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  1. Guest Posting -- Donald Pittenger on Sociology I
  2. Variations on a Theme by Alan Sokal
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  5. More Silver
  6. Kelly Jane on Short Stories
  7. Debra Winger Reads "Karamazov"
  8. Bobby Fischer's Mom
  9. Dr. Johnson on These Girls These Days

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Saturday, April 16, 2005

Guest Posting -- Donald Pittenger on Sociology I
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back in 1972, when Friedrich and I turned up at university, sociology was a happening thing. It seemed to be economics, urbanism, politics, history, and psychology -- and more! -- all rolled up in one. What could be more fun, or more important, than figuring out what kind of lives we were leading, what their dynamics were, and how they got that way? Organization men ... Tickytacky homes ... Mad housewives ... Leisure classes ... Sociology seemed like the Anthropology of Us. At the same time, though, sociology was well on it way to becoming a joke. I remember the school's humor revue, for instance, mocking sociology majors as work-avoiding pot-heads, and mocking sociology itself as a politicized bag of make-believe nonsense. Yet sociology had started with a bang, and had produced some classics. It had even -- with such books as Max Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" and Erving Goffman's "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Reality" -- played a major (and not altogether pernicious) role in popular culture. How did sociology-things get to this impasse? What's ... the sociology of sociology? 2Blowhards friend Donald Pittenger to the rescue. Donald was a serious sociology student in the field's heyday, and in this two-part memoir recalls what his experience was like. Here's part one of Donald's new reflections about sociology. *** Sociology by Donald Pittenger In the Introduction to Sociology class I took in 1959 at the University of Washington, the instructor took pains to show us that "common sense" truisms were not valid: sociologists had demonstrated so. Okay, I don't think he ever claimed that all common sense was false, but I'm pretty sure he never gave us an explicit example of where sociology had confirmed cases where it was true. (And I apologize that I cannot give any examples of disproving common sense: the class was more than 45 years ago.) The instructor was Otto Larsen, one of the authors (along with George Lundberg and Clarence Schrag) of a widely-used (at that time) introductory sociology textbook. And he was trying to justify sociology to us. As I write this, the idea "Just how many academic disciplines require justification?" seeps into my mind, followed quickly by "Why didn't I think of that 46 years ago?" Nowadays there are lots of disciplines requiring justification: just about anything ending with the word "Studies" will do. But back then?... Hmm. Neither Physics nor Math. Nor History nor English nor foreign languages. And in the "social sciences," not Economics or Psychology, Anthropology or maybe even Political Science; what they deal with is fairly clear to nearly everyone with college experience. Sociology is different. I think it was Auguste Comte who, early in the 19th Century, foresaw something called "sociology" as being the queen of sciences, the science of everything related to human behavior. So sociology was amorphous (and ambitious) from the git-go. The general idea when I studied it was that it was... posted by Michael at April 16, 2005 | perma-link | (25) comments

Friday, April 15, 2005

Variations on a Theme by Alan Sokal
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, You knew I worked in higher education, but you probably didn't know I was a hard-core science type, right? Now you know. Here is my latest paper, a little thing I tossed off just this morning. How was I able to toss this off with such ease, you ask? Truth be told, I did it with this scientific paper generator, placed on the web by several enterprising MIT students. The program generates gibberish. Wouldn't you know it, but the MIT students submitted one such gibberish paper to organizers of an academic conference, and it was accepted. The story has been written up here by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Shades of the Alan Sokal/Social Text controversy of a few years back. However, this story seems to have a slighltly different flavor. The Sokal affair was about how an apparently serious journal could not have spotted a pomo gibberish hoax. This story appears to be about a non-serious conference, in business to make money and to help academics pad their CVs. The obligation on the part of a farcical conference to spot a hoax is obviously less than that of a serious journal. Still, it is hardly a good thing that such conferences are in business in the first place. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at April 15, 2005 | perma-link | (7) comments

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * A new whatcha-ma-thingee that Google has just unveiled in Beta seems like it might prove to be a paradigm-buster. Here's a Poynter Online description of Google's new free video-hosting service. Here's the service itself. * Chloe Sevigne performed a film history-making act upon Vincent Gallo in "The Brown Bunny." (I blogged about this memorable scene here.) Asked about the film recently, she says, "I feel like we're in such conservative times and it's just atrocious. It's funny too because Vincent Gallo and I are two of the most conservative people I know and for us to make this movie, is very odd." She also tells the interviewer that she's hoping to get married soon. Actors: gotta love 'em, at least when you aren't feeling like killing 'em. * Thanks to visitor Matt Madsen, who turned up a New Scientist piece reporting that "Silver cars are much less likely to be involved in a serious crash than cars of other colours." * Yahmdallah wins -- hands-down -- this week's award for Gonzo Cultureblogging. First he delivers a daring posting in praise of John Denver and Phil Collins. He follows up with a damn-the-torpedoes screed explaining why he couldn't care less about sports. Great line: "Win what?" * Unlikely I'll be stealing too many dance moves from this guy. Some people are just too good. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 14, 2005 | perma-link | (7) comments

