June 30, 2010
Christopher Hitchens diagnosed with cancer
Sad news via Owen Bowcott in The Guardian:
The author and polemicist Christopher Hitchens yesterday announced he was cutting short a promotional book tour in order to undergo chemotherapy treatment.
There were reports that the the British-born writer, who was a heavy smoker until giving up several years ago, had been diagnosed with cancer.
In a statement issued by his US publisher, Twelve, the 61-year-old said: "I have been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my oesophagus. This advice seems persuasive to me. I regret having had to cancel so many engagements at such short notice."
The firm gave no further details other than asking for his privacy to be respected. Hitchens launched a high profile book tour last month to promote his memoir Hitch-22, which tackles subjects ranging from the Middle East and Zimbabwe to his friendships with prominent writers including Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis. The volume has already entered the bestseller lists.
I sent you a few words
ones that are now rare –
if they reach you one day,
hide them, there’s no way to understand me
the space that exists within a word
is like our home:
there are pictures, sounds, and gestures in it –
and yet we are forbidden to decipher it
for those who still believe in words:
silent is their surging core, pitch-dark is their heart of fire –
but when will we ever understand the sea?
and the eternal fire?
what do we find beyond words:
a flower garden? deep space?
in the garden, so many things are left unsaid
in space, so stark is the void
what else is left to cling on to? some words
insist on bursting through reality’s edge –
upon reaching the other shore, will it still be meaningful,
to you, everything I want to say?
in every word you read there are always
missing letters –
you will find them again someday
amidst thickets of memories.
by Sapardi Djoko Damono
translation: Hasif Amini and Sapardi Djoko Damono
from Hujan Bulan Juni
publisher: Grasindo, Jakarta, 1994
On a balmy and humid Saturday night, June 5th, we left our apartment on Kikar Masarik Square in Tel-Aviv and walked down to Yitzhak Rabin Square, only 5 minutes away. Recalling our youthful days at similar anti-war and peace marches, we eyed the crowd anxiously. We soon realized that we were joining the crowd, whose size would eventually grow to 6,000 and sponsored by the Israeli Peace Movement (Shalom Ahshav), at the gathering spot of the Israeli Communist Party (Hadash): I noticed many young Arabs carrying the hammer and sickle, along with girls, Israeli or Palestinian, with their khaffiyas, chanting in Hebrew and Arabic as a distinguished looking elderly Arab gentleman addressed that part of the crowd. As the sea of red flags surges around us, I suppressed a tear: Such a sight is hardly visible in any European capital. I recalled all those Jewish communist militants of Europe who gave their lives for an ideal that was hollowed out by history. “Wie eine Trane im Ozean,” I mused --like a tear in the Ocean-- recalling that beautiful novel of Mannes Sperber, documenting the decimation of a generation of militants by Stalin and party purges even before the gas chambers reached them. But here now before me were their children and grandchildren, not in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest and Moscow, but in Tel-Aviv.more from Seyla Benhabib at Reset here.
cold war fiction
The political novel - the urgent, morally committed depiction of conflicts and tragedies - flourished during the 1930s and 1940s, amid depression, fascism and total war, when Soviet communism was the socialist star on an otherwise darkening horizon. This era spawned some of the finest political fiction and drama we have known: Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, André Malraux, Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus were all writing at full throttle. In my opinion, the cold war - and the fiction it created - begins in the 1930s with the Spanish civil war. Young writers made the pilgrimage to Republican Spain and some of them died. Orwell escaped death by a whisker, as a bullet passed through his neck. Malraux led an air squadron and produced a novel of electric expressionism, Man's Hope (1937). Hemingway settled down to the measured, crafted story-telling of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). But if anti-fascism was the point of departure for all these writers, they would soon divide over the nature of the Stalinist intervention in Spain. Dos Passos, the most formally innovative of all interwar novelists, chose to turn Adventures of a Young Man (1939) into a howl of protest against communist chicanery. Orwell himself went for a mix of autobiography and reportage in Homage to Catalonia (1938), an indictment of Stalinist tactics in which he talked himself out of Left Book Club patronage and into embittered isolation.more from David Caute at The New Statesman here.
