Carving Without the Least Bit of Intimidation: Love, War, and Food in Jhumpa Lahiri

I’m just going to jump right in and get us started with two interpretive questions:

1. What, precisely, is the “temporary matter” of the first story?
2. What does a pumpkin have to do with the partition of India?

Obviously, the title of “A Temporary Matter” refers to the brief electrical outages that occur each evening in the story, but by the end we are so far from minor inconveniences and so deep into the intimate pains of living a human life that this is clearly no longer the answer. And, of course, the pumpkin is simply what Jack-o’-Lanterns are made out of, and the Bangladesh Liberation War simply takes place in the autumn of 1971, so the presence of Halloween could be merely an accident of history.

These two questions, only seemingly simple, are going to run us over a very wide gamut of world history, geography, and culture. We could talk about many, many, many things just in these two stories, but I would like to focus your attention on a few key themes that are going to weave together this collection of short stories into a whole that will, by the end, emerge as something greater than it’s parts (though the parts are exquisite): marriage, food, genealogy, and partition. In piecing this list together, I excluded many things. For instance, I said marriage instead of love. Why do you think I made that choice? Why food, instead of music, or culture, or language? Genealogy I’ve used to stand in for that whole complex of our relations to our own past, “our native land, native language, and the laws that govern us” (#). And though the Partition does not appear in every story, a partition occurs throughout (see the end of “A Temporary Matter”).

Continue reading Carving Without the Least Bit of Intimidation: Love, War, and Food in Jhumpa Lahiri

The Gossip of Flames: Becoming Opposite Equals in Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance . . . . Always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity . . . . always distinction . . . always a breed of life.

In today’s lecture, I am going to address two seemingly simple questions:

1. How does Whitman’s poetry work in “Song of Myself”?

2. What does Whitman’s poetry mean in “Song of Myself”?

I believe that the answer to the first question, how does it work, is crucial to understanding the answer to the second question, what does it mean, perhaps as much as for any poet before or after Whitman. As we have progressed more than halfway through “Song of Myself”, we have all noticed that Whitman does not shy away from incorporating big questions, about good and evil, life and death, sexual ecstasy and brutal violence.

Continue reading The Gossip of Flames: Becoming Opposite Equals in Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

Belonging in Locke: The Other Side of the Compact


I. A merchant in Venice, but not of it, in which it is argued that to understand Locke’s system, or indeed any society, we must understand (i) what it excludes, and (ii) how that exclusion functions, by way of the social exclusions in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

II. The Other Side of Reason, in which a list of Locke’s exclusions is presented with reference to the text, then reduced to an argument apropos which exclusion is more fundamental, that of the slave or that of the madman

Hieronymus Bosch, Ship of Fools (c. 1490–1500)
Hieronymus Bosch, Ship of Fools (c. 1490–1500) (#)
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Eschatological Conspiratorialism

What is crucial is less why someone believes than what that belief allows them to do

Matthias Gerung (1500–1570), Ottheinrich-Bibel, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, The Fifth and Sixth Trumpets, Revelation 9:1-12 (pg. 292)

Ask a nonbeliever to describe the QAnon conspiracy theory, and they almost immediately reach for metaphors of madness: batshit insane, fucking crazy, bonkers, etc. Bracketing the real question of stigma attached to these metaphors, the point the speakers are making is the great gap in perception between those who believe in the conspiracy and those who don’t. That which is hard to imagine, outside the bounds of normal mental contexts, is insane.

Put simply, extreme beliefs allow for the breaking of social norms.

For instance, it makes no sense that this very American conspiracy theory is going global:

The resilience of QAnon narratives after the election shows just how far and deep this made-in-America conspiracy has spread — and hints at its staying power around the globe.
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Philosophy Is A Drinking Game

Or, Desiring Wisdom

*A virtual lecture for The Human Situation in this time of plague, on Plato’s Symposium from the Introduction through the speech of Pausanias

I’m not coming to you in video this time (next time, I promise!), but I still have video clips of course. Let us begin with one of three songs about love that all good Houstonians and/or Indie Rock fans are bound to love. Please watch Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love.”

Why this song? I will tell you in a second. First things first, I’m going to tell you my goal in this lecture/essay: to complicate your own, personal definition of love. I hope to do this by begging you to pay careful attention to each of the speeches in the text, not just the big showstoppers at the end. There are many definitions of love in this text, and each of them is worthy of deep consideration. This is my argument: you need to take each of these seriously, or you will miss a lot. This argument is, in some respects, a bad model for you, because the counter-argument it refutes is entirely extratextual: you, the Human Situation student, do not in fact take these early speeches seriously. Between all the discussion sections and papers and final oral exams and random conversations, I think a conservative estimate is that 80% of that time has been spent by students talking about Aristophanes and Socrates. And look, this is fine! These are really great speeches, possibly the two most important things ever said about love outside of 1a. Adam & Eve & 1b. Jesus (at least in the Western tradition).

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In a Pandemic, We Need Democratic Deliberation More Than Ever

As our plague year lengthens–we are but halfway through and already the toll of American dead is 200,000–it becomes ever clearer that COVID-19 is not just a threat to our lives and health, but to our democratic institutions as well. What these often have in common is the attempt to muzzle the political bedrock of our deliberative democracy: public debate of public policy.

