Adventures in Eng. Lit.

November 29, 2009

As regular readers to my blog will know I used to say that I don’t do literature. It all goes back to a traumatic experience with my English literature A-level, which has left me marked for life. But since I bought my Sony Reader I have once again ventured into the world of literature. It And now I have begun listening to a course at Open Yale on literary theory. I will try to keep an open mind but I am sceptical about it. I will be getting my dose of Semiotics, Deconstruction, Lacan, Derida, Postmodernism etc. To be honest, this may be more for its comic value. I guess what I said about having an open mind… Literary theory has become something of a laughing stock in the last few years and really does bring academics into disrepute. Frederick Crews, and Professor Emeritus of English at the University of California, Berkeley, had a book called Postmodern Pooh, where he laid into the kind of meaningless pretentious drivel these people come out with. Some of the fake essays in it include:

Why? Wherefore? Inasmuch as Which? by Felicia Marronnez

The Courage to Squeal  by Dolores Malatesta.

The Fissured Subtext: Historical Problematics, the Absolute Cause, Transcoded Contradictions, and Late-Capitalist Metanarrative (in Pooh) by Carla Gulag

You Don’t Know What Pooh Studies Are About, Do You, and Even If You Did, Do You Think Anybody Would Be Impressed? by N. Mack

In another of the essays Sisera Catheter provides a ‘gynocritical approach (The term gynocritical was coined by Elaine Showalter and refers to the branch of modern feminist literary studies that focuses on women as writers, as distinct from the feminist critique of male authors.):

Seeing himself castrated and thus ineluctably “female”, Eeyore bends his head between and behind his forepaws, evidently attempting an acrobatic autoerotic feat that, if successful, will not only restore his depleted narcissistic libido and give him something to chew on that’s nicer than thistles but also exchange his former adult self for a polymorphous perversity whereby the oral, anal, and genital stages can merge in an endless preoedipal, nonphallic loop. In short, he is so unsure of his maleness that he now hopes to transform himself into an unborn baby woman.’

I have also been working my through the Western canon. So far, I have read four – The Picture of Dorian Gray, Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Pride and Prejudice, and Moby Dick. The canon itself has been part of the culture wars, getting a lot of flak with critics attacking the dominance of dead, white male Europeans. I am critical of a lot of literary theory but it has shown some of the limitations of the traditional ways of seeing literature. We do need to know the role of class, race and gender. How can these not have influenced literary output? My problem is that most of the theory comes from one particular ideological perspective. Add the pretentious language, meaningless jargon and it’s enough to put you off literature for life. Compare this to Richard Dawkins describing evolution or Steven Pinker setting out the mechanics of human language. I know which one I think gives you a better understanding of our world.

The problem I face when reading is that reading the Steig Larsson Millennium series is easier    than the classics. The problem is how to find the balance between enjoyment and enlightenment. Of course, they are not mutually exclusive. I am a bit out of practice with literature but I think it is going to be worth the effort. You should at least give the book fifty pages to get into it, after that you can be excused. What I love about reading is the way your tastes evolve. I have no idea what I will be reading in ten years’ time

I think the canon is a positive thing but that doesn’t mean we have to slavishly adhere to it. I like to be an omnivore trying to look for variety. It’s nice to have the canon as a source of ideas but there is no way I’m going to do anything but scratch the surface of that august list. In Changing Places David Lodge invented a wicked literary game he called ‘Humiliation‘, in which participants have to own up to their most horrendous literary lacuna. All the participants have to come up with the name of a classic book which they haven’t read and which they assume their rivals will have read. You score one point for every person in the group who has read the book that you haven’t touched. In Lodge’s novel American academic, Howard Ringbaum, admits that he has never read Hamlet – winning the game but losing his job.  My humiliation would be War and Peace or Wuthering Heights. However I don’t think I could outdo Hamlet. I would be most interested in your choices for the game. I’ll let you know how I get on with the Open Yale course and with the classics.

