February 22nd, 2005


Well, I finally got to see Interpol live. I was ready to sell my ticket and head home to a very under-the-weather Skylar, but Kim informed me that she had picked up markedly and told me I should go. And it was worth it, surprisingly, despite the fact that the concert was in a ridiculously crowded club called Coconuts, famous for fighting, in which security was almost non-existent and cigarette smoke seemed to be the primary component of the "air."

Blonde Redhead was a really great opening act for Interpol. I'd sort of forgotten about them over the past few years, but they really hit my pleasure center. Although I'd never thought of them as being No Wave revivalists, that's how they sounded to me tonight. The crowd actually seemed to dig them, which was interesting.

Interpol was better than I'd imagined they would be. They have a strong enough rhythm section to make up for the distortions of over-amplication. Paul Banks can really sing. And their song structures alternate loud and soft, single instrument and band, fast and slow to pleasing effect. I did think that they lost steam about 2/3 of the way through the set, getting sloppier in their playing. That may have been an illusion produced by the man at the soundboard, however, since he did the typical lame-ass thing of turning up the dials a little for each successive song. There's a limit there and you can't go past that.

I was hoping to have a truly cathartic experience, since this was my first time going to a show in months. Back in January, 2001, when I was finally starting to feel recovered from the pneumonia I'd had the previous fall, I went to see Mudhoney at Club Congress in their next-to-last show with the original line-up and was able, thanks to the proximity of the pit and the nature of the music itself, to really let loose. I never quite managed that tonight, though I came close on occasion. It was too crowded and too smoky, ultimately, for me to really go wild.

The thing I'll remember most about tonight's show, though, was the absurd number of people taking photographs of the band. From high-end digital cameras to mobile phone cameras to the disposable sort you buy as an impulse item at Wal-Mart, there were literally dozens of devices being held up at any given moment. I found this annoying at first, but then realized that the picture-takers were doing a wonderful job of reinforcing the premise of my class on the "documentary impulse." Even when it made it hard for them to enjoy the music, they kept snapping away. Apparently, the need to document the experience took precedence over the experience itself. Or maybe the experience was the same thing as the documenting.

At any rate, I became fascinated as the photographing went on. I could see the viewfinder for many of the digital cameras and watched as their owners peered up at them, trying to overcome the steep angle in order to figure out when to take the picture. I could see the image go in and out of focus in the low light. I could see the good shots that they were missing. And I could see how terrible most of the photos that were taken turned out. I periodically tried to ignore the cameras but eventually gave up, particularly since Interpol's light show largely consisted of lights directed at the audience, obscuring the band in a blurry glow.

One final thing I noted was that the crowd was more diverse than usual for an indie rock show in Tucson. There were many people around me who had clearly driven up from Mexico. There were plenty of other people of color. There were even lots of "white" people who looked chocolate brown, presumably from tanning themselves excessively. That was odd. Who wants a 70s tan these days? Not to mention that bronzed, bleach-blonde sorority girls don't exactly strike me as Interpol's target market. They were there, though, and seemed to enjoy the show.
  • Current Music
    the ringing in my ears

New Talent

My ridiculous throat infection, which led to endless self-examination in the mirror, paid dividends yesterday. I used the stick from Skylar's just-consumed popsicle as a tongue depressor -- same shape! -- and shone the mini Mag Lite into her mouth. Her tonsils were very swollen. So I called Kim, who called the pediatrician, and now the Bean is on antibiotics and might have to get tested for mono. Not fun, but at least I caught the symptom. At the time, she wasn't acting that poorly either.
  • Current Music
    Free Man In Paris - Joni Mitchell - Court And Spark

Notes From This Morning's English 380 "Literary Analysis" Class

I've been taking advantage of the computers in my classrooms to keep a weblog in which I document my teaching. Although I have a plan when I go into a particular class session, I improvise a good deal. Depending on what students contribute, the class may turn out exactly as I had imagined or very differently. I've been frustrated in the past by the degree to which the notes I compose in preparation for class bear little relation to the class session they were written for. This is why I've been so happy to have the chance to copy down the whiteboard -- I'm a heavy user of the board, white or black -- after class and fill in the blanks with my still-fresh recollections. Sometimes I'm too pressed for time to compose anything but the most skeletal notes. Today, though, I had a little more time. Since I'm going to be writing about my teaching over the next couple months, how I perceive it and how it is perceived by others, I thought I'd share today's notes, from a class that was far from my best and far from my worst, perhaps just a little better than average:
Topic: "Bartleby" by Herman Melville.

Terms: unreliable narrator, author vs. narrator (vs. narration)

Focused on paragaph #53 in the Bartleby.com edition, the one one starting with the sentence, "Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance."

