Monday, October 27, 2014

Alt Lit is Dead but I Still Have to Read It

Well, it took me three years even to find out that "Alt Lit" was a thing. Now it is not a thing anymore, and it sounds like I saved myself a lot of time and trouble by not knowing about it sooner. Two major figures in the movement have recently been outed as psychologically and sexually abusers, manifesting a misogyny and moral irresponsibility that was expressed already in the social structure and content of alt lit.

I've read zero alt lit (unless you count Twitter). But if its principles are myopic and juvenile, I'd be justified in rejecting it outright. And Miles Klee is right in saying that alt lit "prides itself on a deadpan hyper-transparency, a blurring of fiction and bracing fact meant to signal a self-awareness that’s typically in frightfully short supply," then I do reject the movement. Unfortunately, this very rejection probably means that I need to read this movement closely, as a case study in the fallacy of post-irony (in brief, the delusion and social nihilism inherent in any attempt to "live without irony").

From Miles Klee's report:
Even before E.R. “lashed out” at Lin, readers had flagged paternally sexist trends in his and affiliated writers’ work—which might not be so disturbing were it not for their tendency to present it as entirely sincere and unfiltered. Just last month, in Luna Luna Magazine, Diana Dragonetti took Lin to task for “male projection” in Richard Yates and the way he fetishizes the power that his protagonist has over his young companion, “both in [the] sense of his adulthood and in his control of the narrative.” He also notes that the novel “acknowledges the impossibility of consent” in the relationship, with Kennedy’s character remarking, “You raped me like ten times,” and Lin’s researching the age of consent in New York: 17.

Dragonetti criticizes Roggenbuck, too, for his “‘sad girl’ misogyny,” and laments the sentimentalization of rape culture undertaken—in fiction and conceptual HTMLGiant blog posts alike—by Steven Trull, alias Janey Smith. What complicates these readings further is that the straight males of the alt lit community are educated and theoretically liberal, well-versed in the language of gender equality but able to throw semantic smoke bombs or cry “artistic license” when confronted for their objectifying language—this despite their reputation as the post-irony set. Yet, as Emily Swanson writes on HTMLGiant, Gawker is off the mark to blame Dierks’ behavior on alt lit’s supposed “boys’ club” mentality: Women—including Mira Gonzalez, Gabby Bess, and Melissa Broder—have done more than their share to define and carry the movement. Meanwhile, Dierks can’t truly be said to have occupied a place of special importance or influence within it; many of his prolific and chronically underpaid peers enjoy equal stature.
More at The Daily Dot

Friday, October 17, 2014

Whose Deadline is it Anyway?

It follows almost tautologically from the preeminence of a two-party system that practically everyone in the country will feel that everything worthy and good is constantly being threatened by a large, evil political group with a scary amount of power (or by two of them if you happen to be independent).

What can you do? You study power, trying to understand how people who are so obviously wrong can have so much influence. You learn how their power works, so you can get inside it and take it apart. Not surprisingly, it turns out to have nothing to do with rational, disciplined inquiry and debate. So to fight back, you've got to play their game. You can't reason away a massive political faction. So what can you do?

Dan Przygoda's new short film Deadline takes on this overwhelming political dynamic in the cinematic language of suspense thrillers. Quick cuts and nervous zooming and panning (a la 24) charge the everyday scenario of a political talk show with an air of suspense. We discover that a power struggle deeper than the conventional guest vs. host dynamic is playing out under the surface.

Caveat: if you tend to favor conservative positions (even if you don't identify yourself as a Republican), the first half of this film may come across as rather tendentious. It did to me. I think it's a weakness of the film that Przygoda has given his own politics a more earnest voice without giving them better arguments. (I would think that, wouldn't I?) But one has to admit that the conservative talk show host is barely even a caricature of O'Reilly or Hannity, and it's worth seeing how the development of the character of the guest casts his political remarks in an ironic light.

I'm discussing details of the plot below, so if you want to watch the movie before you read on, you can do so for free at (I don't normally do "spoiler warnings," but part of the fun of this film is the way it exploits the toolbox of suspense dramas, so I'll keep it suspenseful!)

