The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

double wide

After the Pedal Pittsburgh event two weekends ago, on which I took my *brand new* Jamis bicycle out on Pittsburgh's rainy streets for a 46-mile ride, the family decided to go out for brunch and, desiring an outdoor place where we hadn't been before, hit the Double Wide Grill on Carson for brunch. I hoped that it wasn't a chain, but I'm not sure about that. A friend of mine assures me that it's owned by the same folks who own a bunch of other Carson Street establishments, but this one sure is trying to feel like it's a national chain--a Joe's Crab Shack kind of place. Still, we wanted to sit on Carson and watch the people go by, so we went.

It's about what you'd expect: disappointing, chain-y, with clearly much more thought put into the image than into the food. The service was meh, but hey, it's Pittsburgh, so at least it wasn't actively disdainful or incompetent. There's no reason to go back unless I just wanted a burger (which wasn't terrible) and a beer and to sit outside.

We did go back to Kaya this weekend and it was as good as ever--the Cuban sandwich may be the best I've had, and I've had my share. Unfortunately, there was some "Kayafest" going on, with ersatz reggae/ska going on in the street, and so the service was abysmal. I think it took 80 minutes to get our sandwiches, which is a long time to keep a 3 1/2 year old and an 11 month old occupied.

Off to Portland this weekend. Excited to be going to Andina.

Friday, May 25, 2007


For the introduction to the book project I'm working on--on how modernism was used as a Western propaganda tool in the early years of the Cold War--I'm thinking more and more that I've got to immerse myself in the theory about what modernism actually is. I've been thinking about it, and admittedly oversimplifying it, largely in terms of style and formal features of art: streamlining and the elimination of ornament, attention to the ways that humanity perceives the world (using Freud, Einstein, etc.) and attempts to undermine traditional means of representation, a sense of crisis and all of our conceptual frameworks breaking down, attention to the ways that machines are changing and reorganizing humans' daily lives and ways of relating to each other. And so when I've been writing and talking about it in this project, I've been taking for granted that those things are "modernism." But this, of course, manages to ignore a vast amount of criticism and theory, beginning back in the 1910s at the latest, about what "modernism' might be beyond a collection of stylistic features and thematic concerns. So I'm starting to read the big theory books on modernism: Levenson's GENEALOGY OF MODERNISM, Eistensson's CONCEPT OF MODERNISM, Bürger's THEORY OF THE AVANT-GARDE, Huyssens' AFTER THE GREAT DIVIDE, Berman's ALL THAT IS SOLID MELTS INTO AIR. So what I'm trying primarily to figure out is:

How did modernism, a style or movement or collection of movements or just a historical moment that is so frequently, and so dominantly, understood as having been born in diametric opposition to bourgeois liberal capitalism BECOME the house style of corporate America, of the national-security state, by the 1950s?

Now, just in the formulation of that question there are a ton of questions. Is there such a thing as "modernism" that stays the same between Manet and Flaubert and the 1950s? Was modernism ever oppositional? Certainly such movements as Dada and Vorticism sought, in their now-quaint-seeming ways, to undermine bourgeois society, but was modernism ever ACTUALLY oppositional in the way that Adorno and Horkheimer thought it was? And was modernism ever actually the "house style" of the powerful? (I think this last is the easiest one to prove, and I look forward to really engaging with DIALECTIC OF ENLIGHTENMENT ont hat question.

So, I've got a big stack of books next to the bed that I'm hoping to work my way through over the summer. Nothing as fun as last summer's reading (no novels, sadly), but in addition to my modernism independent study I've got Rajiv Chandrasekharan's IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY (about the Coalition Provisional Authority and the construction of the Green Zone in Baghdad) and Thomas Carlyle's history of the French Revolution, the Modern Library edition of which I picked up at our neighborhood's collective garage sale.

Monday, May 21, 2007

general ed

A friend--who wrote it--sent me this editorial about university general-education curricula from the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE this morning. My basic orientation when it comes to general-ed or core programs is quite conservative; I was educated in a place that, while it wasn't a pure Great Books curriculum like St. John's College's (not the alma mater of Chris Mullen and Ron Artest), was a very old-fashioned great-books approach to an education. Read the ILIAD over the summer and leave the first year knowing Dante, Aquinas, Virgil, etc. I loved it. But I was involved in the revision of our core curriculum over the last few years and learned a bit about what's called a "learning-outcomes-based" curriculum, or in lay terms, one planned on "what will our students know and be able to do when they finish?" rather than "what books will they have read and be familiar with?" Running a writing program, as I do, I've become much more amenable to the former orientation, while when I began I thought it was ed-school doubletalk. Rader says that as his school (the U. of San Fran) began revising its curriculum,

we became less interested in ensuring that students know a canon and more committed to making sure students know how to do history, economics, science and literature so that they can be smart, engaged, critical readers of any text, canonical or not.

