28 abr 2009

Once in a while something will fall into place: a connection or idea that confirms the direction a project seems to be heading. Today I was reading something on María Zambrano, the Spanish philosopher. I had known, vaguely, that she had been in Cuba and known Lezama Lima, etc... but all of a sudden I realized she had been much more active in Lezama's circle and with the journal Orígenes than I really knew. Now Zambrano, whom I had intuited would play a part in the argument I was constructing, becomes the missing link between Lezama and Valente. Maybe Valente would have known and loved Lezama without Zambrano (I'll have to find out) but I find this connection highly suggestive.

I worry that I am re-writing The Twilight of the Avant-Garde, which will appear in about a month from now. My argument in my new book project is that Lorca needs to be put at the center of Spanish modernism (as he is not, surprisingly, in Spain). Once he is established there, then literary history looks quite different from the story that puts Guillén / Salinas / Alonso at the center of things. The other part of the argument is that high / late modernism in Spain derives from this alternate tradition (Lorca, Zambrano) even when it doesn't acknowledge this filiation openly.

I know you're thinking I should get off the modernist high horse already. But there is also the principle of scholarly writing that you should "dance with the one what brung you." In other words, write out of your strengths. If it works well, do it again.

The problem of knowing enough to be a good scholar a problem of learning, but of memory. Memory peaks in the early twenties, they say. Yet my memory is actually improving with age. I don't know quite how to explain it. I sometimes scare myself with my memory. I remember specific things I learned in college and where I learned them, certain things I read and pondered over as a child. Maybe it's an illusion, but my memories now seem sharper than they did ten years ago. I inhabit the apophatic bookstore of my own head.

Imagine a woman living in a small town and not leaving very much. She knows everyone in the town and could probably give you an extremely accurate account of the town's history down to very small details. There's a few thousand people to keep track of but that's not a problem because that's what she does. I'm a little like that.

After a while, as you get older, you get more concentrated; what you know, you know even better. You remember things because they are significant to you. I'm not about to forget what Body and Soul sounds like. Ancient Greek, which I learned very quickly once and never used afterwords, is mostly gone.

Nobody is all that good at learning and remembering unmeaningful data. That's what a filing cabinet is good for. (Some people are very good at that in the short term, and can get good grades in undergraduate, and then promptly forget all of it.) But almost everyone is good at remembering things that they are motivated to remember. If you forget something it wasn't that important to you in the first place.

I could probably relearn Greek, or some math I've "forgotten." I remember exactly how I learned Greek, and the structure of the language: I've just forgotten those pesky conjugations, declensions, and vocabulary items.

27 abr 2009

The little calendar in which you keep track of how many days in a row you work on your project should be a kind of magical object. I view my calendar as a source of power, using a kind of "magical thinking" that is also wholly realistic. After all, I have a printed book in my hands--written by me and using this exact method. The hour a day I am able to spend now on my new project also feels like a source of power to me: I know where that place is and how to get there. I know it sounds kind of new-agey, but I think of that time as a refuge and a source of energy. That makes me want to go there rather than thinking of it as a place where I'm too exhausted to visit.

23 abr 2009


Sarah Vaughan. How Long Has This Been Going On?

Sarah with Joe Pass, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, Louie Bellson--one of those Pablo releases arranged by Norman Granz. Cuts include I've Got the World on a String, Easy Living, Body and Soul... In short, a predictable set of standards.

With Sarah Vaughan, the voice is the first thing. It's not just a great voice, but several different voices, different registers, and several different uses of the voice. Listen to the long notes, how the note has a beginning, an extension during which vibrato might become broader, and an end point where something else might happen.

Then there's the diction--the way a certain vowel or consonant receives a particular inflection, what Barthes called the grain of the voice.

Sometimes the voice overwhelms a trivial lyric. I feel that the raw material could have been better chosen (not on this album though.)

Another aspect is "story telling." In this she is often as good as Sinatra. The voice can get in the way of this, but surprisingly doesn't most of the time.

22 abr 2009

Book signing went well. All the copies of my book in the store sold, mostly to some colleagues and grad students in my own dept. Ken Irby bought one. My colleague from the dept. of dance Michelle Hayes signed her book at the same time. Later, over dinner with Michelle, her boyfriend, and some of their friends, I discovered she is also a jazz person and had produced some Roy Haynes events. How cool is that? Roy is the greatest living jazz drummer.
Discipline or Field?

Do you think of yourself primarily as engaged in a discipline or in a field?

A discipline implies a common set of methodologies and a well-defined intellectual genealogy that can be applied to any object of study, whereas a field or area describes the object of study itself.

