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Robert Philen's Blog

Anthropology, Culture Theory, and Cultural and Political Commentary

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Cloud Microbes

Mon, 17 Aug 2009 16:08:00 +0000

I just read a cool science news story from Natural History magazine by Robert R. Dunn: "A head in the clouds: do the microorganisms that circulate in the atmosphere get there by chance or by contrivance?"

I had honestly not thought much about clouds, much less clouds as active biotic realms. Apparently, there are microbes that secrete a variety of chemicals to escape the sea, play a role in creating clouds, and induce rain or snow to escape back to sea or earth. According to the article, the key research question now isn't whether microbes do such things, but whether the microbes have been naturally selected to do this (i.e.whether they do this "on purpose") or whether the chemical processes are byproducts of other microbial activities. In any case, I'll be looking at clouds a bit differently from now on.

Cover Tunes

Sun, 16 Aug 2009 22:29:00 +0000

I’ve been thinking about cover tunes. Some of my favorite versions of songs are cover versions. The versions of cover songs I tend to dislike are those that are completely expected, singers or bands playing songs by similar artists in essentially identical fashion. Usually, the main reaction I have to such covers is a reminder of how much I like or dislike the original version of the song.Like many people, the cover songs I enjoy most are those that bring a new dimension to the song, in the process bringing new appreciation to the song itself and to the now multiple versions of it.I often find that the cover songs that succeed most brilliantly or fail most spectacularly are those with the most incongruent matching of cover artist with original artist and song. There’s an obvious reason for this (and thus, I make no claims here to profundity, but am simply sharing something I’ve been thinking about today) – the greater the distance between expectations of different artists, the more likely some previously unheard dimension or aspect of the song will come to light. When the Sex Pistols did their version of “My Way,” there was no way it was not going to bring something new to the song, for good or bad. In that particular case, I think it’s one of the better examples of an incongruous cover that works. (In fact, some decades on, the Sex Pistols’ version is probably the iconic version for kids raised on rock. I know for myself, it was the version of the song I first came to know, even if I knew right off it was an intentionally ironic cover, and whenever I listen to Frank Sinatra’s version, I sometimes find myself waiting for the verse about killing a cat my way.)Some cover songs are more socially incongruous than musically incongruous. That is, given common stereotypical expectations of cultural others, some cover versions can seem more incongruous than they probably should, or than they actually are on musical terms. Covers like Guinean singer Sekouba Bambino’s cover of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” or Algerian rock singer Rachid Taha’s “Rock El Casbah” version of the Clash song will strike many western listeners as unexpected, though on further reflection, an Algerian rock singer covering “Rock the Casbah” is immanently congruous. (In his recent and hilarious novel, Osama Van Halen, Michael Muhammad Knight several times brilliantly skewers such cross-cultural expectations.) In some cases, both sorts of incongruity coexist. An example is Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso’s version of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.” What’s incongruous musically here is the crossing of musical genres (something not at all incongruous with Taha’s cover, though present to some extent with Sekouba Bambino’s cover of Brown).There are obviously many, many incongruous cover tunes, but here’s a short list of ten highly incongruous covers, in no particular order, without any claims to comprehensiveness, and without separating those that are great music from those that are spectacularly bad, but all of which I greatly enjoy for one reason or another.1. The Sex Pistols’ version of “My Way.”2. Caetano Veloso’s cover of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” (admittedly part of a growing cottage industry of jazz and/or “pop standards” versions of Nirvana songs, that also includes covers by artists like Herbie Hancock, Rachel Z, the Josh Roseman Unit, and the Bad Plus)3. Duran Duran’s cover of Public Enemy’s “911 Is A Joke”4. Megadeth’s version of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking”5. Scissor Sisters’ cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”6. Pet Shop Boys’ cover of Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind”7. Tom Jones’ and the Cardigans’ version of the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down The House” (granted not so incongruous on the Cardigans’ part)8. A Perfect Circle’s version of John Lennon’s “Imagine”9. The Sex Pistols’ disco choir remake of their own song “God Save The Queen”10. Diana [...]


Wed, 03 Jun 2009 19:32:00 +0000

Last night I watched Renaissance, an animated film from 2006. It’s one of the more visually striking films I’ve seen in a while, and worth taking a look at for that reason alone. As I watched it, though, I gradually became more and more irritated and eventually a bit offended by the message of the film.

It’s near future, dystopic science fiction set in mid-21st Century Paris. As we eventually find out, a scientist has discovered a method of maintaining life indefinitely, effectively producing immortality. The secret will be exploited by the evil cosmetics/life science corporation she works for so that the company will have power over life and death. The protagonist, a postmodern Harry Callahan from the Casbah type cop, puts an end to the threat posed by the scientist’s research by putting a bullet in her head. (She does eventually come across as arrogant, though only in a scene that’s out of character with her presentation throughout the rest of the movie, and the fact that she’s presented as someone who needs a bullet put in her head by an aggressive male cop when her main sin seems to have been being a bit arrogant was part of what disturbed me, though not the aspect of what disturbed me that I’m mainly writing about here.)

The movie confuses and conflates two messages, that a single entity monopolizing immortality would be bad (to which I’d agree), and that immortality per se would be bad. If anything, it’s the second message that’s ultimately emphasized. The key message of the movie is “Without death, life is meaningless.” That’s not my abstraction from the film, but a direct quote from a pivotal moment, which is then replayed in flashback form a bit later (right before the bullet in the head) in case anyone didn’t get the take away point.

I realize that my taking offense is probably an overreaction on my part based in the fact that I lost my own partner, Reginald, to cancer so recently. Still, that sentiment that death is what makes life meaningful seems at best to rationalize the inevitable as virtue or wisdom. Personally, I don’t want to live forever, but that’s because I don’t want to live forever without Reginald. I also wouldn’t want to live forever in pain or in an invalid state, but if I could live forever, healthily, with Reginald, I would very much like that.

(The idea that death is what makes life meaningful, in addition to being a rationalization [if we’ve got to die, then that’s a good thing] seems perhaps a misapplication of market thinking where it doesn’t really apply. Death makes life and our days scarce, and scarce things are more valuable. But that sort of supply and demand thinking only really works well for tradable items, like gold. We can’t trade our days, and supply, demand, scarcity, and so forth apply to life and death only in vague and inexact ways at best.)

In any case, if death is what gives your life meaning, that’s just sad. I certainly didn’t need death to enter the picture for life with my partner to have meaning.

