own questions about the safety and the general possibility of the scaling down of nuclear devices in this way, I will give Asimov the benefit of the doubt (even if current nuclear power only generates electricity through mechanical conversion and I have no idea how you had power a spacecraft with hot atoms).

Nevertheless, this technological element is troubling. On one side, it is fantastic that in the future cancer has been beat: people still smoke and can carry around decaying atoms with no real ill effects. On the other hand, it is difficult to look at when Asimov was creating and not criticize him for missing the computer revolution. He was able to see nuclear devices shrink, but not electronic transistors. While this may not have been a problem at the time of creation, it sticks out that travelers were having to chart out their hyperspace jumps with slide rules and that a novel device is one where the physical object of a pen translates your speech to text sounds remarkably similar to Dragon Naturally Speaking, a software program that has been out for at least a decade.

This does not destroy the premise in the writing of Asimov here. We know that the empire lasted for 12,000 years, but we don’t know what lead up to the founding of the Empire, how many galactic boom and bust cycles had to happen before generalized peace spread throughout what is assumedly our Milky Way Galaxy. Asimov brings this question up briefly in the first installment by noting the debate about where human existence arose within those stars. I will accept, with reservations, the world Asimov builds here.

I will also accept the Seldin premise. With enough data points, and enough computing power, and the right mathematical model, you can assumedly predict the future. Although, without continued monitoring and readjustment of the model, your predictions would become more and more unreliable the further you moved from your zero-point. Thus, the existence of a second Foundation is not only a narrative nicety, but also a necessity for the working of any ‘Seldin Plan’. While I like the set-up, the resolution at the end of Second Foundation does seem more like a move that is too clever by half to reinstate the universal ignorance of the Second Foundation (236). The resolution as a whole left a bad taste in my mouth, but I swished it around and swallowed.

The structure of the series, as it covers over four hundred years of galactic history, is somewhat uneven. There are characters and whole time periods that exists but fail to engage me. The most exciting section, as a reader of narrative, is the section dealing with the character of the Mule. The reader spends the last half of the second book on a planet-by-planet chase on the run, and then we are treated with a twist (that I for one did not see). Although the second text closes with a little much explanatory monologue, this part feels like the high point of the entire series and the last book is just an unwinding of the consequences of the second book.

However, the troubling aspect here is that there is no reason for the existence of the Mule. Asimov goes through gyrations to show that there have been genetic mutations all along and his existence is an unpredictable outlier, but to me he just does not fit in the universe Asimov created. This mirrors the explanation given to the explanation of how the Second Foundation speaks, moving past speech into some form of platonic ideal of communication (106). Both feel unnecessary and unbelievable. Again, this is coming from a much more advanced scientific understanding of the world than the one Asimov had in the early 50s, but one thing that troubled me is that over the years there had been no evolution from our current state. There is no evidence for evolution that I saw except for a reference to a facial feature found on the women of the inner galaxy. I just have a sense that genetic drift would have happened quickly amongst the millions of planets with vastly different climates and ecosystems to the point where speciation would have happened. I am also assuming that interplanetary travel is relatively rare and limited to the upper classes.

No, apparently I am wrong and Homo Sapiens Sapiens is the final product of evolution excepting the Mule and he was the end of his line. The Mule’s existence feels fake because he does come ex nihilo and did not have to climb what Dawkins would call Mount Improbable. I just cannot reconcile the Mule’s existence with the lack of evolution elsewhere; it just poisons the well for me. While I am picking nits and I know it, writers of science fiction have a very high level of responsibility of to keep up the suspension of disbelief, as they are not just writing a world that they know but they are instead the creators and destroyers of worlds.

A final example of the previous concerns is found in the use of language. Language changes much faster than genes do, but there is no evidence of that in the series. Again assuming the isolation and the lack of a central entertainment and news distribution network to help standardize the language (although the newspaper of Tantor may have been published everywhere), the English language that somehow won out in the remote past and is the language of empire (again!) remains identical to a mid-twentieth century English spoken in America. For this, there are not tortured explanations why it happens. Even if it is necessary for storytelling ease, it is a structural brick of the world Asimov built that rings false. While this issue was on the edge of my consciousness for the series, Asimov point out the inconsistency in the last book, referencing a dialect of an isolated people (45), which shows that he was on some level conscious of the problem but chose not to engage in an explanation of the contradiction.

In the end, the books are interesting. I can see the interest in the worlds built by Asimov and marvel at the man’s learning and prolific nature. However, his works are clearly a product of his time and the associated concerns of the time. While they may not be universally applicable, they can teach the reader much about the time they were written

September 12, 2010

In September:

The last
watermelons fight
for space
with new
pumpkins. And
the buildings
fall; teaching
the difference between
and awe.

July 22, 2010

Resume of John Edgar Mihelic (J. Edgar Mihelic)

John Edgar Mihelic
Avers Avenue Chicago, Illinois 60632 jedgar.mihelic (at)


Career-track position allowing for utilization of demonstrated communication, customer service, and problem-solving skills demonstrated by years of increasingly responsible and diverse employment.


Motivated, personable professional with diverse educational experience. Demonstrated ability to learn a multitude of different skill sets and apply based on perceived and directed need.
Versatile -- able to maintain calm and composure under pressure. Poised and competent with ability to easily perform multiple tasks quickly and efficiently. Thrive in deadline-driven environments. Excellent consensus-building skills.

• Speaking effectively
• Delegating with respect
• Written correspondence
• Providing appropriate feedback
• General office skills
• Developing rapport
• Gathering information
• Solving problems
• Managing conflict
• Setting and meeting deadlines
• Accepting responsibility
• Project management


Communication: Reports/Presentations/Technology
• Prepare diversified lesson plans tailored to individual classes' aptitudes and abilities
• Author professional correspondence to students, parents and faculty
• Rapidly learn and master varied computer programs; primarily in the Microsoft family of software
• Tailor presentations to technological circumstances, from lecturers to interactive media.
• Communicate difficult concepts at varying levels of discourse to facilitate understanding.
• Research contextual data from various sources of information.

Customer Service/Problem Solving
• Build rapport based on a strong first impression and finding the common ground with clients.
• Determine need through intelligent investigative questioning of the client.
• Provide mediation between clients and colleagues in disagreements.

Detail Mastery & Organization
• Manage all day-to-day operations of both a classroom and a restaurant:
-- Scheduling the shift coverage and class schedule.
-- Maintaining discipline of both employees and students.
-- Finances: inventory, invoicing, ordering, counting money, reconciling store's revenue
-- Responsible and accountable for actions within the hierarchy of the store and school.
-- Trusted to complete tasks while enjoying relative autonomy.


Open Books Chicago–Chicago, IL
Volunteer Work, Current

Esquire Temporary Services –Chicago, IL
Law School Test Proctor, Current

Advantage Chevrolet – Hodgkins, IL
Sales & Leasing Consultant, 2008

Saint Rita of Cascia High School–Chicago, IL
Chemistry Teacher; Assistant Track Coach, 2007-08

Kansas State University English Department -Manhattan, KS
English Instructor; Writing Center Tutor, 2005-07

Whiskey Creek Steakhouse -Manhattan. KS
Line Cook, 2006-07

The Manhattan Mercury -Manhattan, KS
Staff Writer, 2006

Casa D’Amici Italian Restaurant -Morgantown, WV
Cook; Shift Manager, 2002-05

West Virginia University Department of Chemistry -Morgantown, WV
Teaching Assistant, 2001-02

The Daily Athenaeum-Morgantown, WV
Staff Writer, 2003

Quizno’s Subs-Morgantown, WV
Assistant Manager, 2001

Burger King – Clarksburg, WV
Fry Cook, 1997-98

Harrison County Department of Parks and Recreation – Clarksburg, WV
Park Supervisor, 1998

Harrison County Department of Education- Clarksburg WV
Middle School Tutor, 1997


Graduate Study in English, 2005-2007
• GPA: 3.30

Bachelor of Arts in English, 2004
• GPA: 3.65; Magna Cum Laude
• Concentration in Creative Writing
• University Honors Scholar

July 15, 2010

Preying on those who can least afford it: On Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc.How the Working Poor Became Big Business

In the last thirty years, real wages for the majority of America have either remained stagnant or even fallen when tracked against inflation. Some parts of the economy have grown their costs at a much faster pace than the usual consumer good: education, health care, housing. If you were to chart a graph, you could easily see the growing chasm between what the status quo was and where the people really are.

This growing chasm is part of what drove the recent economic calamity. Borrowing of all sorts was at unstable highs, and each personal liquidity crisis snowballed onto the next one. The majority of the destruction is, I hope, at this point finished. What we have now to do is imagine a way to recovery.

_Broke, USA_ is not about the recovery, nor is it necessarily about the collapse. What it is about is the industries that grew and profited from the growing inequity: rent-to-own, check cashing, pawnshops, payday loans, money transfers, pre-paid credit cards, subprime loans. Each of these industries has their defenders, whom usually are also the ones making the profits. Rivlin presents a rather even hand in examining both sides of the issue, talking to both the moguls of the industries and the consumer advocates fighting against the industries.

With the even hand though, he still comes out on the side of reform and restriction. Many of these industries represent the free market at its worst, preying on those who can least afford it, and then telling their victims they should be grateful for the attention. The debt trap is real and scary and a direct effect not of greed necessarily on the part of the victims, but perpetuated by a rapacious system.

I read this book quickly and enjoyed it. I enjoyed it not because it was a nice story to hear, but because Rivlin is a fantastic storyteller.

On The Lonely Crowd

Learned people knew that the earth was round long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. The ancient Greeks were able to make a good approximation of the earth's circumference. What everyone in the west thought for a long time was that the earth was at the center of the universe. In the Ptolemaic, geocentric model, the stars and the planets and the sun and the moon revolved around the earth. Broadly, this view was reinforced by the dogma of the church. You did not question it.

