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January 30, 2006


Okay, I don't spend a whole lot of time attending to my telephone, so I don't have a great deal of prior events to compare this to, but this phone message, received at 10 in the morning or so on Sunday, is definitely one of the oddest I've ever gotten. For those of you not inclined to listen to the mp3, here's the transcript:

[breathy voice]
Hey, Collin.
How are you?
We had a great time last night.
If you want, you can still call me back, at XXX-X901.
I know it's exactly the same number as yours.
Coincidence, huh?
Almost the same anyway.
I wanna hear from you soon.
Call me back, baby.

Umm. Okay. One of three things happening: either someone is giving out my name and number, someone's having a little fun with me, or someone's having a little fun with the person whose number is only one digit away from mine.

If this was really a person who knew me, then they'd also know that my Saturday nights are much more likely to be spent working in my office (which is where I was during our "great time together" last weekend) or in my apartment. And since my less-than-great times don't involve me waking up before noon on a Sunday, what makes her think that I'd be available at 10 am after the alleged great time?

Really, I'm almost flattered that someone would bother. Almost.

January 29, 2006


As Mike notes, albeit from a different perspective from mine, visit season is upon many of us in Rhetoria. The tail end of this past week saw one visit to the SU Writing Program, and we'll have 3 more over the next couple of weeks.

There are times when I simply don't write here, and times when I basically can't, and visit season is one of the latter. It's an odd process, in part because there are all sorts of confidentiality considerations. Less so for a junior search, I guess, since at some point, we all leave the nest. But still. It's a process where differences among candidates are magnified and hierarchized to a degree entirely incommensurate with reality. For better or worse, every department I've ever been in has engaged in what I can only describe as the process of measuring prospective hires against a highly idealized, and in cases fantasized, image of itself.

Believe it or not, that's not bitterness or anything. Quite the contrary. I think that this is an entirely normal reaction, and while we all might wish for a process where candidates weren't being held to standards that we ourselves might struggle to meet, the length and intensity of the hiring process makes this a tough wish to grant. And even as I recognize some of its absurdities, it's tough to imagine it working differently. I've been an applicant, a member of several search committees (and a co-chair this year), and I've helped prepare our own graduates for 5 years now, and there are elements of the process that frustrate me in each of those roles: hard decisions, lots of rejection, subterranean motivations, etc.

One of the things that no visitor to Syracuse will have to endure this year is something that I myself really dislike: the fake teaching performance. There are many places where, on a visit, you will be asked to "take over" a faculty member's class for a day, and somehow accomplish something productive (and of course, persuasive to the several lurkers who watch you). I've never liked this requirement, and I'm pleased to be able to say that we don't do it here. The artificiality of the guest appearance completely runs counter to my own pedagogical beliefs and styles, which involve at their base a distinction between "teaching to" and "teaching at." Even "teaching to" is a little top-down a formulation for my tastes, but "teaching with" isn't quite right, either. I spend a fair amount of energy at the beginning of the semester getting my classes beyond the point where I feel as though I'm speaking to a room full of strangers--asking a candidate to do so (with a job offer potentially riding on the result) is misleading at best and damaging at worst.

So yeah, that's my mini-rant for the week. Good luck to all those who'll be heading out on visits this semester, and good judgment to all those (myself included) who'll be hosting them.

That is all.

January 25, 2006

Didn't...um...leave it

Derek and I were chatting in my office today, and in reference to something or other, he said "One down, one to go." And my response was "Another town, one more show." It didn't take long, thanks to the internets, to discover that I was quoting a song from Yes--you remember "Leave It," right? No? Maybe it's because it was popular 22 years ago. At some point in the past couple of days, I must have either heard the song (or something a lot like it) that triggered this lyrical couplet in my head today. But it did so completely without my knowledge. And were it not for those internets, I couldn't for the life of me have told you what song it was from

My first thought was that it was that song from the musical Chess--you know, "One Night in Bangkok" or something like that?

One more note with respect to Yes. The first song on that album you may remember as well: "Owner of a Lonely Heart." I remember the song primarily because you can switch the openings of the two words and it makes almost as much sense: loaner of an only heart. I do this all the time, switching the opening sounds of pairs of words, particularly with people's names and two-word phrases. I'm pretty sure, though, that this is not the fault of Yes.

Anyhow, that was all I'd planned on sharing with you today, but in the process of nosing about, I discovered today that the project begun in last spring's graduate course, continued at CCCC, and composed for C&W Online has recently come out: Weblogs as Deictic Systems: Centripetal, Centrifugal, and Small-World Blogging was just published in the Theory into Practice section of Computers and Composition Online.

So I've got that going for me, too.

January 23, 2006

Somepost Wicked This Way Comes

You cannot begin to imagine the regret I feel over the fact that I am rapidly approaching a blog milestone that would best be reached 134 days from now. Unfortunately, this would necessitate making only one more post between now and then. While this would probably help me improve my workflow, I don't think I could manage.

