Category Archives: blog business

A Year of Almost-But-Not-Quite Blogging

Last year I did a list of my top five favourite blog posts from the previous year. I was planning to do the same again for this year, until I started scrolling back and realized that I’ve only posted fourteen times. So … that doesn’t really seem like enough substance from which to cull a top five.1

It’s also a bit embarrassing, not because I didn’t blog much—anyone who follows me here knows I have long fallow stretches—but because I’d wanted to blog a lot. Part of my surprise at how little I’ve written here proceeds from how much I wrote but never completed. I have a mortifyingly full folder titled “blog posts in progress” that currently contains eleven Word files, some of which are in excess of two thousand words. And that doesn’t include the numerous ideas for posts in my journal, some of them comparably extensive, that never made it to the point of being typed up. A list of stuff that never made it here but exists incompletely in Word files, handwritten notes, or just my fevered imagination includes, but is not limited to:

Armageddon is Republican, Deep Impact Democrat. I started 2022 by watching Don’t Look Up on New Year’s Eve (I actually managed a post about it), and in the days before classes started I rewatched Armageddon and Deep Impact—largely out of curiosity to see how the duelling asteroid-threatens-Earth blockbusters from 1998 compared with Adam McKay’s bleakly comic climate crisis fable. But what struck me was how starkly each film falls into a checklist of political stereotypes of American conservatives and liberals … resonating even more today as the caricatures have become even more reified.

The Serendipity of reading Ducks while teaching Armageddon. Yes, weirdly, Armageddon in all its crapulescent masculinist glory resurfaced in September as one of the first texts on my fourth-year course in 21C post-apocalypse—clustered with Deep Impact, Independence Day, and Susan Sontag’s essay “The Imagination of Disaster,” as a prefatory unit on disaster films before getting to the truly post-apocalyptic. Kate Beaton’s stunning graphic memoir Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, came out around this time. I bought it on the day it was released and read it over about thirty-six hours. One of its key themes is the deformation of character effected on people who work the isolated, Mordor-esque, hyper-male oil patch, and how these workers—both the men and the small number of women—are casualties along with the environment of the fossil fuel industry’s drive for profit. It was profoundly odd to read Beaton’s nuanced, beautiful, and frequently harrowing memoir simultaneously with leading class discussions on Armageddon’s cartoonish valorization of all the traits and qualities Ducks critiqued.

Putin, dictators, and Richard III. About a month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I wondered if the American Right’s love affair with strongmen generally and Putin specifically would ever enter the fourth act of Richard III—that is, when Richard’s sociopathy ceases to be entertaining and the audience must come to terms with the uncomfortable fact that they’ve found this guy charming for three acts. (To be honest, I’m kind of glad this one didn’t come together because, well … still waiting on that fourth act chagrin).

My unhealthy Trump-era audiobook habit. To be clear, listening to audiobooks isn’t an unhealthy habit, nor is it for me a practice specific to the Trump era. Rather, I have found myself listening to a long string of books about or pertinent to Trump’s tenure and the aftermath: Maggie Haberman’s Confidence Man, Philip Rucker and Carol Leonig’s Very Stable Genius, Susan Glasser and Peter Baker’s The Divider, and on and on, including a host of ancillary books about Trump’s enablers, the history of Republican extremism, and so forth.

Liz Cheney and history. At a certain point earlier this year I realized we’d passed into a new phase of Trump-era history writing, with a number of books emerging about Trump’s useful idiots and enablers among the GOP—in particular, Mark Liebowich’s Thank You For Your Servitude is a satisfyingly withering chronicle of Republican sycophancy and cowardice, and Tim Miller’s Why We Did It is an affecting mea culpa from a former Republican political operative turned never-Trumper. These sorts of accounts had the effect of throwing the defiance of Liz Cheney into sharp relief. In the final days before the midterms I started to write a post suggesting that one of the key issues at stake for her was history and her place in it, given that Liebovich described a startling indifference among such Trump faithful as Chris Christie, Bill Barr, and Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani summed it up best, saying “My attitude about my legacy is: Fuck it.”

Tucker Carlson’s testicle tanning and Josh Hawley’s manhood manifesto. I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but there was some weird shit happening with Republicans and conservatives and their obsession with American masculinity. Most striking was Tucker Carlson’s special episode “The End of Men,” the trailer for which featured a lot of buff shirtless guys rolling tractor tires and chopping wood and, most notoriously, a naked man who looked like he was irradiating his balls in the middle of the desert (seriously—see below). Also, Senator Josh Hawley—later seen in January 6 Committee footage running like a frightened bunny from the insurrectionists he’d saluted earlier on that day—harangued young men to stop wanking to porn and get married.

We Own This City vs. The Wire. At least a few of these pieces didn’t get posted because they were about film or television, and by the time I was in spitting distance of completing them, enough time had passed to make them feel passé. I started writing about We Own This City, David Simon’s new Baltimore-based cop show, after the first episode. It was an interesting experience, as someone who has watched The Wire all the way through multiple times, to watch him return to a not-dissimilar show twenty years after The Wire premiered, taking place in the same neighbourhoods, chasing the same themes (mostly). One difference is that We Own This City is based on true events; and the fact that Simon was revisiting familiar territory in the era of Black Lives Matter and post-George Floyd meant that it was impossible not to reflect back on The Wire through that contemporary lens.

Andor. As above: I started writing about Andor almost as soon as it started airing. I hadn’t thought it possible for Star Wars to surprise me anymore, and yet here was this genuinely brilliant show—brilliant not just in relation to its fellow Lucasfilm progeny, but brilliant in its own right. The post was developing into a rumination on how it served to dramatize the key points of argument between the Frankfurt and Birmingham schools of cultural studies.

Research notes: WWII and avoidance. This was to be the third installment in thoughts arising from the article on Randall Jarrell’s war poetry I was writing this summer. The “avoidance” to which I refer is the broad American cultural evasion—by way of Hollywood and pop-historical mythologizing of “the good war” and “the greatest generation”—of any substantive reckoning with the trauma of WWII.

