30 jun 2011


I'll be in Santiago de Compostela next week for a dissertation defense by a student who came to work with me for a month or two in Kansas a few years ago. She cites 8 or 9 separate books or articles of mine, so you can see why I'm on this particular defense. I'll stay a week past the defense to rest up a bit and see Oviedo for the first time.

29 jun 2011


I developed a plan to learn the palos flamencos. I made separate playlists of six separate genres, like malagueñas, tangos, alegrías, using my existing music library. I will listen to them separately over and over again and try to get a feel for each play list. Wikipedia lists 51 palos, but I'm suspecting that only a few are going to be really central. If I can learn 6, then I will be in good shape.

28 jun 2011

Another Book on Lorca!

It occurred to me to write a third book on Lorca. Why not? I have plenty more to say. The table of contents came to me in a flash:

Lorca--The enigma

The Legend

The Poet

The Thinker

The Dramatist

The Musician

I'll still spend 6 months reading Latin American Poetry before I start this new project, but Lorca is my meal-ticket. I want to be Mr. Lorca. The idea of this book is to define him through six separate approaches. Lorca the musician will offer a different perspective than Lorca the Poet or Lorca the Legend.

Steamed Fish

Last night I bought two rainbow trout at my favorite fish store. I covered them with ample amount of freshly grated ginger, then dipped them in a sauce made from white wine, soy sauce, lemon juice, a pinch of cayenne. I steamed them in a bamboo steamer for about 10 minutes. I washed some baby bok choy and sauteed it with chopped garlic and more ginger, adding a pinch of soy sauce at the last minute. We ate the fish and bok choy with some white rice, then Akiko made a salad of greens from the farmers market, really good tomatoes also from farmers market, cucumbers, avocados, carrots, and fresh mozzarella.

27 jun 2011

Yet Another Table of Contents

What Lorca Knew: Late Modernist Spanish Poetry and Intellectual History


PART ONE: Genealogies

1. The Grain of the Voice: Lorca’s “Play and Theory of the Duende”
2. María Zambrano and the Genealogy of Late Modernism
3. Shifting Fortunes: Jorge Guillén and Luis Cernuda

PART TWO: The Ascent of Late Modernism

4. Fragments of a Late Modernity: Samuel Beckett and José Ángel Valente
5 Antonio Gamoneda and the Persistence of Memory
6. What Claudio Knew: The Embodiment of Knowledge

PART THREE: Extensions

7. Blanca Varela and Eduardo Milán: The Spanish American Connection
8. Modernism and Female Subjectivity
9. Poetry and Aphorism (From Antonio Machado to Luis Feria)
10. Verse and Prose (From Juan Ramón Jiménez to Olvido García Valdés)


Chapter 8 still needs a better title, as does Chapter 10. In fact, there are only a few chapter titles I am truly happy with. Also, I'd like to find a plural noun for the title of PART TWO. Genealogies, ????, Extensions. It's harder to come up with a word for things in the middle. I've tried words like "ascendencies" and "triumphs" but they don't work very well.

The subtitle of the book itself needs further work. It's really poetics as intellectual history and vice-versa. The subtitle has a lot of work to do: it has to tell the reader that the book is about Spain, about a particular movement (late modernism), and that it approaches poetics from the direction of intellectual history.

I like having 10 chapters rather than fewer but longer ones. I can fit in more ideas that way, addressing the problem from more angles.

From an Old Review

Here is an example from a review I wrote of John Wilcox's book on Spanish women's poetry. John is a friend of mine, and the review was positive, but I found a problem:
When Wilcox affirms that "In their early work Champourcin and Méndez express desire in a way that is distinct from a Guillén or a Lorca" (95), or that "Champourcin's expression of sensuality is distinct from that of her male counterparts" (96), he gives me the momentary impression that he believes that all male writers belong to a monolithic "androcentric" tradition. Without
a more nuanced view of the mainstream tradition, it is difficult to delineate the specificity of women's writing.

Obviously, Guillén and Lorca do not express desire in the same way, and not merely because Guillén is heterosexual. Do Concha Méndez and Ernestina Champourcin express desire differently from Lorca? (yes) From Guillén (yes). Do they express desire and sensuality differently from each other? Quite possibly yes. Wouldn't be also be likely to find the same ample spectrum of attitudes among women poets as we do among male? If men are not the same as other men, they cannot be the same as women either. But women cannot be the same as women either. So called "difference feminism" creates two monoliths at odds with each other, rather that two overlapping groups with great internal variety.

Feminist Criticism

Thirty years ago, Myra Jehlen wrote:
Feminist thinking is really rethinking, an examination of the way certain assumptions about women and the female character enter into the fundamental assumptions that organize all our thinking. For instance, assumptions such as the one that makes intuition and reason opposite terms parallel to female and male may have axiomatic force in our culture, but they are precisely what feminists need to question-or be reduced to checking the arithmetic, when the issue lies in the calculus.
("Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism" Signs 1981).
Yet I still read feminist criticism today that identifies woman with nature and intuition, that accepts the old dichotomies and essentialisms at face value. I read an article recently that wanted to make philosophy and poetry parallel to male and female.

Nuestro Flamenco

The Spanish radio program "Nuestro flamenco," to which I listen to religiously on podcast, features a section devoted to listener questions. I wrote one in, about how to learn to distinguish between different palos or styles, and they answered my question in the program of 6/22, recommending the 12-disk box set "Enciclopedia de los estilos flamencos." I was very moved to hear my name mentioned and my question answered so respectfully, with three or four musical selections. I never expected the program to answer my question in particular.

26 jun 2011



Much of H.D.'s Trilogy is quite extraordinary. "When in the company of the Gods / I loved and was loved, // never was my mind stirred / to such rapture..." I can forgive all the "filling," all the parts necessary for it to be a long poem.


There is a particular effect obtained, usually unwittingly, when a very high powered style is used to describe a trivial object. Some critics have noticed this in the later poetry of Jorge Guillén, when the high modernist style is used to talk about stereo speakers in a picnic. I've noticed this in Derek Walcott, when he goes on and on about a Swiss waitress's blond hair. This is a classic effect of parody, in which any high style can be brought down simply by applying it to a low object. It becomes self-parody when the writer doesn't quite realize the disjunction.

Sans Serif

I dreamed a book of mine came out in a sans serif type face. I was not too happy, since I much prefer serifs, but I told myself that my other book that year would be coming out in a better font.

22 jun 2011

Studies Show...

Whenever anyone says "studies show..." just ask them what studies they are. The phrase "studies show' is about as valid as the phrase "people say..."

Of course, there are good studies and very well-documented conclusions, and a portion of what "people say" about them is valid. There is overwhelming evidence that smoking causes cancer.

The results of any recent study cited in the media to show that children are dumber than they used to be, however, are likely to be distorted. The media are always looking for such stories so they will interpret the results that way if at all possible.

Bullshit Fields (18)

Educational Testing and Psychometrics.

Here we have media reports on how little kids know about history, but the testing organization marks right answers wrong and throws out easy questions, preferring those that distinguish very good students from not so good ones. You can't use a test designed to discriminate as a measure to evaluate the proficiency of the group as a whole. Those are two contradictory aims.

20 jun 2011

Bullshit Fields (17)

Social Science

Social science, in general, is bullshit. Thou shalt not commit a social science, said Auden. The problem with social science is that can prove anything it wants to. If medical trials sponsored by drug companies are mostly bullshit, what about studies that demonstrate very narrow or very obvious results? Social science does not have the solidity of the physical sciences, but it also lacks, typically, the hermeneutic sophistication of the Humanities at their best. Quantitative social science itself constructs the data that it then subjects to analysis, in a circular way. Ethnography is suspicious because it places the Western anthropologist in a position of understanding a culture through a very suspect methodology. I don't understand my own culture in the slightest. I don't think a Martian could come and spend 9 months here and understand a thing.

I think a lot of social science is very interesting and valid, but I often feel that it is just a guy, or a gal, trying to explain things in the best possible way, just like anyone else who is not a "scientist.'