What am I talking about? Go ahead, count it out. I'll wait.

January 22, 2006

Turn and face the strange

One of these days, once I hammer out the CSS disparities, I'm bringing a six-pack of change to my blog. For almost a year now, I've flirted with the idea of hosting it externally so that I could go ahead and own the domain. That idea kept playing hard-to-get, though, mainly by asking me if I wanted to blog for the rest of my days under my current nom du 'sphere.

Well, I finally got over my reticence in that regard, and took the plunge. It's not live yet, but soon, I'll be directing people to link me either at collinvsblog.net or the pithier (but more obscure) cgbvb.net. Both URLs work, but they bring up a version of my blog from a few days ago, as I hadn't realized the extent to which (a) I'd modded my old old version of MT here, and (b) the CSS on MT 3.2 differs from what I'm currently working with. And while I'm at it, and almost reflexively, I should add (c), which is that I'm going to make more extensive use of MT's code modules and maybe, gradually, throw down a redesign.

For the moment, you can keep your links pointing here, but eventually you'll need to migrate. My plan is to leave the old one here in place for a fair amount of time, so that I don't lose specific entry links (or rather, so that I don't end up killing the links of those kind enough to link to specific entries). And I'll be double-posting while I'm making the transition--well, except for this entry, which doesn't make a great deal of sense to double-post.

January 19, 2006

Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social

I started talking about Bruno Latour's latest book, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, last week, and having finished it last night, thought I would add a few more comments. In that prior entry, I talked about it really helped me synthesize that work of Latour's that I've read, and I was positively gushing over the importance that Latour places upon writing.

So let me start this next entry on the book by suggesting that it probably deserves an even wider audience than it's likely to receive. In other words, there are a lot of people in my own field who would benefit from having to work through these ideas and to reflect on the degree to which they rely upon what Latour calls "sociology of the social." Don't get me wrong, though. This isn't meant to be snarky--I think I've already derived some benefit from it as it's helped me to think about the shortcuts I take in my own work. The one thing I will say that is kind of a euphemistic snark is that this book would be harder to read for some than for others.

The book is intentionally polemical, a counter-statement to more than a century of sociology as well as the persistent misreadings of Latour's work (and the work of STS scholars more generally). But it's also instructive for those of us who have borrowed the work and/or language of social science to describe phenomena in our own fields, and that "us" is a lot larger than you might think, whether the borrowing is conscious or not. The bottom line is that Latour denies the existence of something called "the social," but in a very specific sense. The default position of social theory, as he describes it, includes among its tenets:

  • there exists a social "context" in which non-social activities take place
  • the social is a specific domain of reality
  • the social can be used as a specific type of causality
  • the full effect of the social is only visible to the social scientists' more disciplined eyes

There are others (on pp. 3-4), but you get the idea. One of the crucial distinctions that carries throughout the book is the difference between "mediators" and "intermediaries." Intermediaries are effectively conduits, simply transmitting the force of whatever stands behind or above them. Mediators, on the other hand, are transformative: "Mediators transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry" (39). I think that it's fair to say, and Latour does (I think), that is the central question at play in this book. Sociology of the social (bad) treats the world as intermediaries transmitting pre-defined social forces, while "sociology of associations" (Latour's alternative) treats the world as mediators who/that produce those social forces or, at the very least, transform the forces that they encounter (even if it is to reinforce them).

The book itself is laid out in a very outline-friendly format. Part 1 focuses on reopening the questions that sociology of the social has foreclosed on (Latour labels them "sources of uncertainty"), and each of these questions occupies a chapter:

  • What are groups? ("...social aggregates are not the oject of an ostensive definition--like mugs and cats and chairs that can be pointed at by the index finger--but only of a performative definition" (34).)
  • What is action? ("...the interesting question at this point is not to decide who is acting and how but to shift from a certainty about action to an uncertainty about action--but to decide what is acting and how" (60).)
  • What are objects? ("...these implements [hammers, kettles, baskets, clothes, remote controls, et al.], according to our definition, are actors, or more precisely, participants in the course of action waiting to be given a figuration" (71).)
  • What's the relationship between Nature and Society? ("The discussion begins to shift for good when one introduces not matters of fact, but what I now call matters of concern...the mapping of scientific controversies about matters of concern should allow us to renew from top to bottom the very scene of empiricism--and hence the divide between 'natural' and 'social'" (114).)
  • What does it mean to write? ("...a good account will perform the social in the precise sense that some of the participants in the action--through the controversial agency of the author--will be assembled in such a way that they can collected together (138).)