Thoughts on Allusion, Quotation, Remixing, and Poetry

Tue, 07 Apr 2009 21:23:00 +0000

Both on this blog and on “Reginald Shepherd’s Blog” (which I’ve been maintaining since his death), I recently posted a piece called “Reginald and the Muses” (Follow this link for the piece on this blog, or this link for the post on Reginald’s blog). The post discussed both Reginald’s views on the nature of poetic inspiration and production and a poetic fragment he had written while he was in the intensive care unit in the hospital last year.On Reginald’s blog, a former student of his, Deanna, wrote to ask, “how do you feel about poets using the fragments in order to create new poems in dedication to him?”I wrote the following in response to Deanna’s question. It’s fairly substantive for a simple reply, so I thought I’d post it here in addition to placing it in the discussion section of the previous post on Reginald’s blog.It’s taken me a few days to formulate a response to this question. I was initially struck with a mix of emotions and thoughts that took me a while to disentangle. I think my feelings on the issue of others working with this particular fragment or other poetic works of Reginald’s are related to two distinct sets of issues – the quality of the work produced and the nature of what’s being done with another’s material.Regarding quality, in general I prefer good art to mediocre. Poets and artists of other sorts draw upon, allude to, or incorporate elements of the works of others all the time – it’s a normal part of artistic production, and there are a number of perfectly legitimate ways in which this can be done. Here, too, I’d prefer that the products of the use of the work of others be good art. (What constitutes “good art” is, of course, a thoroughly complicated matter – one that I’m not addressing here, because it would take me on a long tangential trajectory in a case where it’s been difficult enough for me to disentangle and articulate what I think on the issue. It’s a topic that Reginald addressed at great length in many of his posts on his blog or in his essay collections.)In principle, I feel that my feelings about how others might draw upon Reginald’s work in their own poetry shouldn’t be any different from my feelings regarding the use of anyone else’s poetry. Realistically, though, that’s not the case, especially regarding this issue of quality. Part of the mixed bag of emotions I initially felt upon reading this question was fear and wariness. There’s a big part of me that for purely emotional but very strongly felt reasons doesn’t want anyone mucking around with Reginald’s work. What I’ve done with this fragment was uncomfortable enough, but I’m ultimately happy with the result and the process of producing it, where what I did was to distill what was legible in his fragment, but where all the content is his. I wouldn’t be comfortable adding significant content to it, and I’m certainly not comfortable with anyone else doing so.That said, I also recognize art isn’t always comfortable.There are a number of ways in which poets or other artists quote, allude to, borrow from, or otherwise use or incorporate the work of others. That’s normal, natural, and one of the things that creates vibrant connections between different artists and works. While I may be uncomfortable about the idea of others drawing upon Reginald’s work – which is frankly a worry that I won’t like what’s done, or that I’ll think the result inferior or unworthy of him – I also realize that one of the ways an artist’s work continues to live is through the refractions of it in the works of others. As such and despite my wariness, I’m not opposed in principle to work that utilizes Reginald’s work, though with some important caveats, which constitute much of the rest of this reply.One basic way in which the work of others is utilized is through artistic quotation or allusion (where quotation and allusion are not the same thing, but where quotation may be s[...]

Reginald and the Muses

Mon, 09 Feb 2009 00:12:00 +0000

In the few months since Reginald’s death, I’ve revisited and reread most all of his writing, poetry and prose, a time or two, mostly as a way of coping with his loss and staying in touch with his ideas, though also because in my capacity as his literary executor, I’ve also been collecting together and editing a variety of his works for publication. One piece I’ve recently returned to is his short essay, “Taking Dictation from a Martian Muse,” in which he treats the notion of poetry as derived from the muses in a variety of guises, though focusing especially on Jack Spicer’s notion of poetry as dictation.Reginald was largely skeptical of the idea of poetry as dictation or as derived from Muses or as transmissions from the ghost radio:“Interesting and even inspiring though Spicer’s notion of dictation is, with its promise of escaping what he calls "the big lie of the personal," I wonder if it’s not simply the mirror image of romantic inspiration. Instead of coming from deep within one, from one’s soul or innermost self, the poem comes from outside one, from the Martians or the spooks. In either case, the poet is passive, and abdicates thought and responsibility...Spicer’s Martians seem to be the Muses dressed up in space suits, another way to preserve the romantic (small “r”) notion of the poet as a specially inspired individual with access to the transcendent…”This is not at all to say that Reginald rejected the notion of poetry as inspired through something like a muse (whether one thinks of that in terms of Martians dictating, ghost radios, the workings of the subconscious mind, or possession by muses):“I like the idea of poetry as dictation, because writing does feel like that sometimes. I’ve had at least one poem that was literally dictated to me—I woke up and the poem was reciting itself in my head, though I had to come up with my own ending. Don't we all? In that sense Spicer conveys what it often feels like to do poetry.”I’d say it’s more that Reginald felt that while muses may be involved in the process of writing poetry, they are not sufficient, for the poem requires the active working by the poet upon potentially poetic material, wherever that may have come from:“The poem, when it is at its best, when we are at our best, is a kind of agon between the poet and the language, and the poet has to bring all his or her resources to bear, or it’s not a real struggle at all, just a performance.”Reginald’s penultimate poem (if it may be called that – more on that below) is a good example of the relation between muses and poetry, both in the sense of its writing being clearly of something other than his fully conscious, cogent mind, and in the sense that it’s obviously not fully formed poetry.As many who knew him or follow his writing know, in mid-April last year, several months before he did die in September, Reginald almost died as a result of a perforated intestine, followed by massive abdominal infection and blood poisoning. He was unconscious for ten days in the Intensive Care Unit, with a ventilator down his throat, alongside many other tubes, lines, and pieces of equipment. Even when he regained consciousness, he was completely unable to talk until the ventilator tube was removed, and barely able to talk after that because of lack of strength. For a few days after regaining consciousness and having the ventilator tube removed, he had frequent hallucinations (the result of both the sedatives he had been on and his sickness) and slipped easily in and out of fully cogent consciousness even when I don’t think he was hallucinating.During the period of a few days during which he was in and out of consciousness but was largely unable to talk, Reginald communicated to me or to his ICU nurses by writing on a clipboard. Much of this writing is completely illegible, as he didn’t have good motor control in his arms at that point. Much of what is legible is lac[...]

Things I Miss, 8

Thu, 29 Jan 2009 20:49:00 +0000

I miss Reginald’s passion and joy in living. Despite the hard life he had (see Hard Knocks Life: Things I Miss, 7), Reginald loved life like no other person I’ve known.

A number of people who knew him well have shared their memories of him since he died. One description that has recurred in several people’s memories was that Reginald was always “on.” You couldn’t be bored around him, and you couldn’t not be continually stimulated, because Reginald was constantly engaging with the world and with the people around him in a deep way. You also couldn’t ever be lazy in your thinking around him, because he tended to presume others were deeply engaged in the topic at hand and to expect nothing less.

He really wasn’t very good at relaxing or at being “low key” (if anything, trying to relax tended to stress him out and to be unrelaxing); he constantly wanted to see what there was to see. (Given the elaborate and active quality of his dreams, I think his mind was probably “on” and going full bore even when he was asleep.)

I miss also his specific passions. He loved the arts, poetry and music most of all, though his tastes were both deep and precise. For example, while he could certainly be described as an opera fan, it wasn’t opera in general that he liked. It was a small number of specific operas that he loved, but those that he loved, he was deeply passionate about. I’ve just mentioned opera, but the same could be said about his tastes regarding a variety of musical or other art genres, with a deep interest in specific or precise works of art. I suppose in some sense the same is true for most anyone who is interested in art of other things, but the extent of his passion for those things he liked was remarkable. For example, he didn’t just like Tristan und Isolde; he had to have every distinct recording available of it. And when he listened to music, it was an all consuming experience for him, as was reading poetry, or anything else that he thought worth doing. Again, whatever he was doing, he was focused and “on.”

