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Theory in chaos

“Postmodern literary theory is now transforming itself so rapidly that Marxist, feminist, deconstructionist, and psychoanalytic critics (and others) are flocking back to the drawing board in droves as they search for new approaches to writing and teaching.

Indeed, some academics say that postmodern theory is on the way out altogether and that the heady ideas that once changed the way literature is taught and read will soon be as extinct as the dodo and the buggy whip.” —Christian Science Monitor It is becoming fashionable to say that postmodernism has lost its relevancy outside the ivory tower. Ironically, that might be seen in some circles as a very postmodern thing to say. No, actually, old-school humanists who find plenty ‘there’ in literature have been ‘anti-theoretical’ for decades. How did literary theory gain sway, then?

Postmodern literary theory is rooted in mid-century European philosophy, though it didn’t begin to catch on in America until the late ’60s; the Johns Hopkins University conference on “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” which featured Jacques Derrida and other master theoreticians took place in 1966 and is generally regarded as the theoretical equivalent of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock.


These were, of course, revolutionary times: The initial phase of the civil rights struggle was peaking, and serious opposition to the Vietnam war was getting underway. College students were chucking out their parents’ ideas about race, class, patriotism, sex, music, and recreational drugs the way they might toss a faulty toaster oven out an open dorm window: If it doesn’t work, ditch it.


Theory played right into this mind- set; it challenged lazy notions about what’s right and what isn’t and brought fresh air into a classroom full of mildewed literary practices.


The problem is that by the time theory’s anticapitalist, antibourgeois assumptions became standard fare in colleges and universities, the consumer revolution was in high gear…

A second problem for theory is theorists themselves. Fundamentalism is always ugly, and many of the secondgeneration professors who followed famed theoreticians like Derrida merely applied their ideas dogmatically, thus guaranteeing that theory would became static and stale. Eventually, theory’s freewheeling skepticism became as one-dimensional as the celebrations of objective truth it sought to replace.

Perhaps it was inevitable, it strikes me, that literary theory itself would have to become an object of study and deconstruction by the theoreticians. Although this article bandies about the term, it does not own up to the central role that Marxist ideology had in laying the groundwork for ‘literary theory’, IMHO. It would seem to me that subsuming the products of culture to the conditions of production in a modern society, as a dialectical materialist analysis prescribes, was a necessary and perhaps sufficient precursor to challenging the idea of an unambiguous and unimpeachable truth in a literary work.

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Save Hubble campaign gaining momentum

New Scientist: “A grassroots campaign to save the Hubble Space Telescope, started after NASA cancelled a crucial servicing mission, is gaining momentum.

NASA announced on 16 January that the space shuttle mission scheduled for 2006 would no longer take place. It would have extended Hubble’s life until about 2010 by installing replacement gyroscopes. These are needed to point and stabilise the telescope. At the moment only three of the original six are working well, and with three being the minimum number, Hubble’s life expectancy is just a few years at best.” —New Scientist An online petition is here.

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New brain disease could be affecting many thousands

“A newly discovered neurodegenerative disease could be affecting tens of thousands of men around the world, say researchers.


The disease closely resembles Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and senile dementia, but appears to be caused by a genetic defect linked to fragile X syndrome. Until now carrying the defect was not thought to be harmful.


Researchers believe the new disease, named FXTAS (fragile X-associated tremor/ataxia syndrome), may affect up to one in 3000 men, with most sufferers being over 50 years old.


‘FXTAS may be one of the most common causes of tremor and balance problems in the adult population and yet it is being misdiagnosed,’ says Paul Hagerman, a biochemist at the University of California, Davis and one of the research team. ‘Thankfully it can now be identified with a standard DNA test.'” —New Scientist One in my continuing “where-was-a-disease-before-it-was-found?” series of stories [which is similar to my “if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest” series?].

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Mysterious mass die-off of vultures solved

“The catastrophic decline of griffon vultures in south Asia is being caused not by a mysterious disease, as had been thought, but a common painkiller given to sick cattle.

If the treated animal dies and is eaten by vultures, a single meal can be enough to kill the bird. The scientists who made the discovery now want the drug banned from veterinary use and are holding a meeting next week with officials from Nepal, India and Pakistan.” —New Scientist

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‘Geek’ image an urban myth

“The findings of the first World Internet Project report present an image of the average net user that contrasts with the stereotype of loner ‘geeks’ who spends hours of free time on the internet and rarely engage with the real world.

Instead, the typical internet user is an avid reader of books and spends more time engaged in social activities than the nonuser, it says. And, television viewing is down among some internet users by as much as five hours per week compared with net abstainers, the study added.”

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Dean goes bust

Joe Trippi, the iconic architect of Howard Dean’s Internet-driven campaign, is gone. And so are the millions of dollars that Dean raised from legions of grass-roots supporters over the last year. Pessimism is reportedly consuming Dean’s campaign volunteers, known for their idealism and infectious optimism until recently. Trippi was indeed inspirational, but a shakeup per se does not necessarily put the kiss of death on a campaign; it was only several weeks ago that Kerry changed campaign managers, with all sorts of pundits’ comments about how he couldn’t run a country if he couldn’t keep a campaign in order. What is more worrisome, and what comes as a surprise to me, are the reports that the Dean campaign’s coffers are empty. It must be a surprise to the media as well, since in the aftermath of his Iowa and New Hampshire defeats, considerations of Dean’s continued viability have usually involved citing the continuing size of his war chest. What will happen to Dean’s ability to raise additional campaign contributions is another matter. It could be argued that raising small contributions from the idealistic grassroots may make him less vulnerable to defections among funding sources.

