e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


this is why i got into this line of work

I couldn't be more excited about the honors seminar I'm teaching this Fall, 'Working-Class Cultures, Identities, and Rhetorics,' an interdisciplinary course in which we study literary, scholarly, and pop culture representations of working-class people. Students are interacting with many of the writers we're reading, including two former autoworkers who've used the assembly line as muse, setting, and topoi for their work. Lolita Hernandez, author of Autopsy of an Engine, will pay us a visit, as will poet Jim Daniels.

I've been working on arranging Daniels' visit for the past week or so, securing funds and planning his time on campus. In addition to visiting our class, Daniels will give an open-to-the-public reading, have lunch with the editorial board of our literary magazine, and (hopefully) screen his indie film "Dumpster." When I was an undergrad, I loved events like this, meeting writers, interacting with lovers of language (see Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys for a dramatization of this dynamic), thinking about how what we study impacts life off campus and vice versa. This is why I love working in academe.

If, reader, you live in Metro Detroit, stay tuned for details on Daniels' reading.



Last year on this day, the morning after I threw a bachelor party in L.A. for my friend Hung, I watched the storm on television with Hung, whose parents and siblings live on the eastside of New Orleans, in the Vietnamese district. Phones were out and we had no idea if his parents got out of the city. Last we had heard, his mother, stubborn, was refusing to flee. On tv, mother nature at her fiercest.

That afternoon, I flew back to Detroit and my sister picked me up at the airport. Exhausted, I fell asleep on her couch, convinced the storm's worst images had already aired. When I woke, the pictures on tv *had* gotten worse: disabled people on rooftops, dead bodies in the street, fights at the convention center.

In the final hours before Katrina hit, Hung's sisters convinced his parents to go stay with relatives in Baton Rouge. Miraculously, they made it out. Thousands did not. And one year later, many still are living in FEMA trailers. Thousands live with the memories of starvation, dehydration, violence and rape. Memories of scenes unfolding in one of the greatest cities in the richest country in the world. Scenes that definitively refute the myth that race and class do not dictate how we experience this society. Court records have been destroyed and many accused felons still sit in cells, twelve months later, awaiting justice. The police force remains grossly understaffed due to many cops being dismissed for malfeasance during Katrina and many more who never returned to the city after the storm.

Randy wrote two beautiful editorials for the Detroit Free Press. Check them out here.

Dateline NBC last night ran an hour-long encomium to Brian Williams, by Brian Williams, about Brian Williams. The special revealed how Williams
  • arrived in N.O. before first responders
  • represented valiantly "the people"
  • took FEMA and Bush** and Nagin to task
  • was hungry and thirty just like everybody else in the city
Interesting to see Katrina unfold through one person's eyes, but disheartening that NBC had to make ITSELF the story. And Williams too boldly proclaimed himself one of the sufferers ("we didn't have special helicopter drops with food just for the reporters"), although he also said he carried around cases of vienna sausage to barter with anybody who might attack him and admitted that he decided to move NBC out of the city and into the safer suburbs when he heard that CNN had done the same. So cases of sausage sat in NBC's van while people starved? He also glossed over the huge amounts of resources that he utilized during the two or three days after Katrina, including a group of armed police who circled him as he traveled through the city (hmmm, maybe those ten or twelve police could have been doing something else?).

**I'm paraphrasing here, but Williams's hard-hitting exchange with el presidente went something like this
Williams: "Some people say relief would have gotten to Kennebunkport more quickly"
Bush: "Call me anything you want but don't call me a racist"
Williams: "Okay"
Murrough would be proud.


