Monday, December 28, 2015

NEH Evaluations, or Academics are Cunts

I applied for an NEH Fellowship for my Blanchot book. Today I received my evaluations. I want everyone to know what cunts are in charge of our nation's intellectual work.
Thank you for requesting additional information on the review of your NEH Fellowships application, which you submitted in spring 2015. The Endowment received 1,251 applications; the budget allowed for 80 awards.

As with all applications submitted to the NEH, your proposal was read and discussed by knowledgeable persons outside the agency, who advised the Endowment about its merits. The NEH staff commented on matters of fact or on significant issues that otherwise would have been missing from these evaluations and made recommendations to the National Council on the Humanities. The National Council met to advise the NEH chairman on grants. The chairman took into account the advice provided during the review process and made all funding decisions, as is prescribed by law.

Copies of the panelists' ratings and written evaluations of your proposal are included with this memorandum. The range of possible ratings is Excellent (E), Very Good (VG), Good (G), Some Merit (SM), and Not Competitive (NC). Please keep in mind that panels are one stage of NEH review.  The panelists provided both initial comments on each application before their panel meeting and final comments after discussion of each application during the meeting.  Panelists' opinions and ratings may have changed in the course of the deliberations.
Evaluation from Panelist 1
The project seems to lie in the history of literary theory. The applicant indicates that in between hermeneutics and deconstruction, there was a phenomenology-inspired school of literary theory. He plans to use Maurice Blanchet as a case study. I don't see a developed idea in the proposal, other than to look at Blanchet in this particular light. It is hard to tell whether that's a fruitful way to go.
Your initial rating for this project: SM, Some Merit
Your final rating for this project: SM, Some Merit 
Panelist 1 is a USDA Grade A Cunt who can't even get basic information correct, like the spelling of Blanchot's name. I like how my project "seems to lie in the history of literary theory" after I specifically and repeatedly stated in my application that this project is in the field of literary theory. That is some insightful analysis of my application!
Evaluation from Panelist 2
Garrett proposes a book showing that Blanchot is a philosopher in the phenomenological tradition, this in turn is claimed to help us to better understand the history of literary theory.  The proposal left me wondering whether Garrett’s work will contribute to an existing conversation/debate/discussion among other scholars in phenomenology and literary theory, and, if so, what this contribution might be.  The bibliography consists solely of book-length works, so I’m wondering whether there’s a journal literature that’s being overlooked.  The proposal as it’s written gives very little indication of how Garrett’s views about Blanchot are positioned within a broader academic conversation.
Your initial rating for this project: NC, Not Competitive
Your final rating for this project: NC, Not Competitive
Panelist 2 makes some very good points for someone who didn't bother to read or understand my proposal, which included an essay about how my research will contribute to the existing conversations among other scholars regarding Blanchot and the canon of literary theory. The required one-page bibliography–as per the instructions–was not to be exhaustive (and could not be exhaustive because it could only be one page!) but rather was to give an indication of the types of texts/material to be analyzed.
Evaluation from Panelist 3
This work might be significant to humanities scholars working in literature and literary theory, or to scholars working in Continental philosophy. The applicant has been productive as an independent scholar, with a number of publications and manuscripts, but has published only one article in an anonymously peer-reviewed journals. The project is clearly defined, but I am not well-placed to assess the quality of its conception.  If the applicant seeks further support, I would suggest he reorder the fields of the project, putting Literature first and Philosophy second or third. The plan is feasible. The applicant is productive and likely to complete the project.

Your initial rating for this project: NC, Not Competitive
Your final rating for this project: NC, Not Competitive
Panelist 3 fetishizes his/her academic career and the tenure-track system. Anonymously peer-reviewed journals are only for people who have the possibility of an academic career. I had no such possibility, even though I did manage to get such a publication because of the quality of my graduate work (that is, I got one of my term papers published a couple of years before I even completed coursework, so fuck you). Since then, my work was invited to be included in an edited volume, and my work was included in an edited volume that I co-edited, so I also have the experience and skill set to edit a volume of philosophy that was published by an esteemed university press. Again: fuck you and your academic wankery, you piece of motherfucking useless shit for brains (said with all due respect).

The NEH has no academic requirement from its applicants except that they have completed a terminal degree. No publication history, no academic affiliation, no tenure-track career path. None.
Evaluation from Panelist 4
This project has merit in its promise to enrich our understanding of Blanchot through phenomenology, and its appeal would likely be limited to scholars in those areas.  The applicant is relatively well prepared to take on this project, having published work in this area before.  The proposal itself does not indicate specifically what the applicant will be able to say about Blanchot's views or methods, as revealed by a phenomenological treatment.  The work plan is reasonable, and the prospects for successful completion of the envisioned book appear to be reasonably good.
Your initial rating for this project: SM, Some Merit
Your final rating for this project: SM, Some Merit
Panelist 4 is somewhat reasonable, though he/she relies too heavily on the future possible tense: "The proposal itself does not indicate specifically what the applicant will be able to say…." You know, do what a proposal has never done before. I did, however, complete my application with everything the NEH required, which unfortunately for me, did not include the unforeseeable futurity of possibility. Next year I'll consult the appropriate Sibyl.
Evaluation from Panelist 5
The proposal is to continue work on a book emphasizing the importance of phenomenology on the literary theory, philosophy, and fiction of Blanchot.  It seems somewhat narrow, but the narrative does a nice of job placing the project in a larger context of recent history of literary theory.  It should be of interest to those working in phenomenology and literary theory. The applicant is a recent Ph.D. and there isn’t much of a track record of publication. The project seems to be well focused; I wonder about the general interest of the work for philosophy, given that Blanchot, as the applicant notes, is usually placed at the margins of philosophy.  More importantly, it wasn’t made entirely clear to me what the payoff would be of thinking of Blanchot as a phenomenologist.  How does this enrich our understanding of his thought? The work plan seems feasible. Despite the lack of institutional support, the author seems to have made good progress, so it’s likely that the Garrett would take good advantage of the fellowship to get a lot done.

Your initial rating for this project: SM, Some Merit
Your final rating for this project: SM, Some Merit
You are correct, Panelist 5, "the Garrett would take good advantage of the fellowship." Unfortunately, he was denied the futurity of that possibility (see above). Again, we have some jerk-ass academic in love with his or her own privilege and delusions of grandeur ("much of a track record of publication"). Again, the NEH requires no history of publication. Hell, the NEH doesn't even require that I publish my research at the end of the fellowship.

I do love how Panelist 5 completely and utterly contradicts Panelist 2 regarding how I position Blanchot and myself within the larger conversation. I also enjoy many of the panelists' complaints about my research basically not being interesting to them. You know, because the NEH requires work to be interesting to everybody.

Fuck academics. Fuck assholes. Fuck smug shitheads and their bullshit CVs listing their truly interesting and important anonymously peer-reviewed jerk-off stains on each others' faces. As Grandma used to say: Fuck all y'all.

I've already applied for another NEH grant; I'll keep you posted. And I've already applied to be a panelist for future NEH fellowship applications, now that I know the position will provide me an opportunity to be a cunt.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


The 'creditor' always becomes more humane as his wealth increases; finally, the amount of his wealth determines how much injury he can sustain without suffering from it. It is not impossible to imagine society so conscious of its power that is could allow itself the noblest luxury available to it, – that of letting its malefactors go unpunished. 'What do I care about my parasites', it could say, 'let them live and flourish: I am strong enough for all that!' . . . Justice, which began by saying 'Everything can be paid off, everything must be paid off', ends by turning a blind eye and letting off those unable to pay, – it ends, like every good thing on earth, by sublimating itself. The self-sublimation of justice: we know what a nice name it gives itself – mercy; it remains, of course, the prerogative of the most powerful man, better still, his way of being beyond the law. – Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Second Essay, Section 10, trans. Carol Diethe
Friday evening, after hearing the news from France, we left to attend a modern dance performance. On the surface, it would appear as if we were countering mourning and fear by affirming art, culture, sociability. But scratch the thinness of the surface and we encounter even more violence.

All culture is predicated upon various registers of violence; that's why the false dilemma of terrorism and culture is even more dangerous. "They" don't hate us for our "culture" any more than our "culture" rescues and redeems us from "them." All culture is a culture of violence.

The Marxist register of violence, formed by economic injustice, is maybe the easiest one to get your head around. It says that the arts that are practiced by a society are built upon the backs of the working class, of those who are excluded from "high" art. Miners and factory workers don't attend the opera; yet the opera wouldn't have developed except for the leisure afforded the nobility and bourgeoisie–the artist class–by the proletariat, the cannon fodder, the serfs and slaves. You don't have Paris, London, and New York without the Congo. (This, of course, should go without saying, but I'll nevertheless say it: just because Paris was relatively quiet, such quietude was relative, perhaps inversely so to the sheer level of (both explicit and sublimated) violence it took for a Paris to come into existence.)

