All posts by mikeduncan

Yay.

Earlier today I lamented that I had nothing good to post about. I came home late after pizza with H, though, checked my email, and learned that my first academic article, “Whatever Became of the Paragraph?” is getting published early next year in College English. A small impromptu dance resulted. No animals were harmed, although Kota (my cat) looked alarmed.

Revision is needed, but after looking over the comments, which were very positive on the whole, it doesn’t look like I’ll have to gut it like a fish. That is good. I felt pretty strongly about most of it, and I think the reviewers deftly caught the parts where I was more uncertain or tentative.

I am greatly cheered.

The personification of this site’s title…

…would have to be Karl Rove, who has just escaped prosecution for the five billionth time.

I remember the 2000 election like it was yesterday – in particular the South Carolina primary. Rove & co threw everything and the kitchen sink at McCain – push polls, rumor mills, crazy smears about illegitimate black children, ties to gay groups, an explosive temper, cowardice under fire… and it worked. It was there that the nomination was won, in the land of Bob Jones. I remember thinking that a man who would employ such a man as Rove… well. Everyone’s learned that part by now.

It’s too bad we can’t at least arrange a cell at Gitmo for this guy. It would be appropriate. He’ll just retire and enjoy what’s left of the world that he helped ruin further.

Conquistador

Working my way through the pile of sci-fi paperbacks my father occasionally hands me after digesting them himself, I’ve finished S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador.

As the first work of fiction I’ve read since reading Booth’s book on the rhetoric of fiction, it served to make me more aware of the genre conventions of alternate-Earth sci-fi than ever, though there are some interesting differences. When I think of alt-Earth, I think of Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South first; a great book that makes more than one appearance in this one (Andres Rhoodie and his errant band of South Africian mercs make a cameo, and the book is on the reading list of two characters).

Stirling’s novel is about an alternate-North America (in particular, California) where Europeans never showed up. An enterprising WWII vet in 1945 discovers a two-way door to this happy hunting ground in his Oakland basement, and builds an precious-minerals empire on his side and a new civilization on the other. That’s the background; a Game and Fish warden stumbles onto his setup during a bust in 2009, which forms the main storyline. It’s a fun little ride.

But Stirling has a different style altogether than Turtledove. GOTS was a more serious book with lit pretensions and telling questions. Stirling mainly has a gift for description – not short description, alas, as half of the 596 pages of this small-print book are devoted to landscape labeling. I can’t say he doesn’t know what California looks like; but I’m not sure the book does more than describe California and provide an entertaining, action-filled plot. It does have a nice structure, though; the story sprawls across time, moving between 1945 to 2009 in thematic rather than chronological order; the main story is in 2009 but frequent flashbacks grant background.

Whereas Turtledove escaped the usual characterization problems of scifi by using mostly historical characters – his Lee and Lincoln are biography-worthy in particular – Stirling creates Californian versions of superheroes. This bugged me. Not two pages in did I realize CA’s current governor would be a shoe-in for the main character. He’s even got a sidekick – who probably would have made a better protagonist, come to think of it. And the love interest – while we’re going through the screenplay slots – is equally disturbing. Adam and Eve romping in Eden got tiring after a bit; it can get boring fast to read about characters that have no real weaknesses or faults.

The book escapes this flaw partially, though, by making the society in this alt-California a problematic one. It’s a neofeudal agrarian paradise with bickering, mob-flavored dynasties, overseen by an aging dictator; in other words, essentially the same politics as your average fantasy novel. The main character debates a bit over which world is best (his 2009 is smoggy and post-Iraq) but is easily distracted by the clean, pollution-free (and mostly Indian-free, victims of smallpox again) landscape, the intrigues trying to kill him, the joys of heavy weaponry and big game hunting, and the kind of incredible, mind-numbing sex that only happens in between paragraphs. You can guess which world he ends up staying in.

Rhetorically, the book feels like an argument for environmental conservatives and a blend of feudalism and libertarian thinking, delivered with a wink, enough melodrama and bloodshed to satisfy all but the most thirsty, and several 55-gallon drums of salt.

Division

I’m thinking perhaps I should take advantage of the categories in this software and separate my posts by subject, as with this post, where I simply want to babble about some academic books I’ve been reading, rather than world affairs or the many subtle intriacies of my navel.

I just finished The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne Booth, which, as you might guess from the title, examines fiction with a rhetorical lens. I don’t think I’d ever thought about authorial decisions in quite those terms before, save in a hazy, non-conceptual fashion, as in the way I thought about metaphor before reading Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By.

