joseph duemer: reading & writing
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Tuesday, April 30, 2002
Who'd a thunk it? So how come a kid like me, who started sitting out in friends' cars on Sunday mornings listening to "I Feel Fine" instead of joining the congregation in church & singing "Let the Lower Lights be Burning" is so hooked into all these theological weblogs? Including Sacra Doctrina. Good question. Perhaps because of all the wrong that was done me, I have a sharpened sense of right & wrong; also, I am haplessly drawn to metaphysics despite my attempts to become a thoroughgoing materialist. What I'm looking at now & finding in process among the various weblogs I've been citing the last few days is a negotiation between Postmodernism & authenticity. My own grounding is in the American Pragmatists & Wittgenstein. And now that finals are over & the grading almost finished, I hope to engage this negotiation more fully. With particular emphasis on my experience last year living in Vietnam & learning Vietnamese & translating a poetry so different from my own poetic tradition that I sometimes could hardly even see the "family resemblance." Ta Ta Goonight, Goonight.

Ophelia: I hope all will be well. We must be patient: but I
cannot choose but weep, to think they should lay him
i' the cold ground. My brother shall know of it:
and so I thank you for your good counsel. Come, my
coach! Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies;
good night, good night. [Hamlet IV.v]

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:39 PM.

You are a David Weinberger.

You are smart, savvy, interested in why people do what they do,
enjoy questioning yourself and are not balding.

Take the What Blogging Archetype Are You test at

Not balding, but completely gray.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 3:19 PM.

Vanity: I was promoted to the rank of Professor today by my university.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 2:53 PM.

A small spark of Constitutional sanity: No Case Vs. Man Who Knew Hijackers: "NEW YORK (AP) — The government's jailing of material witnesses for a grand jury investigation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled Tuesday in throwing out a perjury case against a Jordanian college student."

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 2:44 PM.

Monday, April 29, 2002
Who would think I would be commenting on the art of giving sermons? My mother devoutly wanted me to be a "pastor," but she had to settle for a poet. In fact, I have given one official sermon in my life, when I was 14, before the evening congregation of the Grace Brethren Church of San Jose California. As I recall, I took as my text a couple of snippets from the Sermon on the Mount--not, actually, one of the theological cornerstones of the Grace Brethren Church in America. (There's a little too much of that peace & meekness stuff.) Hardly The Rev. John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's London circa 1607. Anyway, AKMA, Steve Himmer, The Happy Tutor & Dick, & also Tom Matrullo have taken up this unlikely subject. Despite my lack of professional sermonizing experience, I do have a sermonizing streak. Indeed, when my wife kicks me under the table at dinner with friends, it means, quit lecturing. A sermon & a lecture & a poem (my other mode) are different kinds of rhetorical structures, yes, but with points in common. I lecture three or four times a week during the academic year & my technique involves the use of examples & what I think of as narrative analogies. Occasionally, I stop myself & say to my students, "Okay, end of sermon." Though I lay no claim to his stratospheric intelligence, I emulate the philosopher Wittgenstein in my lectures. That is, I try not to lecture at all--I seldom use notes--but instead attempt to think out loud & in public about whatever the topic at hand might be. And I usually begin the service, er, the class, with music: I bring in various CDs & play them over the AV system--Tom Waits to Billie Holiday to Brahms. But I want to weigh in on the side of AKMA's reluctance about narrative examples. Open any American literary magazine & you will find poem after poem devoted to the homiletic narrative example, but divorced in most cases from any theological purpose. Little floating narratives presented as meaningful in & of themselves. I suppose the magazines of the 19th century--the ones who found Emily Dickinson beyond the pale--also printed this stuff & gave it prizes . . . I'd rather give up poetry than write that sort of stuff & I love poetry with a passion of downright religious proportions. A poem is a slower working out than a lecture in (I love the phrase) real time, but still amounts to thinking aloud in public. Where do different kinds of sermons fall along this line? Having spent enough days in church early in my life, I am going to have to rely on the testimony of others on this one. Which does not mean I'm not interested. I am. It's just that I have other fish to divide among the masses.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:33 PM.

Open Letter to the Governor of South Carolina: Dear Governor Hodges: Please prevent a miscarriage of American justice. Grant executive clemency to Richard Charles Johnson. Personally, I am opposed to the death penalty on both moral & political grounds; but even a supporter of the death penalty could not possibly want to allow an innocent man to be put to death by the state. What could be worse for those who in good conscience support capital punishment? Please, Sir, stop this travesty.

Professor Joseph Duemer

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 3:49 PM.