even nightingales, as a Russian proverb has it, can’t live off fairy tales
When people talk about “natural storytellers,” they are probably paying an unintended compliment to the unnatural. They mean that such writers are unnaturally gifted in artifice; that, better than the rest of us, they can draw us in, sound a voice, shape a plot, siphon the fizz of suspense. Yet the compliment is not merely inverted, since even freakish mastery of such tricks does not account for those impalpable gifts—the tremor of presence on the page, the overflow of vitality—which rival the abundance, even gratuitousness, of nature itself. The English writer David Mitchell belongs to this returning army of nature. Lavishly talented as both a storyteller and a prose stylist, he is notable for his skill and his fertility. Without annoying zaniness or exaggeration, he is nevertheless an artist of surplus: he seems to have more stories than he quite knows what to do with, and he ranges across a remarkable variety of genres—conventional historical fiction, dystopian sci-fi, literary farce. “Cloud Atlas” (2004), his best-known novel, features six interlocked and rotating novellas, each completely different from its neighbor: the journal of an American notary, travelling by boat from Australia to America in the eighteen-fifties; the letters of a young bisexual English composer, sent in the nineteen-thirties to a college friend; a slice of nineteen-seventies paranoid political thriller, in which a young California journalist takes on a sinister energy corporation.more from James Wood at The New Yorker here.
Nabokov in Berlin
Vladimir Nabokov was starting his career as a writer when he found himself in Berlin. "It is clear, for one thing, that while a man is writing, he is situated in some definite place; he is not simply a kind of spirit, hovering over the page...Something or other is going on around him." The short 1934 novel Despair from which this quote comes is already heavily self-ironising compared with the stories of the previous decade. But like them it is studded with incidental Berlin experiences, from the shape of the city's S-Bahn train line on the map to the comedy of a German misspeaking English. "I suppose only the pest. The chief thing by me is optimismus." If Nabokov's Berlin was in his head, it was nevertheless not invented.
He lived from 1932-37 with his wife and son at Nestorstrasse 22, in the smart, quiet residential area of Wilmersdorf, comparable with London's Chelsea. The unfussy mansion block was his first real home after the curtailed teenage years in Russia. The previous decade in Berlin had been a series of removals from one rented address to the next after his father was shot dead by Bolshevik agents in 1922. "That flat of ours in one of those newfangled houses built in the modern, boxlike, space-cheating, let-us-have-no-nonsense style..." So the imagined author of Despair commented as his creator moved in. The building was dull with an awkward tower in brick and glass towering up at its helm. The protagonist of Nabokov's next big project, The Gift, dwelling in Agamemnonstrasse, thought that the boring architect of his block had suddenly gone mad. After the war, these leafy streets had to be raised from the rubble. (Tiny bronze plaques mark their 1954 resurrection). The Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov lived here, 1932-37, it says, but you could easily pass by that dim bronze plaque from 1999, fading into a brownish façade.
Myths and scientific realities about vampires
"Eclipse," opening June 30, is the third big-screen adaptation of Stephenie
Meyer's"Twilight" series of vampire romance novels. The stories revolve around the tangled relationship between the human Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and the vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Heartthrob vampires are, of course, fictional creatures drawn from a rich history of myth and reality. Click ahead to learn more.
Bloodsucking humans in medieval times
This 16th-century woman, whose remains were excavated during an archaeological dig near Venice, apparently had a brick shoved into her trap because she was thought to have a thirst for human blood. Scholars trace the myth that humans rise from the dead and suck the blood of others to medieval ignorance about how diseases spread and bodies decompose. When mass graves were re-opened during epidemics to deposit fresh corpses, the diggers often encountered older, bloated bodies with blood seeping out of their mouths — conditions that scientists now know result from the buildup of gases in decomposing organs. In earlier times, however, this was regarded as a sign that the corpses were drinking the blood of others. Medieval Italians thought that the only known way to kill the undead was to stick a brick in their mouths so that they would starve, according to Matteo Borrini, a forensic archaeologist and anthropologist at Florence University. This skull with a mouthful of brick, he said, is "evidence of exorcism against a vampire."
A cortical atlas of ghostly sensations
Vaughan Bell in Mind Hacks:
Frontiers in Neuroscience has an amazing scientific article that has collected all the studies that have recorded what happens when the brain is electrically stimulated in living patients. It's like a travel guide to the unnaturally active brain.
As you might expect, science generally takes a dim view of researchers cracking open people's skulls just to see what happens when bits of their brain are stimulated, hence, almost all of these studies have been done on patients who are undergoing brain surgery but have agreed to spend a few minutes during the operation to report their experiences for the benefit of neuroscience.
