Good news

I think it’s time to break radio silence here. After a long search, I’ve accepted a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown, starting this fall.

H and I will move to Houston in a few months, along with our menagerie, and we should be settled by early August. We’re excited, naturally.

That last sentence may be the understatement of the year.

So I’m debating whether or not to change the format of this site as a result of my new professional status. I’ll change the ‘About’ page in a moment, but that’s a minor detail.

So far, badrhetoric has been a forum for pretty much whatever I felt like writing about at a given moment, organized loosely by categories, and tempered by the awareness of a global audience. But that seems too random now, and I need to present at least the illusion of organization.

I have observed numerous young scholars who have one blog for talking about scholarly work, and another for more mundane comments; I may do that. Or I may simply redesign the site so the division between the professional and the personal is more obvious. I am getting a little tired of this black ‘n white layout, after all.

Didn’t I just talk about this?

Turns out Rumsfeld delivered intelligence briefings to GWB with cover sheets featuring prominent biblical quotations back in 2003. Psalms and Isaiah seem favorites (the one sheet with an unlabeled quote is from Isaiah 6.8); also 1 Peter, Ephesians, Joshua, Daniel, and 1 Chronicles. Better pics here.

This is major-league creepy, folks, to borrow an adjective from Frank Rich. It doesn’t just cross the church-state barrier – it leaps over it and keeps running. It provides picture-perfect documentary evidence for America’s enemies that the invasion of Iraq was for religious reasons.

I want to know who designed these cover pages. A chaplain may have been consulted for apropos quotes to match the pictures, but not necessarily; it may have simply been someone who had a reasonable knowledge of the Old Testament in particular, enough to come up with something vaguely befitting a given photo. The one with the M-1 tank. for example, is clearly keyed to “armor” in the quotation.

Someone with more familiarity with the various denominations could probably ID the brand of Christianity behind the quotes. The quotes themselves  seem to be from the New International Version, and the use of 1 Peter and Ephesians suggests a Protestant line. Rumsfeld is supposedly Presbyterian, but I doubt he designed the pages.

Ok, after some more reading on my part, the GQ article states “Major General Glen Shaffer” was the “brainchild” behind the cover pages, a director of intelligence working for both Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs. This doesn’t mean he actually did the layout or chose the quotations, though, though it seems clear that he, as well as everybody above him, approved of them.

Shaffer retired in August of 2003. No info from that page on religion. He now works for KGS, a management consulting company that takes government contracts.  His bio page there  says he’s “a member of the Bracken Christian School Board of Trustees and Chairs the Board of Trustees for Son Shine Ministries of Azle, Texas.” The latter is a support ministry for overseas troops, apparently; the BCS board supports the Bracken Christian School in Texas. 

BCS’s mission statement has a paragraph that might explain why General Shaffer thought highly of placing photos of the Iraq War in context with biblical quotations. I quote it in its entirety:

“Seeing events of life through the lens of Scripture is called a biblical worldview. This is the fulcrum upon which all of our programs hinge.  Without a thorough understanding of what God thinks about certain issues, we are left to interpret the events of life based on how we feel, a sorely inadequate foundation from which to work.  A biblical worldview enables a person to set an anchor in life.  We are no longer tossed here and there by every contemporary cultural wind.  We stand on a rock while the remainder of the world continues to sink in the sand of relativism.  We are not arrogant when we say that we have the truth.  We state that fact with all humility, knowing that it is not our intellect that has brought us to the truth, but the grace of a holy God.  The Bible stands as our lighthouse, constantly providing a reference point and direction for our lives.  Teaching our students to think biblically and assess life biblically is of primary importance.  Without that mindset, the mind of Christ, a student will be lost in a world that is increasingly hostile to the things of God.”

It’s hardly a secret that there are a fair number of militant Christians in the U.S. military that share this biblical epistemology, uncritically using a book assembled over centuries for largely political reasons to inform their modern decisions.  But it’s one thing to serve your country, though, with such a mindset, and other to set war policy based on the inerrant word of God (and BCS, as well as SSM,  hold to a brand of inerrancy).

more on prose rhythm

I’ve been hitting some minor road bumps getting my ideas on prose rhythm understood, so I’ve been trying to think of new analogies and examples lately that better illustrate my argument. I think I have a really good one to share – namely, the video game Rock Band.

