December 25, 2011

Christmas by George Herbert


After all pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tired, body and mind,
With full cry of affections, quite astray;
I took up the next inn I could find.

There when I came, whom found I but my dear,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to Him, ready there
To be all passengers' most sweet relief?

Oh Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night's mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is Thy right,
To man of all beasts be not Thou a stranger:

Furnish and deck my soul, that Thou mayst have
A better lodging, than a rack, or grave.


The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
      My God, no hymn for Thee?
My soul's a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
      Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace
      Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
      Outsing the daylight hours.
Then will we chide the sun for letting night
      Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
      Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
      Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
      As frost-nipped suns look sadly.
Then will we sing, and shine all our own day,
      And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev'n His beams sing, and my music shine. 

December 16, 2011

Caught Live: Prince - Dec. 8, 2011

A guest post by Sue Sorensen

At which point during the December 8 Prince concert in Winnipeg did I decide that Prince was really Sinatra? Perhaps it was early, when the lights snapped up after his opening number, a shuffling of melodies and rhythms on his singular electronic piano. (He was, I think, opening for himself.) Under the brighter lights, Prince was revealed in a dapper dark suit. Sharp white shirt, ascot. The surprise was the asymmetry of his jacket. At the back: one side long, a tail coat. The other side: short, so you could see his trim 53-year-old behind.

Sinatra dressed impeccably for his shows. He took his vocation as a professional entertainer seriously. Likewise, Prince told us that this was his job; he was willing to sing and play the guitar as long as we were willing to get up, do the windshield wiper, and waggle our hips. When he talked about his job, he sounded joyful.

I hadn’t expected to encounter joy at a Prince concert in a hockey rink. I respect Prince for his prodigal musical imagination, for his sometimes bizarre independent stance in the music industry. I appreciate the way he has crashed together his dirty mind, now somewhat curtailed—this was surprisingly wholesome show—with his love of God. I’ve been bemused by how prolific he is. Prince by normal standards writes far too much music. He has driven his distributors crazy. The listener cannot keep up, and in recent years Prince could delete and edit more. But he doesn’t. It’s his life, his music.

This profligacy, this delirious too-muchness that goes along with Prince, is ineluctably part of the experience of real joy. We don’t encounter enough joy. My other insight that night, as a bunch of purple confetti erupted, was that this was what good Vaudeville once felt like. Maybe Prince is a funk or R&B singer. Or he’s the last Vaudeville performer. Or the best entertainer with a vocation since Sinatra.

December 13, 2011

top music videos of 2011

Usually I don't have the patience for an entire 4-minute music video. (It must have something to do with the internet, cause my attention-span seems properly drawn-out when I'm consuming other bits of pop-culture.) Below are some of the videos that sustained my pathetically short internet-attention-span for their full duration--a real feat! This is by no means comprehensive (clearly), so before you start questioning the glaring lack of Beyonce on this "list," know that I'm no Beyonce-hater. "Countdown" is a great song and the video is quite impressive; but I've never been able to watch it straight through--it's kind of overwhelming and a little off-putting--but that probably says more about my own anxieties and shortcomings than it does about anything else. Enough with the caveats. Enjoy!

"Cruel" [Directed by Terry Timely] from St. Vincent's Strange MercyDomestic life is tough, especially when your stuck in the 1950s, especially when your psychopathic step-kids are calling the shots.

"Fish" [Dir. Kathryn Fahey, Michael O'Leary] from Wye Oak's Civilian. Silhouetted puppets, biblical allusions, and neon lights are combined in this quirky, stunning tale of evolutionary origins.

"Lotus Flower" [Dir. Garth Jennings] from Radiohead's The King of Limbs. Thom Yorke dons a bowler hat and gets freaky. If you've ever seen me dance, this will look vaguely familiar.