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Coming and Going: Misrecognition and Identity in Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge”

Professor Richard A. Garner
The Human Situation, April 15th, 2020


I. The Best Title in All of Literature

II. Misery Like a Coastal Shelf

III. The Injury of Intelligence, the Insult of an Education

A. Intelligence is a curse

B. A Martyr to the Desire of the Other; or, that St. Sebastian Painting One More Time

C. The Terror of Identity; or, Meeting Yourself Coming and Going

Continue reading Coming and Going: Misrecognition and Identity in Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge”

Deleuze, Art, Cairns


In his essay on art, “What Children Say,” one becomes engrossed by Deleuze’s argument on the nature of art, the manner in which he opens up the concept by comparing it to the mappings of intensive space by children, by his invocations of Little Hans and to Deligny’s autistic children as the paradigmatic cases of artistic creation. It is, as his wont, subversive and brilliant, and this engrossment progresses apace until, right at the moment of giving a definition of art, one runs into a brick wall—or rather, a stone cairn:

Art is defined, then, as an impersonal process in which the work is composed somewhat like a cairn, with stones carried in by different voyagers and beings in becoming (rather than ghosts) [devenants plutôt que revenants] that may or may not depend on a single author. (#)

It is a typical Deleuzian moment, a typical philosophical moment even. Just as one is about to receive a definition, a statement that clarifies and distills the journey through the text, one is held up short, puzzled and perplexed: art is a cairn? Why? How? What is the connection to mappings and intensities, to children and ghosts?

These moments, though frustrating, are productive; they remind us to not have masters, to become beholden to no singular text. Yet, the mystery of the cairn remains, stubborn and opaque and tugging gently at the back of your mind every time you work on the concept of art, of Deleuze. A rather more than cursory round of research yielded nothing; following Deleuze’s footnotes, usually a winner, cross-referencing other works on Deleuze, even google books (at least when I first searched it) yielded nothing. Researching cairns, I puzzled through analogies such as the work of art is like a grave? a memorial? the upturned earth of a battle? They all resonated, but amounted to nothing.

Nothing, that is, until I spoke with a colleague of mine whose family hails from Scotland. And he told me that the custom is, as one walks about the countryside, that you every time you pass a cairn, you pick up a rock and add it to the top of the cairn. This practice, the living, communal practice of the cairn, was the key. The cairn was not just an inert marker of the past, but a living relationship with the present; it was people interacting with their environment, creating their own history through a collective memory encoded not merely in the exchange of words, but the perpetual work of moving stones: the cairn as assemblage.

The work of art is like a cairn because the work of art is not the object molded by the heroic subject of artistic creation, but an expression of the impersonal forces of accretion and collective pressure. The reference to ghosts also begins to make more sense; the work is not haunted per se, but the haecceities of the past interacting with the present; an impersonal, but non-metaphorical, exchange with the dead, indeed the creation of an assemblage that creates that past itself, but is also created by the subtle pressures it left behind, even over the span of hundreds or thousands of years: modern artists leaving their signatures on caves filled with prehistoric paintings. Cairns remain in a perpetual becoming; they may have a single author, but what defines them as works of art—what defines any work of art—is not the subjectivity of its origin, but the becoming which it produces.

*Thanks to Calum Matheson at the University of Pittsburgh. Picture courtesy of Wikimedia contributor Otter (#)

On teaching Achebe teaching on Conrad

Just got done giving a lecture on Achebe’s “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” I’m not sure if there’s a single more necessary essay than Achebe’s when it comes to reading a work of literature and, in fact, I cannot imagine teaching Conrad without doing it from Achebe’s basic starting point. 

Though this semester I taught it in a course with several other professors, I have also taught it in Intro to Lit courses before. It’s always a bit of a struggle, as Achebe’s argument that we should exclude the text from the canon are strong, to say the least. 

Yet it is such a powerful pedagogical text, one that seems worth reading if only because it allows one to introduce Achebe’s succinct, powerful critique of representations of Africa. I also feel as if there are few texts that have a similar ability to undermine our assumptions about civilization and subjectivity. In effect, we still live in the world that Conrad’s novel critique; this past is not, in any real sense, past. Apocalypse now. 

What I’m left with is this: does continuing to reread Conrad, especially when it trades off with reading a book such as Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, simply replicate Achebe’s diagnosis at one remove? 

The body itself can smell

In other words, we use our noses to smell food after it’s inside us, as well as before. But, in a fascinating snippet of news based on a presentation given yesterday at the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting by German food chemist Dr. Peter Schieberle, it seems that our noses may not be not alone in that ability, and that other cells in our bodies are able to “smell” food too. (##)

Cells themselves will move toward volatile organic compounds that even the nose cannot smell in a process called chemotaxis.

The first part, about smelling through the mouth, is an important part of why you should disregard all those articles, usually about wine, that say “you can only taste five tastes, so any complex favor profiles are mumbo jumbo.” I mean, one should discount those based on experience alone, because, like, well, can you taste the difference between broccoli, cauliflower, kale, romaine lettuce, arugula, and sorrel? Yes. Of course. That’s six.

The second part is even more interesting, as if the body itself, beyond any sensory input, craves certain foods and aromas. Or rather, again, we need to redefine and broaden what we mean by the senses.