The obvious reason for the title Deadline is that it's about an ultimatum, a decision that talk show host Ted Warner (Robert Newman) has to make by the end of the program: renounce his career, or let his wife and son die. But he's not the only one making a decision under pressure. Despite the expression of firm resolve that James McCartney (James Arden) wears from the opening scene, he seems at times not to have made up his mind that his cold, desperate scheme is the only way. He seems to think that he can actually reason with Warner. Maybe he will not need to follow through on his plan. Maybe he really can just talk, vote, and hope. He speaks as though he isn't just talking to a character on a TV program, not a person who can listen and be persuaded.

At the same time, his reference to bombing abortion clinics exposes the moral incoherence of his own strategy: he's considering crossing the same kind of line between politics and war (even if he pretends that his hands are clean because he is terrorizing without shedding any blood). So Ted Warner isn't listening to James, and he is not even listening to himself. And the segment is ending, and of course nothing is really happening, and James senses that it's time to play his hand or lose the game.

Maybe Deadline is an analogy for the way our public ethical and social conversations are vexed by the demands of the election cycle. If the most important thing is winning the next battle against the other side, we'll start to act like it's a war: if not by setting off bombs and issuing death threats, then by shutting down the pathways of good faith that make actual conversation and even conversion possible.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

On Refrain

I am in general in favor of repeating myself, and it seems to me that as a blogger I have a special license to do so. So although I have said it before, this will not prevent me from remarking again here that echo says the impossible. But let me also go a little further and say that the marvelous phenomenon of refrain depends on that same impossible saying. Take the lyrics of this Mountain Goats song:

And I sang "Oh, what do I do? What do I do? What do I do? What do I do without you?"
Needless to say, this refrain is already calculated to make a repetition-lover like me smile. But is it also needless to say that this is not yet a refrain? It is "only" repetition. Only the empty rhetorical words of a broken man for whom nothing is possible, wandering in speech through his own indifferent thoughts just as he "wandered through the house like a little boy lost at the mall." And please don't let the force of that image go to waste! For a little boy with his mother the mall may be a place of wonder (even there, perhaps, the gods are present!), with something new to astonish him at every turn--but with his mother's disappearance, there disappear also all the various and surprising invitations of the place and all that is left is the space between him and his mother, which threatens to be infinite--nothing appears to this child but that his mother is not there, nor there, nor there again, as with each step she--all he could hope to find--does not appear.

"What do I do?" An expression of the impossibility of doing anything. If a man reaches out to speak, or rather to sing, in the midst of the impossibility of doing anything at all, this expression threatens to become all he has and to repeat itself infinitely in all his song. Song itself, the wondrously various and surprising highway of the soul, becomes an exercise in futility.

But if this man sings these words so often that they lose their meaning, he might recognize that they had all along the peculiarity of not meaning what they mean: "What do I do?" A question. How am I to proceed? But the words meant precisely that this question could not be asked, because no answer could be expected, and there is no such thing as a question which expects no answer. A question, to be a question, has to "[get] ready for the future to arrive." If it does not have this readiness it asks for nothing and is only bitter rhetoric. And in our song this readiness which the singer has is why his repetition of the refrain is emphatically not only a repetition, but a discovery. Suddenly the very words of hopelessness have joined the world in coming alive.

And let me say also this: in order for all of this to be true, the refrain must have already had this life in the first place in order to come alive. If in its first entrance the same saying which concludes the song on an expectant note does not bear itself toward the future with expectancy, it must for that very reason be said that it does bear itself in this way toward its transformation in the end. Waiting: holding back. If the song is a composition, something to be performed more or less according to prescription, then the sense of expectancy is withheld deliberately and knowingly from the first entrance of the refrain, in expectation of the second. The first waits for the second. And only because it does so, because it refrains and holds something back can the second come as a surprise.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Dante's Restrained Ambition (Purgatorio, Canto XIX)

