Comp Lit 501f: Academic Style (5-week seminar)

A graduate short course on how to write in scholarly genres, mainly focused on articles. Syllabus to come.

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Who’s Afraid of China?

I’ll be giving a keyonte at Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s first annual Asian Studies Undergraduate Research Conference, title “Who’s Afraid of China?” One of the pleasures of writing the talk was the opportunity to go back to these sentences, which I wrote in 2002, whose context was the shift caused by 9/11, in which we went from potentially being enemies of China (you’ll remember the Belgrade embassy bombing of 1999 and the spy plane controversy of 2001) to being allies in the war on Muslim terror.

The insistence on Chineseness as a particularly odd combination of ancient past and scientific future has clearly demonstrated its ability to resurface when needed. Should the geopolitics change again, we will find ourselves right back in the middle of more “coming conflict” literature, perhaps this time forced to work against it in the face of events that will make its predictions seem all the more prescient.

I don’t make predictions much, but this one has come delightfully and perfectly true, so I feel obliged to brag about it. Of course, no one since 1600 would have ever lost money betting on the eventual appearance of anti-Chinese Yellow Perilist sentiment, which will make my back-patting fairly mild.

Source: Printculture

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When Beautiful Dreams are Bad Dreams

Working my way through Conor Friedersdorf’s collection of 2012′s best nonfiction, I have come across a piece by Joshua Foer on a man named John Quijada, who has invented a language, Ithkuil, that attempts to fulfill the age-old dream of a perfect language.

At one point Foer describes what happened after Quijada read Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By:

For Quijada, this was a revelation. He imagined that Ithkuil might be able to do what Lakoff and Johnson said natural languages could not: force its speakers to precisely identify what they mean to say. No hemming, no hawing, no hiding true meaning behind jargon and metaphor. By requiring speakers to carefully consider the meaning of their words, he hoped that his analytical language would force many of the subterranean quirks of human cognition to the surface, and free people from the bugs that infect their thinking.

“As time went on, my goal began changing,” he told me. “It was no longer about creating a mishmash of cool linguistic features. I started getting all these ideas to make language work more efficiently. I thought, Why don’t I just create a means of finishing what all natural languages were unable to finish?

The piece is fascinating (though Foer’s prose is only really average, if by “average” you’ll allow me to refer to the general high quality of New Yorker prose). But it does go to show that dreaming big almost always means dreaming crazy. Quijada’s story is wonderful, and Foer includes just enough of the history of invented languages (you can get more, and have more fun, reading Arika Okrent’s book) to give the whole thing context.

Some flavor of both the lovely, bold, joyful craziness of it all and the desperate grasping for control that accompanies it can be gathered from these two paragraphs, which succeed one another immediately and appear three-quarters of the way through the piece:

He opened a closet and pulled out a plastic tub filled with reams of graph paper documenting early versions of the Ithkuil script and twenty-year-old sentence conjugations handwritten in marker on a mishmash of folded notepads. “I worked on this in fits and starts,” he said, looking at the mass of documents. “It was very much dependent on whether I was dating anyone at the time. This isn’t exactly something you discuss on a first or second date.”

Human interactions are governed by a set of implicit codes that can sometimes seem frustratingly opaque, and whose misreading can quickly put you on the outside looking in. Irony, metaphor, ambiguity: these are the ingenious instruments that allow us to mean more than we say. But in Ithkuil ambiguity is quashed in the interest of making all that is implicit explicit. An ironic statement is tagged with the verbal affix ’kçç. Hyperbolic statements are inflected by the letter ’m.

Source: Printculture

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Song of the Day

Honestly, I couldn’t bear to watch all the way through, but true masochists will enjoy this over and over:

Source: Printculture

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Air pollution in China: alpha/omega?

Useful and interesting discussion at China File on “airpocalypse now.”