However, many intelligent men and women could look in the sky and notice that there was something wrong. Most of the stars did rotate as if they were attached to the inside of a giant globe, but others behaved strangely. They would slow down relative to the other stars and even go in reverse. To work with this, the astronomers had to change the model. Instead of sliding along a rail, these stars acted and rotated on a second orbit inside of the larger orbit, known as `epicycles'. The models built on these central tenants were highly powerful. They could use the models to predict the future position of stars, they could navigate with the stars, and they could please the church with the models.

The models, however, were wrong. We are not at the center of the universe, and we have had to refigure our astronomy based off a heliocentric solar system. At this point, I ask: What do we make of the old model? Do we mock it, or can we study it for the elegance it was able to show under the constraints given?

I ask these questions because they come in while studying _The Lonely Crowd_. We have less perspective on the changes tracked by Riesman and his collaborators. In many places they were right. A fundamental change in how people see the world and act and react it was going on. In many ways, the book is prescient, as it foreshadows the whole of the text of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. We are (have) shifting from a work-based definition of the self to a leisure-based definition. Power has in many ways moved from a strict hierarchy to nodes of influence, called by Riesman `veto groups.'

But they were wrong. I am sure much has been written about this, as the text is well known in the field, but they got the `why' wrong. The whole explanatory basis of the book is predicated on the idea that capitalism, especially the upper-middle class American version of the culture created by capitalism, was peaking the population. Impending improvements in the mode of production would make population less necessary. Thus, the framework is based on the idea of `incipient population decline.'

The problem here is that while they were prescient on the cultural changes going about, and that we are heirs of, they missed the reason it was happening. They saw much, but not the baby boom that was happening as they were writing. At this point, I ask: What do we make of their model? Do we mock it, or can we study it for the elegance it was able to show under the constraints given?

I still enjoyed reading the book, but with the causation so easily missed, I did not always follow through on the thread of the argument. Instead, I found myself at length reflecting on ideas presented without the context of the greater argument. Even if they were wrong, I can say at least, `This book makes you think.'

Belgians in the Congo!: On King Leopold's Soliloquy

In Billy Joel's song _We Didn't Start the Fire_, there are a lot of lyrics that seem nonsensical unless you can get a hold of a written copy of the lyrics. One of the lines that you don't an interpreter to understand is the words: "Belgians in the Congo". When I was younger I just thought that that was a key word for a generalized dislike of all imperialism.

Naturally, as a product of the American school system, I did not have my earlier ideas refuted. I have learned only tangentially of the horrors that stands behind the idea of what "Belgians in the Congo" really means. It means more than imperialism. What it means is one of the first stabs at genocide in the world, decimating the people of central Africa to take advantage of the natural resources.

King Leopold of Belgium's reign in the Congo was lamentable for many, and a point of inspitation for too many. The actions taken prefigured a bloody twentieth century where the powerful make the powerless submit or be disfigured or killed. As one of the main human rights issues of the time (as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth), not just King Leopold was at fault, but the entire industrialized was complicit in allowing its continuance.

Twain saw the hypocrisy in allowing this to continue, and penned this fine text against the atrocities of the Congo. He takes the persona of King Leopold himself, embattled by the reformers who wish him to change. By taking this voice, or master satirist shows why he in many ways is still the conscious of our country. The argument is made with such force I wanted to go out and do what I could to stop them, even if they are too far away to reverse.

The Soliloquy itself is short, and padded out with extra explanatory detail and historical context the book is still under a hundred pages. I read through it quickly and enjoyed the contextual material. I might search out more of this untold history, but nothing can have the voice Twain gives Leopold.

We deserve good fairy tales: On Stardust

Adults deserve good fairy tales, too ~Neil Gaiman.

I have trouble being honest and critical with a well written book. Someone like Gaiman, in all his work so far, is able to create a world and characters that just pull you in and don't let you go. He is able to create the myths that make me suspend disbelief and the critical and writerly mind and just let go.

He does it here in _Stardust_. I have nothing to add in terms of the conflict or the characters because I lived and interacted with them. Books like this remind me why I loved reading so much when I was younger, before I sucked all the fun out by going to graduate school. Perhaps the resolution was telepgraphed to the reader, but that only comes out on reflection. Go get everything he's ever written, and remind yourself why you liked reading too.

We deserve good fairy tales, and we get them from Neil Gaiman. Thank you Neil.

Fizzy Lifting Drink?: On Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

My memories of Charlie are from the movies. I never read the book, but the movies do add things as movies will do and now I understand the differences arising between the two Chocolate Factory movies. The directors had to add some sort of conflict. Dahl's story is like this: Charlie is poor; Charlie gets golden ticket; Charlie is virtuous where the other children are bad; Charlie is awarded factory by Wonka.

In this, the original story, everything plays out nicely and everything is too simple. Charlie is poor but his family is entirely good. All the others we see are horrible and one-dimensional and their defining traits become the mode for their downfall. But if you're poor you can be good just by keeping your head down and good things will happen to you. I was dismayed to learn that Charlie and his grandpa avoided the Fizzy Lifting Drink and avoided any complexity to their characters as is in the version I cherished.

Wonka is an entirely wonderful and novel creation, and I understand why such talented actors wanted to fill his shoes. However, he is not a hero of the working class. Expelling all your workers as a way to avoid corporate espionage is bad enough, but enslaving a whole race of people as your personal worker-army is a little much. I would hope that the Salts or the Gloops or one of the other families enlighten the government as to the conditions at the factory. Also: Wonka has a beard.

In the end, reading the book for beloved stories like this always create more perspective. Dahl is a talented writer but this creation is written for a different audience than me. In that respects, I feel it is an effective text. For me however, it works in concert with the creative efforts spawned by it to forge a synthetic idea of just Who Willy Wonka and Charlie Bucket really are. I am glad I read it.

On Blankets

I continue to feel that I read graphic novels, or whatever you want to call them, way too fast. A good part of this is that there are far fewer words per page in a graphic novel than in a more traditional novel. Description is laid out in pictures instead of words, saving the reader much time. I think that having pictures creates a stickiness for the reader. The force of the speed pulls you through and makes you want to continue until the end. I'm a fairly quick reader of text, but there's no sense of momentum built up in reading even quick reads as there is in graphic novels. The pile in your left hand grows at the expense of the pile in the right.

One caveat is that this process happens best when the art is there to serve and enhance the story, instead of moving into the foreground and becoming the story itself. Craig Thompson's _Blankets_ uses such transparent art. He uses the genre to pull the reader into the world he created (and recreated from memory), immersing you into his own sort of memories. The novel is a brilliant evocation of the late teenage years. It is a story about love and finding yourself and coming to terms with who you are and brotherhood. It is life, split and worked into a nice and believable narrative arc. The story is alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking and entirely worth your time.

A leftist, radicalized, American version of Joyce: On The 42nd Parallel

The Library of America has printed the entire USA trilogy by Dos Passos in a nice hardcover. U.S.A.: The 42nd Parallel / 1919 / The Big Money (Library of America) I however, do not particularly like hardcover books of many pages - they hurt my left wrist as I read. Therefore, I did not buy the entire trilogy in hard cover. I was also covering my bases. Had I not liked the first novel of the trilogy, The 42nd Parallel, I would not be burdened by having bought and thus `having' to read the whole 1000 pages of the three books. I thought I was saving money, but now I wish I had bought the whole thing to begin with.

Dos Passos is something of a leftist radicalized, American version of Joyce. If that sounds good to you, get the book(s). He does something interesting here about the nature of storytelling and history in the early part of the twentieth century. He weaves together bits and pieces of history and fiction and song and poetry to get at what was real about that time. Some of the bits take you out of the narrative he's stringing together for your elucidation, but they help give you (and reinforce) context of the time. Dos Passos' strength is in creating characters. Too many books that try to bring several characters and have them serve as narrative centers for a time suffer a common weakness: some of the characters are stronger than others. Dos Passos does not suffer from this deficit, and his storytelling benefits as a result. All the characters are rounded out and have a life you want to see played out.

On Bowling Alone

Putnam, in _Bowling Alone_, traces the decline in group membership that happened in the later part of the twentieth century. He shows that we now lack a certain cohesiveness, termed `social capital,' that the generation before the boomers had in spades. In this book, which is heavily researched and supported with much evidence, he shows that this decline is real, that it is bad, there were analogous declines in American history, and tries to find the driving forces behind the decline. Don't tell my wife, but he sees the biggest factor as being the rise of television. Call it anomie, or call it lack of social capital, I feel Putnam's critiques in my own life every time I stay on my couch and watch television instead of going out and making and reinforcing social links.

Putnam also makes some prescriptions for what can be done to turn around our lack of social capital. Interestingly, these prescriptions are made in 2000 for full implementation in 2010. My sense, as I was reading them, is that we have not made adequate progress towards his stated goals. I don't think this is his fault or ours. One thing that struck me while reading this book is that while the book was written only ten years ago, it feels really dated. He was on the other side of the rise of social media, wars, the Bush presidency, cable news, 9/11, and everything else from our turbulent last decade. Many of these factors have helped, in my own opinion, ameliorate the distances we suffer from, while at the same time reinforcing the sense of the `other' we have with those who disagree with. I don't have the data nor the background to do this, but a reexamination of the decline needs to be done in light of these outside changes. I do not suspect that the broad scope would be different, but the details sure would be.

On On the Beach

I had trouble reading the first fifty or so pages of this book. Shute's cadences are hard to get a handle on, and he has some awkward attributive tags on his dialogue. I initially had no sympathy for half the characters.

I had trouble reading the last thirty pages of this book. Once I picked up the rhythm that Shute used to tell his story I became immersed in the world he created. The book changed from a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel to something greater. On the Beach transcends generic boundaries and becomes an elegy for the human race in an extinction that has not happened yet. I had trouble reading because of the tears in my eyes.