summer reading round-up

Randy invites us to give a run-down of current or recent reading material. I'll bite, especially since I can count on one hand the number of days left in my season of discretionary reading.
  • Joanna Kadi, Thinking Class: Sketches from a Cultural Worker. Kadi combines theory, reflection, and polemic, talking through her childhood, Disney films, homophobia in the workplace, and a range of other subects. An intersectional approach to critiquing hegemony, all from the point-of-view of a lesbian, working-class, Arab-American woman.
  • Lolita Hernandez, Autopsy of an Engine. Hernandez offers stories based loosely on her experiences working the line at Cadillac assembly plant here in Detroit. Touches of magical realism, particularly in a Rashomon-like story that narrates an engine block falling off the line from multiple points-of-view, i.e., various line workers who all have different songs in their heads. Hernadez is going to visit my honors students this term, who are reading some of her work.
  • Laurie Halse Anderson, Fever 1793. I was a little disappointed in this novel, Anderson's follow-up to the great young-adult novel Speak. Fever 1793 is about a sixteen-year-old's harrowing experiences during the titular epidemic in Philadelphia. Lovely plot, compelling protagonist, but comparisons to Speak (an absolute classic) are inevitable and this lacks the intensity.
  • Alice Sebold, Lucky. Sebold's memoir of getting raped during her first year of college. Actually, in lage part, this is her memoir of how others react to her and to her trauma. This got huge amounts of press a few years back. The hype was deserved. Honest, filled with real people, filled with moments that make you wince and some that make you nod. The poet Tess Gallagher, Sebold's creative writing teacher at Syracuse, figures into the narrative in interesting ways, becoming Sebold's friend during her attacker's trial. A fascinating representation of the role trauma plays in the classroom. There's a sequence involving Gallagher pressuring Sebold into writing and then workshopping a poem about her rape. Powerful.
  • Stephen King, The Colorado Kid. Picked this up at a rummage sale a few weeks ago and fell for the packaging. Hard Case Crime is a new imprint that uses retro, noirish looking covers for new works of pulpy detective fiction. King liked the idea and lent his humongous name, and an indulgent novella, to the venture. King has a blast with over-the-top, much-exaggerated Maine accents, which become distracting after ten or twenty pages, especially given the story-within-a-story plot device King uses (two old newspapermen telling the story of a mysterious dead man to their young intern). A quick, but ulimately less-then-stimulating, read.
  • Lots and lots of Kenneth Burke. For article revisions. There are so many ways to look at Burke on identification. I've never had a conversation about Burke that didn't involve somebody saying "That's not how I read Burke." So I'm trying to walk the line between considering the reviewers' perspectives and holding true to my own reading.


i think it's a conspiracy...

So I've been waiting for Pitt to send proofs so I can start indexing. Boy, I thought, this will be perfect. They'll arrive sometime early August (i.e., the projected arrival time) and I'll have the month to index, index, til daddy takes the page proofs away. That early August thing, not so much. They'll be here at the end of this week, right about the time I'm starting beginning-of-the-schoolyear festivities on campus. And am I going to meet my goal to have poetics article back to Rhetoric Review before classes start? Again, not so much.


miscelaneous saturday

  • Barbara Ehrenreich recently started a blog, which will be required reading in my honors seminar this fall.
  • Pitchfork Magazine this past week ran a feature on the Top 200 Songs of the 60s.
  • Today the Woodward Dream Cruise turns suburban Detroit into a nostalgic mess. Every August, car enthusiasts spend an entire day driving vintage cars up and down Woodward Avenue and roughly a six-mile stretch of the drag is literally lined with on-lookers in lawn chairs. I've never been a car guy (yet I love Detroit--isn't it ironic?) and the event has no appeal to me. Fair enough. But some things that bug me about the day:
    • the event has sprawled into a weeklong affair, clogging traffic and damaging small businesses (bars are the only businesses that benefit from the Cruise)
    • did I mention the insane traffic situation?
    • the trinket shops--Dream Cruise beer cozys, ball caps, etc.--that have set up, among other places, on the lawn of the cemetery (!) at 12-Mile
    • the waste of three-dollar-per-gallon gas involved in the event, as eight- and twelve-cyllinder vehicles spend hours and hours cruising the street
    • the pollution
    • the bleach people pour in the street to accentuate the spinning tires
    • the sound of spinning tires
    • the port-o-potties: seems like there must be one per customer...they're everywhere, right there next to people's lawn chairs. yuk. the day involves lots of drinking so I guess this is better than peeing in the cemetery