A field can be interdiscplinary, like "Latin American Studies," to which nothing Latin American is alien. The same discipline can be applied to various fields. A literary critic can shift from British to American and still be working in the same discipline. Cultural studies is interdisciplinary and also interfieldiary.

If you apply a single methodology to various objects of study, you are not yet interdisciplinary. Or if the other disciplines are simply the sources of metaphors or jargon terms.

21 abr 2009

While it seems that squdgets are judged quantitatively, without as much attention to quality, this is a little deceptive. In the first place, to quality as a squidget, a squidget has to go through a process of review. Acceptance through this process entails a certain imprimatur of quality.

Some have argued that people who produce more squidgets are likely to produce squidgets of lesser quality. I tend to think the opposite: it you squidget more often, like anything else, you will become better at it.
Being a casual fan of Duke is fine. That's what I always was before 2009. But, to paraphrase Kenneth Koch, it's a little bit like hanging around but not attending a school, or "almost" being in love with someone. To see Ellington whole opens up entire vistas; there is a whole lot of there there that the casual fan is missing. I'm about an eighth of the way there now, to where I want to be, not to a complete reckoning (which I'll probably never attain).

It's not a matter of loving everything equally, but of exploring a vast territory with many interesting corners.
Now say that squidgets were only 20%. Widgets total 60 percent, and each worker is now responsible for six annual megawidgets instead of four.

Colleague A has zero squidgets, and gets a 100% rating in quality rating in widgets.

Colleague B has about four megasquidgets, and is pretty much at the top of the 20%, lets say 19%. But she only gets an 80% rating in widgets.

Will stipulate that they both score 17 out of 20 in administration.

So A has a maximum rating of 77% percent. (The maximum he can get is 80, in fact.)

B, on the other hand, has 85%. B still comes out ahead. Not only that, but she has the chance to approach 100 by improving in the other categories. A will always be capped at 80, as long as he doesn't touch squidgets at all.

19 abr 2009

Suppose there was a concern whose employees had to produce two kinds of products: widgets and squidgets. Each employee was supposed to devote about 2/5 of effort to widgets, and 2/5 of effort to squidgets, and 1/5 of effort to miscellaneous administrative tasks.

Everyone pretty much made an equal number of widgets according to a regularly scheduled plan. Some were better widgeters than others, that is true, but nobody didn't do widgets. With the squidgets, however, there was a very wide distribution in results. Some produced almost none at all; some produced them in huge quantities, sometimes several magnitudes greater than the average.

Since excellent squidgeters were also doing their share of widgeting, they would tend to work a little longer and harder. They might also have to spend their own personal money for squidget supplies and for traveling, since squidgeting often involved work outside the office. Sometimes you had to spend extra time just applying for special squidget funds, given out competitively--even though everyone, theoretically, was supposed to be squidgetting 40% of the time.

So here's the question. What would a fair weighting of widgets and squidgets look like? What would it mean to treat them equally in an evaluation process? How do we compare widgets, judged mostly on a qualtitative scale, with squidgets, where distinctions are more likely to show up as much larger differences of quantity? Is it really possible to treat them equally?

If they were really treated equally, then that would entail a huge bias in favor of squidgets. People who only produce widgets, with little or no squidgets, would be seen as only doing 60% of their jobs. Those with both squidgets and widgets would always come out ahead, even if their widgets were a little less excellent.

On the other hand, this approach would quickly lead to a complaint about "too much emphasis on squidgets." To place more weight on widgets, by the same token, would involve overvaluing small differences on a qualitative scale, in contrast to the much larger absolute differences on the squidgeting scale. One worker might have four or five squidgets in a year that someone else had zero or one.

Of course, we could have philosophical discussions about whether widgets or squidgets are really more valuable. Remember, though, that the institution already has assigned them a value of 40% each, in this particular thought-experiment. We could say that that widgets are really more important. After all--they have to get done before we even think about squidgets. But technically each worker is responsible for devoting 40% of effort to squidgets too.

17 abr 2009

Come to my book signing at the Oread Book Store, 1301 Jayhawk Blvd. in the Kansas Union, next Wednesday., April 22 at 4 p.m. You can buy my book Apocryphal Lorca for 40% off the normal $45 cover price. Also, other books in the store. There will be cake...

My colleague Michelle Hayes from the Dance department will be also signing her recently published book on Flamenco.

16 abr 2009

Here are some more principles of academic pragmatics:

(1) Maxim of significance. Maximize expression of importance or significance of the subject you are addressing.

(2) Maxim of authoritativeness. Maximize expression of your own authority to speak about this subject, your own acquaintance with the subject matter.