Here is the syllabus for the Introduction to Theory of Literature course you can download at Open Yale:

1. Introduction

2. Introduction (cont.)

3. Ways In and Out of the Hermeneutic Circle

4. Configurative Reading

5. The Idea of the Autonomous Artwork

6. The New Criticism and Other Western Formalisms

7. Russian Formalism

8. Semiotics and Structuralism

9. Linguistics and Literature

10. Deconstruction I

11. Deconstruction II

12. Freud and Fiction

13. Jacques Lacan in Theory

14. Influence

15. The Postmodern Psyche

16. The Social Permeability of Reader and Text

17. The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory

18. The Political Unconscious

19. The New Historicism

20. The Classical Feminist Tradition

21. African-American Criticism

22. Post-Colonial Criticism

23. Queer Theory and Gender Performativity

24. The Institutional Construction of Literary Study

25. The End of Theory?; Neo-Pragmatism

26. Reflections; Who Doesn’t Hate Theory Now?

Dumb Britain: A selection #2

November 29, 2009

A while back I did a post about Dumb Britain, the section in Private Eye  which features the stupid answers people give on quiz shows. Here is another selection taken from Private Eye’s Dumb Britain 2 edited by Marcus Berkmann:


PRESENTER: Who painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?

CALLER: Leonardo di Caprio.

(2CR FM)

ANNE ROBINSON: What type of bear lives in the Arctic?

CONTESTANT (after much thought): Penguin.

(The Weakest Link)

DOMESTIC SCIENCE PRESENTER: Emmental and Double Gloucester are both types of what?

CALLER: Banks.

(Breakfast Toaster Quiz, Heart FM)

ANNE ROBINSON: What ‘B’ was a pseudonym used by Charles Dickens?

CONTESTANT: Bart Simpson.

STEVE WRIGHT: Johnny Weissmuller died on this day. Which jungle-swinging character clad only in a loincloth did he play?

CALLER: Jesus.

ANNE ROBINSON: The point on a golf club or a tennis racket that gives the best contact is alliteratively known as the what spot?

CONTESTANT: The g-spot.

ANNE ROBINSON: Who won the U.S. Open Tennis Championship wearing a black dress modelled on Audrey Hepburn’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?

CONTESTANT: Roger Federer.

(All The Weakest Link)

PRESENTER: What name does Cat Stevens go under now? I’ll give you a clue, he became a Muslim…

CALLER: Abu Hamza?


PRESENTER: What is the capital of Cuba?

CALLER: Ermmm…

PRESENTER: Take your time.

CALLER: Ermmm…

PRESENTER: Go on, have a guess.

CALLER: Is it Belgium?

PRESENTER: Er, not quite.

(Sun FM, Sunderland)

DALE WINTON: Alderney and Sark – are they part of the Channel Islands?

CONTESTANT: Ooooh! Is that the English Channel? I don’t know, are there islands in the English Channel? I’ve never heard of any. France – that’s near the English Channel isn’t it?

(In It To Win It, BBC1)

ANNE ROBINSON: Pakistan was part of which other state until it achieved independence in 1947?


(The Weakest Link)

DAVE LEE TRAVIS: In which European country are there people called Walloons?

CALLER: Wales.

STEVE WRIGHT: On what part of the body is a lobotomy performed?

CONTESTANT: The bottom.

HISTORY PRESENTER: What was the date of the Battle of Hastings?

CONTESTANT: Ooooh! Er…. was it 1974?

(Galaxy Radio, Leeds)

PRESENTER: Which ancient army was discovered in China in 1974?

CONTESTANT: The Territorial Army.

(Metro Radio)

 ANNE ROBINSON: What ‘T’ did British POWs use to escape from Second World War German prison camps?

CONTESTANT: I don’t know. Was it herbal?

(The Weakest Link)

ANNE ROBINSON: In Roman Catholicism, baptism, confirmation and matrimony are three of the seven what?

CONTESTANT: Deadly sins.

(The Weakest Link)

ANNE ROBINSON: What man made structure built during the 3rd century BC is often said to be visible from space?

CONTESTANT: The Millennium Dome.

(The Weakest Link)

PRESENTER: According to legend, who shot an apple off the top of his son’s head?