Further, he tended to identify very strongly with those works of art (with again this being most especially the case with music) which he did care about. Or perhaps I have that backwards. Perhaps it was those works and things that he identified that he in turn felt so passionate about.

In any case, I profoundly miss the way in which he so deeply, passionately cared about the music he listened to, the books he read, the food he ate, the conversations he had, and about living life.

Hard Knocks Life: Things I Miss, 7

Tue, 27 Jan 2009 20:59:00 +0000

Reginald had a hard time going through this world – this world he didn’t survive, to echo a line from one of his poems.

I’m not just referring to the more apparent biographic facts of his hard knocks life (a song, by the way, that he much enjoyed both in Annie and in the Jay Z rendition), though I am in part referring to those:

Growing up as the child of a single mother in the 1960s (he told me once that he identified fiercely with the Supremes’ song “Love Child” when he was a child).

Growing up living in public housing tenements in the Bronx.

Losing his mother when he was fifteen.

Dealing with the same tribulations that most every gay man in this culture deals with in coming to terms with that gayness.

Living with HIV for well over a decade.

Living with and dying from cancer and the horrible pains it brought.

Dealing with a host of “lesser” medical issues, like the osteoporosis (possibly a side effect from HIV meds) that led to fractures in his hip and at least one rib.

None of these made it easy to walk through life.

I’m also referring, though, to the combination of innocence and a strong sense of justice with which he continually encountered this unjust world.

One thing the two of us shared was a sense of how we thought the world should be, fair and equitable, with thought and beauty in all its forms valued.

But he combined this with a sort of innocence. He kept expecting the world to be fair and just, for people to be thoughtful and to value reflection rather than ignorance, and as a result he was often disappointed about the state of the world, but one of his most charming traits, that I miss so, was that he kept on presuming the best of people.

Some who knew us, but not in depth, thought I was the optimist and he the pessimist of the couple. They were wrong. In reality, I’m much more likely to view the world through a deeply cynical and pessimistic lens, with one consequence being that I can almost always envision things being even worse than they are. I may become angry, upset, or feel loathing towards aspects of the state of the world, but rarely are my expectations disappointed when people or things are stupid, hateful, vile, or otherwise bad. It’s more that I’m pleasantly surprised when things are good and beautiful.

Though it meant he often bumped up against disjuncture between his expectations and the state of the world, his sense of justice combined with optimistic innocence was a part of his charm that I sorely miss, and that I feel unbalanced without.

National Book Critics Award Finalists

Tue, 27 Jan 2009 17:05:00 +0000

Reginald's essay collection, Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry, has just been named as a finalist for the award in criticism by the National Book Critics Circle. Although I'm obviously saddened by the fact that he didn't live to see this, I'm pleased to see the positive attention his work has received.

Follow this link for more details.

A Bittersweet Happy Day

Tue, 20 Jan 2009 20:28:00 +0000

Today is a good day. It’s also a hard day for me, and I suspect for many others.This past Thanksgiving and Christmas were tough holidays for me, being the first holiday season without my Reginald. Still, the burden was lightened a bit by the fact that I was surrounded by family those days, and I had many others wishing me well those days, because they knew those holidays would be difficult for me under the circumstances. Tougher still, on January 15, was our first anniversary since his death (not a wedding anniversary, since we couldn’t get married in this state, but our anniversary in any case). This, too, was made a bit easier because my parents made a point of taking me out to dinner, and because they made a point of trying to celebrate Reginald rather than trying to take my mind off his loss, which would have just made it worse.Three days have been more unexpectedly hard for me since losing Reginald, as they’ve been happy days that have also underscored what I’ve lost and what he is missing: election day/night; yesterday’s Martin Luther King holiday; and today’s inauguration of Barack Obama.Yesterday, on Martin Luther King day, I read a news article that nicely tied together that holiday with today’s inauguration of Obama.As an aside, among other things the article reported on an interesting survey. Almost a year ago, last March, the surveyors had asked a sample of Americans whether they thought Martin Luther King’s dream (i.e. from the “I have a dream..” speech) had been fulfilled. At that point, 35% of white Americans thought it had been, while 34% of black Americans thought so. The survey was repeated sometime between the November election and now. Among white Americans, the numbers had increased to 46% now saying King’s dream had been fulfilled, while among black Americans, more than 2/3 (69%) now said so. I’m not exactly sure what to make of that, but it’s clearly interesting.What most affected me though was a quote from an analyst, Bill Schneider, “Most blacks and whites went to bed on election night saying, 'I never thought I'd live to see the day.' That's what the nation is celebrating on this King holiday: We have lived to see the day."When I read that, I broke down sobbing, as I did several times today watching inauguration coverage, precisely because Reginald didn’t live to see the day.Yesterday and today have been good days. I spent part of yesterday reflecting on how Martin Luther King’s legacy has shaped my life. As a result of his efforts and the efforts of everyone else, sung or unsung, who was a part of the civil rights movement, I, as a white boy growing up in the south, was fortunate to not be deluged with (as much of) the racist garbage that poisoned the minds of earlier generations. Reginald and I were able to live openly as an interracial gay couple without ever encountering so much as a dirty look from any neighbors for seven years in Pensacola, Florida, and that as much as anything is a testament to how successful in some ways the civil rights, feminist, and gay rights movements have been in altering possibilities.Still, I know how far there is to go on social issues relating to race, gender, or sexuality. If Reginald had lived to see election day, he would have been overjoyed at Obama’s election and the Democratic pick-ups in both the House and Senate, but, sensitive soul that he was, he would probably have been even more crushed than I was by the wave of anti-gay ballot initiative results across the country, from Prop 8 in California to the fact, much closer to home for us, that 2/3 of the electorate in Florida saw fit to constitutionally ban for gays something that we weren’t recognized as having rights to in the first place.Today came terribly slow, too. Reginald should have lived to see this day – by which I mean both that it’s terrib[...]

Disco Gets Me Down: Things I Miss, 6

Sun, 09 Nov 2008 18:31:00 +0000

I’ve long had mixed feelings about disco. Much of it’s great music that’s fun, upbeat, and uplifting, but I typically have a bittersweet feeling whenever I listen to disco, as it tends to evoke for me a generation of dead gay boys.

(Perhaps ironically, it was not the HIV that took so many of his generation but cancer that took my gay boy. Reginald was quite open about his HIV+ status from the time I met him, and so I always knew that down the road, serious health problems could be part of our relationship, especially since at the time I met him in late 1998, while protease inhibitors were a godsend for many with HIV, including Reginald, no one could say with certainty whether combination therapy would work well in the long term, as those drugs were still relatively new. As it turns out, Reginald never really had any problem with HIV. I do wonder if it contributed to some of the complications that ultimately allowed the cancer to take over after an initially good response to chemo – some of his doctors thought it probably did, others were less sure, though none of them thought it was a good idea to have HIV and cancer at the same time.)

