Category Archives: Reading

Leonard Cohen, operating in the night

“Montreal is still small enough to have one or two centres, one or two late night centres, and into this funnel is drawn everyone who happens to be up that night or at least a representation of the various groups operating in the night, and groups operating in the night always have a special kind of interest and a special kind of ritualistic atmosphere. 

“And into these places, these special places in the city, and Ben’s is one of them, is drawn this very urgent cross section of people who have somehow committed the first rebellious act that a man can perform: refusing to sleep. 

“That’s the real rebellion against life and the generative process. That’s the real human idea: I refuse to sleep. I’m going to protest the idea of sleep by turning night into day.

“I’m going to revel and drink and womanize all night and this way I show time, death, the natural process of destruction, decay and regeneration — I show it all with my mind and my will that I, man, triumph. And so they come to Ben’s.”

–Leonard Cohen, quoted in Ladies & Gentlemen…Mr Leonard Cohen (NFB, 1965)

[A thousand thanks to you, Mr Leonard Cohen, for showing us how the light gets in. And for being the light.]

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On the “literary turn” in non-literary disciplines

A thought about the late spate of studies like this one, just reported in The Guardian:

“Literary fiction readers understand others’ emotions better, study finds: Research by US social scientists found that those who read novels by the likes of Toni Morrison and Harper Lee do better on ‘theory of mind’ tests. Genre fans do not.”

Read the full article on Dr Kidd and Castano’s study, and/or read the study itself.
Anyway, my thought is this: literary studies have long valued & practiced interdisciplinarity; but, from recent neuroscience studies on novel reading and empathy, to this latest sociological research on fiction, the apparent “literary turn” of other disciplines — often better funded and better reported disciplines — is maybe cause to ask (at the risk of seeming protectionist) to what extent those other disciplines are engaging with literary study — or colonizing it?

New MA course on Canadian prairie poetry & drama at Athabasca U

Athabasca University’s MA in Integrated Studies program is pleased to offer a new group-study* course for the coming fall semester: Poetry and Drama of the Canadian Prairies (MAIS 752).
The course is open to enrollment by students not just in Athabasca U’s MA program, but also in other Canadian and international graduate programs that recognize and transfer AU course credits.  Interested grad students can e-mail AU’s MA program office at cis@athabascau.ca for more information or to enroll. (Enrollment deadline: Aug. 15.)

ForgetSK_26June2016

Highway 13 sign pointing to the town of Forget, Saskatchewan.

* “Group study”: Some of AU’s graduate programs use an online grouped study format. Students in these courses augment their studies with online group discussions and learning activities. Online grouped study courses are usually 13 weeks long and start in May, September or January. There are no extensions for these courses.

New Fronts in the Copyfight, Part 2

Now published, just in time for Fair Dealing Week 2016: Part 2 of New Fronts in the Copyfight, my guest-edited series in Digital Studies/Le champ numérique (DSCN). DSCN is an open access journal in the Digital Humanities. New Fronts in the Copyfight is a series featuring innovative, multidisciplinary directions in critical copyright studies. The new installment includes research articles by Dr Carolyn Guertin (author of Digital Prohibition) on digitally remixed creativity, and by Dr Daniel Downes (author of Interactive Realism and co-editor of Post-Colonial Distances) on a theory of “transproperty.” The installment also includes my review of Rosemary Coombe et al’s Dynamic Fair Dealing (2014), an excellent book, and a timely one, given the fast-approaching review of Canada’s amended copyright act and the copyright implications of the signed but not yet ratified Trans-Pacific Partnership.

#NaHaiWriMo Day One

February is “National Haiku Writing Month,” or #NaHaiWriMo on social media. The project, like haiku itself, seems straightforward but is deeply subtle: write a haiku each day this month. The event is based at this Facebook page.