CONTESTANT: Well, straightaway I’m thinking of Isaac Newton.

(Are You Smarter Than A Ten-Year-Old?)

My favourite links #36

November 29, 2009

SparkNotes is a website where you can find study guides for literature, poetry, history, film and philosophy. It is a free website funded by advertising. But if you want you can buy the material in PDF as an e-book or in print format. There are hundreds of books available.

In the literature guide you can click on the following headings:


Plot Overview

Character List

Analysis of Major Characters

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Summary & Analysis

Etymology & Extracts

Chapters Summaries

Important Quotations Explained

Key Facts

Study Questions & Essay Topics


Suggestions for Further Reading

The site has attracted some controversy with teachers accusing it of being a tool for cheats. Apparently students will use it instead of reading the actual book. I can’t believe it! It can even be used to cheat during tests using mobile phones with Internet access. I can still remember a friend of mine getting an A for an essay about Oliver Twist based on the Lionel Bart musical.

My media week 29/11/09

November 29, 2009

like to list different things on my blog so this week I have the irrepressible Slavoj Zizek at the LSE talking about First as Tragedy, Then as Farce: The Double Death of Neoliberalism and the Idea of Communism

The Daily Mail had a piece about Birthers, people who believe that U.S. president Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and is therefore ineligible to be president. Did Barack Obama lie about his birth to become President? And The Observer features a piece about Fox News’s hottest pundit Glenn Beck: Glenn Beck: the renegade running the opposition to Obama

The satirical Daily Mash had England World Cup Bid Endangered By England

The copyright wars

November 22, 2009

Only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.  Mark Twain 

Society confronts the simple fact that when everyone can possess every intellectual work of beauty and utility–reaping all the human value of every increase of knowledge–at the same cost that any one person can possess them, it is no longer moral to exclude. If Rome possessed the power to feed everyone amply at no greater cost than that of Caesar’s own table, the people would sweep Caesar violently away if anyone were left to starve. But the bourgeois system of ownership demands that knowledge and culture be rationed by the ability to pay.—Eben Moglen dotCommunist Manifesto

The idea of copyright did not exist in ancient times, when authors frequently copied other authors at length in works of non-fiction. This practice was useful, and is the only way many authors’ works have survived even in part. Richard Stallman

There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary public interest.  Robert Heinlein

You may believe that copyright rows are a relatively modern phenomenon but you would be mistaken – the world’s first copyright law, known as the Statute of Anne was introduced in England in 1709. The language used by the publishers has a very familiar ring to it. The figure of the struggling author came to the fore and has been a constant ever since. These writers were having their books pirated “…to their very great detriment, and too often to the ruin of them and their families.” It proved to be a most effective lobbying strategy. In a classic example of public choice economics, a few motivated lobbyists were able to get legislation through which benefited them a lot while spreading the costs out over the rest of the population. And remember this “vital” law was passed before the Great Reform Acts, the abolition of slavery and London had a sewerage system.

Now once again the issue of copyright is in the limelight. The modern creative industries are at war with illegal downloaders. The economic argument in favour of copyright is that a monopoly is a necessary evil to give an incentive to people to create something of value. The logic is that if people weren’t paid, they wouldn’t engage in these activities. I think this argument has some truth in it but there was a lot of human creativity before copyright laws came along.

One argument we hear is that file sharing is theft – like stealing a car. That is not strictly accurate. The difference between a song or a film and a biscuit is that if I eat a biscuit, then you can’t have it because I’ve eaten it and it’s gone. A song or a film are what economists call nonrival goods, those which may be consumed by one consumer without preventing simultaneous consumption by others. This is a characteristic of intellectual property – it can be enjoyed by many people at the same time,

Since 1709 there has been a battle about copyright. The spark has usually been some technological development. The content providers always like to talk in apocalyptic terms about piracy being the end of culture as we know it. The latest round in this battle has been with the internet, which has so far been able to defeat the copyright industries. But it’s not been for want of trying; they’ve sued the operators of file sharing networks as well as some individual downloaders in the United States. They have won many of those cases, but filesharing has continued unabated. Now France has its three strikes law. Let’s put this in some kind of perspective – I think movies and DVD sales are pretty healthy and I don’t think we’ll be seeing Robbie Williams sweeping the streets any time soon.

