Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The "Public" Intellectual

Many of you probably read Daniel Drezner's recent Chronicle of Higher Education article about the decline of public intellectuals ("Public Intellectual 2.0"), in which Drezner wants to contest the presumed Götterdämmerung that many--like Francis Fukuyama, Russell Jacoby and Daniel Bell--- believe began in the 1950's and has yet to abate. Specifically, Drezner takes to task what Jacoby called the "professionalization and academization" of public intellectuals, which Jacoby contends has erected a wall between intellectuals and the hoi polloi.

What is Drezner's evidence to the contrary? Why, blogs, of course.

Drezner writes:
For academics aspiring to be public intellectuals, blogs allow networks to develop that cross the disciplinary and hierarchical strictures of academe. Provided one can write jargon-free prose, a blog can attract readers from all walks of life — including, most importantly, people beyond the ivory tower. (The distribution of traffic and links in the blogosphere is highly skewed, and academics and magazine writers make up a fair number of the most popular bloggers.) Indeed, because of the informal and accessible nature of the blog format, citizens will tend to view academic bloggers that they encounter online as more accessible than would be the case in a face-to-face interaction, increasing the likelihood of a fruitful exchange of views about culture, criticism, and politics with individuals whom academics might not otherwise meet. Furthermore, as a longtime blogger, I can attest that such interactions permit one to play with ideas in a way that is ill suited for more-academic publishing venues. A blog functions like an intellectual fishing net, catching and preserving the embryonic ideas that merit further time and effort.

I think Drezner's onto something here. Thanks to the almost ubiquitous internet-access these days, blogs have certainly torn down many of the walls that the Academy has traditionally erected. Drawing an equivalence between "blogging intellectuals" and "public intellectuals" may require some serious massaging of our traditional sense of the "public" realm... but perhaps less massaging than we think. In fact, I would contend that the blogosphere--because it allows contact and exchange with individuals one would not otherwise encounter--greatly expands the "public" realm of ideas. What's more, the blogosphere has become the new garden of critique, in which sometimes-vitriolic-but-often-astute criticism can reach across disciplinary (and sometimes language) barriers. Drezner continues:

Perhaps the most-useful function of bloggers, however, is when they engage in the quality control of other public intellectuals. Posner believes that public intellectuals are in decline because there is no market discipline for poor quality. Even if public intellectuals royally screw up, he argues, the mass public is sufficiently uninterested and disengaged for it not to matter. Bloggers are changing that dynamic, however. If Michael Ignatieff, Paul Krugman, or William Kristol pen substandard essays, blogs have and will provide a wide spectrum of critical feedback.

For all the moaning and gnashing of teeth we hear about the declining quality of published material, one wonders whether or not the no-holds-barred "quality control" enacted in the blogosphere serves as a harsher, but possibly more effective, model of "peer reviewing" these days. I've employed blogging in each of my classes this semester, and I've been tremendously impressed with the way that students "check" each other's ideas and the presentation of those ideas, which is one particularly effective way to hone critical thinking skills. Sometimes bad ideas are like porn-- hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Memphis! We Got It!

A friend of a friend who is a student at MCA (Memphis College of Art) made this "promotional" video for our fair city. I love it.

What I'm Listening To

One of the things that I miss in this insanely-busy-semester of mine is my regular Sunday night gig as the hostess of "Americana the Beautiful" on Rhodes Radio. When I was in grad school, I had a lot of music-loving friends with whom I could endlessly talk about and trade tunes. (Miss you, Kyle!) Now those friends are spread far and wide, so the conversations are fewer and further between, though I can thankfully check in with Christophresh on a pretty regular basis through his website, which always has good stuff on it. So, I thought I'd share what I'm listening to these days (and a little bit of why).






First, Ryan Adams & The Cardinal's Jacksonville City Nights. I actually came to Ryan Adams a little late, which is weird since he is for all intents and purposes the Avatar of Americana Music. I had pretty much stuck to his solo albums and some of the Whiskeytown stuff, but I recently decided to give the Cardinals a try. I tried first with the album Cold Roses, which I did NOT love. That was a disappointment... but I'm a girl who believes in second (and third, and fourth, etc.) chances, so I asked around and learned that I should've been listening to Jacksonville City Nights. Much better. JCN has just the right amount of pedal-steel (the instrument that I've always said most closely approximates the human cry), just the right amount of sadness, just the right amount of foot-tapping honky-tonk. I particularly like "My Heart Is Broken," which showcases the kind of simple-and-true songwriting at which Ryan Adams excels. All the tracks are tight, compact gems-- none of the indulgent stuff that's on Cold Roses. So, this one has been on regular rotation lately.

At night, and when I need non-lyrics-driven music to read by, I've been listening to Ennio Morricone's briiliantly composed soundtrack to the film The Mission.
The film The Mission is one of my most favorite of all time. But the soundtrack is, quite simply, some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard. It's hard for me to judge whether or not the music is that beautiful all by itself or whether I subconsciously associate it with the film's story... but, either way, I must have listened to this album about a thousand times and it still gives me goosebumps. Before hearing this album for the first time, I don't think I could have picked the sound of an oboe out of a horn section, but now I understand the haunting lonesomeness of that little wind instrument. And the track "Vita Nostra" is a tour de force.