This procedure is also essential in some forms of brain surgery to make sure the surgeons avoid essential areas. For example, in some cases of otherwise untreatable epilepsy the surgeons track down the 'foci' or trigger area, and can often stop seizures completely just by removing it.
However, if an area is heavily involved in speech production, you wouldn't necessarily want to give up being able to talk for the sake of being seizure free, so surgeons will open the skull, wake you up, and then ask you to speak while stimulating the areas they are considering removing. They can map your speech areas by seeing when you can't speak as the areas are stimulated, and hence, know what areas to avoid.
Kitten World Cup
[Thanks to Ana Policzer.]
Pakistan's Heartland Under Threat
The Taliban would not be amused. On a sunny winter afternoon in Lahore, the local culturati have turned out in force for the annual show at the National College of Arts. In the main courtyard young men and women mingle easily, smoking and sipping from cans of Red Bull. Some of the men sport ponytails, and one has a pierced eyebrow.
Nearby is a life-size sculpture of a couple holding hands on a swing. Inside, the image of a male torso, viewed from one angle, morphs into a female breast. Yet there is no mistaking the stamp of the subcontinent. Women wear traditional thigh-length tunics over their jeans, and some cover their hair. There are also miniature paintings, which traditionally might capture a hunting scene; here they portray other scenes, as in one bold depiction of a bearded cleric reclining on a couch in front of a bombed-out school.
The jumble of styles and influences—the stew of peoples and faiths Rudyard Kipling captured so vividly in his novel Kim—is a hallmark of Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city and capital of Punjab Province. The wealthiest and most populous of the country's four provinces, Punjab is where East meets West and everything in between. Even the brutal and bloody partition of British India in the mid-20th century could not destroy Punjab's cosmopolitan brio.
But the Taliban and its allies are doing their best.
More here, including a lovely photo gallery.
June 29, 2010
Tyrant with a Movie CameraJ. Hoberman in the NYRB blog:
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, which had its world premiere at Cannes last month and will be turning up at other film festivals this fall, is an example of what the radical Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov called a “film object.”
Culled from a thousand hours of archival footage and four years in the making, this unconventional documentary assembled by the émigré Romanian film-essayist Andrei Ujică is a three-hour immersion in a totalitarian leader’s official reality. Ceauşescu’s Romania, the Eastern bloc’s most brutally destructive regime, is remembered for its systematic repression, its failed industrialization, and its pervasive police state—including a disastrous ban on contraception that produced a culture of clandestine abortions and horrific orphanages. None of this appears explicitly in the film. Instead, Ujică shows Ceauşescu’s public image as fabricated by (and for) the dictator himself during the course of his catastrophic 25-year reign.
Much of the material was shot without sound—only the speeches included an audio component—and Ujică shows the footage largely as found, often in the form of unedited rushes, in Romania’s National Film and National Television archives. There’s neither annotation nor voiceover commentary, although the filmmaker does intermittently add naturalistic sound effects—and, at one point, a slyly-chosen pop song, so that a gaggle of fashionable young Romanians can be seen dancing the Twist to the 1965 rockabilly hit “I Fought the Law and the Law Won.”
Ten Walks/Two Talks: Interview with Jon and AndyLast month, Abbas posted a review of Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch's Ten Walks/Two Talks, which "combines a series of sixty-minute, sixty-sentence walks around Manhattan with a pair of roving dialogues—one of which takes place during a late-night 'philosophical' ramble through Central Park. Mapping 21st-century New York, Cotner and Fitch update the meandering and meditative form of Basho's travel diaries to construct a descriptive/dialogic fugue." HTMLGIANT has an interview with the authors on their project. It's also offering a free copy of the book to the commenter that's taken the longest walk, for those who may need an incentive to share their story.
Which came first for you, this form or the idea to collaborate? I mean, did you guys decide you wanted to collab on something and come up with this, or what?
Andy Fitch: By our late twenties, both Jon and I felt we had done enough single, solitary work for years to come. We loved each other, and enjoyed talking to each other. A two-for-the-price-of-one aesthetic had long appealed to us, though the idea for this particular book came later.