Research notes: What makes a war poem? A further offshoot of the Jarrell article: looking at the difference between the poetry of the two world wars and asking the broader question of what it means to write poetry about war.

Is Jordan Peterson OK? Also a casualty of too much time passing, this was to be a somewhat snarky commentary about Peterson’s sweeping pronouncement on what he saw—in evolutionary terms!—as the unattractiveness of a plus-size model on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, and the Twitter hissy fit he threw when people mocked him for it.

George R.R. Martin vs. destiny. On the heels of House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power, I thought to finally articulate my grand theory of (a) why the end of Game of Thrones was inevitably going to be a hot mess, and (b) why GRRM is probably taking so long to finish the novels. Actually, that’s just the hook: really, this is about the transformation of fantasy as a genre, and its transition from Tolkienesque medievalism to a more—for lack of a better word—postmodern sensibility.

The Auditors of gender. The Auditors are entities in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, so named because they audit reality. They are, in the moral multiverse of Pratchett’s fiction, the ultimate villains because they bear profound antipathy to anything messy, to anything irrational, to anything colouring outside the lines of their precise sense of how reality should work. Hence, humanity is a constant source of annoyance with all our tendency to fabulate, mythologize, and creatively imagine the impossible. I was thinking of the auditors as I followed an ongoing Twitter argument between those seeking to posthumously recruit Sir Terry to the “gender critical” anti-trans camp and those who have, you know, read, and understood his fiction and grasp that he would almost certainly be unsympathetic to such thinking. The fact that his daughter Rhianna has several times unequivocally asserted this does not seem to have deterred the other side. I started drafting some thoughts on this subject, with the Auditors as the central symbolic antagonists in this argument.

I could go on, but you get the general idea. It is, I will admit, mildly depressing (and distressing) to have written so much that now languishes in a file in the corner of my desktop. On one hand, I suppose, why does it matter? After all, it’s not as if I’ve worked to build a robust readership with this blog; I use it as a space, by turns, for writing through and working out ideas, and just ranting about whatever’s on my mind in lieu of screaming into the void. When I came up with the title “It’s All Narrative,” I was pleased with that turn of phrase; I have since on occasion kicked myself for not having thought of “Thinking Out Loud,” which is much closer to what I do here. I work through my usually half-baked thoughts for the benefit of those brave souls willing to wade through my verbiage. Which, to be clear, is not a lot of people.2

So, you might ask, why worry about the un-posted writing? If my main purpose here is writing through my thoughts, haven’t I done that? Does it matter if twenty to forty people read them (assuming they make it all the way through a given post)? Well, no and yes. I do my best thinking at the keyboard or with a pen in my hand, and thus I write a huge amount of stuff that never sees the light of day. But there’s a difference in intent and effect (and affect) even with a blog post nobody reads. The point is that someone might, and so I take a lot more care and thought than I do with scribbles in my journal.

There is also a certain satisfaction in finishing pieces of writing, even when they don’t work out as well as planned. Putting up only fourteen posts in a year when I had a lot on my mind feels insufficient, to say the least. As someone who is easily distracted—though I jokingly compare my research methodology to the dog from Up, it’s not really a joke—completing stuff, however trivial, is a small triumph. A while back, Neil Gaiman posted some basic advice for aspiring writers on social media—a picture of himself with his hand, palm out, in front of his face. Written on his hand: “Write. Finish things. Keep writing.”

As should be obvious from my list above, I’m very good at steps one and three; step two is what trips me up—it is, for me, the “?” phase of the South Park underpants gnomes’ business plan. I’ve long suspected I have ADHD, or at the very least ADD; diagnosing that and getting therapy to that end will be one of my projects going into 2023. I think the above list is Exhibit A.

I’ve managed to arrange things so that I’m not teaching this term, so my project for the first half of 2023 is to write—and more importantly, to finish things. In spite of my masses of blog posts in limbo, 2022 was actually a very good year for me, something I’ll be speaking more specifically about in upcoming posts (he promises, in spite of all the contrary evidence just provided). I actually held to my 2022 resolutions! Like, all year long! So going forward, my 2023 resolutions will be: (a) Keep going with last year’s resolutions, and (b) Write. Finish things. Keep writing. And part of that will be blogging, not least because a healthy output here tends to be reflective of productivity more generally.

So my plan, blogging-wise, is threefold: first, aim to post something every week of modest length (500-1500 words); second, aim to post one more substantial piece a month; third, finish a few of the posts listed above … because, well, there’s some good stuff there! Reading over my unfinished work was actually a pretty good goad, as it reminded me that sometimes I’m smart and can write a decent sentence.

Coming soon: why 2022 was a good year for me.


1. That being said: I was particularly proud of my two posts on gremlins; my two posts on “the banality of ego”; and my post on The Rings of Power and Tolkien’s mythology.

2. And that’s OK. I’m in the enviable position of not needing to chase clicks and pageviews, and I have no interest in tailoring my writing here for the purposes of cultivating a readership. I like the idea of people finding their way here serendipitously and (hopefully) finding something interesting or edifying in a given post. I’ve been working my way this years through Michel de Montaigne’s Collected Essays; I love the ambling, meandering way he pursues lines of thoughts down their various rabbit holes, shoring up his insights with his capacious knowledge of classical writers. Though I wouldn’t compare my output here to his writing, its often unfolds in a similar spirit (my political rants excepted).

Leave a comment

Filed under blog business, what I'm working on

2021 in Review: My Favourite Blog Posts

Anybody who reads this blog knows I post sporadically at best. I go through some periods of great energy, and then this space can lie fallow for months at a time. Which isn’t to say I don’t frequently have ideas for posts: it’s a more a question of whether the idea that pops into my head is something I can stick the landing on. I have a folder on my desktop full of half-written posts that I’ve either lost the thread on, couldn’t make work to my satisfaction, or simply was distracted by a shiny thing, and by the time I think about returning to the post in progress, it is no longer timely.

This year was interesting: I blogged 35 times, which is not a lot, but then my posts were largely clustered in the first half of the year. I had a fair bit of momentum coming out of 2020, and was propelled through January and February by events (most notably the assault on the Capitol and Biden’s inauguration). I posted eight times in January, which is a lot for me; then my productivity was reduced by two each month following until April (with two posts). May and June were saw five and six posts, respectively, in part because I was being ambitious and attempting to produce several posts on a handful of themes. That tapered off in July … and then nothing until November (once), and a single December post.

I’m never entirely sure why the well goes dry on a fairly regular basis, though as I said, often it’s not so much about the writing as about the finishing (I still have sitting on my desktop a post about galactic empires that I do want to finish). Sometimes it’s reflective of how productive I’m being otherwise, but not always; sometimes my blog is a useful procrastinatory device, something that makes me feel productive when I should be directing my energies elsewhere.

At any rate, I thought I might do something I’ve seen other blogs do, which is a year in review with a list of the best/most read/favourite posts. Given that my readership here is pretty tiny, it would be a bit silly to list my most popular posts. So I’m going with my personal favourites: which is to say, the posts was proudest of, and which I felt managed to get closest to the thoughts that spawned them.

I’m going with my top five, though I’m not ranking them, just listing them in chronological order.

January 5: The (Ironically) Monarchical Presidency

It’s a little odd that, of these top five, two of them deal with the topic of monarchy. This post is about how the American Republican system of government—developed specifically as a revolt against the tyrannical British crown—has ironically ended up imbuing the American chief executive with more king-like qualities than the prime minister in a parliamentary system. This contradiction, I point out, had become all the more glaring in the Age of Trump, whose authoritarian tendencies exacerbated the monarchical elements of the Office of the President.

I will also note that I posted this entry the day before the January 6 insurgency.

January 22: The Reality of QAnon  

As I have noted many times on this blog, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on conspiracy and paranoia in postwar American fiction, film, and popular culture. Through the successive waves of Trutherism, Birtherism, Glenn Beck’s chalkboard rants, and the various paranoid fantasies spun by Tea Partiers, I have thought about dusting off the thesis … and am overcome with the sensation of probing the nerve of a tooth.

QAnon, like everything it does, ratchets that up to eleven. And yet I found myself writing this post, which I think does a pretty good job of breaking down the important elements. And I’ve watched the HBO docuseries Q: Into the Storm and read the book The Storm is Upon Us by Mike Rothschild … and now I find myself writing about it for another project.

It makes me feel like Al Pacino in Godfather III: “Every time I try to get OUT … they keep dragging me back IN.”

March 12: In Which I Mark the One Year Anniversary of the Pandemic With Some Thoughts on Monarchy

My second of two posts on monarch was prompted, perhaps counter-intuitively, by my profound indifference to the various plights of the British royal family. The occasion of this particular bout of indifference was the fallout from Meghan Windsor née Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey and the fallout it caused.

But if you’re so indifferent, why go to the effort of writing a blog post, you may ask? Well, imaginary interlocutor, I started pondering precisely why hereditary monarchy has such a powerful hold on the contemporary imagination. And that led me down a rabbit hole of thought that proved quite interesting.

Also, it gave me the opportunity to write the sentence “Piers Morgan was the result of a lab experiment in which a group of scientists got together to create the most perfect distillation of an asshole.” So there’s that, too.

May 31: History, Memory, and Forgetting Part 2: Forgetting and the Limits of Defamiliarization

I made two attempts at sustained deep dives into large topics this summer. The first was “History, Memory, and Forgetting,” and the other was a series of posts revisiting the concept of postmodernism (“Remembering Postmodernism”). I have to say, I was very pleased with what I produced on both fronts, and annoyed with myself that the postmodernism series got bogged down and remains unfinished. (It’s for that reason that “Remembering Postmodernism” is not represented here).

To be honest, I think all three of my “History, Memory, and Forgetting” posts deserve a place here, but because they’re sort of a unit, I’ll settle for the one I’m proudest of, which is about how the erosion of memory about the Holocaust—through time, distraction, and the death of survivors—has denuded the historical awareness and created a present situation in which such terms as “Nazi” and “fascist” have lost meaning in the popular imagination.

June 29: Tolkien and the Culture Wars

Early this summer, I was alerted to a backlash against the Tolkien Society’s Summer Seminar—an annual conference in which academics present papers on a theme chosen by the society. Part themes have included Tolkien and Landscape, the Art of Tolkien’s World, and so on. This year? Tolkien and Diversity. Which prompted a not-unpredictable backlash in conservative circles, especially after the paper titles were posted. Though it hardly reached “critical race theory” levels of vitriol, there was an awful lot of angry talk about the “woke mob” coming to tear down J.R.R. Tolkien. Though most of this happened on message boards and social media, it did reach the lofty heights of the National Review.

A few days after I wrote this post, I attended the (virtual) Tolkien Seminar conference and watched every single paper. Guess what? Tolkien’s legacy survived. And guess what else? Everyone presenting at that conference loves Tolkien. No one wanted to tear him down. The very thought would horrify them. The biggest fallacy of “anti-woke” thought—which, really, stretches back to the culture wars of the 90s and Harold Bloom’s castigation of what he called “the school of resentment”—is the idea that people who challenge the traditional canons of art and literature and offer feminist, queer, anti-colonialist, anti-racist, or other such readings are doing so because they hate and resent the genius of such canonical writers as Shakespeare, Milton, or Wordsworth (an irony here being that Tolkien has never been included in “the Western Canon”). While there may be genuinely antagonistic readings of classic authors, most of the time people—like those at the Tolkien seminar—are finding spaces in their work in which they see themselves reflected.

And in the end, it’s a testament to Tolkien’s genius that queer graduate students can find themselves in the work of an ultraconservative Catholic. To those who lambasted the “Tolkien and Diversity” seminar, I ask: how is that a bad thing?

On second thought, don’t answer.

Leave a comment

Filed under blog business

Summer Blogging and Finding Focus

Why do I write this blog? Well, it certainly isn’t because I have a huge audience—most of my posts top out at 40-60 views, and many garner a lot less than that. Every so often I get signal boosted when one or more people share a post. The most I’ve ever had was when a friend posted a link of one I wrote about The Wire and police militarization to Reddit, and I got somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1500 views.[1] Huge by my standards, minuscule by the internet’s.

Not that I’m complaining. I have no compunction to chase clicks, or to do the kind of networking on Twitter that seems increasingly necessary to building an online audience, which also entails strategically flattering some audiences and pissing off others. The topics I write about are eclectic and occasional, usually the product of a thought that crosses my mind and turns into a conversation with myself. My posts are frequently long and sometimes rambling, which is also not the best way to attract readers.

Blogging for me has always been something akin to thinking out loud—like writing in a journal, except in a slightly more formal manner, with the knowledge that, however scant my audience is, I’m still theoretically writing for other people, and so my thoughts have to be at least somewhat coherent. And every so often I get a hit of dopamine when someone shares a post or makes a complimentary comment.

I started my first blog when I moved to Newfoundland as a means of giving friends and family a window into my new life here, without subjecting them to the annoyance of periodic mass emails. I posted in An Ontarian in Newfoundland for eight years, from 2005 to 2013, during which time it went from being a digest of my experiences in Newfoundland to something more nebulous, in which I basically posted about whatever was on my mind. I transitioned to this blog with the thought that I would focus it more on professional considerations—using it as a test-space for scholarship I was working on, discussions about academic life, and considerations of things I was reading or watching. I did do that … but then also inevitably fell into the habit of posting about whatever was on my mind, often with long stretches of inactivity that sometimes lasted months.

During the pandemic, this blog has become something akin to self-care. I’ve written more consistently in this past year than I have since starting my first blog (though not nearly as prolifically as I posted in that first year), and it has frequently been a help in organizing what have become increasingly inchoate thoughts while enduring the nadir of Trump’s tenure and the quasi-isolation enforced by the pandemic. I won’t lie: it has been a difficult year, and wearing on my mental health. Sometimes putting a series of sentences together in a logical sequence to share with the world brought some order to the welter that has frequently been my mind.

As we approach the sixth month of the Biden presidency and I look forward to my first vaccination in a week, you’d think there would be a calming of the mental waters. And there has been, something helped by the more frequent good weather and more time spent outside. But even as we look to be emerging from the pandemic, there’s a lot still plaguing my peace of mind, from my dread certainty that we’re looking at the end of American democracy, to the fact that we’re facing huge budget cuts in health care and education here in Newfoundland.

The Venn diagram of the thoughts preoccupying my mind has a lot of overlaps, which contributes to the confusion. There are so many points of connection: the culture war, which irks me with all of its unnuanced (mis)understandings of postmodernism, Marxism, and critical race theory; the sustained attack on the humanities, which proceeds to a large degree from the misperception that it’s all about “woke” indoctrination; the ways in which cruelty has become the raison d’être of the new Right; the legacy of the “peace dividend” of the 1990s, the putative “end of history,” and the legacy of post-9/11 governance leading us to the present impasse; and on a more hopeful note, how a new humanism practiced with humility might be a means to redress some of our current problems.

For about three or four weeks I’ve been spending part of my days scribbling endless notes, trying to bring these inchoate preoccupations into some semblance of order. Reading this, you might think that my best route would be to unplug and refocus; except that this has actually been energizing. It helps in a way that there is significant overlap with a handful of articles I’m working on, about (variously) nostalgia and apocalypse, humanism and pragmatism, the transformations of fantasy as a genre, and the figuration of the “end of history” in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and contemporary Trumpist figurations of masculinity.

(Yes, that’s a lot. I’m hoping, realistically, to get one completed article out of all that, possibly two).

With all the writing I’ve been doing, it has been unclear—except for the scholarly stuff—how best to present it. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a short book titled The Idiot’s[2] Guide to Postmodernism, which wouldn’t be an academic text but more of a user manual to the current distortions of the culture wars, with the almost certainly vain idea of reintroducing nuance into the discussion. That would be fun, but in the meantime I think I’ll be breaking it down into a series of blog posts.

Some of the things you can expect to see over the next while:

  • A three-part set of posts (coming shortly) on history, memory, and forgetting.
  • A deep dive into postmodernism—what it was, what it is, and why almost everyone bloviating about it and blaming it for all our current ills has no idea what they’re talking about.
  • A handful of posts about cruelty.
  • “Jung America”—a series of posts drawing a line from the “crisis of masculinity” of the 1990s to the current state of affairs with Trumpism and the likes of Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro.
  • At least one discussion about the current state of the humanities in the academy, as well as an apologia arguing why the humanities are as important and relevant now as they have ever been.

Phew. Knowing me, I might get halfway through this list, but we’ll see. Meantime, stay tuned.


[1] David Simon also left a complimentary comment on that one. Without a doubt, the highlight of my blogging career.

[2] Specifically, Jordan Peterson, but there are others who could use a primer to get their facts straight.


Filed under blog business, Uncategorized

Isolated Thoughts: Taking Stock, Seven Weeks In

I had a bad day yesterday: I woke up to a low-grade anxiety attack and spent the better part of the day feeling sad, listless, and generally useless. Some time around 4pm the fog lifted, and I started to write, hammering out my previous post on The Last Ship and about half of another post on recent HBO programming.

This morning has been better, in spite of the fact that it’s miserably cold and pissing rain. Though in truth, I enjoy sitting in my home office on dismal, rainy days, pathetic fallacy be damned, so the rain wasn’t likely to depress me—and in fact, I just sort of shook my head at it, as if the universe was conspiring to put me in a funk. And then the words “murder hornets” popped into my head and I started to giggle uncontrollably at the sheer absurdity of it all. As I asked in a previous post: What’s next? It makes an odd sort of sense, however, that if the universe is conspiring to compound all of the absurdity of the recent weeks, its choices were limited after the President of the United States suggested drinking bleach and getting an ultraviolet enema might be a viable treatment for COVID-19. In order to truly up the ante, murder hornets were a logical choice.

It has been interesting, day after day, to see how people are coping on social media and otherwise. My partner Stephanie has broken out her guitars after months of not playing, and ordered an electronic drum pad. She taught herself “Miracle Drug” by U2, and is, as I write, in the process of recording her tracks on her laptop. Online, I see all the baking and cooking people are doing; many people are posting pictures of daily pandemic life, sharing intimate or artistic portraits of what the lockdown has meant for them and their families; many others have taken up various seven- or ten-day challenges to post covers of books or albums that they love; they share affirmations about mental health; one of my friends has asked a question for the hive mind every day of the quarantine, from favourite colour to what person, living or dead, you’d most want to have lunch with.

Though few of these things are especially new to social media, their volume, frequency, and earnestness is. At least part of that, presumably, proceeds from the boredom of being cooped up; but there is also a profound expression of shared humanity in it all. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, perhaps, as it can also serve to remind us of all the people out there we cannot see in person; but there is also a comfort to is, an affirmation that we are not alone in the difficulty of weathering this crisis.

For my part, I’ve written more on this blog in the three weeks since I started this “Isolated Thoughts” series than I had in the year and a half preceding it. I don’t exactly garner much of a readership—my posts top out at about fifty views, according to my stats—but then that has never really been the point of my blogging. I write here to work through certain thoughts, to give them an airing; it is not unlike writing in a journal in that respect, except that the public nature of a blog and the knowledge that some people will read it forces me (hopefully) into somewhat more coherence than when I jot stuff in my Moleskine.

So we keep on. Keep posting pictures of your sourdough loaves, your pets, your favourite albums, your rants and fears and loves; talk about your good days and your bad, and I’ll keep posting my isolated thoughts. I have quoted my favourite W.H. Auden poem on this blog before, but there’s that one line that utters what is, for me, one of the most profound truths: “We must love one another or die.”

Leave a comment

Filed under blog business, Isolated Thoughts, maunderings

Isolated Thoughts

I had my first real bout of pandemic-related depression the other day. I woke up from a bad dream whose details I could not recall, but which was coronavirus-related, and the lingering sense of sadness and dread dogged me for the better part of the day as I looked out my office window at the grey and miserable weather that frequently passes as spring in Newfoundland.

It actually took me a few hours to put my finger on why I was feeling down, and it came, weirdly, as something of a surprise. Right. Things are kind of fucked up right now. I had by this point been party to any number of expressions of sadness, depression, anger, frustration, and a host of vagaries of brown study inspired by isolation, anxiety, and worry for the future, all of them communicated over social media. I read every day news stories, think pieces, and op-eds from the seat of my own isolation, connected to the world but separated from it. I go for long walks every day; my grocery shopping is an infrequent but excruciatingly long process as I buy mountains of food and necessities so I don’t have to do it again any time soon, all the while getting annoyed at people who don’t seem to grasp the basics of social distancing or the point of the arrows spaced six feet apart on the store floor. I return home and subject myself to a Silkwood-style scrubbing, and sit again in front of my portal to the world after putting the groceries away.

In a number of ways, this pandemic is the apotheosis of what we once called the postmodern condition, one aspect of which was neatly characterized by Fredric Jameson as the paradox of collectivity experienced in isolation by way of mass media. As traumatic as the assassination of John F. Kennedy was, Jameson writes, it offered a “utopian glimpse” of shared experience, but an experience shared by an atomized population watching television. September 11th, 2001 offered a similar experience, but one rendered uncanny by its familiarity. As Slavoj Zizek pointed out, the true shock of 9/11 wasn’t its novelty, but the haunting sense of “where have I seen this before?” Popular culture had been imagining apocalyptic destruction for years; contra what innumerable pundits were saying in the aftermath, said Zizek, “It wasn’t that reality entered to shatter the illusion, illusion entered to shatter the reality.”

And now we sit in self-isolation watching a pandemic unfold after having imagined it in literally hundreds if not thousands of movies, TV shows, novels, and video games. It is with no small sense of serendipity that I spend part of my days working on a series of articles that have been in the works for some time on post-apocalyptic imaginings: one on zombie apocalypse as an expression of ambivalence to mass culture, one on apocalyptic figurations as an expression of “hopeful nihilism” (the flip side to Lauren Berlant’s formulation of “cruel optimism”), and one on the humanist nostalgia of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, a novel about the persistence of art in a post-pandemic world. One character in Station Eleven remarks ironically, “It could be worse. There could be zombies.”

apocalypse outfit

It could be worse. One of the more amusing memes circulating on social media is the contrast between how one imagined what their post-apocalypse outfit would look like versus what it actually is—the former being something badass with a lot of leather and guns, and the latter being sweatpants and a housecoat. But what art and narrative offer that real life tends to lack is catharsis. Killing zombies with a crossbow or blasting across the alkaline flats in a souped-up semi with Imperia Furiosa would be harrowing but thrilling; sitting (as I am right now) in flannel pyjama bottoms and a hoodie with a dozen tabs open to different stories in my browser, is, to say the least, a counter-intuitive way to endure a pandemic, and not one that should lend itself to anxiety and depression.

But of course it does. The surprising thing, on reflection, was not that I was depressed the other day, but that it took that long for it to happen. I am, by my count, twenty-two days into self isolation, the first fourteen of which were actual quarantine. My partner Stephanie and I were in Barbados on vacation when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic and Justin Trudeau strongly encouraged all Canadians abroad to come home. We cut short our time in Barbados, and the relief we felt on making it home after the headache of rebooking flights was palpable; it was good to get home, and we also had the glow of time spent in the Caribbean lingering. And I have been on a half-sabbatical since the start of January, so I’ve more or less been self-isolating and social distancing before I was aware that either expression was a thing. I am, I’m almost a little embarrassed to admit, perfectly well situated to endure the lockdown with minimal issues.

And so I try to keep in the front of my mind the fact that whatever anxiety, frustration, and depression I experience is being experienced tenfold, a hundredfold, by many others. I think of how much worse this would be if it had happened when I was a graduate student living alone in a small apartment on a pittance, and I think of my students, current and former, enduring that now themselves.

My biggest fear is not that the world will be different when all this is over, but that it won’t be—that we won’t have learned the lessons about the fragility of our political and economic system, that those most vital to society aren’t the wealthy but those who get shit done every day, whether they’re stocking shelves or caring for the ill.

It’s a bit ironic to think that one of my standard riffs in my lectures on the nature of power is to get my students to imagine how long my authority as a professor would last into a zombie apocalypse. Think about it, I say: you’ve all paid tuition to sit in this class; I am granted authority both tacit and explicit as someone with a doctorate in this subject to run this class and evaluate your work. The very room is arranged with that power dynamic in mind. But if the zombie apocalypse happens while we’re in here, it’s quite likely that my usefulness will be reduced to being shoved out into the hallway to see if the coast is clear.

I can’t help feeling like we’re sort of in a moment like that now. It’s vital that when we come out the other side of this, we remember who kept things running, who put themselves in harm’s way for minimum wage, and who deserves the greatest consideration when we rethink everything. The biggest problem with our fascination with apocalyptic narratives, as has been observed by Jameson and Zizek and others, is that they comprise a failure of imagination—that it’s easier to imagine the wholesale destruction of capitalism than any sort of functional alternative. This failure, in a nutshell, is what I mean by “hopeful nihilism”—the idea that burning it all down will somehow make way for something better, without any clear idea of what “better” entails. It should go without saying that this kind of thinking was at least partially responsible for the election of Donald Trump (one of my more glib titles for the hopeful nihilism essay is “Were the Zombies Trying to Warn Us About Trump?”).

One sentiment that made the rounds on social media that made me laugh was someone who, commenting on the fact that quarantined Italians were singing from their balconies, said “I can’t sing opera, so I plan to conduct a PowerPoint presentation from my balcony this evening.” I laughed at that, thinking that my equivalent would be to deliver a rambling lecture on postmodernism from my balcony.

As it happens, I don’t have a balcony. So stay tuned for more isolated thoughts.

Leave a comment

Filed under blog business, Isolated Thoughts, what I'm working on

Project Brevity

I’ve been neglecting my blog all summer, and for many months before that, and for a long time before that … part of my problem, I’ve come to realize, is that I’m not so good at writing short blurbs. Every time I start a new idea for a post, it grows in the telling: this is not helped by the fact that I tend to develop grandiose ideas, like multi-part meditations on topics like expanded universes (for example). And then I write myself into corners, dissatisfied with what I’ve produced (and believe me, I’ve written somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20,000 words since April that have never seen the light of day).

So … new project: brevity. I will aim to write one or two posts a week of less than 1000 words, ideally closer to 500, on something germane to this blog’s general theme of narrative (though that has always been something of an elastic category here).

New post coming shortly, on the heels of this one.

Leave a comment

Filed under blog business

Returning to blogging, and a recent symposium

Yes, yes, this blog has lain fallow for quite some time … as usual, it’s not for lack of desire to write or a lack of anything to write about, just … well, a lack of motivation, I suppose. That and just the press of other obligations, professional and otherwise.

But it is strange, I suppose, that I never think of shuttering this blog or otherwise abandoning it—I’m quite proud of a lot of the stuff I’ve written here, and always have the best intentions of getting back to posting on a regular, or at least a semi-regular basis.

So here’s an attempt to get back to it, and hopefully get myself back into the habit of working out my thoughts out loud, as it were—which, really, is the greatest value this forum has for me. I have no illusions that I’ll ever have a huge readership—the stuff I post about and the format I tend to write in (i.e. long) pretty much guarantees that my audience remains somewhat limited—but that doesn’t bother me. I have come to think of this space as an intermediate stage between scribbling in my journal and writing more formally. My ruminations here have more to do with the former, but in putting in out publicly, at least I have to keep myself honest (to a point).

visual symposium

Anyway, the occasion for getting back into it is a symposium in which I took part, organized by a colleague of mine, featuring brief (5-7 minute) presentations on various aspects of visual culture.

Now, keeping an academic-ish presentation to five to seven minutes is hard. I can reliably burn through five to seven minutes at the start of a lecture just clearing my throat. And as anyone who has read my posts on this blog knows, brevity isn’t exactly my strong suit (to quote President Josiah Bartlett, “In my house, anyone who uses one word when he could have used ten just isn’t trying hard”).

But it was a useful exercise; my topic is one I’ve aired on this blog before, namely, maps, fiction, and fantasy. I’ve been kicking around a variety of thoughts and ideas about this for a long time now, but never really had the impetus to find my traction. I don’t know, necessarily, that I’ve got that now, but this talk certainly forced me to distill the key ideas down to the point where I can see a few avenues opening up for future exploration.

The symposium itself went extremely well—five presenters, each of us compressing our thoughts into the crucible of five to seven minutes. It’s always a shame that academics can get so insular in our own research, writing, and teaching—especially in winter, and especially as the semester gets busier—because one thing I love about this job is listening to my brilliant colleagues share their work.

As it turns out, my medievalist colleague John Geck was also presenting on maps, looking at medieval conceptions of space and place, especially in terms of “itinerary” maps that stress the experience of travel as opposed to the abstraction of a god’s-eye empirical perspective. We sat down a few times before the symposium to share ideas, and to see whether our respective topics would have any overlap.

As things happened, they did. Here’s the text of my presentation along with the slides I showed.

1 - fantasy and cartography - title card

What I want to do here is make a bridge from John’s discussion of medieval itinerary maps to the maps we find in fantasy, a genre which for the purposes of my talk could be usefully characterized as the bastard love child of medieval romance and historical fiction.

2 - earthsea

My representative fantasy map, chosen to honour one of the greats. R.I.P. Ursula K. Le Guin.

Given the brevity of this presentation, I need to make one point quickly and hope to stick the landing: that maps and cartography are by definition fictional. Mapping resembles the writing of fiction in at least two principal respects: one, it is mimetic; two, it invariably distorts or deforms what it imitates according to its preoccupations—or, to put it another way, according to the story it wants to tell.

4 - world maps

The fact that we speak of maps as projections is a useful point to keep in mind, considering that term’s use in psychology to refer to forms of ideation.

3 - projections

7 - mercator-peters copy

Wish I’d had time to show the “Cartographers for Social Justice” clip from The West Wing.