The first half of the book ends with a little interlude written in the form of a dialogue between Latour and a graduate student who has come to him thinking that perhaps actor-network-theory will provide a "frame" for a dissertation. It's a little self-satisfiedly Socratic, but helps to crystallize some of the controversies Latour talks about. As does the following passage from the end of the first part:

This is exactly what the five uncertainties added together might help to reveal: What is the social made up of? What is acting when we are acting? What sort of grouping do we pertain to? What do we want? What sort of world are we ready to share?...The fact is that no one has the answers--this is why they have to be collectively staged, stabilized, and revised. This is why the social sciences are so indispensable to the reassembling of the social (138).

In the second part of the book, Latour tackles the problem of oscillating between local and global in social theory, and he does this by effectively denying the existence of either. He describes the second part pretty concisely as follows:

The aim of this second part is to practice a sort of corrective calisthenics. I will proceed in three steps: we will first relocate the global so as to break down the automatism that leads from interaction to 'Context'; we will then redistribute the local so as to understand why interaction is such an abstraction; and finally, we will connect the sites revealed by the two former moves, highlighting the various vehicles that make up the definition of the social understood as association (172).

Part of what's interesting in the second half is his effort to come up with new terms for these processes. For example, we need clamps as part of relocalizing the global to keep ourselves from spinning out to global answers for happens in the local. Part of redistributing the local is accomplished through plug-ins, patches, and applets, a fairly literal adaptation of these technological bits of code: "To be a realistic whole is not an undisputed starting point but the provisional achievement of a composite assemblage" (208).

The book closes with a defense of actor-network-theory against the charge that, as a primarily descriptive method, it is insufficiently political. Again, though, Latour turns that charge upside down--he argues that what has been defined as political relevance is determined by adherence to pre-set categories, and that given ANT's refusal to acknowledge them, it can't be politically relevant in that fashion. ("...the definition of what it is for a social science to have political relevance has also to be modified" (253) and "So, to study is always to do politics in the sense that it collects or composes what the common world is made of" (256).)

Where this book strikes me as most disciplinarily relevant is its emphasis on production rather than reception. It's possible, I suspect, to read it (esp the last chapter) as an implicit endorsement of academic work--Latour clearly believes that what we do is important, and not only amongst ourselves as audience--but the work that we have to do to "trace the associations" is substantial. I don't think he'd disagree with the statement that his endorsement comes at a high price. In fact, all the way through, he emphasizes the economic metaphors of price and investment to describe the effort required to perform his brand of sociology.

In some ways it reminds me here of the sometimes blithe way that I assume that rhetoric is multi/trans/inter/supra/post-disciplinary, and I'm not the only one to have ever made such a claim, believe me. There's a certain arrogance in assuming that we study the "true" phenomenon "behind" all the other things that our colleagues study, without having earned that right. I think that there are striking parallels to be drawn behind the method that Latour describes here and the ways we go about our own work in our field. Enough so, in fact, that I've already recommended this book to several of our graduate students, and that I'll continue to do so. Enough so that I've been thinking about the work that I'm doing right now, and whether I'd fall afoul of some of the criticism that Latour raises.

Like I said last week, I'm no expert in ANT, and so a lot of what this book had to say was pretty new to me, although it certainly resonated in any number of places with things I've thought about. Perhaps, for someone more versed than I, it's old news. If nothing else, though, it provided me with a way into a very different way of thinking about method and an alternative to some of the default positions of my own discipline.

Good stuff. Thanks, Santa.

January 18, 2006

Love Monkey

I should start by saying that, to an extent, I drank the KoolAid when it came to this show. All day long, although I'd forgotten the specific reason, it occurred to me that there was something on tv tonight that I'd planned to watch. And when I got home tonight, and scanned the guide, it hit me. I thought I'd give Love Monkey a go. I must admit to being underwhelmed, enough so that I will review the show almost entirely in the form of lists:

    5 opening lines to imaginary reviews of Love Monkey
  1. It's hard to believe that, at one time, Tom Cavanagh did John Stewart better than John himself.
  2. At last we have the answer to the question of what would result if High Fidelity and Jerry Maguire married and had a child: Love Monkey.
  3. Love Monkey wants you to believe that it's a mix tape, but in the end it's more like Now That's What I Call Hipster!
  4. Love may be a marathon, but Love Monkey was more like a sprint, as they gave away more plot points in the final five minutes of the pilot than most shows do in a season.
  5. Jason Priestley fans who have been wondering what he's been up to lately now have a reason to watch television again.
    5 characters from Love Monkey that I'm pretty sure I've seen before
  1. Agent with the heart of gold (and apparently, as several characters attested to, a "golden ear") who's in it for the "right reasons" (Cavanagh)
  2. Gal pal who secretly pines for our hero (Judy Greer)
  3. Married guy pal who repeatedly tries to win admission from single buddies that it's okay for him to be married (Priestley)
  4. Ex-jock guy pal who pretends to play the ladies, but is secretly gay (Christopher Wiehl)
  5. Slimy ex-boss whose only interest is the bottom line (Eric Bogosian)

Okay, those are the only lists I could come up with, but I think you get the idea. If there's nothing else on, I might give it another try, but by and large, I can't imagine that it'll last too long. Here's a bad sign: the show opens by contrasting the "perfect day" that he "tells his parents about" with his actual days. Problem is, he's supposed to be in his mid-30s, and this conceit works better with someone in their early 20s who's trying to make it. The show feels like it's written by 30- or 40-somethings trying to imagine what it would be like to be in their 20s again. The disjunct isn't all that jarring, but it was off enough to be offputting for me.