Sunday, April 28, 2002
Hearing Voices: I've only been reading AKMA's weblog for a short time & I've already noted how unusual that is, given my usual antipathy toward organized religious practices of all sorts. (What I love about most Vietnamese Buddhism [link, link] , on the other hand, is its lovely, ad hoc, improvised quality.) I have been riveted though, this week, by the exchanges between AKMA & The Happy Tutor, especially regarding the hotly contested term (at least in my discipline), voice. The Anglo-American poetic tradition has a "plain-style" voice that goes back to Scots ballads & George Gascoigne, then comes down through William Wordsworth & William Carlos Williams. Along the way, the plain style is exemplified by the poets from the 17th c. metaphysicals to E.A. Robinson & Robert Creeley. Plain style versus elevated style is a distinction that does not align with traditional ways of dividing up poetry, in particular Classical, Romantic, Modernist & Postmodernist. There are examples of both plain & elevated style within all these conventional groupings. Personally, while my own work usually seeks to be plain, I have often defended "difficult" poetry & to some extent "experimental" poetry as necessary modes of the art. So I was struck by the Happy Tutor's remark about style & POMO: Tom Matrullo who has himself spent quality time in high class Establishments of Higher Learning, ponders how AKMA can possibly, even preposterously, expound Postmodernism in the untroubled style of Bourgeois Liberalism. How? As Jesus embraced, without touching, Mary Magdalene: Noli Me Tangere. [Wealth Bondage]

I think the Happy Tutor is wrong about this: "most often the plain style today is found in legal briefs, press releases, memos, sales letters, and business plans. "I write plainly because I want to be trusted," you once said, or words to that effect. Establishing Trust is lesson one in sales, and in the writing of sales letters. The plain style has been degraded past all possibility of serious moral use, except that of preaching to the confirmed, teaching children on Ritalin, or conversation among friends, sinners though we be." I used to be a lot more interested in sinning & forgiveness than I am now. My second book of poems, Static, is ripe with such things. But these days I have lost my interest in sin & sinning both; I am, however, still interested in language, even the more or less superficial notion of style. To take issue with the Tutor, I would say that the plain style can surely be debased, but so can the elevated style--the difficult or implicated style. Back before the days of the Internet I wrote a review-essay called "The Poetics of Awkwardness." My intention was to identify a set of poetic practices that sought clarity but at the same time inscribed the difficulty (or impossibility) of clarity in language: awkwardness. Among my chief exhibits was Emily Dickinson. My own accommodation with language in the Present Age, I am slowly working out with my colleague Christopher Robinson in our collaborative weblog Philosophical Investigations. A few days ago Chris wrote: "Have you seen Jarman's film "Wittgenstein"? It is a strange and impressionistic film based on a screenplay by Terry Eagleton (although Eagleton had his name dropped from the project). In the movie, Wittgenstein speaks of the logic of the Tractatus as realm of ice, a realm of cold perfection. Barrett seems to tap into the same kind of imagery. As in the Yeats poem, we understand the impulse to escape from the messiness and madness of the world. But escape is illusory. Still, as in the case of Descartes, the certitude he found in what he took to be the realm of pure thought rescued him from the existential free fall he was in. Meditations on First Philosophy can fill me with a sense of dread. Here was a man, sitting before a fire, ravaged by existential solipsism. The certainty he had known, the purity of his faith, the hermeticism of the story offered by Christianity, was gone suddenly. The ground liquefied and he plunged downward. As he fell he grabbed wildly for a branch. The cogito was the only branch that held. The Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations tells us that there are no branches to cling too. Even if there were, we should avoid them and enjoy the creativity that is one with the friction-filled sensation of plunging."

Well, this is a reading journal & as such it is where I put down my fragments of response. I'm just thinking this through, the problem being how to have any sense of authenticity while enmeshed in the Disneyworld, the hyperworld of Brittany Spears posters above the karaoke machine in a doctor's rec room in the Mekong Delta. The center will not hold, indeed. The authenticity of Vietnamese Buddhism: Sure, we can work up a prayer for that. An agnostic animist in love with the sacred, my orientation is fundamentally theological. Despite myself. The frogs of the Mekong River speaking all through the night, the still air inside the mosquito net, the dawn breeze. And then the conversation begins again & all the trouble.

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 11:03 AM.