To offer some context before I leap into my analogy, I’ve been arguing that prose rhythm is not a primarily auditory phenomenon as sometimes thought, but a primarily visual one that is augmented by sound. In other words, when we read a passage of prose, it is our eyes working in conjunction with the brain to recognize pleasing visual patterns, usually produced by word, sentence, and paragraph length, which produce our sensation of rhythm in prose. This phenomenon does not require the auditory center of the brain, though it, too, can take part through subvocalization, and this tends to help comprehension; however, it is not necessary for the perception of rhythm. I should also note that perceiving rhythm in prose is a very subjective process; different readers will perceive different rhythms from the same passage because their experience with written English differs, and they have developed different biases over time as to what ‘good’ rhythm is.

It’s hard to convince someone of this position, though, if they think English syllables rule prose rhythm; namely, that our perception of prose rhythm is dependent on auditory/oral knowledge of how to pronounce syllables and how long or short they are when spoken. Behind this idea of prose rhythm is also, sometimes (though not always), a belief that prose rhythm is the same when experienced by different people, despite the wacky, inconsistent syllabication and pronunciation of English, of which every elementary student is quite aware. It is this position that I’m arguing against.

For those of you who have never played Rock Band or a similar game like Guitar Hero on the Wii or some other video game system, I’ll offer a simplified description. The player uses a controller that is a pseudo-guitar with five color-coded buttons on the neck and another button on the body that represents strumming. While holding this controller, the player watches the TV, where a virtual guitar neck is presented vertically, with color-coded notes descending along virtual strings in time to the music of a song. When the notes hit the bottom of the guitar neck on the screen, the player presses the appropriate buttons on the controller in conjunction with the strumming button. The object of the game is to perfectly match what is happening on the screen with the controller; in a sense, the player crudely reproduces playing the song. It’s also fun, and I say this after having played real guitars for 15 years.

An interesting aspect of this type of game, and where it serves as an great analogy to how I think prose rhythm works, is that it is very possible, and easy, to play Rock Band with the sound turned off; however, it’s very hard, and even impossible, to play it with the sound on and the screen turned off.

If you’d never played the game before, you might assume the opposite – it’s a game about music, right? Surely the sound is more important?

But as it turns out, all the information to get a very high score is on the screen. You can get a very high score with total unfamiliarity with the song being reproduced, because the player only has to time his or her button-presses with the descending visual representations of the same buttons. In other words, the rhythm of the song is represented in a visual format, exactly in the same way that musical notation allows musicians to play songs that they have never heard. Rock Band simply takes this one more step, by removing sound from the process entirely; unlike a real guitar, the controller makes no sound itself.

Now, granted, playing with the sound on is slightly easier, especially if the player knows the song well. The game provides auditory feedback about the player’s pseudo-performance by mucking up the sound of the song when notes are missed. This auditory feedback is unnecessary for success, however, because the game also gives clear visual feedback when the player misses a note.

One could object that when using a real guitar, you could just listen to the song without a visual source for rhythmical cues, and play along very well. This is true, as a guitar is capable of actually making the matching sounds instead of just being a set of abstract buttons that have no connection, real or assigned, to actual sounds. However, this doesn’t explain why you could take that same guitar and play with sheet music alone.

In short, Rock Band is a visual pattern-matching game with an additional auditory component (even though it is marketed as a music video game), and the ability to play it successfully with the sound turned off is prima facie evidence that rhythm – and by extension, prose rhythm – isn’t primarily auditory. To complete the analogy, the words in a given prose passage provide visual input, which the eye must first process. No other information is required to produce a perception of rhythm. Knowing how the words and syllables are pronounced, as well as subvocalizing – much like knowing and hearing the song while playing Rock Band – add other layers to the experience, but these are secondary layers unnecessary for perceiving rhythm.

One possible objection to this analogy is that there is no reading or interpretation of language going on in Rock Band, because matching colors and timing is not of the same order as reading words or even letters. But I’d argue that substantial information is still being passed along, and the visual cues used are actually fairly complex, though not as complex as actual musical notation, which manages to encode rhythm with static rather than moving images. If you think of the notes on the screen in Rock Band as one-sentence instructions (“Press the red button now!”) the analogy is a bit clearer.