Probably the most impressive thing Booth does is confirm what I’d always suspected but never got around to proving at length; that the conventions of realism are just that, conventions – and rhetorical moves at that, with limited scope. I always got peeved when I took fiction classes as an undergraduate and realism was touted as the ultimate goal, when it’s just another box. To paraphrase a phrase Booth uses over and over, the writer cannot decide not to use rhetoric, only what kind; and I think that statement, to an extent, is a good beginning to validating all fiction genres as optional means of persuasion. And if you buy Aristotle’s general disregard of effect (as I think one must), then all the tools in the toolbox are doubly valid.

I’m thinking of science fiction in particular, of course. H and I watched A.I. the other day. She’d seen it, I hadn’t. Not my most favorite movie – too long and too Spielburgian – but it struck me in the first 15 minutes that a realistic work would have a hard time approaching Kubrick’s concept. A.I. wasn’t great sci-fi, but it had the right intentions, in that it was using the genre to approach a question that traditional fiction would have to do more mundanely, instead of just choosing a novel setting.

“What does it mean to be human?” and “What is love?” are common enough themes, but it’s an interesting move from a rhetorical standpoint to shift that question onto robots – and, further, onto a young robot – and further, onto a young robot that is all that remains of humanity.

Catching up

Perhaps I should take a moment to clue in everybody about where the hell I’ve been.

The PhD grind continues. The spring 2006 semester was easily the hardest I’d had since becoming a graduate student. I escaped with a A- in one class, a scar that will surely haunt me to the end of my days. That’s my second, which keeps me at the frustrating 3.99 mark.

One more 12-hour semester in the fall, though, and the coursework is done.

I guess I did ok. I sent off my first academic paper, on paragraph theory, to a journal; I went to my first conference – CCCC in Chicago – and presented for the first time; and I won an award for being the outstanding graduate student in the English department.

I’m supposed to be revamping the English webpage this summer, but this task (when I actually get the server access to start it) will not quite pay the summer bills. However, I think a small teaching gig has appeared that will make up most of the difference.

In the meantime. I am not entirely idle. I have started teaching myself the Koine Greek of the New Testament, with the goal of getting through the Gospel of John by August. Why? Well, I have become more or less enamored with rhetorical criticism of the NT; I aim to send off a mostly-finished paper on NT agricultural metaphor by July. And I think I will try to write a history of prose rhythm teaching in the fall.

There are plenty of irons in the fire, I think, not counting at least two collaborations going on. If I am extraordinarily lucky, by Xmas I will have sent out five papers in 2006.

That would be a good thing, as when my comprehensive exams approach (spring 2007) I will not have much time to try my hand at publishing. I might get a paper out that summer as sort of a prelim to the dissertation, but I’m not counting on it. I’d like to leave the UoM in spring 2008 with 3 or so publications, and at least 1 of them being a good one in a good journal. Ideally one would be in comp, another in rhetoric, and another in NT criticism or tech writing, to show versitility.

That’s the plan. What actually happens between now and May 2008 is not predictable. But I am on schedule, one year into a planned three-year PhD, and I think it will come off mostly according to plan.

Choosing a name

In launching this site, I figured I’d start with a new domain name.

As I am a PhD student in rhetoric and composition, my first thought was to type in every rhetorical term I could think of into whois. I had high hopes for synecdoche and enthymeme. But practically every term available is taken. One wasn’t – runningstyle.com – and it’s actually highly appropriate for a blog. But it would sound like I’m a long-distance runner to most.

I am a great admirer of Patrick O’Brian’s novels, and noted stephenmaturin.com and diseasesofseamen.com were available, but I might get sued for the first, and as for the second, I imagined myself cheerfully telling someone the name of the site and them picturing a miscolored glop of semen. I already have enough trouble at parties.

Composition terms were also unavailable. Firstdraft was taken. Seconddraft was taken. Thirddraft was taken. Fourthdraft was not, but by that point I was disillusioned.

What about my name? mikeduncan.com = taken. michaelduncan=taken. mduncan=taken. mgduncan and michaelgaryduncan were available, but not snappy enough.

I returned to rhetoric. What about goodrhetoric.com? Available. Positive, too. Badrhetoric.com? Available. I’m an iconoclast (also taken) so it didn’t look bad (cough) either.

I also thought about meansofpersuasion, which is a play off of Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric. “available means of persuasion” is too long, alas. It also has a moderate/mathamathical subtext from “means” and there is a economic “means of persuasion” as well. But it’s also fairly obscure.