He adds that the motivating philosophy behind this was that

a dynamic, nimble curriculum better equips the next generation of leaders to deal with the rapid advances in technology, the growing instability of global politics and the unpredictable demands of a diverse American populace. An education that looks forward and outward is, at its core, democratic, and ultimately, democracy should be the core value of American higher education.

I guess I'm still enough of an elitist (more than Rader, but not quite U. of Chicago Committee on Social Thought--and hey, check out how many Social Thought Ph.D.'s end up at St. John's!!!) not to be convinced his final conclusion and to point out that "smart, engaged, critical readers of any text," especially students at a Catholic university, might question the value of democracy. But still, I'd rather educate my students to be critical citizens of a democracy than to be good workers (and I am still enough of a liberal to think the two can be divorced).

On another topic, I got to meet Michael Bérubé, one of my few all-time blogging heroes (and, according to David Horowitz, one of the "most dangerous professors in America") today. Sad that he retired the blog.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

gonzales and a bedridden Ashcroft

This story about Gonzales (pre-AG) and Andy Card trying to browbeat a hospitalized AG John Ashcroft into authorizing the patently illegal "terrorist surveillance program" (the illegal wiretapping--why don't they just call these things "the prevention of torturing cute baby bunnies programs"?) is just amazing.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

le carre, spy fiction, and spy fact

I'm immersing myself in the Cold War right now, and so I'm even using my leisure reading to get myself in the mental 1950s. While on a visit to my parents last month, I borrowed my father's copy of THE SECRET PILGRIM by John Le Carre. The book feels like Le Carre was cleaning out his drawers; it's a frame narrative around several short spy stories, none of which are particularly well developed. I'm assuming that, as the book was written after the Cold War ended, Le Carre decided to get all of his "Circus/Smiley" stories out, even those that had been sitting on his desk, half-finished, so that he could move on to other topics. The frame narrative is from the point of view of Ned, who has appeared in previous novels, and tells of Smiley coming to a school to talk to Ned's students about life in the undercover world. The stories, though, are largely from the memory of Ned. The book as a whole had all of Le Carre's typical strengths--atmosphere, psychological insight, familiarity with the nuts and bolts of the drudgery of espionage (no Mission Impossible here)--but nothing is sufficiently developed in this book. Too bad.

I also finished Terry Cooney's THE RISE OF THE NEW YORK INTELLECTUALS, a history of the PARTISAN REVIEW crowd from the time of the journal's founding until 1945. (My latest project focuses on how American cultural intellectuals on the left joined up with the cultural Cold War project in the 1950s, so the PARTISAN REVIEW folks are central figures.) Cooney's book was interesting in that it consisted largely of readings of the material IN the journal, because he was denied permission to the the PR archives by William Phillips. This causes me fear: I'm very much hoping to examine, and publish from, the materials in that archive. Although Cooney's book, therefore, didn't do much that I couldn't do myself, he did frame his argument usefully, showing how Phillips and Philip Rahv (the founders and long-time editors) moved from strict Communism to anti-CPUSA, anti-Popular Front Marxism in 1937, to ultimately a stance that made it possible for them to embrace, in the 1950s, a certain kind of pro-Americanism. They remained, Cooney is careful to point out, ever myopic, mistrustful, and condescending about the world outside of New York, and thus could never move into the Van Wyck Brooks position where all good things flow from our Jeffersonian legacy, but they did see our valuation of the individual as the greatest thing about the US (and our strongest argument countering the Soviets' phony collectivism).

Monday, May 07, 2007

boy 2 schenley plaza

boy 2 schenley plaza
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
After a brief weekend trip to Baltimore (to eat crabs and see the Orioles), we returned to a beautiful, sunny Pittsburgh. First stop: Schenley Plaza, where we had lunch and enjoyed the weather. The baby seemed to love it (so much that he wanted to become one with the park by ingesting small amounts of its grass).

Thursday, May 03, 2007

cheerio in the nose

cheerio in the nose
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
I'm sorry, I can't hear you--I've got cereal under my nose

boys bringing dandelions

boys bringing dandelions
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
he's not even three and a half but he looks like a teenager.

before the lawn got mowed

before the lawn got mowed
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
he's ten months on Sunday, and looking every minute of it. Unlike his older brother, he can't be trusted sitting on the lawn by himself because he eats grass by the handful.

david brooks on wolfie

David Brooks today: Wolfowitz's big mistake at the World Bank wasn't securing a raise for his girlfriend before shipping her off to State; it wasn't having his deputies eviscerate language about family planning and global warming in World Bank reports; and it certainly wasn't bringing the Bush administration philosophy of "we are in charge, you may not question us, nobody has oversight over us" to the bank.

No, it was not being nice enough to the Democrats who aren't going to like you anyway.

Brooks is ingesting more and more of the Kool-Aid coming out of the White House that says "the only reason people have to oppose what we do is that they are either implacable partisan enemies and friends-of-terrorists, or that we just aren't communicating well enough." I thought he was smarter than that.

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