Another objection, which I take more seriously, is that Rock Band provides a more or less objective standard for rhythm; that is, the game decides whether or not the player has pressed a button at the wrong time, and serves as an absolute arbiter of success. This observation might seem to make the analogy fall apart, because it would deny the player the independent judgment of rhythm that I like insisting upon. But anyone with experience in the game knows that its arbitrary judgments are often viewed suspiciously; the controller can fail to record a button press, the player can swear that they actually did hit a note on time, and the timing between the music and the descending visual notes can seem unglued. In other words, it is quite common to argue with the game’s rhythmical authority because the player tends to feel, sometimes with justification, that his or her sense of rhythm is superior.

In prose, a similar struggle can manifest in two ways. One, the author of a passage writes in a rhythmical style that he or she finds pleasing, but a reader does not. Two, different critics viewing the same passage can disagree about whether or not its rhythm is ‘good’. I should add that in both these cases, the standards by which each author/reader judges the prose will tend to vary, making agreement difficult. If you think such matters sound like the debates over taste in the late 18th and early 19th century, you and I, dear reader, are on the same page.

So that’s something I’ve been thinking about. More later.

Driving in Memphis

Here’s a hypothetical situation. You’re driving down an empty two-lane road in an urban area at 40 miles an hour. Suddenly, another car begins to pull in front of you from a connecting street on your right. If you do nothing, you will collide with the other car. What do you do?

A. Accelerate, so you will pass them before they fully enter your lane.
B. Slow down, to allow them to proceed.
C. Swerve into the oncoming lane to avoid them.
D. Honk your horn so they will back up.
E. Do nothing; maintain speed and direction.

I don’t want to paint all Memphis drivers with too broad a brush, but based on empirical observations from living in Memphis for the last seven years, I think that D and/or E is the preferred course of action for most motorists here.

I used to live in Boston, and I learned most of my driving skills there. For this scenario, I can safely say that A and B, with a slight advantage to B, were the preferred solutions. The reason for this is that in Boston, there is a widespread recognition among drivers that whoever holds the superior position has won. Thus, if a car successfully manages to occupy the space that you were headed for, you do not contest the issue. Given the width of the streets, C is usually impossible, D is a joke, and E is suicide.

Now it is important to realize that this gentlemanly Bostonian assumption exists in an environment where any moving violation short of a collision is allowable and encouraged, and even the ban on collisions is partially waived when parallel parking. Still, Boston drivers know that you never fail to react to other vehicles, or expect them to behave exactly as you wish.

In Memphis, there is a similar lack of concern over moving violations, but there is no skill or honor system mitigating the chaos. Instead, Memphis drivers exhibit a particularly stubborn independence that holds the laws of physics apply only to other drivers. The logical extension of this belief is choice E. Those fiercely independent drivers who have some dim awareness of other fiercely independent drivers may attempt D, but such input is pointless when the default response of the other driver is D and/or E.

I don’t think there was a single event that precipitated this entry. It’s just been a pattern I’ve noticed over the years; Memphis driving is all about refusing to acknowledge the reality of other vehicles. I’ve  begun to think about this in terms of argumentation; namely, reckless driving is tacit refusal to acknowledge the offered presumption of superior positioning. The cold fact that there is a multi-ton vehicle in your immediate path does not prove nearly as convincing to Memphians as the urgent need to proceed with a firm (if insane) grip on free will. This is a wonderful, even ideal attitude to have if debating, because the burden of proof will never rest long on such a person; it makes for a lot of lousy drivers, however.

Long time, no see

I haven’t been writing much here, due to a ton of things going on. Right now, I’m watching the puppy and trying to shrug off another allergy attack. I don’t remember the pollen being nearly this bad last year. It’s difficult to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes when constantly sneezing and sniffling. Hopefully by this afternoon, it’ll get better. I felt pretty good yesterday and the day before, but I’ve regressed.

Graduation is Saturday; I got my cap and gown this morning. It feels anticlimactic; the hard work has been done already.

I’m still maintaining radio silence on the job search, as even though it’s May, things are still happening. More later.