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January 2004
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March 2004

On Terry Teachout's Summa Weblogica

In online terms, the piece is positively ancient -- already over two weeks old as I begin to compose this item -- but I find that I keep returning to Terry Teachout's Notes on Blogging. There is very little there that someone else hasn’t said before Terry, but he has done a good job of distilling it all into a tall cool palate cleanser of a post. Among other observations, Terry writes:

2. I know very few people over fifty, and scarcely any over sixty, who ‘get’ blogging.
* * *

12. Art blogging will never be as popular as war blogging. More people care about politics than the arts.

Arts and culture webloggers, including Terry (whose own 48th birthday was recently observed below and elsewhere), seem to have age on their minds recently. Generalizing shamelessly from my own reading habits, my sense of things is that Terry’s two points are related: those who are headed toward or have passed through age 50 who do “get” and launch weblogs tend to be more interested in reading and writing about arts and culture -- or particular arts, such as poetry -- than about politics. At least, it seems that “older” participants -- I surround that term with scare quotes to remind us that the 50s tend to be much closer to one’s prime than to one’s dotage in contemporary America -- make up a larger percentage of the cultural blogosphere than they do of the political branch. Perhaps we post-45ers should all be flattering ourselves with the hard-won wit, perspicacity and sage demeanor that our weblogs reflect.

And while we are on the subject of self-flattery, can there be any doubt that the activity of weblogging is fundamentally ego-driven -- and not necessarily in a bad way. I have asserted for years, only half joking, the principle that “no one ever went to law school to be humble.” On balance, I suspect there are more humble and self-effacing attorneys than there are humble proprietors of weblogs. However large or small our average readership may be, we all know there is at least one person who loves the sound of our voices: ourselves. Finding that others are interested in hearing from us is an extra treat. The self-devotion that goes with online self-revelation is a subtext of several of Terry’s observations (all emphasis is my own, naturally):

4. The blogosphere is a pure market—but one in which no money changes hands. If you can afford the bandwidth and your ego is strong enough, it doesn’t matter whether anybody wants to read what you have to say. But the more you care about how many people are reading your blog, the more your blogging will be shaped by their approval, whether you get paid or not.
* * *

7. The whole point of a blog is that its author controls its content. That’s why no major newspaper will ever be successful at running in-house blogs: the editors won’t allow it. The smart ones will encourage their best writers to blog on their own time—and at their own risk. The dumb ones will refuse to let any of their writers blog, on or off the job.

* * *

13. Blogging is inherently undemocratic in one important way: it privileges literacy. Like e-mail, it is dividing the world into two unequal classes: people who feel comfortable expressing themselves through the written word and people who don’t.

* * *

15. An impersonal blog is a contradiction in terms.

I recommend Terry’s list in its entirety, if by any chance you haven’t already read it. He goes too far, I think, with the prediction that “blogs will replace op-ed pages” within the decade, but that is my only serious quibble. I particularly like the comparison to “little magazines.” And this reminder:

14. If you want to be noticed, you have to blog every day.

I will try, that I will, if only because it’s what my ego demands.


And You Thought Lawyers Were Expensive, or, There Ain't No Such Thing as "Free" Press

Kevin Roderick's L.A. Observed frequently features items of more than local interest. For instance, here we find an item on the high cost of public relations for public entities. Seems the designated flacks for various City and County entities are charging as much as $425.00 per hour to their public client each time they take a call from reporters. Your Tax Dollars At Work, indeed.

Kevin has also recently been an excellent source of pithy reports on the colorful histories of various Los Angeles buildings, including the relatively well known (the earthquake-shuttered downtown Hall of Justice) and the unexpected (a Valley fondue restaurant -- say "Cheese," you mugs!).


Unnatural Endowments, or, Nyet to Neo-NEA?

In the news: themes from several prior posts have conveniently converged. I have previously written in praise of businessman turned poet turned tireless advocate for the arts Dana Gioia, currently heading up the National Endowment for the Arts. I have also once upon a time voiced my skepticism of the entire notion of public funding of the arts. So, you might imagine my mixed emotions on the President’s announced intention to increase the NEA’s funding significantly in his new budget: while I am happy to see the money flowing to support an arts supporter (Gioia) of whom I approve, I am dismayed at the increase in governmental expenditures in an area in which government should have no business (and doubly dismayed that the increase comes in the midst of a deficit that towers like a pair of vast and trunkless legs of stone in a Shelleyan desert).