A more insidious form of the Marxist register can be excavated with the aid of the Frankfurt School and those on its periphery (Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis). This view can be summed up with a quotation from Benjamin's On the Concept of History:
For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. (Seventh Thesis.)
This is Marcuse's project of liberation from the affluent society. This is Adorno's critique of the nach Auschwitz world. This is Davis's analysis of state violence: "because of the way this society is organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions."

It's not merely the violence perpetrated upon the working class and disenfranchised but an active state apparatus of violence as well that enforces and disciplines its subjects so that violence–always already sublimated by the state, by the culture at large–even becomes increasingly sublimated by the individual. I no longer even recognize the ways in which the forces, the nexus of power/knowledge, shape my own thinking, "my own" expressions of force. (This, I think, is the shrewdest definition of ideology, and something that needs to be developed, better understood.) The mythology of the suffering artist, the rigorous discipline artists demand of themselves both stems from the necessary violence of culture as well as nourishes it.

Art becomes yet another register, expression, praxis of violence. Attending the opera, the ballet, the Jackson Pollock exhibit neither insulates nor inoculates us from the ineluctable savagery that undergirds and maintains our culture. In other words, we are our own parasites; in rejecting strength, in forgoing mercy, we have sublimated our own sublimation of violence. We are the ones who require, demand mercy, and the ones who can ill afford–ill accord–it.

Only a rigorous agenda of critique, of deconstruction, can otherwise liberate us out from this quagmire.
  1. None of this is in any way an attempt to excuse the behavior of terrorists, whether in the current form or in a historical (and therefore already sublimated) form.
  2. I do not understand this analysis as nihilistic. That is, it necessarily concludes that there is something to be done (i.e., a rigorous agenda of critique, of deconstruction) that can help to recalibrate the wrongs of (both current and historical) violence, to move us toward a different power/knowledge, and to come to a time when we no longer create our own enemies.
  3. The sublimated (as well as implicit) structures of violence have been known to us for a long time. There is nothing new here. Many of the philosophers I reference are from the early or mid twentieth century, and Nietzsche's text was written in 1887. Also, the argument I (and they) make is but a Western one within the framework of European philosophy; these structures, however, have been known for centuries through, among others, Buddhist and Taoist writings. We merely need to relearn to stop participating within our culture-violence dynamic. Admittedly, much too much hinges on that "merely."

Saturday, November 14, 2015


“Światu grożą trzy plagi, trzy zarazy. Pierwsza–to plaga nacjonalizmu. Druga–to plaga rasizmu. Trzecia–to plaga religijnego fundamentalizmu. Te trzy plagi mają samą cechę, wspólny mianownik–jest nim agresywna, wszechwładna, totalna irracjonalność. Do umysłu porażonego jedną a tych plag nie sposób dotrzeć. W takiej głowie pali się święty stos, który tylko czeka na ofiary … Umysł tknięty taką zarazą to umysł zamknięty, jednowymiarowy, monotematyczny, obracający się wyłącznie wokół jednego wątku–swojego wroga. Myśl o wrogu żywi nas, pozwala nam istnieć. Dlatego wróg jest zawsze obecny, jest zawsze z nami.”–Ryszard Kapuściński, Imperium

“Three plagues, three afflictions threaten the world. The first is the plague of nationalism. The second is the plague of racism. The third is the plague of religious fundamentalism. These three plagues have the same feature, a common denominator, which is an aggressive, all-powerful, total irrationality. There’s no way to get through to the mind of somebody afflicted with one of these plagues. In such a head burns a sacred bonfire that’s just waiting for a victim…. The mind touched by such an affliction is a mind closed, one-dimensional, monothematic, revolving solely around one motif: its enemy. The thought of an enemy nourishes us, it enables us to exist. That’s why the enemy is always present, is always with us.”–Ryszard Kapuściński, my translation

Z nie odbytej wyprawy w Himalaje

Aha, więc to są Himalaje.
Góry w biegu na księżyc.
Chwila startu utrwalona
na rozprutym nagle niebie.
Pustynia chmur przebita.
Uderzenie w nic.
Echo—biała niemowa.

Yeti, niżej jest środa,
abecadło, chleb
i dwa a dwa to cztery,
i topnieje śnieg.
Jest czerwone jabłuszko
przekrojone na krzyż.

Yeti, nie tylko zbrodnie
są u nas możliwe.
Yeti, nie wszystkie słowa
skazują na śmierć.

Dziedziczymy nadzieję—
dar zapominania.
Zobaczysz, jak rodzimy
dzieci na ruinach.

Yeti, Szekspira mamy.
Yeti, na skrzypcach gramy.
Yeti, o zmroku
zapalamy światło.

Tu—ni księżyc, ni ziemia
i łzy zamarzają.
O Yeti Półtwardowski,
zastanów się, wróć!

Tak w czterech ścianach lawin
wołałam do Yeti
przytupując dla rozgrzewki
na śniegu
na wiecznym.

–Wisława Szymborska

From an Untaken Expedition to the Himalayas

So these are the Himalayas.
Mountains rushing to the moon.
The instant of their origin hastily
preserved in the unraveling sky.
A perforated wilderness of clouds.
A collision with nothingness.
Echo—white and voiceless.
A hush.

Yeti, down there is Wednesday,
ABCs, bread,
and two plus two is four,
and snow melts.
There’s a little red apple
cut crosswise and ready to share.

Yeti, it’s not just crimes
we’re capable of.
Yeti, not all sentences
are death sentences.

We inherit hope—
the gift of forgetting.
You’ll see how we give birth
among the ruins.

Yeti, we have Shakespeare.
Yeti, we play violins.
Yeti, at dusk
we turn on a light.

Here, there’s neither moon nor earth,
and tears freeze.
Oh, Yeti—not quite a Faust—
think about it, come back!

Walled-in thus by avalanches,
I shouted to Yeti,
tapping my foot to keep warm
in this snow

–Wisława Szymborska, my translation

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Moja droga (Part 2)

After two months as a Peace Corps Trainee I left. I left the Corps. I left Poland. I returned to Texas disenchanted, discouraged, and disappointed. Not necessarily in that order. There are many reasons why I left.

The top two reasons I left the Peace Corps, despite the decade-long desire to join: 1) I had a fundamental, philosophical disagreement with the neocolonialist ideology permeating the Corps. Our trainers were much too concerned with us preaching the good news of so-called free market economics and not as concerned with us teaching English as a foreign language, which was, of course, what we were hired to do. My idealism and critical mind required I leave, and it wasn't only me. I was the thirteenth person to leave in the two months I was there. We were dropping like flies.

2) I had fallen in love with my best friend after graduating college and before I had left the US. This relationship was something I wanted to explore, something I thought deserved a chance. He had talked about joining the Corps or coming to visit, but sacrificing what had been my goal seemed like a worthwhile act, especially since I found my trainers so distasteful.

With two months of Polish language training behind me, I continued my studies when I returned to Texas and we moved to Austin. I took a class at UT. And after we moved back to the Dallas area and I began the MA program, I decided, after a course in Holocaust literature, to apply for a study abroad grant in order to study Polish while conducting research on the Holocaust for my thesis.

From October 1995 to March 1996 I studied Polish intensively at the intermediate level. After completing the MA I left for Japan for a two-year teaching job at a private university. While I was there I continued my Polish language studies; I even taught Polish to a Japanese woman for several months. After my contract was up, I returned to my Polish university to complete the advanced program during the summer months of 1999.

I was back in Poland for a few days in 2000 on my way to and from Ukraine, where I had a grant to learn Ukrainian. Then I applied for the Fulbright as an independent scholar to conduct research in Warsaw from September 2001 until June 2002. My project focused on lustration and attempts to de-communize the Polish government. It was really during my Fulbright that I became aware how odd I was: I was the only grantee with absolutely no genealogical connection to Poland; my name was the only one of the Fulbrighters that didn't end with a -ski or a -ska or a -czyk.

Several years later, I completed the PhD; one of my fields was translation. And even more years later, I finally had the thought, after giving up the delusion of an academic career, to put my Polish and translation and literature background to use and actually begin translating. Welcome to my world. Blah blah blah.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Moja droga (Part 1)

Maybe she had asked the question before; maybe she'd forgotten my rambling answer. I vaguely remember, perhaps, that we'd had this conversation sitting, no less, at a coffee shop in Warsaw. Or during a previous trip to San Francisco, undoubtedly over coffee. But while visiting my friend Jola a few weeks ago, she asked a question, perhaps again, that many others have asked throughout my seemingly bizarre life: why do I know Polish? Such a question demands more than "because I like it" or "because I studied it." These are my typical, smart-alecky answers. Both, though, are far from the truth. Let me try to get a little closer.