Tuesday, April 23, 2002
We make up stories & the stories change: I'm a little less than half-way through A.K. M. Adam's What is Postmodern Biblical Criticism? & I am finding both the style & content bracing. [AKMA also has a weblog, which is where I ran across a reference to the book.] People who know me might be surprised that I am reading a book on biblical criticism: though I grew up having my mind dominated by Christian fundamentalists, I have for many years as a writer & thinker pretty much dismissed religion as an effective way of organizing human experience. I am a philosophical pluralist; that is, I don't think any single system of thought can explain reality with anything approaching completeness. I have been interested in science, but critical of the scientific metanarrative. At the same time, I routinely teach Genesis, Job & Amos to my freshmen Humanities students. Admission: I love the Bible, especially what my Sunday School teachers called The Old Testament. What I love about Genesis is the stories: the arc of myth in 1-12 & then the longer arc of Abraham stories--which range from slapstick to tragedy--in the remainder of that book. How could a poet not love this stuff? Okay, I'm intellectually hyperventilating here, but somehow the foregoing reminds me of a moment last summer driving With Lan & Mart through the Mekong Delta. Mart, a historian, is fascinated with the ways in which Western & mostly American popular culture have been laid over traditional Vietnamese cultural forms. I forget the exact occasion, but at one point he turned around from the front passenger's position & said to me: "Adventures in Hypereality," the title of a book by Umberto Eco. Sure, there are kids near the Cambodian border wearing t-shirts with pictures of Michael Jordan on them; sure, there were Brittany Spears posters in the upstairs game room of our hosts (a pediatrician & his businesswoman wife, a school chum of Lan's) in Vinh Long the night before, van van . . . (which is Vietnamese for etcetera.) "Mart," I said, "I sort of hate to admit this, but I still believe in authenticity. My view of the world is essentially theological." I'm agnostic about God, but I know the sacred when I sense it. For instance, I'm listening to John Coltrane right now (Live at Birdland) & listening know that I am in the presence of the sacred. And on that same trip we went to a small temple near the CAmbodian border maintained by a Buddhist sect of which Lan's mother had been an adherent: that place vibrated with sacredness despite the beggars & religious hucksters outside trying to sell us votive offerings. I managed to pray for the victims of a Khmer Rouge massacre despite the distractions. Because of the distractions. The more insistent the beggar the more insistent the prayer has to be, I guess. Pray to whom? Not prayer, but an offering of incense & paper printed with spells. It occurs to me just now that there is a difference between prayers & offerings. The skulls are displayed in glass cases & that, certainly, is politics, not religion. Interestingly, the skulls are arranged according to age & sex--an oddly scientific system, given the circumstance. (The village nearby was the only place I found in Vietnam where a US dollar was not recognized as a universal medium of exchange--the little kid I tried to give one to handed it back to me.) So what has this got to do with Adam's book? Only that his lucid discussion of metanarratives got me thinking in these directions. Here's what I think: we make up all kinds of stories, we humans, & sometimes the stories are beautiful & help us get along with each other; sometimes the stories are either bad stories in & of themselves or the stories have gotten old so that no longer fit the situations with which we are confronted. There is a constant need for good stories, but when any particular story becomes a "dominant discourse" it is, as we used to say in the school yard, cruisin' for a bruisin'.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:33 PM.

Tuesday, April 16, 2002
Unconscious irony in high places: Bush Officials Met With Venezuelans Who Ousted Leader WASHINGTON, April 15 — "Senior members of the Bush administration met several times in recent months with leaders of a coalition that ousted the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, for two days last weekend, and agreed with them that he should be removed from office, administration officials said today. [ . . . ] Asked whether the administration now recognizes Mr. Chávez as Venezuela's legitimate president, one administration official replied, 'He was democratically elected,' then added, 'Legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of the voters, however'." [Emphasis added]

Putting aside for the moment--as if we could--the shades of Salvador Allende & Ngo Dinh Diem--all I can say is that it's no wonder that most of my students cannot recognize irony in a piece of writing. We have a self-satirizing government. It's a shame most Americans are incapable of recognizing any form of satire other than blunt sarcasm.

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:22 AM.

Monday, April 15, 2002
Feeling lazy, unmotivated? BBC News reports that "Scottish octogenarian Jenny Wood Allen will break her own world record when she runs in the London Marathon. At the age of 87, she will once again be the oldest female competitor in the race. Jenny, from Dundee, is determined to beat last year's "disappointing" time of seven hours and 23 minutes. Jenny was a relative youngster of 71 when she took up marathon running and has since completed 29 marathons raising over £30,000 for charity. She used to hold the record for the world's best time for a woman over 70. Jenny said: "I expect I will turn up again next year and I will keep on going as long as the legs keep moving. "It's the money for charity that keeps me going back."

