Monthly Archives: April 2010

Two Maps (HUM415)

Two cartographic representations of the digital/cyberspace divide. The first identifies the number of computers per hundred people:

The second represents internet use:

See that withered pink and red appendage in the center of the map?

Are you interested in human geography? Then go to worldmapper.

Mai’s America (HUM470)

Did you like the documentary we screened in class today? If you were to recommend it to a friend how would you describe it?

On Thursday we’ll begin our discussion of le thi diem thuy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For. You might keep Mai’s America in mind as you read this text. Are there continuities between the Marlo Poras’s film-biography and thuy’s autobiographical work (novel? short story collection?).

General Remarks on Papers (HUM415, HUM470, AMS179)

In general, papers should exhibit the 3 i’s and be informed, intelligent and imaginative. By informed I mean that they ought to be the end result of some real research, research that moves well beyond a simple google search. The sources used, that is to say, ought to be scholarly: peer-reviewed journals, serious documentary film, actual books, etc. Let me emphasize that WIKIPEDIA, as wonderful as that website can be, IS NOT a scholarly source while the ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA is.  Your best bet for solid academic articles: JSTOR and Project Muse.

“Intelligent” indicates an overall critical savvy regarding your chosen topic. The concepts introduced in class will be indispensable here. Rigorous student writing always goes beyond mere appreciation and approaches the object of study (a text, a practice, a value) slyly, establishing context, analyzing form and “reading” for ideological content. For example, in terms of HUM470 the goal of a final paper is not simply to marvel at the authenticity of the writer’s self-expression. We already know that the self itself is, in William Berry’s phrasing, a kind of secular soul– in other words an ideological investment, a construct,  an effect of representation (signification) rather than something which precedes or lies outside of language. Distance yourself from your chosen text: flip it upside down, judge it from other angles, compare it with still other texts– above all read other criticism of it.

As a general rule of thumb, if you’re bored writing your paper odds are I’ll be bored reading it. An excellent paper is one which departs from the staid and predictable “term paper” mode and evinces a meaningful, thoughtful critical-imaginative enagement with the text. Sit down and throw whatever comes into your head onto a piece of paper. Write down key terms and assigned texts, pull ideas from your class conversations, my lectures, and the blog. Jumble it up and see what sticks out.

Now consider Paul of Tarsus’ first letter to the Christians of Corinth: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became [a college student], I put away childish things.” Let there be no doubt: papers ought to be not only intellectually thrilling but grammatically flawless. SFSU students have as a resource the  LAC while SJSU students have access to the Writing Center. Be advised: due to the abandonment of CSU to market forces, hours have been cut. MAKE AN APPOINTMENT NOW, particularly if I have ever written the world “syntax” on any of your reading responses.

Finally, we need to talk about plagiarism, which has already reared its repulsive head this semester. We will be using in an effort to preclude cheating. Fair warning: a plagiarized final paper will mean an F for the semester.

Any questions? Please address them to this post in the comments section.

3 billion versus 793

“The ranks of the astronomically rich thinned a bit as a result of the financial crisis that began in 2007. But according to Forbes, the world’s 793 billionaires as of 2009 still had a combined worth of $2.4 trillion. That’s twice the combined gross domestic product of all the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Bank–and more than the total annual income of the poorest half of the world’s population.

“Yes, you read that correctly. There are 793 people with more money than 3 billion people.”

— Alan Maass, The Case for Socialism (3rd edition)

Hardcore (HUM415)

Against my expectations and in a clear demonstration of an unparalleled and rapacious intellectual hunger, today’s secret ballot ended in a decision to stick with the original schedule. You guys are so hardcore. No changes then. Next week we nail down Neuromancer. For the 2 weeks after that we tackle Calcutta Chromosome. And we round out the course with a taste of commie-loving psychoanalyst-philosopher Slavoj Zizek, the master, as some guy once said, of the “counterintuitive observation.”

For next week please screen David Cronenberg’s film eXistenZ, a more perverse version of The Matrix.

Chronotope, Metonym, Soundtrack (HUM470)

Today we talked about some of the critical concepts we’ve already encountered and added a new term, metonymy, to the mix. Metonymy is a trope, a figure of speech, which very loosely describes the act of using a physical object to suggest a larger idea.

In the context of American Autobiography, we asked what objects might “stand in for” the socio-historical situations described by any of the works we’ve read for this course. For example, Jack Black’s description of Machine Age lowlife– a world of prostitutes, hop fiends, and crooks– could be distilled to a series of objects which invoke that social scene: an opium pipe, a set of burglar’s tools, a dark fedora.

You’ll note that this activity of creating metonyms bears a resemblance to Bakhtin’s chronotope, where a socio-historical situation is “embodied” in a specific space: the slave ship for the Black Atlantic, a pig sty for the later stages of the Cultural Revolution when Red Guards and other “sent down youth” migrated to the countryside in order to learn from the peasants, etc.

The critical-imaginative activity of soundtracking is also part of an effort to substitute a single term for a larger complex of social and historical forces, one which posits the reader as a kind of Foley artist: in what would the soundscape of the Cultural Revolution consist? A tractor engine, boots treading mud, the shrill cries of a million Red Guards in Tiananmen Square? Tweaking that concept slightly, you could ask what some period from your own life might sound like. For me, just out of highschool and working as a short order cook, the sounds of cracking eggshells and a steel whisk, the gentle whump of the gas burners igniting, the frantic babble of a full “floor” during the morning rush, the sizzle of raw onions in a puddle of grease on the flat top.

All three of these terms, then, operate according to a principle of substitution in order to evoke something larger than themselves. The last of the three, soundtracking, might be the strangest of them in that in employing it we are essentially asking what history (a specific historical period) sounds like– a synesthetic move. A deliberate derangement of our senses, I think, complicates and enriches what we think we already know. Push this critical task to the point of absurdity: what does the Jim Crow era south taste like? (Blood and collard greens.) What is the texture of the Cultural Revolution? (The coarse weave of military uniforms worn by young Red Guards, the roughness of work-hardened hands.)

Dropping Murguia (HUM470)

In a stunning departure from the dictatorship of the professoriate we decided in true democratic fashion today to drop Murguia’s Medicine of Memory from our reading list in order to better focus on Thuy and the final paper. Students who would like to read Murguia and write a response for extra credit are encouraged to do so. The course information page now reflects these changes.