Thursday, October 16, 2008

Revenu + Congrats + Sports + Hayden White on "The Practical Past"

Mucho tiempo, no hé blogeado. Or something along those lines. I'll attribute it to too much going on, especially in the larger world (cf. the ongoing economic maelstrom, the presidential election, etc.), though I do still have blog posts ready in my head every morning. The problem is that by midday and especially after I'm heading back from the work, the energy to write them is gone. So here goes another attempt to jumpstart things again.


After vacillating I ended up watching the third and final Presidential debate, which was much more of a debate, or at least a conversation (if only one way), than the previous three dis/infomercials for the crisis in our political system. As I'd felt with the first, I found it tough to watch, primarily because I cannot stand to witness people lying and blathering hypocritically and badgering as John McCain is wont to do, without any challenge, as Barack Obama is wont not to do. But, as I'd also noted about the first debate, Obama's approach is obviously the correct one for what he hopes to achieve in 19 days, which is to secure the votes of undecided voters and independents, who constitute the bulk of the focus groups the networks love to assemble, and thus become President of the United States, so props to him. He won the snap polls, he's increasing his lead in key states, and he looks ever more certain to gain enough electoral votes to become the 44th leader of this nation.

McCain's mugging, snorting and eye-bugging, his calumnies about William Ayers and ACORN, his bizarre scare quotes around women's "health" on the issue of late term abortions, and his annoying invocation of the Republican-plant and con man, "Joe the (Unlicensed, Tax-Owing, Keating-Related) Plumber" Wurzelbacher, would probably have set a less cool opponent off live. But Obama smiled, continually turned and addressed him respectfully, and, as was the case with the previous two debates, won the show.

I will be glad when Election Day comes and goes. Waiting this thing out is wracking my nerves; the previous weeks' seesawing poll numbers have taken an emotional toll. A few days I voted by absentee ballot, and I've been glad to see that large numbers of voters are taking advantage of early voting where it's available. (It is possible to do so in Illinois, but not New Jersey, which does thankfully have an excuse-free absentee voting.) Voting issues and standards really should be standardized at the federal level, however. Every state should have early voting, excuse-free absentee voting, automatic registration of ALL adults (regardless of convictions), severe penalties for caging and unexplained voter roll purging, electioneering, and voter intimidation of any sort, and standardized voting equipment and verifiable paper trails for all votes.

Since that hasn't happened already, I can foresee all sorts of Election Day and Night shenanigans, especially in states like Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Indiana, where the GOP has already tried its best to hinder the successful, massive registration drives by Obama and the Democrats. Let's hope that Obama and Biden, along with their down-ticket allies, have collected enough votes in enough states to make Republican trickeration less of a problem than it could be.


Lots of congratulations to go around. Let's start with people I know. My very dear colleague, writer Reg Gibbons, was one of five poets nominated for a National Book Award in poetry this week, for his book Creatures of a Day (LSU Press). Reg is one of the finest poets and people I know, so it was wonderful to see this news. Nominated in the same category is the powerhouse wordsmith Patricia Smith, whom I first met through her newspaper columns and then at the Dark Room reading series years ago in Boston. Now one of Cave Canem's doyennes, her book on the Hurricane Katrina survivors, Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press), also received a nomination. In the fiction category, another colleague, Aleksandar Hemon, was nominated for his new and widely praised novel, The Lazarus Project (Riverhead). The National Book Awards are one of the most important, multicategory national book awards, so I know all three of these writers, like all the nominees, are really soaring right now.

Congratulations also to someone I don't know but do read regularly, Princeton professor Paul Krugman, who received the Nobel Prize in economics on Monday for his groundbreaking work on trade theory and the new economy. For a minute I wondered if the award wasn't also a fillip to the current Misadministration in Washington, and it might be, but everything I've come across suggests that Krugman's achievements in his field are substantial and lasting. As a blogger--is he the first Nobel blogger?--and columnist, which is to say, as a public intellectual of a new kind, he's been invaluable. Even when I've disagreed with him on issues, like his once-harsh criticisms of Obama, I still have respected his incisive grasp of the issues in general.

Congratulations also to the Hurston-Wright Award winners: in fiction, Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead Books); in nonfiction, Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I'm Dying (Knopf); debut fiction, Kwame Dawes, She's Gone (Akashic Books); and in poetry, Kyle Dargan, Bouquet of Hungers (University of Georgia Press)! And congrats as well to the two poetry finalists, A. Van Jordan and Remica Bingham!

And lastly, congrats to a brilliant person who just cleared one of the final hurdles in her ongoing intellectual journey. The good news was "music," I'm sure, to her ears.


Marcelo Cerqueira pra VereadorI'd hoped to be able to offer congratulations to Marcelo Cerqueira, professor, activist, and the president of Grupo Gay da Bahia, who was vying to become a city councilor (vereador) in Salvador, Brazil, on the Green Party ticket. Marcelo unfortunately was not elected, but he has run in the past and I hope he keeps running, if he can, until he's finally seated. His work on behalf of LGBTQ and human rights is quite substantial, and he would add an important voice to the city's and region's administration. So boa sorte for the future, Marcelo, and please keep doing the good and hard work!


