Dr. Hodgman, I Presume

Tags: ARFFF 2006.5, Hodgman vs. Livingston, Metaphysicians of Tlon, the primal scene of American historiography, The Muppet Movie, how history judges a dream-thief.

We’re still visiting family in (y)our nation’s capital and I’m finding it hard to write the second half of my books of 2006 post without more of the books in front of me. In its stead, I thought I’d excerpt two remarkable books I did bring with me on this trip. The books are John Hodgman’s crypto-pseudo-almanac The Areas of My Expertise, and James Livingston’s philsophical critique of American intellectual history, Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy. The two books have nothing in common except that: I brought them both on vacation, they both impressed me, and they look almost identical. OK, maybe not identical identical, but they’re trade paperbacks of similar size and their covers have nearly identical color schemes. All week I was picking up Livingston and expecting it to be Hodgman or Hodgman and expecting it to be Livingston. You think you’re so clever, you tell me which is which!

Opening Lines:

“Only in the United States do the losers, deviants, miscreants, and malcontents get to narrate the national experience–not, mind you, as exiles or emigres such as Leon Trotsky or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but as accredited professionals boring from within their own cultures and disciplines.”

“The Metaphysicians of Tlon are not looking for truth, nor even for an approximation of it; they are after a kind of amazement.”

Selected Passages:

“Herbert Hoover’s cadre of fighting, pneumatic robots was but one of the amazing technological advances he obtained from the visionary inventor Nikola Tesla. … As Tesla slept, Hoover sent agents into his room equipped with one of Tesla’s own Dream-Coils, and thus gained the secrets to the Long Range Death Ray, the Mechanical Snake, the Ultra-Car, the Hover-Yacht, and many more revolutionary devices. Hoover was glad of them when the hoboes attacked. But in the very twilight of his presidency, wary of how history would judge a dream-thief, he ordered all of the prototypes and their designs destroyed. They are now gone forever.”

“Until the twentieth century, the primal scene of American historiography was typically a confrontation between cultures construed broadly as incommensurable ‘races.’ … ‘Progressive’ historiography of the early twentieth century constructed a new primal scene by introducing the figure of industrial or financial capital, and making it the predator of the small producer and the freeholder. Since then, the hegemonic narratives of American history have habitually been built around this primal scene of proletarianization. … It is instructive, I believe, that social, labor, and cultural historians–the cutting edges of American historiography–cannot agree on the timing or even the etiology of the event in quesiton, and yet can insist on its synchronic significance. That such a consensus exists in spite of the obvious chronological confusion indicates that the ‘moment’ of proletarianization is more historiographical convention than historical event, more construction than recollection.”

“Suppose you are an asthmatic child, unsuited for play in cold weather … There are still any number of indoor amusements that will not overtax the lungs or the inhaler. For example: Inhaler whittling. Fabrication of elaborate kites that shall never be flown. Pill-swapping. Bird-loathing. Lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling. Finding new quiet radio programs to listen to. Hiding.”

“Don’t we need some way of appreciating the comic potential and redeeming value of the post-artisanal market society that entails proletarianization, corporate bureaucracies, scientific management, and consumer culture? Don’t we need some way of telling the story of nineteenth-century artisan-entrepreneurs which does not treat the decomposition of the market society they created as a tragedy–in other words, don’t we need a way of criticizing the corporate, postindustrial capitalism of the twentieth century which is not merely a protest against proletarianization? We do, of course, but it is not to be found in the extant critique of consumer culture … Pragmatism qualifies as a narrative form, a frame of acceptance that treats the rise of corporate capitalism as the first act of an unfinished comedy, not the last act of a bitter tragedy.”

“The poet and explorer Carl Sandburg asserted in his poem ‘Chicago’ that the city was populated by half-naked, white-toothed, magnetic dog-men who had enormous shoulders. At first it was believed that Sandburg was merely a dope fiend. Later it would be learned that he was in fact speaking of Omaha. Also, he didn’t exist either. Time and again, the Chicago-is-real theory simply does not stand up to scrutiny.”

“If the effect of the industrial revolution was ‘the de-domestication of women,’ as Fortune magazine claimed in 1935, that effect was not felt by native-born, middle-class women until the corporate reconstruction of American capitalism made paid employment a respectable and finally typical stage in their life cycle. So if the cause (in both senses) of modern feminism is the extrication of women from an exclusive preoccupation with domestic roles–a process that both presupposes paid employment and permits the detachment of female sexuality from familial objects or reproductive functions–and if modern feminism is by definition a cross-class social movement because it claims to speak for all women, it would seem to follow that the necessary condition of modern feminism is the rise of corporate capitalism.”

The Muppet Movie: This was a movie about puppets who go to Hollywood to become stars. As they travel, they frequently consult the script of the movie in order to know what to do next. When they reach Hollywood, they begin making a movie about the movie the viewer has just been watching. The puppets build plywood simulations of props that, earlier in the film, were presented as real. … The frog and bear and pig simulations panic as the fake/real and real/fake worlds nearly destroy each other. The puppets then look directly into the camera and instruct the viewer that ‘life’s like a movie: write your own ending.’ This was the only film in which the French literary critic Roland Barthes received a screenplay credit (he also did uncredited work on Corvette Summer.)”

Number of Hobo Names in Each Book:

LIVINGSTON: 2. 1.*
HODGMAN: 700**

*James “Cyclone” Davis. Richard Hofstadter is not, it turns out, a hobo name.
**800 in paperback edition.

1 Comment

  1. Really, _I’m_ going to have to be the one to explain this one? ok…

    The colours [yes, am a Canuck] chosen to sell pretty well anything come in and out of season, just like in fashion.

    Livingston was published in 2001 by Routledge in Great Britain.

    Hodgman was published in 2005 by Penguin in the USA.

    Two [probable?] forces at work here:

    1. The marketing guy at Routledge in Great Britain got canned for his unhealthily strong opinions of putting orange and blue together, and was eventually hired by Penguin in USA.

    2. Everyone knows that the USA is exactly 4 years behind Great Britain in the fashion world. “Time takes time.” [The Library Policeman - Steve King]

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