Biodegradable Couches

An amusing lit-crit prof cameo in this article from the NYTimes House & Home session about biodegradable furniture.

In any case, there is something quixotic and poignant about makers of home goods — particularly large home goods, like sofas — advertising their wares for their evanescence.

Their longevity, in the past, has always been part of the thing that gives them value,” said Bill Brown, chairman of the English department at the University of Chicago, best known for his work on “thing theory.”

He explained how the value of a piece of furniture you come in contact with often, like a dining room table or a sofa, draws much of its worth from that contact: the longer we keep it around, the more psychologically valuable it becomes. “We use the ‘object world’ to stabilize human life,” he said. “Hannah Arendt said that sitting at the same table grants man his sameness, which is to say his identity.”

The idea of biodegradable furniture, he said, seemed perverse and comic. “We all live such cluttered lives in which so much of what we have we’d be better off without, yet most of us are better off with our dining room tables or our sofas,” he said. To thing theorists like Mr. Brown, who poses a kind of “my furniture, myself” worldview, degradable home goods suggest an identity crisis.

It would be nice if some of the couches on front porches around town were biodegradable and would eventually melt in the rain. They would probably get really disgusting in the intermediate stage, though.

The plot of one of the greatest British novels, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, revolves in part around the dangerous desire for expensive furniture, by the way. Lydgate “did not mean to think of furniture at present; but whenever he did so it was to be feared that neither biology nor schemes of reform would lift him above the vulgarity of feeling that there would be an incompatibility in his furniture not being of the best” (ch 15).

Teaching Gaffes

I am teaching again after a semester off. Summer Session I. Really enjoying it so far, the students seem motivated and good.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed had a funny discussion thread about Teaching Gaffes. This was the winner, by ‘hegemony’ — something to aspire to:

I brought in a plate of doughnuts for the last class of the term. Laid them out on the plate on the desk, all luscious and sticky and gooey, for the end of class. Then I got so involved in the topic of the class that I sat on the doughnuts.I didn’t realize until I was back at the board, writing, and there were muffled shrieks of laughter from the class.

This was two years ago. The students are still talking about it.

I tried to be very hip and ironic and with-it about the doughnuts on the seat of my pants. Of course I failed utterly. It didn’t help that they were so sticky that I had to go to the bathroom to try to sponge them off, and so then I had sticky doughnut mess plus big wet spots on the back of my pants. It also didn’t help that it was an intensive class, so I actually had to teach several more hours with doughnut leavings on my pants.

Whenever I see one of those students, which is all too often, they say, “Heya! Had any doughnuts lately?” And then they laugh themselves silly.

Pets in ‘The Savages’

I was pretty sure I’d like The Savages — Laura Linney as a depressed playwright/temp, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a thwarted, dysfunctional prof endlessly working on a book about Brecht, sibling rivalry, wounded narcissism, what’s not to like? But I liked it even more than I expected. (Maybe I just like movies about Buffalo — I loved Buffalo 66). One bit I especially liked (warning, spoiler ahead) was when Wendy (the Laura Linney character) tells her brother that she’s been awarded a Guggenheim to work on her play. We believe it too (we see her open the letter and gasp) although it seems a bit unlikely; eventually we learn that it was actually a FEMA grant that she applied for on the basis of losing her temp job after 9/11. This says so much so economically about her and their brother-sister relationship: she feels intellectually and creatively unrewarded, and not fully respected by him; she yearns for recognition, praise, support; and it’s fitting, given her sense of being generally traumatized by life, that the grant she does get would not be from the Guggenhein Foundation but the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

There are interesting things going on about animals and pets throughout. When Wendy is having bad sex with her married lover, she looks over at his sweet golden lab (I think) and kind of reaches out to its paw, with the obvious implication that she feels a more genuine connection with the dog than with its owner. She eventually dumps the guy because he neglects and almost kills her plant, and she’s always concerned about her cat Genghis, whom she drags around in a pet carrier. At one point the brother is awakened by a midnight phone call; we assume it’s about their father in the nursing home, but it turns out that it’s the cat that is the problem — Genghis has escaped in their father’s room. In other words, the filmmaker (Tamara Jenkins) plays a little with our sense of who can appropriately fill the position of “object of care.” The father is the primary such object but the role is also filled by a dog, cat, and plant.

The movie ends with a nice touch. The married boyfriend returns to Wendy to try to make up with a bouquet of flowers (after the plant episode). She asks where Marly (his dog) is and he explains that she’s going to be put to sleep tomorrow: her hips are shot, she can’t move around and is horribly depressed, there is an operation they could do but it’s complicated (and presumably expensive). “She’s just old,” he says. With sympathy — the point is not that he’s awful to his dog — but it’s a reminder of the expendibility of every creature: we are all, we’re reminded, in a process of decay, our bodies are falling apart (see the photo of the Seymour Hoffman character above in a neck brace), we’re all a bit like Marly, and look what has to happen to her, “put to sleep” (like the cat, she’s a proxy for the father.) The scene ends with Wendy asking “can I just ask you one favor?” and then it cuts to a year later when her play is being performed. We think, “did she ask him to help her produce her play?”– and then we see her jogging with Marly trotting behind in some kind of elaborate dog wheelchair contraption. She has adopted Marly, the old dog, and offered her the unconditional love and care she never got and always craved from her father, and that she could not herself give him. The impossible wish of the movie has been that the father, or maybe anyone, could get better, not be sick, not decay and fall humiliatingly apart; in these final scenes, Marly gets to fulfill this wish that has been otherwise denied.