On the Beach is one of the most emotionally powerful books I have read in a long time. After putting it down, I tried to reflect and determined it had been almost a decade, when I read Lawrence's _Sons and Lovers_ that I was so moved by a book. I have a tender heart, but this book is not emotionally manipulative in a transparent way that cheapens the effect. On the Beach is powerful because it asks and answers fundamental questions about our being in a way that is truthful to what it means t be human.

Shute asks: "What do we do in the face of death?" He shows that we live as much as we can. We love. We make plans for the future. While we face death individually, we move towards it collectively. We are all cosigned to the same fate, but we do not have the certainty of the time that his characters do. On the Beach is an extended metaphor in a way, and as such is both an elegy and a celebration of what it means to be human. Sometimes that is beauty in the face of horror, and both come from the same root.

Approaching Troilus and Criseyde

There are a few things I am curious about this work. The first distinction is that it exists as a whole text. Compared to the Canterbury Tales, the story is concerned with a solitary narrative arc, instead of a frame story with smaller tales interspersed (much like the Reinhardt / Renard / Reynard stories.) As such, I feel more comfortable approaching the work in a critical manner. Through the introduction, I have already learned the plot of the tale. What leaves me uncertain about approaching the text is how the story is has been constructed through time. The narrative comes from late antiquity and on through Shakespeare, so how do we consider Chaucer's role as a re-visionary of the tale?

In the intro, it speaks much of how this tale comes from the Boccaccio's Il Filostrato, where "[Chaucer] often matched the Italian text stanza for stanza" (xxiii). This is so much emphasized that there are places where this is drawn attention to, and included in a chart in the text. Thinking in terms of my paper, I am weary about making a claim about authorial intent before I know the context that this should be taken in. As such, it is with reservations that I bring this assertion into the text: the character of Pandarus, which Chaucer created, seems like an analogue within the poem for the poet's own narrative voice. From the reading considered so far, this character is a go-between and facilitator for the love that will perhaps develop between the two main characters. If this character is a Chaucerian invention and not coming from the source texts this is one place where we can speak of the edifice of the poet's creativity. That this Pandarus is friend of Troilus and the uncle of Criseyde places him within a level of intimacy with the characters that only a writer knows.

Although Troilus and Criseyde has areas of direct transcription, there are places where he veers from the source text. The most notable one at this reading is Troilus's song in part one. Again, I know nothing other sources of the text, but this song has been presented as the first use of the Petrarchan sonnet in English poetry. This is not pure invention, as the poem is more an adaptation (362) of the original sonnet from Petrarch, and not a new one all together. This is textually interesting to see how Chaucer is writing a poem in vulgar English, but he is taking source material from two different contemporary Italian sources and making something that while not entirely original, is something that is entirely Chaucer's. What makes me curious is this notion of invention as part of how a modern reader hails an author. If we are able to maintain Chaucer in the canon, why do modern readers know Camus, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, and not the unfortunate forgotten who translated them.

It is again a rhetorical leap to claim that Chaucer was nothing but a translator, but it is an interesting subject to me. I have this notion that the ideas of authorship, ideas of genre, and the divide between written and performed where much more fluid than they is now. Modern readers have build walls around ideas. I can remember reading somewhere where the prize-winning novel The Life of Pi was under criticism because its author wrote a story about a tiger and a little boy and a raft. This represents how modern society puts not the craft of versification, but the ideas behind them in primacy.
A final consideration is the fact that I have been raised to recognize what genre a work fits in, and that is the beginning of a description:

"What are you reading?"
"Oh, this, it's a play by Tom Stoppard."

Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde is not so easily classifiable. There is a narrative arc, creating what might be considered fiction. There's versification, metered lines, and stanza breaks with a regular rhyme pattern within the stanzas. And lastly there is a lot of talking. From what I've read, I can see why Shakespeare made this into a play. He might only have needed to modernize some of the lines and place in stage directions. The fun thing is that it seems Chaucer is self conscious about these ambiguities. Instead of the classic epic invocation to the muse, there is an invocation to a fury. Instead of a love triangle with a jilted lover, there is just the two of them, both free to do as they choose. These subversions show something about Chaucer's own enjoyment of the work he was creating.

Perhaps this poem is also about interpretation and ambiguity. My mind returns to the image of Chaucer at some sort of pulpit or lectern: is he reading, performing, or both?

Ours was the marsh country: On Waterland

Negate the ellipsis. Every story is not about the characters, nor are they about the plot. Oftentimes the story is the story of the landscape, the story of the oppressive home. Our history teacher tells us many things, but most of all, I focus on the landscape. He speaks of the flat, oppressive flatness of the country that surrounds the fens, he speaks of the east wind, biting into his soul, and tearing his family apart as the bitter cold eats away at what the young child knows.

Ours is the hill country. The visitor notices the majesty of the explosion of the colors in the fall. They know the rolling hills and the kindly people who wear the badge of "mountaineer" with pride. The native knows how the hills crush around you, breaking up the sky. The mountaineer knows no concept of the horizon. The horizon is the succession of hills receding in the background. It is the distances that one must pass.

The landscape of home is often the landscape of bad memories. It is the land of dead parents, broken hearts, and forgotten friendships. The landscape reminds us of all of the regrets that we have, and the hope that in some way of eternity, that we might do things differently. The homeland is the land of failure.

No one wants failure. We seek out the differences, the lands that might hold some everlasting promise. This is the root of colonialism, the root of manifest destiny. It is the root of space travel. Humans have curiosity; they look to lands that people might not remember them. They yearn for unfamiliar territory to lay down their claim, and thus proclaim, "Hello, I am different, I have succeeded." The problem is that we keep encounter natives of these lands. You roll forth into a new place, and proclaim that all that you can see is taken in the name of the king. Then the natives come forth and proclaim their own right, and represent their own malaise.

For even if the place that we live is repressive, and full of bad memories, they are still our memories. No man can take these from our possession, and they are intrinsically ours. Natives will defend a barren land with their lives if only to prove that their existence is not in vain. The futility of such things is shocking, but men have amazed us for millennia in their course of actions.

The Dreams of the Cartographer, on Nations and Nationalism

Hobsbawm's thesis here is that with the emergence of a stable dual-polar national power structure, the influence of nationalism based on mythological ethno-linguistic `nations' will fade in the late twentieth century. Writing now, I have perspective on European and Asian nationalisms that give lie to his thesis based on the fracturing of the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence. His historical description and analysis are interesting as he develops further the ideas of Gellner and Anderson. However, one has to doubt his predictive powers:

"For instance, let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that a new `Europe of nations' in the Wilsonian sense were to emerge, or an Asia or Africa of nations. (The scope for a Latin America of ethnic/linguistic nations is considerably more restricted.) Spain would be diminished by the secession of Euskadi and Catalonia, Britain by that of Scotland and Wales, France by that of Corsica, Belgium would become two countries, while further east the states of the present Soviet sphere of influence would go their own way, perhaps with Slovaks separating from Czechs, and the Balkans would be redivided among Slovene, Croat, Serb and enlarged Albanian states, with an independent Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania re-emerging along the Baltic. Can it seriously be supposed that such a Balkanization, extended on a world scale, would provide a stable or lasting political system?" (176-177)

As far as that has happened, and it has happened far enough to make Hobsbawm seem prescient in the opposite direction he intended, I would say that this has provided for a stable system. Although it has created conflicts along the lines that are predictable as there is heterogeneous mixture of `nations' everywhere, the system is relatively stable. While I await a post-`national' world of a singular state and not a singular sphere of influence creating villains from the ether, at least it provides a decent organizing principle behind international football matches. As long as we can keep our imagined differences in the realm of sport, humanity should be fine. Instead we keep creating difference. Hobsbawm asks: "What else but the solidarity of an imaginary `us' against a symbolic `them' would have launched Argentina and Britain into a crazy war for some South Atlantic bog and rough pasture?" (163). He denigrates Falklands, but all conflicts are at best over bog and pasture. At least they have a material and not an ideological basis. I hope that the shocks to the cartographers over the years between the writing of this text and my review are world-historical abnormalities outside of Hobsbawm's thesis and not refutations of it.
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On The Meaning of Hitler

Haffner, in his spare and elegant history tells a story that many people think they know. The life of Hitler has been recorded on celluloid and spread on the History channel so much that we don't question the image of the cartoonish demagogue that is too easily parodied.

_The Meaning of Hitler_ focuses on the political career of the failed Austrian artist in a fair and even-handed way, one that is impressive given the context of the creation of the text. The greatest sin of history is turning your back on the past, and Haffner wants to make sure we do not make that mistake. This translation is easily readable and traces from the highs and lows and the twists and turns of Hitler. Much of his early life is left out and glossed over, but the reader gets a look at the decisions the man Hitler made once he was in power.

Hitler is here humanized, allowing us to approach him not on a pedestal or pillory; this is Haffner's great feat.

On Bone

I wrote to friends while in the process of reading this that it is `better than _Sandman_.' To many of my contemporaries, Gaiman's stories are the gold standard for graphic novelization. Others may disagree on what hold the top spot but for me the quest of _Bone_ is the bee's knees. I wish I had kids so that I could read it to them.

First off, a warning. This volume is thick - over 1300 pages. Reading the text will not be something you can do on your commute or even laying down on your back. Find a nice comfortable place to sit and lay the book in front of you. Make sure there's fresh coffee in the pot and you have plenty of time to kill, because you're not going anywhere.
The story of _Bone _ is that of a generic quest narrative: our heroes meet some friends, battle a common enemy, face uncertain allegiances and overcome several smaller obstacles to conquer in the end the larger goal. The story overcomes the possibility of boring rote fantasy and is actually well done.

What saves the story is the characters. All of them on some level challenge the archetypes that could easily be found for them. Their change and growth (for the most part) creates interest for the reader and it is fun to watch how they interact and come into their own. I think every reader will be able to find a character to identify with and track throughout the quest. I for one have a particular affinity for the `Rat Creatures'.

