Friday, December 18, 2009

2009 Wood Family Newsletter

Greetings! I've uploaded the 2009 Wood Family Newsletter. If you'd like to take a look, click the link below:

By the way, this is my last blog-post until early January. I'll be enjoying some time away from daily writing to travel and relax with the family. I hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday season.

See you in 2010!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Winter 2009 Reading List

Recently, a member of our campus community invited me to share some recommendations on good books to read over the winter break. A simple enough opportunity, right? A chance to share a bit of my mental index, highlight my knowledge of hip trends, and enhance a genuinely pleasant SJSU collaboration along the way. Even so, I dreaded the assignment from the start.

Waking after a fitful night's sleep at around four this morning, I followed the illumination of my iPhone's flashlight app down the stairs and made may way into my personal library. I hoped to find some stimulating books to add to a decent reading list, knowing somehow that I would be disappointed.

Flipping through volumes, many of them still glossy with barely touched covers, I drifted to the late nineties, back when Jenny, Vienna, and I were living in Athens, Ohio.

Ahh, I marveled, that was a time for reading, and for learning how the experts do it.

The professor who taught my first grad course, David Descutner, transformed much of his house into a rambling library, filling seemingly every corner and hallway with shelf after shelf of smart, challenging books. That guy showed me how a real intellectual stocks a house. I'm not sure he had a television, but that fellow could boast mini Alexandria of books.

I took a directed readings course with Professor Descutner once; for the life of me, I can't remember the topic. But I do remember how we'd chat for an hour or so about my research and the questions he thought I should explore, and then he'd invariably suggest four or five more books to read, often lent from his own collection. I offer this memory to contextualize my guilt that I haven't been reading as well as I should these past few years.

Writing City Ubiquitous -- a process that began in earnest back in 2002 but took root in grad-essays five years earlier -- immersed me into a hyper-focused but dreadfully small world of written words. Building and revising chapter after chapter, I plumbed through histories of the department store, encounters with the Parisian arcade, analyses of world's fairs, surveys of the interstate highway, and even biographies of French film director Jacques Tati. Sometimes I devoured books, other times I reviewed chapters, sometimes I scrolled through smudged microfiche articles.

Over the years of writing my own little book, stuffing file folders with highlighted photocopies and developing an appreciation for bibliographic software, I also built a shadow library of pleasures rendered guilty -- not for being enjoyed but for being ignored. I promised myself I would learn about the technologies of "hacking matter" by reading Wil McCarthy, that I'd internalize that introduction to Seurat's Sunday on La Grande Jatte found in a book I picked up at the Chicago Art Institute, that I'd finally endure Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Simmons, no matter how much his new effort to stay hip had been critically savaged.

I admit it: The last serious fiction I read was Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and I'm fairly certain I was already two years too late for that meeting of minds to be remotely contemporary. When writing City Ubiquitous, my fictional detours veered toward classics that I'd either savored before, titles like The Great Gatsby or Rendezvous with Rama, or stuff I could justify as useful to my own research, like Émile Zola's Au Bonheur des Dames (which, as I recall, ended up producing a swell endnote).

So now I'm asked what I'd recommend, and I have precious little of contemporary value to offer. I refuse to cheat by grabbing the last few issues of the New York Review of Books and thumbing through the pages in search of credibility. That would be worse than downloading an essay from one of those hideous paper-mills (you know -- the ones that promise their papers aren't plagiarized). No, I'll simply come clean and admit that my proposed reading list is fairly ancient. It's good stuff, honestly, but it's none too flashy.

That apologia aside, I propose the following three (four, really) titles:

Two monographs by Susan Sontag, On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others. Sontag's works always convey the mind of an essayist rather than a mere writer (oh, and yes: I generally refer to authors in the present tense after they have died because, after all, their books still live). Reading these monographs, I remember my former office mate Phil Wander's discussions of "the essay" as a literary form rarely seen among the ponderous piles of academic prose that fill our journals and volumes. Sontag's essay examine visual culture in ways that unify high theory, globe-trotting history, insightful anecdote, and arch criticism. Each sparkles with wit and passion and humor, like one of those brilliant dinner guests you meet from time to time, someone whose library is so much bigger than yours. You may feel guilty by the imbalance of the meeting (certainly I do), but you'll feel ennobled too.