As a kid I loved low-budget monster movies, which aired incessantly on basic cable. Each Saturday, an indie station out of Lorain, Ohio, Channel 43, ran an out-on-the-cheap show called "Superhost." A stout fellow in a Superman costume hosted the show, yukking it up on a soundstage between segments of Godzilla, The Blob, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, old Vincent Price flicks, Ben, Willard, Creature from the Black Lagoon, et al. Any cold war paranoia freak-out was typical fare for Superhost. Likewise, 70s exploitation, Christopher Lee, and, somewhat anomalously, the occasional Kung Fu film. And of course, from the vaults, Superhost would break out the first wave of horror. The show would nostalgically re-create an old-school movie-going experience, airing a few cartoons and shorts (Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy, anyone?) between features.

Because of this weening, I fell for the Snakes on a Plane hype. And, yesterday, on my way home from campus, I won free tickets from the local talk radio station for a free, late-night advanced showing, which Nicole and I attended last night. That's right, free and a day before the movie opens! This was the way to see Snakes: late at night; while enjoying free popcorn and radio station t-shirts; and surrounded by fan-boy types who approached the screening like a drunken, participatory experience, hooting at Samuel Jackson's dialogue, rooting for the snakes; you get the picture. And the showing was at a hoity-toity theatre in the suburbs with big huge seats. Very cool.

The cinematography of the film is such that you can't help but groan and shriek while the snakes kill people in original and sadistic fashion. How many ways can killer snakes dispatch innocent travelers? There are lots and lots of ways, folks. Aesthetically, Snakes shares something in common with Christopher Lee/Vincent Price/Kill Bill/Hong Kong ultra-violence. If it weren't so cartoonish, the film would be disturbing. Snakes biting people on every body part you can think of. Slithering into purses and barf bags. And the movie frontloads any and every over-the-top, lowbrow, flashy, exploitative plot device...Kickboxers! Gratuitous sex! Surfer dudes! Oh what fun, lives up to the hype.


notes on KB, "Revolutionary Symbolism in America"

Working on article revisions today. Specifically, I'm revisiting Burke's "Revolutionary Symbolism in America," his controversial address given at the first American Writers' Congress in 1935. Burke's audience, comprised of radical writers like Langston Hughes and Meridel LeSueuer, reacted with anger and outrage to Burke's thesis that proletariat literature needs to seize a "positive symbol" instead of merely offering representations of abuse. "A poet," Burke wrote, "does not sufficiently golorify his political cause by pictures of suffering and revolt."

Burke argues in the essay that the symbol of The Worker should be replaced with The Person. His reasoning: folks don't strive to be workers. Radical art, in Burke's conception, needs to represent an ideal.

He also suggests that radical art not settle for mere polemic, writing, "Much explicit propaganda must be done, but that is mainly the work of the pamphleteer and political organizer. In the purely imaginitive field, the writer's best contribution to the revolutionary cause is implicit." Burke's implicit representations of the material world have the potential to reach broader, more diverse constituents, as opposed to the polemics which reach only the like-minded: "As a propagandizer, it is not his work to convince the convinced, but to plead with the unconvinced, which requires him to use their vocabular, their values, their symbols, insofar as this is possible." In other words, use the forms and genres and rhetorics of the priveleged, in order to convince the priveleged.

I'm wondering how Burke's ideas--which, again, were greeted with derision at the American Writers' Congress in 1935--speak to, say, Farenheit 911. Is the most effective "imaginitive rhetoric" (what some still call the "poetic") a rhetoric couched in narrative, image, and that which is implicit?

Just a thought.


traffic school

Last night I attended traffic school in Oak Park, Michigan, punishment for speeding. Two hours. Hour one, a high school driver's education teacher gave a lecture, without using any notes whatsoever, bemoaning car accidents in the state of Michigan and praising the amount of revenue generated by speeding tickets. He knew statistics, broken down by city, county, and driver demographics. He had well-rehearsed anecdotes about drunk driving fatalities. Like a walking, talking after-school special. Did you know that in Michigan you can get a ticket for failure to wear a seatbelt in a parked car? Yep, so buckle up *before* turning the ignition, or face a no-point offense potentially.