My qualms are neatly summed up by Jim Henley, writing in Reason Online on the mixed blessings of Gioia's successful tenure at the head of the NEA. His conclusion:

The NEA has been an excuse for private donors to abdicate the responsibilities of connoisseurship. Not only did we have plenty of Shakespeare before the NEA, we had real patronage. John Quinn paid for modernism out of his own pocket, bankrolling Yeats, Eliot and Joyce at various times. He didn't look for official sanction before doing so. Get rid of the Official 1 percent, and perhaps the Unofficial 99 percent might recover a modicum of Quinn's courage—maybe find the next Young Dana Gioia out on the road, or he them.

Like Henley, while I am rather partial to the sinner (Gioia), I cannot approve the sin (government spending, especially increased government spending, on a matter best left to the private sector).

Caution: Snarkiness follows . . . .

Further provocation to post on this topic came my way in the form of a commentary piece in the Calendar [arts and entertainment] section of Sunday’s Los Angeles Times. The Times continues to hide its cultural material behind a pay wall, but the article in question originated at Newsday, where you can read it for free. (The author is Linda Winer, Newsday’s principal theater critic. I’m no New Yorker, so I can’t offer any insight into the reliability of her judgments in that field.)

The Times’ headline writer opted for the title: “Too Good to Be True? -- A proposed increase in NEA funding has a shell-shocked arts community baffled.” The original Newsday head gives a better hint of the flavor of the piece: “Dubious Gains in Dubya-land”. If you cannot spot the author’s inclinations from that headline, you have spent too little time reading what passes for political commentary these days -- and I envy you.

Ms. Winer’s message, near as I can decipher it, translates roughly to, “Look out! It’s a trap! It’s a Faustian bargain! Run!” It is fascinating to watch a writer who clearly favors public arts funding on principle -- because Art is Good For You and Should Be Available To All, Like Water and Air -- get a case of the queasies when offered increased arts funding. Why? Because the source of the largesse has broken bread with known consorts of Lucifer and his minions Halliburton and comes from the party of such dubious worthies as Jesse Helms. [Note: I dislike former Senator Helms as much as anyone, but the past is past, he was just one ignoramus (albeit a well-placed ignoramus), and he’s no longer in office, so can we call Central Casting for a more contemporary bogey man, please?]

Here is a typical passage, which will cause you either to (a) cheer at its perceptive qualities and wonder why this Wallace Fool can’t see How Right This Is or (b) to tear your hair at the illogic of the argument and the rhetorical terpsichore with which that illogic is disguised:

So why, when important segments of the GOP are complaining about Bush's election-year spending spree, would the president dare to wave millions of NEA dollars at Congress? His new budget proposes to cut 8.9% from the Environmental Protection Agency, 13.6% from the Federal Aviation Administration's budget for modernizing air traffic control equipment, and 25% from Amtrak. National parks? Forget it. Housing for the poor? Don't kid a kidder.

Sorry, but I cannot keep from fearing that the new elevated visibility of the NEA will put artists right back in the crosshairs. Granted, $18 million is considerably less than the $27.4 million that the Halliburton Co. (Vice President Dick Cheney's previous business) must repay the government after overcharging for meals served to our troops in Iraq and Kuwait. I don't know why, but such an outrage never seems to carry the same punch as a painting some congressman holds up to the TV cameras as sacrilegious.

Ms. Winer flirts briefly -- before putting Occam’s razor back in its case because someone might get cut with it -- with the idea that maybe, just maybe, there are honorable intentions at work here

But wait. What if Laura Bush really cares about the arts? What if the first lady, under cover of spousal privilege, has been working to support the uncontroversial NEA. How bad is that?

before launching into a gratuitous discussion of the opening scene of the next Tony Kushner play. That scene -- involving the First Lady communing with dead Iraqi children “who, instead of talking, open their mouths to make bird music” -- has nothing whatever to do with the issue at hand (though it does a fine job of demonstrating why Tony Kushner is so well regarded by those who think exactly like Tony Kushner) and serves only as the set-up for the Zippy But Substance-Free Closing Sentence deemed mandatory by commentators of every political stripe: “I worry that the attention suddenly lavished on the NEA will turn out to be just as unrealistic.”

