The Square Circuit

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

Sunday, November 16, 2008

what I learned at MSA

The tenth conference of the Modernist Studies Association, one of the two professional groups I belong to and am at all active in, was held in Nashville this weekend. Most of the work presented was, of course, on modernist art and literature, and I heard a ton of great papers (and at least one mostly baffling keynote, by the luminary Fredric Jameson) on things like Surrealism, Gertrude Stein, Kantian ethics, Pynchon, etc. This is my favorite conference and although the panel I submitted was rejected I decided to go to attend one of the “seminars,” a small-group discussion wherein up to a dozen scholars of all levels submit very short papers on a specific topic and then get together to talk freely for about two hours.

As most of the seminars were already closed by the time I got around to deciding to go, I settled on the seminar on “Modernism and Copyright,” which sounds deathly boring at first—even to a literary scholar—but ended up being absolutely great. I read Paul Saint-Amour’s fantastic book on the history of copyright as well as less academic books such as Siva Vaidhyanathan’s COPYRIGHTS AND COPYWRONGS and Lawrence Lessig’s THE FUTURE OF IDEAS. The seminar discussion was great and I was by far the least prepared, as most of the other scholars there had advanced research projects on the subject and I am just starting to think of how issues of copyright might impinge upon my own current project, on the use of modernism as cultural propaganda in the Cold War.

More valuable, though, than the seminar itself was the way that it got me thinking about intellectual property in a number of ways and thus to go hear what people were saying about it. The last panel I went to featured two law professors—Steve Hetcher and Robert Spoo—who were conducting a “roundtable” discussion on copyright and intellectual property issues for scholars. Because of the now-famous James Joyce estate problems,

(basically, Stephen Joyce, who controls the estate, hates scholars and anyone who would “misuse” Joyce’s work and so refuses to grant permission to scholars to quote from unpublished Joyce materials, and is even reputedly destroying some material so that scholars will never be able to use it. Robert Spoo told of meeting Stephen in Zurich and asking him if he’d destroyed some letters between Lucia Joyce and Samuel Beckett, and although Stephen did not respond his wife mimed tearing up sheets of paper)

and Valerie Eliot’s well-known refusal to let scholars quote from unpublished T.S. Eliot materials, scholars are getting very cautious about using these materials—not just from Joyce or Eliot but from anyone. Publishers, too, both of books and journals are encouraging writers to minimize any use of materials for which they could be sued, and require authors to clear the permissions themselves. (I’ve had to do this.)

On the scholar level, Spoo and Hetcher simply said that scholars shouldn’t knuckle under. Fair use tends to be upheld, they said, and although publishers shy away from “cease and desist” letters and to pass that hesitance on to authors, it’s rare that these letters, when defied, become lawsuits. Spoo added that federal circuit courts have been increasingly willing to interpret free use expansively, and to really endorse one of the four “tests” for fair use—whether the original work that is being used/quoted is “transformed” substantially (in which case it’s fair use). Furthermore, Hetcher said that courts also like to consult the prevailing standards of the community, and so if the scholar community were to band together and simply assert that their use IS fair use (as long as that could be justified), courts would weigh that against a plaintiff’s claim of copyright infringement. The flip side of that, they both said, is that when scholars defer to the demands of publishers and copyright holders they establish a similar kind of precedent that lawyers and judges can point to.

The MLA has convened some sort of a task force on copyrights and permissions for scholars. Amen to that: it sounds as if they are trying to come up with something, like the Society for Cinema and Media Studies' policy on the use of film clips in teaching film studies, that will become a "community standard" or "typical practice." I'd like to see--hell, I probably should initiate--some sort of similar thing not for publishing but for teaching: how much can we use in class course readers? I don't think the Kinko's case is the last word on it.

Monday, November 03, 2008

blogs and journalism

I've not been blogging at all because, first, I've been swamped at work, and second, because I've been so deeply immersed in "real" blogs because of the election that I've just decided that I can't compete. Kos, Talking Points Memo, the Atlantic and American Prospect blogs, they are just magnificent.

But I've also just started to watch the final season of THE WIRE on DVD. Although a plot summary is probably too much to bother to provide, one of the central themes of the season is the decline of the newspaper industry, largely as a result of the consolidation of ownership of newspapers. Large companies such as Gannett, the Times company, and (particularly) the Tribune company own numerous papers and many of these companies are publicly owned, thus putting pressure on management to increase stock prices, which in turn requires constantly increasing earnings. As many people have pointed out, this tends to manifest itself in severe cutbacks in staff and the closure of bureaus. All old news.

David Simon, the creator of THE WIRE, was a reporter for the Baltimore SUN for many years, covering the crime beat, and his anger at the corporate management of the newspaper is so dominant in this strain of the story that it begins to grate. A corporate suit managing editor, clearly pressured to 1) win prizes and 2) cut costs, pushes a simplistic series of stories aimed at snatching an easy Pulitzer. Our hero city editor (played by Clark Johnson, who created Meldrick Lewis of HOMICIDE, one of my favorite TV characters ever) resists this, telling the suit that these simplistic stories are, well, oversimplified. Caught between them is a young reporter, eager but a bit lazy in terms of doing the actual legwork of reporting--in the first three episodes he appears to have actually made up parts of stories, Jayson Blair-like. But the suit loves the eager young reporter, whose easy stories and pithy quotes (Simon clearly feels) capture the new ethos of the corporate press: emotional, easily digestible, and banal. The new guy refers to a graybeard as "deadwood" as the managing editor cuts staff, and then gets shown up by this graybeard.

Okay, so that's not the point. The City Editor obviously represents all that is good and pure and lovable about journalism; he even jokes about H.L. Mencken. But what I find striking about his character is his absolute devotion to accuracy. In one scene, he corrects a reporter's use of the verb "evacuate;" in another, he asks very perceptive, pressing questions of our eager beaver that quickly call into doubt the accuracy of the story; in a third, he shows how he has cultivated reporters who have a deep knowledge of all of the tiny details of the lives and careers of even minor players in city and police politics. He's journalism at its best. The corporate suit is a corporate suit, and the eager beaver is a quick learner, immediately seeing how the lax standards of his paper are an advantage to him.

What this made me think about was the purpose of journalism versus the purpose of blogs. In the latest issue of THE ATLANTIC, Andrew Sullivan--a writer whom I don't particularly like, and not only for his former water-carrying for the conservative movement that would like to see him put into a sexual-orientation-reeducation camp--writes about why he blogs, and he celebrates the immediacy of blogs. But as I watch Simon's character of Augustus Haynes (the city editor), for all that I realize that he is an utterly idealized version of journalism as an absolutely crucial part of a democracy, I ask what we will lose when this model of subsidized fact-checking is lost. I love the work that TPM did with the attorney-firings scandal, and blogs have certainly broken tons of stories ('macaca,' 'cling to religion and guns')that probably would have gone unreported. But blogs are an even more immediate version of TV news, and I'm sure we all have experiences of watching the TV news, especially during a very intense breaking story, just get so much wrong in its desperation to get every fact/rumor/speculation on the air instantaneously. There's a place for everything; I'm just very concerned that the role of the newspaper (waiting a few hours, even, to check on facts and let a story develop) will disappear as newspapers, with their enforced wait times, turn into journalism on the web, which can fall prey to the temptation to get every "fact" (no matter how specious) online as soon as possible.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

vader and maul hayride

vader and maul hayride
Originally uploaded by Mantooth
Sith Lords at the petting zoo, looking for a lamb possessed with the dark side of the force.

vader and maul and jackolantern

the Halloween costumes.