"Riding for the Feeling" [Dir. Archie Radkins] from Bill Callahan's ApocalypseThis continuous shot of a soaring ski-jumper uses artwork from Max Gaylon. It might be just one note, but it's one worth sustaining. And that's part of the point: a utopian fight against the ceaseless flow of time. Some peaceful stuff right here.

"My Machines (feat. Gary Numan)" [Dir. DANIELS] from Battles' Glass DropA postmodern "myth of sisyphus," or something equally pretensious to that effect. Probably a good thing to watch before you start your Christmas shopping. Also: Gary Numan!

"The Shrine/An Argument" [Dir. Sean Pecknold] from Fleet Foxes' Helplessness BluesI'm always impressed with animated music videos, but this is undoubtedly one of the best I've ever seen. Made by the brother of FF frontman Robin Pecknold, "The Shrine/An Argument" falls somewhere in-between Where the Wild Things Are and The Lion King. It appears to be all paper-based, but the incredible lighting effects and the grainy, orange tint help to align the images with the nostalgic fantasy-folk sounds of the Fleet Foxes.

December 9, 2011

"Romans go home!"

I just finished writing my Latin final. This clip from Monty Python's Life of Brian sums up my semester pretty well.

December 7, 2011

Fredric Jameson on the role of literary criticism

After spending a good deal of my own time with the likes of Benjamin, Bloch, and Lukacs, Fredric Jameson's thundering, dense treatment of those well-known twentieth-century critical theorists in Marxism and Form (1971) was a bit of a let-down for me. Since the 70s, Jameson's style has greatly improved; here, however, it is plodding, abstract, and disappointingly vague. The book ends with a five part, 120 page essay ("Towards Dialectical Criticism") that provides some moments of real analysis and clarification, but again I must confess that much of Jameson's critical positioning is lost on me. That being said, the essay ends with real gusto, offering something of a justification for literary criticism. Even forty years after it was written, his conclusion is almost rousing enough to make me believe in what I'm doing.
Even if ours is a critical age, it does not seem to me very becoming in critics to exalt their activity to the level of literary creation, as is loosely done in France today. It is more honest and more dialectical to point out that the scope and relevance of criticism varies with the historical and ideological moment itself. Thus, it has been said that literary criticism was a privileged instrument in the struggle against nineteenth-century despotism (particularly in Czarist Russia), because it was the only way one could smuggle ideas and covert political commentary past the censor. This is now to be understood, not in an external but in an inner and allegorical sense. The works of culture come to us in an all-but-forgotten code, as symptoms of diseases no longer even recognized as such, as fragments of a totality we have long since lost the organs to see. In older culture, the kinds of works which a Lukacs called realistic were essentially those which carried their own interpretation built into them, which were at one and the same time fact and commentary on the fact. Now the two are once again sundered from each other, and the literary fact, like other objects that make up our social reality, cries out for commentary, for interpretation, for decipherment, for diagnosis. It appeals to other disciplines in vain: Anglo-American philosophy has long since been shorn of its dangerous speculative capacities, and as for political science, it suffices only to think of its distance from the great political and Utopian theories of the past to realize to what degree thought asphyxiates in our culture, with its absolute inability to imagine anything other than what it is. It therefore falls to literary criticism to continue to compare the inside and the outside, existence and history, to continue to pass judgment on the abstract quality of life in the present, and to keep alive the idea of a concrete future. May it prove equal to the task!

December 5, 2011

Stanley Fish and institutional evasion

 Departing from Wolfgang Iser, whose theory of reading remains tied to the notion of an objective (albeit "inaccessible") text that exists outside of interpretation, Stanley Fish is able to regulate the sort of free play which Roland Barthes celebrates by invoking the “interpretative strategies of interpretative communities.” Much like Barthes, Fish’s critical readings reveal how the objects of interpretation are always constructed (or “written”) by their readers. As he explains in Is There a Text in This Class?, such strategies are not so much “for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions.” Fish’s aim is to demonstrate how textual ambiguity is resolved by the modifications we make to our own interpretive strategies, like, say, establishing a context or ground that exists at a deeper level than interpretation. In this way, his theory always returns the text to a constitutive indeterminacy, a function of the “reader” rather than the “text.” At times, however, it is difficult to see Fish’s overt lack of a critical position as little more than evasive. It becomes obvious enough when Fish attempts to break free from accusations of relativism: “No one can be a relativist, because no one can achieve the distance from his or her own beliefs and assumptions which would result in their being no more authoritative for him than for the beliefs and assumptions held by others."