The Vault
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- This week's award for Entrepreneurial Blogging goes to John Holbo. A regular at Crooked Timber and at John & Belle Have a Blog, John's a heckuva a writer with his own winning and distinctive tone -- a mixture of philosophical rigor and Californian whimsy. He has another key blogging gift too: he knows how to keep a discussion loose yet focused. And now John has kicked off a new group cultureblog. It's called The Valve: A Literary Organ, and it's already lookin' lively and good: freewheeling and open-minded, and eager to notice, say, and think the kinds of things that pro arts writers should but seldom do. So far, I've especially enjoyed Sean McCann's posting about the TV show "Deadwood", and a posting in which John dares to ask, Just how good is "The Great Gatsby" anyway? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 14, 2005 | perma-link | (20) comments

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

More Silver
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I noticed a while back that many -- and make that many -- of the cars featured in car ads these days are silver. Well, as far as I can tell, since my posting the trend has only continued to gather steam. In my never-ending quest to provide a little substance for my otherwise content-free blogging, I took it upon myself to do some actual research, thumbing through the ads in the current issue of The New Yorker. Final tally: Total number of car ads: 10. Number of cars in those ads that are silver: 6.5. (One of these silver cars has the faintest bit of brown mixed in with the silver.) Given the number of colors that a car in a car ad might be painted, what are the odds that 2/3 of the cars in a magazine issue's car ads would be the exact same color? Any theories about why we're seeing so much silver? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 13, 2005 | perma-link | (23) comments

Kelly Jane on Short Stories
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- If attention spans are growing shorter yet the appetite for fiction is remaining constant, then why aren't people reading more short fiction? Kelly Jane Torrance ponders this question as well as others in a good article for DoubleThink. I also enjoyed an observation-plus-musing from one of the commenters on Kelly Jane's piece. It goes like this: Part of the problem, I believe, is that there are fewer and fewer people reading, period -- but especially fewer who are reading so-called "literary" fiction. I work part-time in a municipal library and rarely does anyone under the age of 40 come in to borrow a book; most of our readers are in their fifties, sixties and seventies. The teens and twentysomethings who come in do so to use the Internet (and they're not accessing sites that feature writing). And the readers who come in are not looking to borrow "serious" fiction or poetry. It's romances and legal thrillers and pop nonfiction. In short, I see the demise of the short story as just an early symptom of the demise of recreational reading. In a generation, I'm not sure that anyone will be reading for enjoyment -- and if people do read, it probably won't be a traditional print book. I'm afraid I agree with this commenter: I can't see much reason to think that books -- or even reading-for-enjoyment in the way we currently understand the activity -- will play much of a role in the culture in 50 or 100 years. Can you? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 13, 2005 | perma-link | (16) comments