H.D. can write

Putting aside how attractive the mythopoesis of H.D.'s poetry is (to any particular reader), there is no denying that the woman could actually write:
In the field-furrow
the rain water

showed splintered edge
as of a broken mirror,

and in the glass
as in polished spear,

glowed the star Hesperus...

The myth is there for the poetry, to provide a kind of metaphorical support. When the writing gets too explanatory, it fails aesthetically:
Theus, God; God-the-father, father-god
or the Angel god-father,


This alienates readers there for the poetry, not the occult syncretism per se. Yet it does not seem wholly satisfying to isolate the perfect lyric moments and throw out the rest. We could enjoy the alternation between the indigestible bits and the eloquent highlights. In Trilogy, H.D. was trying to transcend, precisely, her reputation as a poet of the perfect lyric, the lyric that admitted nothing else. The discursive, explanatory style has to be there, even if not perfectly integrated into the imagist style.

19 jun 2011

5000 posts

Blogger says this is post 5,000 on this blog. I've been going since 2002.

Signs You Are a Jazz Nerd

At least twenty separate versions of "Body and Soul' in your itunes library. Almost as many recordings of "Stardust."

Knowing the exact personnel of various Miles Davis groups in three or four separate decades.

Knowing that "Caravan" was written by Tizol and "Take the A-Train" by Strayhorn, not Ellington.

Knowing the difference between a Gershwin and a Rogers and Hart Song. Knowing the "apartment" rhymes with "what my heart meant."

Following bass players and drummers, not just saxes and pianos. Noticing on a recording how tense the drummer has the heads tuned, whether he is using brushes or sticks.

First paragraphs

A sneak preview of the first paragraphs of the first chapter of my book:

In The H.D. Book, a landmark book on modernist poetry that was not published in its entirety until 2011, Robert Duncan reflected on the rise of New Criticism: “This is the age of criticism, so the critics tell us. An age that has sought to denature and exhaust its time of crisis in bringing philosophy, the arts, human psyche, historical spirit, and the inspiration of the divine world into the terms acceptable to academic aspirations” (433). This so-called “age of criticism,” however, “does not mean Pound’s Calvacanti essay, Cocteau’s ‘Call to Order,’ Dame Edith Sitwell’s notebooks or H.D.’s ‘The Guest,’ Charles Olson’s ‘Projective verse,’ or Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom: On Shakespeare,” for these are concerned with the inner nature and process of poetry itself” (434). In other words, the academic definition of criticism during the heyday of the Anglo-American New Critics excluded precisely the realm of the poetic imagination of greatest interest to Duncan. Despite the modernist influence of T.S. Eliot on John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, their conception of poetry barely overlaps at all with that proposed in The H.D. Book.

Federico García Lorca’s “Play and Theory of the Duende” also belongs, by all rights, in Duncan’s list of excluded texts, since it inspired Duncan’s confederates, like Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and Jack Spicer, but would have been unrecognizable as a work of literary criticism or theory in institutional terms during the period when he was working on The H.D. Book. Not coincidentally, the poets of the New American Poetry rebelled against both the New Criticism and the academic poetry with which it was affiliated at the same time as they were embracing the duende, Lorca’s term for an inspiration that does not fit easily into “academic aspirations.”

The duende is the nexus of the US reception of Lorca’s poetics, fascinating poets like Denise Levertov, Jerome Rothenberg, Kenneth Koch, Robert Bly, and Allen Ginsberg. Lorca’s duende lecture is also well-known to specialized critics, of course, but they, like the American poets, often oversimplify his poetic thought, viewing the duende as a unitary concept rather than an inherently unstable one. One problem is that texts that address “the inner nature and process of poetry” present special difficulties of interpretation. An initial obstacle is to recognize that these texts make a contribution to literary theory. Joan Ramón Resina, for example, begins his essay on “Spanish Theory and Criticism” for the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism with a dismissive gesture:

"To the question, Why is Spanish theory jejune and uninfluential? a possible answer would be, paraphrasing Franz Kafka, that in Spain there is theory, plenty of theory, but not for us. “Us” here refers very generally to the ad hoc category of the postmodern cognitive subject. It denotes an “us” that spurns the substantialism of an intellectual tradition pervaded by Catholic philosophy and its complementary assumption of an inborn aesthetic competence."

Resina’s survey of Spanish contributions to this field includes José Ortega y Gasset, Eugenio d’Ors, and Dámaso Alonso, but not Federico García Lorca; he discusses contemporary essayists like Eduardo Subirats, Eugenio Trías, and Xavier Rubert de Ventós, but not arguably more significant figures like María Zambrano or José Ángel Valente. In other words, Resina leaves out precisely the twentieth-century thinkers who have had the most to contribute to the portion of literary theory that Duncan terms poetics, that is, the theory developed by the poets themselves to reflect upon their art form.

It is in this neglected material, perhaps, where Resina might have found literary theory of more interest to “postmodern cognitive subjects” like himself. What is conspicuously absent from the Johns Hopkins Guide as a whole, as well as from Resina’s contribution, is the idea that modern poets themselves have made a distinctive contribution to literary theory. Despite its usefulness in other respects, this reference work does not include entries on the theory of poetry, on poetics, or on subjects like lyric, prosody, or rhythm. It does include entries on drama theory and narratology, so poetry is the only major genre that has no relevant theory associated with it. The entry on the poet-critic, predictably, emphasizes a tradition of poets working as university professors, beginning with Tate and Ransom, and includes a brief discussion of Octavio Paz, but it remains limited in scope, omitting the dense poetic essays of José Lezama Lima, Louis Zukofsky, or Robert Duncan.

The famed “poet-professors” among Lorca’s contemporaries—figures like Dámaso Alonso, Pedro Salinas, and Jorge Guillén—occupy a similar position to that of the Anglo-American poet-critics, emphasizing the autonomy of the literary text and rejecting seemingly extraneous biographical and ideological concerns. It is significant, then, that José Ángel Valente finds Alonso and his entire generation to be devoid of poetic pensamiento (thought): “La generación del 27 es más una generación de profesores que de pensadores” (The Generation of 27 is more a generation of professors than of thinkers; La experiencia abisal 144). This judgment might seem grossly unfair, given the philological accomplishments of Alsonso, but it does differentiate these poet-scholars from the mystical tradition of Zambrano, Lezama Lima, and Valente himself. The difference is that this second group approach poetry with a sense of awe, treating it as primordial way of understanding reality that rivals philosophy and religion, while drawing from both. Valente objects to Guillén and Alonso’s indifference or hostility to the mysticism of Saint John of the Cross, their attempt to create “una interpretación dualista, en suma, de una obra cuyo eje y viviente sustancia es la integración, la fusión, la unión” (a dualist interpretation, in sum, of an work whose axis and living substance is integration, fusion, union; ibid. 147).

Four Slippages In Lorca

I'm ending up doing a quasi deconstructive reading of "Play and Theory of the Duende," looking at four slippages or aporias in this famous text, four binary oppositions that he leaves open to conflicting interpretations. One, for example, has to do with whether the duende is Andalusian or Spanish.

18 jun 2011

Pico de gallo

I've been making a lot of this recently, a small batch every few days. I chop up a couple of tomatoes, with cilantro, onion, salt, pepper, tabasco sauce, a splash of white wine vinegar. I don't even put hot peppers in it though it would be much better. We eat it on blue corn tortillas and tacos.

Evil Hispanists

In at least two cases, one in Peninsular and the other in Latin American, I have heard of an individual who actively volunteers to write a recommendation for someone (for a grant or fellowship) just in order to trash the person in the letter. I am not talking about people being asked to write one and only coming up with a lukewarm recommendation, but of someone who says, "Oh, you are applying for an NEH, let me write you a letter."

Why, in the best profession in the world, are there such people? There is no better job than teaching Spanish and / or Latin American literature, in my obviously biased opinion. The thing that makes this job less desirable is the existence of malicious people.

Signs You Might Be a Literature Nerd

You go to Spain, or to New York City, and your primary destinations are mostly bookstores. The events you attend in Madrid are presentaciones de libros.