Oh, and #4 in the first list was really weird. They did this closing montage where they literally gave away plot points left and right, all stuff that the main character himself apparently doesn't know. It's the kind of thing that you put into a pilot for the network execs, but you take it out if you expect your show to last more than 6 episodes. At least, that what I would think. Otherwise, you're undercutting your point-of-view character as everyone around him knows more than he does. It's a losing strategy.

But hey, that's just me. I hoped for more.

January 17, 2006

S-L-O-P, that's the way I spell sloppy...sloppy!

danah boyd posted a short reflection on what she's calling "sloppy speech acts," where she thinks about the various effects that IMing has had on her speech:

And then i started thinking about how sloppy my speech has been lately. I speak like i IM on my Sidekick - short, curt, coded... My speech has gotten super sloppy in recent years and i use my hands even more when i'm talking. I use whatever word comes to mind even if it doesn't fit well and i speak through impressions rather than using sound bites. I realize that my writing has gotten sloppier too and i find it far far far more painful to write now than before. I'm not particularly proud of either of these manifestations.

I'm not a big IMer--even though I have Sidekick envy, I lack the desire to overcome the massive inertia keeping me from joining the mobile (r)evolution. But I have noticed the shift, and even talked about it a time or two, in my own writing habits over the past couple of years of active blogging.

If there is a conventional wisdom about the relationship between blogging and writing, my sense is that it runs something like this: it's hard to get students to write, students don't improve their writing unless they write, and so anything that gets them writing earlier is bound to get them writing better. There's more to it than that, of course, but for me, that's the basic syllogism behind a great deal of technology and writing scholarship. For myself, I'd add that blogging can/should/may have the effect of getting students to think differently about writing, and in all sorts of ways that I find to be improvements over the default positions of most of us.

If there is a weakness in this line of reasoning for me, it's the baseline assumption that we all share the same threshold for putting pen to paper or finger to key. We have a tendency to assume that the world hates to write with roughly the same intensity, and it's that aversion that we must overcome as writing instructors. Fair enough, and perhaps even true most of the time. Certainly I don't walk into a classroom expecting to find a roomful of graphophiles. Heck, most of us could probably say the same about walking into department meetings. And even in the odd case that we could, it would be silly to imagine that everyone loves to write in the same way.

One of the differences that I've been thinking about with respect to danah's entry is this question of threshold, because I think that there are two specific features of it that vary widely from person to person: I think that each of us has hir own threshold for writing in general, and each of us juggles various thresholds from medium to medium and/or audience to audience. There are people whom I'd call on the phone and talk to for an hour before I'd return an email that asked for a one-line answer. There are people who only receive emails from me. And so on.

Lately, I've been having some trouble picking up my academic writing again, trouble that I haven't really experienced here. One answer to this concern is to say that blogging is interfering with my more strictly academic work, but that's not quite right. Closer to the truth is that, for a long time, my writing practice was pretty much monovocal (or maybe bivocal). I wrote emails to friends and colleagues (which I didn't think of as writing per se) and I wrote articles, presentations, etc., to a fairly general audience of my academic peers. Now, I like writing, and I like it enough such that my threshold for doing that work was never especially high. As a blogger, though, my threshold for writing has dropped even further--I never would have dreamed that I could write on a daily basis (or semi-daily, at least) for as long as I've maintained this space.

The trouble I've run into is that the thresholds for these two practices are themselves different. It's easier for me to throw up a post (obviously) than it is to work on an article, and once I cross the blog threshold and write, typically I do something else when I'm done. So blogging does in some ways "interfere," but really only in the sense that I feel like "I've written" when I'm done, and enough so that I end up starting over again to work up to the threshold for academic prose.

Well, that, and also that I find myself wanting to end articles simply by saying "That is all."

No grand conclusions here. I'm just thinking through some of these things myself, but I wonder if we spend too much of our attention on the notion that blogs will help us overcome resistance to writing and not enough on how it changes the practices of those (of us) whose resistance isn't as acute.

That is all.

January 16, 2006

A Time to Freeze, A Time to Cry

I have to keep reminding myself to simply be thankful for the temporary warm snap that pervaded upstate NY last week. If I don't, I fear that I'll find myself more bitter than normal about the single-digit weather that we had last night. In roughly 48 hours, the temperature dropped almost 60 degrees, disproving once and for all the idea that we live in a zone that even remotely resembles temperate.