Wallace Stegner’s ‘Crossing to Safety’

I just read Wallace Stegner’s novel Crossing to Safety, his last I think, published in 1987 when he was in his late 70s. Sarah read it and was somewhat blown away by its anthropology of certain institutions and icons of WASP New England life, especially the grandmother who’s on the board of the Shady Hill School and ritually reads the grandkids Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” in the lakeside cabin. Sarah experienced this herself, exactly, and found this kind of spooky.

I was surprised by the familiarity of the picture of life in the U. of Wisconsin English department in the late 1930 and early 1940s. All the stress over publication and promotion, the question of whether the department would respect creative work or work outside one’s field, the article on Browning rejected by PMLA. Somehow I thought that was the era of gentleman scholars who didn’t have to worry about such things. The publishing anxiety is more focused on articles than scholarly books, but otherwise the differences are slighter than I would have expected.

It’s a very rich, engrossing and often moving novel; in a way I felt it suffered just a bit from being, or seeming, just one step removed from memoir; at times I felt Stegner’s main goal was to “do justice” to an actual friendship, and that this goal controlled and determined the novel more than it might have if the events had been less closely based on his own life.

I felt a little jealous of the picture of social life among young college professors and their wives in the 1930s: dinner parties with singing, recitation of poetry and parlor games. I imagine my grandparents’ lives in Notre Dame along these lines. Maybe I idealize this as a less mediated life before DVDs and computers (and blogs).

Although speaking of those parties, one odd thing about the novel’s portrait of family life is that the children (one of the families, the Langs, has five) are almost literally absent and invisible until the later part of the book when a couple of them enter as adult characters. Perhaps this is a weakness in the novel’s masculine perspective: it’s so acute on married life and on friendship within marriage, but kind of bizarrely vacant on parenthood and kids.

A single expletive

A funny example of the professoriate’s role in explaining/interpreting baseball’s magical thinking.

The article quotes professors of Early Modern history, comparative literature, and anthropology on the question of the efficacy of the David Ortiz jersey buried (and then dug up) outside Yankee stadium — an attempted curse on the Yankees apparently thwarted, or perhaps not. E.g. “To Michael Seidel, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia, Ortiz’s jersey presents an obvious parallel — the armor of Achilles, of course. “Who has the shield? Who has the armor? That’s the whole issue of ‘The Iliad,’ ” he said. “It’s a kind of talismanic power of the thing worn. What happens to it can create all kinds of havoc in classical literature.””

“Ortiz, who had heard of the buried jersey, was able to sum up his thoughts with a single expletive before adding, “I don’t pay attention to any of this.””

Wordy profs, when will you learn how to sum up your thoughts “with a single expletive”?

French Theory

Stanley Fish’s column on the new book by Francois Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. (Uggh, the hundreds of comments are irritating.) Also see Scott McLemee’s column in Inside Higher Ed.

In “a particularly sharp-eyed chapter titled “Students and Users,”” McLemee writes, Cusset “offers an analysis of how adopting a theoretical affiliation can serve as a phase in the psychodrama of late adolescence (a phase of life with no clearly marked termination point, now). To become Deleuzian or Foucauldian, or what have you, is not necessarily a step along the way to the tenure track. It can also serve as “an alternative to the conventional world of career-oriented choices and the pursuit of top grades; it arms the student, affectively and conceptually, against the prospect of alienation that looms at graduation under the cold and abstract notions of professional ambition and the job market….This relationship with knowledge is not unlike Foucault’s definition of curiosity: ‘not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what it is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself’….””

Ironically (?), this made me think about my experience teaching “theory” in our Intro to Theory and Criticism course. I had assumed that students would find the straight theory stuff to be a difficult pill to swallow, and that the literary criticism would seem comparatively clear and straight-forward. But in fact they found, say, Vendler on Keats to be impossibly dense, allusive and insular, but if I effectively framed something like Jameson on postmodernism, or Irigaray or Judith Butler on gender, the students ate it up. One option for the final project in that class was to use theoretical models we’d encountered to analyze a work of popular culture. I remember well two wonderful papers I got on the fan cultures of anime, and about the Transformers phenomenon (specifically, the way the old Transformers toys were repurposed and marketed to a new generation in the 1990s).

My insight was that the students could really get into theory if it were presented to them as a kind of philosophy for living in postmodernity. Maybe even as “affective and conceptual” armor for the challenges (and let’s face it, the sometimes-grim prospects for a new college graduate) of life in 21st century capitalism.