Jon: Ten Walks/Two Talks combines excerpts from two manuscripts: Andy’s Sixty Morning Walks, and our collaborative Conversations over Stolen Food. After reading Sixty Morning Walks, I told Andy I’d wanted to transcribe dialogues between me and people I met at Union Square Whole Foods while eating stolen food. Something about that space evokes the ancient Greek agora (or marketplace), so it seemed the perfect venue for a project at least loosely connected with Socratic dialogue—plus, Socrates was known to sample delicacies at congregations to which he hadn’t been invited. I thought the project would be called Conversations over Stolen Food, but before long I’d gotten busy with other things and more or less forgot about it. Roughly a year later Andy asked me to record conversations with him. It was exhilarating. We did thirty dialogues in just over a month, all across New York City, though “Union Square W.F.” is our most common meeting-place since it’s hard to pass up a discounted organic meal. These talks became Conversations over Stolen Food. Other people occasionally appear; for the most part the dialogues unfold between us.
Why are Ahmadis persecuted so ferociously in Pakistan?
Mohsin Hamid in Dawn:
The reason can’t be that their large numbers pose some sort of ‘threat from within’. After all, Ahmadis are a relatively small minority in Pakistan. They make up somewhere between 0.25 per cent (according to the last census) and 2.5 per cent (according to the Economist) of our population.
Nor can the reason be that Ahmadis are non-Muslims. Pakistani Christians and Pakistani Hindus are non-Muslims, and similar in numbers to Pakistani Ahmadis. Yet Christians and Hindus, while undeniably discriminated against, face nothing like the vitriol directed towards Ahmadis in our country.
To understand what the persecution of Ahmadis achieves, we have to see how it works. Its first step is to say that Ahmadis are non-Muslims. And its second is to say that Ahmadis are not just non-Muslims, but apostates: non-Muslims who claim to be Muslims. These two steps are easy to take: any individual Pakistani citizen has the right to believe whatever they want about Ahmadis and their faith.
But the process goes further. Step three is to say that because Ahmadis are apostates, they should be victimised, or even killed. We are now beyond the realm of personal opinion. We are in the realm of group punishment and incitement to murder. Nor does it stop here. There is a fourth step. And step four is this: any Muslim who says Ahmadis should not be victimised or killed, should themselves be victimised or killed.
Lightning simultaneously strikes three skyscrapers in Chicago
Who You Callin' "Bird Brain"?
The amazing smarts of crows, jays, and other corvids are forcing scientists to rethink when and why intelligence evolved.
Charles Wohlforth in Discover:
Nicky Clayton is no better at sitting still than are the birds she studies. Back in the 1990s, her colleagues at the University of California at Davis would stay at their computers at lunchtime, but she would wander outside and watch as western scrub-jays stole bits of students’ meals and secretively cached the food. During these informal field studies, Clayton, an experimental psychologist, noticed that the birds returned frequently to their stashes and changed their hiding places.
“I thought, ‘This is odd,’” she says. “I assumed birds would cache for a long time—days or months. But this was for minutes.” She theorized that the birds were moving their caches to avoid pilfering. When food was plentiful, they grabbed as much as possible and hid it, then hid it again when they could do so without being observed by potential thieves. That behavior implied that the scrub-jays might be thinking about other birds’ potential actions, a type of flexible thinking that was supposedly beyond the capabilities of a scrub-jay’s little brain.
Clayton realized that if she could capture this caching behavior in the laboratory, she might be able to decode the social cognition of birds—the way they think about one another. She might learn whether they are capable of deception, if they respond differently to individual competitors, how well they evaluate their degree of privacy, and other aspects of their mental processes.
More here. [Photo shows a hooded crow which has made a nest outside my window in Karachi.]
Tuesday PoemKettle Island
the round orange
sun is about to dissolve
on the tongue of misery
island like the thin body
of god's son smoke black
stacks from salem power
plant ruin the brown
horizon i can smell the
salt hear the foghorn
my father walks on tired
legs we talk about red
sox politics mostly
i listen he is an old bigot
& i love him but the hard drinking
of our lives has left narrow
streets for forgiveness we
can only stare back at time
like two men suddenly alone
in the kitchen over
beers after ma's funeral
we got closer i was nine years
sober he wasn't truth
is i was angry & when i wrote
it down it hurt him
there's an eroded place
a beat down causeway
where cows used to walk
to kettle island now water
rushes over it i touch my father's
arm & we walk in small
silences to the coast
by Jim Bell
from Crossing the Bar
Slate Roof: a Publishing Collaborative, 2005
The human genome at ten
The first post-genome decade saw spectacular advances in science. The success of the original genome project inspired many other 'big biology' efforts — notably the International HapMap Project, which charted the points at which human genomes commonly differ, and the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE), which aims to identify every functional element in the human genome. Dramatic leaps in sequencing technology and a precipitous drop in costs have helped generate torrents of genetic data, including more than two dozen published human genomes and close to 200 unpublished ones (see page 670). Along the way, geneticists have discovered that such basic concepts as 'gene' and 'gene regulation' are far more complex than they ever imagined (see page 664).