Hour two, we watched a video (that pervasive classroom activity happens in all kinds of teaching contexts!) from the late 80s on how to respond to difficult driving situations like icy roads, failed brakes, passengers who refuse to buckle up, and so on. Christopher Reeve hosted the video and our teacher found it extremely ironic that Reeve starred in a public service video about car accidents a few years before his own horse accident. A flawed example of irony, I suppose, but, hey, look at that Alanis Morissette song. Perry King (from NBC's awesomely bad Riptide, the action show that aired right after The A Team), Sara Gilbert, Lorenzo Lamas, and Bruce Jenner all had cameos in the video. Viva!

Being married to a lawyer comes in very, very handy. Nicole represented me in court when I appeared for my ticket the other day. Courtroom absolutely full of traffic violators. Dozens of us. Four had lawyers in tow. When the prosecutor arrived in the courtroom, the four lawyers approached him and each lawyer was offered the same deal: avoid the points by going to traffic school. $95. a pop. Not sure if any of the folks who lacked representation got out of the tickets or not; I was gone by then. I tend to doubt it. Most driving infractions run at least $150. Many of the violators were wearing work uniforms: oil change places, fast food, etc., and it was hard not to see the process as the systematic transfer of capital from the service sector to the bureaucratic public sector. And those with attorneys caught a break of about 33% of the funds they had to turn over. I know, I know, don't speed then and you don't get into that kind of trouble. That's a fair point, but, still, let's acknowledge the various dynamics of the economics of this enterprise.



It was easy to feel good about the prospect of revision before actually starting the work. Now, a few days into that labor, revision feels like a drag. As I read and re-read reviewer comments and go back to the article, I get grumpy: "I explained that on page fifteen!" "But that's not what I'm writing about, you want me to write a different article."

Then I wonder, how many of my students feel this frustration when I mark up first drafts? How often do they feel like I'm too heavy-handed in my feedback? How often are they right?

This is not to say that the reviewer comments are anything less than helpful. This is just an admission that those comments make me grumpy.

And the work of revision doesn't always gratify the way that composing does. "Today I wrote three pretty good pages." That gives you a sense of satisfaction. "Today I re-read that section of Burke, then re-wrote those two paragraphs where I was talking about catharsis and tried to explain what class has to do with the critique of Aristotle's Poetics but I'm still not sure if I've addressed what the reviewer critiqued in those paragraphs." That doesn't feel quite so satisfying.


hot in here

Detroit, hotter than the Tigers' season. So muggy, I miss the dry-as-Tequila summers of Tucson. Yesterday I drove home from Dearborn in my A.C.-less van, trying to miss the red lights on Greenfield and then 8-Mile and the two minutes without toasty breeze that those stops represented. Greenfield from Michigan Avenue to 96--a stretch where most everybody's got a relative or friend in Lebanon--dozens of cars with Lebanese flags flying out their windows, as sadness and grief mingle with 98-degree afternoons to create anger. As we hope for a little relief from the heat, let's hope against hope for a little bit of peace, too.


shifting priorities

One of the great things about working in academe is the fact that one can always (err, except when a deadline is looming) set aside one project and focus on another. I had planned to get back from my monthlong sojourn in Ohio and get back to my research in the Reuther archives. However, a "revise and resubmit" letter awaited me and priorities had to shift. So back to the article on working-class poetics.

As is often the case (for me, at least), one review of the article was extremely positive, suggesting only minor changes, and one was more critical, outlining broader revisisions. Good cop, bad cop, I guess? Both reviews, though, offer smart readings of the article-in-progress--readings that, I have to admit, are going to make the piece stronger.

So priorities have shifted for the next few weeks, as I revise, revise, revise.