Sunday, November 1, 2015


Somewhere on 23th street I first unloaded sheetrock from a truck where the driver kept strictly to his assignment which was to bring the truck to the address and to unload the slabs onto the sidewalk where I, a boy fourteen years old stood waiting to receive those double slabs, because really sheetrock is delivered in two sheets of gypsum larger than any man and certainly this boy, received each parcel and carried them on front of my chest, as if they were precious glass ready to break. I had never seen sheetrock before and it seemed brittle despite its weight, as if it might break if bent the wrong way, thus I carried it cautiously and clumsily before my chest so that I could always keep an eye on it, and because I had no idea how men carried great weights since the pyramids of Babylon. Only when I finally had the first load down by the freight elevator did the black guy running the thing have mercy on me and ask my why in hell was I carrying the sheets on my chest when everyone else carried them on their back. His tone expressed more a matter of surprise that a white boy, unschooled in the work place, should be made to labor unguided as I did. Was it my ignorance or my youth that disappointed him, a thing that a man from the outer boroughs, accustomed to the ways of the construction site should not have found troubling but somehow he was not used to child labor. Anonymously I loaded the first pile of sheet rock onto the freight elevator, following the operator’s instructions on how to carry each weight, and right he was—the burden was a dozen time easier on your back than across your chest, but who was I to know, the foolish fourteen-year old apprentice of a first-time general contractor. All my life it has been safely assumed that I will figure it out as I go along, from algebra to sheetrock lifting—what if I failed to get it right, no matter, you are doing fine, working man’s encouragement from those around. So there I had received the first lesson, to put the burden on your back, to lean over, bend your knees (that came most naturally) and walk forward swiftly. That indeed is the lesson and the lad has taken to it swiftly.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Ithaca Garbage

A much revered professor told me 31 years ago that I should walk up to A. R. Ammons to introduce myself, but of course who has the courage?
Even if he was sitting there every Tuesday and Thursday chatting in the Temple of Zeus, I could not just walk up to him to say, “Doyle sent me.”
So the best I can do 31 years later is re-read his long poem, which seemed so dully anti-heroic and full of embarrassing details about breakfast.
It all makes much more sense now but it’s too late to tell them that I really would like to chat about things. 
All I can do is sit here like the old fool hoping that some young one will maybe have the courage I lacked to say hello to the shadow of a shadow sipping coffee.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

More Spies

Spying is now being played as a popular political game, rather than just as a state secret: the US tries to expose Chinese spies as if they were hackers, Germany is rolling out the US spies in its ministries, as if there had ever been any before.  Because ordinary people care about their computer privacy in a way that never existed before, the question of spying is being played as if it were an offense against the average citizen.  
You don’t have to be a John Le Carre reader to believe that the German officials have always known about, if not tolerated, American spies. The point is that they are now making a public demonstration of removing them as a strategy in the new public relations of espionage.  The US wants to claim that it is being abused by Chinese hackers and Germany is suddenly exposing operations that have been in place since the late 1940s.  
These state responses are aligning themselves with the outrage and cynicism created by the Snowdon revelations, and German politicians are particularly eager to align themselves with Snowdon in part because of their aversion to totalitarian surveillance and, on the slightly more conservative side, a desire to uncouple themselves from the post-war understanding that Germany is the saturated with spies from all sides.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Not Everyone Gets to be Adorno

Consider the lifespan of German-Jewish refugees who wandered out into the far stretches of the American university system to land in places they had never imagined before fleeing Vienna or Munich.  Most never managed to return after the war.  Not everyone gets to be Adorno.

Their biographies are often quite sparse. They are historical figures who have not managed the leap over the digital divide.  They lived too far back in the twentieth century to now be included in Google.  Yet there is something quite poignant in the short biographies that do appear online.  Take Leo Hertel’s life as described by the North Dakota State University library:

“Leo Hertel was born on April 7, 1902 in Schwerin on the Warthe, Germany. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Munich in 1928 and married Elsa Alletzhauser in 1932. Before coming to North Dakota State University (NDSU), Dr. Hertel worked as a professor at Dakota Wesleyan University from 1934-1936 and Franklin College from 1936-1952. He took two years off from teaching to work as a civilian employee of the United States Office of Strategic Services from 1944-1945. From 1952-1972, Hertel was the editor for the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies publication program, as well as a professor at NDSU. In 1969, he was presented with the Doctor of Service Award from the Blue Key Fraternity. Leo Hertel died on April 10, 1979 in St. Paul, Minnesota.”