But for all the intellectual ferment of the past decade, has human health truly benefited from the sequencing of the human genome? A startlingly honest response can be found on pages 674 and 676, where the leaders of the public and private efforts, Francis Collins and Craig Venter, both say 'not much'. Granted, there has been some progress, in the form of drugs targeted against specific genetic defects identified in a few types of cancer, for example, and in some rare inherited disorders. But the complexity of post-genome biology has dashed early hopes that this trickle of therapies would rapidly become a flood. Witness the multitude of association studies that aimed to find connections between common genetic variants and common diseases, with only limited success, or the discovery that most cancers have their own unique genetic characteristics, making widely applicable therapies hard to find.
Discovering the Virtues of a Wandering Mind
John Tierney in The New York Times:
In the past, daydreaming was often considered a failure of mental discipline, or worse. Freud labeled it infantile and neurotic. Psychology textbooks warned it could lead to psychosis. Neuroscientists complained that the rogue bursts of activity on brain scans kept interfering with their studies of more important mental functions.
But now that researchers have been analyzing those stray thoughts, they’ve found daydreaming to be remarkably common — and often quite useful. A wandering mind can protect you from immediate perils and keep you on course toward long-term goals. Sometimes daydreaming is counterproductive, but sometimes it fosters creativity and helps you solve problems. Consider, for instance, these three words: eye, gown, basket. Can you think of another word that relates to all three? If not, don’t worry for now. By the time we get back to discussing the scientific significance of this puzzle, the answer might occur to you through the “incubation effect” as your mind wanders from the text of this article — and, yes, your mind is probably going to wander, no matter how brilliant the rest of this column is.
Mind wandering, as psychologists define it, is a subcategory of daydreaming, which is the broad term for all stray thoughts and fantasies, including those moments you deliberately set aside to imagine yourself winning the lottery or accepting the Nobel. But when you’re trying to accomplish one thing and lapse into “task-unrelated thoughts,” that’s mind wandering.
who touches this touches a man
The concrete, material presence of books on our bookshelves transports us back to the time and place where we first read them, we sometimes are pleased and other times shudder when we think of what a book meant to us then, what it has come to mean to us now, we are sometimes comforted to see the continuity of ourselves when we read our earlier marginalia, sometimes disconcerted by its now-alien quality, and occasionally we have dreams about books, like the one I had after my mentor died. When I was in graduate school, he used to lend me his books, their margins overflowing with neat, handwritten questions, objections, notes to himself (I can still picture the fine purple line quality of his felt-tip pen), teaching me how to read in conversation with the author, that is, when I paid attention to the author and not, as I was inclined to do, to the always more interesting thoughts of my mentor. When he died, I dreamt that he had left me a book that he had annotated especially for me and how grateful I was to have it ("who touches this touches a man") and how sorry I was to wake up.more from Rochelle Gurstein at TNR here.
RUSTENBURG, South Africa—If you drive outside the main cities in South Africa, you will always find a fire burning. Beside a highway. In a field. On a dirt patch, men huddled around its warmth. I saw many such blazes on the road from Pretoria to Rustenburg as I made my way to the round of 16 match between the United States and Ghana. On Saturday night, the smoke from all of these fires seemed to pool in this hardscrabble mining town. It burdened the air, reducing visibility to a few feet, even with a full moon low in the sky. My traveling companions and I felt the hoodoo: Whatever happy energy once fueled the American adventure here had been replaced by apprehension. Perhaps my mood was colored by the fact that pickpockets had stolen my tickets the day before. With FIFA's help, I found new ones outside of the U.S. supporters' section. It didn't matter. Most American fans had already gone home. Exactly two weeks ago, I'd had to push my way past Donovan and Dempsey jerseys into a nearby bar. Now the place was all but empty. In the smoke outside, I kept bumping into haunted-looking Englishmen who'd banked on their team winning Group C and playing its knockout game here. "Extra England ticket?" they whispered. "Trade? Trade?" We even saw a handwritten sign pleading for tickets, left on the ground, pinned down by rocks. But where were the Yanks? Maybe American fans felt their team wouldn't make it this far. Maybe fewer of them gave a damn than I thought.more from Luke O'Brien at Slate here.