In the hour before dawn when dreams are most prophetic, as he departs from the realm in which a deficiency of love is corrected, on the threshold of those higher realms that correct an excess of love, Dante dreams of the siren, a deceptive creature who would turn him aside from his journey:
  A stammering woman came to me in dream:
her eyes askew, and crooked on her feet,
her hands were crippled, her complexion sallow.
  I looked at her; and just as sun revives
cold limbs that night made numb, so did my gaze
loosen her tongue and then, in little time,
  set her contorted limbs in perfect order;
and, with the coloring that love prefers,
my eyes transformed the wanness of her features.
  And when her speech had been set free, then she
began to sing so, that it would have been
most difficult for me to turn aside.
  "I am," she sang, "I am the pleasing siren,
who in midsea leads mariners astray—
there is so much delight in hearing me.
  I turned aside Ulysses, although he
had longed to journey; who grows used to me
seldom departs--I satisfy him so."
  Her lips were not yet done when, there beside me,
a woman showed herself, alert and saintly,
to cast the siren into much confusion.
  "O Virgil, Virgil, tell me: who is this?"
she asked most scornfully; and he came forward,
his eyes intent upon that honest one.
  He seized the other, baring her in front,
tearing her clothes, and showing me her belly;
the stench that came from there awakened me.
  --Purgatorio, IX.7-33 (tr. Allen Mandelbaum)
The siren may seem to represent sexual temptation, perhaps as a synecdoche for the whole class of sins of excessive love. However, Dante's characteristic sin is pride, and his error in the dream is one of pride, not desire at all: he fondly imagines that his gaze corrects the defects of her body. His imaginative eye has the power to "loosen her tongue… set her contorted limbs in perfect order… and [transform] the wanness of her features." Like all great poets, Dante seems to himself to be the source of redemption, his inspiration a saving vision of a deformed world.

Disabused of this unspoken self-interpretation, he is stricken to the heart; he now trudges on "bearing my brow like one whose thoughts have weighed him down, who bends as if he were the semiarch that forms a bridge." A bridge may seem rather a grand structure, but is invoked here to describe the posture of shame. A semiarch aims upward, but trains its ambition to reach across, making itself serviceable rather than aspiring higher. This self-humbling form is essential to its function, and in the same way Dante's castigations of his own pride are essential to the poem.

Herein lies the central thematic paradox of the whole Divine Comedy: Dante must learn and practice humility, even as he takes on a grand mission that places him analogically in the position of creator, judge, and redeemer. Only by living this paradox can Dante appreciate the mystery of his final vision, the incommensurable achievement of the Incarnation:

  so I searched that strange sight: I wished to see
the way in which our human effigy
suited the circle and found place in it—
  --Paradiso, XXXIII.136-138

Monday, October 13, 2014

"Indian Country" (Jacobin)

It's easy to feel distant from America's historical militant campaign against the indigenous people of the land we occupy, especially as most of us didn't grow up giving it much thought. I have to admit that "Wounded Knee" didn't mean much to me until a couple days ago. I just thought of it as "one of those battles where the Indians lost big time." But it's not really about losing a battle, is it? It's about losing recognition as human beings. How else can you explain men getting a medal of honor for slaughtering 200 women and children? (These medals have never been rescinded, by the way.) This kind of extermination is not normally acclaimed when practiced upon human beings.

In an excerpt from her history An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz makes the claim that United States military philosophy has not departed much from this dehumanizing perspective on the enemy. "Indian" remains a metonymy for "proposed object of extermination."
During the first US military invasion of Iraq, a gesture intended to obliterate the “Vietnam Syndrome,” Brigadier General Richard Neal, briefing reporters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, stated that the US military wanted to ensure a speedy victory once it committed land forces to “Indian Country.” The following day, in a little-publicized statement of protest, the National Congress of American Indians pointed out that fifteen thousand Native Americans were serving as combat troops in the Persian Gulf.
The term “Indian Country” is not merely an insensitive racial slur to indicate the enemy, tastelessly employed by accident. Neither Neal nor any other military authority apologized for the statement, and it continues to be used by the military and the media, usually in its shortened form, “In Country,” which originated in the Vietnam War.
“Indian Country” and “In Country” are military terms of trade, like other euphemisms such as “collateral damage” (killing civilians) and “ordnance” (bombs) that appear in military training manuals and are used regularly. “Indian Country” and “In Country” mean “behind enemy lines.” Its current use should serve to remind us of the origins and development of the US military, as well as the nature of our political and social history: annihilation into unconditional surrender.
The problem isn't just that this terminology is disrespectful (which of course, it is). The larger problem is that it makes evident a continuity in how we perceive our military enemies. The comparison of Wounded Knee to My Lai goes a long way to making this point, because the callousness of that episode is so intense and obvious. But I'd like to see the case for the Gulf War and Iraq War as "Indian" Wars more fully drawn than Dunbar-Ortiz has done.

A difficult question here is what war should look like if the enemy are respected as peers who happen to be on the other side. Would a fighting force trained to feel repugnance at the notion of enemy civilian deaths be an ineffective force? Is there a paradigm in history for such a fighting philosophy?