I heard a (slightly condescending) interview with Ms. Allen this evening on NPR, which prompted me to look her up on that famous technological innovation, the World Wide Web. (Kidding aside, ain't the web wonnerful?) The link to the story above is from a couple of years ago. There seems to be some confusion about Ms. Allen's age, but she finished this year's London Marathon in around 13 hours. She sounded positively ashamed of herself & vowed to "turn up next year" to see if she could better her time. Asked if people were cheering her on, she said, "By the time I finished everybody had gone home."
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 3:01 PM.

Another thought on middens: Attractive places to live--a lakeside, an easily defended foothill overlooking plains, the top of a fiord, the bend of a river--would draw inhabitants over the course of centuries. Subsequent generations or, on a longer time scale, waves of occupation, would have to clean up after their predecessors. So archeologists would have to figure in the periodic house cleanings performed by folks who didn't want to live with the garbage of the previous inhabitants. Which is to say, the record of garbage layers is probably not as clear-cut as one might think. To mix metaphors, a palimpsest rather than a lasagna. (Prompted by pulling out the deck furniture--well, two Adirondack chairs--& putting them on the deck this afternoon, the first warm day of the new year. A couple of days ago the last of the snowbank that builds up under the eaves on the north side of the house under the pines finally melted away.) Midden-making, it turns out, appears to be a trait common to several species of mammal.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 2:57 PM.

Haven't been working on poems lately, though I have a couple of notebooks full of drafts. Most of my energy has been going into teaching & writing this weblog & my other weblog, on Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. I've also recently published a new book, so I don't have a great motivation at the moment to get the work out there. I like to think that the fields are lying fallow, or course, & that I'm not just played out. You never know, really, where the next poem is coming from, or when. Which is not to endorse the Romantic notion of Inspiration, exactly. At the same time, I'm terifically tired of reading poems--my own & other people's--that don't spring from necessity.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:11 AM.

Friday, April 12, 2002
Cleaning the house: Steve Himmer has been clearing out a house left filled with "shit." As usual, Steve's prose is clear, direct & modest. His story of getting rid of an old refrigerator reminded me of my wife's & my efforts when we first moved in to clear out a garbage midden in the back yard of our house. This was ten years ago, but the memories remain clear. Actually, our house itself, which sits on 19th century foundations & hand-hewn beams, had been completely gutted, rewired & replumbed by a local carpenter before we bought it. I still run into guys at the general store & Post Office who say, when they hear where I live, "Oh, yeah. When I was in high school I used to go down there to drink beer." We figured out from the tax stamps that he paid $12,000 for an abandoned hovel on just under an acre of land on the bank of the Racquette River; two years later, he sold it to us for $63,000--still without any interior finish except wallboard. We've been working on it ever since & have, at this writing, a really pleasant place to live. Our bedroom windows look out over the river; our living room has cozy hardwood floors & a woodstove; we have wonderful art--traditional & contemporary--on the walls from Nepal, Vietnam & the US. We're happy here. But to be honest, it has taken some doing. The first couple of winters we didn't have a furnace or a woodstove--only a kerosene space heater & it gets goddamned cold in northern New York. None of the window trim was up, so drafts from the cellar & attic blew through the house--not to mention the mice & bats. We plugged away, doing a lot of the work ourselves. All of the hardwood floors in the house I have put down myself & upstairs where there are huge old pine planks, I have scraped off a century's worth of paint. There are still a lot of things to do. The kitchen will be the next big project--we're already looking at design books--but we have declared this summer the Summer of the Yard: we're going to be bringing in fill, putting down gravel & stone for walkways, building a pergola to shade the south-facing deck, planting shrubs & clearing parts of the riverbank. Which brings me back to the garbage midden.

Midden is an archeologist's term for garbage dump. Archeologists like to dig up middens because they tend to leave an unedited record of what the human inhabitants were doing while they lived at a particular site: what they ate, their tools, etc. Our midden, located behind the house on the river site, dated, as far as we could tell, from the 1960s. The most common items were tin cans, soft drink bottles, & animal bones, followed closely by disposable syringes of the kind used by diabetics--apparently one of the last residents of out house before it went to hell had "the sugar." We also found under the leaf mulch most of an old stove & the hubcap from a Rambler. The hubcap, cleaned up & polished, now occupies a place of honor on the inside of the shed door--a little shrine to the god Mazda (not the car). I still think the whole Rambler may be down there somewhere, but we are going to plant hostas over it this year. We carted away more than a hundred bags of stuff & took it to the dump. It wasn't so long ago that rural people simply tossed their refuse out the back door. Several of my neighbors still put old waterheaters, stoves & such in the woods behind their houses. I remember a garbage pile at my grandfather's place in the Imperial Valley in the 1950s-60s: everything from an old piece of furniture to empty tins. Every once in a while Grandad would set fire to it, reducing its mass. Our midden also looked as if it had been burned a few times.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:29 PM.