So it was a good weekend to stay inside, and inside I stayed, only to see the two teams I root for (Colts and Bears) stink it up. I feel a little better about the Bears, because they just hit the wall after having overachieved this season. The Colts, though, looked a lot more human than they were supposed to. The best observation I heard on ESPN was the fact that the Bears actually outscored the Colts, and I can't imagine what the odds on that would have been.

Classes start for us tomorrow, and while that might be cause for sadness for some, I'm not teaching this semester thanks to my various administrative responsibilities. Of course, thanks to those same responsibilities, I've basically been "at school" since last Monday--I had meetings every day but Friday. "Course substitution" doesn't sound as appealing as "course release," but really, it's the former that I've got. And as is sometimes the case with said "releases," it's not unusual to get a semester's release for what is effectively a year round task. Without sounding too much like I'm complaining, I hope, I will simply observe that there is a certain amount of this "release" that was earned last fall, believe me.

So, welcome back everyone. Here's hoping that we all have semesters that are productive and rewarding. That is all.

January 13, 2006

The City of Lost Nail Clippers

For another change of pace, I thought I might detail Something That I Bought Myself Over the Break That Doesn't Really Qualify as a Gift. Specifically, I purchased what may very well be the first of 20 or 30 nail clippers this year.

You see, while I know my apartment pretty well, having lived here for close on five years now, there remain parts of its geography that are still a mystery to me. One such is the City of Lost Nail Clippers, the place where each nail clipper I purchase retreats after one or two uses. This City, I have come to believe, has passed particularly liberal emigration policies, policies that are irresistible to each subsequent nail clippper I buy and bring home.

Once, I bought a nail clipper on the way to school, and managed to keep it in my office for close to two or three months. Somehow, it got into my bag, though, and soon joined its compatriots in the city.

And sometimes, when I'm feeling particularly stubborn, I like to imagine that someday soon, I'll just let my fingernails grow to epic proportions, give up typing altogether, and refuse to cut them until at least one of my nail clippers returns to my medicine cabinet.

In the meantime, though, I suppose I can't begrudge them their City. Their needs are few, as far as I can tell, and they're not interfering with my life other than the occasional bother of an extra 89 cents at the convenience store.

January 12, 2006

You don't have to read everything, just my work

I forgot to mention that my 6-pack mustard gift box arrived today!

Which makes it doubly strange that I'm still at my office at 8:00 pm writing a second blog entry when instead I could be enjoying a sandwich. Perhaps not so strange, though, when I explain that I'm consciously getting myself back into a writing habit, and slowly (ever sooooo) trying to re-engage myself with academic work.

Anyhow, was browsing the IHE 'Round the Web, and came across an entry over at Wanna Be PhD about reading for dissertation work, wherein the writer takes issue with the advice that

When you write a dissertation, you have to prove to your readers that you have found and addressed every piece of scholarship ever written on anything possibly relevant in any way to your subject.

This isn't so much advice, I suppose, as it is hazing, and while WBP's anecdote about 2 years of reading followed by complete blockage is compelling enough, another angle on the issue suggests itself to me, particularly as I've been reading along with the Moretti fest (which you should be reading, all of it, right now, get over there).

It seems to me that, particularly in reading-intensive disciplines, we do to our graduate students the same disservice done unto most of us. Specifically, I would assume that many if not most of us loved reading--I certainly did, and part of my declaration of English as a major and my selection of Writing as a vocation related to that love. If you loved reading as a teen or college student, there's a good chance that you were fully capable of reading everything for all your classes, and then some. But that kind of binge reading, particularly at the doctoral level, just isn't possible and it's less so if you manage to complete a doctorate and profess.

So the disservice is this: because we love to read, and we do it a lot, we're slow to realize that there are different kinds of reading (this is the Moretti link for me, btw), and that different tasks require those various kinds. For example, here are four approaches that I might have taken to Latour's book:

  • read the thing cover-to-cover, as I'm doing now
  • do a power skim, reading 1st and last pages of each chapter, and topic sentences
  • read a review or two of it from relevant journals
  • wait for Clay to read it, and to review it on his site

I don't know how many of us would describe all four activities as reading, but I think I would. I might have to resort to air quotes on a couple of them, but I don't necessarily believe that close, word-by-word reading is the only kind of reading you must do when your director tells you to "read everything." In the same way that you might "read" people or "read" a conversational dynamic, for the sake of sanity, you have to "read" your field.

In a less quotey way, I'd put it like this: if you account for a 2002 essay in your project, and that essay has accounted for several articles from the mid-90s, you are accounting for the whole bunch. You have "read" them to the degree that you probably should in order to contribute to the conversation. Now, of course there is some critical faculty to be exercised as to the credibility of our 2002 author, but that's true of every single thing we read.

In a more colloquial way, I'd put it like this: just as you need to address the various "so what?" moments that inevitably arise in a project of some breadth and length, you must make sure that your project isn't vulnerable to the "what about...?" moments. This is not as much of a deal-breaker as we assume, but it is risky, especially when the "what about...?" comes from someone outside of your speciality. If I'm going to write an essay on ANT, I don't want someone to read it and ask "What about Latour?" I had better use Latour, or make sure that there isn't something there that I need to address either citationally or substantially in my argument.

But there are lots of ways to do this, and only one of them involves me rounding out the Latour section on my shelf with those books I haven't yet gotten and a stack of those essays not yet translated or bound. There are other ways, and I'd argue that they're still ways of reading, but I think each of us struggles to learn them, and we don't do such a good job of passing them on.

That is all.

This was going to be an entry about ducks

Before I press on for the next entry in my Things I Got for Christmas series, I did want to make note of two recent Gifts That Aren't Really Gifts But For Which I Am Nonetheless Grateful, both drawn from the world of sports. First, I feel a little bad about not jumping up to add my voice to those praising the selection of Bruce Sutter for the MLB Hall of Fame. Every time you hear about a pitcher throwing a split-finger fastball, you should remember that, more than perhaps anyone else, Sutter was the guy who made that pitch a household one. I don't know which cap he'll wear upon being inducted, but I'll always remember watching him on WGN, cuz when I saw him, that meant that the game was over and the Cubs were going to win (at least until he left).

Second, I was happy to hear today that Kirk Ferentz, head football coach at Iowa, had withdrawn his name from consideration for various NFL positions. It's entirely selfish of me, and of all Iowa fans I'm sure, but Ferentz took a team that, four years ago, was predicted to go 0-11, and over the last three seasons has gone 31-7. He's been a godsend for that program, and speculation was, with his son graduating, that he might return to the NFL, where he was an assistant coach for several years. Iowa was lucky to get him, and they remain lucky to keep him. It's refreshing to see a successful college coach who's happy to be where he's at, and not looking to parlay that success into a "better" gig.

latour.jpgNow, let's return to talking about me and my gifts. Lest you think that my life is all mustard and defunct TV series, I should hasten to note that much of my wishlist features academic books. Often, it's as much the case that these are books I wish I had time to read as it is that I wish I owned them. And today's feature certainly falls into that category. Right now, I'm reading Bruno Latour's Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, and I'm about halfway through, so it's not really fair of me to claim any kind of comprehensive account of the book. Besides which, there are definitely people out there whose opinions of this work you should heed before you heed mine.

That being said, let me offer two observations. First, while I wouldn't call myself a Latour groupie, I've read a fair amount of his work, including Science in Action, Aramis, Pandora's Hope, and We Have Never Been Modern. In fact that last book is one that I'd recommend to anyone looking for a way out of the various postmodernisms that seem to crowd out any other option. I'm not a groupie, so I don't always completely buy into Latour, but I will say this--more than anything else I've read by him, this new book (without explicitly doing so) really makes his entire intellectual trajectory cohere for me. I now feel like I understand how all those other books fit together for him in a coherent way. And part of that is that RS is an extended meditation on the core concepts and vocabulary that underlie Latour's method. I feel like the implicit assumptions of the rest of his work are laid fairly bare in this latest book, and that's really made it interesting to me. I don't think that there a lot of folk in my field who read Latour, and I don't read many people from other disciplines who work more closely with him, so this may simply be an epiphany for me. And that's cool.

The second thing that I want to point out about RS, though, is something that has relevance more broadly. This is a book on method, and while I'm sure that there are others equally as committed, I'm not sure I've read a book on method that is so insistent on the importance of writing, and for that reason alone, this is a book worth reading in our field. Two passages:

Since we are all aware that fabrication and artificiality are not the opposite of truth and objectivity, we have no hesitation in highlighting the text itself as mediator. Bur for this very same reason, we don't have to abandon the traditional goal of reaching objectivity simply because we consider with great care the heavy textual machinery (124).

(It's worth mentioning that "mediator" for Latour implies an actor, transformation, production, change, while its opposite term "intermediary" implies transmission, conduit, passivity, etc. One of his critiques of what he calls the "sociology of the social" is that it reduces the multiplicitous, varied world to a collection of intermediaries transmitting a vague, nebulous force called "the social.")

What's been interesting to me is that I wrote an essay 5 years ago for JAC that took up (in part) Latour's WHNBModern, and (again in part) addressed the problem of imagining rhetoric's place in a space where "natural" and "artificial" were opposite poles. By no means do I want to suggest that my account comes close to the detail or scope of Latour's here, but I think this is part of why it's resonating for me--I think I came fairly close in that article, responding to/building on Latour, to the position that he arrives at in this chapter. I don't mean to suggest here that I'm excited about this because "it proves I was right!" or anything. It's more of a "Wow, this is what I wish I'd said!" kind of vibe.

it seems that too often sociologists the social are simply trying to 'fix a world on paper' as if this activity was never in risk of failing. If that is the case, there is no way they can succeed, since the world they wish to capture remains invisible because the mediating constraints of writing are either ignored or denied (127-8).