(3) Maxim of complexity / originality. All other things being equal, maximize claims to originality and / or complexity. Never advocate for a less nuanced approach to something. A simpler solution to a critical problem might be acceptable, however, if it is strikingly original.

(4) Maxim of coherence. Present information and arguments in a maximally organized way.

(5) Maxim of scholarly solidarity. Maximize expressions of solidarity with the scholarly community generally, even when taking issue with the scholarly findings of particular members of the community.

(6) Maxim of rectitude. Emphasize solidarity with "politically correct" principles where ever appropriate.

(7) Meta-maxim of conventionality. When following other pragmatic maxims, aim to sound utterly conventional. Minimize breaks with scholarly decorum.

I am not advocating these principle but describing them. I'm not saying that I don't follow them either.

15 abr 2009

Scholarly or academic writing has its own specific pragmatics. By this I mean its strategies for engaging in certain speech acts like promising, reprimanding, acknowledging, apologizing; its rhetorical strategies of politeness (hedging, qualifying, professing modesty in order to earn good will, emphasizing agreement with others); its choices of particular registers and information structures that fulfill a pragmatic function; its direct engagements with potential readers through appeals to these readers' interests, prejudices, complicity, and previous knowledge; the use of humor; the judicious employment of objective and subjective modes of discourse, etc... Those are the main points that come to mind, though I'm sure if I sat here longer there would be more dimensions of this pragmatics.

These strategies are never taught explicitly as such. We absorb them from scholarship itself, or learn them from corrections made to our writing. The ideal scholarly voice in our heads is confident and judicious without being arrogant or stuffy. If we write in a parody of the scholarly voice we have absorbed the outer forms of scholarly pragmatics but not its inner necessities.

Violating certain codes of scholarly pragmatics can be fun and risky. These violations should be deliberate acts, not accidental slips.

In politeness theory, there is an imperative to 'Minimize the expression of praise of self; maximize the expression of dispraise of self.' . In scholarly writing there is an imperative to state one's conclusions as knowledgeable and authoritative while at the same time fulfilling this modesty maxim. Where I find a pragmatic dilemma is in self-citation, for example. When I cite something I myself have published, I might compensate with a mildly self-deprecatory tone. Or I might cite someone else who has said the same thing rather than citing myself.

There is also the agreement maxim' which states 'Minimize the expression of disagreement between self and other; maximize the expression of agreement between self and other.' This shows up in scholarly efforts to emphasize areas agreement where actually the writer does not agree on a more basic level.

Of course, Gricean conversational maxims also come into play. They seem a bit obvious, but even for that they may be worth remembering. For example: "Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence."

14 abr 2009


Masterpieces by Ellington.

This is an Ellington/Strayhorn album from the fifties with absolutely great arrangement on Mood Indigo, Sophisticated Lady, Solitude, Smada, etc... The arrangements are longer given the new record format that allowed for more than three and a half minute songs. A 15 minute Mood Indigo!
My year of Ellington is already paying off huge benefits. A whole nother dimension has opened up into my listening: I think I was already good at hearing polyphonic voices, listening, say, to bass drums and piano with a horn on top. I didn't have quite the appreciation of orchestral textures and voicings, layered timbres, and structural shifts in timbres--the specialty of both Ellington and Strayhorn as composers/arrangers. I got some of this from Gil Evans and his collaborations with Miles, of course, and from some of the "cool jazz" school. But to see where all this started is a rare privilege. I'm enjoying the "replacement of ignorance with knowledge."

I consciously stretch my capabilities. For example, I am starting a theater reading project. Since I rarely read a play (who does?) I am missing out on certain insights that I might otherwise have. I will read 400 plays over the next several years and see what comes of that.

9 abr 2009

Ego is a necessary part of doing things well. And yet a worse form of ego is to do things badly. When I sit down at the drums I know I am a bad drummer. My body is tense; I can't get the rhythms to flow. Everything I play is tentative, wrapped up in a worry over my self as bad player. Since I cannot stand to something badly, I rarely practice, so of course I'm bad when I sit down to do it.

Think of some asshole hollywood actor inflicting his amateur music on the world. That is egotistical, more than someone who knows s/he is good and projects confidence and mastery.
What motivates you? If you are having problems getting your research program off the ground, the problem might be one of motivation.

What motivates research? In my particular case there are several factors. Extrinsic considerations like:

(1) Competition. I like the game-like aspect of trying to be better than any else at something.
(2) Prestige. Fame. Institutional status. Rank etc...
(3) Publication. I like seeing my name in print. It is addictive.
(4) Proving my enemies / doubters wrong.