All of which is to say nothing of the more overtly fictional elements of mapping, such as the consensual hallucinations of place-names and borders, all of which come freighted with their own histories, stories, conflicts, and connotations. I mean … we live on a peninsula named “Avalon” by Sir George Calvert in the hopes that, like its namesake, it would be paradisaical.

5 - Arthur - Avalon

To take the analogy between mapping and fiction a step further, we could liken the itinerary maps John discussed to the genre of romance, and “empirical” maps to realism … and as I suggested, it is at the intersection of these two that we find fantasy, or at least the kind of fantasy modeled on J.R.R. Tolkien’s example (which is to say, most of it).

8 - GoT - credits

And as those who read fantasy know, maps frequently play a key paratextual role, and are distinct from “real” maps for obvious reasons. They do not render or imitate territory. Maps in fantasy are deterministic, which is to say they define the territory rather than vice versa. They provide readers with a gods-eye view not available to the characters—and in this respect comprise a conflation of fantasy’s premodern and/or quasi-medieval sensibilities and those of modernity’s empirical presumptions.

9 - middle-earth

As a case in point (to use my favourite example): in The Fellowship of the Ring, some time after departing Rivendell, the Fellowship hoves into view of a western spur of the Misty Mountains. When Pippin protests that they must have turned eastward in the night, Gandalf says, “There are many maps in Elrond’s house, but I suppose you never thought to look at them?” (283). To which Gimli the dwarf declares that he needs no map, and proceeds to name the peaks on the horizon. “There is the land where our fathers worked of old, and we have wrought the image of those stone mountains into many works of metal and of stone, and into many songs and tales.”

10 - misty-mountains

Shortly after, Sam confides to Frodo that “I’m beginning to think it’s time we got a sight of that Fiery Mountain, and saw the end of the Road, so to speak. I thought perhaps that this here [mountain] … might be it, till Gimli spoke his piece” (285). Tolkien then observes that “Maps conveyed nothing to Sam’s mind, and all distances in these strange lands seemed so vast that he was quite out of his reckoning.”

A few points here: maps are presented in this instance as all but useless to those who have no wider knowledge of Middle-Earth, and unnecessary for those who do. The provincial hobbits are quite at sea, while Gimli’s rather intuitive knowledge of the landscape evokes the experiential understanding of space and place discussed by John in his talk: Gimli can recognize and name the mountains because of his familiarity with “many songs and tales.”

By contrast, the paratextual map of Middle-Earth provides readers with a privileged perspective, one that lets us know, even without Tolkien’s somewhat patronizing observation, precisely how naïve Sam Gamgee’s hopeful sense of place is.

12 - middle-earth 2

This privileged perspective creates an interesting thematic contradiction at a point in the narrative most deeply embedded in the conventions of medieval quest romance. We as readers can pin Sam and the Fellowship to a specific place—as if we could pull up Google Maps and inform Sir Gawain that he’s just half a kilometer east of Bertilak’s Castle, or let Hansel and Gretel know that if they carry on past the gingerbread house for another hour or so they’ll be literally out of the woods.

This, for the record, is the nub of my particular interest in fantasy: the contradiction of Tolkien’s (and by extension, fantasy’s) nostalgic rendition of medieval romance, and the imaginary but exhaustive empiricism of his invented mythology, for which the map of Middle-Earth functions emblematically, subverting the mystery and caprice of romance with cartographic, historical, and linguistic determinism. Tolkien’s “mythology” is ultimately evocative of Jorge Luis Borges’ Tlon, a fictional world so scrupulously detailed and imagined that it takes on corporeal reality.

13 - tolkien-lewis

This contradiction is doubly interesting insofar as both Tolkien and his good friend C.S. Lewis both created their fantasy worlds in part as a corrective to what they saw as the spiritual aridity of secular, scientific modernity with its emphasis on the empirical at the expense of mystery. Echoing Keats’ injunction against unweaving the rainbow, Tolkien writes in his poem “Mythopoeia” that “I will not walk with your progressive apes, / erect and sapient. Before them gapes / the dark abyss to which their progress tends / … I will not tread your dusty path and flat, / denoting this and that by this and that.” It is thus perhaps something of an irony that Tolkien privately loathed Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, considering them slapdash and careless in their world-building and too reliant upon allegory, and lacking the kind of exhaustive intellectual rigor he would ultimately bring to the creation of Middle-Earth.

I have no conclusion other than to say that this is my starting point from which to explore how this contradiction in the “cartographic imagination,” more broadly considered, is deployed by contemporary fantasists to articulate a secular and humanist worldview.




Filed under blog business, what I'm working on

Blogging, or The Intrinsic Value of Shouting at an Empty Room

I’ve been a very bad blogger. Every so often I go through a burst of energy and put up a handful of posts in quick succession, but it’s been some time since I posted on a regular basis. Certainly this past year has seen a lot of inaction on this site. If it weren’t for my Game of Thrones posts with Nikki Stafford, I’d have put up next to nothing.

Which isn’t for lack of wanting to. I have journals full of notes chronicling my thoughts on a host of topics, many prefaced with the hopeful header “possible blog post”; and I have a folder on my desktop containing an embarrassing number of half-completed posts that I just couldn’t make work to my satisfaction, or which languished until their subject was no longer current.

One of the reasons for my blogging absence has been one of the more epic cases of writer’s block I’ve experienced in my adult life. There have been a variety of factors contributing to that (which I won’t get into here), but one of them is the way in which writer’s block gets worse the more you don’t write. I haven’t posted much this past year because of writer’s block; but one of the reasons I’ve had writer’s block is because I haven’t been posting to this blog.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my level of blogging activity is a bellwether of my productivity more broadly—sometimes I just don’t really have anything to say here, but am getting a lot of writing done in other arenas—but there’s something to be said for keeping the pump primed by posting relatively clear and coherent arguments or meditations.