It might have been a week or two since you last turned on the tv.

Piles of books accumulate mysteriously in piles in every room in the house, in the car. Every room but the kitchen and bathroom have bookshelves.

You own 20 books by an author that you don't actually like that much.

You have 40 books checked out from the library at any given moment.

You've read novels in languages you don't fully understand.

You've written a few books on literature yourself. You have an unpublished novel or book of poems in your drawer, maybe a translation or three.

17 jun 2011

Returning to Lorca

I love matching up my intelligence with Lorca's very different kind of intelligence. It is a great feeling of give-and-take. I feel like Robert Duncan writing about H.D. I am not saying that I am a brilliant poet-critic like Duncan, of course, but that I feel Lorca elicits a kind of intelligence in myself that I would not have otherwise, challenging me to explore that region between more conventional academic analysis and something harder to express, related to Duncan's "inner nature and process of poetry." I feel that I can bridge this gap just about as well as anyone, precisely because I am suspicious of both rationalist, academic reduction and the anti-intellectual reductions on the other side.

When I took courses at Stanford with a Jungian critic, Al Gelpi, I resisted him every step of the way. I just could not take Jungianism. I still cannot. I am allergic to certain kinds of bullshit and softheadedness. I don't even like mythopoesis. I'd like to say that this is an advantage, even when dealing with poetics that resists the intelligence almost successfully, as Wallace Stevens would say. It is in that almost where I put most of my energy, that space where poetry gives way to an intelligent approach.

16 jun 2011

Negative Information

Negative information is more salient in psychological terms. It attracts more interest. That why "bullshit fields" is more interesting that "pretty good fields." On the other hand, people will end up associating negativity with the person being negative, so that a poetry critic who trashes all the poets will end up seeming like a jerk, no matter how correct he happens to be about 90% of what he says. You don't need to be a very good critic to call something bad, because chances are, you will be right. If you say everything is good, you will be wrong about 90% of the time.

So combining these two principles, this means that negativity will make you better-known but less well-liked, more polarizing. I am actually a very likable guy. I try to get along with everyone. The blog is kind of a "drain," where excess hostility and ideas I don't have time to use can be drained off.

The Gilbert-Gubar Hypothesis

Gilbert* and Gubar, in The War of the Words, argue that modernism arises out of a "battle of the sexes" and the growing prominence of women writers in the late 19th century. This has never seemed very plausible to me. The entire modernist movement, with all its linguistic experimentation, arose out of a desire to contest the growing power of women in the literary sphere? This does not seem plausible to me as a historical explanation. In the first place, you cannot attribute to a single cause a phenomenon that is overdetermined, that has multiple causes. If gender antagonism is one source of modernism, then we could discuss its relative importance. For example, it is true that some, but by no means all, modernists saw their writing as explicitly masculinist. Of course, only the male ones did that.

Secondly, the G&G hypothesis does not seem applicable to any modernism other than the Anglo-American kind. For example, could we explain Pessoa, or Cafavy, or Proust, as modernists threatened by the specter of female creativity? How exactly is this supposed to work? And it is also in the Anglo-American context where the most significant female modernists appeared: Barnes, Stein, Moore, H.D., Sitwell, Richardson, Woolf, Loy. These writers, as a group, seem more significant to me that Champourcin, Méndez, Chacel, etc... I could make a case for Zambrano, but I cannot see Rosa Chacel in the same category as H.D. or Virginia Woolf. So in a national literature in which women were already prominent, there were also more significant women modernists. The 19th century novel in Britain has the Brontes, George Eliot, and Austen. The most significant novelist in the 20th century in England is Woolf.

Of course, G&G usually write as though English and American literature were the entire enchilada. Their subtitle doesn't even include the word "English." It's just The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. I wish I could get away with something like that. Write a book called Twentieth Century Poetry and include only writers in Spanish and Catalan!

*I took courses from Elliot and Sandra Gilbert as an undergraduate. Both excellent professors. Elliot died prematurely at age 60 due to botched medical care. I have never met Susan Gubar, but obviously the Gilbert and Gubar books have had a huge impact, despite the criticisms mounted on various front against various facets of their work.

Steal This Idea

If you steal an idea from me, I still win. It is my idea filtering through the field, influencing others. If you borrow an idea and give me credit, that's fine too, even better in fact. If you quote me and don't remember who said what you are quoting, I might cite your paraphrase as evidence for my position, forgetting that it was my idea in the first place. One guy used to tell me "I got an idea from reading your article..." But he wouldn't cite me, except in very tangential contexts. I could have gone after him, but it wasn't worth it. Another guy spent a good portion of his book disagreeing with me, but he neglected to cite the main article where I had made my point, referring instead to another, minor one written a few years earlier. David Lehman wrote a poem imitating the exact structure and conceit of a poem by his close friend David Shapiro. David Shapiro still wins, in my book.

If you read my blog and think you can write a book on Lorca, Zambrano, and intellectual history, finishing it before I do, go ahead and try. I'll still finish first and I'll still win. I actually wish someone would use some of my leftover ideas and write some more books based on them. I don't have time to write up all my own ideas.

If you disagree with me at length in print, I also win. I am the person whose ideas you are disagreeing with, and thus I have set the terms of the debate. "As long as you spell my name right." It's like that old Hollywood joke: "I can't get arrested in this town." You don't necessarily want to get arrested, but if you can't even get arrested, you are nobody.

15 jun 2011

Spanish Theory

According to Joan Resina in the Johns Hopkins Guide:
To the question, Why is Spanish theory jejune and uninfluential? a possible answer would be, paraphrasing Franz Kafka, that in Spain there is theory, plenty of theory, but not for us. ‘Us’ here refers very generally to the ad hoc category of the postmodern cognitive subject.

Nice move, dismissing the object of your study in the first line of your article.

Speaking Engagements

I think I'll take my sabbatical in Fall of '12, so I am available for speaking engagements and workshops during that period of time. I can either talk about my research, or lead a workshop on scholarly writing along the the lines of SMT, or do both. Invite me and I am likely to come. You'll have to pay my expenses, travel, hotel, and meals, and pay me a reasonable honorarium. I don't have a fixed price; it kind of depends on what the balance of intrinsic motivation to extrinsic is. (If you invite me to Paris, you don't have to pay me much. Omaha, a bit more.) We are talking about the range of $500-$1000.

Duncan, Bloom, HD, and Psychoanalysis

Ok, I know that I said psychoanalysis was a bullshit field. Here I am going to take a slightly different perspective. From the historical vantage-point, Freud's ideas were very influential, and you cannot look at the modernist and late modernist periods without knowing something about him. It would be embarrassing not to know something of the intellectual history of these literary movements.

H.D. was the only major modernist poet who was also analyzed by Freud, and she even wrote a book about him. Duncan deals with H.D's Freudianism, also, in the H.D. Book. Bloom's theory of poetic anxiety is also rooted in Freudian concepts like repression. The Freudian concept of the "narcissism of small differences" might explain the way in which people like Duncan and Bloom, or Bloom and Rothenberg, could not talk to one another. H.D could be analyzed by Freud, but Pound, the subject of another H.D. book, dismissed Freud completely, as he did Marx. Two Jewish thinkers uncongenial to Pound's antisemitic sensibility.

Duncan connects HD's Freudianism to the idea of the occult, the hidden, and hence to gnosticism. It is not an orthodox reading of Freud, by any means, but how interesting would that have been? Duncan's view of the differences among major modernist poets and thinkers, Pound, Williams, Yeats, H.D., Freud, is very nuanced.

If I could connect Freud to Lorca, I would be doing very well. I don't mean doing a Freudian reading of Lorca, but connecting the two from the perspective of intellectual history.

14 jun 2011

On Fire

I don't know what's happened recently, maybe it's just because I have extra time, but I've been burning up the internet lately. The Bullshit fields sequence got hundreds more hits than I ever had before, and yesterday I had more than 500 visits to the blog, which is more than I've had in a day since I started keeping track last summer. I'm getting ideas I never thought I would, from out of nowhere. I'm sure it won't last, but meanwhile I'm enjoying myself quite a bit.