More at

Friday, October 10, 2014

"A Politicized Aesthetic" (

Are we in a culture war? If so, then under what conditions can we claim victory? James Matthew Wilson argues in the first part of his "Treasonous Clerk" essay that the way in which the concept of a "culture war" has developed favors a situation in which conservatives make very little positive contribution, confining themselves to criticism (often superficial criticism) of the culture industry. If we draw a line across culture according to left/right political sensibilities, then conservatism paints itself into the corner of accepting only a very limited traditionalist aesthetic, while being unable to produce anything worthy of the tradition.
In brief, this is a politicized aesthetic: the reverence and deference conservatives naturally and rightly feel for inherited institutions and the legacies and traditions of their forefathers gets applied—not thoughtlessly but secondarily—to works that have accrued a handful of characteristics. First, their content is immediately comprehensible in terms of ethics; while Homer's is not a bald didacticism, one must truly be numb not to experience a kind of moral fear and awe when confronted with a full vision of the noble virtues of Achilles. I would not argue that conservatives tend to admire only artworks with patent ethical content, as if they could skip over questions of beauty or artistic achievement entirely in the rush to celebrate the stirring moral. Rather, as I shall elaborate, conservatives tend to venerate only one form of moral beauty.  
Second, much literature before the age of the novel gave absolute primacy to both public life and public virtues. As such, the classical authors remain keenly attractive to those already by nature inclined to attend to the explicit prescriptions of public and social life to the neglect of the obscure subtleties of the private sphere. If a work is Christian, conservatives seem to appreciate it more if it is "religious" than theological; if I may risk obscurity, they consistently prefer the allegorical to the ontological. Sir Walter Scott's romances are but scarcely novels in the modern sense, but are prose narratives that anticipate the techniques of the novel while retaining many conventions of classical epic and history. And, of course, Orwell's fictions were intended neither to be conservative nor to be novels at all. That his sensibility tended to exploit the genres of the fable and dystopian fantasy suggests that it was in a key way alienated from an age that loved the interiority of the novel—and his alienation is something in which his conservative readers share. They appreciate such works not merely because they are ethical in content, but also because they are concerned with external or social forms in the same way that political theory or the other social sciences generally are. 
Third, in their own right and by dint of venerability, the kinds of works conservatives tend to cherish are, in several senses, Great Books. That is, they have in themselves and in their dusty surfaces attributes of the noble or great. Here lies, I think, the decisive feature of the conservative politicized aesthetic: a somewhat isolated sensitivity to only that kind of beauty that merges with what the classical tradition called the sublime, and which we might more helpfully call the noble or grand.
More at

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The "Double Jeopardy" Objection to QALYs (

If you have limited medical resources, you have to allocate them somehow, and it's best to favor cases that will result in the greatest benefit and eschew the ones in which the resources will not accomplish much. Richard Chappell argues that since there is less room for improvement in the lives of those are better off, QALY-based distribution is actually likely to favor those who are suffering more. Furthermore, if the point of medical practice is to improve the health of individuals as much as possible, then it makes no sense to allocate it to individuals who are still not going to enjoy much health:
Regardless of one’s antecedent welfare levels, if one’s post-treatment welfare would be very low, then this treatment is not as worthwhile as one that offers greater benefits to its recipients. In practice, this does mean that patients with low quality of life and who would continue to have low quality of life even post-treatment will be less eligible for life-extending treatments than patients who would instead have high post-treatment quality of life. And this could be considered “double jeopardy” in a sense. But it should not be regarded as an objectionable form of double jeopardy. It’s simply to prefer treatments that benefit patients greatly over those that offer less benefit. If one’s condition admits of “little amelioration”, as Harris puts it, then that is certainly a tragedy—but our outrage should be directed at the unfairness of the world, rather than (mis)attributing “unfairness” to the policy of prioritizing treatments that will help their patients more.
But I wonder, isn't there a point of diminishing returns in the quality of a life? Isn't succoring misery more significant than ameliorating discomfort? Suppose that a medical treatment will be exactly as effective for a seriously ill person as for one who merely has a headache. It should be given to the former rather than the latter. In fact, I think this is true even if it is much less effective for the seriously ill person. 
On the other hand, I'm not sure how this reasoning would apply to life-extension treatments, which I gather are more controversial. If you extend a miserable person's life without making him or her less miserable, what good is that? (not a rhetorical question at all!)

more at

(BTW did you know that the "blogosphere" is actually a hypersphere, and that every blog has a 4th-dimensional antipode?)