Record companies, for example, have made a lot of mistakes. They have failed to adapt to changing times .The idea of extending copyright from fifty to seventy years is one example. There can surely be no justification for such a measure. There will surely be business opportunities but they need a different model. Singers and groups will be able to make money from concerts and merchandising. I also think €1 for a song is a bit steep. Amazon charging $9.99 for a book to read on its Kindle falls into the same category. I realise that value is a very subjective question but these prices don’t seem the money saved in distribution costs.

I can sympathise with record companies and other content providers. They have seen their whole world turned upside down. The digital transition is proving a golden age for free culture. Information does truly want to be free. I don’t know how long this situation is going to last. I think people like Rupert Murdoch are going to have a hard time trying to get anyone to pay. In the current round of copyright wars, there’s probably greed on both sides – on the part of corporate owners wanting ever more expansive rights, and on the other hand, amongst those who are the most enthusiastic peer-to-peer file sharers believing everything can be free. There’s no doubt that the majority of musicians, film makers and other artists don’t live the life of rock stars. What we need to look at whether copyright law is the best way to promote activity.

More toilet paper than you could dream of

November 22, 2009

Last week I did a piece on the fall of the Berlin Wall. This week I thought I would reproduce a talk given by Martin Krygier analysing the changes in Poland. I know it’s a bit facile but I like it anyway:

A couple of months ago, that is now, segue to 2009, I returned from Warsaw where I teach a few weeks each year which I’ve been doing for some years. I’ve become used to it. Though it’s special to me, it’s basically just another European capital. A bit shabbier than many, but also with some lovely renovations and innovations. It all seemed pretty normal to me after the time…now. But because I was there during the 20th anniversary of June 4th and those elections, I tried to work out just what had been achieved and how much I had to forget, to remember what had been achieved. Among other things, I reread, as one does, my old articles, I discovered how much I’d forgotten. In particular what I had to make some effort to recall was just how much had had to change to seem so ordinary. No queues, food and goods of all sorts, colours, shapes, sizes. Restaurants in every language and every quality rather than one language an no quality. More than two sorts of car—in fact every sort. Radio taxis…this is a term of art in Polish. Taxis you could ring for. Because the only way to get a taxi in Poland used to be to find the stop, wherever the stop was. You couldn’t hail a cab, you had to seek out the stops where the taxis stood, unmoving, until you found and came to them. they would certainly not come to you.

There was more toilet paper than you could dream of. There were bookstores in which you could actually touch and choose the books rather than point at a distance and plead with surly and rather heavy intermediaries. So many books now, and magazines from all over the world. Huge shopping malls, advertisements… I remember when I was taking the train out of Poland in ’85, I’d fallen asleep and I woke up and I just saw a hoarding, an ordinary western hoarding advertising—I don’t know what—could be toothpaste, whatever. It was the colour of it just hit me, and then I realised I was in the west.

All this: advertisements, some gaudy, some classy, quite a lot gaudy, quite a lot not classy—all this jostling for your attention, bustling energy, taught, not slack. If you don’t like it, leave. If you miss it, return. Pretty simple, really, but it hadn’t been simple once.

…So ordinary had all this seemed to me, that had it not been this year, where I had to sort of try to remember how things had been, I wouldn’t have remembered, and I wouldn’t have been shocked. And I failed to register the historical novelty of it all until I went to visit Michnik. And I asked him, particularly given the hate-filled nature of Polish politics, which I’ll conclude, and a lot of hate of Michnik in the process, I asked him how he summed up Poland’s past 20 years. He said, ‘It’s a miracle. Independent for 20 years, no president executed, no war looming; free, democratic, unprecedentedly prosperous—in NATO, in Europe; comings, goings, open to everyone, to everywhere. Who could have imagined any of this 20 years before or, in Poland’s case, 200 years before?