John R. Stilgoe's Outside Lies Magic is a nearly perfect collection of essays that build to a coherent argument for the need to sharpen our acuity about the human-made world around us. I return to his book often to borrow illustrations about how the built environment consists of layer after layer of patina that can be scraped away through physical or mental means, revealing more than mere history as an intellectual exercise but rather the means to encounter bygone modes of life that shimmer like William Gibson's semiotic ghosts (it's pretty much a rule in Woodland Shoppers Paradise that I cite William Gibson once every couple months). Outside Lies Magic encourages readers to become explorers of the "why" of everyday life. One example: Stilgoe says that if you peer into the cabinet under the kitchen sink of an early-twentieth century house, you stand a good chance of finding apple green wallpaper -- the same color found in that era's police stations and asylums. Read the book and find out why.

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine is easily one of the most frustrating and mind-tickling books in my library. I re-read it at least every three years, ever confident that this time I will somehow follow the convolutions of its plot. An essential stop in any tour of the "steampunk" genre that's enjoying a mild resurgence these days, The Difference Engine may be better termed an epic failure whose plot seems to hurtle even beyond the capable minds of its authors. Regardless of whether the book loses its narrative among the byzantine labyrinth of iterations and allusions, I never tire of the journey.

Gibson and Sterling start with a simple enough question: How would the world have been changed if Charles Babbage had perfected his mechanical computers? In this alternate 1855, historical and literary characters jumble together amid a collision of steam-era technology and Victorian pop culture references. The conclusion cascades forth a terrifying parallel future of the world that ensues from those churning difference engines: a necropolis wherein "Paper-thin faces billow like sails, twisting, yawning, tumbling through the empty streets, human faces that are borrowed masks, and lenses for a peering Eye. And when a given face has served its purpose, it crumbles, frail as ash, bursting into a dry foam of data..." Cleverly satirizing our contemporary surveillance society -- naturally being set in London -- The Difference Engine is endlessly challenging in the best way.

What would I add? I'll return to that question in a future post.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Aught? Why Naught?

A local reporter called yesterday, asking if we could set up an interview for a story he wants to pursue. His topic? As our decade is drawing to a close, what should we name the last ten years?

We were unable to find a mutually workable time in our schedules, but we had a pleasant phone chat on the topic anyway. Here's the gist...

It seems that most media-types refer to the years between 2000 and 2009 as "the aughts." There's precedent for that choice going back to the turn of the last century. However "the aughts" has not caught on this time around -- most likely because of its archaic sound (fit for horse and buggy-times perhaps, but not for these days).

However, the reporter's research suggested another explanation for why we generally don't refer to the last decade as "the aughts:" Perhaps the passing decade doesn't seem "finished" enough to name.

Think about it.

The pivotal event of the last ten years - 9/11 - punctured us in ways we still don't fully understand. We're still engaged in the wars we launched after the September 11th attacks, and we're not wrapping those wars up anytime soon. Indeed, it seems as if we're digging ourselves deeper and deeper into those quagmires.

Then there's the other big news of the decade: The collapse of banks, housing prices -- heck, entire countries (Wanna buy Iceland? I hear it's on sale at eBay). These problems erupted in the past ten years, but they are hardly resolved enough to call forth a name. Just as with the wars that confound us, we're still stuck in the economic mess that marks our times.

We'd love to name this miserable era if only to render it safely past-tense. But the last ten years remain frustratingly present.

In contrast, we can easily spot the end of previous decades...

The fifties? Kennedy's election

The sixties? Altamont

The seventies? Some would say Reagan's election, but my vote goes to Disco Demolition Night in Chicago's Cominskey Park.

The eighties? The fall of the Wall

The nineties? Hmm. Can you guess?

Anyway, while the reporter and I couldn't schedule a formal interview, we enjoyed the opportunity to chat about how history and language sometimes converge to shape meaning -- and sometimes team up to destabilize meaning-through-naming altogether.

December 31, 2009 will mark a turning point in a chronological way, no doubt. Naming that turn? Maybe we're just not ready yet.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Notes on "Can the Polis Live Again?"

Contemplating the so-called "Tiny Town" project -- not literally "small" towns but installations designed to generate paradoxical perspectives of public life in miniature -- I find myself imagining my next book, my next new course, and certainly the next stage of my thinking as unambiguously "post-omnitopian."

For a time, I felt that I'd prefaced my work on City Ubiquitous with a healthy establishment of my fear, if not contempt, for contemporary environments and their impacts on self and society. Yet some of my interactions at a recent conference convinced me that I risk appearing as a champion of omnitopia, not its critic.

