Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Surfing Bildungsroman: William Finnegan's Barbarian Days

Once a long time ago when I dabbled briefly in art I tried to paint a breaking wave as various hues of blue rushing up a face and then curling over itself to form the tube that surfers dream of.   My effort to represent what I imagine to be one of the finer experiences of life wasn't much.  But William Finnegan's Barbarian Days is.  The book is a memoir documenting the author's attempt to find and ride the perfect wave.  I can't say that he succeeds entirely at this task because no book possibly could; the experience belies textual description.  But he does about a good a job as one could, given the limitations of the printed word.

The core of the memoir is a bildungsroman in the classic sense of the word.  Finnegan graduates from University of California at Santa Cruz in 1974 and soon thereafter sets out across the southern hemisphere on a multiyear quest for the perfect wave stopping along the way to work as a dishwasher in Australia and a teacher in a South African ghetto.   Through it all Finnegan attempts to understand how to indulge his obsession while at the same time becoming a political journalist who is mindful of the welfare of others.

On one level this is a familiar framing:  a hippie going through an extended mid-twenties adolescence struggles to reconcile his selfish and hedonistic passions with the vocational and familial responsibilities that loom as one contemplates adulthood.  And to some extent the memoir is that.  Finnegan drops acid in Honolua Bay.  He avails himself of the hospitality of Pacific islanders without repaying them in kind.  He defrauds American Express in Thailand to extend his idyll.   He dates (and ultimately discards) a series of woman who, had he been less irresolute, might have married him.  He assumes physical and mortal risks in the surf that would make any mother turn over in her grave.  In short, he riots in the excesses of the 70s and all of the privileges that were extended to a certain socio-economic segment of that American generation.  And yet, instead of giving into this life, Finnegan emerges at the other end as a father in a stable marriage and as a renowned political journalist reporting on social injustices across the globe.

What is less familiar about this bildungsroman is that while Finnegan grows up he never gives up on his youthful surf obsession.   To this day, he continues to make surfing forays from his home in New York City to various spots along the New Jersey and Long Island shores.  And he finds time to surf in exotic foreign locales as well.  Do these forays represent a lapse?  A signal that he hasn't grown up and that irrepressible adolescent inclinations peek out from behind the veneer of his adult gravitas?  That is one way to portray it.  But I want to be more charitable.  It's not just Finnegan vacillating between the pull of a selfish individualism and the push of a more communitarian and selfless nature.   It's not just the sensibilities of the “me decade” dueling with those of “we decade.”  Rather, it's Finnegan realizing that a life well lived can (and should) have room for both activities.  Reporting on social injustices as Finnegan does deserves the highest accolades.  It's what Aristotle was talking about when he argued that the telos of being human is to be political.  But those adult virtues, celebrated as they are, don't need to eclipse the virtues of immersing oneself in nature and bearing witness to its sublime beauty. Both define the good life.  And both, in their proper measure, are worthy of pursuit. In Barbarian Days Finnegan shows how he found those measures.

Monday, January 4, 2016

A Computational Xmas

Below is a xmas greeting my dad wrote in 1969 on a teletype terminal while he was an anthro professor at Dartmouth College. The photo depicts a scrap of teletype paper. The poem, using words like "GOTO" and "Run" presents itself as a working program written in BASIC which John Kemeny was popularizing at Dartmouth at the time. The program doesn't actually run I don't think. But it's an artifact of the times illustrating how humanists and social scientists were also peripherally getting involved with the use of BASIC.  Here is the poem transcribed in a more readable format:

READY
10 ANOTHER CHRISTMAS COMPUTATION
15 REPROCESSING OUR LIST OF FRIENDS
20 CAN WE AGAIN GET OUT THOSE CARDS
30 BEFORE THE SEASON ENDS?
40
50 IN FACT THE TASK THOUGH ONEROUS
60 IS FILLED WITH JOY AND LOVE
70 DOES IT SEEM MECHANICAL?
80 GO TO LINE 60 ABOVE
90
100 WITH EACH OF YOU WITH WHOM WE SHARE
110 SOME WHERE, SOME PLEASURE AND FUN
130 READ 'MERRY CHRISTMAS'
140 READ 'NEW YEAR'S JOYS'
150 MAY THEY NEVER
END
160 BUT INFINITELY
RUN

And here is the actual poem:

Friday, December 11, 2015

DHQ Review // Silicon Valley and Silicon Slopes

My review of Alice Marwick's Status Update is now available on Digital Humanities Quarterly.  Marwick's book is in many ways an ethnography of Silicon Valley entrepreneurial culture as it's lived through social media and it's an illuminating description of life lived in a distinct time and in a distinct place.  Living here in Utah in 2015 I keep asking: do her descriptions have applicability here and now as well?

Apropos of the above question long term I would like the Weber State Center For Technology Outreach to invite in a few speakers who can talk about Silicon Valley culture and compare it to Utah's own indigenous entrepreneurial culture (which is sometimes called Silicon Slopes).  A couple of years ago Vauhini Vara at the New Yorker ran a piece called How Utah Became The Next Silicon Valley.  It's time for some followup reflections.


Saturday, October 17, 2015

Wasting Time


 In today’s busy, technology-driven world, time is of the essence. An award-winning scholar and author will explore how previous generations have grappled with wasted time at Weber State University, Oct. 21 at 1:30 p.m. in the Stewart Library Hetzel-Hoellein Room. More...


Sunday, August 16, 2015

All Is Vanity - Denigration of Selfies as a Form of Social Regulation (or: "iphone, iphone in my hand, who is the fairest in the land?)

In Ann Burns' Self(ie)-Discipline: Social Regulation as Enacted Through the Discussion of Photographic Practice (discussed also in Nathan Jurgenson' s What is a Selfie?)  Burns argues that commentary about selfies has "a regulatory function" that not only " acts as a cloaked expression of sexist attitudes but also defines and stigmatizes a specific group of subjects."  Whether this is true or not it reminds me a bit of Charles Allen Gilbert's 1892 drawing titled "All Is Vanity:"


I came across the above in Claire Tanner's Vanity, 21st Century Selves ( MacMillan, 2013).

Toward the end of "What Is A Selfie?"  Jurgenson suggests that the term "selfie" is somewhat fluid and that we should study those changing meanings since the "fluid meaning of selfie tracks the fluid meaning of the self."  As we continue our own research on "whether the internet makes people narcissistic" (and other present day anxieties about the internet) this seems like a worthy investigation.  And one that could also be complimented by investigating the fluid significance of words like vanity, humility, narcissism and self-promotion.



Friday, April 3, 2015

A Dangerous Wandering Presentation at Weber State


Matt Richtel's very engaging presentation at Weber State University on March 19th sponsored by the Technology Outreach Center, the Provost's Office, the College of Arts and Humanities, the Psychology Department and the Neuroscience Program.