Since Reginald died, my disco emotions have been amplified, and I’ve found it almost painful to listen to disco or most any other dance music. While it’s far from what I miss most with his loss, one thing I do miss is seeing him dance. As most who knew him well know, Reginald could dance like nobody’s business, and probably the most pleasurable thing about watching him dance was the look of sheer joy he had when dancing. Thinking about it as I write, I’m laughing with the joy of that memory and crying as I know I’ll never see him dance again.

Things I Miss, 5

Sat, 25 Oct 2008 21:00:00 +0000

I miss Reginald’s physical presence: his physical touch as lover; holding hands as we watched TV, drove down the road, or in a thousand other settings; the feel of his short cropped hair on my hand; passing or lingering caresses; the feel of his lips on mine when we kissed.

I miss his distinctive smell, the result of the combination of Old Spice deodorant with his particular body chemistry. (Since part of his scent was a fairly common deodorant, when in public, I often catch hints of the smell of others who are similar in scent to him, but that are always subtly “wrong” because of the combination of the deodorant with different body chemistries.)

I miss the sounds of Reginald: his gentle breathing and small snores as he slept; the particular cadence of his steps through which I often recognized him in public places even when I couldn’t see him (e.g. if we were in a store, and he had gone to get some item and then caught up with me from behind); the sounds of his returning home – the thump of his car tires passing over the metal grate just in front of the garage, the opening and closing of his car door, his key in the door lock – that signaled to me that even if he had only been out for 15 minutes, I didn’t have to miss him anymore.

Things I Miss, 4

Tue, 14 Oct 2008 21:47:00 +0000

I miss Reginald’s sleeping.

Reginald didn’t snore loudly, at least not after he had a minor surgery several years ago to correct a deviated septum, but he made precious little snore-sounds, and that gentle snoring is now painfully missing from my nightscape.

I miss his falling asleep in the car. Reginald fell asleep quite easily when I was driving (though fortunately not while he was driving). His same gentle snores were a common companion on long trips, but even on drives to the mall or to Barnes and Noble 10 to 15 minutes from home, he would often nod off, trusting me to get us there safely.

I miss watching him sleep.

Many nights when I couldn’t sleep for whatever reason I took great pleasure simply watching him asleep, the slow rhythmic movement of his chest up and down. Often enough, this was enough to calm whatever anxieties or fears I was suffering at the moment.

His last several months, there were days upon days (both in the hospital and at home) when his pain, nausea, and fatigue were almost too much for any person to bear. I don’t miss that at all, but I do miss watching him in those moments when he slipped off to sleep on those days, his sufferings eased, at peace at least for the moment, but still alive.

The ten days beginning April 16 this past spring were among the worst of my life. Following the abdominal perforation that almost killed him right then, he lay sedated and unconscious for ten days. Most of that time he was clearly experiencing great pain with his body and I presume some part of his mind. His body would twitch and spasm and he would continually clench his fists. But there were times when the pain would ebb, the twitchings and spasming cease, and he would settle into the gentle rhythms of sleep. In the midst of horror, those moments watching him sleep were good times.

Things I Miss, 3

Sat, 11 Oct 2008 15:41:00 +0000

It’s now been a month since my dear Reginald died, and the loss has only gotten harder as the reality of his absence and the realization that I’ll never see him again in this life has begun to fully sink in.One of the things I miss most is his empathy and generosity.Reginald was the most empathetic person I have ever encountered. This could bring him pain, as the suffering and sorrow of others hurt him dearly, but also great joy, as the successes and happiness of others brought him great happiness, too.Although he kept up with the news, it was almost a burden for him, for all the news of suffering in the world depressed and saddened him almost as much as his own personal health problems. Though he loved reading history, reading about recent history was difficult for him – books about the 20th century and all the violence and atrocities therein he often had to read in small doses spread over months because they upset him so.Obviously, it’s not this suffering that resulted from his empathy that I miss, but his kindness and generosity that were linked with his empathy. One fond memory I have (fond though wrapped within pain) is from mid-April of this year. I had been teaching all day when I got a phone call from Reginald that he had gone to the emergency room with very severe abdominal pain (pain, we soon found out, stemming from the abdominal perforation that almost killed him at that point). I rushed to the emergency room, and when I entered the waiting room I found him stooped over with pain walking as best he could across the room to give a vomit basin to another man who was getting sick. It was so typical of Reginald that of an entire roomful of people, it was he, doubled over with pain more severe than I can imagine from something that very nearly killed him, that took the trouble to perform this small act of kindness. I don’t want to knock the other people there – they were all either sick or injured themselves, or tending to a loved one in that condition – but simply to acknowledge the way in which he was almost as concerned with others as himself even in the worst of circumstances. Likewise, towards the end of his life, while he was certainly scared and didn’t want to die, he was more concerned that I and others were suffering on account of losing him.Reginald internalized the experiences of others to a great extent, so that suffering in the world caused great pain to him, but the happier side of this was that the successes and joys of those he cared about brought him intense pleasure as well. He was always greatly pleased by the accomplishments of those around him, with so far as I could tell never a hint of the secret jealousy and envy that so frequently accompanies the success of others for many, if not most people.The many online tributes that have been posted in the past month are full of tales of his generosity to his fellow poets and/or friends. Though he was quick to acknowledge those who had been important to his success in life generally and in poetry and other writing (see his many writings about his mother or the tributes to Alvin Feinman on his blog), he had clawed his way to success as a writer largely through his own efforts without much benefit of patronage or personal ties to bigwigs. While no one is fully the proverbial “self-made man,” he was about as close as they come.His response to this was to do what he could to help others to success to the extent he could in a way few had done for him. Occasionally he did this when another course of action might have done more for his own career. For example, with his first poetry anthology, The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, Reginald had multiple reasons for selecting the poets he did: they’re all exce[...]

Things I Miss, 2

Mon, 29 Sep 2008 23:51:00 +0000

I miss caring for and tending to Reginald.

I miss cooking for him when he could keep some food down – always iffy, since he was on chemotherapy from last December through April, and on multiple antibiotics continuously from then on. I miss getting him cans of Ensure or Gatorade when those were the only things he could keep down.

I miss rigging up and administering IV drip medications, and changing surgical wound dressings.

I miss the rare good days in the hospital – the days when Reginald didn’t have too much pain or nausea, and I would sit reading or working on my laptop while he slept or worked on his own computer.

I miss driving him around town to doctors’ visits – over the last several months, when he wasn’t in the hospital, he saw one or another doctor almost every day.

A few days ago I was talking with someone on the phone and mentioned that there were some health care smells that I’d as soon never smell again, alcohol swabs, wound prep swabs, saline solution. That wasn’t quite right: I long to smell those smells, but while nursing him at home or being with him while nurses tend to him in the hospital. I miss the less pleasant bile and vomit smells, too, and the task of emptying and cleaning vomit basins.