Rothenberg on Bloom

From Harold Bloom: The Critic as Exterminating Angel

I'm not refuting Bloom here, so much as indicating his obvious & admitted deviations from the line of poets (the 19th Century ones at least) foregrounded in his work. The spirit of that work, it seems to me, isn't revisionist but, as he himself renames it, "antithetical": almost a full turn from the revisioning—the actual return to vision—that has marked our poetry from Blake until the present. I've found Bloom useful in clarifying some of this, & I'm in sympathy with some larger part of what he attends to: Romanticism, kabbala, gnosticism, & so on. At the same time I'm distressed by the reductiveness of his work, by his unwillingness to revise or revision a narrowly conservative idea of tradition & "priority." There is, in other words, no questioning of "tradition" at its roots, but a reductive assertion "that everyone who now reads and writes in the West, of whatever racial background, sex or ideological camp, is still a son or daughter of Homer." No Coyotes or Taras appear in his mythologies, no Milarepas or Li Po's among his canonized poets. Kabbala & gnosticism gain entry as maps for criticism but otherwise his "canon" is still European & his specialization post-Enlightenment & English. So it remains only those poets devoted to the idea of the prolific, exuberant, & flamboyant who have made the move to let the greater world into our work.

JR's comparison with Mengele at the beginning of the essay is extreme, but I have to agree with his point in what I've quoted here. Gnosticism did not bring him closer to Rothenberg or Duncan or Ginsberg. So close, and yet so far.

Also, this passage:

If Bloom is the Devourer—the diluter of energy, the reductive agent—"revisionism" is no longer the poet's (prolific) re-visioning but an attempt to turn the unqualified "freedom" of the Romantics & their successors into a qualified & "repressed freedom": itself a product of anxiety. The Devourer, then, swallows the Prolific's "excess of delights" but seems to choke on them; or, as Devourer-turned-teacher, he laments: "How is he [am I] to teach a tradition now grown so wealthy and so heavy that to accommodate it demands more strength than any single consciousness can provide?" Unlike the Prolific—the producer—who revels in his own & others'—excesses, the teacher /Devourer/ critic is driven to despair & to canon-formation to relieve the stress.

A nice way of turning Bloom's Freudianism against him. Bloom as repressor of romantic energies, anxiously attempting to confine them to a narrower canon. The irony that the greatest critic of Romantic poetry in the US should be hostile or indifferent to the romanticism of Duncan or Ginsberg.

The "narcissism of small differences" is something I worry a lot about too. How some of my most energetic objections are to things very close to me (in theory) but that I cannot recognize as legitimate.

13 jun 2011

Gnosticism: Bloom and Duncan

I wonder why Harold Bloom never got behind Duncan. They have that common interest in gnosticism. Peter O'Leary in his book on Duncan, which I plan on getting and reading very soon, quotes Bloom, but I don't know anyone else who's brought them together.

I guess the obvious reason is the Bloom is East-coast academic and only thinks Eastern academic US poets deriving from a particular school or schools are worth while. So Elizabeth Bishop and Asbhery, yes; Creeley and Duncan, no. Duncan would have been a more natural choice than Ashbery, even, but Ashbery and Ammons, he could connect with Stevens and Emerson more easily.

The Age of Criticism

Reflecting on the mid-century cliché about the "age of criticism," Duncan wrote:
An age of criticism does not mean Pound’s Calvacanti essay, Cocteau’s ‘Call to Order,’ Dame Edith Sitwell’s notebooks or H.D.’s ‘The Guest,’ Charles Olson’s ‘Projective verse,’ or Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom: On Shakespeare

Guest / Duncan / HD

Interesting that Barbara Guest and Robert Duncan are the two poets of their generation to devote books to H.D. They both have that medieval / modernist vibe going on (that I've commented on before in Guest's poetry). Guest's is a biography, Duncan's an essay on modernist poetics, so they are quite different works. Duncan was born in 1919, Guest in 1920. Both grew up in California, and Guest moved back there at some point.

European or American?

In peninsular (Spanish) literature many scholars refer to modernism as a European movement, which is funny, because I grew up thinking of it as an American movement arising from the Pound / Eliot or Pound / Williams / H.D. clusters. French surrealists never thought of themselves as "modernists," for example. It was only after the Anglo-American concept spread to other fields that we started talking about modernism to refer to European "modernism" on the continent. Within English departments I think people still think of modernism as something that happened mostly in the English language.

That's not to say that that we can't talk about Kafka as a modernist, for example. I'm just talking about the term "modernist" itself which as far as I know wasn't used in French, if it even is today, for "modernism." Blanchot, for example, doesn't talk about "modernisme" to talk about his pantheon of writers.

After Frank O'Hara

A poem of mine I had forgotten about.

12 jun 2011

Duncan / Zambrano

Duncan is really opening the door for me on Lorca and Zambrano, in a way I didn't / couldn't see in Apocryphal Lorca, where I only looked at at his response to Lorca himself. Of course, the H.D. Book had not yet been published, so I'm going to cut myself a break here. Also, it is nice when another angle presents itself to me. My own distrust of gnosticism and mythopoesis creates a certain blindness and insight, in that it cuts me off from certain experiences while also giving me a somewhat original viewpoint on them. I am very excited about this new direction my work is taking. I STILL GOT IT. An intoxicating feeling. Pieces of the puzzle are falling into place with little effort on my part. When I invited Ron to give a talk in Kansas and he chose to talk about Duncan and the H.D. Book, I never suspected that this book would end up meaning so much to me. And it is not that I am a Duncan fanatic, either. Just being around Ken Irby for so many years I have grown in my respect for RD, by sheer contagion. By no coincidence, Irby for his first talk in the poetics seminar also talked about Duncan. I think people are trying to tell me something and I haven't been listening very well.

Duncan's scorn for the New Critics who dismissed H.D. helps me understand why Lorca's poetics was not recognized in the age of Dámaso Alonso and Jorge Guillén, the poet-professors. Duncan's scorn for Jarrell is like Valente's for Alonso.

Ethics and Aesthetics, or, Why Do Good People Like Bad Poetry?

People who like Mary Oliver poems have two problems, one ethical and the other aesthetic. On the ethical front, the problem is that her poems invite the liberal subject to take self-congratulatory positions. The poem in which she buries the one-eyed stillborn kitten, or the one in which she congratulates herself for recognizing the humanity of a janitor in Singapore, are both ethically vile. They theatricalize acts in which the speaker is allowed to demonstrate her "sensitivity." Someone who recognizes that Baudelaire's "Let's Beat Up the Poor" raises ethical issues often has no problem with poems that seem to dramatize the supposedly correct ethical posture, but in a nauseatingly self-serving way.

Aesthetically, the problem is that the poems are poorly written and over-explicit in the attitudes they propose. They have nothing going on aesthetically at all, since the main point is always the superior moral attitude of the speaker.

Mary Oliver is one of the most celebrated and beloved poets in America. She has won prizes galore and has many devoted readers. I don't know how this is even possible.

Poetic Modes that Should be Retired

This is what I used to do a lot of on Bemsha Swing. I got a Copper Canyon catalogue in the mail and I found these poetic modes amply represented.

Really, railing a lot about bad poetry got me the reputation of being intolerant and dogmatic. I almost forgot that there is a reason to do so. Poetry should not be the garbage genre.

11 jun 2011

Mary Oliver

Here is a good post on one of my least favorite poets, Mary Oliver.

10 jun 2011

Bullshit Fields (16)

New Historicism and Postcolonialism.

New Historicism is bullshit because it uses anecdote rather than data. You find a suggestive similarity between, say a legal document and a play written about the same time and construct a clever argument around this similarity. It also uses the Foucauldian method of giving a dramatic, aesthetically striking image more explanatory power than it really should have, like Bentham's panopticon, which never really became the model for prison-building. Never mind, it is such a powerful image of surveillance that it should have been the model.

