In which we respond to many terrific requests


A classificatory diagram of grass, which J. Z. Smith discusses below. Note the rhizome at the bottom. This is healthy for a blade of grass; however, in human beings, it can be a sign of deleuzional thinking.

Dear readers,

One of the best things about having a blog is that people send you links. They’re not chosen at random, either — they’re links that, based on what I write, these folks think I’ll enjoy. So I thought today I’d gather those up and briefly annotate them…

…because here at The Kugelmass Episodes, we play your requests!

Overall, my readers are right. I really do like most of these links; at the very least, I like how they illustrate a social fact or ask much-needed questions.

This is a longstanding request, actually. I didn’t move on it because I couldn’t think of anything to say. Obviously, the article is horrendous. Not only is it poorly written, but the basic premise — putting The Knife and Brad Paisley together — is very, very silly.


In fact, the real story here is The Knife. Juzwiak clearly wanted to sneak The Knife into Gawker via Brad Paisley. In the process, he validated The Knife’s new album Shaking the Habitual (which Pitchfork did as well, naming it a Best New Album). That’s a shame, because it’s a very bad album, and I say this as someone who loved both Silent Shout and Deep Cuts. The reason it’s a bad album has more to do with Paisley than you’d think. The Knife clearly think of their music as a way to fight oppression, and this goes hand-in-hand with the urge to create something that doesn’t sound like mainstream pop (which is, of course, generated by robots and contributing to larger societal problems). Juzwiak:

In the album’s brooding synthwave closer, “Ready to Lose,” Dreijer Andersson sings that she is “ready, ready to lose a privilege” in a voice pitched down electronically to make her sound like she has a mouth full of mashed potatoes. She moans of a “fear of suffering, fear of loss / Sucked in your birth rights.” In case you haven’t quite gotten the point, the pair told Spin that, they read a lot of queer and feminist theory prior to recording.

This reactive approach led to a tuneless, disjointed, extremely long album. Every potentially good song got processed and stretched ad absurdum. It’s not enjoyable. There are a lot of things you can say about Shaking the Habitual on a conceptual level — Juzwiak pretty much says all of them — but the concepts precede and supersede the music. The music doesn’t change anyone’s perceptions of privilege or anxiety. It merely references them, and informs us that the Knife don’t like them. Message received; now, please, guys, get back to making music! One would think that Amnesiac would have taught us enough about the dangers of needless experimentation, but no, the lesson has to re-learned again every time.

(If you are wondering if I like “Accidental Racist,” the answer is yes, but not as much as I like “American Saturday Night.”)


Brené Brown’s been busy between “The Vulnerable Ones” and now, because the benefits of being in the banality business are bountiful.

Here’s her latest TED talk:

It’s amazing. Brown seems like she’s trying to be honest, and she talks about vulnerability time and time again, yet she still hasn’t talked about it, not really. As I said in “The Vulnerable Ones,” she can’t let vulnerability be vulnerability for more than two seconds before she has to turn it into something else.

Below, I discuss J. Z. Smith’s claim that modern Americans have a “shitty theory of sacrifice.” I’m more sympathetic to that problem than he is, but he has a point, and “Listening to Shame” is part of the same phenomenon.

Vulnerability is weakness. Speakers at TED conferences are not making themselves vulnerable by sharing personal stories; they’re celebrities, and they’re making themselves approachable, “relatable.” To quote Brown herself, all of the credit certainly does go to the man in the arena, almost no matter what he does.

If you make it possible for someone to hurt you, there is a very real possibility that they will hurt you. Consider this: if everyone responded to vulnerability in a perfectly understanding, chivalrous manner, a vulnerable disclosure (and the reaction to it) wouldn’t have any ethical significance. The irony of vulnerability is that we need people to dare greatly, but (contra Brown) we don’t particularly want them to. To do so goes against our risk-averse natures; evolution designed human beings to be haters most of the time.

The great task is to be vulnerable, and to be hurt, and to be vulnerable again. Being vulnerable is not a strategy for success. It’s a side effect of being real.