There's a larger issue in this passage, about the fact that we are writing in the world and producing texts in the world that themselves are inseparable from the world, but let me focus my enthusiasm on the even simpler, more fundamental point that writing is mediating, because I think that it's worth saying over and over and over, particularly in my field, where I think we teach it to our students without ever fully believing it ourselves. Whatever I have to say, from blog entry to journal article to book chapter, is changed by the "simple" act of writing it. Since it's job season, and since I've been cracking the whip a little with some of our later-stage students, let me make it concrete:

There is a qualitative difference between the projects in our heads (the ones we're going to write) and the projects on the pages and screens (the ones we've written), and that difference leaves traces in our ability to explain those projects in letters, in conversations, and in interviews.

Nine times out of ten, being able to talk about the project you have done is going to be far better than being able to guess about the project you might do. And in a very practical sense, that's part of why, as a director of a graduate program, I'm pushing our students to have multiple chapters before they start talking about their projects to potential employers. Because

Writing. Changes. Everything.

That should be the tag line for the great collaborative-weblog-in-the-sky that is sometimes my/our discipline. That, and maybe something about spinning off into marginally relevant tangents like I've done here. I suppose that's all right, though: I'll never be anything but an amateur sociologist, and I'm certainly wouldn't bill myself as any kind of expert in ANT. But I did get this book for Christmas, and I'm looking forward to the second half.

That's all.

January 11, 2006

Positively Wonderfalls

So my question is this: if the gift is purchased via consultation with one's Amazon Wishlist, then what's the proper distribution of giftly credit? Granted, I didn't actually buy this for myself, but I'd like to imagine that I deserve some credit for having selected it in the first place...

The next highlight in my 1st ever Blog Parade of Holiday Engiftiture is the DVD boxed set for the series Wonderfalls (IMDB). You might rightly ask "Hunnnh?!" for this series lasted all of four episodes, and while I have a vague recollection of hearing a little critical buzz about it, I never personally saw an episode myself the first time around, and I'm betting most of you didn't either.

That, however, was a mistake. Think Joan of Arcadia, but instead of God inhabiting the bodies of extras to prod Joan, it's a series of stuffed, mounted, and/or cartoon animals that offer rather oblique advice to the lead character Jaye, and a great deal of mileage comes from questions of whether it's God, Satan, or her own psychoses speaking to her through these animals. The show takes place in Niagara Falls, and Jaye is a disaffected 24-year old with a philosophy degree from Brown who works retail (in a kitsch store) and lives in a trailer.

The show is really, really quirky, and I mean that in the best of all possible ways. It's both easy and unfortunate to see why the show itself was unsuccessful in its brief run on FOX, but that shouldn't stop you from queueing it up through Netflix or taking a gamble on it the way I did. I've been watching an episode or two a night (the set has 13 episodes), and have been thinking about spreading them out a little more so that it's not over too soon. It's that good. The episodes themselves are almost Seinfeldian in their plot structure and the way seemingly unrelated events and/or characters come together. In all, it's made me conscious of how difficult it is to sustain good programming on television--if a show isn't picked up by the viewing public pretty quickly and heavily, it doesn't stand much of a chance.

Oh, and the theme song is written and sung by Andy Partridge of XTC fame, which is either a good or a bad thing. Good for me.

That is all.

January 10, 2006

Best. Gift. Ev0r.

Rather than placing my various gift-givers in competition with each other, I thought I might simply compete amongst myselves, and tell you all what the best gift I gave myself for Christmas was. And yes, I got myself more than one, and yes, the gift I have in mind is the best despite the fact that one of them was a new television (replacing the one I bought me when I got my first job 8 (!!!) years ago).

boetje.gifThis reflection is prompted by the fact that yesterday, I got online, and bought myself a gift box containing a six-pack of 8.5 oz. jars of mustard. Specifically, I bought myself Boetje's Stone Ground Dutch Mustard, and if I do say so, it is the best mustard known to Collin.

Shall I tell you of a quest for the perfect mustard that began some 20 years ago, when I left home for college and left the supply radius of Boetje Foods? Shall I tell you of my disappointment with the Grey Poupons and the stone ground German, Polish, and American mustards? Shall I wax nostalgic for the days when I could spread Boetje's on a sandwich or between a cracker and cheese, and it would evoke just the right combination of mustardy goodness with sinus-clearing, eye-watering spice? Shall I recount for you the number of sandwiches I've eaten in the past week, simply because I brought a jar of Boetje's back from the Quad-Cities with me? Shall I sing you for you the parody of the old Judy Garland song "I'm Just Wild about Harry" that I sing every December, wherein I announce that "I'm just wild about Boetje's"?