Or more intrinsic factors:

(1) Curiosity. There are many things I would like to more know about. Sometimes I think I'd like to study pragmatics in detail, coming up with original ideas about Grice's conversational maxims. Research provides a focussed channel for curiosity, a control that prevents me from trying to learn about everything all at once.
(2) Self-fashioning: the ability to construct one's own intellectual biography according to an image-ideal.
(3) The opportunity to promote my own interests in the wider world, to showcase my own opinions and perhaps influence the way other people think about subjects I am deeply interested in.
(4) The ability to engage in intellectual dialogue with other smart people.

On the other hand, I'm not very motivated, say, by a political or social agenda (sorry!). I suspect most people's motives are similarly mixed between intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Without extrinsic motivations, people would still pursue their interests, but they would not produce as many publications. Extrinsic motivations, however, don't work very well on their own. If you don't love the work itself, it's hard to do it just in expectations of palpable rewards, many of which might materialize decades later, if then.

Before tenure, getting tenure can be a motivation. Even then, though, I think I was mostly focussed on the competition / publication / proving my enemies wrong factors. I wasn't thinking along the lines of doing enough to get tenure, but instead trying to publish in the best journals and making fools of people who thought I wasn't that good. Academia is a brutally competitive profession, after all.

8 abr 2009

Research is fun. "Funner" than writing. By research here I mean not the entire enterprise of scholarship and literary criticism, but the more specific dimension of "finding things out," discovering actual information about things. You can be a literary critic without being a researcher, relying mostly on other people's research. Usually, though, you want to at the very least cover yourself, in other words, know enough to know what you're talking about. Beyond that, you want to present information that isn't already widely known, or combine things that are widely known in surprising ways by looking more closely at assumptions that are repeated from one researcher to another without being questioned.

My Lorca book is the one that contains the most actual research. I never considered myself particularly strong in the finding things out dimension. I'm not particularly adept at archival work, for example.

One of the fun things is the kind of coincidence that makes you think you are on the right track or that provides a short cut. Some examples from today.

(1) Wanting to know who had written about the Artists' Theatre in New York, I did a quick search in the MLA bibliography. There were two dissertations in the late 80s. One of them, fortuitously, was done at the University of Kanas, where I teach. Since the library keeps copies of all dissertations written here, I have immediate access to that.

(2) On a deeper level, the production of Lorca's Don Perlimplín brings together four of my own interests: jazz (through Billy Strayhorn), Lorca, the New York School of Poetry, whose members contributed plays to Herbert Machiz's Artists Theatre, and the New York School of Painting, whose artists also contributed to this theatre. The fact I didn't know about this production until after it was too late to include in my Lorca book shows another fun thing about research: there is always more to discover, and the paths of discovery are unpredictable. How would I have known to look at a biography of Strayhorn to research a book about the American Lorca? I could have worked another year on the book and still not found this, because it was by turning my attention deliberately to something else and away from this project that this came to my attention.

(3) I used "Fragments of Late Modernity" for an article I wrote. Part of the same book project involves Spanish philosopher María Zambrano, and looking through the secondary literature on Zambrano I found the book title Fragmentos de la modernidad. The fact that others are thinking on similar lines confirms the direction of my research. Of course, I was thinking of Valente's Fragmentos de un libro futuro.
I found out that the music Strayhorn wrote for the 1953 production of Lorca's play in the Artists' Theatre has been recorded by the Dutch Jazz Orrchestra. There are four pieces of music, two quite lovely songs (Love, Love and The Flowers Die of Love) and two instrumentals (Sprite Music and Wounded Love). There is more information in Walter van de Leur's Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, a quite wonderful book I'm reading now. Wonderful in part because the author looked at thousands of Strayhorn scores.

I'm keeping my new year's resolution of studying the music of Ellington and Strayhorn, and in the process becoming more of a Strayhornian, which we might define as someone who views Strayhorn as much more than a "Duke Jr.," who views his contributions as those of an independent force, who does indeed care what Strayhorn wrote and what Duke wrote and is interested in the differences between the two composers--though with zero interest in diminishing Duke in any way. I reject the Collier view of Ellington's musical deficiencies.

I'm mulling over an article about the Artists' Theatre production of Lorca's play. I'm not sure there's enough there yet to justify more than a brief note in the encyclopedia of Lorca trivia. The Artists' Theatre itself is quite fascinating. I have a book that contains four plays produced there, by O'Hara, Ashbery, Merrill, and Abel. Merrill's play "The Bait" is quite superb, as is Lionel Abel's "Absalom." I already knew the plays by O'Hara and Ashbery.

Alfred Leslie's sets for Lorca's Don Perlimplín were destroyed in a fire in the 1970s.

2 abr 2009

I'll have to get that Wikipedia page updated. No taxation without representation!