A final note is on the artwork. It is internally consistent for the whole of the run. This volume is in black and white, so it sometimes looks like a coloring book. However, the story and the art work hand-in-hand, and there was only one panoramic vista that I wished would have been in color. At around thirty dollars, this printing is a bargain compared to what the colorized version would cost, so there is little need to lament the black-and-white nature of the book. The world of _Bone_ is a realistic one, drawn largely true to life.

The three main `Bone' characters are from another place, and their physical structure shows their otherness. They are not outcasts though, but forever belonging to another place. You as a reader belong to another place too, but once you read the first page, you will live in the world Jeff Smith created for your enjoyment.

July 6, 2010

Ten Year Reunion

Ten years ago, I dressed up in a silly looking robe and a flat cardboard had and sat in a stifling gymnasium for a time to commemorate the passing out of high school into some sort of real world. There were 118 of us, if I remember correctly, passing that threshold from members of the class of 2000 to being members of society at large. In the weeks and months leading up to that occasion, we commemorate and memorialized and solidified friendships that would last forever. We lamented each passing last time that an event would happen with a cautious optimism on what the future would hold. Where were you going to school, what would your major in, what job would you work; we all defined a future idea of ourselves as we tried on the clothes of adulthood.

Now, we approach the celebration of the anniversary of that event. Few may remember what was said there. I don’t, and I was one of those with the luxury to speak at the event. Eighteen year olds have little gathered wisdom to impart, and are at an age where they don’t realize this fact. I was guilty of both, but even more culpable because I was aware of neither fact. I for one had it all figured out. I would suppose that on some level we all did. This certainty is one of the amazing but frightening aspects of youth. We can reflect on who we were, who we thought were going to be, and who we are. I bet very few people would see a congruence between those three visions of self. A few lack this chance at reflection, resting below in places unimagined.

I find myself nostalgic for that person of ten years ago that no longer exists but shares my name. I want to go back and give him some tips, but I know two things. The first is that I would be majorly freaked out, if I believed myself at all. The second is that wisdom comes not from the pages of books or the lips of elders but from living life and reflection of events. The turbulence of the last decade was in some was personal, but often interrelated with wider events. I don’t want to over-determine anything, but I feel that I might have gone into physical science much deeper if it was not for the events of September eleventh, 2001. I might have ventured to medical school as the yearbook said was my ambition. I have no way of being exactly certain, but the life I now lead would be different than that one existing in the realm of the never-happened.

I would reject that my life would have been better. I cannot reject nor deny my path. I am largely pleased with it, and I remain bullish on my future potential. I hope that we all can be, and that’s what made me write this. My first reaction on flipping through the 2000 Cougar Tracks is that I am happy we did go to school in a more adventurously fashion epoch. Amongst the embarrassing (and egotistical) proliferation of pictures of me is one where I am posed with my good friend Julie Miker. We had been elected ‘Most Likely to Make a Million,’ and I am obviously pleased with the distinction. I have no idea about the balloting criteria used or the polling method that obtained that result, but I can safely say at this point my peers were mistaken.

If I am not mistaken, the more common phraseology for such a laurel is ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ I have no idea why the yearbook staff uses the highly objective measure of material wealth as a way to gauge success. I can still imagine at the next reunion or the next one after that meeting the burdensome prophecy laid on my shoulders. I may be in a similar position as I am now. What I reject is the criteria: the conflation of monetary accumulation with success.
I have succeeded on many levels. As a teacher, I have challenged and taught and engaged students in diverse subjects. As a writer, I have informed people of the world around them; I have made people laugh and cry and think. As a cook, I have developed effective technique with a flair for the dramatic. As a student, I have put the work in I needed to learn the material. As a friend, I have listened. As a husband, I have loved. I have a roster of successes that I am proud of, and that I will add to as I age. We all do, no matter the turbulence and worries and anxieties that pass. We should not single out individuals for this honor, but we should recognize the most likely to succeed of the class of 2000, and know that it is a group picture.

June 14, 2010

An Exploratory Essay in Quasi-scientific Parables

There was a wise man that once said that if there were any work to be done that it would be done by its sheer existence alone. However, the time frame in which it would get done was dependent on the variable attitudes to the nature of the work itself. He was going to write a book expounding on this theory but he never got around to it. This is very likely due to the fact that he could not find anything in his house because he never managed to do his housework. The city mistook his house for a forgotten landfill and as far as anyone knows he died of oxygen depravation after a few years.

Fortunately, his life’s work was passed into the world on a sheet of paper and his death did not really matter. He was a great thinker, but all great thinkers are, he was a flash-in-the-pan. After his first theory of the conditional existence and non-existence of work, he went on to other fields of probability and achieved other astounding insights, which he intended to write on the paper with the first theory but set it aside because after all that thinking he needed a good nap, a form of work higher on his priority list.

Any great thinker will tell you that a good nap is a lot of work. One wise man has been quoted on many occasions for his thought-provoking observations on the challenging field of pillow fluffing. “A pillow is only as good as the quality of its fluff, which lasts in direct proportion to the length of patience in the person who is responsible for fluffing it and the heart rate of those observing the person using said fluffed pillow.” This was received with broad yawns from his fellow researchers at the convention when he first revealed it. They were not fully convinced so the rest of the day was spent in pursuit of proof of the statement.
This lead to the next major theory in probable napping; more fulfilling naps will be taken in higher frequency in larger groups of people. A more specific correlative was attached about the increase of fulfilling naps amongst people of similar professions and age category. This correlative was tested with various degrees of success. The wise men found it to be absolutely true and went on to continually practice it, as often as 300 days a year, stopping only to take a vacation when they became too stressed. Another test was conducted by a zealous graduate student in a preschool setting. He hypothesized that if the preschoolers were assigned jobs, then their naps would be more fulfilling. They were trained in janitorial aspects concerning the movement of debris with a stiff-bristled implement attached to a long handle commonly referred to as a broom. Before being able to prove anything, he was smothered by a fire blanket when on of his subjects accidentally knocked the hasp with his broom. This gave birth to the modern-day laboratory science maxim, “Don’t give brooms to little kids.” which has subsequently saved many lives. Further investigations into the correlative stopped after the incident and have as of yet to resume.

The failure of work resumption was explored by a man of indifferent intelligence recently. He made leaps and bounds in the field. He discovered that the tendency of thought was to think that if work was started and no one was working on it any further that it must be done. He hypothesized that this was due to the nature of work itself, in the fact that work has a goal and that anything towards that goal brings the work closer to completion. Later research showed that the consensus of people believe work left unfinished would become finished if other work was done elsewhere. The man would have probably made many more discoveries but he went on coffee break and never returned to the subject.

Another aspect of … well never mind.

Six olf' Bits

1. Index cards are to be carried around at all times, at least one of them, in case you might encounter something witty, or just something that you want to write down to remember. Our memories go downhill, and it is nice to have a short written account of a moment.

2. The wire hood is a wire thing on Champaign bottles. I am not really too well versed in the ways of this upper crust alcoholic beverage, but as I understand, it holds the cork in prior to opening.

3. Apparently publishing makes you neurotic. If you write for the sole purpose of being published, you are writing for the wrong reasons. Writing is the reward unto itself.

4. I didn’t really get that part, something about the rooms in the castle you were told not to go by your parents. It is your duty as a writer to expose the under exposed.

5. I for one like the line “Risk being unliked…truth is always subversive.” I am really not sure why, I think mostly because it came near the end of the book, and I was less thinking “I have to get this read,” and was more open to thoughts like “Wow, what a profound and insightful comment.”

6. For my money. I really like Chuck Palahniuk. I could rave about his deconstruction of the masculine ideal and everything like that, but he creates strong narrators that leave you interested in the story. The plots are usually unbelievable, but you have to suspend belief in a plausible reality to read his work. In short, his work is fun to read.

conversation drifts

Conversation drifts upwards.
“We need to write something that is playful and fun. I cannot think to do anything else. It would be a shame to use my talents as a shady humorist, but if I must fade into the background once a stone marks my place, it shall be. To live and enjoy life is my task.”
It drifts to the ceiling.
“…Once there was this moocow and it was a very good moocow.”
Where it mingles,
“Or maybe it was not. Reject modernism. Turn on your fathers, and return to the ways of their own fathers. Reject Christ, the postmodern condition. Become the Jews of Zion, warble around Malta, or Venice, the beautiful old world cities built upon the rubble of the old lands, the old ways, and the marble and the friezes and the classical busts staring at you from their cold stone eyes. They’re dead, and we are all dead, just waiting for the inevitable end that will enshroud us all.”
and becomes noise.
“I swear to God, she had to weigh over two hundred pounds. I know, I know, she carried it well, but there is some innate fear of being with someone that big.”
There is a chattering
“I am not going to live my life in fear. There is a war on, you know. There isn’t any thing that is going to stop it. We all know, there’s always some sort of war. There is no golden age of civilization, there is just cycling.”
amongst people where the words
“…and I really think she gave me herpes. I’ve never had anything like this before, but as I understand, she’s been around. You know her, I think. She works at the coffee shop down the street from where I live. Why are you smiling?”
we say drift out the door
“I should be going home. I can’t drink too much tonight and I’m running short on cheddar. Maybe we can raise hell some other time, when I’m more available.”
with the cigarette smoke
“She wears so much makeup that she goes around looking like a whore. I tell you, its not attractive. There is no way that she looks in the mirror before she goes out. If she does, she needs to see an eye doctor.”
as we stumble into
“There’s no way the Red Sox can lose this season. The Yankees have nobody. They’ve lost that attitude of certain victory that used to surround them. The aura is dulled their flaws have been exploited. They are no longer God like. They’ve been humanized for god’s sake, and humans die”
this early morning.