To be clear: I don’t miss the bad smells and the vomit and other fluids themselves. Even less do I miss the suffering, pain, and nausea Reginald felt for so long. But much of the past year, all I could do was tend to him the best I could and show my love by doing so. I often felt miserable to not be able to do more – nursing him often felt like the least I could do when it was the most I could do – but I miss being able to at least do that.

Things I Miss

Fri, 26 Sep 2008 20:25:00 +0000

It’s been a bit over two weeks since my dear Reginald passed. It hasn’t fully sunk in, I don’t think. I know he’s gone, but I find myself several times a day thinking things like, “I’ve got to tell Reginald about that…” At the same time, I miss him profoundly.

Most of all I miss our love. I miss how much he loved me and while I’ll always love him, I’ll miss being able to say it and show it to him. I’ll always treasure the time we had, or for that matter that the last thing I said to him was “I love you” and that the last thing he said was “I love you” to me – but that’s not enough, and I don’t think it ever will be.

One form our love and communion took was conversation, and on a daily level, I’ll miss that about as much as anything. We were nearly continuously together every day, and that because we wanted to be, and we talked all the time about nearly everything.

We talked about writing – about different literary forms, about the skills and experience of writing poetry, ethnography, fiction, essays, blogs, and other forms, about different forms as art or not art, about the relation between writing and society. We discussed music, something we’re both passionate about – from Britten to boy bands, the state of the music industry and music recording, why some people still seem to viscerally react to Schoenberg, what we liked or disliked about various music. We talked about politics and paleontology, generally agreeing that politics was probably more important but paleontology more interesting, finding debates about punctuated equilibrium or whether sauropods were likely endotherms, ectotherms, or homeotherms more interesting than Obama vs. McCain. We discussed race and racism, food in its many varieties and proper cooking of each, The Simpsons, the relative merits of science fiction television shows, whatever either of us was reading (which gave plenty of topics to explore), culture and history.

Not only did we share wide ranging interests, but he was always smart and knowledgeable about whatever we discussed. (Reginald’s knowledge of world history was particularly formidable. I’ve never encountered directly or indirectly anyone else as knowledgeable about history in general – and I include the writers of world histories. His many world history books are filled with marginal notes correcting the small errors of detail he found.) I don’t think I’ll ever have another conversation as interesting, challenging, or deep as the one we had the last 8 ½ years.

Our conversation, as with that of most couples I presume, was also larded with references that only made sense to the two of us. I miss already being able to say things like “No zombie turkey” or “It’s not yummy” or “Nothing Cake” or “Are you going to the thing?” and make any sense to someone, at least not without such convoluted explanation as to obviate their use as a shorthand – and a shorthand for a range of past shared experience that wouldn’t be explained anyway even with the most elaborate of explanations.

Reginald Shepherd, 1963 - 2008

Tue, 16 Sep 2008 00:55:00 +0000

Reginald Shepherd, who was my partner, best friend, lover, confidante, and so much more, died this past week on September 10 after a fight with cancer. The following is a short piece about Reginald I wrote for his memorial service, which was held yesterday.

Reginald Shepherd, 1963 - 2008

Reginald Shepherd was born April 10, 1963 in New York City and passed away September 10, 2008 in Pensacola, surrounded by people whom he loved and who loved him.

Reginald was the son of Blanche Berry, who was originally from Macon, Georgia. He grew up in Bronx, New York, along with a sister, Regina Graham. He moved to Macon and lived with his aunt, Mildred Swint, after the death of his mother when he was fifteen.

Reginald earned a B.A. degree from Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, and M.F.A. degrees in Creative Writing from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and the University of Iowa in Iowa City. He taught literature and creative writing, most recently at Antioch University and earlier at the University of West Florida, Cornell University, and Northern Illinois University, and he was remarkably dedicated to his students and the craft of writing.

Reginald was a magnificent writer. He published five books of poetry (Some Are Drowning; Angel, Interrupted; Wrong; Otherhood; and Fata Morgana) and a book of essays (Orpheus in the Bronx), and he edited two poetry anthologies (The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries and Lyric Postmodernisms). He recently completed a sixth book of poetry and a second volume of essays that will be published posthumously. Among many awards for his writing, he most recently earned a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 and won the 2007 silver medal for poetry in the Florida Book Awards.

Reginald met his partner, Robert Philen, in December, 1999 in Ithaca, New York, and ever since, their relationship has grown, based in conversation, compassion, sharing, friendship, passion, and profound love. The two have lived in Pensacola since July, 2001.

Over the past year, Reginald faced tremendous adversity and continuous pain from a series of illnesses related to cancer, but he faced it all with profound strength and courage, tenacity, love of life – and gentleness, dignity, and innocence. He fought long and hard against the illness, but as one nurse who worked with him toward the end put it, “He remained a gentleman to the end.”

Any of us who knew Reginald are devastated and heartbroken at this loss, and we will miss his unique combination of verve and vivacity, wit and intelligence, tenacity and strength, gentleness, empathy, and sweetness, generosity and innocence. We will also, despite our profound sadness, remain ennobled, happy, and blessed by the time we spent with him.

The Improbability of Being Alive

Fri, 20 Jun 2008 21:30:00 +0000

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the fragility of life (for pretty straightforward reasons – see my previous post). I’ve also been thinking a bit about the sheer improbability of being alive.

Here’s the most dramatic personal example I can come up with of what I mean:

Members of one of the families from whom I’m descended, specifically my father’s mother’s mother’s family, emigrated from Ireland to Virginia sometime in the late 1600s, establishing a nuclear family household there. Sometime shortly thereafter, this household was wiped out in a raid by local Native Americans, except for an infant son, my ancestor, who was left alive, found by other members of the Euro-American community and taken in.

Whatever their particular grievance, whether against the specific family or against Europeans in general moving into the area, and there were likely plenty of grievances to choose from, had this particular raiding party chosen to completely finish off the household, the world today would be little if any different in any big way, but I wouldn’t be here. Likewise if the child had died of starvation or exposure before being found and taken into another household. Even if the Native Americans in question had chosen to adopt the child into their own community, a not unlikely scenario in the circumstances, that child might have had descendants alive today, but I wouldn’t be here.

In many more mundane ways, my mere existence depends upon a highly improbable concatenation of little decisions having been made by untold numbers of people. Upon having his job as an engraver transferred from a paper plant in upstate New York to a new plant outside of Pensacola, Florida in the early 1950s, had my grandfather and grandmother decided that job or not job, they weren’t moving to muggy Northwest Florida in those pre-air-conditioned Jim-Crow-era days, then my mother and my father would have been around, but never met, resulting in no me.

Given that the human species did evolve, and given that the Neolithic transition occurred (both improbable to varying degrees beforehand), I don’t find it particularly improbable that there are people around now, or even that there are 6 billion people around now, but each of those 6 billion people, as individuals, is the result of an astronomically improbable chain of prior human actions and decisions.

Perhaps not the most profound or original thought (it is, after all, a basic premise of the movie Back to the Future), but something I’ve been thinking about lately.