Quote from Alex Wang to set up the discussion:

My own view is that China’s tipping point, in a sense, already arrived a few years ago. But the official response has been wholly inadequate to the task. Fundamental weaknesses in the way that China has approached its environmental protection efforts mean that the environmental crisis has continued to run amok.

Put all this in the “why I’m down on China” file, whose contents explain why my family will not be spending my 2013-14 sabbatical there.

Source: Printculture

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Multigenerational social mobility

…is apparently less fluid than we tend to think. A really useful piece from the Economist updates us with the latest research from a variety of social scientists, and also–incredibly usefully–includes links to all the research it cites.

Money quote:

A second method relies on the chance overrepresentation of rare surnames in high- or low-status groups at some point in the past. If very few Britons are called Micklethwait, for example, and people with that name were disproportionately wealthy in 1800, then you can gauge long-run mobility by studying how long it takes the Micklethwait name to lose its wealth-predicting power. In a paper written by Mr Clark and Neil Cummins of Queens College, City University of New York, the authors use data from probate records of 19th-century estates to classify rare surnames into different wealth categories. They then use similar data to see how common each surname is in these categories in subsequent years. Again, some 70-80% of economic advantage seems to be transmitted from generation to generation.

It should by the way be mandatory for articles in newspapers and magazines published online to include links to the scientific papers to which they refer.

Source: Printculture

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Penn / Feb 21 and 22

Two talks coming up at Penn: one, a second try at “Academic Writing, I Love You. Really, I Do,” this time with, lesson learned, purely extemporized (from notes) entractes (on Thursday Feb 21), and, on Friday, a roundtable and talk for the Penn Humanities Forum, whose graduate student organizers have honored me with their invitation. Talk will be brand new work on “Scale, Hierarchy, and the Problem of World Literature.”

Plus I’ll get two see my many friends and colleagues, including Paul and Kevin and hopefully, if she’s in town, Heather.

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Princeton: Com 373, Eng 384: World Literature: Comparative Cosmologies

We normally imagine that the cosmological impulse to describe a total world (of the kind that appears in Plato’s Timaeus) disappears as the field of knowledge is split up, via modern life, into its new parts (religion divided from astronomy, philosophy from physics, biology from history). But what happens when the impulse to cosmology, which we think of as pre-modern, crosses over the modern divide? Are we still world-makers and world-thinkers (about, for instance, “globalization”)? This course begins with a quick overview of premodern cosmological thought; develops tools for thinking cosmologically in the modern age; and then pivots to a series of modern literary works, asking what kinds of worlds they build. We will do cosmological analysis, more or less, on texts that live in a world “beyond” cosmology, asking what they tell us about literature in general, and about the concept of “world literature.” Novels from England, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Argentina, India, and Hong Kong; all readings in English translation.

Click here for the syllabus.

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Best nonfiction of 2012

Per Conor Friedersdorf, who is not my favorite political writer, but still: a list of 102 very good to excellent nonfiction pieces for the year.

I’ll be reading through them when I can (though not this week!) but for now here’s a link to Cory Doctorow’s excellent piece on the future of computing. Opening paragraphs:

General-purpose computers are astounding. They’re so astounding that our society still struggles to come to grips with them, what they’re for, how to accommodate them, and how to cope with them. This brings us back to something you might be sick of reading about: copyright.

But bear with me, because this is about something more important. The shape of the copyright wars clues us into an upcoming fight over the destiny of the general-purpose computer itself.

Source: Printculture

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Imagining a New University

When I was younger I used to pass long car rides from home to college (7 hours, much of it on the PA turnpike) by doing two things (well, three if you count the constant masturbation, but who does?): narrating imaginary golf tournaments to myself (why? I have no idea… I’ve never actually played golf) and imagining the structure of a new university, to be funded by me after I won some enormous lottery jackpot.

(Reader, you are forgiven if, after reading this list, you said to yourself, “so, I guess really just one thing after all.”)