Getting the government out of the role of patron and arbiter of culture would relieve us all of cause for worry. I doubt that is the solution Ms. Winer would recommend. But then, she seems to take more pleasure in casting doubt than in offering constructive suggestions.


Canards du Cinema

If you have an interest in 20th Century or contemporary poetry, it is well worth your time to follow the weblog of Ron Silliman. Ron is very serious and very smart about his particular approach to what poetry should attempt and be. I disagree with an awful lot of Ron's ideas -- too politicized and too process-driven for my particular tastes -- but I know of no better spokesman for the types of poetry he favors.

Ron is also worth reading simply as a fine writer of prose, as I was reminded by his post a few days ago about The Saragossa Manuscript, the 1965 Polish film of the book of the same name.

I have never seen the film or read the book, though I have long been curious about both, having a fondness for stories about people telling stories within other stories about storytelling. Being reminded of the film inspires Ron to spin a good yarn himself, including this vivid cinephilic memory:

The film is pure narrative, but a narrative devoted to its devices & adamantly not going anywhere. It’s the closest thing cinematically to the experience of a Thomas Pynchon novel – all it needs is a talking electronic duck.[*] Back in the 1960s & early ‘70s, it was regular fare at the Cedar Alley Cinema in San Francisco. This was a cheapie art theater right along the border between Polk Gulch & the Tenderloin. There was a great fish & chips joint half a block up & directly across the alley was the unlabeled back entrance of the Edinburgh Castle, in those days very possibly the most colorful tavern in a city that took the color of its taverns very seriously. The pub had a parrot, Winston, whose vocabulary as I recall it was mostly obscene. A giant caber adorned one wall & periodically the local alumni group of the RAF would meet in one of the rooms upstairs. The cinema, which was tiny & funky, with the requisite uncomfortable chairs that made sitting through a two-hour movie an ordeal, was also immediately next door to a fire house. At randomly spaced moments – always the worst possible ones – the entire theater would be filled for a few minutes with bells & sirens, then curiously quiet again even if mayhem was taking place onscreen.

As those political webloggers seem always to say, "read the whole thing."


* Not to be picky, but I don't recall any "talking electronic" ducks anywhere in Pynchon. What Ron is probably thinking of is the heartsick mechanical duck that appears in Mason & Dixon, my personal favorite of Pynchon's novels. To be exact, the sentimental waterfowl is Vaucanson's famous mechanical duck which, in Pynchon's conceit, actually comes to life and haunts the survey party after falling in love with (and here I may be recalling it incorrectly) their cook. Many details about the historically-actual mechanical duck, with illustrations, can be found here.

[Duck links -- not to be confused with duck sausage -- courtesy of the invaluable Hyperarts Mason & Dixon Index.]


Hafnium is Better Than None

Two days ago, this site received its highest number of daily visits yet. That record is still a number requiring only two digits (*sigh*), but I appreciate each one all the same. The real mystery is why visits should peak on that particular day, especially given my somewhat sporadic level of posting in the past few weeks. The referrer log gave no clue: this was not a case of traffic being driven by some kind soul linking to a particular item here, which is the more common cause of spikes on the hit chart.

Looking over the reports, however, I did discover two new or newish links to these pages for which I need to offer up some thanks.

First, I find that this Fool now appears in the Humbug Journal's Periodic Table of Blogs, in the bottom-most rank -- the "obscuroid" series -- assigned the designation Hf, the atomic symbol of Hafnium.

It will surprise no one that mention of the Periodic Table immediately causes me to think of the immortal collaboration between Sir Arthur Sullivan and Tom Lehrer, The Elements. An informative visual representation of the song may be had here, from whence I was led to a delightful Flash Animated version by Mike Stanfill.