My media week 22/11/09

November 22, 2009

The Daily Mail had a piece about exam howlers from a new book by humorist Richard Benson. Examples include:

Q Where was Hadrian’s Wall built?

A Around Hadrian’s garden.

Q What was Sir Walter Raleigh famous for?

A He is a noted figure in history because he invented cigarettes and started a craze for bicycles.

Q  Name one of the Romans’ greatest achievement?

A  Learning Latin.

In this BBC podcast Ben Schott, a writer of trivia books, investigates Oulipo, the French experimental literary group. Founded in 1960, Oulipo create work by imposing playful restrictions the way a text will be produced.  Here are some examples of the constraints:

S+7, sometimes called N+7  Replace every noun in a text with the noun seven entries after it in a dictionary. For example, “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago…” (from Moby-Dick) becomes “Call me islander. Some yeggs ago…”. Results will vary depending upon the dictionary used. This technique can also be performed on other lexical classes, such as verbs.

Snowball  A poem in which each line is a single word, and each successive word is one letter longer.

Lipogram Writing that excludes one or more letters. The previous sentence is a lipogram in B, F, H, J, K, Q, V, Y, and Z (it does not contain any of those letters).

Prisoner’s constraint, also called “Macao” constraint 

A type of lipogram that omits letters with ascenders and descenders (b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, p, q, t, and y).

Palindromes  Sonnets and other poems constructed using palindromic techniques.

In this article, A Case in Antiquities for ‘Finders Keepers’, John Tierney argues the repatriation of antiquities.

The Onion has a couple of funny articles:

Nation’s Music Snobs Protest Predictable Use Of Metallica, Pantera To Torture Prisoners

Montessori School Of Dentistry Lets Students Discover Their Own Root Canal Procedures

But he built some beautiful autobahns

November 15, 2009

With the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany there has been a massive overkill on this subject. I wasn’t going to add to all of this but then I saw an article by Seumas Milne in this week’s Guardian, which gave an interpretation of events which had me shaking my head. I do think that Germany is a fascinating case – it’s not often in political economy that you can observe an experiment in laboratory conditions but the division of Germany after WWII is the closest we are going to get to this. Germany in 1945 was a country destroyed by six years of war. Two political and economic models were tried and the results surely leave no room for doubt.

Well for Mr. Milne they do. He chastises his opponents their refusal to acknowledge that the communist system had benefits as well as obvious costs:

The German Democratic Republic was home to the Stasi, shortages and the wall, but it was also a country of full employment, social equality, cheap housing, transport and culture, one of the best childcare systems in the world, and greater freedom in the workplace than most employees enjoy in today’s Germany.

 What an idiotic argument! No government or system does everything bad. Of course, this defence of totalitarianism is asymmetric. I don’t here anyone saying about Hitler: “Well he had the gas chambers but boy did he build some beautiful autobahns.” This hypocrisy is typical. You only have to compare the insignificant number of documentaries and films about communist atrocities compared to those about Nazi Germany and/or the Holocaust. In the article which I featured last week Murderous Idealism Paul Hollander points out a possible origin of these double standards:

The different moral responses to Nazism and communism in the West can be interpreted as a result of the perception of communist atrocities as by-products of noble intentions that were hard to realize without resorting to harsh measures. The Nazi outrages, by contrast, are perceived as unmitigated evil lacking in any lofty justification and unsupported by an attractive ideology. There is far more physical evidence and information about the Nazi mass murders, and Nazi methods of extermination were highly premeditated and repugnant, whereas many victims of communist systems died because of lethal living conditions in their places of detention. Most of the victims of communism were not killed by advanced industrial techniques.


Milne also makes reference to ostalgie, the German term referring to nostalgia for life in the former East Germany. The citizens had such a warm feeling about the place that the government built a wall to keep them in. Well I realise that it was really an anti-fascist defence barrier. Anywhere between 40,000 and 200,000 fled the DDR. Perhaps Mr Milne has access to a list of West Germans who risked their lives trying to get into this workers’ paradise. The genius of capitalism has actually found a way of exploiting this nostalgic feeling and there is a thriving trade in ersatz products from the communist years. There is so much hypocrisy about ideological symbols. We have Soviet Chic but we don’t have Pinochet T-shirts. The Hammer and Sickle is acceptable but wearing a swastika is roundly condemned – this is asymmetric outrage.