While growing up in Reagan's America–a time I, before having a similar conversation with someone who had lived through the nuclear disaster training of the 1950s, used to describe hyperbolically as "the height of the Cold War"–I never quite believed the Soviets were the bad guys. Despite my love of Cold War espionage films and TV, I had always assumed that the Soviets were no more evil than we Americans. I never gave much weight to the the good-guy/bad-guy mythology. Although I do remember a time when, because of the sophisticated rhetoric used by the media and politicians, I thought there were neither car accidents nor divorces in the Soviet Union. The way they were described, it was as if Camazotz had come vividly to life on the other side of the world.

On top of an already initially critical view of the US vs. them narrative, I loved Russian music, Soviet composers. Throughout elementary and high school, I studied piano; the last three years of high school I was in band and began studying music on my own. The first two years of college I was a music major, focusing on piano performance. Of course, there were the standards: Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky. But also the new guys: Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Kabalevsky, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky. And then there was Khachaturian, whose Toccata in E-flat minor was one of my go-to pieces for competition.

Music and an interest in Russian/Soviet culture led to an important decision as a student: to find a program where I could study the language. During my last years as an undergraduate, I moved away from performance altogether and toward studies rooted in language and culture, literature and the humanities. I would complete a BA with a minor in Soviet Studies the year that the Soviet Union dissolved. Even history, it seemed, was bent on making a mockery of my life.

Alongside these developments was a growing idealism that I remember from as early as fifth grade. I wanted to travel the world, to study different cultures, to get as far away from the poverty of East Texas as I could. I toyed with a few ways to make that happen and decided that the Peace Corps would be my route. Since I was ten, I had wanted to join. Before my last year of college, I sent in my application. Because the Soviet sphere was opening up, there were plenty of opportunities throughout Central and Eastern Europe. My Russian/Soviet studies helped with my application, even more, thank goodness, than growing up on a farm. When I was accepted by the Peace Corps, my assignment was Poland. And irony of ironies: my host family during my in-country Peace Corps training lived on a farm.

And that, dear reader, dear Jola, is how I managed to find myself in Poland studying Polish. Why–and how–I stayed with it is another story.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Mountain and the Wall (Book Review)

My literary education includes many of the great twentieth-century novelists of world literature, such as Salman Rushdie, Carlos Fuentes, Isabel Allende, and Günter Grass. Fortuitously, I studied this literature with Wendy Faris, one of the great scholars of magical realism, who opened up the entire world of contemporary literature for me as an undergraduate. I was only through the first 100 pages of Alisa Ganieva's novel The Mountain and the Wall (trans. Carol Apollonio, pub. Deep Vellum) when I realized I had been reading something equally delectable, enchanting, and momentous. Ganieva reveals herself to be a top-tier storyteller on a par with these greats.

The Mountain and the Wall is broad and sweeping in its historical consciousness, its mythologizing, and its narrativizing–its ability to make some of the most mundane acts the basis of an engrossing story. Ganieva achieves this in a story that takes place over the course of a couple of days in Dagestan, a country of about three million people on the Caspian Sea. The novel follows Shamil as he walks the street of the capital trying to make sense of the rumors in circulation: the Russians, in sheer exasperation with the republics of the Caucasus region, are building a wall on their border. It's a plausible premise that resonates not only in Texas (where I am) but also across Europe, across the globe. Our history shows us to be a walled-in creature, Homo muratis. Ganieva is our sibyl.

This is more than a story about Shamil, or a wall, or a mountain, however. At 245 pages, you'll notice that it's also considerably shorter than many of the novels by the pantheon of writers mentioned above. But like intricate origami, this story unfolds and unfolds. Shamil's story opens up multiple stories within stories. We read Shamil as he reads–sometimes skipping pages–through the various layers of Dagestan: its Socialist Realist past as part of the Soviet Union, as well the conflict between its two present narratives: a call to jihad versus a nationalist panegyric. These are the texts, the contents of the texts, that Shamil reads, and in reading, he excavates the plurivocality and multidimensionality of the Caucasus nation that is "both small and large." This is metafiction at its finest.

Reading headlines today, we can wonder how someone falls for the jihadist line, how someone can respond to an extremist's call to arms. Ganieva shows us how. Through this exquisitely crafted tale, she weaves the storylines of her characters in such a way that taking the veil is as viable a response to the socioeconomic disorder as drinking oneself into oblivion or retreating to the vagaries of the black market of bribes. The novel, as an eloquent understatement, offers an explanation: such radicals depend on the incredulity of the people. "Something like that can't happen here!" we continue to exclaim as those very things happen more and more frequently, more intractably.

But The Mountain and the Wall is not an easy, moralizing book. Many of the characters seek answers to questions they don't yet even know how to ask. It seems, aside from the Salafis, that everyone is desperately trying to make sense of their world, like the scholar who groans and curses as he sorts through "the books, which his wife had arranged by size and color, trying to find the places he had marked so carefully" (193). Every detail (much like every historical, cultural, and ethnic particularity) had been made the same, which is not only a repeated literary device but also the novel's instinctive critique of both colonialism and post-colonialism.

The jihadists, who are so certain of their interpretation and the Truth of the Prophet, must resort to Russian, the lingua franca of Russia's most heterogeneous republic. But they can't even reconcile the language they're forced to use with the force their faith requires. The radicals don't know Arabic and have all but lost command of their native tongues. When posters appear across the capital urging the citizens to burn everything written from left to right, the people realize they they would have to burn even the posters themselves since they were written in Russian. This is but one of the many comic insights and clever ironies that Ganieva scatters throughout her text. She has inherited this trait straight from Dostoevsky.

Translator Carol Apollonio exhibits a nuance of language that makes this novel a pleasure to read in English. She effortlessly navigates the tricky shifts between characters, voices, and embedded genres. I applaud her for the way she contends with the overabundance of ethnic and religious terms. It is no exaggeration to say that the English-speaking world is indebted to her.

The nexus of narratives and the subtlety of the translation would've benefited, I think, by a more useful and user-friendly Glossary. I would've liked for it to have contained more entries and to be properly alphabetized. It seemed that close to one-third of all special vocabulary and italicized terms were not to be found there. Even the dictionaries I used and Wikipedia did not have entries for some of the terms. I was never able to find any information, for example, about Gamalkar and Untul Ebel, two Dagestani mountain deities (or spirits or devils?), beyond their brief mention in the text (220-221).

There were also some terms whose Glossary entry didn't quite get it right. For example, the entry on sabur simply states that it's Arabic for patience. But near the end of the novel, one character tells another, "Say a sabur, sister, your husband isn't there right now..." (239) which contextually seems to imply that a sabur is a type of prayer. After about ten minutes on Google, I finally found reference to the As-Sabur, one of the many names from the Koran for God (as the Patient One). Reciting this name 3000 times will allegedly rescue the person from difficulty. I know many translators who cringe at the thought, but even more footnotes would've been appreciated.

Regardless of this minor criticism, I wholeheartedly and without reservation urge you to read this book. Let it astound you the way it astounded me.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

10 Reasons Not to Become a Translator

  1. You don't know any language well enough, not even your own.
  2. You hate reading.
  3. You like food, basic shelter, security, and you regularly waste your money on such extravagances. Get over yourself, princess.
  4. You find working with people to unnecessarily tax your emotional well-being. You're not what they call a "people person."
  5. You don't own any dictionaries.
  6. Grammar make you sad.
  7. You never ventured off the farm.
  8. You don't really care about what's happening around the world. Hell, you don't even care about what's happening on your block.
  9. Your memory is not what it was 10, 20, 30 years ago. You'll end up looking up that one word that that author used at least 100 times at least 110 times. (Read that last sentence carefully. You'll get there.)
  10. You have better things to do, like bathe, floss, and pay the bills.
  11. You don't know how to count.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Rocks in Your Head

Timothy Morton is an English scholar at Rice University. He is also a "speculative realist." That's fancy theoretical talk for "bullshit artist." He would have you believe–and I chose this word carefully–that there's a new way to see the world. He is wrong. The same nonsense he and his kind peddle has been around for centuries. Don't be fooled with the new name: this is the New Coke of English Departments.

In his "essay" for the Los Angeles Review of Books (link above), he first insults you if you don't already know about the latest fad in "theory." (I'm using quotes around "theory" to indicate its specialized use, particularly among English professors, when it denotes a set of "theoretical" approaches to literary and cultural texts.) According to him, you'd have to have been hiding under a rock not to already know about speculative realism.

I'd like to add: you'd have to have rocks in your head to believe any of this.