Where I've Been

Mon, 02 Jun 2008 18:38:00 +0000

I’ve been a bit preoccupied lately.

In mid-April, my partner, Reginald Shepherd, suffered a serious, nearly fatal, medical crisis. For reasons still unknown, a perforation opened in his small intestine, leading to severe abdominal infection and peritonitis, blood poisoning (one of the things that nearly killed him), catastrophically low blood pressure (think in the neighborhood of 40 over 20) and a heart attack, kidney failure for a short period at the height of the crisis, about ten days on a ventilator and on hallucination-provoking sedatives, three surgeries over the course of those ten days, two weeks (that included the aforementioned ten days) in the intensive care unit, three more weeks in the hospital, and an ongoing recovery process at home. See Speech After Long Silence, Tiene Dolor?, and Long Hard Road Out Of Hell for Reginald’s account of the ordeal.

Reginald’s medical trials didn’t begin in mid-April. The whole past year has been quite rough for him, with a series of emergency room visits (in three separate states), that led in November to diagnosis with colon cancer, a successful surgery to remove the tumor, but also the discovery of the spread of the cancer to the liver, followed by many rounds of chemotherapy and a process called radiofrequency ablation to cook the two tumors on the liver. In short, the situation that began in April occurred after a very trying year and after we were beginning to think (with good reason – his cancer prognosis looked and looks pretty good) his medical condition was under control. As a result, I have mixed feelings about the timing of this crisis: after the entire past year and everything he and we have been through, especially once things were looking up, it’s frustrating, frightening, even shocking to have something else come along to make “Stage 4 Metastatic Cancer” seem like a walk in the park, while at the same time, if this was going to happen, better in mid-April than a few months earlier when the cancer was very much not under control, when even the best case recovery from the acute crisis of blood poisoning would have meant a long delay of chemotherapy at a critical juncture.

As a result of the past year, and especially the last couple months, I have a somewhat different perspective on health, illness, doctors, nurses, medical care and institutions than I did a year ago, but more on that over my next few posts.

Boring Ethnography

Wed, 09 Apr 2008 00:08:00 +0000

In my previous post (“Some Thoughts on Ethnography”), I mentioned having recently reviewed the various essays in Writing Culture, including that by Mary Louise Pratt, while preparing for a discussion in a graduate seminar.In Pratt’s essay, shortly after the section I discussed in my previous post, Pratt writes (p. 33; parenthetical added):“Much must be left behind in the process (the process of converting subjective experience and field notes into formal ethnography, especially the components of ethnography engaged in objectivizing narrative)…There are strong reasons why field ethnographers so often lament that their ethnographic writings leave out or hopelessly impoverish some of the most important knowledge they have achieved, including the self-knowledge. For the lay person, such as myself, the main evidence of a problem is the simple fact that ethnographic writing tends to be surprisingly boring. How, one asks constantly, could such interesting people doing such interesting things produce such dull books? What did they have to do to themselves?”I’ll grant that much ethnographic writing is boring, some more boring even than punk rock (see “On Why Punk Rock Is So Boring”). It is usually writing by academics after all, and most academic writing in general is dull in form and style, even when once read the material discussed might be quite exciting.Still, each time I encounter this passage (I generally encounter it from time to time when I’m prepping for a class for which I’ve assigned Writing Culture as reading), I react negatively. This time around, I reacted a bit differently and with more positive results (i.e. I didn’t just snarkily wonder why someone from a lit theory background would leave the scintillating neighborhood of lit crit and theory to pay detailed attention to something as tedious as ethnography). I think that Pratt, in this passage, is both misperceiving the boringness of ethnography and asking the wrong sorts of questions of ethnography (or rather her questions are good ones, but they’re good questions about virtually any form of academic writing – why must writing about so many exciting topics [quasars, lemmings, market systems, novels] be so often so dreadfully boring?).First off, as a genre of academic writing, a surprising number of ethnographies are not boring. Virtually every cultural anthropologist has a list of ethnographies that they’re positively passionate about, not because they’re excellent analyses (though that may be another [and ideally overlapping] list of books some are passionate about), but because they’re wonderful, well written, and engaging books.I said above I think Pratt was asking the wrong sort of question about ethnography. My question is this: Why do we expect ethnographies (as examples of academic writing) to not be boring, and why are we disappointed when they are boring? (And I ask this non-rhetorically, for we [or at least I] do expect ethnographies to be interesting and experience disappointment when this isn’t the case.) After all, there are few other forms of scholarly writing for which we have such expectations (perhaps history writing). No one is disappointed when a physics report or economics article or essay of literary criticism is dull, because no one (I should probably say almost no one) expects them to be otherwise – it’s more a surprise if they’re not boring.Virtually every academic discipline has a corresponding genre of popular writing written for a lay audience that’s expected to be interesting and engaging, but ethnography and[...]

Some Thoughts on Ethnography

Sat, 05 Apr 2008 22:22:00 +0000

I recently read Robert Lowie’s The German People. It’s an ethnography of sorts of German culture, at least in the sense that it’s a “writing of culture” (more on this text as ethnography below). So far as I can tell, it’s a largely forgotten book, certainly much less widely read by anthropologists today than several other Lowie books, such as The Crow Indians, Primitive Religion, or Social Organization.As I read The German People, I couldn’t help but to think of a more popular and more widely read ethnography, Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and The Sword. The two books have some important things in common. Both were written and published during World War II, and both can be seen as attempts to understand “the enemy,” both for the war and the succeeding occupation. (Benedict’s research was specifically commissioned by the U.S. government for this purpose.) In the processing of making sense of the Germans and Japanese respectively, the two texts also no doubt offered an important humanizing of the two nationalities.The two works have a very different “feel” in other ways. Neither is the conventional ethnography written on the basis of participant observation field work in the culture in question. Benedict’s work was largely based in extensive interviews with Japanese-Americans (so that there was the use of interview methods typical of ethnography, but without the often more prominent participant observation). Benedict’s work “feels” very much like a conventional ethnography, even if based on for the time an unconventional total methodology. Ironically, Lowie’s experience of German culture was much more direct than Benedict’s of Japanese culture (Lowie was not a participant observer there, but had had extensive first hand experience of the culture as a student earlier in the century), while his text has little of the stylistic “feel” of an ethnography at all, really fitting more into the genre of social history.Fortuitously, while I was reading Lowie’s The German People, I was also reviewing the various essays in the mid-1980s text Writing Culture for an upcoming discussion with grad students in a seminar on culture theory.In Mary Louise Pratt’s essay in the collection, “Fieldwork in Common Places,” she writes (p. 32; parenthetical note on “it” added):“James Clifford speaks of it (the persistence of personal narrative alongside objectifying narrative) as ‘the discipline’s impossible attempt to fuse objective and subjective practices.’ Fieldwork produces a kind of authority that is anchored to a large extent in subjective, sensuous experience. One experiences the indigenous environment and lifeways for oneself, sees with one’s own eyes, even plays some roles, albeit contrived ones, in the daily life of the community. But the professional text to result from such an encounter is supposed to conform to the norms of a scientific discourse whose authority resides in the absolute effacement of the speaking and experiencing subject.”This quality of the ethnography does several things.1. It gives ethnography a distinctive feel. Those texts we call ethnography generally do present in some way the ambivalence between personal, subjective narrative and third person, objectifying narrative. The lack of this subjective and personal element is largely what makes The German People feel like it’s not an ethnography, even if it is “writing culture.”2. The tension between these elements in ethnography is, I think, what is largely responsible for the long hist[...]

