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Care of Banterist.

I can’t wait for the Sandra Lee form.

Probably the best thing about Columbia is it’s location in New York City, New York. This is at best a fractured relationship: Columbia students rarely explore the city in the same manner as their NYU brethren; neighborhood groups hate Columbia; everything costs too much in Morningside Heights; tertiary New York papers muckrake for hints of anti-Semitism; there’s no good way to get to the Upper East Side, the city’s mythical center, from campus; etc. One of the things the University doesn’t nearly exploit enough is the amazing assortment of professional talent around the city. The city is teeming with experts who should be giving courses, yet only the Law and Business school truly take advantage of their location as a raft in a sea of qualified sailors and bring in these outsiders to guide us through choppy depths.

I say this because one of the best classes I took at Columbia (accompanied by charmingly befuddled commenter Isaac) was “Intro to Scholarly Editing,” taught by the legendary G. Thomas Tanselle. Tanselle was a sometime professor at Columbia but his main gig was (still is?) with the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Although the class was not at all what I was expecting, I really enjoyed it, and it was certainly one of the best classes that I took at Columbia. Looking back, I realize how important it was for me to take. I’m now at a point of my studies where some of my questions can really only be answered the hard way, can really only be answered by digging through manuscripts. Sadly, I now seem willing to answer these questions, whereas before I probably would have come up with some sort of deconstructionist rubric that would have allowed me to ignore the whole thing. Ah, Salad Days.

I’m actually still amazed by the fact that we have the materials for scholarly editions of many modern authors. People still print out drafts and make handwritten notes. Some authors still correspond with other authors. I bring this up because I don’t know if this will continue. How many modern authors will still keep their papers, or, more importantly, how many will still write on paper?

The place of newer media for (in) scholarly editions is also unclear to me. Do blogs have the same import for understanding a writer as journals once had? Are people as willing to express their ideas in this digital format, is that information as reliable? If someone wanted to do a critical edition of Dash Hammerskjold’s “Kn0ts 2: Wherein They Take Revenge!” would that certain someone have to pour over the Yesterday’s Salad archives in order to see the development of my thoughts? Wouldn’t that give a less coherent picture?

The need for reliable texts hasn’t diminished, but I fear we’re in danger of losing the ability to find the textual authority. We’re at a point where the nature of text and reading is changing, the nature of experience is changing. It’s an awfully exciting time for a Jeremiad.

Follow-Up Trend

April 29, 2007

After watching the “Everyday I write the Book” video, astute occasional commenter Jen asked why Mr. Costello has “African” back-up singers in the video. Although she decided to direct her question in person and not in the comment thread, thus depriving our broader readership of her insights, I’ve decided to say one or two things about the topic. While Mr. Costello’s song is certainly enhanced by the back-up vocals, its unclear why they are attired in African garb. [Note: I don’t want to press this point too much as I know almost nothing about the group, Afrodiziak, who hail from England via Jamaica and may have regularly been so costumed.] However, when we contextualize the song within 80’s pop, it makes more sense.

In the 1980s, Paul Simon performed several concerts with South African musicians, and the Graceland album featured many songs built on African rhythms. A concert video of Simon perform in South Africa was later released. Here’s a video of the titular number.

The 80’s were also the time of the original Live Aid concerts, started as a response to the Ethiopian famine.

While musical interest and awareness of socio-political conditions separately led people to take interest in Africa in the 1980s, without any sort of context these elements just seem like a strange fashion trend. Of course, in many cases it’s hard to tell where social consciousness ends and fashion begins. Causes become fashionable, and those are the ones that have political impact (Or don’t. See the respective fates of global warming and Darfur in American political discourse), and fashion changes to reflect our taste in social causes (see hybrid cars, and green clothing; lots of Che T-shirts). That these connections are sometimes only reflected in the mis-en-scene is a lesson to be better viewers/readers: there is no unimportant part of the text.

Start Snitching

April 28, 2007

In recent years, there has been a tremendous outcry against “snitching,” the practice in which gang members serve as informants for the police, in exchange for money or immunity from prosecution. Apart from community protests, resistance to snitching has become a cultural movement; clothing featuring the phrase “stop snitchin’” has spread to the point that it often is worn by schoolchildren, a section of society that police rarely recruit as informants. Yet, the pervasiveness of the “stop snitchin’” campaign inside and outside of heavily be-snitched neighborhoods belies the fact that snitching remains an essential tool of law enforcement, a tool that many supporters of the campaign would be worse off without.

 

To begin with, who exactly started the whole “stop snitchin’” phenomenon? A quick search of Wikipedia reveals that “stop snitchin’” originates from a shoddily-made DVD of the same name, put together by noted lowlife Rodney Thomas (and featuring a guest appearance by Carmelo Anthony, currently the Denver Nuggets’ small forward), in which Thomas threatens rival dealers who might otherwise consider cooperating with the authorities against him. Given that Thomas, who is now in prison for assault, received a greatly reduced sentence for pleading guilty and cooperating with authorities, one can be forgiven for seeing the entire “stop snitchin’” enterprise as less than totally legit.  