My first foray, below, tries to meet all the criteria of organizer M.D. Welch’s checklist, which, like his other articles on haiku, is helpful and illuminating. (Personally I like the challenge of strict syllabic form, but will experiment with loosening up.)

in the bare-branched bush

sparrows hush as you pass: chilled

kids near a cop car

Fascist language from 1946 sounds all too familiar in 2015

Over the summer, I read The President, a 1946 novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Miguel Angel Asturias. The novel is set in an unnamed nation usually read as Asturias’ native Guatemala, and it recounts the manoeuvres and psychological distress of citizens, under the rule of a despotic dictator, The President, in the aftermath of an officer’s murder.
Although the novel is set in a fictionalized Central American nation, over half a century ago, I was struck by the unsettling, contemporary familiarity of one particular detail: the rhetoric used in a “large printed notice” posted in a bar to campaign for The President’s “re-election” (which much else in the novel suggests is a fixed and foregone conclusion). Despite the incommensurate historical, political, and social differences between early 20th-century Guatemala and early 21st-century Canada, and despite some of the obvious creative license and exaggeration Asturias uses, I find it profoundly disturbing how familiar the language of fascism sounds now: the rhetoric of masculine strength; of law and “order”; of coded, Orwellian uses of “freedom” and vigilance (i.e. surveillance); of party loyalty as morality; of allegiance to other parties as treason; of populist morality and fear-mongering against an imagined hostile Other. I’ve excerpted the text of the fictional re-election poster below. Does any of this sound familiar to you too? Any of it sound like the rhetoric we’ve been hearing about “#BarbaricCulturalPractices”?

“CITIZENS:
“Merely by uttering the name of the President of the Republic we shed light from the torch of Peace upon those sacred interests of a Nation which, under his wise rule, has conquered and will go on conquering the inestimable benefits of Progress in every sphere, and of Order in every form of Progress!!!! As free citizens, conscious of our obligation to watch over our own destiny (which is also that of the Nation) and as men of goodwill and enemies of Anarchy, we hereby proclaim!!! That the welfare of the Republic depends upon the RE-ELECTION OF OUR ILLUSTRIOUS MANDATORY AND ON NOTHING ELSE BUT HIS RE-ELECTION! Why hazard the ship of State in unknown waters, when we have at its head at present the most accomplished Statesman of our day, whom History will salute as a Great Man among Great men, a Wise Man among the Wise, a Liberal, a Thinker and a Democrat??? Even to imagine any other than Him in this high office amounts to an attempt upon the Destiny of the Nation (which is our own destiny); and whoever dares to do so — if any such there be — deserves to be shut up as a dangerous lunatic, or if he is not mad, tried as a traitor to his Country according to the law!!! FELLOW CITIZENS, THE BALLOT-BOXES ARE WAITING!!! VOTE!!! FOR!!! OUR!!! CANDIDATE!!! WHO!!! WILL!!! BE!!! RE-ELECTED!!! BY!!! THE!!! PEOPLE!!!” (254-55)

Work Cited
Asturias, Miguel Angel. The President (1946). Trans. Frances Parridge. Long Grove: Waveland P, 1997.

A “Latent News” Report: Found Poetry and Fair Dealing

When I studied at the U of Guelph and belonged to its Creative Writing Society, in early 2004, we created found poetry by playing the Surrealist game Latent News: “one or more persons cuts out each individual line from several different newspaper stories, mixes them up, and then rearranges them as quickly as possible into entirely new stories, the only rule being that the lines must be arranged into syntactically correct sentences. The name is derived from the impulse behind the game: to disorder the mystification called ‘news’ and thereby to reveal something of its latent content” (Rosemont 169, emphasis added).

Latent News Report, Jan. 21, 2004

women who band together to seek
For example, the new guidelines
to Understand Men Through Their
having boards take this / from one of Radio 3’s other sites,
Apart from the fans, who are being
revenge after their wealthy, / anesthesia for a procedure to
a history of heinous allegations.
where this stuff is going. But / Canada has vehemently denied
an interim ruling yesterday,
Along the way, the Patriots made
South Africa’s Kalahari Desert, to help
busy, complex surroundings of a
sampler. Each of the four singers
A PROVEN MONEY MAKER. You receive
the groundwork for universal suffrage and
stream of independent Canadian
of the Month and Young Wives.
successful, who could not find a
volume of more than 14 million
studies. And I was happy to be here.

mccutcheon_latentnews2004 Over ten years later, I can’t attribute my source more precisely than to guess that this latent news report is probably taken from then-current stories in The Globe & Mail. (I’m a bit amazed to find that the CWS’ webpage about our latent news reporting is still up. The Internet really is forever…sometimes.)

This repurposing of found text to reveal the “latent news” represents another practice of fair dealing, the users’ right in copyright law that allows you to reuse copyrighted works in limited ways. In this case, a substantial portion of a news article (or more than one article) may end up being used, but what is most significant here the selection and sequencing of the words, which serve to turn the original piece into a critique of that piece and by extension a criticism of the assumptions, biases, and other really quite narrow parameters of “news-worthiness.” That is, the latent news is first and foremost a practice of criticism, and as such is eminently defensible as fair dealing.