What is this blog for? It certainly isn’t aimed at a large audience. If my ambition was to write for thousands of people, I’ve failed miserably here. Fortunately, that has never really been a concern. Most of my posts garner in the neighbourhood of fifty readers, which likely corresponds to the number of my Facebook friends actually interested in what I might have to say on a given topic. The Game of Thrones posts tend to top out at about one hundred and twenty readers. Three years ago, I made it to three hundred and fifty with a pair of posts about that whole David Gilmour thing, and Margaret Wente’s entirely predictable response to it. And the most readers I’ve ever had was for a post I wrote, apropos of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, about The Wire and police militarization, which garnered twelve hundred readers—mainly because a friend of mine posted the link to Reddit.

So, I’m hardly swaying anyone’s opinion on such matters as Donald Trump, as I can say with a great deal of confidence that everyone who read my previous point probably agrees with everything I said. The fact that I’m almost invariably preaching to a (very small) choir has occasionally bothered me. Why go to the effort of parsing my thoughts if I’m not reaching people who will disagree with me, or whom I can engage in substantive, meaningful debate?

That thought underpinned a lot of my more self-defeating capitulations to writer’s block, at least as far as this blog was concerned. But lately I’ve been thinking about it in a different way: less as a means of engaging in a broader conversation, than as a conversation with myself. What I’ve been missing this past year is the exercise of thinking out loud. On my old blog I once compared blogging to shouting at your empty kitchen to something you hear on the radio. I think that analogy holds: articulating thoughts, giving them form and shape, is a valuable exercise even when no one is listening. The difference between writing things out in my journal and composing a post is that the latter is technically public—meaning that the act of composing takes precedence. Only a handful of you are actually reading this, and fewer still will have read this far. For those who have: Hello! I am happy that you’re interested enough in my thoughts that you’re still with me.

Don’t get me wrong: a large audience would be nice, but I’m not about to do all the things necessary to broaden my appeal. To be honest, I’m not even sure I know what those things would be (aside from employing more clickbait-y titles and keeping my posts more succinct. Yeah, that’s not happening).

I do however want to do more with the blog, and write more, and more frequently. One of my favourite series of posts I’ve done is when I taught a course on The Lord of the Rings two years ago, and did a series based on my lectures. I intend to do something similar this fall: I’m teaching a fourth-year seminar course I’m titling “Revenge of the Genres,” which will deal with texts that play with the “genre” appellation in a variety of ways. I’m planning to do a series of posts for each of the texts we cover, which will hopefully fuel discussion both in and out of the classroom. I’ll say more about that course closer to when we begin in September.

Revenge of the Genres

I’ve also got, I’m sorry to say, a cluster of Trump-themed posts on the back burner. Yes, I know … we’re all suffering from Trump fatigue, and I encourage people to actively avoid reading them. They’re more for my own benefit, to clarify my own thoughts more than to make specific arguments.

And I’ll be picking up the threads of research I had intended to do over the past few months. I won’t say much about that now, other than that it involves zombies, crowds, and soldiers.

That’s all for now.

1 Comment

Filed under blog business, maunderings

Blog 2.0


Some eight years ago I started a blog called An Ontarian in Newfoundland, on the occasion of being hired at Memorial University and moving from London, ON, to St. John’s, NL. Its purpose was to record my thoughts and impressions both of my move to Newfoundland and into the career I’d spent eight years of graduate school training for. And for some time, the blog filled its purpose, giving me a forum to record key events in my life and a place for my friends and family to read them at their leisure, without the annoyance of that intrusive (now thankfully obsolete) practice of the mass email.

Since then, two things happened to make the blog a lot less relevant: one, Facebook. Somehow, using a blog to keep one’s acquaintances apprised of major life events came to seem quaint, and even (bizarrely) a little narcissistic (perhaps because it’s so easy to post reams of minutiae about your life on Facebook with no effort, whereas writing a blog positively reeks of effort). Two, Newfoundland went from being a strange and fascinating new place to live, to becoming my home. I can’t really put my finger on when that happened … perhaps when I bought a house, or when I got tenure. Or perhaps when it just ceased being a novelty and became Where I Live. Someday I will peruse all my old posts and see if I can locate the moment of transformation.

In the interim, my posts became increasingly few and far between; and when I did post, it almost never had to do with living in Newfoundland and almost always had to do with whatever political, literary, academic, or cultural events roused me enough to sit at the keyboard. Mostly in the past few years I have been writing about books and television, with the occasional enraged response to one of Margaret Wente’s columns; and while the blog was a fine enough forum for such posts, it lacked a raison d’être.

Hence the reboot. After a lot of thought and even more procrastination, I have arrived at this new space and theme.

It’s all narrative. I mean that rather literally. I stress two things to my first-year English students (I stress these points to all my students, really, but I really try to pound it home with the ducklings): first, telling stories is how we enter the world. Or to put it another way, our principal mechanism of understanding is narrative. We tell stories to put things in comprehensible order, to grasp the nature of causality, to make meaning. These narratives are invariably incomplete and provide us with biased and selective pictures of the world. They are also frequently compelling and entertaining. This is why we need to understand how they work.

Second, all language is rhetorical. That is to say, all language is designed to persuade. There is no such thing as absolutely precise language, just better and worse ways of communicating ideas. (I say this as if it’s a broadly accepted fact, when in reality it’s one side of a bitterly contested philosophical debate. But hey, my blog, my reality). And narrative, especially compelling narrative, is perhaps the most convincing rhetorical device there is.

I am a narrative junky. I love good stories told well. This can be something of a failing at times for someone who is ostensibly a professional literary critic, as I am somewhat too easily caught up in a good story. It also means I privilege such gauche elements as plot over symbol and metaphor (another rather unfashionable thing for English professors. Good thing I have tenure).

So if this revamped blog is to have a theme, it will be just that: narrative. There will almost certainly be deviations from this theme (probably when Margaret Wente plagiarizes another screed), but we’ll mostly be preoccupied with stories of one form or another—novels, film, television. I want to talk about what I’m reading, what I’m watching, what I’m reading, and what I’m writing about … which is to say, more or less the say as the last blog, but with more focus.

Stay tuned.


Filed under blog business

Nothing to see here.

Not yet. Check back soon.

Leave a comment

Filed under blog business