The Berlin Wall came down twenty years ago but this has not ushered in the end of history. Conflict is all around us – that is the nature of human affairs. There are no definitive answers to how society should be organised. Given human predilection for folly I wouldn’t even rule out a return of communism. Unfortunately I fear the results will be similar. Capitalism has its own problems and we will never be able to abolish crises. What will be the result of the downfall of communism? As Zhou Enlai said of the long-term consequences of the French Revolution – it’s too early to tell. I believe in the chaotic random nature of history. Events now can have unforeseen consequences. Having said that, I think you could rewind and replay the video of world history over and over again and you would still get similar disastrous results with communism. Now it seems that the great hope of communists is Hugo Chavez. Maybe the results will be different in the developing world but I won’t be holding my breath.

East German Jokes

November 15, 2009

In Britain we tend to think of the term German humour as an oxymoron. But under the communist system people would tell some jokes and some of them were even funny. There are some rumours that the CIA were behind them. Typical topics were the scarcity of bananas, the infamous Trabant car, leader Erich Honnecker and the Stasi, the secret police. Of course, telling jokes could be dangerous as the Stasi had 91,000 employees and a network of around 189,000 civilian informants to spy on its citizens and you could end up in prison.  Here is a selection:

How can you use a banana as a compass? Place a banana on the Berlin Wall. East is where a bite has been taken out of it.

A West-German boy to a GDR-boy: Why is the banana curved?  The Ossie replies: What is a banana?   

How do you double the value of a Trabant? Fill up the tank!

 VEB Sachsenring brought out a new Eco-Trabi: Immediately available for delivery, extremely cheap, extremely quiet, extremely environmentally friendly – with electric power. Small problem: The extension cord is only 20 meters long and not in stock.

 A new Trabi has been launched with two exhaust pipes — so you can use it as a wheelbarrow.

 Why were there no bank robberies in East Germany? Because the robbers would have to wait fifteen years for the getaway car to arrive.

 A West German businessman is driving a Mercedes through East Germany on a rainy night when his windshield wipers stop working. He takes it to an East German mechanic, who tells him there are no Mercedes windshield wiper motors in the GDR, but he will do his best to fix it. When the businessman returns the next day, to his surprise the windshield wipers are working perfectly. “How did you find a Mercedes windshield wiper motor in the East?” he asks the mechanic. “We didn’t,” replies the mechanic, “We used the engine motor of a Trabant.”

 What would happen if the desert became communist? Nothing for a while, and then there would be a sand shortage.

 Why can’t you get any pins in East Germany anymore? Because they are being sold to Poland as kebab skewers.

 One night, Erich Honnecker was in the bedchamber having some pillow talk with his mistress. He was in a magnanimous mood and offered her a present of her choice. She thought about his offer for a moment and then replied, “Oh, Erich, if there is one thing I would like you to do for me, it is this: open the borders just for one day.”  Honnecker said, “Of course, my dear,” but was a bit puzzled by her request. He asked, “But why would you have me do such a thing?”  The mistress replied, “I want to be alone with you.”

 How can you tell that the Stasi has bugged your apartment? There’s a new cabinet in it.

 What’s the difference between an HO-sausage and Sputnik? They’ve officially confirmed that Sputnik 2 had a dog in it. (HO was the state grocery network)

My media week 15/11/09

November 15, 2009

Italian novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco, who is curating a new exhibition at the Louvre in Paris, talks to Spiegel about the place lists hold in the history of culture, the ways we try to avoid thinking about death and why Google is dangerous for young people.

John Kay distinguishes between being pro-business and pro-market.

This week on the Bottom Line Evan Davis and his  a panel of business guests discuss why businesses tend to cluster and the future of television in the face of competition from the internet?