Masturbation by algorithm

It was self-explanatory, the tag that I appended on August 23 to the new photograph on my Tumblr. Anybody who clicked on the picture would see a form and instantly associate it with mental categories named (inter al.) cat and black. But the idea of clicking is all about working the process in reverse: from the name back to the thing. So I tagged my picture (inter al.) black.

Instantly my Tumblr was hit with a like from somebody (or “somebody”) bearing a name which also turned out to be self-explanatory: “hotebonyvaginas.” Clicking on that brought up a photo album devoted to the gynecology of black women.

Six days later I posted another image of the cat, and again tagged it with the search term black. Once, again, instantly, my site was like-bombed with a collection of black porn. This time, the like function named itself “eroticafrotits.” But though the two names were different, they had been generated by only one rhetorical algorithm.

When people like me teach composition, we call attention to this particular algorithm  by giving it a self-explanatory name: parallelism. Look, we say, writing an example on the board:

and that government
of the people,
by the people,
for the people
shall not perish from the earth.

After we finish writing, we draw lines between the similar parts of speech: preposition preposition preposition, one vertical line; article article article, another; noun noun noun, a third. If the words are arrayed this way in a matrix, you can see that the three lines we drew are parallel, and hence the name. It’s an ancient technology for massing words and bringing them to bear on their subject. The compilers of the Book of Proverbs used it over and over.

Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth;
a stranger, and not thine own lips.

The cyberbot that visited my site was one of those praising strangers. Its programmer had programmed it to do something called “liking,” and the word “like” showed up on my monitor per algorithm, then showed up again in parallel. Hotebonyvaginas, eroticafrotits: sexual adverb sexual adverb, race slang adjective race slang adjective, erogenous zone noun erogenous zone noun.  The machine operates in full auto made, and, entrained in full auto mode, unhappy old men turn off Fox News and unzip.

But here’s the cat: life filled to the exclusion of everything else with nothing but movement and appetite; and black. When you’re granted a choice of elements to like, my suggestion would be that you ignore silicon and choose carbon.

Sources: Proverbs 27. 2 (King James Version);

Cityscape with fungal decay

Sources: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress,, photoshopped; and Henry Vaughan, “They are all gone into the world of light!”

A seventeenth-century sense of “glory,” new in Vaughan’s time, is “nimbus” or “aureole”: a surrounding circle of light.

That eternity promised by our ever-living poet, part 2

During the summer break that’s about to end for me next week, an ancient classic that I put on the syllabus for the sophomore poetry-and-drama course changed itself in advance. That kind of change is one of the defining characteristics of the classic, of course. The classic is always younger than we are, always growing faster. That’s why every new encounter with it is a different joy. But this fall I’m afraid the joy is going to radiate so intensely from one particular classic, Antigone, that it will blast one of the subtexts my class and I will be reading in its vicinity. The history of events may wind up forcing us to read a modern text in an unanticipatedly ancient way — and at that, a way that isn’t Greek but Jewish.

When I ordered Antigone for the course several months ago, I was interested in trying what for me was a new idea: to teach it in versions from three epochs. The first version of the ancient but ever new myth would be Sophocles’s original, and the third would be a near-contemporary adaptation from 1987, A. R. Gurney’s Another Antigone. In between would come a version I’ve never taught before: Jean Anouilh’s darkly cynical adaptation, written and performed during World War II in occupied France, in which the Creon is a conscientious administrator (like, as Anouilh may have tried to hint between the lines, Pétain or Laval or Anouilh himself) doing his bitter best in an impossible situation.

Another Antigone I have taught several times in the past, and each time it has been popular with the students. For them, Gurney domesticates the myth by resetting Thebes as a contemporary American college where the conflict between Antigone and Creon plays out as a disagreement between a student in a literature course and her professor — a disagreement about the ritual to be performed over the corpus of Antigone. For the student, the classic has done its perennial work once again, and she is now so inspired that she decides to write a play of her own for the professor instead of the required paper. The professor, however, is unimpressed. Because he has lived with Antigone all his professional life, he has seen the inspiration before, and read the undergraduate attempts at dramas written in homage. “Another Antigone,” he sighs — and then he orders the student to go back and fulfill the assignment as written, with the paper specified on the syllabus. In the course of the catastrophe that follows (the Creon-professor launched on his lonely way to forced retirement; the Antigone-student launched on her lonely way to craziness) the professor delivers a lecture about tragedy which provides, per classical model, both instruction and delight. Before Gurney was a playwright he was a professor of classics, and my students who encounter Sophocles at the University of Hawaii have always been grateful for his guidance.

But they’ve also needed a little preliminary orientation. The world of Gurney’s dramas is upper- and upper-middle-class USA, northeastern and (so far as I’m aware) 100% white, and when I’ve taught Another Antigone to my mostly Asian-American students in Honolulu I’ve accordingly had to explain the connotations of terms like Andover and Martha’s Vineyard. More consequentially, most students at the University of Hawaii have never met a Jew and have no idea what a Jew is, and in Another Antigone the Antigone is Jewish and the Creon’s tragic flaw is unrecognized antisemitism. So I’ve explained that too. Until now, at least, that part of the pedagogy was just as easy as the rest. It was only another technical detail.

The play, too, helps with the explanation. Early, in an effort to forestall the catastrophe, the Chorus (a sympathetic woman dean) spells out the plot’s exposition phase this way for the professor’s benefit and ours:

“Henry: this is a free country. And academic life is even more so. You may write four-letter words all over the blackboard. You may denounce the government, blaspheme God, take off your clothes . . . You may do all of these things in here, and most of them out there. But there is one thing, here and there, you may not do. You may not be insensitive about the Jews. That is taboo. The twentieth century is still with us, Henry. We live in the shadow of the Holocaust. Remember that, please. And be warned.” (20-21)

. . .

Well, Another Antigone dates from the twentieth century. One of its topical details is already an anachronism: the binder of printouts (as of 1987 they would have been on large, green-barred sheets of paper) that the dean consults when she discusses enrollment. Another anachronism is a passing reference to the word processor as something new.

A third is a reference to the Modern Language Association’s annual convention as a scene of genteel passion between professors in hotel rooms. Oh yes, the twentieth century was a long time ago. In this year of the twenty-first century, between the time I placed my book order and now, some posts on the members-only website hosted by the MLA for discussing a proposal to boycott Israel were antisemitic in the crudest racist way. This year, too, in the second-largest newspaper in Spain, a distinguished playwright has published feuilletons laced with traditional Catholic Jew-hatred; in Italy, a distinguished Marxist philosopher has endorsed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and in the United States one synod of the Presbyterian Church has informed the Jews that it will decide where, and whether, they are to live. This semester with A. R. Gurney is going to be interesting accordingly.

But here’s one contribution to the idea of a happy ending: it probably won’t hurt A. R. Gurney’s feelings if I file this blog as evidence that he isn’t as good a playwright as Sophocles. Another Antigone has gone old now and I can’t imagine its story will be sympathetically imaginable for much longer, but Antigone (I’ve just opened the book again and checked) remains evergreen.


Source: A. R. Gurney, Another Antigone. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1988.

My latest photochapbook, free to view and download,

is available at The title is Trophies, the contents are something like a meditation piece about the photography of history, they are consists mostly pictorial, and if you want the keepsake edition on paper the link will also get you to Peecho, a print-on-demand publisher.

Tell your friends, please!

Mississippi River Bank: art as its own certificate of value

Source: “Show boat landing.” Milton McFarland Painter, Sr., collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, call number PI/1988.0006, Photoshopped.