Getting the most play on my iPod these days is The Very Best of Solomon Burke. Solomon Burke is one of the cornerstones of the old "Philly soul" sound, which I love because it reminds of all the ways that Philly reminded me of Memphis when I was living there. You probably know Burke best for the song "Cry To Me", featured in one of the sexy scenes of the film Dirty Dancing. Well, imagine that song times 15 and you've got The Very Best of Solomon Burke. This album's got it all-- love songs, breakup songs, cheating songs, missing-you songs, momma-told-me-better songs-- ALL OF IT. There's a horn section, there's a Hammond B3 organ or two, there's doo-wop girls and boys in the background... and then there's Mr. Burke. Classic. I seriously can't get enough of this.




Finally, I'm sad to report, I think I'm almost ready to conclude that Lucinda Williams' Little Honey is a pretty major disappointment. Now, it really, really hurts me to say that... but I've been a Lucinda fan for as long as I can remember and I gotta keep it real. There's a lot of rough-and-raunchy "rockers" on this album, like "Honey Bee," which sound like Lucinda was secretly working out some contest between herself and some of the younger alt-country phenoms (see: Ryan Adams). The rockers are at the same time too loose and too forced, which makes for a sound that sounds like it's trying too hard to sound like it's not trying too hard. (Get that? Good.) Then, there are songs like "Tears of Joy" that sound like previous Lucinda tunes ("Long For Your Kiss" to be specific) that have been thrown on a paper plate, warmed in the microwave, and re-served. (For the record, the song "Knowing" is definitely one of these re-heat and re-serve songs, only I can't quite place which previous song of hers that it sounds like.) And I wonder what she was thinking when writing songs like "If Wishes Were Horses" (next line:"...I'd have a ranch"). Really, Lucinda? REALLY? There's a very fine line between eccentric songwriting and bad poetry. A Very. Fine. Line. Finally, the song "Rarity"-- hilariously misnamed, since it runs a whopping 9 minutes long-- is just plain indulgent overkill. There are a couple of good tracks on Little Honey ("Plan to Marry" and "Well, Well, Well"), but on the whole, it's a bit of a haul to get through. I might give Little Honey a couple of more listens just to be fair, but I am very soon heading back to Lucinda's Live @ the Filmore double-album, which is her at her best.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Church, Memphis Style

I'm back.

I'm also clearly making regular payments on some karmic debt these days. I can't exactly pinpoint what I did to merit the utter mayhem of this year, but I suspect it has something to do with my remarking one too many times last year about how happy I was with my life back in Memphis. A lot of people in our line of work comment on how difficult the first year is for new faculty-- new location, new people, transition from grad school life, etc., etc.-- and I was happy to report that I was blessedly spared many, if not most, of those standard first-year obstacles. I was back in a city that I knew and loved, I didn't have to find my way around or make new friends, I wasn't teaching some god-awful 4/5 load, I had great students and colleagues... in sum, things were pretty good.

And then the other shoe dropped.

So, I'm here to report that the sophomore year is also a tough one. In my case, there are a lot of contingencies that have come into play this year that have made things much more difficult than my first year. I had a wreck and totaled my car. Our department is hiring. I got my first batch of advisees this semester. I've been introduced to the myriad delights of "committee" work. I managed to catch every single illness that my little Typhoid-Mary-students have been passing around. I've somehow lost my voice about once every other week this semester. Oh yeah, and I'm still trying to write this damn book.

But, enough of the whining... here's a "good" story.

As many of you know, Wild Bill's is about my single favorite place on the planet. It's one of the last surviving juke joints in the Delta, named after Willie Storey, who died last summer. I've been going to Wild Bill's for [mumble, mumble] years, and since I've been back in Memphis, I've resumed my regular attendance. I regularly sit in with the band and sing at Bill's, as I've done for many, many years, and I realized recently that I've been friends with some of the band members (they're called the Soul Survivors) longer than just about anyone else I know. [Funny aside: I was away from Memphis, and away from Bill's, for 6 years while I was in grad school. Two summers ago, the first time I walked back into Bill's, the bass player turned to me and said, "Hey, haven't seen you in a while. Where you been?"] Here's a picture of Bill's with Bill in the doorway:


And here's a better picture of Wild Bill/Willie. The bass player to the right is my good friend Melvin.

There really aren't words for what this place means to me. It's like my "church." It doesn't matter how tired or stressed or anti-social I'm feeling, I need to go to Bill's to get restored. A couple of weeks ago, after singing a set with the band, Bill's wife came up and asked me if I had a job. I said I did, of course, not really knowing where she was going with this. Then she said, "well, honey, if you ever decide that you want to take over the Friday night set here as the singer, it's yours." That might be the single greatest thing that has ever happened to me. No kidding. And then, the next week, I was sitting at my regular table in the back with some friends, and we were looking at all the pictures on the wall. (Wild Bill's walls are covered in pictures of people who have been going there since it opened.) Out of the blue, one of my friends says, "hey, Leigh, the girl in this picture looks like you with long hair." So, I looked, and as I'm sure you've guessed, it WAS me. It was me about 15 YEARS AGO!!!

Once I got over the embarrassment of the picture, I realized that Wild Bill's has been about the most consistent element in my life for almost half of the years I've been alive. It's the one place in the world that I can go and know that I will see people I know and love, and it's the one place that I know I will leave happy. Wild Bill's has changed a lot over the years that I've been going there, and some of those changes haven't been good. Bill died, of course, which was awfully sad. And the place is overrun by a lot more tourists than it used to be back in the day. Also, I occasionally see my students there these days, who almost always are fronting and say something like "Dr. J! I didn't know you came to Wild Bill's!" (like they go there all the time). What I want to say to them is, "If you came here at all in the last 15 years you would know that, so don't make me embarrass you in front of your friends." But I don't say that.

Anyway, Bill's has been my saving grace this semester. God Bless Wild Bill's.