Next up:

I’m not going to tackle everything in this interview, because a lot of what Smith says is wonderful and requires no further commentary. I basically agree with everything he says about contemporary universities and pedagogy, and that’s most of the interview.

I don’t understand people really needing to take a telephone with them.

Of course, this I hate. Does Smith understand people really needing to take books with them? I would bet that he does. And are those books, those novels and Frankfurt School treatises, really necessary to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No.

I take Marx very seriously, I think [the computer] alienates the worker from his production—I do not understand. With a typewriter, I hit a key, and it goes bam. I understand that: I made that letter happen. Now, I then got one of these Smith-Corona things that has a little window. Allegedly you can delete things and so on. And that already bothered me because number one it’s mysterious, but number two it doesn’t have a bell at the end of the line. And all my life I’ve said, “Gee, that was a good day. I had a 30-bell day” or “I had an 80-bell day,” and Elaine would say, “How’s it coming?,” and I’d say, “Three more bells!” So first I thought I’d get a hotel bell, but I also don’t like the idea that it decides when a word stops. And I like to put a hyphen in and decide myself where the word stops. Because to me it makes a big difference especially when reading something aloud. I could lose a whole syllable with this stupid thing. So I haven’t graduated past that, and now my Smith-Corona broke down, so I’m very happy because now I do everything by hand again. Because then it’s mine!

Eccentricity is wonderful, as long as it doesn’t sour into moral philosophy. That’s what’s happened here. That Smith would even attempt to link computer illiteracy with Karl Marx baffles me. Marx has nothing to do with any of this. A computer is not a black box simply because Smith doesn’t personally understand how it works. Otherwise, by the same logic, he wouldn’t use a car unless he was an auto mechanic. As for the argument about alienation… computers merely create efficiencies. In an oppressive society, computers will of course enable oppressors greater scope and power, just like any other tool. Marx actually believed that technology would create such drastic inequalities and iniquities that it would foment revolutions by “sharpening the contradictions” of capitalism. In other words, in Marx’s vision of the future, the proletariat eventually realizes that technologies that should be freeing all people from want (and increasing leisure) are instead being used to impoverish the vast majority of human beings.

Marx aside, I also disagree with this on existential grounds. Nothing that you write is yours. The act of writing is an act of communication. Even private diaries and sequestered manuscripts outlive their authors, and are constantly being discovered, published, and inflicted on middle school students. Writing is a gift one gives to the future. It may not be a good gift. It may be wrapped clumsily. Regardless, one thing never changes: the instant something is down on paper, it ceases to be anyone’s property.

I’m fascinated by how many kinds of religions there are, how many kinds of Bibles there are.

I guess. As a literary critic, I’m not overly fascinated by how many kinds of novels there are. This seems like Smith’s way of never having to commit himself to any particular ideology. I disagree with this on existential grounds as well, and the whole subject is covered beautifully by Soren Kierkegaard in Either/Or. Smith’s move here is one you can make in academia — you can pretend to have no ideology, because you are a tolerant lover of diversity and argument. In fact, everyone does live out an ideology through their actions. There’s no abstention here: Smith is a bourgeois. To me, that’s not incompatible with believing he’s lived a good life and done a lot of good for others. But let’s not kid ourselves.

I don’t think looking at [grass’s] sex organs is the most interesting way, but nonetheless [Linnaeus] gave us a way of talking.

Grass has sex organs that need to be brushed with exactly one (1) camel hair? And in Smith’s opinion this is not the most interesting criterion for classifications?

I would get in trouble with the ASPCA [American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] if I sacrificed a bull ox to Zeus. I have a friend who recently died, but he actually decided to show kids what a sacrifice looks like, so he sacrificed a lamb at Easter time. “We talk about it so much—here’s what it looks like!” Half the class puked, half the class had angry letters from mommy and daddy. But he did demonstrate that it’s not just a metaphor. It’s a messy and not altogether pleasant process. Since [then] we’ve converted it entirely into an economic question. I ask students the meaning of sacrifice, and they always start talking about “mommy and daddy sacrificing so I could go to college.” We’ve been at war for four years, and I haven’t heard one person yet say some soldier sacrificed themselves. That language is gone. It’s entirely economic. One kid whose name I sent to the Development Office said sacrifice was joining a golf club for the four years that he was here, so he would have money to go to Europe when he graduated. I thought Development ought to keep an eye on that kid. I rarely do that, but I turned him in. That’s just his notion, but it’s the same idea—it’s economic: “I give up something now to get a better thing in the future.” Well that’s a shitty theory of sacrifice.