know your place
Studies show a host of physiological benefits to having high status, whether you’re a senior partner at a bank or the alpha male in a baboon troop. But while that may come as no surprise, there are also findings that suggest people derive psychic benefits from being low-status, as long as there’s no question about where they stand. In a 2003 study by Larissa Tiedens and Alison Fragale, both then at Stanford University, subjects who displayed submissive body language were found to feel more comfortable around others who displayed dominant body language than around those who also displayed submissive body language — and to like those with more dominant posture better, as well. People, it seems, prefer having their evaluation of social hierarchy confirmed, even when they see themselves at the bottom of it. These two linked findings — that people derive comfort from an established hierarchy and that they react particularly strongly to those who buck it — may help explain why McChrystal’s insubordinate comments and the French soccer mutiny were so compelling as public dramas: They were conflicts over who is in charge, and over what punishment the loser would suffer.more from Drake Bennett at The Boston Globe here.
June 28, 2010
Of National Character
With Especial Attention to the Americans, the Muscovites, the Magyars, and Various Balkanic Peoples, touching particularly upon their Aspirations to Global Hegemony, and their Use of Air-Conditioning.
Justin E. H. Smith
Organic nationalism, which emerged towards the end of the 18th century, supposed, or at least implied, that a nation bears some essential relationship to a particular territory. In the most mythologized version of this belief, the nation is thought, or at least said, to have arisen directly out of the earth, to be literally autochthonous, springing up from the depths without any connection to neighboring groups. Moderate nationalists of the period, such as Johann Gottfried Herder, sought for a way to defend national distinctness without resorting to such crude myth, and while they did not pretend that a people is born directly from the soil, they still hoped to tie national character to the way it is forged over the course of history out of a particular geographical nexus.
A clear demonstration that we are not in fact like plants, rooted in our national soil, is our ability to get up, should we so choose, and go somewhere else. We do not wilt and die, though we also do not remain quite the same. I am an expatriate, and it grows harder with each passing year for me to maintain a personal sense of what being American must mean. I have lived outside of the US steadily for seven years, and spent large segments of the decade before that outside of the country as well. Although I am fully connected, via the internet, to the American media that keep that country's pulse around the clock, it is increasingly difficult for me to maintain any real interest in domestic issues. Unlike nearly all the Americans I know, I am not really made angry, for example, by Glenn Beck. Outraged reactions to the latest stupid thing he has said strike me, I dare say, as a bit undignified. He is a buffoon, and he occupies a niche that has its equivalent in every time and place. Let him do his thing, and let us not stay tuned in to the networks that give him voice.
Expatriation, I mean to say, helps one to overcome the passions with understanding. As my identification with one or the other party to internal American conflicts diminishes, my perception grows sharper of the very long historical processes that give shape to current American life. Thus for example I often find myself trying to make sense for bewildered Europeans of western American crackpot libertarianism by arguing that it evolved directly from the settling of the frontier, with the ethnic cleansing and genocide that that involved, but also with a certain 'spirit' of freedom and individualism that cannot be valued nearly as much in dense urban centers. In turn, it seems reasonable to me to suppose that American imperialism, and the delusions of entitlement and superiority for which individual Americans abroad are so often criticized, flow directly from the late-18th and early-19th-century project of constructing America through expansion into the frontier. Oklahoma and the Phillipines and Iraq were just different stages of the same development, and this centuries-long process has something to do with the perception of the world, and of their place in it, often had by individual Americans.
Another consequence of extended expatriation is an ability to think about American history comparatively. In this connection it seems reasonable to suppose that it was a similar though opposite trajectory on Russia's part that brought the Russian Empire (now re-branded as the Soviet Union) into conflict with the US in the 20th century. From being a relatively modest regional power, Muscovy became an empire in the 17th century by subjugating what remained of the khanates left by the Mongols, and in that way, pushed all the way to the Pacific Ocean by 1639.