 

Furthermore, if TV has taught us anything, it is that snitching has its benefits, and not just for the snitchee. For instance, on the Shield, Detective Vic Mackey runs a cottage industry of snitches (referred to as criminal informants or CI’s), which allows him to contain the frequent flare-ups between neighborhood gangs and avert a bloodbath. Were Mackey not to have said CI’s, one can be sure that he would still find a way to get the information he needed, but it would likely be from beating it out of at least twice as many people, some of whom might be innocent. Thus, the more that gang members snitch, the less decent residents of the neighborhood have to worry about getting caught in the cross-fire, or for that matter, the less they have to worry about accidentally getting on Mackey’s bad side.

 

Finally, one must consider the kind of people who support the “stop snitchin’” campaign. Studies have shown that the audience for rappers who lionize the thug life and actively promote the “stop snitchin’” message doesn’t come from the neighborhoods where snitching (real and imaginary) actually takes place. Instead, the majority of this audience consists of teenage white kids from the suburbs, who not only think that they know what’s best for inner-city neighborhoods, but would most likely run away screaming if they were confronted with either a thug or snitch in real life.

 

So, the next time that you consider buying a fashionable “stop snitchin’” t-shirt, consider the consequences. Buying the t-shirt gives your tacit endorsement to a movement founded by hypocrites.  It also tells people that you’d prefer it if the cops indiscriminately beat them for information and looked askance at the first sign of gang warfare, rather than pulling a McNulty and outsmarting the bad guys. But if logic and reason aren’t enough to deter you, think about the kind of company that t-shirt would put you in. Do you really want to be mistaken for some ofay kid who listens to Young Jeezy? It’s enough to make you start snitchin’.

In On Autobiography, Philip Lejeune, after a lifetime spent trying to discern the self driving the autobiography, shifts his perspective on the genre, turning his definition of the form from one based on authorship into one based on the production of reading.

“Autobiography can be considered a collaborative genre involving several people behind the writing persona. The test of authorship can be shown to fail as a marker for the generic identification of some autobiographies.” (Review, Poetics Today, 11:3)

Elsewhere, Lejeune has written about autobiography told in the third person, or what it means when fiction uses a first person narrator. Once Lejeune felt the author needed to engage in linguistic flights of fancy in order to direct the reader with these other voices. But now his point of view has changed. For the author, all the voices mean much the same thing: its up to the reader to determine how they read the text, how they want to experience the world related by the narrator.

For whatever reason, I think about these questions most whilst listening to music (I also think about Tiddlywinks and girls with shiny noses). I think its the immediacy of the form; just you and the music, you and a singer, someone who, unlike an author, can emote, can direct my emotions. I can chose how to read a book, and claim to know how a character really feels; I can control the reading. But a musician has a much greater power in determining my experience. Despite what later Lejeune says, this is especially true since so much modern music is told in the first person, in the natural autobiographical form. We enjoy “Gin and Juice” because of the way it captures Snoop Doggy Dogg’s life (or, perhaps, creates his life in our minds).

More than other modern musicians (I guess, now that I’ve introduced the doubt, with the possible exception of Snoop), Elvis Costello seems to play with the autobiographical elements of songwriting, moving his listeners away from straight interpretations. Of course, when we consider or subject using paratext theory (care of Genette, the essential idea is that all the material surrounding the text shapes our understandings) we shouldn’t be too surprised that Costello would play with identity; after all, Elvis Costello is not his real name, and he frequently employed other pseudonyms.

Here’s an example (from “Tokyo Storm Warning”) of the way Costello plays with narrative:

“The black sand stuck beneath her feet in a warm Sorrento sunrise
A barefoot girl from Naples or was it a Barcelona hi-rise”

The lyrics are evocative. We’re at once transported to the rich moment and taken back. Our narrator gives us details, and then changes them. We have one poetic moment, and then another. Adding to our troubles, Costello repeatedly changes perspective. Sometimes the song is first person, other times second, and often in the third. There’s a story told, one that seems to be Erlebnis, but that story is repeatedly re and decontextualized.

“Every Day I write the Book” is another great example. In a song about text, Costello expresses his love for a woman in an atypical fashion, using an elaborate writing metaphor.

For me, the most important part comes at 2:23, when he sings, “Even in a perfect world where everyone was equal/ I’d still own the film rights and be working on the sequel.” The line expresses his desire to control the world around him, to tell the story as he wants it to go. The song is still the standard love song, but the conventional tropes are gone (Fun Genette fact #2: we have him to thank for the word “trope” being back in common discourse), replaced with new images.

And yet still, the emotion directs our reading. We know its a love song even with the twists. Perhaps this is the beauty of songwriting: the ability to play with lyrics and still control the audience’s response via the power of voice, of oral and aural persuasion. Or maybe not. This isn’t too well thought out, and it’s really more of an appeal to Ibiteyoureyes to burn me more Elvis Costello than (semi) serious literary analysis.

Writing is hard. This statement might bring to mind horrible memories of toys that none-too-subtly reinforce gender roles, but it holds universal appeal; writing well is a difficult process for inexperienced writers, who lack confidence in their prose, as well as for veteran wordsmiths, who know the limits of their prose all too well.  Yet, the problems of writer’s block and graceless prose are not merely abstract problems affecting those with imminent term papers. Yesterday’s Salad loses up to five postings a day due to writer’s block alone, not to mention the many postings that are deleted or left as half-baked drafts because we can’t think of a clever way to finish them.  This grim tide of missing posts must be turned!  Thus, I propose that we institute another regular feature, a battle-royale wherein YS contributors and snappy bloggers considerate enough to comment debate the issues of the day… in five-paragraph essay format!

Discuss amongst yourselves!