Postcolonial theory is bullshit because it reproduces Derridean jargon in a gratuitous way, to talk about things that have nothing to do with deconstruction. Both of these movements decided to make literature about whatever the critic was interested in. The same goes for ecocriticism and a thousand other possible approaches that decide that, if x is the most urgent issue facing humankind, or to the most progressively minded segment of humankind, literary criticism should devote itself full time to x.

I really liked queer theory at the time, when the idea was to queer the renaissance, queer everything to show that the hetero / homo distinction was at the base of all Western Culture. Stepping back from it a minute, however, what this really shows is that you can do this with any x. The environment, the relation between nature and culture--what could be more significant than that? Therefore, that's what literary criticism should devote itself to. Or the nature of power. Or gender. Or colonialism. Or class conflict. Give me a theme, and I can show that all literature is really about this theme.

9 jun 2011

HD and Zambrano

I think I'll read the relation of Duncan to HD as following the same paradigm as the relation between Valente and Zambrano. Eureka.

Bullshit Fields (15)


Semiotics once seemed to be the field of the future, or at least of the present, before Umberto Eco became a best-selling novelist. It is not "bullshit" per se, but it tied its fortunes to structuralism and has lost its luster with the decline of this larger movement. People who don't like poststructuralism and postmodernism don't want to return to structuralism either, so there's no natural constituency for semiotics as an explanatory framework. Cultural studies uses some semiotics, to the extent that it's based on Barthes' "mythologies," but the influence there is attenuated.

The idea of semiotics was to study everything else as a language, not just language itself. A few problems emerged: other languages, other systems of signs, were simply not as complex or interesting as language. Secondly, linguists were all not interested in the Saussurean idea of the sign. There was a lot more to do in linguistics than try to refine an idea from the early stages of the discipline. Structuralism in linguistics was associated with an earlier model, more descriptive and anthropological.

8 jun 2011

Bullshit Fields (14)

Cultural Studies.

What makes Cultural Studies BS? Well, it is not. But if someone asked me argue that is was, this what I would say.

It has too much invested in studying what is popular at any given time. It hitches its wagon to the cultural marketplace, and thus cannot formulate criteria of value apart from the market. The other major criterion of value it espouses is political, of course. So something becomes worthy of study because it is popular, the product of mass culture, but then the "cultural work" (I hate that phrase) done by the piece of mass culture is some political intervention. "Cultural" ends up meaning "political," but in the symbolic politics of culture.

Cultural Studies is bullshit because it tries to wed these two sources of value, one capitalist and the other quasi-Marxist, into one argument. Debates are always whether the implications of some new development in mass culture are politically positive or retrograde. The Adornian idea that pop culture is simply the worthless product of the "culture industry" caused the contrary reaction, meaning you can't just dismiss pop culture in his high-handed high modernist way. That's good, of course. Adorno was an idiot about jazz, but you can take things too far in the opposite direction.

There were so many articles about Madonna back in the day. Cultural Studies is bullshit because it pretends to be hip but is really looking too hard for positive political meanings everywhere.

Next: Postcolonial Studies.


Duncan's HD Book is even better than I could have ever expected. I'm using it as one of my prime theoretical texts for my chapter on female subjectivity and literary modernism.

Bullshit Fields (13)

For obvious reasons, drug companies make very sure that their positive studies are published in medical journals and doctors know about them, while the negative ones often languish unseen within the FDA, which regards them as proprietary and therefore confidential. This practice greatly biases the medical literature, medical education, and treatment decisions.

In other words, the Texas Marksman's Fallacy.

There is an even more startling finding in one of the books reviewed here (Kirsch). Patients in a double-blind placebo study knew they were getting the real drug, and not a placebo, because of the side-effects. When given another drug with side effects, as a placebo, the difference in effectiveness between the real drug and the placebo disappeared! Unbe-fucking-lievable.

According to another author, Whitaker, reviewed here,
the natural history of mental illness has changed. Whereas conditions such as schizophrenia and depression were once mainly self-limited or episodic, with each episode usually lasting no more than six months and interspersed with long periods of normalcy, the conditions are now chronic and lifelong. Whitaker believes that this might be because drugs, even those that relieve symptoms in the short term, cause long-term mental harms that continue after the underlying illness would have naturally resolved.

7 jun 2011

Bullshit Fields (12)


(Ok, that's not even a field, since it's more of a theory. I even like Derrida, so I have to phrase this rather delicately. Most critiques of deconstruction are also bullshit, so I have to make sure I don't repeat those errors.)

The idea that deconstruction provides a "rigorous" method of looking at a literary text is pure bullshit.

My reasoning is that most American critics who tried to use the theory simply did not have the philosophical and linguistic chops to understand and evaluate it. They used an argument for authority, often filtered through a popularization such as that of Jonathan Culler. Blended with Fishian reader-response, anything goes criticism, it became the opposite of Derrida.

Because of a strongly anti-empiricist bent in French rationalist thought, deconstruction also became self-validating, unfalsifiable, like psychoanalysis. You couldn't question its validity without seeming naive and untheoretical. Nobody wanted to resemble the old-school skeptics, who didn't like it because it emphasized the instability of meaning in a literary text.

Of course, literary meaning is unstable. We can prove this empirically by looking that the history of the reception of texts. Somehow, though literary critics forgot this when Derrida and de Man came along.

Whenever Anyone Says...

Whenever anyone proposes to make the study of literature more scientific, or calls the humanities bullshit because it has trouble with verification and validity, it might be a good idea to remember that epidemiology and other scientific fields also have a lot of troubles. That's why I'm skeptical of Franco Moretti and the proposal for a quantitative study of literature (one of the reasons, the other being that I hate it). The epistemological questions are immense.

Generalized Skepticism?

Despite my skepticism about many fields, in humanities, social science, and the hard sciences, I still believe in the idea that there is such a thing as knowledge and that it can be learned and refined. The worst danger is that if a field like psychiatry is seen to be the bullshit that it is, people will just throw up their hands and believe nothing. Believing nothing, they will end up believing anything. If science is bullshit, why not believe in astrology? It's no worse. I'm sure anti-scientific and pseudo-scientific people react will glee whenever someone argues that "most scientific findings are incorrect." In my view, that is not at all the lesson to be learned. It is discouraging to learn that so much of what we think we know, we don't, but that just means we have a lot of work to do. I'm doing my part.


A mild earthquake shook me awake at 3:10 a.m. I fell back asleep after twenty minutes. It is funny to think about my half-conscious mind trying to figure out what it was, eliminating other hypotheses like a bulldozer running through the yard.


That in an economic crisis provoked by unchecked, unregulated capitalism and neoliberalism, the right wing gets rewarded in elections. Voters discontented with "politics" or "government" vote for the right.

6 jun 2011

Cherry Picking

Suppose you tested a classroom of 30 kids for about 40 separate variables. Chances are you would find that some of those variables would line up by sheer chance. In other words, you could find a strong correlation between two independent variables. If you came up with even more variables you could find even stronger correlations. Four of the five kids who wore glasses also had names beginning with J. This is a little like shooting bullets at a barn and then going and drawing targets around the bullet holes, the Texas Marksman's Fallacy. Correlation is not causation, but sometimes correlation is not even correlation.

Bullshit Fields (11)

I've read this paper before and have gone back to it recently. It makes a plausible case for the seemingly counterintuitive argument that "most research findings are false" in science. A combination of factors, including researcher bias, small sample sizes, the role of pure chance, and the fact that the effects measured are often very small, make the majority of scientific findings very questionable.

Let's take a weaker argument out of this. Not that all or even most science is bullshit, but that if the media reports a story about scientific findings, you have to take it cum grano salis. Part of the argument is that the hotter the field, in terms of scientific and media interest, the more the likelihood of falsity. The author of this study,Ioannidis, makes the startling claim that "Claimed Research Findings May Often Be Simply Accurate Measures of the Prevailing Bias":
For example, let us suppose that no nutrients or dietary patterns are actually important determinants for the risk of developing a specific tumor. Let us also suppose that the scientific literature has examined 60 nutrients and claims all of them to be related to the risk of developing this tumor with relative risks in the range of 1.2 to 1.4 for the comparison of the upper to lower intake tertiles. Then the claimed effect sizes are simply measuring nothing else but the net bias that has been involved in the generation of this scientific literature. Claimed effect sizes are in fact the most accurate estimates of the net bias. It even follows that between “null fields,” the fields that claim stronger effects (often with accompanying claims of medical or public health importance) are simply those that have sustained the worst biases.