Okay, maybe not. But I kid you not when I say that I've tried every mustard I could lay my hands on, and never found one that I like half as much. As dorky as this entry may seem, the fact of the matter is that if I had to name a favorite condiment, this would be it. And while the absence of Boetje's never stopped me from eating a sandwich, its presence will make a condimental difference in my life. Okay, I just wrote that sentence so that I could use the word "condimental."

Maybe it's the nostalgia of putting it on crackers and cheese at my grandparents' house when I was a kid (and figuring out how much I could put on before it would make me cry). I don't know. But as goofy as I felt yesterday ordering jars of mustard online, not to mention talking about it now, believe me when I say that I'll thank myself for it in a few days...

That is all.

January 5, 2006

Moretti Fest '06

And while I'm in the mood to promote good work that others are performing, let me recommend that you pay an hour or two's worth of attention to the discussion/event on Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees that Jonathan is organizing over at the Valve.

The book itself simply collects a three-part series of essays that Moretti did for the New Left Review a few years back, which I read a while ago, but the ideas therein are important enough that I went ahead and bought the book, too. No one who reads it could help (I think) but to see a little of his influence on the work that Derek and I are doing with CCC Online. Scott McLemee has a nice "Brief Guide to Avoid Saying Anything Too Dumb About Franco Moretti" over at IHE this week, if you'd like the thumbnail of what Moretti's talking about.

The only thing I'd add to Scott's account is something that you'll see if you check in periodically over at the nora project (as I do), and that's the crucial role that visualization plays both in Moretti's work and in this kind of work more broadly. Graphs, maps, and trees are three kinds of visualization techniques, and while people are debating the appropriateness of the disciplines from which the techniques are drawn, it may be more productive ultimately to ask whether or not language and culture can be captured visually these ways. (I think so. You may not.)

Moretti's work also connects for me with Gladwell's Blink in the sense that the snap judgments MG discusses are themselves a form of distant reading (one of FM's key terms). That may also be the other way around. But either way, distant reading is something of an occluded technique in the humanities, although it's not entirely absent. Think of our institution's emphasis on the impact factor of journal articles, or of the keywords supplied for an article, or of our (my) habit of scanning works cited and indices to gather a quick impression about whether or not to read a book. These are all different instances of the broader category of activity that Moretti is applying to literary history (I'd actually argue literary sociology, I think, in the way that Randall Collins does the sociology of philosophy, but that's another post that needs more close reading by me.).

Anywho, don't know that I'll have time to participate, but I'll be reading, and you should, too.

There are many copies

And they have a plan.

I don't know if they'll be doing it tomorrow, but today on the SciFi channel, you'll find a Battlestar Galactica marathon. As fellow BSG addict JB reminded me three weeks ago (!), new episodes begin again tomorrow.

And if you've checked out some of the recent top 10 of 05 lists, you'll find BSG listed on more than a few of them for the best television of 05. This is not an exaggeration, I assure you. Don't let the fact that the original BSG was a bad knock-off of Buck Rogers and Star Trek; the new show is incredibly sophisticated in all sorts of ways. Unless you count Lost in this category, BSG is easily the best science fiction on television today, and worth a look.

The best place to start, if you need to catch up, is with the original pilot, which comes on its own DVD. There are two seasons (13 eps each) that are also available, and worth both your money and time.

That is all.

January 1, 2006


What better way to flip the calendar here than by welcoming Debbie officially to the neighborhood? I know that I already cited her new blog, but hey, there's a difference between citation and welcome, yes?

Without naming names (since the only one I can think of right now would probably get me into trouble), let me just say that the worst thing in the world is to see a great title used up for a bad movie, CD, or book. No one will ever be able to use that title again--it's wasted. Had I not seized upon Collin vs. Blog as a title, and grown into it, I would have wanted to title my blog something like Blogos, as Debbie has, and so it should definitely be read as a compliment when I say that that's not a waste of that title.

It's also appropriate for me to welcome Debbie to the blogosphere at this time of year, because she and I met for the first time at MLA, maybe in Toronto. I had seen her a time or two at CCCC, I think, and so, when I saw her in a hotel lobby waiting (as I was) for an interview, I walked up and introduced myself. (My feeling was that this may have skewed her subsequent impressions of me, since I've introduced myself that way to no more than 3 people my whole life...) Later on, I placed an essay in the JAC issue she and John M put together on posthuman rhetorics, and we've chatted on and off ever since then.

At this year's MLA, I discovered that she may be the only person I've ever met who's more openly and explicitly nervous about public speaking than I am. While I wouldn't wish that status on anyone, I must admit that it's a little comforting (although it won't make me any less nervous).

So there you go. You know a little more about Debbie, and now you must go to her blog and show her a little love. Leave a comment, wish her happy new year, etc.

That is all.