So my best choices after an afternoon of searching were runningstyle, goodrhetoric, and badrhetoric. Of the three, the first has a problematic double meaning and Aristotle didn’t favor it anyway. The second sounds a tad pretentious, as would bestrhetoric…

…but badrhetoric, however, has a edge to it. Especially since the difference between “bad” rhetoric and “good” rhetoric is hard to define. One man’s “bad” rhetoric is another man’s “good” rhetoric, and so-called “bad” rhetoric can be more effective than a classical speech that dots the ‘i’ in Aristotle. Plus, I kind of like starting at the bottom.

Well! I have just talked myself into badrhetoric. Both domains will work for the foreseeable future, but the title is officially now Bad Rhetoric.

Catching up, Part II

It occurs to me that my “Catching Up” earlier was entirely academic and job-related. I should fill in some of the remaining personal blanks.

I’m still with H, and I mean “still” in its positive, amazing sense.

My birthday is in a few days. I’ll be 31, which is incredible. I feel more like 23.

The post-semester break has allowed me to catch up on PC gaming. I played Oblivion through (very good and very long), Godfather: The Game (more amusing than good) and Hitman: Blood Money (excellent, the best of the series). Right now I’m playing with Rise of Legends a little, though it’s hard for an RTS to keep my attention very long. The monster computer I built over the Xmas break (so Oblivion and FEAR would be playable) has run like a top, especially after I put a Zalman cooler in.

H and I have been catching up on TV, too. We’ve watched all of Twin Peaks and kept up with the new Doctor Who. I think Tennant makes a fine Doctor; he’s not in Baker’s class, but he’s up there. I’m also finally up to date on all the HBO series I like – I’ve seen all the Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome, and Carnivale. I’ve spent some time in the boards analyzing this last Sopranos season – I think it was brilliant, which appears to be a minority opinion. Perhaps I will write something up about that.

I also hit the comics again. I read all of The Invisibles, a really fine if quirky British comic, got caught up with Powers, and noticed there is still no Ultimates #11. Sigh.

I’ve restarted Novel #2 again. It’s better than before and the story seems alive once more. I’ve restarted it a billion times, of course, and I keep changing major things. You’d think after six years I’d have a better idea of major plot points, but it has a mind of its own. I think it may be that I’m trying to write a story that is inherently episodic in the form of a novel. The resulting fit is poor. At least I know I’m fully capable of writing a long-winded book.

Catching up, Part III

It has also occurred to me that I should state my opinions on the current political climate. After all, that is what I used to do with this site, and what I intend to do so again.

The 2008 election is beyond commentary until the primaries begin. The 2006 elections will result in a Democratic pickup of seats in both houses, but it’s not a sure thing about either house switching control. There’s just not a lot of open /and/ vunerable seats. As unpopular as Bush is, and as bad as sixth-year elections tend to be for the party in power, I’d say GOP is probably going to escape with a razor-slim majority in both. I’m not as cheerfully optimistic as I used to be. Then again, I’m not a Democrat anymore, either.

Iraq is actually a little worse than I’d predicted. I remember making a huge fuss when the fatalities went over 1,000. Now we’re at nearly 2500. The rate is rock-steady above 2 a day. Nothing good there. I think I said a year ago that there would be no major troop reduction for at least two years. I don’t think we’re in any danger of that changing until a new President arrives. There’s just too much blood and institutional investment to stop, just as there was in Vietnam. President Howard Dean would have trouble even starting a pullout at this point.

The death of Al-Zarqawi is only of historical interest. The US did not kill a top leader as much as create a martyr. He is as effective dead as he was alive – maybe more so. Given, there are no shortage of martyrs on either side at this point, but a martyr that everyone knows the name of is better than a local one.

If there was something telling about this particular assassination, it is the downplaying of the other people that died in the bombing. It’s hard to say from all the different media accounts, but apparently at least one child and perhaps two were killed of the 7 people in the house when it was bombed. Most of the time, the articles and news reports don’t even mention it.

This is a particularly good example of the monkeysphere; we care about Zarqawi because the press and the government has told us his name and told us to hate him – he has personal qualities – but the other people that die remain unnamed and faceless. Insurgents die all the time in Iraq, in droves, apparently, but one man in an elaborate cell structure, where leaders are by definition de-emphasized, is magnified for drama.

I wonder if the other people in the house were hardened Al-Qaida, or he was just using a family’s house for cover. Perhaps only the father or head of household was sympathetic and part of his safehouse network, and the rest of the family oblivious, frightened, or see-no-evil.

We’ll never know, I guess. The news cycle has driven its point home – the US killed a major terrorist. Progress has been made, allegedly. Too bad, of course, that there are an unlimited amount of “major” terrorists, and they have a great training ground.