Saturday, April 16, 2011

Consider David Foster Wallace (Book Review)

Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical EssaysConsider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays by David Hering

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This volume of 17 essays on the work of David Foster Wallace synthesizes the proceedings of the "first ever conference devoted to the work of DFW", a 2-day workshop held on July 29-30, 2009 at the University of Liverpool in England. My first reaction was "God help us all! Now that the academicians have entered the field, they will suck all life out of his body of work and bicker querulously in the ashes".

It's not quite as bad as all that. Some of the essays in the book are definitely egregious crimes against language and the laws of nature. But not as many as you might expect. The truly dreadful stuff stays pretty much localized to five or six of the 17 contributors. Let's get this out of the way with one cheap shot (I can't resist).
Stuff like:

Unexpectedness also is a key feature of the referentiality of this particular footnote. Despite the fact that there is no sub-footnote anchor in footnote 6, footnote 6(A) can be considered to be also referring to the preceding note 6 on the basis of the numbering scheme. The narrative thus subtly and ambivalently simulates self-reflexivity as second-order narration.

One has to wonder what might drive a person to write a dissertation on the use of footnoting in the work of DFW. And how it might feel. Yes, I know -- it's unkind to mock the poor souls who feel forced to churn out that kind of stuff in their desperate pursuit of tenure, but surely patronizing to pretend that it's anything other than lethally boring.

If, like me, you're a general reader who just happens to like DFW's work a lot, your question may be whether the whole book is written in the peculiarly incomprehensible jargon used by academics when writing for other academics. Not entirely. About one third of the articles seemed indisputably like gibberish to me - simultaneously incomprehensible and worthless. Another third were a little heavy on the academic jargon at times, but at least one came away with the sense that the author may have had something useful to say. The remaining pieces would be accessible to anyone who had read the particular DFW work being discussed.

What aspects of the Wallace canon (besides his deployment of footnotes) have attracted the scrutiny of these bright young academic minds? A little of everything: several contributors examined the philosophical underpinnings of various works, others looked at the "new sincerity" DFW is alleged to have brought to the post-postmodern landscape, and at his effectiveness as a journalist and non-fiction reporter. These essays were generally relatively lucid and reasonably accessible.

As topics got more weirdly specific and arcane, intelligibility took a dive. Claims of similarity between DFW and Laurence Sterne were interesting, if not entirely persuasive. I certainly don't begrudge the editor (David Hering, a graduate student at Liverpool) the fun it must have been to work those Sierpinski gasket diagrams into his paper. A fractal analysis of Infinite Jest? Why not?

Connie Luther, in contrast, trod much more treacherous ground in her efforts to provide a mathematical analysis of the deforming function of post-modernity (sic). Some exercises are best left to the mathematical professional, or - better yet - not undertaken at all. Because they are fundamentally BOGUS. Kiki Benzon just disappears into the morass altogether, with her muddled prose and her fatal tendency to bandy around terms like orderly-disorder, chaotic indeterminacy, strange loops, intermediariness, turbulent flow, as if she knew what they meant. Matt Tresco's willingness to make sweeping generalizations about autism, schizophrenia, and other mental disorders was startling, but not in a good way. Finally, what to make of Gregory Phipps's insistence on reading layer after layer of meaning into the behavior of John Wayne, the only Canadian student at Enfield (the tennis academy in Infinite Jest)? Gregory is pursuing a degree at Magill - should his contribution be regarded as some kind of French Canadian rebuttal? His essay is singularly odd.

Because I have a very low tolerance for academic bullshit, I thought this book would upset me more than it did. But several of the essays were at least readable, and the better ones left me eager to revisit the work in question. Which is, I think, a marker of some degree of success. So I rate this 2.5 stars out of 5, rounded down to 2, because I recognize that DFW is not for everybody, something which must be true a fortiori about academic analyses of his work.

View all my reviews

Friday, April 15, 2011

Geek's Corner (3) : Diplomatic trifles

Consider the phrase:

"Nous avons mangé le diplomate"

No need for alarm, there is nothing anthropophagic going on here. My trusty visual French-English bilingual dictionary is quite clear that (le) diplomate is the word for everyone's favorite delicious dessert, trifle.

This fact appears not to have made it to the synapses of the magnificent neural network that lurks within Google's translation engine, which insists on rendering the sentence above as:
"Nous avons mangé la bagatelle".
But that's what you get when you settle for the soulless machine-translation approach to life.

Note, however, that le diplomate can also mean "the diplomat", so if you find yourself travelling among, say, the Fore tribe of New Guinea, you might want to provide sufficient context to avoid any possible ambiguity. Whipping Cats management cannot be held responsible for any international incidents that might occur as a consequence of careless reading of this blog.

Now consider the gentleman in the picture below:

He used to be France's top diplomat in Hong Kong. But not any more. According to the Beijing Times, which I'm sure has no interest whatsoever in making foreign diplomats look bad:

The top French diplomat in Hong Kong and Macau was suspended and recalled to Paris last week for stealing two expensive bottles of wine, a source familiar with the matter told AFP on Tuesday. Marc Fonbaustier, 46, France’s consul-general in the Chinese semi-autonomous territories, was forced to leave his job after Beijing sought his removal just over a year after taking the top-ranking post, the source said. Another source in Hong Kong said the theft occurred at a private members’ club.
According to a report in the Apple Daily newspaper, the wine was worth 50,000 Hong Kong dollars (6,440 US dollars). Police and the French consulate in Hong Kong both declined comment.