Contemplations on Finals Week: Modest Proposals

• You find yourself awake at six in the morning, trying to finally grasp the complexities of thermodynamics, or the deeper meaning of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I know the boat you are in. Test at any time in the semester can be a hard thing to deal with, but finals carry an additional weight. Perhaps you have a professor who weighs the final at forty percent of your grade, or maybe you have an eight-thirty final in a class that meets normally at four in the afternoon. The stresses of finals week is enough to crush even the hardiest soul.

• To combat the stress of an overwhelming collection of facts that you must squeeze into your taxed brain, I have a few suggestions. For starters, I have found that self-medication is an excellent choice. No matter what poison you choose, this is a superb route to take. I am not offering this suggestion as a way to improve your test scores, but I can guarantee that if you take enough of your medicine, you simply will not care about said test scores.

• If the prior suggestion leaves a bad taste in your mouth, I am fully ready with more ideas. I have witnessed several individuals who have gained confidence in conversing with invisible beings. I am not in the position of endorsing any particular being, but I am close with the Christian God. When compared to possibility of eternal damnation or the pursuit of nirvana, a simple two-hour test looses its significance. The prospect of failure on a test is a far lesser demon than the prospect of failure at life.
Finding religion puts the minor triviality of finals into perspective.

• Another idea about finals stress is that you don’t need to worry about them. You know the weird punk rock girl in your class? The one who wore her Doc Martins with shorts way back in August? I have it on good knowledge that while you were procrastinating, and enjoying time with your friends, she was studying and keeping up on her homework. If you can, sit as close to her as possible. She may have the veneer of rebellion, but she knows Nietzsche, Kant, and Jung as well as their closest friends ever did. The bonus of the situation is that her handwriting is large and flowery, a hand that is easily read from five feet away. Cheat your way through finals week, and buy Christmas gifts instead of studying. Your friends will love you for it, and your parents will laude you for the excellent marks. The only downside is that you have to be conscious of the professors. They tend to frown on this activity.
• I wish you all a happy finals week, and may you all find success in your endeavors. To graduating seniors, good luck in your respective fields. To those who follow my advice and fail, I am truly sorry. To those who followed the advice and succeeded, I expect flowers. I particularly like daisies and lilies.

Against Post-Modernism

Painting, Politics, Poetry

I meant to write this when I was a little more contemptuous of things, but I allowed my contempt to simmer, and we can no longer get some out with a spoon. We would need a metal spatula or something of the sort.
The first thing is to say is that “The Literature” became a proper noun is because it still holds a lasting relevance to the world we experience. Without this relevance, the art becomes nothing, and is just an ephemeral blip on the radar screen.
To bring this into something I know better, I would like to examine painting. The old masters were really the “Old Masters” because they excelled in representational art. I know that with our ever-increasing hold unto technology, these representational artists have become just the photographers of olden days. In painting, capturing the moment is essential, just as representational literature is about capturing the moment, whether it exist in the physical world or in the soul.
Innovation isn’t frowned upon. When your own way of creating art is co-opted by a new technology, a revolution of sorts seems natural as the sun rising in the east. However, there are limits to the extent of revolution. Van Gough and Monet will be remembered because they painted pretty pictures, not because of their revolt. Pollock, Kitchen, and Rothko will find themselves in the dustbin of history, because what they were saying, or trying to say, made sense at the point that they were creating. Now, to me and to many other observers, they seem that they were throwing paint at a canvas. THIS IS WHAT THEY WERE DOING. Poetry, any art really, is not about throwing something at the page or the canvas and seeing what would result. Call it avant-garde, call it Dadaism, call it abstract expressionism, the future will remember it for what it is: nothing.
LeRoy Jones quoted Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karmazov’s famous, “All is permitted.” He fortuitously OMITTED the fact that this thought, when taken at face value, immediately leads to the assumption that there are no boundaries to what can happen, and we fall into anarchism, whether it be in politics or in art. Many great thinkers have taken up the repercussions of what happens after we allow all to be permitted. The important thing to note is that there is a middle ground. The ground between Ivan and say, Thomas Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” at least in their ideologies, is where the great art lays.
It always has.
It always will.
These poets will become footnotes in an anthology, at best.

June 3, 2010

On the Bending Cross

Eugene Victor Debs is a personal hero of mine. I first learned about him and his work not in a scholastic setting, but in the pages of the late Howard Zinn’s _People’s History_. I was excited to take on a full-length biography of the man. For _The Bending Cross_, Haymarket has repackaged a biography from 1947 and placed new front material in the book. The text and the critical approach as a result are somewhat dated.

Textually,If you can get past the no-longer-P.C. references to African Americans as ‘negroes,’ you should be fine as a reader. Critically however, I have a feeling that desire to round off the edges of Comrade Debs might have made the author wear rose-colored glasses. I never met Eugene Debs, so I cannot verify the characterization of the man, but the Debs that we read about the pages of Ginger’s biography is so nice and so aloof that I honestly would not believe him as a character in a fictional work.

In fact, the Debs of _The Bending Cross_ did remind me of a fictional character. I kept thinking of Aleksey Fyodorovich Karamazov in Doestoevski’s novel. Alyosha comes across as fake in the sense that Debs is too fake. They’re both written to clearly as allegorical Christ figures. Ginger makes this comparison explicit as he begins his long march to the end (399). The lack of explicit criticism has the opposite effect of what I think the author hoped to effect. Debs has no depth in his own biography and comes across as a figure in a moral allegory. The moral allegory is not, but the real world is, and Debs was an imperfect inhabitant of that world. He claims so even in the pages of the biography, but there it seems a false modesty.

This lament is not a call for my heroes to have flaws. Debs did, and we’re given only an attempt at an honest assessment in the last two pages of the book. He drank too much, held aloof from his wife, and maybe took advantage of his brother. The human flaws are what gave him his humanity and are what gives us hope. If you want to learn more about a great under-looked hero of humanity, read this book. Debs’ life is an example for all of us, only know we all have flaws.

June 2, 2010

Walking the road to serfdom.

Hayek was scared, and rightly so if his analysis was right. Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia were nightmares of states that the rest of the world would hope to wake up from. That the Russian people and the Germans eventually woke up does not excuse the excesses of power claimed by both totalitarian dictators.

Hayek, however, was wrong in his analysis.

First off, I want to dispatch and then turn away from the easiest and most superficial criticism of this work. Hayek is a bad writer. The construction of his English are tortured and awkward. Not every writer taking on English can write with the verve and elegance of Conrad or Nabokov. Sadly, even in his field, someone writing centuries before him has a better grip on lucid prose. Adam Smith, a Scotsman, writes in a clearer English to the contemporary reader.

Rhetorically, Hayek’s largest problem with his argument is definitional. He dedicated his work ‘to the Socialists of all parties.’ His tongue-in-cheek dedication is meant to yoke together both the Nazi program and Stalin’s version of Marxism-Leninism. The work goes through pains to keep this parallel alive, but only goes to show that both of our antagonists in the work are effective dictatorships. The key argument of the work is that the road that both countries took to their respective places were parallel. Hayek goes through pains to support this thesis, tying together some ex-socialist in the Nazi movement as proof of the socialist root of Nazism. He ignores the fact that Nazism developed in the beer-halls of Bavaria as a nationalistic alternative to the internationalist SDP that lost its intellectual and moral high ground by supporting Germany’s entry into the capitalist conflagration we know as World War One. The Nazi party and fascist ideology grew and developed not as a logical extension of socialistic ideals, but in conflict with both socialist and communist parties in the late twenties and early thirties.

Hayek’s villain becomes not socialism as understood by any socialist, but instead the villain is a planned economy. Ignoring the fact that socialism is an economic, political, and moral system is one thing. Parts of the socialistic system are open to criticism and discussion and debate. However, Hayek’s move is intellectually dishonest. If the countries of the Soviet Union and Germany had anything in common it was that they had centrally directed economies. Both countries had separate problems and were not heirs to the post-capitalist utopias in any form. Germany had to rebuild, as did the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had not just the international war to recover from, but also faced internal strife. The tsarist country that became the Soviet Union was still very rural and largely agrarian and thus had to focus a damaging amount of economic focus on industrialization. Neither country was ready for the transition that Marx was able to see happening in mid-nineteenth century England or Germany.

Hayek’s thesis is rendered moot by this false comparison. ‘Socialism’ is not the villain. Dictatorship and totalitarian systems that repress the people are the enemy of a well-functioning state. Many different political and economic systems have led to serfdom. Hayek’s market-based savior is no better. He argues that oppression is inevitable in both a planned economy and a market based one. The market-based economy, to Hayek, is preferable because the oppressor is the market itself, and not some entity that has a face. I fundamentally disagree with him here, as in an open system you have a chance to petition for redress an individual. If a market leaves me to starve, I have no one to look at for succor or blame. This is many times more alienating for me.

The final prescription Hayek advocates is one I and many other leftist can get behind. Although Hayek speaks against international planning, he recognizes the need for international cooperation. For him this is a cooperation of the markets, where governments hand over economic policy and the nation-state is weaker as a result. The confounding part here is that the socialist, Marxist view is internationalist. Nation-states themselves exist to protect bourgeois capital, and borders are at best an ethno-linguistic myth. What Hayek in the end argues against is competing state capitalist countries and advocates for the blurring of those boundaries.

I recommend this book, despite my rating, because it is important for people from all sides of the debate to know every side of the debate. Hayek is important in right-wing libertarian thought, but you should approach with caution if you have not read some of the important theorist he is speaking against; his definition of leftists are at the mercy of his arguments and not necessarily a reflection of any socialist’s words or intents.

May 10, 2010

Brief Bits

1. You might not know by looking but I was an athlete in high school. I don’t brag about it because my football team was one of the worst in the state which does not have a reputation for football programs. I won only three games for four years of high school.

2. I have a special talent for making pizza from scratch. If I had some dough right here I could impress you with my pie-tossing abilities. Sadly, I cannot, but I will shamelessly mime the action.