Meanwhile . . . .

Thanks as well to whichever of the 2blowhards it is that has added this site to their blogroll. So I'm a "Personality Kid," am I? That'll do, indeed it will.


A Mouse Divided

L.A. Observed compiles the early coverage on Comcast's hostile takeover bid for Disney, but the most interesting part of the story may be this hint of possible Oscar®-night histrionics:

Let's hope this won't spoil what could be the most interesting moment in the upcoming Oscars show. The new issue of VLife, Variety's bimonthly glossy with Naomi Watts on the cover, says to expect on-air fireworks if Disney's Destino wins in the animated short category. Accepting would be dissident ex-board member Roy Disney. A publicist advises to 'be ready to take notes.'

Destino is the now-finished version of the semi-fabled collaboration between Walt Disney and Salvador Dali. Rick at Futurballa provided more information and links here.

An ongoing chronicle of Roy Disney's efforts to reveal Michael Eisner as the worst thing since toxic mold on your sliced bread can be accessed at SaveDisney.com.

When I first read about the Comcast bid this morning, I heaved a sigh at the idea that the proposed merger would turn Disney into Just Another Media Conglomerate with No Soul. Sentimental bosh, of course: Thanks to Eisner and company, Disney is already Just Another Media Conglomerate with No Soul.


Placeholder

Weblogging working musician Dr. Frank wrote the other day:

I'm starting to understand, just a bit, why people with jobs end up blogging so often. Whether or not you have anything particular to say about whatever may or may not be going on, and whatever job you might have, typing stuff into the little 'entry body' box is for some reason far more compelling than any of the stuff you're required to do. Just think how productive our economy might be if all those missing blog-hours were channeled into activities that actually produce something. Stiff penalties for slackers; mandatory ISP monitoring; burden of proof on the accused to demonstrate what they were doing instead. Then we could all get jobs as internet narcs. Wouldn't work? How do you know till you try?

Of course, sometimes the compulsion of one's day job is so great that even the sinister temptations of the weblog must be resisted . . . as has been the case here as I dig out from under the various crises and critical deadlines that are inexorably drawn to the week after a vacation. There are posts in the works, filtering slowly slowly through the strata to bubble forth eventually -- a defense of punning, for example, and possibly an appreciation of John Cleese and Connie Booth's Fawlty Towers -- but I have succumbed to the Gore-Kerry Principle: Powerful Forces Are Holding Me Back!

More soon, it is to be hoped.


To Return

Relaxed and refreshed from a week in the High Sierra -- where two feet of fresh snow interfered with all prior plans -- and Death Valley -- the beauty of which at this time of year is not to be underestimated -- we now return to our regular rambling. In no particular order, please note:

♣ Last week's post on lawyer-poets was triggered by an e-mail from David Giacalone -- who was far too generous with links to these pages while I was out -- and the subject bounced from weblog to weblog through the ensuing days. David's own comments reveal the impending publication of a collection of versifying advocates from Professor Elkins. Scheherazade picked up the thread, as did that ornament of the plaintiffs’ bar, Evan Schaeffer (who gives an approving nod to one of my favorite poems by Theodore Roethke [no lawyer, he, but mentioned here previously]), and so on and so on.

♣ Evan also posted some observations on “cynic generators” -- words that, when used to mean more or less the opposite of what they actually intend, cause the reader to become more cynical toward the user’s agenda -- with particular reference to the term “reform.” Coincidentally, that same word has come in for scrutiny from Aaron Haspel, in a somewhat different context:

The problem, if there is one, is that politicians take bribes. The remedy is supposed to be "campaign finance reform." The abuse of the term "reform" requires an essay in itself, but here it means giving more tax money to political candidates. In other words, legislators, to prevent themselves from taking bribes, vote to pension themselves off, at public expense. This is absurd. Political euphemism makes absurdity plausible.

Aaron has been demonstrating a “law and policy” bent recently, interrupted by a very fine and persuasive reading of a sonnet by Fulke Greville.

♣ We saw this moon, only it was rising over the Black Mountains of Death Valley instead of an island in Maine.