I note with some irony that this risk follows almost any articulation of the term in public. My enthusiasm for the chance to share my work in a live forum can all too easily be confused as enthusiasm for the ideas I'm trying to convey. So I appreciate the opportunity these days to slow down and disengage from talking so much. And certainly I have plenty of reading to cover in the next few months, which will demand silence and thought.

Starting slowly, I finally took the opportunity to read Michael Knox Beran's City Journal piece, Can the polis live again? His essay raises fairly typical assertions -- one representative quote: "Rock concerts and iPods we have in abundance, but our public spaces are unmusical." -- but he also does a fine job of presenting his articulation of Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition before critiquing her apparent reliance on politics as the site of meaningful public life.

Beran recall's Arendt notion of the banality of evil -- I instantly flash to Steven Spielberg's depictions of the meticulous production of bureaucracy in Schindler's List: all those tables to set up, all those forms to fill out -- before conveying Arendt's statement that fascism is merely the absurd extent of all large states that transform discipline into virtue, even into fashion. Beran summarizes:
"Public space, small and polis-like, is for [Arendt] the school of civil courage and distinctive individuality. Yet no polis can withstand the might of the nation-state. Build a nation-state to save yourself, however, and you sacrifice the humanity and civic vigor of the agora, the forum, and the town square. The nation-state, because of its size, requires a people to undertake the very kinds of social administration that degrade the civic artistry that makes them strong and self-reliant."
Beran then turns to Arendt's affirmation of political discourse -- one imagines Pericles extolling the virtues of Athenian democracy under a piercing blue sky -- as the site where we transcend both the state of nature and the totalizing state. To Beran, Arendt's choice to valorize the political figure as one who transforms potential into words and then into action is overly romantic and historically incorrect. The political animal, from Pericles to Blagojevich, is inevitably a play on a singular theme, self-aggrandizement masked by pomp and platitudes:
"[Arendt] was looking in the wrong place. It was almost certainly the art, not the politics, of the old spaces that made them prime begetters of civic culture and individual distinction... Arendt attributed the decay of public space to the degeneration of politics, but her case would have been stronger had she fingered instead the decline of public poetry."
Beran concludes with a brief flourish of examples that illustrate the potential for public life to be found within the nation-state, concentrating on Jefferson's University of Virginia -- "one of America's most beguiling public spaces" -- and the various experiments in New Urbanism that have sprouted since the 1990s.

As longtime readers may recall, I described my own encounter with New Urbanism in my dissertation of Disney's Celebration, and I was not sold on the vision. To me, Celebration offered yet another means toward enclave, despite the appearance of its Town Hall whose farcical proliferation of columns sought to evoke a dozen Athenian City States.

Even now, I remain unsure of where to find meaningful public life. But over the next couple years I hope to think further on this question. Maybe I might even propose a few answers whose implications find root in this blog.

Some books worth reading or re-reading

• Democracy in America - Alexis de Tocqueville

• The Human Condition - Hannah Arendt

• The City in History - Lewis Mumford

(Photograph by Andrew Wood)

December 2, 2010 Update: Florida new urbanist town built (and once run) by Disney confronts its first murder. NPR considers implications: Town That Disney Built Has 1st Killing Since Start

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Limits of Long Letters

One of my most demanding and thought-provoking grad school professors, Judith Yaross Lee, occasionally mentioned a letter so lengthy that the writer added a note of apology, explaining that he didn't have time to cut the extraneous material.

My memory of how she actually conveyed the anecdote has drifted over the years, yet I've retold her story many times since.

Eventually, after years of transmogrification, the guy had written an 80 page letter and literally clipped a note on top, saying, "Sorry, didn't have time to shorten it." I'd long forgotten his name, but I still told the story to illustrate how good writing is frequently measured by what is omitted more than what is present.

Professor Lee would have been displeased.

After all, this is the professor who once responded to my half-assed attempt at impromptu classroom analysis by replying that I could only raise my hand again if I could support my claims with three facts.

So in honor of Professor Lee, I finally took the time to get the facts right about this anecdote. I could yet be wrong, but I believe the story refers to Blaise Pascal's Provincial Letters, Containing an Exposure of the Reasoning and Morals of the Jesuits, which includes the following passage:
"[M]y letters have not usually followed each other so long; the little time I have had is the reason of both. I should not have extended this so much, but that I cannot command leisure to shorten it."
Pascal's words are a bit wordier than my preferred pithy quote, but I guess that's the idea.