Moreover, you'd have to be a jerk to insult the non-academic world in such a jerk-ass way. Thankfully for Morton, I am both a philosopher and an anti-academic snob-hater. I would be happy to school him on proper thought as well as on manners. You're welcome, world. Now let's begin.
After 60 or so years of talking about how you can’t talk (directly) about reality, only about how to access (or indeed how to access how to access) reality, humanities scholars are talking about rocks, and not just (human) representations of rocks either.
"Reality," "rock," "human," "representation" are empty signs signifying other signs. Even if these terms were, like some good Platonic ideal, fully invested with the content that they purportedly signify, any such reality would dissolve among the pages upon which they were scribbled. Therefore, it behooves any person claiming to be a scholar to specify exactly which, within this context, "reality" he is referring. Is it that which appears to be physically real, which would throw us back into the sham of positivism? Is it the noumenal or phenomenal world? You can't just spout "reality" and have it mean something. Unless, of course, you're still fully ensconced within the "the normative humanist box" which Morton himself derides.

Here Morton describes the main strategy of speculative realism: "speculative realism is about how much you can say about anything other than human meanings from inside the Kantian box, without just yelling anything at all. Can you open the lid and peep outside while avoiding religion? Can you infer that your human box is not the only one?" This is the saddest and most deficient view of human understanding I've come across in a long time, at least outside of religion. Anything such a disembodied (hence, abstract) human would perceive would necessarily be through the lens of human understanding.

It's like when I go grocery shopping. Because I am a native speaker of English, I encounter the world through the lens of English. That is, I'm aware when English is not proper to the task at hand. For example, when I drive down Garland Rd, I know English won't help me read the signs. But I can resort to Spanish because A) I know Spanish, and B) Spanish is another human lens through which to encounter the world.

Morton, however, seems to propose that the human mind is first capable of knowing when it is "outside" the realm of human understanding, and that the human mind can somehow make sense of that "outside." If I encounter a language I don't know, or a person who speaks only gibberish, my experience is still one of human English comprehension: I know that the person is not speaking English, I know I don't know that language.

Even beyond the limits of human perception, our knowledge of that beyond is fraught with human perception. Our mind does not comprehend ultraviolet radiation, for example, but we've designed technology that can interpret such radiation in a perceivable structure for the human mind. That is, we still impose our human perception on the imperceivable, the imperceptible. I hope Morton sends a postcard once he makes it outside our clichéd "box." I won't read it, of course, because it will be illegible. Return to sender.

And speaking of clichés, thanks for dragging out poor dead Derrida to serve as your whipping boy/straw man. If I were a snob, I'd write something like, "Just because you didn't understand Derrida when you read him, or when you tried to read him, or when you pretended to know the least bit of information about him, doesn't mean that there's some of us out here who actually read and understood him. We understand Derrida because we didn't read him as a 'theorist' but as a philosopher, as someone deeply invested in the history and discipline of philosophy." But I'm not a snob. I'll instead propose that "scholars" avoid bringing up Derrida when it's obvious they don't know what they're talking about.

Morton arrogantly laments, "It’s interesting and sad how we keep inventing new ways not to talk about polar bears." Yes, but it's equally interesting and sad how you talking about polar bears is still very much within the confines of anthropocentrist violence and injustice. Come to the dark side: learn the ways of deconstruction. I'll let you in a secret: deconstruction does what it does without human volition. All texts–even your precious polar bears–deconstruct themselves! It's self-reflexive and doesn't require human agency or intervention and projection. Or a flawed and narrow view of "reality" or "theory." And despite its self-reflexivity, deconstruction doesn't even require a self!

But just when I'm getting bored with Morton, he turns into what Nietzsche would refer to as "an interesting animal." Well, not that interesting. He just starts ranting and railing against the system in which he's built his career. Praising Alfred North Whitehead because that's cutting edge "theory"! He ends his hissy fit by utterly dismissing religion. What happened to the essay structure that has a thesis statement and support for an argument? Hell, wasn't this supposed to be a book review?!

Morton here goes rogue, jumps ship, leaves his good sense back in the "box." He jumps for joy that scientists are now catching up to his view of "reality." So cutting edge, so avant-garde, this Morton is! And now he disses art critics for "merely" noticing patterns. When will such insight stop?!

Just because Morton and other failed thinkers separate the world into a false binary of theory and practice does not mean there aren't those of us lightyears away from such a sad, diminished "box." Nonetheless, I do appreciate a good rant. And his arrogant rant against others of his ilk ("theorists" in university English departments) and their own cheapened bête noires and bugaboos is top notch. What's even better: each of them really earns his–and yes, I chose this word carefully–tenured salary.

In the end, his rant becomes more elevated, more unhinged: "Science does appearance, we do reality." Still never defining this "reality." In other words, I read Morton's diatribe so you wouldn't have to. And I can say with great confidence that you also don't need to read Steven Shaviro's The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, the text that this "essay" purports to review.

Only the title of Morton's "essay" makes any sense: Theory Class Needs an Upgrade. I couldn't agree more. You're welcome, world. Class dismissed. Welcome to reality.

Friday, July 17, 2015


I've been dreading this day for a year now: the first anniversary of when flight MH17 was shot down by thugs in eastern Ukraine with a Buk on loan from the Russian military. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

A year and a day ago–on July 16th–I flew home from Europe via Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. On my first morning back in Texas, I was lying on the sofa catching up with my Twitter feed. I had come to rely on Twitter as the most useful news source months before when the Russian military began to invade and occupy Ukraine.

Most of the typical news sources were still referring to a fantastical place called "the Ukraine," so I instead found trusted journalists on Twitter who were in the region who actually knew what was going on or what had been going on since "the Ukraine" existed (1991). In fact, such frustration and utter exasperation with the press had prompted me to register for a course in journalism held in Prague that summer so that I would be in an even better position to get accurate information about Central and Eastern Europe, so that I could contribute to the dissemination of accurate information about the region. I was returning, via Schiphol, from a month of intensive training in journalism in Berlin and Prague.

On the sofa in the early morning haze of my first day of jet lag reading Twitter when one of the journalists in eastern Ukraine writes, Oh god… He quotes some thug bragging about shooting down a plane. Then minutes later: a missing passenger plane that was flying over eastern Ukraine. The events unfolded in real time in my timeline. There was–and still is–no doubt about who shot down that plane.

From several trips to Europe, I know Schiphol quite well. I know, for example, that if my layover is tediously long, I can get to the city center in less than 30 minutes by train. Or that I can buy a day pass at the hotel gym in order to use their exercise equipment and showers. I've done both multiple times. I know where to buy good coffee, a decent vegetarian meal, duty-free chocolates as gifts. I had spent a few hours there just the day before. A year-and-a-day ago now. Less than twenty-four hours before 298 passengers and crew boarded MH17 flying in the opposite direction. We ate at the same cafés, ordered from the same surly clerks, pissed in the same urinals.

But this isn't about my empathy, my sympathy, the sheer horror I still feel about their senseless deaths. It is about the lack of values, ethics, and human decency, the lack of political and diplomatic will to punish the assholes who did this. The long line of assholes that stretch all the way to Putin himself.

Let's be clear: the deaths of these 298 people lie squarely on Putin's shoulders. Any other explanation or conspiracy theory is propaganda, a provocation, a distraction. A lie.

For years, the Putin Doctrine has been to disrupt the region by infringing on the sovereignty of several nearby countries, most notably Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. And now for the past several months Russia has ramped up its own belligerence toward NATO and Western and Central Europe: kidnapping an Estonian policeman, sending its submarines to enter Swedish waters, countless military flyovers in European, Canadian, and even American (Alaskan) airspace, cyberattacks, etc. As far as Putin is concerned, in his decrepit, morally-bankrupt mind we are already fighting Cold War II. Except this war is unusually one-sided.

Writing this, I know, sets me up for various online attacks by assholes, both paid and voluntary. Russia's army of trolls is well documented, and I've had my run-ins with them before. That doesn't matter. What matters is that all tyrants will die and all terrorists–even state terrorists such as Putin–will perish.

To my Ukrainian friends and readers: You have my undying support as you work to make a viable democracy despite having your country hacked away by the thugs of a tyrant. Путін - хуйло! Крим наш!

Remember the people whose lives were snuffed out by state-sponsored terrorism a year ago. May the living live to see their murderers brought to justice. May their families know peace.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Angela Davis

When ostensibly asked if she supported violence while she was in jail, Angela Davis not only explained violence, but she related its origin: the violent state. Any violence perpetrated by the revolution, by the liberation of the oppressed, would merely reflect the violence under which the oppressed had lived and suffered at the hands of state terror (i.e., the police, the government, the military, institutional racism–whether de jure or de facto, etc.).
When you talk about a revolution, most people think of violence. Without realizing that the real content of any kind of revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and the goals that you're striving for, not in the way you reach them. On the other hand, because of the way this society is organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions. You have to expect things like that as reactions.
Governor Ronald Reagan, who was from early on in bed with the FBI/CIA as an informer and useful tool, and President Richard Nixon, whom we all know as the most despicable of Presidents, should have been the ones jailed, the ones on trial.

If you've tried to read Marcuse or Baudrillard or Žižek or even Derrida on violence and the state and still don't get it, then listen to the truth bombs detonated by someone once deemed the most dangerous woman in America. All your confusion will dissipate with the simple tale of her childhood in Birmingham.

This clip is taken from the documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. You can watch the entire film on Netflix. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Frankie Says See This Film

Third film viewed at the fourth annual Oak Cliff Film Festival was dir. Brendan Toller's Danny Says–a documentary about journalist-cum-punk prophet Danny Fields, who is credited with introducing Jim Morrison to Nico, with almost ruining the careers of the Beatles, with introducing Iggy Pop to David Bowie, with forming Patti Smith's band, and with managing the Ramones. This is worthwhile cinema solely for its historical and biographical content. But more so: it's an entertaining and engaging film about an atypical personage who happened to have impeccable and prescient taste in music at an extraordinary time in its history.

The more I know about the world, people, and music of this era, the more insatiable my nostalgic desire for it.

A couple of criticisms, however. Some photographs were shown multiple times without explanation. It was sometimes impossible to figure out what this image had to do with what Fields was talking about at that moment. Also, many times the image appeared onscreen for too short a time. With the difficult-to-read font and the quick scan of the text required, too often I was baffled about what or who I was seeing and why. Finally, despite the compelling stories and enormity of the archival material presented, I would've enjoyed even more personal narrative about Fields himself. Certainly, he had personal relationships that didn't involve big-name celebrities. Who were his loves? Did he have pets? Did his musical sensibilities come solely from his role as a listener? Simply: I wanted to know more about him.

Eagerly awaiting the sequel.

Trailer can be viewed here.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Station to Station (or How Not to Make a Film)

Another film I saw at the fourth annual Oak Cliff Film Festival was dir. Doug Aitken's Station to Station. Billed as 61 one-minute films, this quasi-documentary of a 24-day, 4000-mile, celebrity/artist-laden train journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific gives the lie to the holistic notion that something can be greater than the sum of its parts. In the program, this film supposedly "fully conceptualize[s] the idea of movement from place to place."

The program misguided us.

Instead of each one-minute segment enticing this viewer toward a more comprehensive conceptualization of time-space, the abrupt shift at the end of each 60-second cycle felt more like a pop-up ad blocking the text I was more interested in reading.

The passengers, all of whom could easily interest me singly–Patti Smith, Beck, Suicide, Kenneth Anger, etc.– come across more as props. Or worse: caricatures. (Especially Cat Power and Gary Indiana.) To be honest, though, even the train itself–the only constant aspect of almost all the snippets–seems an under-developed afterthought.

You know that the one-minute restriction is artificial, that it is meant to tease you toward a much larger backstory, context, experience. But you're never given anything more. There's no conceptualization of movement that doesn't come off the screen in perfectly predigested cliché. The lack of map or itinerary further decontextualizes what's happening so much so as to spoil the overarching theme of the film, the idea behind it. And the artworks and performances developed aboard: derivative at best.

If the train should jump the track, do you want your money back? Yes or no? Y-E-S spells yes. And this train certainly jumped the track. Regardless, here's the trailer. The film is basically a longer version.

STS - Feature Film Trailer from Station to Station on Vimeo.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Tangerine Dreaming

"I won't be fooled by a cheap cinematic trick." - Missing Persons

The fourth annual Oak Cliff Film Festival opened last night with a showing of dir. Sean Baker's Tangerine at the historic Texas Theatre. Baker's practice is to find a location and then develop characters and plot that best lay bare that site. In Tangerine everything intersects at the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and Highland Ave. in L.A. This physical intersection, though, is no mere two-dimensional trope.

There are far too many narrative threads to disentangle, plot structures to dismantle here, so let me just briefly mention some of them. The film begins with a homecoming of sorts on the day Sin-Dee is released from jail. It ends with having the very foundation of home pulled out from under the characters' feet. The rise and devastating fall of plot is punctuated by the tension (or "girl shit") between transsexual Sin-Dee and the "real fish" (whose name begins with D) that Sin-Dee's boyfriend/fiancé/pimp has been cheating on her with during her incarceration.

The structure of the family of choice (transsexual prostitutes, dealers, and street people) distorts–while perfectly mirroring the distortions of–the family of origin (the extended family of immigrant Armenians treading the furrow between ethnic identity and whitewashed American homogeneity). Members of both families seek to unmask as well as to collude in the masking of one another.

Technologically, this movie is significant because it was filmed on iPhones and actors were cast via Vine. With such social media savvy and such skill with personal technology, you would think that the film would be inundated with these prosthetic characters: the film as selfie writ large. The technological brilliance of this film, however, is how it strips the characters of such artifice, allowing for an almost overwhelming naturalism in and polished improvisation of the actors.

Much of the comedy stems from the fact that this is Christmas Eve. But except for the holiday meal and Christmas tree at the Armenians' apartment, there is no visual reference to this otherwise unbearably ubiquitous holiday. Despite the fact that this film takes place in L.A., it counters the old adage that nobody walks there. Unless, of course, we remember those other lines from that Missing Persons song: "Only a nobody walks in L.A."

Though there are indeed funny moments and comic lines, this is no campy romp. There are neither stock nor minor characters. Even if a character's screen time is only a few seconds, in that time you are induced to empathize, you are made to acknowledge her or his humanity. The surface humor is laced with a deeper, and insidious, pathos; what might otherwise be a throw-away scene casts a critical eye toward the injustices of gender, addiction, ethnicity, and sexuality. When wealth and celebrity can so easily lay siege to–and eclipse–the issues of identity politics, Tangerine offers a welcomed counter narrative.

Here, instead of an airbrushed covergirl, you get a sense of the depths of the economic, gendered, misogynist, racist, classist, homophobic (etc.) violence of our culture. Every line, every glance, reveals the easy, everyday kind of savagery of our systems of power. And you don't get off scot-free either: your gaze is implicated with several close-ups of the characters' asses as they walk across downtrodden Los Angeles. The audience's sympathy is wrenched even further with several shots of bare feet being dragged across the seedy concrete city. By the end of the movie we viscerally feel the characters' embodied pain.

The most dramatically delivered line: "I promise no drama." But we're glad the film didn't enforce that. Watching Tangerine was like seeing color for the first time or hearing a full spectrum of sound after years of the C Major scale. It is anti-Hollywood at its best. Hell, it's even Social Realism at its best, if we can use that term for a film saturated in orange. And even better: it is without any obvious ideological baggage. You'd be a fool not to be at Mary's at 7:00.

Monday, June 1, 2015

New Publication

Black Sun Lit published my essay about and translation of Edmond Jabès on Paul Celan. They are an exquisite literary journal who publishes extraordinary translations and works of literature, so I am especially proud that my essay has found a home with them. Please check them out, read them online,  and purchase their print journal Vestiges.

And please, if you do happen to read my essay, leave your thoughts, comments, questions, and protestations here. I adore both of these poets, and I've been working on them, researching them, translating them, and thinking about them and their friendship for years. I would love to hear from you.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Toward a General Hermeneutics

In the early nineteenth century Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher rejected the specialized hermeneutics of medieval philosophy (that is, theological, juridical, and literary hermeneutics) and in their place proposed a general theory of interpretation established not upon genre-based dissimilitude but rather upon the linguistic and grammatical unity of all texts. This new general hermeneutics would no longer have textual elucidation as its focus. Instead, hermeneutics would become the art of understanding. But how can a reader best understand a text?

Because Schleiermacher saw texts as having their source within the minds of their authors, he maintained that understanding is possible only by way of re-experiencing the mental processes of the text’s author. By reversing the procedure of composition, the reader could begin with a fixed text and work his or her way back to the author’s original mental state from which that text derived. The reconstruction and reconstitution of the grammatical and psychological aspects of composition could then lead the reader to having an even better understanding of the text than the author himself or herself had.

In this way, Schleiermacher left room for an element of divination or intuition in the process so that the reconstruction was not purely logical or formal. Rather, both elements—the formal grammatical nature of the text as well as intuitive congeniality with the author—were necessary before we understand and thereby can interpret properly that which is written. Nevertheless, the principal goal of hermeneutics for Schleiermacher was not the understanding of the author’s psychology, but rather a more accurate excavation or presentation of the meaning of the text itself. Language—not psychology—remained central to his hermeneutic project.

We can leave aside the problematic question of whether or not it is actually possible to reconstruct another person’s thought processes, especially someone whom we have not ever met in person, and the even more demanding question of whether or not a spoken or written text is indeed the result of some inner mental experience. Regardless, we must still acknowledge the fact that although psychology and subjectivity were not his main concerns, Schleiermacher did indeed formulate his definition of a general hermeneutics upon the notion of a psychological subject. Dilthey, however, can help reorient our understanding of the human sciences as autonomous from the natural sciences and thereby leave open the possibility of the rejection of neutral, scientific objectivity altogether.

Wilhelm Dilthey proposed that understanding is an impossibility unless we begin upon the firm foundation of lived, concrete experience. He saw hermeneutics as the heart of the Geisteswissenschaften and did not distinguish among specific discipline-based hermeneutics. Like Schleiermacher, he, too, grouped together historical, literary, and artistic texts in order to arrive at a more general hermeneutics. Yet Dilthey’s legacy remains conflicted, torn between the Romantic notion of the possibility of a complete immersion in life and an abiding desire for objectively valid data.

Rejecting the methodology of the natural sciences as being divorced from the lived experience of human beings, he offered a more precise understanding of historical consciousness than previously developed. We can understand life only in terms of life itself, and cultural artifacts can be meaningful to us only if they illuminate the inner life of human beings. But just as Schleiermacher’s interest lay with the text and not the author’s personal psychology, Dilthey concerned himself with the socio-cultural and historical milieus of the author and not simply with the author’s individuality as such. This shared world is what binds reader, author, and text together into a unity of meaning.

Perhaps Dilthey’s greatest contribution to hermeneutics, however, is his understanding of the human being as being primarily historical. It is only by way of our detour through and reliance upon history that we can come to any kind of self-understanding. Moreover, the limits of history define what human beings are; that is, we can escape neither our own historical context nor the trajectory of history that has led up to this present moment. Such historical relativism necessitates continual self-reinterpretation. By broadening hermeneutics to include the historical context of the shared world, Dilthey allowed for the work to speak of the inner experience of the human being not just in terms of subject-object metaphysics. In this way, he prepared the course for Heidegger’s notion of the necessary historicity of human being and his rethinking of hermeneutics as a mode of Dasein’s being itself.

For a more thorough examination of the history and development of hermeneutics throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I recommend the following texts: Jean Grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. and ed. Joel Weinsheimer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994); Gayle L. Ormiston and Alan D. Schrift, eds, The Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Ricoeur, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990); and Richard E. Palmer, Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer, ed. John Wild (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1969).

Friday, May 15, 2015

Memory of the Word

According to the myth of the origin of written language as told by Socrates in the Phaedrus, Theuth declares that written language, the materiality of the word, will make the Egyptians wiser by improving their memory. But Thamus instead insists that the technical gift of letters will, in fact, produce forgetting. When Egyptians rely solely on writing to remember, they are reminded from the outside with foreign signs and no longer trust the authentic memory emanating from within their souls. How could writing, as seen from this perspective, ever bring about an ethical relation?

We typically read most authors' work as running somewhat parallel to the narratives they write, acceding, for example, that the taste of the petite madeleine and the involuntary memory it evoked were as significant to Proust the man/author as they were to Marcel the narrator in the inarguably semi-autobiographical novel À la recherche du temps perdu. Yet as Maurice Blanchot reminds us, this moment that defines Marcel’s life becomes known to us solely through the narrative.

The memory is memorable because of the testament of the written word. Proust has translated any reality of the event into the textuality of his novel, and it is only by way of the novel that the event's reality is made accessible to us here and now. The self, then, becomes externalized—exteriorized—in writing, and that writing becomes the basis of the self’s own self-knowledge. The more removed we are from the event, the more we rely on the narrative as evidence of that event, so that the writing bears the event's reality in a way that “pure” memory or experience cannot.

Through the text’s materiality, selfhood finds itself expressed and described upon the page. But this exterior “selfhood,” in having nothing to say of the self, becomes other, an alter eclipsing the originary ego so much so that the “I” transcribed no longer speaks of the I who transcribes. Writing, then, phenomenologically establishes and maintains a distance between author and text, even when that text is “about” its author. Of course, we can argue that only one of those “selves” is “real,” defiantly asserting that the person who writes is “more real” than a character in a novel. But this is not how Blanchot understands the problem of writing.

Because writing, for Blanchot, exposes all of us (authors, readers, translators, interpreters) to the impersonal anonymity of (and in) language, our task of assigning “reality” to our experience is problematized by the ethical demands of writing itself. Can we declare with any confidence that the narrator who speaks through Wisława Szymborska’s poetry, for example, is any more real than Szymborska herself was? What criteria should we use to measure the degree of authenticity or veracity of one over the other? Having never met Szymborska in person nor conversed with her face to face, how could I have ever recognized the woman herself, the one who has a definite biography (born on a certain date in a specific location) even should I have had in my possession a recent photograph of her and a current address (when she was still living)?

Would it not be easier, we must ask, to instead recognize the narrative voice—what often gets reduced to “literary style”—of an unknown poem as being particularly Szymborska-esque than it would be to meet the actual author without questioning her identity? Blanchot would even go so far as to allege that writing exclusively expresses definitive reality, that the biological and biographical aspects are secondary to or derivative of the narratological (as found in the text itself). Blanchot stresses that all that we can possibly know of any author is what is (already) written about him or her. In his “The Experience of Proust,” for example, Blanchot articulates how the narrative voice not only undoes the man Marcel Proust but also establishes his authority through the text’s (as well as the author’s) deauthorization.

Similarly, Blanchot would want to point out that the only access we have to Socrates' critique of writing is through the written work; his denigration of written language is known only through the medium that actually preserves the memory of that denigration.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

All Time Top Visitors (Countries)

Thank you. Дякую. 谢谢。Thanks ever so. Спасибо. Danke. תודה./شكرا. Merci. Whatever Canadians say. شكرا.

I'm not sure when Blogger started tracking these visits, but I've had this account for several years now, though not as long as I've been blogging (since 1999).

I've lived in 3 of these countries, and I've visited 8 of them, so I'm glad to have made an impression! But if it were up to me, I'd erase all those silly lines dividing up this vast planet and make it so I didn't have to use my precious passport again. No borders. None. One world.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


I have to say that I really like using Scrivener for translation! I've been using this app for almost two years now, but only for writing, drafting work, both nonfiction (essays, a book) and fiction. With this new translation project, though, I decided to try it out for this purpose. It only took a few minutes to set up my view in a way that made sense to me, to my process.

I'm using v. 2.6 for Mac OS X.

In the left column you'll see how the project is divided into two folders–one for the Polish text and one for my English translation. Each page in the folder represents a chapter of the text.

For the main view, I'm using a divided screen with the Polish on the left and the English on the right. It's easy to scroll through each chapter on the screen with the mouse and from chapter to chapter using the navigation arrows in the top right corner of each screen. I find it helpful to be able to look at both texts/languages at the same time as if I were reading a bilingual book.

If I want to do a search and find all the instances of a word or phrase within the project, I can use ⌃⌥F (control-option-F) or the Search bar at the top right. This kind of global search functionality makes it possible to always check the usage of a word or how I've previously translated it. With ⌃⌥F as well as with ⌃⌥⌘S (control-option-command-S)–Scrivener's Text Statistics function–I can check the verbal density and word frequency of the text. This helps me to track important words in the source text as well as check the consistency of my translation.

I can't wait to have the time to transfer a translation project that I've been working on over the years to Scrivener. It's a book of poetry from Polish. The poet uses several key terms throughout the poems, repeating themes, terms, phrases. With the app, I'll be better able to track those repetitions and resonances–the essence of this volume of poetry.

Are there any other translators out there using Scrivener? What does your setup look like? What are your tricks for translating more efficiently with this app? Please feel free to comment.

The following image link below will take you to a landing page where you can check out the Mac version, read reviews, and generally be blown away with its features. If you do happen to buy a product, I get a small percentage of the sale through their affiliate program. Not only would it be great to have your support in this way, but I do think that this app is game changing for writers. And now for translators!

Buy Scrivener 2 for Mac OS X (Regular Licence)

Or you can buy Scrivener for Windows (Regular Licence).

Friday, May 1, 2015


"Beauty is just as vapid as its distinctions."

The recent translation of Anne Garréta's Sphinx, translated by Emma Ramadan and published by Deep Vellum, has got me thinking about apophasis, and not because the protagonist is writing an essay on the apophatic tradition. Rather, I'm trying to figure out what it is that I've missed here.