It’s arguable that as a practice of Surrealist poetry, the Latent News doesn’t demystify the news so much as it may simply trade one kind of mystification – that of corporate-biased, corporate-owned news media – for another – that of avant-garde appropriation art. Is the form maybe a bit outdated? In the age of social media, readers and users have found highly effective ways to demystify, criticize, and call out the embedded, encoded, and otherwise less-than-obvious premises and biases in mainstream journalism. A vocabulary of memes and tropes has emerged around social media users’ criticisms of corporate journalism. Take, for example, the trope of “fixing” stories and headlines. Here’s one of my favourite examples, in which the ever-incisive @FugitivePhilo “fixes” a headline for Bloomberg Business News:

Sarcasm seems to play a big role in the Internet’s memes and tropes of media criticism. Some of it is maybe prompted by the extreme economy of words that a platform like Twitter demands; maybe more of it is a response to the rampaging stampede of trolls the Internet sometimes seems like, where every single news article is graced – by virtue of affording a comment box – with its own hundreds-strong club of assholes. (Present readers excepted…blog commentators don’t seem cretinous; it’s mainstream news that brings out the trolls.)

But despite the new forms adopted and circulated by critical readers of news, there’s still a place and a role for the Surrealists’ Latent News, I think, and I think too that Latent News practice can readily adapt to the new media environment. (Maybe today’s Latent News can remix not only an article itself, but also its accompanying torrent of trolls.) New tools lend themselves to this game, tools like Poetweet, which eats lines from whichever Twitter account you feed it and spits out instant sonnets, rondeles, and other poems. With tools like these you can demystify your own news. Here’s a Latent News sonnet that Poetweet produced from my own Twitter feed, which tends to relay a lot of news stories (or else this process would produce not Latent News, strictly speaking, but centos more broadly):

Payment Demands

Emphasis on the need for balance.”
The social process of learning.”
Metric for measuring excellence.”
That it still needs explaining.)

Watches sunrise on giant TV screens
You to go to jail for sharing files
& thoughtful citizens.”
Vibes tickle your earholes.

Boots ’n’ cats
By children not vaccinated?
Users With Baseless Legal Threats

Public & the public interest.
Universal basic income as a right.
Paramilitaries to Clear Protest

The fact that Poetweet made this automatically points to another key Surrealist technique, automatic writing, which tries to free the writing process from rational control and self-censorship to the maximum extent possible. The Latent News offers an opportunity to closely read and materially engage with a journalistic composition; it lets you learn about such composition by taking it apart and not putting it back together the way you found it. It represents a warped, distorted kind of playback, and playback has proven an effective form of criticism in itself. According to playwright and critic Rick Salutin, playback is a major rhetorical device in the digital age, as demonstrated for instance by The Daily Show: “You simply repeat what your foe or target said, letting the audience realize how dangerous or vacuous it is. … [Jon Stewart] plays a clip by a public figure. Then he repeats it himself in an amazed tone. It’s devastating” (A17).

Latent News also deals in irony and timeliness (one of these is also a criterion of news-worthiness…guess which?). I’ve given a sample of the form made of news from way back in 2004, and I’ve lost the sources as well. So what news, precisely, was being demystified at the time is now lost to that time. It may be a kind of adaptation that works better – and that more effectively criticizes – when the reader can see the original and the cut-up remix facing each other. So maybe I should post again soon with a more current sample – together with a link to its source material.

That said, the Surrealists’ game of Latent News remains an engaging – and, let’s admit it, fun – exercise in close reading, critical reflection, and creative reinterpretation. It combines playback with cut-up, creating new contexts in which to understand “all the news that’s fit to print” – while exposing the contexts that made what’s in print seem fit to be news.

Works Cited

Rosemont, Franklin. “Surrealist Games, 2. Latent News.” Surrealism in the USA. Spec. issue of Race Traitor 13-14 (2001): 169-70.
Salutin, Rick. “Proud despite the facts.” Globe and Mail 18 Mar. 2005: A17.
The Globe & Mail, circa 2003-4.
van Veen, Tobias C. [@fugitivephilo]. “Fixed it for you: ‘How Big Pharma & Capitalism Failed to Stop Ebola Because Black People Aren’t Profitable’.” Tweet. 6:19 PM, 30 Sept. 2014. https://twitter.com/fugitivephilo/status/517106488717107200