That is why I was delighted to read Lawrence Weschler’s piece imagining a new university in Public Books, which you should also go read. Here’s his vision for the core curriculum:

Hence the core, to be titled Play/Ground—a yearlong course that would take up at least half of the students’ (and the participating faculty’s) workload that first year. Every year, twelve members of the faculty would be peeled off to run the core (a different twelve each year, in a general four-year rotation), chosen to reflect the widest possible range of disciplines: a musicologist, say, and a physicist, a political theorist, a climatologist, a classicist, a microbiologist, a historian of Islam, a sculptor, an information scientist, an economist, and so forth. All the students and faculty in the core would gather together in a large lecture hall every Monday morning for a sequence of three-week minicourses offered, one after the next in turn, by each of the participating faculty, in which said teacher (the musicologist for three weeks, and then the physicist, the political theorist, and so forth) would be expected to take the class on a concentrated tour of one aspect or issue or controversy in their discipline. For the rest of the week, to further explore themes raised by that three-week series of lectures (and then the next and then the next), the class would be broken up into twelve seminars of ten to twelve students, each led by one of the participating faculty (groupings that would meet two or three times a week and stay together through the entire year). Key here would be the fact that in most cases, the faculty leader wouldn’t necessarily be any more conversant with the topic in question than his or her charges: he or she would just have a better sense of how to use the library, how to read, how to hone questions, et cetera. (Though one might imagine a parallel seminar in which the participating faculty themselves would meet on a weekly basis to receive added instruction and compare notes on how the course was proceeding.)

Source: Printculture

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Antanaclasis for everyone

From 50 Rhetorical Devices for Rational Writing (whatever that latter idea means), this delightful sample sentence in the definition of antanaclasis: 

Repetition of a word in a sentence in which a different meaning is applied each time: “If you aren’t fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired, with enthusiasm.”

Sooo good!

Source: Printculture

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Song of the day

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Trading Babies Are Not Enough…

…to bring us to Milton Friedman’s promised land.

I find the baby ads (from E-Trade) obnoxious, partly because they suggest (not despite but because of the humor) a kind of distant limit for the absolute financialization of everyday life, from birth to death, the final dream of which is the end of the welfare state and the incorporation of human beings (thereby neatly reversing Mitt Romney’s canard).

The title of this post derives from new research by Roger Farmer, who shows (or purports to–I’m not qualified to judge) that efficient market hypotheses fail because no market system can include investment choices made by the as-yet-unborn:

Steve Davis and Till von Wachter (2011) have shown that the present value of lifetime income of new entrants to the labour market can differ substantially depending on whether their first job occurs in a boom or a recession. In our model, the lifetime income of the young can differ by as much as 20% across booms and slumps.

Given the choice, the young agents in our model would prefer to avoid the risk of a 20% variation in lifetime wealth. There is a feasible way of allocating resources that would insure them against this risk, but financial markets cannot achieve this allocation, except by chance. The inability of our children to trade in prenatal financial markets is sufficient to invalidate the first welfare theorem of economics.

As Farmer goes on to say, the research has “Keynsian policy implications” (I had figured it might).

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Song of the Da

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More on MOOCs

Apparently, by the way (according to a colleague who works in the field), they’re pronounced “mooks.” Which seems like a mistake.

A good piece today in the IHE. First paragraph captures some of the difficulty I have with the concept as it is currently being put into practice, namely its reliance on the stupidity of a certain kind of administrator and its alignment with an anti-intellectual critique of higher education:

The rush toward the creation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is catching on in higher education like wildfire. All it takes, it seems, is to wave a bit of money around, talk up the brave new world of technological innovation, bash the “failed” world of higher education as we know it, and the privatization troops have administrators in a fit of unexamined, swooning technophilia. These “courses,” however, in addition to offering false promises, also undermine shared governance, run roughshod over established curriculum development procedures and move colleges toward the era of “teacherless classrooms,” which destroy the academic integrity of our institutions and demean the value of the education our students receive.

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