Monthly Archives: November 2011


Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters, interviewed on CNN five years ago. The smug, eye-rolling awfulness of the expendable, interchangeable, assembly-line interviewer is reason enough to watch it. 

Mattathias Schwartz has an article on “the origins and future of Occupy Wall Street” in the New Yorker. I knew about its Canadian roots at Adbusters, based in Vancouver, but didn’t realize the extent to which it got the movement going in very short order, demonstrating the generational leap in the use of real-time social media, which sidesteps altogether the mindlessness of corporate “old media,” evident in the clip above. Schwartz’ article also has a good look at the on-the-ground reality of “horizontal” rather than “vertical” organizing principles, and introduces a number of people who are crucial “facilitators” of the movement, but are otherwise unknown, as they’d want it to be. It therefore also provides a surprisingly moving account of the difficult effort to maintain anarchist principles without collapsing into anarchy.

An excerpt:

This is how Occupy Wall Street began: as one of many half-formed plans circulating through conversations between [Kalle] Lasn and [Adbusters editor Micah ]White, who lives in Berkeley and has not seen Lasn in person for more than four years. Neither can recall who first had the idea of trying to take over lower Manhattan. In early June, Adbusters sent an e-mail to subscribers stating that “America needs its own Tahrir.” The next day, White wrote to Lasn that he was “very excited about the Occupy Wall Street meme. . . . I think we should make this happen.” He proposed three possible Web sites:,, and

“No. 1 is best,” Lasn replied, on June 9th. That evening, he registered



This spring, the magazine was pushing boycotts of Starbucks (for driving out local businesses) and the Huffington Post (for exploiting citizen journalists). Then, in early June, the art department designed a poster showing a ballerina poised on the “Charging Bull” sculpture, near Wall Street. Lasn had thought of the image late at night while walking his German shepherd, Taka: “the juxtaposition of the capitalist dynamism of the bull,” he remembers, “with the Zen stillness of the ballerina.” In the background, protesters were emerging from a cloud of tear gas. The violence had a highly aestheticized, dreamlike quality—Adbusters’ signature. “What is our one demand?” the poster asked. “Occupy Wall Street. Bring tent.”


White watched as the e-mail’s proposal raced around Twitter and Reddit. “Normal campaigns are lots of drudgery and not much payoff, like rolling a snowball up a hill,” he said. “This was the reverse.” Fifteen minutes after Lasn sent the e-mail, Justine Tunney, a twenty-six-year-old in Philadelphia, read it on her RSS feed. The next day, she registered, which soon became the movement’s online headquarters. She began operating the site with a small team, most of whose members were, like her, transgender anarchists. (They jokingly call themselves Trans World Order.)

Encouraged by the quick online response, White connected with New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, which had previously organized an occupation-style action, called Bloombergville, and was already planning an August 2nd rally at the “Charging Bull” to protest cuts that would likely result from the federal debt crisis. They agreed to join forces, and N.Y.A.B.C. said that it would devote part of its upcoming rally to planning for the September 17th occupation.

Christopher Batty: More on Bloom and Value Judgments

Further to Jonathan Allan’s response to my earlier post, I’d like to clarify that I didn’t mean to imply that Bloom is wrong to have preferences, or wrong about the selections for his poetry anthology. I only intended to rebut Bloom’s erroneous claim – which he has repeated many times – that Frye was against value judgments. He wasn’t. Frye made no secret of the fact that he considered Blake the greatest English language poet of his generation, and one of the greatest of all poets. That’s an overt value judgment, and Frye made no effort to conceal it. Bloom is entitled to like or dislike whatever he chooses. But it is unfair that he keeps repeating false claims about Frye. His hostility appears to have grown over time, and he seems to mention Frye frequently in interviews these days, but always misleadingly and always entirely to Frye’s detriment.

Frye’s point about value judgments is that any attempt to approach literary criticism based upon them is a dead-end. I love Shakespeare, but Bloom’s incessant bleat about Shakespeare’s supremacy over all other writers gets in the way of his ability to say anything fresh about the plays. And the assertion is unproveable. What does Bloom’s assessment even mean? Is it really the case that Shakespeare was wiser and smarter than all other writers in all ways? Bloom is entitled to his opinion, but what good does it do to hammer away at this point?