We spent a lot of time on that sentence. I had students paraphrase it different ways, talked about the utility of paraphrasing sentences or passages to come up with words with which to begin a critique. For example, I isolated the substitution of the word "open" for "earnest" in one of the sentences volunteered by students, then drew a chart on the board in which the denotation/dictionary meaning of those words were not co-terminous but the spheres of their connotation overlapped. While I was making this point, I kept thinking about the concept of "family resemblance" and related topics in Wittgenstein, but kept that insight to myself.

Then we "took an inventory" for the entire paragaph, with students singling out various sentences and phrases. I zeroed in on, "He was useful to me," pointing out that, in terms of the story as a whole, it is a curious formulation -- I used the word "formulation" a lot today for some reason -- because the narrator keeps going on about how Bartleby is not useful once he stops working. Others of note were, "The passiveness of Bartleby sometimes irritated me," and "But one afternoon the evil impulse in me mastered me."

I did a little riff on the fact that the narrator is a boss and gave an example of a supervisor at Kinko's trying to get a subordinate to do something.

I then read the first paragaph of the story, in which the narrator seems like he will be of the more conventional "participant observer" sort, with less of an interest in the outcome, because he doesn't mention how or why he encounters copyists until the second paragraph. I also made light of the idea of there being lots of fascinating stories of copyists, referring again to life at Kinko's.

Later in the class, I talked about the idea of the unreliable narrator. I mentioned classic examples such as "The Yellow Wallpaper" and The Good Soldier, said that, while the narrator of Bartleby is not wholly unreliable he is so sometimes. That, I went on, is a result of his interest in the story. He not only wants to tell the story because it's interesting, but because he feels the need to explain himself. He has a guilty conscience to assuage.

I went over the third paragraph in the story then, pointing out that the "narrator protests too much" when he goes on about John Jacob Astor and his trustworthiness. "You aren't likely to trust someone who keeps saying, 'Trust me, man,' I added.

The final portion of class was devoted to discussing the ways in which the narrator ends up seeming a lot like Bartleby, how the adjectives used to describe them overlap. [NAME DELETED] called him "a bit loony." [ANOTHER NAME DELETED] referred to the narrator as a "wuss," a term that I wrote on the board with delight. I explained that, in previous classes where I taught Bartleby, an inventory of their respective traits invariably led to the conclusion that the two had a lot in common.

I referred them to paragraphs 110-114, then read 115, in which the narrator explains that, "Somehow, of late I had got into the way of involuntarily using this word 'prefer' upon all sorts of not exactly suitable occasions." This paragraph, I noted, seems to confirm our suspicion that the narrator ends up being more like Bartleby than he'd like to admit.

We talked about active and passive voice and how an active voice sentence can seem passive by taking the doing out of human hands and ascribing it to concepts or things. I directed them once more to the first sentence of paragraph #53, in which, although the verb is active, the doer -- in this case Bartleby -- is erased entirely in favor of the vague "passive resistance" and the "doee" -- in this case the narrator -- is rendered as an abstract "person" and not an individual. Students then pointed out that two other formulations from that paragraph, the one, "The passiveness of Bartleby irritated me," and, "The evil impulse in me maastered me," also take transfer agency from people to concepts or things.

I went on a little tangent on George W. Bush's tendency to use simple, active-voice sentences and contrasted it to Bill Clinton's masterful use of the passive. At one point I said, "You can imagine Hilary saying, 'Don't be such a wuss, Bill.'" I also paraphrased Bush's comments about working with the EC this morning, noting that he's also fond of counting. "Twenty-six nations. . ." My Texas accent was not up to the task, alas, but the students still laughed. I think I did a good job with my "equal time," where I avoid seeming too partisan by making fun of both sides.

In closing, I noted that we hadn't made it to the topic of allegory, which I would address on the course weblog and laid out the parameters for the midterm, adding that I will put a list of "fair game" terms on the weblog also.
When I can, I like to attribute student comments, particularly if they come from someone who isn't a regular contributor. The best part of the class was the bit on active voice at the end, because several students took the idea I was presenting and ran with it. It was also fun talking about Presidents. I only poke light-hearted fun at them, fully aware that there are limits to what I'm going to be permitted to say. I've found, however, that this sort of light-hearted fun can actually lead to good teaching. The student who recognizes that our current President uses a lot of short, active voice sentences to give the impression that he is "not a wuss," will have a better chance of distinguishing rhetoric from reality. That's a small pedagogic victory, to be sure, but far preferable in my eyes to the defeat that might come from taking a more strident approach.
  • Current Music
    Piano Sonata, Op.1 - Alban Berg - Liselotte Weiss, Piano (BIS)