No Cubs no White Sox, don't blame me. I wasn't engaging in, as a friend calls it, hateration. I truly wanted to see an El Series for a change. With the White Sox winning, of course. That would, however, require that the Cubs not disappoint. Instead, Philadelphia's Phillies now hold the National League pennant, after a 28-year drought, and they will face the winner of the AL championship, either Boston or the Tampa Bay Rays. One of these latter two teams, not located in Florida, has won the World Series twice in the last five years, and is iconic in a city whose sports clubs seems to win championships at will these days, so I hope they do not return for another go-round this time. Philadelphia vs. Tampa Bay would probably be a broadcaster's nightmare (who but their fans and hardcore baseball acolytes would watch?), yet given the two squads, it could be quite thrilling, especially if you are like watching home runs leave the ballpark. The Rays will have to not squander leads like they did tonight, losing the Red Sox 8-7 after being up 7-0 at one point. Give up a run and they'll take a....


Yesterday evening before catching the debate I went to see the historian and critic Hayden White lecture on "The Practical Past." My very dear friend Phoebe M. turned me onto White's work decades ago, after I'd graduated from college and thought I knew all I need to about history, including intellectual history, only to learn that I didn't know a hell of a lot, particularly regarding postmodern approaches to that field. Enter White. And so my education continued and continues. His talk concerned the role of what he called, drawing upon the philosopher Michael Oakeshott's definition, the "practical past," to which he drew a distinction with the "historical past," which was, he suggested, again employing Oakeshott, the collective past, objective and purposive in aim, constructed and written by professional historians, and unmarked by such things as the encapsulated past (scars, wounds, traumas), our own deeply internalized skills and practice, the remembered past (discrete memories), the recollected past (research, recall, etc.), survived fragments of the past (artifacts, images), and so forth. In other words, a past that could stand up to questions of truth and falsity, its authenticity guaranteed, in ways the practical past cannot always be, by professional historians. White took the discussion down various byways, beginning with the history of history as a field and its attempts to become a science, in part to explore the relationship between history as it's currently written and written about, as a field aspiring towards the scientific without an intent or aim to provide a guide to the present or future, a role history once served (alongside other modes of knowledge, such as religion and metaphysics, natural science, etc.), and its familial relation, fiction, whose predictive powers are all too evident but, as a non-scientific field, bracketed off from the science of history (as in, history as a social science, as opposed to a genre of the arts and precursor of fiction and the novel) per se.

One area in particular, however, where White saw a convergence, and controversy, was in "witness literature," which involved the "practical past" in similar ways to fiction--and he cited "postmodern" (though he also rightly called them "modern") novels such as Toni Morrison's Beloved and W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz as excellent examples of works that drew upon varying aspects of the "practical past" in order to tell readers what they craved at times from history: how the past felt, and what we might look out for with regard to the future. What did American slavery during the period of Margaret Garner's life feel like, certainly an unanswerable question, except that through fiction, we might experience the physical embodiment, through our intellectual, emotional and psychological apperception of it in Morrison's text, as readers. As most fiction writers know, truth claims concerning fiction function differently from the ways they do with nonfiction (cf. Rigoberta Menchú, James Frey, Benjamin Wilkomirski, etc.), and depend upon the internal laws established by the work itself. Modern(ist) and postmodern fiction, whether realist or not, proceeds from the questioning of the real, however designated, and the illusory, often calling the artifice involved in the work's production and its aesthetics and poetics into question, and explores the boundaries or lack thereof between them, underpinning something critics have known since the beginning of storytelling: anything is possible in fiction if you can make it work, whether it defies all physical and other laws as we know them. The historical past, as written in nonfictional history works, deals with questions of truth and falsity; it tell us, by various means (empirical, statistical, narrative, etc.), what was, what existed, what happened. Or it tells us that we do not know what happened, and to reconstruct that absence would require, beyond reasonable speculation, to move into the realm of...fiction. White's interest in witness literature, then, pressed upon this boundary, asking, as I read it, how we might assess testimony, as history, that was undeniably real, to the speaker, yet perhaps not factually true, not documentable, not authenticable by historians. Because the aims of this literature, which includes works that hover between genres, like Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, in part was to assert truth, but also to make us feel what those who witnessed the experiences, who lived them, felt.

All of this got me thinking quite a bit about postmodern realism in fiction, especially in relation to history and historical aspects of fiction--and naturally enough, since I have been working directly in this vein for some time now--and how I might think with greater complexity about issues of truth, realism, the poetic utterance and its possibilities, and the invocation and use of the "practical past," which, he noted, is evoked and called upon every single day in so many ways. He noted Hillary Clinton's and Barack Obama's usage of it in their references to the historical aspects of their candidacies, but I also thought about how central it is to a great deal of what fills my TV and computer screens when they're not turned off. I'm still mulling over the many other fascinating things he said, and I've probably badly summarized them here, so if I can find a link to the paper from which he riffed his remarks, which also included pictures (including of a painting of the "gay saint," "Saint Sebastian" by Il Sodoma [the Sodomite, painted in 1525 and pictured above] and its use by Levi to describe a fellow prisoner about whom he had the most complicated feelings, Henri (Paul Steinberg)), references to Kant and Heidegger, and lots of pacing and pauses, I shall. Which will, of course, constitute an artifact, like my notes, constituting...the "practical past."

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