Want to learn more about the famed French mathematician and philosopher? Might as well start at Wikipedia:

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Fun Post: Fails of the Year

Friday: It's a good day. Really!... But it doesn't have to be...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

What I Want

One of my favorite scenes in The Godfather is when Michael Corleone faces a tense sit-down with Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo and the corrupt Police Captain Mark McCluskey. Meeting to discuss a recent assassination attempt on his father, Michael tries to speak with Sollozzo in their native tongue. But the young man's grasp of Sicilian is weak - at least when it comes to dealing with the men responsible for nearly whacking The Godfather.

At first, he struggles to make his point in Sicilian: "Ma voggiu ca - Come si dice...?" And then he abandons the effort, switching to English. Practically spitting out his words through his recently broken jaw, Michael announces: "What I want... what's most important to me..." He follows up the phrase in the most Machiavellian manner. He excuses himself from the table, retrieves a gun and returns, killing them both.

I don't advocate Michael's choices, but I do respect the forcefulness and clarity of his statement, What I want.

I'm working slowly on a series of blog posts dedicated to observations on how you can "get what you want" where you work. I'm still thinking through a number of issues, but I'm certain that the process begins with knowing what you want and being able to articulate that goal without ambiguity. You don't need to employ such ruthlessness as Michael Corleone - and again, I do not recommend stashing a pistol in the restroom before attending a meeting - but you are wise to know and clearly state what you require from your relationships.

Keep watching this blog for updates...

(Image borrowed from USA Today)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Where does Route 66 End? Redux

A recent post, Where does Route 66 end? Does it matter?, garnered no comments but still managed to inspire two folks working closely with the Route 66 community to backchannel me in other ways, one via Facebook and one via personal email. Both expressed concern about the overly negative implications raised by my remarks on the erection of an "End of the Road" sign at Santa Monica Pier, some distance from the "official" Route 66 terminus. Their messages reminded me that this marker makes a significant contribution to the experiences of travelers seeking a symbolic conclusion to their cross-country journeys.

I've responded to their messages individually, but I'm not entirely sure my efforts to contextualize my observations have been terribly useful. So I thought I'd slightly edit one of those responses and offer it here to receive further feedback.

Like many travelers of the Mother Road, I've found myself underwhelmed by the lack of formal "stopping point" at the end of the journey, other than an historically-correct site on a map. So like everyone else, I've made my way to the pier and taken all the standard pictures without knowing for sure that "this is the place." I therefore agree that a sign announcing "End of the Road" is a grand idea for orienting travelers to some shared experience of arrival.

My response to this idea, therefore, really isn't a critique but rather a suggestion that as we make use of such amenities we also consider the implications of our increasingly common efforts to "improve" places and experiences beyond physical and/or historical reality. In other words, we should explore whether we risk losing some sense of "authenticity" when we reshape places, people, and things to accommodate tourist desire.

At the same time, I am rightly reminded that Route 66 has always reshaped itself for practical purposes. It is not an abstractly "pure" thing, but is rather a vibrant, changing environment of human beings making do with changing times. Choosing "this" terminus over "that" terminus is ultimately self-defeating when talking about Route 66 because its history is filled with so many narratives. Choosing any particular one offers partial truth at best.

My writing, which includes an essay on this topic due to appear in Critical Studies in Media Communication, merely tries to explore the poles of authenticity and performance on Route 66, relating practices that evoke "the real" to performances that suggest "the ideal." I am drawn to environments like Route 66 for deeply personal reasons, of course. And my experiences on the Mother Road are always shaped by practicality first and theory distantly behind. Read my Waffle House essay and you'll get some sense of what I mean. Still, I also cannot help but wonder, as academics often do, about the complex meanings that compete under the surface of the ubiquitous highway shield.

Conveying a mixture of authenticity and performance, Route 66 resides somewhere in the middle of these poles, always tantalizingly in between.

(Photograph by Andrew Wood)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


It's a crazy-busy time of year, so much so that I'm holding off on a number of blog-projects that need editing (and pruning). But I wanted to quickly share this resource that has proven to be useful during my recent inquiries into modern art. It's a multimedia web project called Smarthistory.

With this growing collection of web-narratives, folks can access bits and pieces of art history in any order they choose, and they can integrate these nuggets into their teaching and learning - for free. In a broader sense, Smarthistory illustrates how web-based learning tools can augment and ultimately replace traditional textbooks.

I've checked out a couple of Smarthistory videos and found them to be pretty useful, though not without some drawbacks. Some of the commentary can be frustrating in the same way that a talk show-guest might seem out of depth with the broader conversation. Every once in a while I wished one contributor would hush and let the other person, clearly the expert in this case, talk more. Even so, the content offers insight on artists, periods, and works that otherwise may be locked within a proprietary or pricey delivery mode.