Eqbal Ahmad and Terrorism

Mon, 31 Mar 2008 17:19:00 +0000

I recently read a short collection of essays by and interviews with the Eqbal Ahmad, Terrorism: Theirs and Ours.In the title piece, “Terrorism: Theirs and Ours,” I read Ahmad as making two important points about what you could call (Ahmad doesn’t phrase it this way) “the discourse of terrorism” or (if you prefer your terminology non-Foucaultian) “the way people tend to write and speak about terrorism.”1. One of his important points is that “terrorism” as an entity is generally left undefined, with the result being that the term is arbitrarily applied to “their” political violence and not to “ours.” (If I read him correctly, Ahmad is against the use of violence to further political ends in general.) This creates interesting situations over time. For example, Menachim Begin, Yitzak Shamir, and others were at one time “terrorists,” with the British offering rewards for them as “terrorists,” etc., while later, when they became “ours,” they became “liberation fighters.” Or a converse example, many individuals who were later involved in the Taliban and/or Al Qaeda were “freedom fighters” when fighting the Evil Empire and Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and only more lately termed terrorists. I don’t think Ahmad’s point here is to equate Begin and bin Laden, but to say that if we’re going to bandy a term like “terrorism” about, we ought to have a definition of it with some actual content that we then apply consistently (so, for example, Operation Condor would be seen as problematic when engaging in car bombings and extra-judicial killings in South America and not just when the car bombing happens in D.C.).2. He emphasizes that all instances of terrorism have causes, a point that shouldn’t need to be made (for everything has a cause), but something often studiously left out (or explicitly made verboten) in dominant constructions of “terrorism,” where attempts to understand or explain terrorism are misrepresented as sympathy for terrorism and terroristic violence.Beyond that, it would be nice if Ahmad had gone further in his discussion of causation. In an email exchange about the work, a colleague wrote me that "he plays the victim card, something like 'If you have been terrorized by xyz, you will become terrorists.'" This colleague went on to point out many of the various groups around the world who have clearly been oppressed, victimized, discriminated against, or terrorized who have not resorted to use of terrorist tactics.In my reading, Ahmad doesn’t actually “play the victim card” as this email correspondent put it, but I think his reaction points out something crucial about any potential consideration of the causes of terrorism – that there may be certain experiences or structural situations that terrorists of a variety of stripes share in common, but at best an awareness of such factors will indicate contributing, but not sufficient causes for terrorism (because what of all the peoples who have suffered similarly and not turned to terrorism?).In addition to these points, which I take to be the main points of Ahmad’s argument, as a minor point I did also simply find his take on the PLO to be interesting. He argues that one major problem with the PLO, in addition to the problem of the use of violence for political ends generally, was the lack of any sort of revolutionary ideology, strategy, or practice, such that not only were they terrorists, but ultimately ineffectual terrorists to boot, because of their lack of a[...]

Jane Hurd, A Remembrance

Sun, 23 Mar 2008 21:58:00 +0000

1.Jane Hurd, my grandmother, whom I always called Nana, passed away a few months ago. She died after a battle with throat cancer, about which I’ll only say that as much pain as she did suffer from her illness and treatment, I’m thankful that up until almost the very end, she remained cogent and emotionally herself, and that she seemed to have experienced much less pain than is typical with her particular disease.2.Nana was a good grandmother, both in the sense that she was a good person and a good person to have as a grandmother and in the sense that she was good at embodying an archetype of grandmotherliness.Much of my experience of Nana, many of my feelings about her, much of our relationship was conventional. My relationship with her was in many ways almost the epitome of what a grandmother-grandson relationship is often thought supposed to be like in modern North America. She was utterly devoted to me and my sister, loving, indulgent even (she taught me to break open Nutter Butter cookies and add peanut butter, because they didn’t have enough peanut butter for her grandchildren), and always proud of her grandchildren (if she was ever not proud of me, and there must have been times, she never let it show). I certainly tried to be as good a grandson as possible for her.Much of our experience is powerfully shaped by social structure, discourse, and structured expectations, and certainly in our culture today there are fairly clear ideas about what grandmothers and grandsons are like (or supposed to be like), embodied in the everyday discourse of conversation, in greeting cards, in popular culture, so that I can meaningful refer to my relationship with Nana as “almost the epitome of what a grandmother-grandson relationship is often thought supposed to be like in modern North America.”To recognize that a relationship or set of experiences is strongly shaped by social structure and discourse in no way makes a relationship or experience any less real, authentic, or meaningful. There is a tendency, by many contemporary North Americans at least, to want to see ourselves as purely products of our own actions and to feel cheapened or lessened when actions or feelings are partly due to outside influence. But, the fact that our interactions with one another and our feelings toward one another were in part (but never completely) the playing out of social expectations and structuring doesn’t in any way change the fact that we interacted in certain ways, with accompanying real feelings.3.One of the key traits I associate with Nana is hospitality and generosity. She had a great concern to serve others and that others be served.Especially with me, and my sister, and my cousins, this was probably partly due to her “grandmotherliness.” She was concerned with generosity and hospitality with everyone (it was very difficult to not eat or drink something when visiting her house – a string of questions, such as “Would you like some cookies?,” “Would you like some coffee?,” “Would you like a sandwich,” would generally continue until something was accepted), but she was especially generous with her grandchildren. When I was a child, at Halloween Nana would always have good candy to hand out to all the neighborhood children (not the little packets of two sweet tarts you’d get at some houses, but candy bars), and she’d typically hand out two or three candy bars to each kid. For children she knew, she’d have special bags with extra candy made up ahe[...]

Tips on Destroying the World

Tue, 11 Mar 2008 23:36:00 +0000

Like a lot of people, I worry a good deal about what we humans are doing to the planet, by which I really mean I worry a good deal about what we’re doing to life and the biosphere. Between anthropogenic global warming, ozone depletion, and the threat of nuclear war, as a species we could well end up responsible for a mass extinction event (though we’re be by no means the first organisms to fundamentally alter the planet’s biosphere – all the anaerobic bacteria spewing out oxygen during the first few billion years of life’s history on the planet did far more than we’ve done, or probably can do, to alter the biosphere – which is not at all to diminish the significance of the mass extinction of animals and plants we may be in the process of producing).