Sacrifice is not a monolithic practice. Plenty of sacrifices, including of oxen in Athens, have been made in the hopes of getting a better thing in the future. Plus, why did he turn that kid in? Is it wrong to want to explore Europe?

I have discovered a way of showing kids what a sacrifice looks like without angering the ASPCA, and it’s called the HBO series Rome.

Honestly, Smith is blaming the gods on the people making sacrifices to them. What’s shitty here is not the sacrifices. The folks making sacrifices are still bleeding. What’s upsetting Smith, ultimately, is something else: Moloch, standing in for Zeus.

[My students] thought I was crazy to think there was a contradiction. First of all for them the word belief means only religious. I’d never quite realized this before. They don’t have beliefs about science, or beliefs about Obama or beliefs about War and Peace. They only have beliefs about religion. If you say “what do you think about…” that’s not beliefs! So somehow beliefs isn’t about thinking about, first of all; that’s the first thing I learned from my students.

I agree, and he states the matter beautifully. As a result of this enormously popular error, people think less about beliefs than they should, and believe themselves to be more objective than they are.

And since [Joseph Campbell] wrote the skeletal key to Finnegan’s Wake I presume he probably does in fact know it.

I believed this as well, prior to reading Campbell’s book.

I would estimate that a thousand religions die each year. We’re very limited in our sense of how many religions there are. And I’d say that a thousand come into being each year. A religion that survives its founder’s death is doing well. But we still tend to have a much more limited view of the resources that are available to think about things.

Lovely, and funny to boot.

It’s the first time I evoked this principle of Marx because they had machine-scored exams. And I insisted on watching the machine do it. I said, “I can’t grade it, but I’m going to watch it.” And you know what? I found out it skipped 20 questions. So the students getting As did well—but the kids that got Bs were on their way to the selective service system! I mean this isn’t just a matter of being pissed off because you got a lousy grade. This is sending you! You’re on your way kid! And the damn machine skipped the same 20 questions all the way through the exam. And that’s when I learned what happens when you can’t see inside the machine.

Almost a case study in the dangers of inductive reasoning. Something happens once, and for the rest of his life, Smith peeks under the lid every time he makes a photocopy.

But [the humanities] is a business—and I don’t think we show students enough of this—but this is a business that lives by high noons. It’s shoot-’em-ups and rewards. Your job, in part, is to take somebody down. Their reputation shouldn’t be a big deal, but obviously it is.

Absolutely, and that’s why it’s a bad idea to validate “argument” as an end in and of itself, as so many academics do. What Lao Tzu said about war is also true of these kinds of intellectual duels. One should go to them as though one were going to a funeral. Almost inevitably, whoever wins, the discipline as a whole loses — it loses clarity and credibility. Sometimes that’s unavoidable, but it’s definitely not awesome.

I’m really not allowed to sneak in a computer and hide in the bushes and just watch what happens. There are ethics committees that stop you from doing things like that.

Well, yes, but that’s besides the point. There are phenomenological problems, which is why the ethical objection is legitimate. You simply cannot remove the observer from the analysis; if you try, all you’ll get is a flawed result.

But comparing is doing something—bringing two things that have no reason in creation to be in the same pond together—throw them in and see what happens.

Honestly. And then his example is The Book of Mormon and The Qu’ran. That’s like calling Where The Wild Things Are and Goodnight Moon unrelated.

I don’t know what the hell happened, but when I was in my first year of graduate school I didn’t feel a tingle th

It ends there, with that unfinished sentence. Apparently Smith does this every time. Charles Dickens did it just once, in Bleak House, and that was