And: The Death of the Doctor: “Dean is inevitably doomed. —Doug Ireland, TomPaine.com So what happens now to the ‘Democratic wing of the Democratic Party’?? Can Dean’s internet constituency become a permanent grassroots underbelly with any clout?

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The Democrats find their voice

Sidney Blumenthal:

“For the first time the country is hearing sustained criticism of President Bush — and though the Democratic presidential primaries have been going less than two weeks, the effect has been immediate. Bush was already rattled and preoccupied with his suddenly full-throated opposition even before the Iowa vote. He scheduled his State of the Union address to follow it by a day. The speech was crafted as a sharply partisan, argumentative reply. Rather than projecting a vision of America as a radiant ‘city on a hill,’ he depicted a city in a bunker. It was as though he were countering Franklin Roosevelt’s appeal to confidence, ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself,’ with nothing but fear itself.

Bush’s State of the Union was the most poorly rated in modern times. By the weekend, his approval had fallen below 50 percent in a Newsweek poll and he was three points behind Sen. John Kerry, the new Democratic front-runner.

In New Hampshire, the turnout for the Democratic primary was the greatest in history, reflecting the party’s determination to oust Bush. Of especial importance was the enormous influx of independents, whose participation constituted 48 percent of all voters, showing the turn of the moderates. Intensity against Bush has combined with the felt need for an electable candidate.” —Salon

I am not sure I share Blumenthal’s ebullience nor his perception that the anti-Bush focus and coalescence that has been needed all along is finally in the offing. The temporary truce on negativity may be just that. Let’s see what the morning light shows after tonight’s next Democratic debate, for starters.

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The land mines awaiting John Kerry

Joe Conason warns Kerry of the dangers of frontrunner status. To remain “electable”, he might get insipid instead of continuing to appeal on the basis of a willingness to stand alone and fight for what he believes in. As the dreaded Northeastern liberal who is anathema to the South, he should not give in to the temptation, at which he has already hinted, to find the South irrelevant to the Democratic effort. Conason feels he can appeal as the decorated veteran, and that it is especially opportune now when the South (and the West) might be on the verge of disaffection with the Bush White House. In a similar vein, Conason counsels Kerry to ignore the centrist press’ disdain for populist themes, which have legs in the popularity polls. Finally, Kerry has to do some work on his speaking style. [But we already have a Northeastern liberal maverick outsider who is not afraid to say what he believes, espouses populist themes, and is indubitably a far less stiff pedantic speaker…]

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Return of the King Leads in Oscar Nominations

New York Times: Some Big Films Ignored. I am rooting for the powerful Lost in Translation to win something for Sofia Coppola, and for young Keisha Castle-Hughes to be recognized for her magical role in the exquisite Whale Rider. Johnny Depp’s performance in Pirates ought not to go unnoticed either. It would be deserving if the Academy recognized Capturing the Friedmans, but its isssues, I fear, are not ready for prime time feelgood acclaim. Errol Morris’ Fog of War will probably get the documentary nod instead, although I think it should be recognized that MacNamara took Morris for a ride throughout.

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Kay Testimony Impeaches Bush

“Can we now talk impeachment?

The rueful admission by the chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction or the means to create them raises the prospect that the Bush administration is complicit in the greatest scandal in U.S. history. Yet, we hear no calls for a broad-ranging investigation of the type that led to the discovery of Monica Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress.” — Robert Scheer

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Postal Pranksters:

Please hand cancel this art: ‘The Post Office is generally not considered a federal agency to be trifled with. But Chicago artists Michael Thompson and Michael Hernandez de Luna just couldn’t resist, after reading about Doonesbury readers who had been trying to mail letters with fake stamps published in the famous comic strip attached, and frequently succeeding. Thompson began cranking out his own satirical stamps a decade ago, and his works have included such classics as a May Day stamp with a picture of an airline crash, and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln with a gun visible behind him. But the game turned serious two years ago, when Hernandez de Luna tried to use a stamp emblazoned with a skull and crossbones and a single word: “anthrax.” ‘ —Reason

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Chicago Tribune: U.S. plans Al Qaeda offensive

Concerns about assassination attempts on President Musharraf’s life, the likelihood that bin Laden is in Pakistan and that resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda forces strike from across the border are the supposed pretexts for a secret U.S. plan for a spring invasion of Pakistan involving thousands of forces, many of them already in Afghanistan. US sources refuse to comment on the story and Musharraf’s government denied to Reuters that it would support such a plan, rejecting the need for US forces to cross into Pakistan to find bin Laden. Of course, this “spring offensive”, as it is reportedly called in internal Defense Dept. documents, is timed very conveniently for the spring Republican offensive against the Democratic Presidential aspirant, it goes without saying.

This follows the age-old pattern of the U.S. propping up an unpopular dictator who serves our strategic interests in the face of popular opposition. In so doing, as always, we will further inflame that opposition. (The irony is that, as the WMD argument in Iraq evaporated, the dysadministration fell back on the mroal righteousness of toppling a tyrannical dictator there.) The Pakistani fundamentalist oppositon, by all indications, have their finger on the trigger of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. This makes it likely that a U.S. invasion force would not be wise stopping short of seizing control of Pakistani A-bombs once these events are set in motion, either with covert commando action or an overwhelming commitment of conventional force, or both. It seems clear that the US would not even try to obtain any international support before launching such a bullheaded scenario, although it might easily grow to involve nternational forces. Would India be drawn into the armed conflict — for example, finally deciding to seize Kashmir on the excuse that it is an Islamist haven? Would other Islamist forces rush to Pakistan’s defense against the US incursion?