If you read about a study saying cell phones cause cancer, you should look into it a bit more before just believing it. I can't follow every technical detail of the paper, nor do I have the statistical chops to say whether it is wrong or right. If it is wrong too, then it would be another example of a research finding being false!


One problem, of course, is that "negative results" are harder to get published. For example, on the front page web site of my university there are stories about people at KU finding a new species of lizard, and about school bullying. Apparently there is a correlation between visits to the school nurse and being the victim or perpetrator of bullying. Why are these news stories? If a team of researchers found no correlation between bullying and visits to the nurse, there would be nothing there to report. It would be surprising, because we would expect bruised knuckles and bloody noses, but it wouldn't be a research finding in and of itself. Or suppose the team of scientists found that a lizard thought to be a separate and new species was not, just the same old lizard we always knew about. That's not too exciting either.

A correlation is not a causation, but a lack of correlation is almost nothing at all, unless it was a definitive reversal of a super well-established correlation. The main bias in science is in proving positive, not negative, results.

Gender Balance

Since I am not that interested in most strains and varieties of feminist criticism, I tend to deal with female authors just because they are ones I happen to be interested in. I want to deal with them more or less as I would with male authors, without any kind of special pleading. Most criticism on male authors doesn't deal with gender at all, so having to make most criticism of women authors feminist already means that there is a differential treatment. I've proposed before that we should highlight gender in male authors and pretty much ignore it in female ones, just to correct the balance. We might start by gratuitously putting the word "male" in front of male authors, like "Federico García Lorca is one of the most significant male authors in Spanish literature." Sounds funny, right? Good, that's the point. By the same token, we might refer to Baraka as a poet and Frank O'Hara as a "white poet."

Anyway, if I devote myself to poets I am interested in, without respect to gender, I still end up with about a 75 / 25 ratio in favor of my own gender. (The Lorca book was pretty male dominated too, with an even greater masculinist slant.) The female authors I've written about, including my current book in progress, are Concha García, María Zambrano, Blanca Varela, Olvido García Valdés, Lola Velasco, and a few others. I am also interested in a few that I haven't written about yet.

So I've added a chapter in my book in which I address the problem of female subjectivity and modernism. Basically, the idea is to reflect on why (certain forms of) modernism seems to be at odds with ideas s of female subjectivity, insofar as these tend to fall into more realist modes. I'm going to contrast the Anglo-American mode, in which women writers played a more prominent role, with the Hispanic one. I'm using this as an excuse to buy Duncan's H.D. Book, which I wanted to buy anyway.

The Social Misconstruction of Reality

This book by Hamilton, the Social Misconstruction of Reality: Validity and Verification in the Scholarly Community is one I want to read. Basically, it is about why scholars continue to believe certain things that have been discredited. It's one think to poke fun at yokels who believe in creationism, but why do scholars persist in mistaken beliefs?

Baby Boom

When I look to people 10-15 years older than me (65), there are certain political attitudes and gestures left over from the 60s. Going the other direction, even in liberal academia, the political passions and motivations are not there to the same extent. People are more liberal than leftist if they are 15 years younger than me (35) I sit somewhat uncomfortably between these two groups, since I was born in the last year of the baby boom.

Now obviously could be wrong about this. It is only my subjective interpretation of my experience, and a generalization. Certainly the tenured radicals are not the majority of this age group, but their presence does make a difference. There are younger leftists, of course, but I don't think it's quite the same thing for them. The fire just doesn't burn as hot.

5 jun 2011

The Problem with Prize Inflation

In Spain, and in the US as well, one of the main mechanisms by which poetry is published is the prize. People enter their manuscripts and a winner is chosen. In the US, each poet spends 25 bucks to enter. In Spain, most prizes are sponsored by local or regional governments, banks, publishers, or foundations. The pay-to-enter scheme is not as common there. In the US, there is usually a celebrity poet judge, but manuscripts are screened by MFAs. In Spain, there is typically a jury composed of Luis García Montero and a few other poets. LGM has probably judged a few hundred contests, a half dozen or more a year for almost 30 years.

The prize itself, then, is publication itself, and the increasing dominance of that system means that any given published book is more likely than not to be a prize-winner. So winning a prize becomes a much less impressive feat. There are hundreds of prizes to win, and tons of award-winning poetry. In fact, virtually all published poetry could be prize-worthy. In such an environment wouldn't it be advisable to search out books that did not win any prize? If a book did not win a prize, and still was published, then it might be a book of a poet so well-known that s/he can bypass the prize lottery altogether. I don't think you could pick up a typical book of prize-winning verse and conclude that it is better, on average, than a book that won no prize at all.

(So even if there are no ethical problems, such as surfaced a few years ago when a famous poet gave a prize to her husband; even if the process is fair, it seems less than ideal to make it one of the main ways in which poetry gets published in book form. I cannot claim the process is unethical per se, in in all or most cases; my point here is a different one.)

Maybe I am jealous because I've never won anything, but I am not impressed by a long list of prizes that someone has won. That's just a lazy way to recount a poet's biography. The more the number of prizes, the less any prize counts.

Of course the system developed over time because of the lack of demand for books of poetry, and the oversupply of poetry manuscripts in relation to this demand. Pool the money of the poets with unpublished manuscripts (in the US case) and use those funds to publish books. An elegant solution indeed! The problem, once again, is that if this system is the norm then it no longer makes sense to talk of it in the language of awards or prizes.

As to the other ethical question, of whether the financial burden should be borne by the aspiring poets, I think that is fine. Who else should pay? I see people at the bingo hall shell out 20 bucks for a pack of pulltabs with no hesitation.

Hard and Soft (2)

Here is an example of linguist who is able to contextualize an intellectual debate in broad terms, looking not just at the empirical evidence for knowledge, but at how we claim to know what we know. Few people can do this as quickly and accessibly as Liberman. Those are the kind of "chops" I was trying to get at in my previous post.

Review of TOTAV

My friend Luis Martín-Estudillo reviews Twilight of the Avant-Garde in the recent issue of MLN.
Durante el año 2009 aparecieron dos libros de Jonathan Mayhew: Apocryphal Lorca: Parody, Translation, Kitsch (publicado por University of Chicago Press),y el que centra esta reseña. Tal annus mirabilis del profesor de la Universidad de Kansas lo ha confirmado como uno de los más señeros críticos de la poesía española escrita durante la última centuria. Su obra es idiosincrática y a menudo polémica, pues nunca renuncia a expresarse desde una combativa parcialidad, pero resulta siempre sugestiva, rigurosamente razonada, y certeramente presentada.

[In 2009 two books by JM appeared, AL and the one I'm reviewing here. This annus mirabilis of the KU prof confirms him as one of the most extraordinary critics of Spanish poetry written during the last century. His work is idiosyncratic and often polemical, since he never passes up the opportunity to express himself from a combative partiality, but it is always suggestive, rigorously argued, and accurately presented.]

4 jun 2011

Hard and Soft

Now obviously the harder the field is, the more likely it is not to be called bullshit. Hard science like physics or chemistry seems beyond question. Biology seems a little softer but still hard enough. "Applied" sciences come next. Social sciences outrank humanities, to the extent that they claim mathematical models, etc... I don't want you to get the impression I think like that.

Actually, the level of argumentation is often stronger in the Humanities than in the social sciences, which often have a weaker philosophical base. I'd match up ok against the average cultural anthropologist or sociologist. Within the social sciences, an economist might be more bullshit than a sociologist, or a quantitative sociologist might not have the intellectual firepower to debate a social theorist.

So softer does not mean worse. You need some hermeneutic chops to really address wider intellectual questions across disciplines. You could be in the most rigorous, non-bullshit discipline of them all and still not be able to hold your own against a bullshitter humanities professor like me.