I’m not particularly worried that humans will ever wipe out life on the planet, or even our own species, though I do think it’s possible. Probably the best strategy to attempt to wipe out life on the planet, or simply the human species, would be to incite global thermonuclear war. The trouble with such a strategy is that in any conceivable actual situation, including at the most dangerous moments in the history of the Cold War, while the vast majority of individual human beings might be wiped out through the utter obliteration of the populations of the primary targeted regions (obviously a tragedy far beyond anything human beings have managed to do to one another thus far, even over the course of the bloody 20th century), far too many areas would go untargeted to wipe out the species. It’s hard for me to imagine ICBMs being targeted to wipe out all human life in the many rugged valleys of the highlands of New Guinea, or in all areas of the Amazon Basin, or on all the many small islands of the Caribbean or the Pacific, etc. Fall out, Nuclear Winter, and the like might do many of them in, but it’s hard for me to imagine a “naturally occurring” nuclear war wiping out the human species, much less life in general. To wipe out all humans, and much of the rest of life on the planet, I think you’d really need to engineer a conspiracy to end all conspiracies (in the metaphorical and literal senses) cutting across all the nuclear states to give you access to the world’s total nuclear arsenal so that you could target even the smallest Pacific island and every last valley in New Guinea. With access to the world’s total nuclear arsenal, this might be technically possible, though clearly utterly implausible to implement.

Alternately, one could attempt to wipe out the human species via a bioengineered epidemic. While killing billions in such a manner is potentially feasible if you have the ability to engineer and deliver the disease, wiping out the species would likely run into the same sort of mopping up problem as above.

I hadn’t before given much thought to destroying the planet, figuring that was simply not a possibility. Apparently it is possible, even if highly, highly implausible, as I found out when I read this highly entertaining essay on top ways to destroy the Earth. (I’d note that destroying the Earth would certainly destroy all life on the planet, too, though it wouldn’t necessarily wipe out the human species, as many of the methods for destroying the planet require technologies implying that at least some humans would not be confined to the planet.)

More on Taste and Quality in Art

Wed, 05 Mar 2008 18:55:00 +0000

I initially wrote the following, in very slightly different form, as a clarifying comment on my recent post A Democracy of Creation and Taste (But Not Quality). It's long enough, and I put enough work into it, that I didn't want to simply leave it relegated to the comments section of a post where it's less likely to be seen.My concern in that earlier post was not to promote any sort of unitary or definitive hierarchy of the arts nor the idea that there is any single way to discern, appreciate, or evaluate art.For instance, the following selection from the post in which it’s clear that there are a variety of potential criteria, the choice of which leads to different evaluations or appreciations:“If we compare Beethoven’s Symphony # 9 or Mozart’s Requiem with the Ramones’ “I wanna be sedated” or the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” by most criteria, whether originality, synthesis of complex themes, etc., the Beethoven and Mozart are of higher quality, even if you prefer the punk songs. There may be criteria on which the punk songs rate higher, e.g. reduction of music to its minimal components…”If you’re uncomfortable with the use of terms like “higher” in this context (and to be honest, on further reflection, I’m a little uncomfortable with the way I phrased that myself), think of it more that certain works are actually, empirically more a certain way than others, regardless of personal taste.I’m certainly not in favor of any sort of (re-)instatement of some simple high art/low art division that’s arbitrary at best and reflects/reaffirms a stratified class system at worst. I think one of the best and most important consequences of postmodern theory over the past several decades has been to open up serious consideration and reflection on a much fuller array of artistic production. This is reflected in my own thinking, e.g. the way in which in the earlier post and other recent posts related to the topic the discussion has readily considered together as if not unusual Beethoven, the Ramones, Louis Armstrong, Mozart, free jazz, John Cage, Slayer, etc., something that would have been intellectually improbable if not almost impossible a few decades ago. One thing I resist in some varieties of postmodern thinking is a flattening of criticism, discernment, evaluation, and ultimately the appreciation of art or ideas for their own qualities.Taste may be subjective. (I do question the extent to which even taste can be properly regarded as subjective. I know that my own taste in classical music, for instance, is partly the result of my experience with it. Prior to dating the person who became my partner, a man with a great passion for certain varieties of opera and classical music, as well as for other particular musics, I had not had a great deal of exposure to classical music, and didn’t really have a taste for it. It’s over the past eight years that I’ve cultivated a strong taste for that type of music, though at the same time, simple exposure to and experience of a variety of classical music doesn’t really explain why I have strong preferences for some classical music and not for others. To the extent that most of us are largely unaware of the sources of our preferences, I think it can be said at least that taste largely operates as if largely or wholly subjective.) But while taste may be subjective, the qualities inherent in a work are not subject to our particular ta[...]

On Why Pro-Feminist Men Are Not Traitors To Their Sex

Tue, 04 Mar 2008 21:32:00 +0000

A few months ago at a conference, I was involved in a conversation with a few other scholars and the topic of men and feminism came up. One individual (who happened to be female) argued that men couldn’t be feminists, while another (who happened to be male) argued that they could.I pitched in that it didn’t really much matter to me whether I could be a feminist as a man or not. I’m against sexism and gender inequality; I’m sympathetic to feminism; I attempt to actually incorporate gender and issues related to feminism and gender inequality in my teaching; I’ve done at least a few things over the years to try to do my bit for gender equality; and I figure those are the sorts of things that are important. Whether someone wants to refer to me as a feminist, a pro-feminist man, a feminist man, a man sympathetic to feminism, or whatever else is more incidental. I also figure that as a man it would be a bit odd at best for me to dictate to feminist women whether or not I can be a feminist (i.e. I wasn’t going to argue against this person’s saying I couldn’t be a feminist, but I also wouldn’t argue against another feminist woman’s saying I was).That whole set of issues isn’t really the point of this post, though, but just a setting. Next, the female colleague said something I felt was simply wrong, that pro-feminist men are traitors to their sex. I didn’t voice my disagreement at the time, mainly because the conversation shifted gears before I could do so, but I’ve mentally come back to it a few times since.Pro-feminist men aren’t traitors to their sex (or gender) because they can’t be. Neither maleness nor men constitute anything like a coherent social group or entity that they could betray.Still, “maleness,” “masculinity,” “men,” remain useful labels or categories for some descriptive purpose. I began to wonder how this was the case given that males or men in no sense comprise a single, unitary group. There’s no way that one can realistically speak of the interest of men as a group, for instance, given the divides of culture, race, ethnicity, class, family, religion, etc. (The same point can obviously be made of “femaleness,” “femininity,” or “women.”)There are social groups comprised exclusively of one gender. Fraternities on university campuses are one example. They constitute distinct groups, capable of acting collectively as a coherent social entity for specific purposes. But recognizing that a group of men (or women) can in a delimited context comprise a social group is a far cry from recognizing men as a whole (especially cross-culturally and trans-historically) as a group. One can speak realistically of men in groups or groups of men, but not Men as a group.Cross-culturally, within the context of specifically delimited cases, there are instances of gender as social group. For example, in the ethnography Women of the Forest, by Yolanda and Robert Murphy, Mundurucú men are described as constituting such social groups on the basis of gender. All the men of a particular community live collectively in a men’s house, and they act collectively as a gender group from time to time, for certain ritual purposes or on occasion to act punitively toward particular women, exercising power over women as a collectivity, not as individual man or individual patriarch or head of household. In such a setting, a man could potentially be a [...]