From an interview in New Left Review: Grass: At the same time, however, you would have to appeal to intellectuals sympathetic to neoliberalism. I’ve noticed that there are one or two within this capitalist-neoliberal sphere who, either on account of their intellectual disposition or their training in the Enlightenment tradition, are beginning to doubt a little whether the untrammeled circulation of money around the globe, this madness that has broken out within neoliberalism, should go unopposed: for example, mergers without sense or purpose that result in two or three, or ten thousand people losing their jobs. Stock markets reflect only maximization of profits. We need a dialogue with these doubters. Bourdieu: Unfortunately, it’s not simply a question of countering a dominant discourse that preens itself as unanimous wisdom. To fight it effectively, we need to be able to diffuse and publicize a critical discourse. For example, at this moment we are talking on and for television, in my case—and I imagine also in yours—with the aim of reaching a public outside the circle of intellectuals. I wanted to make some sort of breach in this wall of silence—for it is more than just a wall of money—but here television is very ambiguous: it is at once the instrument that allows us to speak, and the one that silences us. We are perpetually invaded and besieged by the dominant discourse. The great majority of journalists are often unknowing accomplices of this discourse; breaking out of its unanimity
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:17 PM.

The dark blush of anger
the impolite reply
the loathing of foreigners
uphold the State.

Roars at a touchdown
slums near the harbors
liquor for the poor
uphold the State.

[from "Three Talks on Civilization" by Czeslaw Milosz (Selected Poems, 1973)]
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:36 AM.

Wednesday, April 10, 2002
Quark stars: Cool. Very cool, it turns out. And heavy. Am I having an acid flashback here or reading the New York Times? And earlier today I read a story that claims black holes emit music. Bluegrass? Why not Celtic, fer Chrissake if you want to make the universe annoying?
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:24 PM.

Monday, April 08, 2002
One for the good guys: AP DENVER (AP) — The Colorado Supreme Court refused to order a bookstore Monday to tell police who bought two how-to books on making illegal drugs, saying the First Amendment and state Constitution protect the right to purchase books anonymously. The unanimous 6-0 decision overturns a ruling by a Denver judge who said Tattered Cover Book Store owner Joyce Meskis must give records of the sale to a Denver-area drug task force.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:05 PM.

Saturday, April 06, 2002
The rhetoric of terror: What is Ariel Sharon going to say to Colon Powell? He's going to say the he is carrying out exactly the same policy that has been articulated since September 11th by the Bush administration. That's the problem with language--it means something in the world, no matter how politicians try to use it to create collective fantasies. Now, any government with an agenda will find shelter within the Bush administration's rhetoric. Unintended consequences flow from acts based upon simplistic formulations of reality. Of course, unintended consequences flow from every act, but shouldn't we be trying a little harder to imagine what will happen? By imagination, I mean employing all our faculties: thought, emotion, morality.

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 8:06 PM.

Friday, April 05, 2002
Note from Outer Blogovia: Alex Beam appears to be afraid of bloggers. His jittery disdain gives the game away. How dare they comment on events without official sanction? Alex, just ignore us--you'll feel better. Not everyone with a weblog is Andrew Sullivan, you know. Actually, I like to think of weblogs as a form of corresponding society. [Another description of corresponding societies.] Come to think of it, those who have bought into the ruling ideas of our society--like newspaper columnists--may indeed have something to fear from weblogs. A spectre is haunting the Internet.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 12:57 PM.

It has been a busy couple of weeks & I haven't had much time or energy to write anything but my reactions to a few news stories in my reading journal. And not even the major stories--I'm suffering from the same malaise as DC weblogger JenB, who writes on her blog, "I think I was too overcome by seething, burning anger, punctuated by brief periods of utter incomprehension and longer bouts of wine-soaked depression to be able to express any of it in mere words. Sometimes I feel like there's just no use getting up in the morning. I mean, Bush the younger is still president, right? That's what I thought. grooooan // Now where'd I put that cheap Chianti that was kicking around here yesterday?"

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:54 AM.

HaHaHaHaHaHaHa! The Washington Post "leans left." I've seen a lot of nonsense written about weblogs, but Norah Vincent sweeps the field.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:47 AM.