The other problem with my series of posts, as some of you have noticed and kindly pointed out, is that it often ended up being merely a rehearsal of familiar prejudices. Economists can't predict anything, nutritionists exaggerate the significance of their findings, etc... Much as I've tried to be fair, that was implicit in my approach, especially when I knew less about a field.


I've been feeling like a magnet for smart people recently. The comments on my recent posts have been superb.

Bullshit Fields (10)


Once again, I'm not in a position to evaluate the intellectual solidity of this field. From the point of view of a member of the general public, however, this field seems a bit bullshitty because of the way in which scientists cannot shape the public debate in a way that makes coherent sense to anyone outside of the field. The public hears alarmism and conflicting, or changing views. Diet books of questionable scientific validity are bestsellers, and many are written by people who seem to have scientific credentials. I'm sure actual research in nutrition deals with narrower questions and uses the scientific method to arrive at valid conclusions, but since everyone eats, there ought to be a way of presenting best practices in a way that does not confuse the public so much.

3 jun 2011

Bullshit Fields (9)


I don't actually know enough about economics to know what percentage of it is bullshit. It seems like its predictive power is often pretty poor, that economists often disagree with one another not based on evidence, but on interpretation and ideology, that it is plagued by zombie ideas and prone to popular simplifications. I know that is often serves nefarious interests, as a discipline. That it is too influenced by the recent past. Keynesian economics seemed dead after the stagflation of the 70s, and now Chicago school economics seems on the defensive, with a return to Keynesian regulation. It does use mathematical models, but that in and of itself doesn't mean much. There are intellectually brilliant economists too, but that doesn't mean much if they aren't good at predicting things. Economists are also notorious for professional deformation, wanting to reduce everything to an economic question. If their field is not on solid ground, then they shouldn't be going around trying to explain other things in economic terms.

So the question is not whether it is a bullshit field. A lot of fields have some component of bullshit, even ones I like and practice myself, such as literary criticism and theory. The question is if it is fifty / fifity // eighty / twenty, etc... in its relative ratio of bullshit to validity. Once again, I have no idea, and the critique I've offered here is merely a bunch of clichés one hears denigrating the dismal science.

Crews on Prozac

If you think the only alternative to Freudianism is psychiatric medication, take a look at Fred Crews'Talking Back to Prozac. Crews is one of the main public intellectual critics of psychoanalysis, but his view of prozac is no less critical.

Bullshit Fields (8)

Creative Writing

Academia is very good at reproducing forms of writing, standard modes that will acceptable to other academics. It is desirable to have a standard form for an academic article in a certain field and to judge the article by how well it manages its evidence, presents its conclusions, etc... So it is understandable that creative writing as an academic field is also very good at the self-reproduction of forms and styles. This happens anyway, without the aid of academia. Writers are pretty mimetic of other writers because not that many people are very original. What Creative Writing does is to magnify this clone-like effect by using a workshop format in which groupthink is bound to emerge. Think of whatever the standard New Yorker story of any decade looks like, whether it's Cheever or Carver, Barthelme Sr or Barthelme Jr. Creative writing tends to sand down the rebelliousness of the avant-garde, making it safe for consumption, co-opting it in tepid "third-stream" alternatives. It offers a professionally worthless degree, the MFA, in vastly greater numbers than academia can re-absorb, but that doesn't guarantee competence in writing either. Should being poet be a credential?

Please don't rehearse the standard defenses here that I've heard a thousand times before. How diverse these programs are, how you can in fact, teach writing, how my description corresponds to these programs 20 years ago. How poets I admire have taught creative writing. The historical damage of the Iowaization of American poetry has still not been repaired.

Bullshit fields (7)

Literary Theory.

I've taught classes in this field, so this is more a criticism of "us" than of "you." What makes theory bullshit is its eclecticism, its willingness to take any and all theorists as experts, even if some of these theorists are based in other bullshit fields. The theorist looks to philosophy and to snippets of other fields, but doesn't care whether the arguments are good ones or not, or whether the philosopher quoted on one page contradicts the one quoted on the next. A theorist is an English professor who thinks s/he knows philosophy but couldn't explain Kant's synthetic a priori to you, or some other basic concept. A dilettante.

2 jun 2011

Pretty Good Fields (2)


Philosophy. I know you are going to say that there is a lot bullshit in philosophy too, but the difference is that philosophers themselves have to argue for the validity of what they say. There's always going to be someone raising their hand and calling bullshit on you, so you have to be able to defend what you say. It is highly factional, that is true, but there is no single founder or authority figure. You can't just say "because Kant said so." You can't appeal to a sacred text beyond all question, because then you would be doing theology, not philosophy, where you have to argue from first principles. I think a good philosopher would be perfectly fine if you disagreed with 90% of existing philosophy, because he (or she) probably does too. Nobody spots a fallacy faster in a philosophy text than another philosopher does.

So most philosophy is probably nonsense, but it is still a good field because you have to show why it's nonsense. It teaches intellectual humility because some of the smartest people who ever lived often came up with spectacular nonsense.

(If there is a part of philosophy that is bullshit, it has to do with discussing whether it is ethically ok to push a fat man in front of trolley, thus stopping the trolley from running into three other people tied to the track in its path.)

Another Cognitive Bias

There is a cognitive bias that I'm not sure has a formal name. It is similar to the concept of "professional deformation." Basically, it is the bias toward one's own intellectual framework. An economist who sees everything in economic terms. A linguist who views everything as basically a problem of language, etc... In short, it is the tendency to overestimate the power of one's own academic discipline to explain everything. A kind of intellectual overreaching.

Bullshit Fields (6)


I'm sure there is excellent research in the field of education, and I have to make sure I distinguish between bullshit fields and simply low-status ones. A low status field would be one that is not well-respected by other academics, but that does not necessarily mean that it is not worthwhile. Education as a field does have a pragmatic aim, to improve education. The problem, however, is that however brilliant an educational researcher might be, the findings never seem to trickle down into actual education, you know, educating people. Instead, actual education is mired down in ideological debates between neo-liberal privatizers disguised as "reformers" and progressive but often equally misguided ideologues on the other side.

A dissertation in this field is likely to be of low quality, especially if the person is going to be a high-school principal. If you had a Chemistry teacher with an M.A., would you rather the M.A. be in Chemistry or in Education? I thought so. One teacher I know got an M.A. online, without even every going to the university where is was offered, even though it was brick-and-mortar university.

Bullshit Fields (5)

To summarize a bit. Here are some warning signs that your field may be suspect.

(1) Confirmation bias. If your field has no consistent way of dealing with the problem of "finding what you want to find." If people in the field don't even worry about this problem, you may have a problem.

(2) Falsifiability and replicability. If there is no way of falsifying conclusions, if there is no way of correcting mistakes. If there is no history of forward movement. If there is no way of replicating the evidence. If multiple specialists in the field, when presented with the same data, might arrive at multiple, conflicting conclusions. For example, 10 economists or 10 literary critics might give you 10 different versions of what is going on.

(3) Appeal to the authority of the founder. If disputes in the field are settled by appeals to the authority of a a founder-figure, like Marx or Derrida. If we understood what Marx really meant, we will arrive at true Marxism (that kind of thinking).

(4) Factionalism. If the field is one that tends to split into many sects or factions based, not on evidence, but on ideology or temperament. If these factions tend to coalesce around other charismatic figures vying for succession after the founder is out of the picture.

(5) Special pleading and circular arguments, question begging, etc... . If you have to first accept principles on faith to accept the validity of the field. If the arguments for the validity are based on special pleading or the cherry picking of evidence. Appeals to anecdote or personal experience also are suspect.

(6) Low standards. Are even the best people in the field intellectual light-weights? Are the dissertations produced in the field of generally low quality? Is plagiarism widely tolerated?

(7) Agenda. Having an agenda does not make a field suspect in and of itself. In other words, sociology is generally aimed toward the improvement of society rather than its destruction. It is biased in that sense. Environmental science wants to preserve, not destroy the environment. Medicine wants to cure disease. SLA wants people to learn languages better. Those kind of agendas are inherent to the fields themselves and unobjectionable. If your field is so driven by an agenda that it ignores all inconvenient evidence, however, then it just might be a bullshit field.