And what if he’s wrong? It might seem foolhardy to question the supremacy of Shakespeare, yet surely there are crucial ways in which someone like Chekhov, for example, could be considered a greater artist. Nobody ever spoke the way Hamlet speaks. Chekhov’s greater mimetic realism makes him, in some crucial ways, more accessible, just as Vermeer’s or Rembrandt’s paintings are in some ways more accessible than Michelangelo’s titanic renditions.

Yet this is the sort of thing Bloom doesn’t even like to think about. Artists are constantly being ranked: Shakespeare is #1, Dante is #2, Joyce is #3. . . It is silly and pointless. Recently, he declared Beckett the greatest English language writer of the 20th century, surpassing Conrad, Woolf, Lawrence. How is Beckett “better” than Conrad? They deal with different aspects of existence and illuminate different experiences of life. Where do we go next with this sort of critical criteria? Are we going to declare Mozart superior to Beethoven and Bach? Or maybe it is Bach who’s the supreme musical genius. But then again, it must be Beethoven because of the symphonies. It is always possible to play this parlor game, but it can only remain a parlor game.

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Northrop Frye and the Social Function of Literature

I recall that in the earliest days of the blog we had a discussion about a possible course on Frye’s theory of literature and criticism and the ways in which they relate to wider culture, existential concerns, and social vision: Frye’s brand of “cultural studies” in short. I have put together an outline for a graduate course on just that subject and thought I might post it in the hope it may stir some discussion. I won’t be teaching the course until the winter terms of 2013 and I’d appreciate any helpful ideas or suggestions readers of the blog might have (a jazzier title might help catch the eye of theoretically jaded grad students). Here it is:

Northrop Frye and the Social Function of Literature

This course will explore the work of Northrop Frye’s mid to late career, after the publication of Anatomy of Criticism (1957). It was during this period that Frye’s attention turned more fully to the social function of literature and the exploration of its particular authority in society. In what ways do literature and the arts relate to social and existential concerns? What role does the study of literature have in education? What is the particular authority of literature, the humanities, and the arts and sciences in society? In what way does literature, as one of the liberal arts, exert a critical, liberalizing and even prophetic influence in a society? In what way is literature the expression of a particular historical culture, regional and national, and in what way does it have a more universal and trans-historical range of communication?

Frye remains today arguably the most important intellectual this country has produced, and yet many aspects of his thought have not yet received the engagement they deserve, largely because of the impact of Anatomy. And yet the latter is only the second of over twenty books he subsequently published, many of them with titles (or subtitles) such as “Essays on Criticism and Society,” “An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism,” “On Education,” and “Essays on Canadian Culture.” His final body of work, now fully represented in the thirty volumes of The Collected Works, contains an enormous amount of writing devoted to social and cultural criticism, much of which–most notably the fascinating material in his notebooks–was never published during his lifetime.

Along with a teasing out of the most important concepts and schemes of Frye’s thought, I hope the course will provide a lively forum to engage the ways in which Frye’s ideas about literature and society challenge many of the very different conceptions that have gained ascendency over the last twenty-five years. As a way of encouraging such a discussion, I am proposing, as a test case, to set Frye’s ideas against Jean-Paul Sartre’s landmark “What is Literature?” and Other Essays (1947), an essay which in many ways anticipates the issue-oriented, ideological, and politically committed critical theory that now represents the mainstream in literary studies.

Texts:  The texts listed below will be supplemented with selections from other collections of essays and books.

Northrop Frye: The Stubborn Structure: Essays on Criticism and Society (1970); The Critical Path: An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism (1971); Divisions on a Ground: Essays on Canadian Culture (1982); Creation and Recreation (1980);The Double Vision (1991)

 Jean-Paul Sartre: “What is Literature?” and Other Essays (1947)

Veronica Abbass: “Democracy Is More Than Just A Ballot Box”

Brigette DePape is escorted from the Senate during her protest in last June’s Speech from the Throne

Former Senate page Brigette DePape’s silent “Stop Harper” protest on the floor of the Canadian Senate during the June 3, 2011 Speech from the Throne eclipsed the speech itself everywhere it was reported. One of the first organizations to respond to DePape’s gesture was The Council of Canadians. The Council’s chair, Maude Barlow, contacted DePape on June 4, offered her solidarity, as well as the Council’s support for DePape’s report: Thinking Outside the Ballot Box: How People Power Can Stop the Harper Agenda and Create Fundamental Change.