Apophasis is a rhetorical device in which a subject is brought up by denying that the subject is actually being brought up or that it's even possible to bring up the subject in the first place. Example #1: She is smart, not to mention pretty. The "not to mention" actually does mention what is being or shouldn't be mentioned. Example #2: I'm not going to argue with a stupid person. That very statement is belligerent. Example #3: It wouldn't be polite to talk about your bad taste in music. You get the point.

Sphinx is well written, albeit overwritten. Even the character's apophatic name–A***–seemed unnecessarily unwieldy. Why not a single letter? Or a symbol? I read the first 20 pages and felt like the language part of my brain was on fire. I concurred with the blistering critique of graduate school. The nightlife sounded sexy and exciting, reminding me of the time I used to know such haunts. But the next 100 pages I found to be tedious, pretentiously and unnecessarily erudite without much substance. Something was missing.

The reader's work was constantly narrated by the protagonist. I tired of the incessant narrativization, the talky voice that wouldn't shut up: "I was spared the exhaustion of searching and seizing. I was giving up a state of being…" (25). "I was discovering the rules as I went along, establishing what had always existed without any basic precepts" (27). "I had reached a limit, and after that came repetition and ennui" (29). "My eclecticism pushed me to ignore differences and transgress against exclusions…" (30). On and on this voice drones. I would have liked the option to remove all first-person pronouns from the text. Such a truly apophatic lipogram would have improved the story for me. And shorted the novel several pages.

At first, I did like the forced indeterminacy of the two main characters' sexes and genders. At times, I perceived them to be considerably more female; at other times, more male. Throughout the novel, both genders/sexes blurred into one another and crossed over the spectrum between male/female, masculine/feminine. After a few chapters, however, this came across more as a gimmick than anything else.

In the end, I'm not sure this novel succeeds in what it purportedly attempts: a troubling of gender and gendered identities. One truly troubling sentence stood out as a hesitation, a mistake, a misstep: "What was I, truly? A drag queen of intellection, a gigolo of enamoration" (87). Are not both of these examples male? My powers of imagination are perhaps too weak to overlook such obvious gendering, particularly in a novel that allegedly renders gender unnecessary.

And let's think through this last statement properly. Who really thinks or believes that an elision of gender/sex can or should be considered also feminist or queer? I didn't mention the unmentionable details of my lovers for the first few decades of my life, not because I was being experimental or cutting edge but rather because of something else altogether: the unmentionability and invisibility of queer sex. So do not call this a feminist or queer novel when something as important–despite, yes, the possibility that gender/sex may be entirely socially constructed–as gender/sex is not and (perhaps) cannot be mentioned in it. No, that is not how queer or feminist means what it means. Queer, if anything, is a radical politicization of gender/sex and its sexualities; feminist is not far behind. By not mentioning gender/sex in the novel, the author, in effect, renders it unmentionable or at least unimportant–the opposite of what queer and feminist works do.

If anything, this novel made me want to read more Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Judith Butler–writers who truly trouble gender/sex without making it/them disappear from view.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Perimeter of Poverty

I rarely feel or experience white privilege as such. As someone who grew up in poverty in rural Texas, I always thought the battle was between the poor and the rich. My entire experience growing up corroborated that fact.

At no other time do I feel white privilege more acutely than when poor black people are protesting. But do the privileged even protest? They (you see I still align myself with my socioeconomic upbringing) have other means guaranteed them by systems of power/knowledge.

What I know I need to say now as a comfortable and highly educated middle-aged white man: we (as privileged, wealthy whites) have other means of being heard. But despite the house, the PhD, the many passports I've worked my way through, I still feel poor.

It is one of a few things that I will always drag with me from my past. (Poor me, no?) No matter how much money is in my bank account, or in my investment account, the perimeter of poverty informs–no! limits–my perception of what opportunity lies before me. And I write this as a white man.

I still, however, know in ways foreign to many white people in the United States that protest (as riot) is more than a seemingly self-destructive act wrecking infrastructure and opportunity for the protesters. While I cannot even begin to imagine the toll poverty has had on black communities across this country, I do know my own experience with poverty and lack of access and at least the perception of a lack of opportunity.

And for what it's worth: I will always root for the one willing to burn down his own house in order to be heard. Perhaps one day another white person, perhaps one with considerably more power and influence than I, will also hear and understand this message. Until then: Thug on!

Friday, April 17, 2015

An-Original Translation

Imagine being a historian of nineteenth-century Paris and your academic publisher demanding to see the original city before accepting your manuscript. What kind of original would you provide? A map before Haussmannization? A keychain fob with a miniature Eiffel Tower? A first edition of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal? Or imagine being Charles Baudelaire’s publisher in 1868 and demanding to see the originals before publishing the definitive posthumous edition of Les Fleurs du mal. Which originals would you accept? The pages handwritten by Baudelaire himself? The edition of the volume published in 1857? The 1861 version? Or the censored “scraps” published in 1866? Or maybe you meant something altogether different: perhaps you need the actual swan that inspired the poem by that name; perhaps some definitive proof that “Le vieux Paris n’est plus.

This thought experiment exposes a small fraction of the foolishness regarding originality and the work those of us in the humanities and arts undertake. We simply do not ask from historians, poets, artists, composers, photographers, directors, or novelists for the original. (Nor do we even ask it from economists, journalists, or scientists. Imagine needing to provide a black hole–or even conclusive proof that such a thing exists–before having one’s manuscript accepted for publication!) I have yet, however, to see a call for translations that does not require a copy of the original. What is the purpose of this kind of demand placed upon translators? Are we not to be trusted with the proper care for a text? With our own ability to translate? The real question here: why in translation is there still such virulent fetishization of something that never existed?

In high school I once wrote a book report over a book that did not exist. I simply made it all up. There never was an original. Or perhaps: my “derivative” summary and analysis was the original. In graduate school, I argued with a professor about historical analysis. (Yes, it was in my Nineteenth-Century History of Paris course.) He kept rejecting the abstract for my term paper because the project relied too heavily on “textual analysis” and not enough on “historical analysis.” My argument: history is a text. The name says it all! Texts about texts all the way down. Anyone who writes about history or literature must eventually come to terms with palimpsestic meta- and inter-textuality. (You see, I earned A’s in both classes.)

Over the past few months, there have been multiple articles in various newspapers and journals regarding the latest translations of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Already I can hear the tongues flapping! The patronymic is just too foreign, or I misspelled Tolstoy’s first name even though I merely transliterated from the Cyrillic alphabet both the name of the author and of the novel. If, on the other hand, I were to translate the novel’s title, it would have to be, as Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov would have it, Mrs. Anna Karenin, in the same way that Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky’s novel would have to be The Karamazov Brothers, or, more colloquially, Those Karamazov Boys. In other words, fidelity in translation has always been arbitrary. We inherit certain cultural preferences and practices that make it almost impossible to accept Tolstoy’s first name as Lev, to leave off the feminine ending from Karenina, or to not flinch when we read the somewhat syntactically foreign-sounding The Brothers Karamazov. Oh, brother!

The reason I am calling attention to these superficial—and alleged—mistranslations is to call into question the underlying assumptions that undergird the very notion of mistranslation in the first place. Perhaps it is a byproduct of always being required to provide the original that translators have become guilty of a more insidious problem: believing that such an original exists. Essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among others, in which the “best” recent translation of Anna Karenina has been argued and debated. Unsurprisingly, Tolstoy’s version, among those who read Russian, stands outs as the literary exemplar. Critics even argue that the nuances of Tolstoy’s version necessitate multiple translations; a single translation, they claim, is incapable of capturing everything in the original. Nowhere, however, have I read anyone question the basic belief that Tolstoy’s version is original. No, I do not have newly-discovered proof that Tolstoy was a plagiarist. What I am getting at, though, is that originality is, at best, overrated and, at worst, detrimental to the creative act of translation.

The assumption that originality (and consequently, fidelity) exists needlessly orients the translative act toward a metaphysical pipedream long abandoned by philosophers and literary theorists: Plato’s eidos. According to Plato’s texts, the eidos, or Form, is the only true and universal reality. Everything in the physical world—that which changes—is denigrated as mere shadow or flawed reflection of the Real. In this metaphysical system, translations decay and lose whatever value they may have had at one time as translators endlessly strive toward achieving the ultimate, yet necessarily unattainable, Original.