Debra Winger Reads "Karamazov"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of my biggest cultural blindspots has been the fiction of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Over the decades I've had a number of goes at his work, so I've at least been able to check some of the big books off my must-read list: "The Idiot," "Crime and Punishment," "Notes from Underground." But, generally speaking, his work washes over me, leaving me unmarked, bewildered, and mildly seasick. I think it's the unceasing storminess of his universe that overwhelms me. (My limitation, of course. I have no beef with Dostoevsky's ranking as one of the greats.) The carrying-on lurches from one sweaty, wild-eyed, emotional extreme to the next, and the action seems to be nothing but variations on groveling, loathing, pleading, raging, exulting, manipulating, sputtering, fuming, and yearning. The bestial transforms into the saintly, and then back again. I stare at Dostoevsky's fiction with near-complete incomprehension. His books portray a universe that's a total stranger to my own temperament: a churning, heaving place full of histrionic, religion-addled, epilepsy-plagued drunkards. But I'm making my way through the ultimate Dostoevsky challenge right now -- "The Brothers Karamazov" -- and am having a pretty good time of it. My secret: I'm listening to an abridged audiobook of the novel. (I blogged here about the advantages of audiobooks, and about how abridgments may not always be bad things.) A match made in heaven? The version I'm listening to is read by the actress Debra Winger, and I'm finding her a great help even though in some ways Winger's a not-ideal reader. She doesn't have a lot of vocal technique, for example, or control. But she does have something I'm finding very handy: an instant and intuitive understanding of these (to my mind) bizarro bedbug/angel Russkies -- the emotional shifts and ploys, the venting followed by the shame and neediness. I'm reminded of how turbulent, mercurial, and sexy Winger's own emotions seemed in her early movies. Winger seems to know where Dostoevsky's people really live; she flares right up with them, then falls apart with them. That little rasp in her voice is helping me stay interested too. What I'm starting to "get" -- finally -- about Dostoevsky is how shrewd and funny he was about his characters. He may have shared many of their manias, but he also looked at his people with amazement, and wanted to note down some of their behavior patterns and emotional patterns. So he was a great psychologist and sociologist after all. Hmm. I blogged here about great artworks I don't get. Lots of visitors pitched in with entertaining lists and observations of their own. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 13, 2005 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Bobby Fischer's Mom
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I have no particular interest in chess, nor even a smidgen of a gift for board games. But last night I enjoyed watching TV documentary about chess great Bobby Fischer. What a genius! (IQ of 180.) What a talent! (At the time, he was the youngest grandmaster ever.) What a loon! (Check out Bobby's personal website to sample what a crackpot he's become.) What I found myself getting most fascinated by, though, was Bobby Fischer's mom. What kind of creature gives birth to a Bobby Fischer? What can it be like to raise such a prodigy? Who was this woman? What was she like? Google helped me turn up some of her story. She was born Regina Wender. Of Polish-Jewish origins, Regina was a Red Diaper baby who grew up in St. Louis. A brilliant woman, Regina spoke six languages fluently and became a doctor while in her 50s. Regina was an enormously driven person as well as a born protestor. She once went on a hunger strike; she studied medicine in the Soviet Union during the 1930s; she worked as a doctor in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Bobby broke with Regina in the 1950s, when he was still a teenager. A variety of factors seem to have played roles. For one thing, he was embarrassed by Regina. She'd encouraged his chess talent, going so far as to picket the White House to scare up funding for a chess tournament. (And I thought my mom was pushy!) But she'd also become alarmed by how obsessed he was getting with chess and sent him to a shrink for evaluation. Things got so tense between the brilliant/obsessive Bobby and the brilliant-bulldozer Regina that Regina moved out of the apartment while Bobby was still in his teens, leaving Bobby to fend for himself. Within weeks, the place was a filthy wreck. "They were so much alike," says a man who watched their struggle, "all drive and no give. Life in the Fischer household was trench warfare." But did Bobby and Regina really break off relations? One source claims that, despite their differences, Bobby stayed in almost daily touch with his mom. Regina was followed for years by the FBI. Because of her family background and her time in the Soviet Union, she was suspected of being a Communist sympathizer and perhaps a spy; eventually her FBI file totaled 750 pages. Although nothing was ever pinned on her, Regina was certainly drawn to left-wing causes, as well as to the Eastern bloc. When she returned to school in the 1960s to complete her medical degree, where did she go? To a university in East Germany. Who was Bobby Fischer's dad anyway? Regina never settled the question definitively, at least for public consumption; she may never have been entirely honest with Bobby about the matter either. The generally-accepted idea is that Bobby's dad was a man named Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist whom Regina met in the Soviet Union;... posted by Michael at April 12, 2005 | perma-link | (2) comments

Dr. Johnson on These Girls These Days
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The other day, I treated myself to a short trip to a nearby Borders. There I found a good deal on a 1970 Jess Franco psychedelic-horror Euro-exploitation film entitled "Vampyros Lesbos" (buyable; Netflixable). What caught my attention, though, was the woman behind the checkout counter to whom I handed the disc. She was a slim, young Asian-American. Her hair was multicolored; she had piercings and tattoos; she wore a hippie-Goth, cut-and-paste outfit; her expression was sweet and serene. She was a multicultural, cyber-generation cutie, in other words. The girl beamed -- beamed! -- when she saw the disk. "Wow, this looks like a really fun campfest!" she exclaimed. I muttered something not very witty and she laughed. Then she called out to the checkout girl next to her (who had neo-hippie hair). She showed her the DVD, and the neo-hippie beamed back. "Haw, haw, haw," they both laughed, much cheered up by the idea of a druggy, psycho-vampire, sex-alicious lesbian horror film. Off I went for the rest of the day on a chaotic inner monologue. It ran along these lines: Wow, not only has camp lost all its devilish charge, it's become mood-fodder for inane girls. And lesbianism -- or at least what hip young girls think of as lesbianism -- has become mainstream-ified too. Who'd have thought it would come to this? ... Cute girls ... With untroubled expressions ... Gaffawing at camp and lesbianism, both of which seem to strike them as kicky, silly fun ... It's really all out there, isn't it? ... And once it's all out there, the inner life comes to seem obsolete ... Funny that I find nothing sexy about these girls, happy though I'd be to see them naked ... Partly it's the tattoos and the piercings, which kill the vibrancy of the flesh ... I wonder if other guys my age find the tattoos and piercings offputting ... Is it a generational taste? ... Part of what's not-sexy about the new girls is the way the total lack of inhibition is crossed with a complete lack of depth ... Boomers thought that something good would come of uninhibiting people -- that problems would be solved, that health and happiness would finally prevail. But did they imagine that inanity and depthlessness would result too? ... Why a culture should set up "uninhibitedness" as a moral goal is beyond me ... The new girls lack poetry and allure, sweet though they probably are and attractive though they certainly are ... They're able to remain kids forever, endlessly playing, endlessly changing channels ... Life is about nothing but pleasing yourself ... Which is heaven -- but only in a happy-masturbator way ... So does that mean there's a connection between poetry and inhibitedness? I'd hate to think that's the case, but maybe I'm a sentimentalist ... OK: let's stare the question in the face: Does uninhibitedness have to mean lack of poetry? And a corollary: Does unihibitedness... posted by Michael at April 12, 2005 | perma-link | (46) comments