3. I once made pants out of duct tape. While they were aesthetically pleasing, what no one knows about tape when used as a clothing material is that it is too hot to wear because it doesn’t breathe.

4. When the democratic party’s lieutenant governor resigned, the state party held open applications and interviews to replace him on the ticket. I replied, making me briefly a candidate for higher office. So did 280 other people.

5. I’m so tough that in 2004 I was hit by a car crossing the street and I walked home. I went to the hospital the next day and then months of physical therapy, so maybe I wasn’t being tough; I was just being dumb.

May 9, 2010

The Logician

troubles me.

April 30, 2010

The sensation of perceiving light:

Soft touch; electron
At the speed of light
Alights on my retina
Activating the right
Sensors, telling my
Sensory cortex that
Something different
Has happened.

Darkness is nothingness
But the sensation of this
One electron tells me
All I need to know
About somethingness.

April 27, 2010

Spring of 2002, I was against the war way early.

War Without a Face: Myopic Republican Thought

In any argument, there are almost never two clear-cut sides with clearly defensible viewpoints. What we think is held in our minds as the truth, and it’s hard to corrupt the truth in my head, or your head. Most of the time, we see a spectrum of varying shades of gray, no matter what the issue. The right combination of words can make rape seem not bad, or slavery an economic boon to a country.
The common thought is that there are two schools of thought pertaining to our current conflict against “Terrorism.” You are either a war-mongering hawk, or a peace-loving dove. No matter which you take though, its not as simple as good versus bad. Now that we have relatively displaced the foreboding Taliban in Afghanistan, we are at a crucial crossroads in the path that we are going to take. The common consensus in the media is that our policy will lead to some sort of assault on the Iraqi dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and topple his evil empire in the Fertile Crescent. Sentiment lies against him, but we must question the idea if we are to be kept in the belief that this war is truly a war against terrorism, and not a resumption of draconian republican foreign policy. The initial idea of the war on terrorism was to ensure that the free peoples of the world could live their lives without fear. If we are to stay the course, Iraq isn’t even a plausible target.
The media has been consumed with the thought of who should be next. In my view, America had grown weary of the populist approach to life, and are reverting more into the “normalcy” of the culture we were living until September 10th. The iron is cooling, and our policy makers must make some move before they lose all momentum in their efforts. I have examined articles from two highly consumed news magazines, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. Both are not the most highly respected venues for academic discourse (McCommentary), but common Americans look highly upon them.
The author for Newsweek, Christopher Dickey, supports military action against the Iraqi dictator, but warns; “The Russians and American's European allies are openly skeptical of media reports that attempt to link Saddam directly to the events of September 11. Most of Washington's partners in the coalition fighting terrorism have warned against opening up a "second front" against Iraq until Al Qaeda is finished.” Even the hawks realize the problems that will arise from redirecting our objectives, but they still don’t understand the fallacy in thinking that we are sole arbiters of the direction of the winds of change. The article speaks of the inevitability of an attack, which may or may not be supported by the American people, but the question in my mind is “Would this push be there in the absence of September 11th?”
The other side of the coin is that America’s forces should remain perusing terrorism, especially those cells that can be tied to the ghastly attack on our soil. There is a litany of other places that the Al Qaeda forces could find refuge. “Somalia is perhaps al Qaeda's best option, given the country's continued lawlessness. Although a government exists in name, most of the country is ruled by warlords. Some might be bribable. Al Qaeda also has a long history there, having trained some of the militants involved in an attack that killed 18 U.S. soldiers during a 1993 peacekeeping mission. More recently, the group has reportedly run training camps there.” (U.S. News & World Report) Other possible refuges for these men include Indonesia, the Philippians, and even some fingers have been pointed at reform-minded Iran. The key argument of this article is that in any case, “Even Iraq is implausible, as Saddam Hussein is unlikely to forfeit the progress he has made in chipping away at the decade-old sanctions regime by taking in America's most wanted terrorists.”
On cannot help but feel a loss of direction after we defeat the enemies with a face, and the route that will be taken will not be determined by academics in ivory towers, but in the trenches of “undisclosed locations.” We are fighting a war on terrorism, one that is ostensibly meant to allow the American people to return to normalcy. Now that we are approaching this normalcy, licking our wounds and seeing the perpetrators of the horror being routed in their own land, do we really need to expand the conflict? If it is to renew old rivalries, it is not a just fight. Saddam was the face of terror, of oppression in my childhood. The propaganda machine is trying to do the same to my little brother. Saddam may be this generation’s embodiment of evil, but he was not the one directing those who hit our buildings, our hearts.
When it comes to the thought of a war with Iraq, I remember something that my father told, after returning from Operation Desert Storm: “Someday, you’ll be fighting a war to get rid of this sicko.” I remember his words; I remember the fear it struck in my heart.

April 20, 2010

On _Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders_, by Jason R. Riley

I usually consider myself pretty far on the left edge of the political spectrum, if you can view it as linear. I am for more open borders on a humanitarian basis. I cannot fault people whose only crime is to want a better life for their family. Once here, roots are casts and children are had, making the situation even more difficult. I have long had a tongue in cheek argument supporting open borders from the right side of the spectrum: Capitalism needs growth to survive and in the face of declining native births, the only reasonable solution is to import the growth we need. A secondary facet is that the market will fill a labor vacuum, no matter how difficult we make it and pushing this mechanism to the edge of darkness creates incentive for inhuman conditions on a black market.

In _Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders_, Jason R. Riley takes my argument and expands on it and makes a sound market-based argument for many of the same conclusions I draw from a left perspective: make legal immigration easier; create a guest-worker program; ease the already-here but illegal population out of the shadows. Here in this book is a kind of conceptual aphasia (eg. The minimum wage and unions are bad, G. W. Bush and Reagan have largely redemptive qualities) that takes the market-based approach and runs with it. I have trouble passing along a book whose entire line of reasoning I disagree with and at times find somewhat insulting, but I find it interesting that we can come from such different places and support the same overall solutions to a ‘problem’ based on conflicting spoken and unspoken ideals.

To be fair, the book was completed just before the economy stepped off the ledge. There has been significant return to native countries. So far, the best check on illegal population has been recession, and I doubt that even the most hard-core nativist would argue for slowdown to keep people out of the country. Most likely this current downturn is temporary, so I think the larger argument holds up from both sides. In the end, no matter which path you take, we should let ‘them’ in so that someday they will be us.

April 17, 2010

On the Fifies

I write this to tell anyone that is interested that David Halberstam is a fine storyteller. This is true. You will like his books. There is nothing I know to say otherwise. I think knowing this is important, especially if you have not yet opened up a book of his yet.

You see, the 50s is my second book of his, and the same general rule applies. David Halberstam is a fine storyteller, period. However, this is both a pat on the back and a critique. He tells great stories based on the people living the stories he tells. The shame is that his gift is limited. A reader of this book may know some of the big events that happened in the 50s and the people associated with those events, but they will not know what it was like to live those events.

I like Halberstam’s books. They work, but.. But. He writes biographies. This may work if they were not expected to be histories. Individual men (and they are mostly men) are profiled and what they do are profiled. They make actions and they do things that have an effect in the culture. The shame is that they build walls around the world. I have no idea what it was like to be a person in the 50s based on the book. I know, on some level, what happened but I am not that person.
Buy the book, by all means. He does a good job of bringing you in. I am glad I read the book and learned all he brought forth for me to learn. I just wish there was less a focus on people and more of a cultural criticism of the people and the time covered in the book. My own facile view of the time is based on the television shows of the time. These are dealt with much too late in the book to really view the considerations I care about. I wanted to compare reality versus the television shows that granted the best view of reality I knew. Halberstam shows that the visual culture is far removed from reality, but I hoped to engage that much earlier. That necessary and important social criticism does not happen until chapter 34 (pg 508).

Overall, I would recommend this book, as I would the entire author’s work, but I would recommend that you explore more works for context of the period and the

March 31, 2010

Some thoughts on Ernest Gellner’s _Nations and Nationalism_

I like the book. My wife told me that I tore it up. Nationalism is something that has interested me recently, especially as I see it as a major stumbling-block in improving the course of mankind in the world. Nations and flags are something you hold onto instead of opening up your arms and hands to the idea of a better world. That said, I have read little in the subject, the most pertinent being Hobsbawm’s essays in the collection _The Invention of Tradition_. I am just opening up the hermeneutic circle in hopes of someday closing it.

I do have several critiques of the book, and many of them are answered or at least brought up in the introduction to this addition. The primary critique is that the book is overly generalized. To illustrate his concept of nationalism only arising after industrialization, Gellner uses a hypothetical country to make his point. While I understand he is trying to construct a general model of nationalism, his experiences and theories naturally have to be based off of real situations to be a working model. All nations and nationalistic movements will differ in specifics from the model he creates. Does this show the strength of his model, or its weaknesses.

A secondary critique is that the models he uses are entirely too Eurocentric. The book could be titled _European Nations and Nationalism_ quite easily. The post-colonial struggles for a definition of nationalistic identity all over the formerly colonized worlds are give short shrift, and I think this is because they do not fit as easily into the model he argues for in this book. The idea that the European culture imposed on the developing world is too strong to be subverted by one of the native folk cultures seems to me rather patronizing in a cultural aspect. That many of the colonial borders still exists should be reason to reexamine the model, not look for reasons why the cultures do not fit the model working in it.

A final, more personal critique is Gellner’s dismissal of the Marxist view of history. While the Marxist view can be open to some of the critiques I have against Gellner, I feel that the burden lies to Gellner to show more particularly how his model is superior to one that has been studied and refined through academic discourse over the past century and a half. I recognize that this book is long in print, so I am sure some Marxist historian has taken up Gellner and his glib dismissal of the Marxist system. I respect the cultural model drawn by Gellner, but I doubt the prevalence of the influence on a large scale of the socio-linguistic system he uses as the center of his theory. To me, class still seems like a larger division, even if Gellner disagrees. I still find this work interesting and illuminating, so I will not dismiss it despite my critiques. I have to read more on the subject

March 26, 2010

On The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman

This is a very good, even-handed analysis of the the WalMart effect on the economy from the local consumer to the globalized manufacturing of the products we consume ever day. It was well-written and easy to read.