Plato’s philosophy is not only a problem for translators. What if after realizing that he could not faithfully reproduce the Anna Karenina he held in his mind, Tolstoy simply abandoned his project? Or if he found out that even his notion of Anna Karenina is but a paltry outline of some ideal person named Anna? All of the essays and reviews I have read about the recent translations of Tolstoy’s book have propagated this Platonism, asserting that the translations, already devalued and ever aging, can never achieve the perceived purity or greatness of The Original. Some authors have gone so far as to cite from the Russian text! The fact that this text was written in Russian, however, evidences its non-ideal essence. Russian, like all human languages, is very much a system of arbitrary signs ensconced within a historical world embedded in time, informed by culture and a particular grammar, and enframed by a specific society and geography. There is no Anna, no original Anna Karenina. What we have are resonances across time and space of Annas, of Anna Kareninas. The text is already plural, multiple, legion, and dispersed.

Such disseminated multiplicity should not be cause for alarm, even for those unnervingly obsessed with intellectual property, authorial intention, or exclusive publication rights. They will still manage to get their beaks wet. I am not arguing that texts do not have any meaning or that they, because of the endless deferral of meaning across an endless chain of signs indicating other signs, cannot mean at all. No one has every argued for such a hermeneutic free-for-all. Instead, I am asking that a translation be allowed to stand on its own and not always and only in relation to a fictional, originary ideal that never existed. The situation (of language, of history, of culture) in which we find ourselves necessitates the endless translation of texts. Texts about texts all the way down. So while I agree that Tolstoy’s book demands multiple translations, that is not to say that Tolstoy’s book is any less a function of that same impetus. Tolstoy translated his Anna, his Anna Karenina, without being required to supply the original. I think it is time translators are allowed the same creativity, innovation, and, dare I say, originality.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Queer World (In Three Quotes)

“IN the Morocco of the 1980s, where homosexuality did not, of course, exist, I was an effeminate little boy, a boy to be sacrificed, a humiliated body who bore upon himself every hypocrisy, everything left unsaid.”
A Boy to Be Sacrificed -

“Regardless of the cultural system, social pressure to appear straight seems to be fairly intense cross-culturally. Indeed, one is inclined to wonder, if being straight is just natural, why does it require quite so much policing?”
The Atlantic

“Being a gay goth kid in Texas could make you an outcast…”
Growing Up Gay, Goth and Generous -

All three of these quotes speak to me and to at least some of my experience growing up queer in rural Texas. I wanted to share them with you, lovely reader.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Dead Babies

At the edge of my undergraduate alma mater lies a cemetery for those who died in a nearby, long-since-vanished house for unwed mothers. I wonder who these poor mothers were. I wonder about these poor, unnamed babies tucked away underground minutes after being born into a very cruel world. Unacknowledged but, no doubt, no less remembered. Denied but no less mourned.

As a student I would walk by this graveyard almost daily. It was not too far off the beaten path between classes and my first apartment on my own. These children kept me company as I thought about their all-too-brief lives and dreamed about one day writing their story. These dead babies haunted my dreams as I identified with them, lost and almost as forgotten then in the late 1980s as they were almost a century before. Lost and almost as forgotten as I myself felt on my commute by foot more than two decades ago.

When I moved, I stopped visiting them. Eventually I stopped thinking about them. Recently, while conducting genealogical research on my family, my great-great grandparents in the Texas of the mid-eighteenth century, I began to think, to dream, about dead babies again. This time, the babies were a part of me, dead-ends of my genealogical lines. Dead branches of the family tree. Or perhaps some dark secret one of my great grandmothers or aunts went to the grave with. The shame of an unwed pregnancy and the all-too-certain punishment from an angry god.

Last week when I trekked through the woods at dusk to find them once again after so long, I worried about stumbling upon a snake in the overgrown grass. At first I didn't notice all the graves. I thought their numbers had been mis-multiplied in my memory of this small fenced-in plot. But after scanning more carefully, the graves reappeared. The ones I counted now seemed much more than what I even remembered. Most do not have names. Most were simply numbered on the day of their birth/death. Evens and odds. Twins. And lovely names from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Most likely named for a lover, a parent, a relative or neighbor perhaps who had shown the poor girl some care. Only one Frank. Well, one underground and one above. Each tiny headstone encircled with a halo of clover, grass, and dead leaves. Mossy concrete and a tiny plaque of marble.

Rest in peace, little babies. Weep no more.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Exorbitant Stupidity

If you follow this line long enough, you get to deconstruction where a theorist would be looking for internal contractions or paradoxes that would essentially render the text meaningless. At the end of this line, you’re saying writing can’t mean anything because it’s internally inconsistent. So if you’re a writer going to college and learning these things, it puts a shiver of fear in you because it’s saying your attempt is due to fail.
–Jeffrey Eugenides, A ‘Marriage Plot’ Full Of Intellectual Angst : NPR

When I first heard this uninformed denigration of deconstruction and of Derrida, I didn’t know who Jeffrey Eugenides was. I did know, though, that he knew nothing about deconstruction or about Derrida. These words were barely uttered before I turned the radio dial. What a shame that NPR would broadcast and perpetuate such misinformed and essentially ignorant statements. These are factual errors, defamation.

Fuck stupid people. And yes, I mean stupid. Eugenides went to college, he claims, and yet he spouts such nonsense. Here he is at it again:
When I arrived at Brown, French theory was just washing up on American shores. Many of my English professors were distrustful of it. Another cohort in the English department was so smitten with Derrida and company that they finally decamped and created the Program in Semiotic Studies. To be an English major at the time was like being the child of divorcing parents. You loved both. I was attracted to the rigor of semiotic literary theory, especially in comparison with some of the vague pedagogy that constituted the by-then old New Criticism. I was persuaded that it was possible to examine the underlying structures of literature and, in a sense, anatomize the body of literature. At the same time, I wanted to be a writer. I resisted the idea that the author was dead. And I still believed, as I believe today, that it’s possible for a novel to transmit meaning, something that was being called into question by deconstruction.
–Jeffrey Eugenides, The Art of Fiction No. 215, The Paris Review

Eugenides isn't the only one, though. By far. To people who haven't read or understood Derrida, Derrida serves as the perfect straw man to their flawed comprehension of advanced phenomenological philosophy.

Here are a couple more stellar "insights" from people who claim to be scholars.
Caws may be to some extent informed by Jacques Derrida's deconstructionist notion of the unavoidable and fatal slippage that occurs between the signified and the signifier, resulting in multiple interpretations and the negation of all meaning, as well as the conceptions of Antonin Artaud, a French avant-garde poet, dramatist, essayist, and artist (also one of Derrida's influences) who was preoccupied with the limitations and inadequacy of language and rejected mimesis in theatrical work. Caws' conception and usage of slippage, however, celebrates the phenomenon and rather than conceiving of slippage as a negative event that pronounces the futility and impossibility of translation [Derrida], she embraces the slippage that occurs between the signifier and the signified and between one language and another.
–Shelby Vincent, Book Review of Surprised in Translation by Mary Ann Caws, Style, Vol. 41, No. 4, Winter 2007

Again: factual errors, defamation. And more recently,
Post-structuralism is a system of literary and social analysis that flared up and vanished in France in the 1960s but that became anachronistically entrenched in British and American academe from the 1970s on. Based on the outmoded linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and promoted by the idolized Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault, it absurdly asserts that we experience or process reality only through language and that, because language is inherently unstable, nothing can be known. By undermining meaning, history and personal will, post-structuralism has done incalculable damage to education and contemporary thought. It is a laborious, circuitously self-referential gimmick that always ends up with the same monotonous result. I spent six months writing a long attack on academic post-structuralism for the classics journal Arion in 1991, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf" (reprinted in my first essay collection, Sex, Art, and American Culture). Post-structuralism has destroyed two generations of graduate students, who were forced to mouth its ugly jargon and empty platitudes for their foolish faculty elders. And the end result is that humanities departments everywhere, having abandoned their proper mission of defending and celebrating art, have become humiliatingly marginalized in both reputation and impact.
"The Catholic Pagan: 10 Questions for Camille Paglia"

The fact that she classifies poststructuralism (which is often just a seriously flawed nickname for phenomenology and deconstruction) as a system of literary and social analysis demonstrates her ignorance of what it actually was/is: a methodology in philosophy that was heavily borrowed from by literary and sociological scholars. And seriously, stop with this bullshit: "it absurdly asserts that we experience or process reality only through language and that, because language is inherently unstable, nothing can be known." Give me one citation. Just one. One. 1. Seriously: I am only asking for one citation in Derrida where he makes such a claim. I guess it also doesn't matter to Paglia that Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault all offer critiques of Saussure, who is considered a structuralist linguist. So much for even understanding the "post" part!

This entry would be far too long if I were to even just list the egregious errors in fact and logic, so I will leave with this offering: please, Jeffrey, Shelby, Camille, and their ilk, at the very least, read the following book. Of course, you may need to read 100 other books before you properly understand this one, but it'll be worth it. Don't give up!

The only other option would be to shut the fuck up. (Said with love.) ((Not really. Because seriously: you're embarrassing yourself.))