Thus, for example, while studying the lines of Barnett Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimis, I gained an intriguing perspective on the artist's personal background that helps me interpret his so-called "zips," allowing me to appreciate a piece that might otherwise be dismissed as yet another bland example of color field painting. I'm not sure I'm convinced by the commentary I heard, but my understanding is improved by it. And that's worth some time to take a closer look.

If you're hoping to increase your knowledge of art history, start with Smarthistory.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Walking Man

Here's one last memory of my November trip to Chicago to attend the annual meeting of the National Communication Association. While touring the Art Institute, I took an opportunity to meet Albert Giacometti's Walking Man II (1960). I'm told that postwar existentialists celebrated Giacometti's skill at articulating some semblance of the modern self: a crushed and beaten figure who somehow manages to move forward.

Taking these (admittedly low quality) mobile phone pix, I was intrigued by the museum curators' placement of Walking Man, given its commanding view of a Chicago skyscraper. One could interpret this scene in at least two ways: as affirmation of our abilities to build massive monuments to human ingenuity, or as proof that we are increasingly the tools of our tools, even that we're starting to resemble them. What do you think?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Why so blue?

Lately I was asked to study some works by French conceptual artist Yves Klein. Once I realized that I was not searching for "Eve Klein," I discovered a fellow who represents a turn toward the realm of contemporary art that I have yet to fathom. Undeniably, Klein brought an intriguingly thoughtful perspective to his works, sometimes labeled (the good folks at Wikipedia inform me) as neo-dada and sometimes as early post-modern. Among his achievements include the popularization of a particular hue called International Klein Blue, along with works that reveal experiences of "the void," playful photomontages, and performance installation pieces that often mocked artistic conventions, most notably the idea that a gallery visitor enters the scene to, you know, see something.

Checking out his Blue Monochrome (1961, Dry pigment in synthetic polymer medium on cotton over plywood) at New York City's Museum of Modern Art's website, I'm told that Klein's IKB sought to evoke "the immateriality and boundlessness of his own particular utopian vision of the world." OK. But frustratingly, I have no idea how one could affirm or refute such a statement. As we shift beyond representation into the allegedly pure "experience" of contemporary art, we seem to enter the world presaged by Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q., in which the artist's vision -- the choice to say, "this is art" -- is freed from the risk of evaluation.

Art patrons choose to value this hue of blue as gloriously revolutionary and that hue of blue as hopelessly pedestrian, and critics become akin to fashionistas celebrating a hemline one year only to rebuke the same style as "so last season" the next. I fear that non-initiates such as myself are compelled to either adopt the trendiest narrative ("Oh, don't you see Klein's utopian vision? Isn't it obvious? It's right there!") or else be resigned always to stand outside the gallery with its assortment of free crab cakes and sparkling wine, now that contemporary art seems to appeal mostly to those within its shrinking domain.

Once more, mine is the response of one who is genuinely ignorant of the meaning of something like Blue Monochrome or IKB 191 (above). Even after reading a fair amount of commentary on Klein's work, I feel adrift among all those competing narratives. Always I return to William Gibson's notion of "consensual hallucination" when I think about the time and effort that contemporary artists must spend crafting their "artist's statements," the ones that explain why we are staring at canvas after canvas of blue (or contemplating a dead shark in formaldehyde, or whatever). Something seems to be lost in this turn.

Still, while the world of visual arts may have abandoned the potential to create scenes that convey anything that two people can agree that they see simultaneously (I'm flashing on a Simpsons line, "Oh, it's a donkey!"), all the work that goes into writing about these productions -- by the artists, the critics, the buyers, the sellers, the curators, and of course, always the academics -- has at least inspired a golden age in the written word. Oh, and blog posts.

(IKB 191 image borrowed from Wikipedia commons)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Up in the Air

I've been meaning to post this trailer for a while. Up in the Air has the potential to demonstrate the omnitopian mindset -- the places, the connections, the placelessness and the missed connections -- far more effectively than Steven Spielberg's The Terminal, which suffered from an overdose of schmaltz (though serving usefully in chapter three of my book, City Ubiquitous).

I can't wait to see the flick for myself (wide release, Christmas day). It might provide one of those essential non-scholarly texts to help build a class about omnitopian design, theory, and performance. It might also offer a vivid demonstration of the price to be paid for omnitopian living.

Check out the trailer: