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Pondering the Concept of the Orgasm

Category : Uncategorized · (1) Comment · by Apr 13th, 2009

I read this in my writing seminar today. I’m fairly pleased with the result, so I thought I would share it with you.

I would have to label myself as being unjustifiably forward were I to simply say, “I am interested in the concept of the orgasm” and leave it at that. This would be unacceptably presumptuous for two reasons, neither of which concerns the ethical propriety of discussing this matter in the Rock, during a class presentation (of sorts), or in front of my professor. Indeed, I believe we’ve all slipped a few phrases into our responses or essays that might be heard – perhaps by someone uninitiated in our seminar’s familiarity or our university’s general liberated-ness – as insults to our kindly professor, underminers of our collective academic seriousness, or insults to the reputation of our well-endowed Ivy League institution. For the sake of disclosure and to ensure that there is complete honesty between reader and writer before moving on, I must admit that, although I have been pondering the concept of the orgasm for several months without raising the issue in class, I am not concerned about our professor taking offense to this discussion, since it comprised the bulk of my application for this course.
No, the concerns are more serious and strike at the very heart of the issue in question (which is, by the way, not exactly “the concept of the orgasm”). What I’d really like to hone in on is not the orgasm per se, but its position, its function in language. Or rather, languages. The thing I’m really interested in, to put it another way, is not a thing at all but particular sets of relations that exist between languages, their speakers, and jouissance. When thinking about language, something I do quite a bit of in my occupation (and I mean this not in the sense of mon métier but instead mon activité or mon occupation), theories of signification can end up being easy to believe but difficult to understand ou sentir. It’s easy to comprehend Saussure’s arguments (and diagrams) that explain how the signifying function brings both the signified and the signifier into existence as two sides of the same coin, but I find it more challenging to think about what that means for the meaning of these elements. This difficulty doesn’t really present itself in Cours de linguistique générale, which presents signification as a process that deals with solid, concrete things and names them arbor and equos.

But that is why “the concept of the orgasm” presents a more interesting challenge. Its existence is surely real (a statement I do hope, for your own sake, you have no trouble accepting) but cannot be grasped as one can a tree. Instead, it exists as a specter, a figure at the limit of language itself. By its nature, jouissance resists closed up, stable signification (for what it’s worth, Lacan argued that one of the symptoms of the neurotic is that he is so unable to give up his hold on a stream of conscious language that he tries to maintain a coherent thought through the moment of sexual climax). Here you might be able to discern the first reason I said this essay is too forward. I am interested in how different languages speak of orgasm, the words they use to approach it from different angles. But saying that I am “interested in the concept of the orgasm” begs precisely the question I aim to ask. That is: What can we learn about different cultures from studying their words for le petit mort? Is there anything to be learned about America’s famous puritanical prudishness from the un-descriptive, nearly derogatory “to come” (which highlights what can safely be said to be an aspect of the experience less connected to intense pleasure than the apparent targets of its French counterparts)? By claiming to be interested in “the concept of the orgasm” I’m unfortunately taking the signified itself to be as stable and easily recognizable a thing as un arbre when I’m really trying to untangle a web of signifieds not easily, or feasibly, translated.

The second reason is more personal still. The truth is I’m terrible at language learning. It took me a long time to learn how to read English (I am still proud of finishing that first Amelia Bedila book, a particularly writerly place to start I must say) and I still have trouble with spelling. Just recently, I’ve all but given up on the prospect of learning French, which was my first attempt at another spoken language. But still, I’m interested in this comparative language issue even though I don’t know any good vernacular for orgasm beyond the few French ditties I’ve busted out so far. My assumption, still unconfirmed by more linguistically-talented friends, is that there must be some good ones out there in German, Chinese, Arabic, Sanskrit, Japanese or Esperanto. But this is just an assumption; one I think might be, again, getting ahead of itself, this time in a manner more directly connected to writing.

The problem seems to me to be the expectation that I will find something incredibly illustrative in these different languages. I’m all ready to see a tightly controlled, frustratingly roundabout, and surprisingly violent Japanese word and I have a lot of hope for German, which a friend described to me as a language designed for abstraction and powered by word play. But my concern, which I believe has prevented me from taking up this topic for my third essay, is that I will write what I already “know” and find what I already expect to see. On the one hand, I think I’m envisioning writing this as an exploration but I also know that it is a stand-in, a fetish object covering up my inability to really learn another language. I fear that my curiosity about “the concept of the orgasm” is really compensation for my feelings of failure coming out of French class. I think my unconscious drive to write this essay perceives it as a way to write myself out of my English trap: if I try hard enough, maybe my multilingual essay will stand in for my shame at only being able to see the words of other languages as novelties instead of as richly meaningful signs.

Curiosity. or On the Purpose of Philosophy. or The Essay.

Category : Uncategorized · No Comments · by Apr 7th, 2009

“As for what motivated me, it is quite simple; I would hope that in the eyes of some people it might be sufficient in itself. It was curiosity – the only kind of curiosity, in any case, that is worth acting upon with a degree of obstinacy: not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what it is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself.

After all, what would be the value of the passion for knowledge if it resulted only in a certain amount of knowledgeableness and not, in one way or another and to the extent possible, in the knower’s straying afield of himself? There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and relecting at all. People will say, perhaps, that these games with oneself would better be left backstage; or at best, that they might properly form part of those preliminary exercises that are forgotten once they have served their purpose.

But, then, what is philosophy today – philosophical activity, I mean – if it is not the critical work that thought brings to bear on itself? In what does it consist, if not in the endeavor to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known? There is always something ludicrous in philosophical discourse when it tries, from the outside, to dictate to others, to tell them where their truth is and how to find it, or when it works up a case against them in the language of naive positivity. But it is entitled to explore what might be changed, in its own thought, through the practice of a knowledge that is foreign to it.

The “essay” – which should be understood as the assay or test by which, in the game of truth, one undergoes changes, and not as the simplistic appropriation of others for the purpose of communication – is the living substance of philosophy, at least if we assume that philosophy is still what it was in times past, i.e., an “ascesis,” askesis, an exercise of oneself in the activity of thought.”

-Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Vol. 2 – The Use of Pleasure (pp. 8-9)

Stimulating Cities

Category : Uncategorized · No Comments · by Mar 30th, 2009

One only needs to stand at Prospect Park and look over Providence at night to see local examples of the irrational exuberance of the recent housing boom. Few of the hundreds of new condos downtown are ever lit because barely anyone lives down there. With at least two large condo complexes still ostensibly under construction, it’s clear that Providence has a glut of high end housing that will likely sit empty for years. That said, it could be worse. At least the extra housing is in the right place, the middle of the city, and not miles away from anything, like many of the housing developments built in the last decade.

I just finished an extremely interesting article about how the economic stimulus money could provide opportunities around the country to redesign struggling cities. The article looks at competing visions for several cities – New Orleans, Los Angeles, Buffalo, and The Bronx – that aim to improve infrastruture, reduce reliance on cars, and reclaim public green space. Many of the plans also try to foster social justice by removing elevated highways that cut through neighborhoods (guess which ones). While there are certainly urban planning problems in Providence, the increased (potential) density downtown seems quite progressive compared to some other sprawl-inducing development plans. At least when things eventually recover, there will be plenty of existing housing downtown that should make Providence a relatively sustainable city. The developers will surely lose money on their buildings but I don’t think there’s much use in worrying about that at this point…

There’s been a lot of focus recently on how the geography of the future will be different from the sprawling, Levitt-esque suburbs we’ve been building thus far. The Atlantic recently ran a brilliant story about how the geography is inextricably tied to modes of capitalist production. Like many articles, it argues that the building we’ve been doing for the last fifty years is both shortsighted and unsustainable. But the ironically named author, Richard Florida, also predicts what kind of geography might be the most viable moving forward. Mega Regions, he argues, will be the best suited for the future by permitting low-emission lifestyles and providing the density required to incubate the creativity necessary to succeed in an information-driven economy.

Providence, it just so happens, is at the center of what Florida argues is one of the world’s premier mega regions: The Bos-Wash mega region. This is why I think the biggest key to Providence’s future success is something that the instate proposals of shovel-ready, stimulus-funded construction projects cannot reach: high-speed rail. There is some money in the stimulus package for high-speed rail initiatives but it isn’t enough and the current plan is to divide it too many ways. After traveling around Europe on the TGV this summer, I am quite enamoured with high-speed rail. Hopefully, Obama and Amtrak Joe will be able to make subsequent funding requests to build a true high-speed rail line in the Northeast Corridor. Providence will really need it.

Geithner's Bank Plan

Category : Uncategorized · No Comments · by Mar 23rd, 2009

Timothy Geithner’s/Obama’s bank rescue plan doesn’t give me a lot of confidence. Here’s why:

Paul Krugman has posted a few times in the past couple days about the bank rescue plan. He argues that the Geithner plan is treating this crisis in the wrong way. By propping up the prices of the “toxic waste” that is at the root of the financial problems, the plan assumes that these investments are basically sound, but the underlying value has just temporarily dived below a reasonable value. Krugman argues that this is a misunderstanding on the part of Treasury, since the problem here is the investments themselves: the result of a (largely poorly planned) construction binge the country can ill afford.

His suggestion:

“if you think that the banks really, really have made lousy investments, this won’t work at all; it will simply be a waste of taxpayer money. To keep the banks operating, you need to provide a real backstop — you need to guarantee their debts, and seize ownership of those banks that don’t have enough assets to cover their debts; that’s the Swedish solution, it’s what we eventually did with our own S&Ls. Now, early on in this crisis, it was possible to argue that it was mainly a panic. But at this point, that’s an indefensible position. Banks and other highly leveraged institutions collectively made a huge bet that the normal rules for house prices and sustainable levels of consumer debt no longer applied; they were wrong. Time for a Swedish solution.”

Essentially, Treasury is betting that this crisis is merely the result of a panic that has distorted an otherwise functional market system. But Krugman argues the market itself is the problem here; to enact the necessary fiscal policies requires that the decision makers recognize the depth and bredth of the systemic problems in our economy.

It’s a shame that Congress hasn’t provided any leadership on economic issues. It started to react a bit after public anger seemed ready to boil over after the A.I.G. bonuses became news. Many commentators have rightly argued that there are more serious problems with the financial industry than these bonuses and that $165 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the total cost of the bailouts. Indeed, Spitzer, speaking from his moral exile at Slate, reminds us to be careful to peak behind the curtain here: A.I.G. bailout money has been funneled to a bunch of other firms (including Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, UBS, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Barclays and Goldman Sachs), who are getting paid back 100 cents on the dollar for their adventures with the (morally) bankrupt company. But the public outrage at the bonuses is real and justified. There are quite a few things to be mad about right now, and desite widespread real, material pain for much of the country, there hasn’t been much visible anger about this situation. Of course the country is still feeling good because of the election, but we need to look at the economic team Obama has surrounded himself with.

There is still a narrow set of voices represented at Treasury (certainly not helped by the fact that Geithner is still working virtually alone). The recovery plan is being designed by the best and the brightest, sure, but it is the best and the brightest from the team that created the systemic economic problems in the first place. Greenwald argues the extent to which Goldman Sachs and its alumni are both the designers and beneficiaries of the bailout packages thus far is representative of the extent of true “oligarchic decay” in the governing and management of our financial system. I think he’s correct when he says this justifies real public anger; the hypercomplex, two-tiered natures of  contemporary financial apparatuses demand the vigorous public response our deading media has thoroughly subdued.

In Providence, I recently saw Les Énfants de Don Quichotte, an experience that really dramatized the difference between our political universe and France’s. The documentary followed organizers of a citizen’s movement fighting for a universal right to housing. Here, we see the Today show visiting Sacramento’s twenty-first century shanty town while thousands of area homes sit empty in foreclosure.

There should be some public anger here. The offensive A.I.G. bonus scandal has only been the most dramatically personal and was therefore able to catalyze a lot of vehemence. Instead of trying to repress this populist energy, I wish the fourth estate would articulate the true depth of the problem so there could be public consensus for bringing in new economic voices to initiate legitimate structural change.

And finally, the market response should not be used as the sole standard of economic health here. As we’ve learned from Jim Cramer, that’s a metric completely controlled by the people who both created and are now trying to fix this mess. In other words, the plan was designed for them, and it gives them trillions of dollars more to play with. I should hope that they’re happy.

BDH refuses to publish Op-Ed criticizing its coverage

Category : Uncategorized · (2) Comments · by Mar 17th, 2009

I won’t argue that the piece I wrote for my BDH column this week was well written. But there’s something fishy going on with the BDH Opinions section. Allow me to explain.

On Monday, the BDH published a front page story criticizing Brown VP for International Relations David Kennedy’s ’76 agenda for the Watson Institute. He’s currently serving as the interim director of the Watson Institute and, according to the BDH, has been making some controversial decisions about the direction of the Internationalization Initiative. The article cited faculty opposition to Kennedy’s signature Watson global governance initiative. In particular, the BDH criticized the personal relationships between Kennedy and a few of his new hires. Worse, these new (non tenure track) professors only have Harvard J.D.s, not Ph.D.s! Other professors hurled accusations that Kennedy is trying to turn the Watson into a law school. The article included not only innuendo, claims acknowledged to be rumors, and critical statements from anonymous sources but also delved into his romantic life.

Later on Monday, I saw my friend Evan Pulvers, who is in one of the international law classes at issue. She told me she had written an Op-Ed response to the article defending Kennedy’s programs, explaining the value of her class, and criticizing the BDH’s reporting. Since I was not excited about my own column, I offered her my regular spot in the Op-Ed rotation this week. However, the BDH opinions editor is refusing to print Evan’s column until after break. (Apparently my space in the paper just disappeared this week.) At that point, it will be too late for the response to matter.

This is the most controversial and “hard hitting” story the BDH has run all semester. The paper must stand behind this story enough to print Evan’s response this week. That is a standard of the responsible journalism to which the BDH aspires.

Though in context it might have been justifiable to mention Kennedy’s relationship with Dan Danielsen, the implication is unseemly. International Relations Program Director Peter Andreas explained in Tuesday’s paper that their relationship is several decades old and not out of the ordinary at Brown, facts that were not clear from Monday’s BDH story: “Danielsen is in a romantic relationship with Kennedy.”

Andreas also explained that the article’s claims about possible elimination of the IR and Development Studies concentrations were factually incorrect. From what I’ve heard, the issue with DS in particular is not precisely a funding cut, but rather the end of grants that supported the interdisciplinary research and teaching initiatives that are the essential cores of the program.

I covered Internationalization for the BDH during the fall of 2008, so I’m familiar with David Kennedy and some aspects of the Internationalization initiative. Everyone from the Provost to Ruth’s office to members of the Internationalization Committee knew the value David Kennedy brings to the job. They hired him for his experience and his connections. (And it was expensive, don’t forget that Harvard Law School professors don’t come cheap. Just look at the number of positions listed behind his name on When I interviewed him for the BDH in October, 2007, the global governance initiative was the fous of our conversation. If the University didn’t want to start studying law, they shouldn’t have hired a highly respected lawyer.

Finally, I think Kennedy deserves the benefit of the doubt here. When I interviewed him, I was struck by his emotional connection to Brown (class of ’76). He emphasized how much he valued the uniqueness of Brown and its focus on undergraduate eduation. Though I am dubious of the University’s Internationalization agenda being an example of Brown trying to be Harvard, my conversation with Kennedy reassured me that even after spending many years in Cambridge he still understands the culture of College Hill.

New Media's Graphic Designs

Category : Uncategorized · No Comments · by Feb 14th, 2009

The article covering yesterday’s friday the 13th plane crash in Buffalo, NY had an interesting graphic half way down the page:



Google Maps was the first one on the scene

Google Maps was the first one on the scene of yesterday's plane crash in Buffalo, NY

Of course, the Times had a slideshow of original flames and smoke photography. But I think this illustrates the cultural relevance of Google Maps insofar as it has become the record of the way the world looks (referenced by the Newspaper of Record). We usually think about the new/old media relationship as websites linking to original reporting of established news organizations; this inverts the relationship. It shows that the Times’ news judgement is adapting to the new environment of Internet truth.

How to improve Morning mail

Category : Uncategorized · No Comments · by Feb 2nd, 2009

In my first BDH column today, I discussed how the new Brown policy restricting advertising in Morning Mail to events expecting more than 300 people harms student groups. Building the Critical Theory Project has shown me how important access to Morning Mail is for forming and organizing a student group. This policy will also harm university departments and organizations (e.g. the Curricular Resource Center, Career Services) trying to spread awareness of their programs.

Though I agree that Morning Mail got a bit long last semester, I think the harm caused by losing so much information about what is happening on campus far outweighs the benefits of a shorter daily email. The BDH was right in arguing that people who skipped the Morning Mail will probably not start reading it because it contains fewer announcements. If anything, the service will lose readers as its relevance to student life declines.

The digest at the top of the Morning Mail already provides readers with a quick way to scan the contents. If it’s getting too unwieldy, maybe there should be better editing of the submissions. Thought ALL CAPS does catch the eye when it’s used in the middle of a large block of text, it will only start an ugly Morning Mail arms race. In addition, the Morning Mail administrators could create some kind of “featured events” section that would separate and highlight the biggest events. This system would catch reader’s attention while maintaining everyone’s access.

And there might be more UCS or CIS could do to help organizations advertise to the Brown community. Morning Mail already has a pretty functional website, but it could be aesthetically improved. A blog format might actually work well, since entries could be organized by tags. The content could also be used to build the kind of personalized Brown home page that some other schools have. This idea was raised in last semester’s UCS poll.

Defining Torture

Category : Uncategorized · No Comments · by Jan 14th, 2009

Bob Woodward’s article in today’s Washington Post includes the first Bush Administration confirmation of torture at Guantanamo. Susan Crawford, who was named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Gates in February 2007, went on the record:

“We tortured [Mohammed al-] Qahtani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution.

Aside from an official admission of something everyone already knew, what is most interesting about this human rights embarrassment? I think we should focus on the definitional argument undergirding the administrative decision labeling these “abusive techniques” as too rough while other detainees’ experiences during stays at Gitmo and in foreign prisons after CIA rendition still remain undisclosed or unclassified as torture. Consider Crawford’s logic in deciding to call Qahtani’s treatment “torture” and halt prosecution:

Crawford, 61, said the combination of the interrogation techniques, their duration and the impact on Qahtani’s health led to her conclusion. “The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent. . . . You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly coercive. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge” to call it torture, she said.


Thus, the medicalization of torture. It is a biopolitical classification right out of Discipline and Punish. While the purpose of torture is to trigger a psychological breakdown (this was certainly accomplished: “There is no doubt he was tortured,” Gitanjali S. Gutierrez, Qahtani’s civilian attorney, said this week. “He has loss of concentration and memory loss, and he suffers from paranoia.”) this definition sidesteps the psychic realm in favor of the more easily categorizable medical definition. Taken as the legally accepted category of “torture,” this policy would run into the same ethical problems as capital punishment, since doctors’ Hippocratic Oaths would seem to ban participation in torture. Were a licensed doctor’s medical opinion is required to render legally binding judgement on the limits of a prisoner’s human rights, these ethical dilemmas would become legal problems akin to the ones that caused the Supreme Court to issue stays on executions last year.

War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength, Scion is Creepy

Category : Uncategorized · No Comments · by Jan 7th, 2009

As the country works together to fight off depression this winter, we’ll have to do without the usual excitement of the circuit of over-the-top auto shows. Even the revered Detroit International Auto Show is struggling, as Nissan (whose new ads feature the tag line “You don’t just need a car, you need a car company“) pulled out of the event and all the other manufacturers are cutting back on parties, catering, and models. GM is even trading in the usual wood floors in its exhibit for less-costly carpet.


Against this backdrop, there seems to be one company – or rather one marque of the no-longer profitable Toyota Motor Corp – that is still “cool:” Scion. Personally, I find their cars pretty ugly and they’re not fun to drive (I’ve rented the xB a few times through Zipcar). Perhaps their only redeeming quality in my eyes is that ?uestlove drives one.

Currently, viral marketing is all the rage (Dodge is trying to ignore the reality of non-existent truck sales by putting together a viral “reality” show with some real Americans) but there remains nothing more powerful than when customers spontaneously adopt a brand personality.

This is where Scion gets really creepy (start at 0:30):


I saw this Orwellian ad at during the previews before Milk. I thought it was more than a little unsettling, especially since I had recently read a NYT article about the devotion of many “Scikotics:”

From its inception in 2003, Scion, a division of Toyota, has made rampant use of grassroots marketing to recruit owners like Mr. Wong — young, enthusiastic, industrious — to be the hot-rodders of tomorrow. Encouraged by Scion’s keenly directed flow of marketing dollars, which not only support car shows and track days but also hip-hop concerts, fashion shows and exhibitions of graffiti art, owners have formed close-knit social networks in the real and virtual worlds, where Mr. Wong is the very model of an alpha Scion citizen.

Asked in an instant messaging exchange whether he goes to Scion meets, Mr. Wong replied: “All the time. I have one tonight, one Friday, Saturday and Sunday this week.”

This fanaticism brings to mind Marx’s famous quip about Ideology “They do not know it, but they are doing it.” Scion has successfully engineered a product that is meant to be incomplete. By opening up their cars to easy modification, Scion has created a brand that captures customers’ imaginations because they can be unique after buying the car. Obviously this is a common tactic among brand managers, but the genius here is how Scion parlayed this feeling into a need to continually buy new parts, continually pour more money into the car.

I don’t think it should ever be surprising that advertising creates this kind of mentality, but it’s the fanaticism that really gets me. If you don’t believe me, check out the comments on that youtube clip.

I Hear Blago's Innocent

Category : Uncategorized · (1) Comment · by Dec 19th, 2008

My favorite part of the speech is when he quotes Rudyard Kipling.  

Not to worry Blago fans, I’m sure he’ll be a Slate columnist by spring time.