The names and dates strung together form the recognizable pattern of a German Jew fleeing Nazi anti-Semitism almost immediately after Hitler came to power.  What currents had him land in North Dakota?  What kept him there for the rest of his life?  What secret work did he perform during the war?  The curious local honors of Midwest American life seem to define his post-war life—so very quiet in comparison to the first 43 years. 

Hertel was by no means the exception.  Many German-Jewish academics remained where they had first found shelter and continued teaching for another thirty years.  Why return to a bombed out continent when you could own a house in the middle of the US?  But surely there are dozens of other explanations, and they would be well worth hearing.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Distant - Close Reading has a History

Why set distant and close readings off against each other?  Surely they can play together?  These oppositions seem relevant only those dreading the end of the humanities or those looking to join a revolution.  As I sit in bed reading a 731-page dissertation from the 1970s, which never got published as a book, I feel like an old scholar, huddled in his cold garret after midnight.  Digital media has not changed all the habits of intellectuals.  This is close reading as Edgar Allen Poe or Walter Benjamin understood it. 

For our digital eyes, this dissertation is a curious material object:  It is hand typed, neatly by a professional.  The footnotes are numbered 1,2,3 for each page separately so you could adjust the notes as you typed.  Now, if we insert a footnote, Word automatically renumbers all the rest.  In the 1970s, you confined your numbering to a single page, and even then if you forgot a footnote, you had to retype the whole page, which this author didn’t always do.  Instead he used a pen and White Out to cover his few mistakes.  

This now archaic work had to be ordered from the University of Chicago library directly.  There are no digital copies available.  It arrived as two four-inch thick volumes--heavier that anything you have read in decades.

In good old-fashioned, close-reading fashion, the dissertation analyses one long eighteenth-century book with the hopes of explaining how the Jesuits represented China.  Only a University of Chicago graduate student would cite such a vast array of sources.  If only we could channel through the many tomes the Jesuits produced on China, then compare them with works of the New World.  Distant reading promises to churn through writing systems like the hundreds of thousands of missionary letters written back to superiors explaining the strange territory and fascinating people they had been sent to save. 

Theodore Foss defended his dissertation in 1979.  The title, A Jesuit Encyclopedia for China: A Guide to Jen-Baptiste Du Halde’s Description ….De La Chine (1735) looks straight-forward enough, but what it covers is the eighteenth-century attempt to compile all the scholarly books and missionary reports sent by Jesuits from East Asia to Europe. Sitting in Paris, Du Halde’s job was to read everything on China and then to edit the Jesuit sources into respectable publications.  Du Halde was the super-reader of a vast array of writing.  He came closest to becoming a machine reader that the eighteenth-century could produce.  All the while he had to keep his good style, rhetorical composure and diplomatic sense in selecting and revising which letters, which books would be recapitulated in the massive tomes he produced.

If eighteenth-century Jesuits could have used computers for running their global network, they would have been the best IT guys in Europe.  The Republic of Letters would have run on fiber optic cable.  Instead of the NSA, Rome’s Office of Propaganda Fide would have done large-scale searches looking for heretical, rather than terrorist, messages—all without disturbing the religious life of the faithful. Distant reading, in other words, has been a humanist dream for centuries.  It has always been compatible with close reading.  The Jesuit’s built their vast network, after all, to combat the heretical appropriations of the Bible.  

Ted Underwood explained at the last MLA and in his blog that distant reading allows us to more accurately defining the contours of a discourse.  Rather than taking Foucault’s word for it, we could have statistical analysis of a discourse, showing how Jesuits defined heresy, idolatry, natural theology, and science.  We could follow trends over at least 200 years to discover previously unknown patterns in European relations with the world.  As has been pointed out often, no single person can comb through the Jesuit correspondences, not even ten University of Chicago graduate students.  Thus, distant reading allows us to gather data together in order to better understand a single text.  One basic assumption of immanent analysis, as Adorno called it, was that the further you burrowed into the text, the more you learned about society as a whole.  This is the magic turn of mediation, wherein the microcosm transforms into the macrocosm.   

Mediation, the conversion of one media into another, the poem into the cosmos, has been a dream of humanists for centuries.  Distant reading helps bring the two poles together.  There is no need to abandon one epistemology for the other, rather we should think about how to combine them in our own reading practices.