My main complaint is that the writer at times speaks of some of what we might call the company's evils in a most dispassionate manner. At the time of reading, this feels like he is implicitly condones the actions of the companies and its suppliers (even though its clear the suppliers have little option in going along with WalMart).

Overall, I think the objectivity of the author plays a key part on the effectiveness of the book. His bias is in the pages, but they do not yell too loud. Anyone looking int the effect of late twentieth century capitalism on America would be well served to read this book.

March 24, 2010

I Love Unemployment!

Having been unemployed for a long time now, I and my family are at the mercy of the continual incremental increases in the unemployment. I am grateful, but as time goes on and hiring has lagged the rebound in the stock market by a year, I become contimually more pessissmistic about employment in the short-term. I think the media plays a part in this. Now the news in my area trumps when there are job openings in low wage areas. A while back there was big news that Home Depot would be ramping up with several part-time openings. This is how you make discouraged workers ever more hopeless.

The vast underclass of surplus labor just has to watch in horror, hoping the government's largess doesn't end, because there are many in my boat. There are even more that have fallen through the cracks. They never were eligible for the benefits because they're inconvenient for capital to fund. I'm just waiting for my own benefits to stop. They never were big, as they represent more than a 50% cut in my former wage. However, with austerity measures in my household, we have been able to adjust to a new normal.

This new normal is not the American dream that I was sold in school and college. Many who bought into it and did well in school and studied hard are in trouble, and disenchanted with the system. These people have radicalized on both the right and the left. Our system has been built on consumption, and we hope to return to consumption, but that's not a long-term plan of any stability. Right now the market is failing many of my peers, as well as myself.

What's needed right now is a return to new deal or great society ideals. I'm losing job skills and future potential earnings by the day as I sit idle. I don't want to be idle. My background is not in any sort of heavy labor, but I would gladly dig ditches in a make-work program if that gave me the needed sense of accomplishment and creation. The main caveat is that a potential resurrection of the WPA must be new work in infrastructure or building for the common good. It must not replace work already being done or planned, the so-called 'shovel ready' projects. Right now the government is paying for my labor and getting nothing from it.

I know this would increase the cost, as the training and material costs would increase, but this would bring back a sense of self to many workers who lose who they are in a society that creates identity in your occupation. When asked to describe yourself or others, occupation tops many lists of identifiers. In our country right now, too many people are nothing.

March 22, 2010

Actual Remarks: March 20, 2010 Democratic Party Subcommitee

Ladies and gentlemen of the Democratic Party, I stand here to plead my case for your consideration of my candidacy as Lieutenant Governor. If you choose me as Governor Quinn’s running mate, I will serve the high office only in the worst cases. No one here wants these contingencies to come to pass. Therefore I speak today as both a potential Governor and the his potential Lieutenant.

My name is John Edgar Mihelic. Nobody knows me, or my name. My father is not the chair of this party, head of the county board, or a powerful Alderman. I stand here today because like my father I feel a calling to service. I have previously answered this calling by teaching; now I am volunteering my service to the state. I would not be here if I didn’t think my involvement could not improve the state or the conditions of its people.

I am here because I believe the people deserve better than the status quo that has perpetuated itself so wonderfully in Springfield. Hard choices have to be made in the realms of revenue creation and spending. I largely support my potential running mate’s proposals. Most importantly, however, we have to be open and honest about our priorities. The monies generated through taxation and borrowing might fall short. The state government calls out for streamlining.

Because of this, we cannot continue to allow money to disappear at every level of bureaucracy. Every wasted dollar has a motivated advocate to continue the programs they benefit from. But every dollar lost represents a dollar not spent on important infrastructure; dollars not invested in education. Expectations in these areas should start high and continue to grow. Finally, we need to keep our commitments to public workers. For too long we have borrowed against their futures and now many want to point fingers at those who have dedicated a career to the betterment of the state. Unions and pensions are not the problem in Illinois; the problem is politicians seeing higher office as a source for private gain and not public service. Ultimately we have to run Illinois for the people of Illinois and be unafraid to make the hard choices to solve these hard problems.

I do not have the answers to all these complex situations. What I have is the knowledge, the determination and the vision that working together we can move from this atmosphere of fear and mutual suspicion to a shared prosperity. Too many before have allowed petty ambitions for material gains to cloud the reputation of this state’s government. I allow that I am ambitious. My ambition is the greater glory of the state – beginning now. I may succeed greatly or fail spectacularly. Either way I will wake up tomorrow knowing how to move forward better by the lessons I learn today.

March 18, 2010

In consideration of my candidacy as Lieutenant Governor

Ladies and gentlemen of the Democratic Party, I stand here to plead my case for your consideration of my candidacy as Lieutenant Governor. If you choose me as Governor Quinn’s running mate, my primary purpose will be to wait for something bad to happen to the Governor. I do not want that, nor does anyone here. I speak today as both a potential Governor and the current Governor’s potential Lieutenant.

My name is John Edgar Mihelic. M-I-H-E-L-I-C. It’s a funny name, but those are easily learned in this state. Nobody knows me, or my name. My father is not the chair of this party, head of the county board, or a powerful Alderman. My father is an Emergency Room Doctor. He stands on his feet for long hours. His work is saving lives. He doesn’t always succeed, but his stoic reserve in the face of his own failures is something I respect and emulate.

I stand here today because like my father I have a calling to service. Many have felt this before and answered it in many ways. I have answered this calling by teaching; now I am volunteering my service to the state. I would not be here if I didn’t think my involvement could not alter for the better the conditions of the state and the people in it. I believe in Illinois.

The people deserve better than the status quo perpetuating itself so grandly in Springfield. Hard choices have to be made in the realms of revenue creation and spending. I largely support my potential running mate’s program, but we have to be open to all voices. Most importantly, we have to be open and honest about our priorities. The monies generated through taxation and borrowing might fall short of all the promises we have made. What we cannot allow is for money to disappear at every level of bureaucracy. Every dollar lost represents a dollar not spent on important infrastructure and dollars needed to invest education are lost. We should not lower the bar to meet diluted expectations, we need to raise expectations from everyone. Finally, we need to keep our commitments to public workers. For too long we have borrowed against their futures and now many want to point fingers at those who have dedicated a career to the betterment of the state.

I do not have the answers to all these complex questions. What I have is the mind, the determination, and the vision that working together we can move from this atmosphere of fear and uncertainty and mutual suspicion to a shared prosperity. Too many before me have allowed petty ambitions for material gains to cloud the reputation of the state’s government. I allow that I am ambitious. My ambition is the greater glory of the state – beginning now. I may succeed greatly or fail spectacularly. Either way I will wake up tomorrow knowing how to move forward better by the lessons I learn today.