In the Introduction to Thinking Outside the Ballot Box, DePape expresses her gratitude to “the thousands of people who were excited by my action. It shows that people in Canada are burning for change” (3). Throughout the twenty-four  page report, DePape draws upon her own experience and the experience of others to suggest how and why “people power” can change for the better the way Canada is governed (5). She cites former Governor-General Ed Broadbent, who, in response to DePape’s protest, likewise advocates the principle of people as a legitimate form of resistance to unfair and inequitable government policies: “What is the real offence,” Broadbent asks, “silently watching growing injustice, or upsetting the sensibilities of those who should be doing something about it?” (9).

“People power” is a more restrained rallying cry than “power to the people,” and yet DePape’s confidence in it is unshakable.  “People power rises from the bottom-up,” DePape suggests, and goes on to observe that “people are more powerful when they. . . remove their consent.”  Those who possess power, consequently, “become powerless, and power shifts to those” from whom all power proceeds, the people themselves (5).

DePape maintains that “collective indignation is a first step in building a movement to stop injustice,” and asks us to “imagine the movement we can build if we use our collective indignation to create the Canada we want” (10-11).  DePape reminds us that “[d]emocracy is not just about voting every four years,” and asks that those who dissent to join together in protest against the inequitable policies of the Harper government (7).

On November 1, DePape was guest speaker at a Peterborough-Kawarthas chapter of the Council of Canadians event, “Stop Harper: the Arts, Youth, and the Future of Canada.” Sara Ostrowska reported in Trent University’s student newspaper:

There were over 100 people in attendance, of all ages and walks of life, but everyone had one thing in common: they were inspired by Brigette DePape’s small act of civil disobedience.

Near the end of the presentation, an older woman in the audience shouted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Stephen Harper must go,” and the chant broke out, with DePape joining in.

The second chapter of Thinking Outside the Ballot Box is “Democracy Is More Than Just A Ballot Box” (7), which nicely echoes Northrop Frye in “The Analogy of Democracy”: “Law is the expression of temporal authority; justice is law informed by freedom and equality” (CW 176). This is something we must keep in mind every day as citizens of a democracy. The law requires that we recognize that Stephen Harper is, by way of the ballot box, our properly elected prime minister, and as such he has the legal right to govern. However, justice requires that we resist the policies we believe to be unfair, inequitable, unjust as an expression of the people power which is the first and last authority of any democracy.

Post Coming on Police Violence at OWS

An 84 year old woman who was pepper sprayed by police at Occupy Seattle last week

Sorry about the mysterious appearance this morning of a post that was nothing but a title and a raw URL link. I’m drafting a post based upon the Atlantic’s chronology of police violence against OWS demonstrators, and, in the very early stages of putting it together, I hit the publish button rather than the save button and didn’t notice till much later this morning. I hope to complete it very soon.

It’s important to get it right on the issue of violence at Occupy demonstrations. First, because it provides context for the remarkable courage the demonstrators have shown despite unrelenting provocation by police, who throw punches and swing truncheons as though it were sport, and who seem to resort to their weapon of choice, pepper spray, as readily as a traffic warden issuing a ticket at an expired parking meter. As a matter of fact, it is illegal to pepper spray a prison inmate without just cause, but spraying peacefully assembled protesters in the face at close range, that’s evidently okay. The pepper-spraying of students at UC Davis on Friday, and the uncanny silence with which they greeted the Chancellor of the university who was responsible for it on Saturday, is a testament to the trials they face, as well as their consistently peaceful response to them. Another reason to get it right is that the other day on Fox News I saw a couple of Gila monsters in thousand dollar suits hissing and thrashing their tails about how “it is time to end the violence on the streets.” Yes, it is. However, they never mentioned that the violence it is time to end is coming from the police, not the demonstrators.

Bloom’s “The Best Poems of the English Language”

Further to Christopher Batty’s earlier post, I do not want to seem to be coming to Bloom’s defense any time he is mentioned here, and I have been reluctant to comment, but…

In Bloom’s introduction to The Best Poems of the English Language, he states, “this vast book is intended for every kind of personal use” (his emphasis). He later on the same page says: “Essentially, this is the anthology I’ve always wanted to possess. It reflects sixty years of deep and passionate reading, going back to my love of William Blake, Hart Crane, and of William Shakespeare and John Milton, that vitalized my life from my twelfth year onward.” This book is very much about Bloom and he admits as much on the first page of his introduction.