A brief example of how this lack of position supports Fish’s critical program can be found in an essay on Milton’s Areopagitica. Here, Fish argues that the importance of the tract lies in its process of “rhetoric” or “persuasion”: the making of virtue by what is contrary. He then proceeds to distance his reading from Christopher Kendrick’s Marxist interpretation, finally endorsing both critical positions as equally tenable sites of literary criticism: an institution that both determines and enables each critic’s respective work. “No criticism is more political than any other,” writes Fish, “at least not in the sense one normally means by ‘political,’ an intervention in the affairs of the greater—non-academic—world.” Again, the strategy echoes Milton, for Fish’s point in saying this is to demonstrate how Kendrick’s “political reading” is a product of the institution for consumption by the institution; that is, that “there is nothing larger, that institutional life (of some kind or other) defines and exhausts those possibilities, but (and this is the crucial point) that those possibilities are rich and varied, and they are, in the only meaningful sense of the word, political.” There is, in short, no deeper (i.e., political) reading of a text than the one that is produced within an institutional politics; there are only differences in institutional life, which as Fish bluntly puts it, cannot even amount to a conscious choice but are rather given as the “groundless ground” of our very freedom as academics. "Groundless ground"? How convenient. This academic paradigm is beginning to resemble the very author that Barthes and Foucault had sought to demystify.

For Fish, like Barthes, the agency of the reader comes to resemble that unity which had traditionally belonged to the author; both are, of course, the products of certain institutional or ideological histories that we cannot break free of. As Barthes writes in “The Death of the Author,” “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biology, psychology; is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which a written text is constituted.” Fish makes a similar claim when describes his critical method as a kind of production that can only occur within the confines of the institution. “Rather than restoring and recovering texts,” he writes in his well-known essay “Interpreting the Variorium,” “I am in the business of making texts and teaching others to make them.” This is to repeat the basic claim he makes against the “political” readings of those like Kendrick; but the earlier example also illustrates how Fish’s appeal to the institution as “a definable set of commonly held assumptions” fails to account for the indeterminacy and debate that defines this supposedly untranscendable category. As Samuel Weber has argued, Fish’s concept of an interpretive community is “ultimately nothing but generalized, indeed universalized form of the individualist monad: autonomous, self-contained and internally unified, not merely despite but because of the diversity it contains.” When Fish opposes a critic like Kendrick, his strategy is to explain away their difference by placing it within the unity of the institution. In Weber’s words, “The institution thus emerges as the condition of possibility of controversy, and hence, as its arbiter."

Northrop Frye on the Bible

Just as I was beginning to worry about what to do after celebrating Marshall Mcluhan's centenary year, I stumbled across some plans to honor another great Canadian theorist whose 100th birthday is coming up in 2012.

This is all thanks to Margaret Atwood's Twitter feed. Apparently, she was an auditor back in '82.

From the website:

In 2012, the world will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Northrop Frye, a globally distinguished literary theorist and one of the 20th century's most important thinkers. Providentially, an academic treasure for students of the humanities has just been recovered in the renowned Robarts Library at the University of Toronto – video recordings from 1982-83 of all of Frye's famous lectures on the Bible and Literature. These recordings have now been digitally restored and will be made available for acquisition by educators, libraries, institutions, and individuals as part of the Frye Centennial.

Lecture 1: Approaches to the Bible and Translations of the Bible