Thank you for your kind consideration

March 16, 2010

Why I Hate Neal Stephenson

I have been reading “The Diamond Age”, a book by Neal Stephenson over the last couple of weeks. I picked it up to supplement some of the other books I was reading, to make the nonfiction rest in my head while I percolated on those thoughts and ideas while I busied my ample readings with something fictional. This is not to say that fictional renderings of stories and events are less taxing than Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” or Engels’s “Condition of the Working Class in England.” The intellectual challenge and difference is something that gives balance to the reading; I consider this in line with all the periodicals I read in addition to books. I really was looking forward to reading this book, even if it has been sitting on my ‘to-read’ shelf since September. I picked it up, started the first thirty pages, and put it down in favor of a style manifesto first written in the seventies. I have eclectic reading habits, but I finished the style manifesto long ago when I just last night finished “The Diamond Age”.
I put down “The Diamond Age” initially for a reason I will discuss later, but right now, I want to gloss over the answer to the title of this piece. I hate Neal Stephenson. Now do not get me wrong, there are many authors I do not like. This dislike comes from my own judgment of the value of a writer’s works in comparison to their reputation. A metric such as this lends to highly subjective valuations, so I will not apply it to anything where there were rules and standards and consensus. Modernism and earlier are free from my dislike, those works just have to suffer the wrath of my indifference. My own post-modern evaluation can be applied to two writers whose works do not, in my opinion, match their own reputation. Many may disagree with me, but Don DeLillo falls here. I know I am supposed to like his works. He has mastered the world of critical success in the last 25 years, even while some of his contemporaries I enjoyed more such as Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis fell by the wayside. I gave DeLillo a fair chance. I have read three of his books on my own, after being assigned “The Body Artist” in college. The best recommendation of “The Body Artist” is that it is short. Like “Cosmopolis,” short and when I closed the back cover for the last time my biggest response was a shrug as I chased what the next title I should pull off my shelf. As a writer, this is not the response I want from my work. I doubt that DeLillo would think that this is the effect he has. My own let down was based on the reputation primarily of two of his books.
My own understanding of “White Noise” and “Underworld is as follows: These books will grab you by the hand at the party. After much searching through the vast uninhabited areas at the party, a quite, secluded place will be found. You will be thrown down onto a pile of stranger’s coats that scratch you on your back while your mouth is preoccupied with the hunger devouring you at the front. Your chest is scratched and your groin begins to heat like a radiator and the blood pools and you feel your pulse between your legs and it is getting faster. You find your belt being undone; it is your hand but you do not remember giving the signal from you head to your hand. A warm shiver of electric shock overwhelms you as a strange moisture envelopes your cock from the glans to the base and back again. You blackout in pleasure while your disembodied spirit hovers overhead watching waves of ecstasy wash over your face. You awake later with an alien mixture of shame and pride as you look around an empty house. I have had books do this to me. It’s always a pleasant surprise, and you go searching for that feeling over and over again and perhaps you fill that void and perhaps you will not but that tremble of ecstasy will always be different somehow, no matter who or what you find to fill the void. The problem is when your somewhat expecting this but only have marginal expectations for it happening. You nurse your beer in a corner and wait, chatting up those near you. I will tell you what happened for me. “White Noise” was at the party and told me some story about a barn. “Underworld” started out with the secluded place and the hungering of the mouth and then turned away and left. I found a quiet corner in an unfinished basement lit by a single under- powered bare bulb and had a silent wank and went home alone. I do not grudge the silent wank by any means, but when you are expecting to be washed away to nothingness by a wave of pure pleasure, the wank is a letdown. Other authors have put me in similar situations as DeLillo. I am aware that this is a tortured metaphor for an emotional and not a strictly analytical way to look at literature, but at this point in my career, I am reading fict-tation more for a physical, emotional reaction than for a philosophy or a reasoning of the world. Right now, I feel we have to encounter the world with the most concrete philosophy our abstract brains can muster. I want to be able to escape the world through literature. When all you give me is a silent wank, I will take it but I am too soon out in the world. I am not going to like you, but after a couple of these letdowns, I am not going to pursue you again, or if I do, my expectations will be muted. Even if you be a man of Infinite Jest, my later interviews may be brief for a reason.
A difference exists, to carry forward, between expecting fellatio and wanting fellatio. I think this is at the center of my hatred for Neal Stephenson. I hate his work because I am ready to give him all the love he needs and could want from no other, but I do not receive the love I want back from his works. I have had this in real life. I still harbor conflicted feelings for certain pixyish brunettes that I wanted to love. Wanted to, but not even a quite little wank in the corner. Just the covers draw you in, and the blurbs excite you about what is possible in a post-cyberpunk world of science fiction. How do we look at technology interacting with the world and how does that effect people and the stories we tell ourselves? How do you create a paradigm of the future based on the earth and not be overly dreamy about the stars in the sky? Can you improve on what it means to be a stranger in a strange land? I have read two books of Stevenson’s and I have found that for me the main concern is that he cannot and I am sitting here thinking of ways to resurrect Vonnegut. Not that some of the coming critiques could not apply to my second-favorite Hoosier, but Kurt made you smile. Neal is like the vapid girl at the party who is really hot and draws a lot of attention, but when you start to talk to her there is very little to recommend.
Enough of this metaphorical preface: I want to like Neal Stephenson because he is smart. There are too few smart people in this world. I do not want to be condescending, but you have only to look at the Gaussian distribution to realize that roughly half of all people are below average. You can go many places with this information, and the people who really embraced this fact were somewhat embarrassed that the Nazi’s took the ball and ran with it. Somewhere along the line, being of the elite became a bad thing. The people making up the vast center heap between 85-115 can look downhill to the left and fell pride and contempt towards those who take up resources because of their very position at their end. Those same people can look right and feel pride and contempt towards the right hand side of the distribution because of, I do not know what. I want to say jealousy but that is arrogant and condescending. I feel envy towards those to the right of me, but from where I look, the slope is flattening out. I was humbled a while back when a good friend reminded me that even in America if you’re in the top one half of one percent of all Americans there are one and a half million people at least as smart as you are. Humbling, but I think that is keeping pretty good company. Stephenson is obviously in this company. He likes and through the evidence of his texts is conversant in so many different academic subjects. Off the top of my head, I can talk about his visionary look at nanotechnology, the nature of the internet, computer programming, linguistics, eastern religion, the devolution of nationalism, the sociology of people gathering in groups, and other things that are not popping in my head without buzzing the texts for evidence. I want to like him because he is of the tribe.
I also want to like him because he can write action. I could not tell you what happened at the end of “Snow Crash,” and that fact may be a critique for my own reading skills or of Stephenson’s narrative technique. He was able to bring me into the world he created and make me want to know what happened next. I remember doing this, but not the exact words or situations presented. I have to give credit to a writer who is able to disappear into his (or her, but let us be honest, his) action. Many of the writers across genres that I read have some sort of trouble doing this. I do not read many of the mass-market writers who are successful, so I might be misplaced in my praise. I do not know of Patterson’s or Dan Brown’s skills in this area, but I’m thinking of some of the praised science fiction I’ve read and Stephenson’s action rushes over you like a wave and his peers are somewhat clunky. “Enders Game” or even “Neuromancer” drags in comparison to Stephenson. There are points in Gibson especially I can remember stopping and asking, “What?” I have told my students in writing classes that you should look at the paper again when you have trouble reading what you are writing. On some level for the whole novel I was awaiting for him to start pulling things together. Stephenson starts his action majesty in “Diamond Age,” but pulls back. I did not want him to.
With ten percent of the “Diamond Age” book left to read, my wife asked me how the book was, and marveled that despite my earlier complaints I was still reading the book. I was trying to think of a way to describe the work. I told her that I still was not sure of what the conflict was. I finished it recently, and I am still not sure. I do not want to get into too many specifics, but I think it centered on the identity of a character called “The Alchemist”. Overall, this book, as well as the previous book I read by Neal Stephenson, is a letdown from my admittedly high expectations. I think the center of my disappointment is that Neal Stephenson obviously has never had a conversation with a living human being. I have my suspicions that what we know as the output of Neal Stephenson is in fact a highly advanced software program that is given a concept and allowed to spin out a world based on the concept. I would create a clever anagram here for what his name actually stood for here but I do not have the intellectual energy. I spoke earlier of picking the book up and then soon laying it down for a reason. Many of the conversations between people are stilted. This I can understand. Reading in genre, even when you have high expectations, has some problems. It happens. Nevertheless, when you offload almost all your world building and exposition in the dialogue, it is difficult to read for anyone that has had ample reading experience outside of the genre. A writer does need to explain the world he is building to the audience. The more your world is like the contemporary world of your imagined readers, the less of a burden you have to explain to readers. In “Snow Crash,” as I remember, a complex reasoning had to be devised to show that language itself was a possible carrier for a computer-like virus that could infect and destroy the brain. This concept is developed in-depth in dialogue between two characters and I was reading it asking why the hell people would be having this conversation. I hate to call too much attention to info-dumping, but I recently read a collection of J. G. Ballard’s short fiction. In these little pieces he was able to create worlds at least as detailed as Stephenson does in his much larger books, and Ballard does it in a much more subtle manner. When I started reading “The Diamond Age,” and Stephenson introduces two characters who obviously will be important later in the novel and on their first meeting they are discussing what seem to be personal matters and deeply discussing philosophic standpoints, I wanted to close the book and beat it across the table yelling in syncopated rhythm “People do not talk like this! This is obviously character development! What the fuck happened to subtlety?” I did not do this. I just put the book down. Then I picked up a style manual to make sure I was not crazy. I am not convinced that he is human, but I still hate Neal Stephenson.
I hate Neal Stephenson because his work is too technologically driven. And too action driven. Now, the second of the two may be a complaint on many kinds of fiction, and even some history that I have read. There is too much focus on the things happening. I understand that this is just a preference of my own in regards to the stories I like to tell myself. I remember being a kid and flying around fake airplanes driving my micro machines on the back of the couch and up and over and around doorjambs and other pieces of the world I encountered on a daily level. It was much like the world I encounter now, but everything was taller. These actions were able to suffice for a while, but then I would have to people my stories with actual people. You see, reliance on the technology was a small material concern for a child, but a mature person has to grow and look for agency of some sort. Things are cool, but to drive a narrative you need characters that have needs and desires and make decisions. Even Pixar knows this; the cars in “Cars” are actually people. On the other hand, they are cars with a creepy anthropomorphizing done upon them. Either way you look at it, you have to see that the cars may be what draw your audience, but you have to realize there is a very human need for a story arc. We humans will place a narrative on anything, so it is less of a burden to the author to create that narrative for the reader. A caveat is that there have been some success at experimental pieces that might place the entire burden on the audience, but those authors are not populating the bestseller list. For example, here in the “Diamond Age,” the subtitle is “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.” The characters are superfluous as the focus is this magical book. Magical books are cool, but as plot devices. The Rowling book where a diary plays a big part is not called “Tom Riddle’s Diary.” It is called “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” I think that is the one at least. Books, here in the story and in real life are mediators of the story and not the story itself. I want to know about the characters that are interacting through the book: A precocious child; a top-flight engineer; an actress; a Confucian judge; a mad-scientist sort. They are all mapped out here on paper, but they do not jump out, because they lack inner conflict or outer conflict. They do not interact as people because the program we know as Neal Stephenson need some better programming, and he has no sense of narrative that people live.
For me, the best of the science fiction is that the characters could be living their conflicts in any time or place; the setting in these best cases is secondary in that it heightens the drama of the story. I could write a fairly analogous story to “The Diamond Age,” with a magical book but maybe a wise race of elves to replace the futuristic elements. The story is the limited sense of wonder you have being immersed in the admittedly imaginative world Stephenson creates. This is not enough, however. If you put a book like Slaughterhouse-Five next to “The Diamond Age,” you might see what I am talking about. The story Vonnegut writes works as a straight story. He has written the version straight. However, using genre features of the Science fiction realm allow Vonnegut to explore the story of his own wartime involvement in a much more poignant way. Here the genre improves the story, and we want to know about the life of Billy Pilgrim. It is memorable; just thinking about the book makes me want to revisit it again. The characters in Stephenson’s books do not make me want to spend time with them again. They move on their little lives with no real conflict that fits easily into a narrative structure, and then the book ends. This may be more naturalistic, but it does not make a compelling story.
I think, and hold out hope, that Stephenson can write a compelling story. He is a smart guy writing in a genre that I have long had positive emotions towards. He is fairly prolific and has written beyond the books I have critiqued here. These are his second and third novel as an independent writer. Perhaps I am being too harsh on him. I still want to like Neal Stephenson, but I have only given him two chances. Perhaps a third is in order. Has anyone read the books of his Baroque Cycle?