This is not to say that his name alone doesn’t endow the book with a certain power, Bloom-as-canonizer or Bloom-as-Pontiff. But, a close reading of the Introduction and “The Art of Reading Poetry” (included in Best Poems and published separately) shows that Bloom is speaking as Bloom and for Bloom:

One of the few gains from aging, at least for a critic of poetry, is that taste matures even as knowledge increases. As a younger critic, I tended to give my heart to the poetry of the Romantic tradition, doubtless spurred to polemics on its behalf by the distortions it suffered at the hands of T. S. Eliot and his New Critical academic followers: R. P. Blackmur, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt among them. In my early seventies, I remain profoundly attached to the sequence that goes from Spenser through Milton on to the High Romantics (Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats) and then on to the continuators in Tennyson, Browning, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, Stevens, Lawrence, Hart Crane. With Chaucer and Shakespeare, these remain the poets I love best, but maturation has brought an almost equal regard for the tradition of Wit: Donne, Ben Jonson, Marvell, Dryden, Pope, Byron, and such modern descendants as Auden and Eliot (a secret Romantic, however).

Bloom is speaking about Bloom and for Bloom — his ideas and preferences have changed over time. The exegetical work that follows is Bloomian to be certain, but what else could we expect?

Literary critics — all of us, I imagine — make value judgments about literature. We make these judgments when we decide what to teach and what not to teach. Having just returned from a conference on the popular romance novel and pedagogy, I am keenly aware of the fact that when we design a syllabus, we are, in a sense, canonizing authors/texts (at least within the context of our seminar rooms and lecture halls). Even in teaching miserable texts and calling them miserable texts, we are acknowledging that there is some value in studying the text (likely to show students what a bad text does that good texts don’t do). The solution, I suppose, is that we could discard all value judgments, but I’m all too certain that the subjectivity of the reader will come out, we will decide if we like a text or not, we will call it good or bad.

All readings are deeply personal, and that is precisely the point. I don’t think Bloom denies “blind spots,” actually it seems he recognized that he had them and has matured with age. We all have “blind spots,” and that is, as Michael notes, Frye’s point — and Frye certainly had blind spots as well. All literary critics do. Bloom is at his most polemical in The Western Canon but, I think, if we read it closely, Bloom’s argument is less with a canon and more with an argument against cant, against the School of Resentment, and so on. He is frustrated that the text has been lost to ideological theorizations of texts. Now, that is yet another value judgment and some of us may agree that we should discard theory altogether, and others will want more of Derrida, Butler, Spivak, Foucault, and so on.

The point of all of this, if there must be one, I suppose, is that the literary experience is deeply subjective. This deep subjectivity is perhaps what makes the institutionalization of literature so problematic. How do we position literature in the academy and still maintain the academy’s faith in literature as an area of study? If literature is deeply personal, deeply subjective, how then can it be studied in an institutional setting? What is the role of the institution in the study of literature?

UC Davis: Chancellor Linda Katehi’s Walk of Shame

One day after their peers were brutally pepper-sprayed by campus police, scores of UC Davis students formed a silent gauntlet that Chancellor Linda Katehi was required to pass through as she left a press conference Saturday night. The students said nothing to Katehi, and sat with arms linked, the same attitude of peaceful protest that had made their classmates the previous afternoon the targets of a cruelly heavy pointblank dose of pepper-spray by at least one riot-geared campus police officer who has since been identified. From the look on Katehi’s face, the silence was perhaps more unnerving than anything else she might have had to contend with that night. Anger she might have been able to understand; stony silence she evidently could not. The only sound that can be continuously heard throughout the video above is the click of her heels as she made her way through the silent crowd. This eerily peaceful display is in keeping with the disciplined restraint Occupy demonstrators everywhere maintain despite continuing incidents of police violence. This video may be the most remarkable instance of that unbreachable discipline recorded anywhere so far.

There have been demands for Katehi’s resignation. She has refused “at this time.” But she continues to conduct television interviews in which she excuses as best she can the assault on students that occurred under her authority.

BoingBoing has more details here.

Eye Witness Report from UC Davis

Report from RT on the UC Davis pepper spray incident

From an open letter to the university’s chancellor by UC Davis English professor Nathan Brown:

Police used batons to try to push the students apart. Those they could separate, they arrested, kneeling on their bodies and pushing their heads into the ground. Those they could not separate, they pepper-​sprayed directly in the face, holding these students as they did so. When students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-​sprayed down their throats. Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-​five minutes after being pepper-​sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood.

Below is another report from AlJazeeraEnglish, which also reveals that the university has announced a probe into police conduct.

A detailed report from the New York Times here.