Impostor Syndrome

One of the advantages of having already struggled with a few other foreign languages is that one picks up a few survival techniques along the way. For instance, it's crucial not to become too obsessed with getting things right the first time. Much better just to say something, and allow oneself to be corrected, than to sit there trying to construct a grammatically perfect sentence in one's head. My first time in Germany, I would try to have each sentence be correct before I said it, with predictably unsatisfying results - by the time I put my two cents in, the conversation would have already moved on, leaving me feeling like an idiot. Here in Paris, I allow myself to be carried along by a kind of fake bravado; that is, I just open my mouth and speak, putting my faith in instinct and a fair amount of (intelligent?) guesswork. It's amazing how far you can get with this strategy, and you learn much quicker, because even though you make mistakes, it's precisely that process of making mistakes and being corrected that helps you progress. One slight drawback is that often people assume you know more than you actually do, so they start speaking incredibly fast (as French people are wont to do). Nonetheless, even though that can be difficult in the short term, it's helpful in the long run. At least I hope it is.

But even though I seem to get away with faking it more often than not, at times I feel like a complete impostor. So it was reassuring today to receive a couple of pieces of confirmation that maybe I am making some genuine progress. First they announced that, since our class (which was the most advanced currently being offered) had grown to 17 students, they would split us into two groups beginning on Monday. One would be a continuation of the advanced intermediate class (level B2.2), the other would be at the advanced level (C1). Apparently I have been judged sufficiently advanced to be included in the C1 class. So I am pretty happy about that.

In addition, last week I took the TCF (test de connaissance de francais), which is a standardized test, administered by the school, but graded centrally, and which was being offered free, simply as a way to determine one's level. Given that we took the test cold, with no special preparation, I was very pleasantly surprised by my grade, which I am told corresponds to a level of C1 (I had been expecting to make B1, B2 with luck, given my lack of preparation). Since my original goal, when leaving San Francisco, was to make it to B2 by the end of my 14 weeks of classes*, the result was really a big boost to my ego. (Sorry if it seems like I'm boasting here, but part of the function of this blog is to track my linguistic progress).

So, when I join Nancy and Gabriella for dinner tomorrow evening, I think I will have earned a few celebratory glasses of wine!

*: To put this in perspective, it took me almost 6 months to reach level B2 when I first went to Spain, in 2007, and another 2 years to make it to level C2 after that. But it could just as well take another 2 years to make it to level C2 in French.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Decline and Fall

A once-proud civilization, brought to its knees:

Crème de la crème solaire indeed!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Geek's Corner (2)

Although the weekly Thursday afternoon excursions are always a delight, I have to confess that my favorite afternoon workshop is always on Tuesdays. Yes, you've guessed it - it's the grammar workshop! Today, there were just five of us, and it was a truly hardcore group. There wasn't a student in the group who spoke fewer than 4 languages!

At one point the teacher, Alexandra, was drawing a little house on the board, to illustrate the non-reflexive verbs that have être rather than avoir as an auxiliary verb:

I looked around to see the other four students with the same blissed-out expression on their faces. An expression that I, naturally, shared. And I thought to myself - "these are my people".

It was a beatific experience. Why can't the rest of life be as much fun?

As icing on the cake, I just found this delightful Alamo version on google images:

If you don't LOVE that picture, then this is not the post for you.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Street Where I Live

It's the "Tournament of Champions" on Top Chef, France tonight, where this year's winner, Stephanie, takes on last year's winner, Roman. So you'll get nothing substantive from me, textwise. Here, instead, are a few pictures, taken earlier this evening, all within a hundred yards from the apartment. Please provide your own commentary - a few of these images leave me speechless, frankly:

Baked Goods

There has been a certain amount of whining elsewhere on the internet about the (premature?) retirement of OPERATION BAKED GOODS. While we cannot stoop to pandering here on Whipping Cats, we certainly understand the undeniable appeal of baked goods as a topic. However, we remain resolute in our commitment to OPERATION HEALTHY FOOD CHOICES (noting parenthetically that tonight marked the third visit to the new gym).

All is not lost, however. Courtesy of the genius of Amy Winfrey, we can provide the following link, for the benefit of those readers who may be suffering from severe OBG withdrawal:

Muffin Films

The divine Ms Winfrey, goddess of the baked goods animation world, has augmented her previous muffin tin of 12 short films (produced in 2000) with a whole extra helping, piping fresh from last year.

This is some of the best free entertainment to be found on the internet. You owe it to yourself to check it out!

Whether you nibble or gorge, enjoy!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Carousel Horses, Friendly Kitties, and an Agile Bunny

Brad arrived from San Francisco yesterday afternoon. Today we went to Montmartre. It was a glorious afternoon. We visited the basilica, saw the Cafe au Lapin Agile, found a really great little restaurant off the tourist track, where we had a wonderful lunch, made friends with the local kitty, and generally had a terrific time.

Here is an interesting fact about the Lapin Agile, stolen shamelessly from my guide book. Here in 1911 the novelist Roland Dorgeles and a group of other regulars staged one of the modern art world's most celebrated hoaxes, with the help of the cafe owner's donkey, Lolo. A paintbrush was tied to Lolo's tail, and the resulting daub was shown to critical acclaim at the Salon des Independants, under the enlightening title Sunset over the Adriatic, before the joke was revealed.

Your average Parisian blog might be content just to leave it at that. But here at Whipping Cats we pride ourselves on going that one step further for our readers. So we have traded in ten minutes of our valuable sleeping time so that you too may be witness to the results of Lolo's labors (courtesy, naturellement, of the many-tentacled reach of the ever-more-terrifying Google Images).

First, Lolo at work:

How did Lolo do? You be the judge.