Before Circulation

Alex French and Howie Kahn’s “The Greatest Newspaper That Ever Died” recounts the early 1990s sports news startup The National Sports Daily during its short, experimental, and ultimately failed run. Mexican billionaire Emilio Azcárraga dreamed up the grandiose plan for the paper, which aspired to provide national coverage and achieve widespread circulation, with much of the writing done by the best-known sports writers of the moment.

The story is worth a read for a couple of reasons. First, it offers a semi-coherent narrative woven not through co-authorial smoothing of transitions (think: prose cortisone shots) but instead by the arrangement of discrete interview snippets. That is, the story is parsed and assembled (more than conventionally written) from a cacophony of contributors who were directly involved with the experiment. Second, contributors (or interviewees?) say over and over that the failure of The National was caused not by the quality of the writing or the innovative vision but by the business side (sales and ad revenues unequal to expenses). I understand the failure was as much a matter of technological infrastructure–the fact that the publishers were attempting to route content from various cities to printing houses using sattelite transmissions that were just too slow. One anecdote has staffers accessing the sattelite equipment on the roof to knock ice and snow off of it with hopes of improving relay speeds. Basically, The National was the right idea in the wrong year. A third reason for reading: this story rolled out on Bill Simmons’ new ESPN-sponsored sports writing site, Grantland, which, considering its renowned writers and editors, amounts to a modern day equivalent of The National. Grantland is, in effect, The National twenty years later.

I suppose “The Greatest Newspaper That Ever Died” will not be all that surprising to anyone who remembers The National‘s hype. But the story of The National is promisingly rivaled, to my mind, by the subtext here about the forces inhibiting fast, large-scale circulation for news. Sure, hindsight makes it easy for us to know all about this now, but the story (a play-by-play, really) condenses and suspends that tension–right idea, wrong year–holding it up like a Jordan-era floater for a compelling sense of that-was-then.

Rhetorical Radiants

Fourth reactor at Chernobyl exploded just before my twelfth birthday, late April, 1986–25 years ago yesterday. Is the math right? For me that’s almost a half-life ago.

Now, I’m no scholar of nuclear accidents, but I am interested in the emerging narratives about the Fukushima aftermath that position it in a family of catastrophes such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Certainly there has been a lot of speculative discussion since the Fukushima incident about leaking/leaching radiation, toxic mists, jet streams, ocean currents, impacts zones, and the various ecological slices that will be differently impacted by chemicals and hot metals. For example, there’s this Nancy Grace clip.

In the PBS clip above (above N. Grace), the portrait is grim–birds with smaller brains and strange tumors, etc.–and the discussion of sealed away clumps of radioactive material lapses into near absurdity, particularly at the idea of who will keep watch on the plutonium whose half-life is 24,000 years.

In “Is Chernobyl a Wild Kingdom or a Radioactive Den of Decay?” Adam Higginbotham of provides a look from multiple sides at the unsettled questions about how animals have responded in the wake of nuclear meltdown. First dealing with optimists who can find examples of resilient wildlife, the article includes those who turn to other forms of evidence to leverage claims about the welfare of the post-Chernobyl ecosystem.

But a pair of scientists are now calling these claims into serious question. According to US-based evolutionary biologist Timothy Mousseau, there is scant evidence to back up the idea of Chernobyl as a radioactive Wild Kingdom. “People say these things–they’re simply anecdotes,” Mousseau says. “It’s totally irrational.” Nonetheless, last December, the Ministry of Emergencies–the Ukrainian agency responsible for overseeing the Exclusion Zone–announced that it would formally open the zone to mass tourism in 2011. In January, meanwhile, the country’s parliament approved a multibillion-dollar plan to build two new Russian-designed nuclear reactors in western Ukraine, some of the first to be started there since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I am gathering tiny collections like these in anticipation of ENGL505: Rhetoric of Science and Technology, a class I will be teaching in the fall semester. And by no means am I thinking of these preliminary tracings as complete or even all that thorough. In fact, that these are incomplete–that the very possibility of knowing radiation’s reach in space and time–is part of what allows us to witness how scientific debate operates (not only in scholarly or researcherly circles but in popular ones, as well). It’s almost as if we can trace consequentiality itself as a matter of concern, and what I find surprising (or at least interesting) about this is that the temporal frame is many multiples of human lifetimes long. What I mean is that it’s curious to me not only how we talk about immediate threats (absent visual confirmation…as is the case with mildly radioactive carrots, for example) but also how journalists and scientists grace such an uncertain horizon as the one many, many thousands of years from now when the plutonium at Chernobyl falls irradiant.

Writing Ypsilanti

RePresentations of Ypsilanti are fraught (does it matter whether these are “representations” or “presentations”? I don’t think so). By “fraught,” I mean they are piled high, brimming even, with hints of foreboding about crime and poverty endemic to the city and the nearby township, both of which bear the name Ypsilanti. That this is so turns out not to be an insight worth bothering to share with anyone who has lived on the east side of Washtenaw County for more than a few months.

Nevertheless, I am thinking about this locale because I am developing a course for now conceived as a rhetorico-geographic study of EMU’s surrounds. Yes, of course, it will be writing focused, as it will attend to questions of routes, distances, and enframings with a particular investment in producing variations: re-composing the local. I aim to have the proposal submitted by the end of the semester. Right now I am gathering ideas, storing them in such a way that they will, in time, assume the shape of a provisional syllabus and schedule.

And this means I am taking stock of local coverage of local events, conditions, or problems, as the case may be. For example, a series of articles have appeared in about Ypsilanti Mobile Village, an abandoned mobile home park on Michigan Ave. just east of the intersection with Prospect. In late December came news that the owner filed bankruptcy. By early January, there was a story about the owner expressing his intentions to clean up the site, and on Friday, word that a judge ordered the cleanup to proceed. I don’t want to suggest that this series of stories is particularly representative of’s coverage of Ypsilanti, and certainly there is much water under the bridge, so to speak, about how depicts Ypsilanti, how the “paper” writes Ypsilanti, that is. The series on Ypsilanti Mobile Village is simply an example–perhaps an example I am all the more interested in because I have driven by the park a couple of times, because it is as close to campus (to the west) as it is to where I live (to the north). To give you some sense of the mobile home park’s condition, an employee provided this video footage to with the first report:

That the initial complaint is reprinted in full in each of the follow-up stories strikes me as introducing a curious but distinctive echo: “Raw sewage continues to leak from several residences.” “Raw sewage continues to leak from several residences.” “Raw sewage continues to leak from several residences.” Reading it over yet again, the image becomes more deeply seated. It cements an impression that these grim conditions are permanent, that they are woven into the landscape in such a way that no bureaucratic or legalistic action will change any time soon.

“You Don’t Change Your Narrative”

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Are You Ready for Some Midterms? – MSNBC’s Political Narrative
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

What if remix culture (and concomitant sampling practices) are to blame credit for the willfully negligent truncations of context? Whether such truncations are on the rise, it is difficult to say, but they do seem to be more frequently in the news: 1) absurd fixations on narrative preservation/continuation, and 2) a bandying among television networks over how adequately a clip represents, synecdochically, the situation within which it arose. Samplers all, we cannot avoid the negation of context, can we?, so perhaps the best we can hope for is some rhetorico-ethical insight into why (and how) this happens, and, after that, some relief in laughter.