Thanks for all your comments on my previous posts. You have been very civil even when you have disagreed with me. This summary includes ideas suggested to me in comments by Andrew and a few others. It should be obvious that I am stating the objections to the field in strong terms, sometimes a bit overstated. Obviously I don't believe my own field is totally bogus, for example; I just want to state the case that it should care a little more about validity

We are not done yet, though. I still have many fields to cover.

Bullshit Fields (4)

My fourth bullshit field, as you might expect, is psychoanalysis. An easy target. Nobody, not even defenders of the field, really thinks that the human mind is divided into id, ego, and superego. Historians, philosophers, and biographers have pretty much demolished the Freudian edifice, piece by piece, showing how Freud basically made up the entire thing out of bogus case studies. Does anyone really think, any longer, that neuroses are caused by the repression of childhood sexual traumas? As therapy, psychoanalysis is endlessly repetitive. The kind of cures that Freud claimed to have effected don't really happen in real life, I suspect. They probably didn't happen for Freud either.

One characteristic of a bullshit field is that is cannot protect itself against confirmation bias, in other words, the tendency to find what you want to find. Freudianism is rife with such bias, since a Freudian will find Freudian motifs wherever he looks, and any objection to this is termed "resistance." If you don't agree with a Freudian, that just confirms the validity of the insight! The system is immune from falsification, as Popper argued. Freud was particularly prone to confirmation bias because he thought he was immune from it. He even, famously, claimed to have analyzed himself! He was very smart, but extremely arrogant in this regard. (Confirmation bias, briefly, is favoring information that confirms a pre-existent view of things. Suppose we wanted to prove that television violence fosters violent behavior. Suppose then we videotape kids after they've watched tv and watch the videos. We would want to make sure that the people watching and scoring the videos did not know which children were in the control group and which had just watched violent images. Why because the bias of the research itself is to find causation. [That's another bullshit field, by the way.] If you think about it, Freud's method was the opposite, designed expressly to magnify this kind of bias rather than control for it. Suppose you wanted to design an experimental method in which the researcher's views are always confirmed? If I wanted to design something like that I would come up with something like psychoanalysis. An authority figure doctor in a room with the patient for an hour trying to confirm his theory through conversation.)

At one time, Freud's ideas had a huge impact on elite and popular culture. Now, not so much. I think only film studies still uses psychoanalysis, which is understandable given the historical origins of this field. Remember when every Hitchcock film hinged on a psychoanalytic conceit?

(Obviously, psychoanalysis and other forms of psychotherapy "work" for some people. And I'll concede that Freud was a great "genius" too, since apparently that's what you have to say. I'm not in favor of replacing talk therapy with mere pills, or debating the relative merits of different therapies in detail. The intellectual edifice standing behind the practice of analysis is just not there any more, in any significant sense. See Crews, ed. Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend, 1999, as well as his ealier The Memory Wars. If you read these books and still think highly of the edifice, there's probably nothing I could say to convince you. If you haven't been exposed to this historical evidence, then you really don't know enough to make up your mind. I, too, grew up assuming Freud was as solid as anything. The problem is that there is no evidence for it outside of the self-confirming clinical practice.)

Pretty Good Fields

One field I respect is linguistics. I'm sure some linguists think others are doing bullshit, but generally they respect one another and work toward a common understanding. They come up with interesting, replicable findings and their conclusions can be falsified. A linguist will not appeal to authority (Chomsky said so) but to evidence. A good linguist will admit to error and correct previous positions. My bullshit detector doesn't go off that much with linguists, though I am skeptical about "universal grammar."

Gee, it's not as fun to talk about a field I respect. This is going to be a dud.

I guess what I'm saying is that you can tell a good field by how it behaves itself. Does it split into ideologically opposed camps based on temperament and personality, like literary criticism, or theology, or does it steer a middle course? Are its claims falsifiable in any meaningful way? How does it know what it claims to know? Can someone outside the field understand its claims in layman's language without having to accept special pleading of the "Freud was a genius" type?

1 jun 2011

Other Fields?

I welcome suggestions of other bullshit fields that I should address here. Of course, I have to agree that the field is mostly bullshit. I also have to have the competence to say something about the field (or at least think I do.) After all, it is my blog. I will also be doing a separate series on academic fields for which I have a huge amount of respect, if any are left standing after my rampage.

The main criteria for bullshit are the lack of protection against confirmation bias, volatility, and the influence of fashion or sociological contingency. We've seen that theology and evolutionary psychology are highly open to charges of confirmation bias, with theology being a field consisting of nothing but such bias. We've seen that literary criticism is also very closed in on itself.

Any field that splits into many separate and opposing sects or factions is likely to be bullshit. If there are 100 schools of thought in theology, literary criticism, or psychoanalysis, then the differences among them are likely due to the lack of any validating principle. Also, if a field changes rapidly, but without really building on past insights, and then reverts back to earlier models for no particularly good reason.

Bullshit Fields (3)

The third bullshit field I'd like to examine is literary criticism. Since this is my own field, you might be surprised by this, but I have to admit that literary criticism has large tendency toward "making things up" and little if any protection against confirmation bias. Basically, it is a tradition of hermeneutics, or interpretation, in which the rules are set by those within the community. What makes a conclusion valid is whether it conforms, more or less, to the norms of the community. Even the theory that is supposed to lend some intellectual authority to our discipline is mostly just eclectic borrowing from fields seen, somehow, as more based on in some kind of empirical reality or theoretical rigor. Unfortunately, a lot of the theory underlying criticism has no more validity than literary criticism itself. Take psychoanalysis. Please, take it. Critics continue to use this branch of theory even when it is pretty clear that Freud invented the whole enterprise out of whole cloth. Even his famed case studies were manipulated to arrive at pre-ordained conclusions. Most literary theory is heuristic, at best, anti-heuristic, at worst.

You could probably justify literary criticism by using Gadamer's theory of hermeneutics, in which the vicious circle of self-confirming biases becomes a productive circle of increasing insight. You could also just say that literary reading is just a worthwhile human activity even if it has no validity that can be demonstrated external to itself. At least we're not as bad as theology, because we are judging a figure-skating contest in which there are actual skaters. We also aren't as bad as evolutionary psychology.

Soria Olmedo

Here's another notice of my book, in the most prestigious Spanish literary journal, written by one of the main Lorca scholars from Spain.

De la incesante bibliografía lorquiana escogemos Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch (University of Chicago Press, 2009), de Jonathan Mayhew. Trata sobre la supervivencia de Lorca en la cultura poética de los USA a través de traducciones, imitaciones y pastiches por algunos grandes poetas de entre los 50 y los 70 (Creely, Spicer, O´Hara, Koch, Rothenberg), que lo conviertieron en un “poeta americano” fuerte justamente por ser apócrifo, un poeta de genio romántico y esencia cultural cuya imagen resulta de una simplificación.

--Andrés Soria Olmedo, Insula.

Atheist Myths

Atheism is just another religion

Then I guess tapwater is just another brand of vodka. Atheism is non-theism. We just don't believe. Atheism isn't even a belief system; it's just not believing in any theos.

Atheists just want to live a life of debauchery and murder.

Here's the funny thing. I feel moral repugnance at many things. Racism, war. I have no urge to go out an wreak mayhem on the world. And yet my moral sense is not linked to the hope of punishment or reward in the afterlife. Get over it.

Atheists are obnoxious.

Ok, some are. What's your point again?

Atheists worship science, or progress, or music, or some other substitute for religion.

Religious people also like music and poetry. They can also do well in science courses. Some atheists have little aptitude for science.

Atheists admire Richard Dawkins, who is obnoxious.

Atheism is not an organized group with leaders and spokespeople. Some of like Dawkins, or Hitchens, and some don't. Some of us have mixed and nuanced opinions of people writing book in favor of atheism.

Atheists do not like Bach.

He is my favorite composer. I don't know why I should have to share the exact belief-system of every artist, poet, and composer I admire.