Just as the US pushed westward and southward, the Russians pushed eastward and southward, coming gradually to dominate in the various central Asian lands, the so-called blizhnee zarubezh'e or 'near abroad', at roughly the same time that the US imposed its will in Latin America by means of the Monroe Doctrine and other attempts at defining an enlarged sphere of influence. The US and Russia were the two powers to rise over the course of the 19th century whose growth involved expansion across and settling of their own frontiers, and establishing sovereignty across the extent of these frontiers. The European powers, by contrast, grew principally through asserting control over colonies that they never stopped seeing as foreign territory, even if Queen Victoria was officially named 'Empress of India' in 1876. By the middle of the 20th century, the US and Russia would both see the entire world as their frontier, as territory to be made theirs. The US's growth eventually brought it about also that it would take over many of the global charges once held by Great Britain. Thus the British Palestine Mandate would become, as Israel, what is essentially a US protectorate; and the Great Race for Central Asia, played out between Russia and Britain in the 19th century, would flow seamlessly into Cold War (and post-Cold War) geopolitical maneuvering in Eurasia on the part of the two superpowers.
But who cares about Russia? Isn't the Cold War over? Didn't Boris Yeltsin prove as much when he slipped out of the Clinton White House in his underwear, drunk as a true muzhik, and attempted to hail a cab in order to seek out a pizza joint and cure his late-night munchies? Though not so long ago, that was a very different era, as different in its own way as Khrushchev's shoe-pounding or Stalin's awkward pose at Yalta. Yet for some reason Americans still seem to think that Yeltsin and Clinton's hillbilly bonhomie continues to characterize post-Soviet US-Russian relations: hospitable and generous Americans on the one hand, and unpredictable yet harmless Russians on the other.
I can report from recent experience that it is only the Americans who remain in the feel-good nineties; the Russians have very clearly moved on, or, perhaps better, moved back. After more than 15 hours spent waiting outside the Russian embassy in Paris earlier this month, I was turned down by the Russian authorities for a visa. Well, technically, I was not turned down, but I was told that I would have to return to my home country in order for my case to be processed. Having waited so long, and having just slipped through the gate a few minutes before the consular department's closing at the end of my third day, I was naturally hesitant to take 'no' for an answer. I pointed to my official invitation from a distinguished scholarly institution within Russia, and insisted that I had been assured that arrangements would be made for me to receive the visa in France. I drew attention to the official 'Reason for Visit' stated on the invitation: 'scientifico-technical exchange'. "Well I'm a diplomat," the young clerk at the counter smirked. "Would you listen to me if I tried to tell you anything about science?" I would not, I answered. "Then why did you listen to your scientific colleagues when they tried to tell you how things work here at the Russian embassy?"
I am told that it is a mere expression of my American sense of entitlement for me to complain about the circumstances at that embassy, but still I feel the need to say it: the treatment of the people waiting there to get visas was simply barbaric. Even if one were to arrive well before dawn, three or four hours before the consular division opened, there was no guarantee of passing through the gates, since over the course of the morning countless couriers and other figures with unspecified privilege would show up, strut to the head of the line, and be buzzed right in. There were no numbers distributed, there was no way of establishing one's priority other than to use one's body as a shield to block others from passing in front of you. Several shoving matches broke out over the course of three days, one full-fledged fist-fight, and countless exchanges of insults involving putain, ta mère, and mon cul. One attempt by an earnest student-type to block a leathery, long-haired motorcycle courier from entering with a stack of 100 passports (essentially enabling 100 absent people to cut in line at once), prompted the courier to say indignantly: "If you don't get the fuck out of my way, I'll say one word to the Russians and they'll cancel your visa just like that." The student stepped out of his way, the gate buzzed, and the leatherman went in and shook hands with a Russian employee. Corruption! Corruption! shouted the French people from outside the gate.
One of the most striking lessons of my 15 hours outside of the embassy is that traits we often suppose to be part of the individual character of a member of a particular nation or ethnicity in fact flow directly from institutional arrangements. Due to the way the line was arranged (no bathrooms, no protection from rain, no distribution of numbers that would ensure adherence to the just and rational principle of 'first come, first serve', no information available from inside as to whether we might hope to be served that day), due to this precarity, the normally composed French people waiting in the line were reduced, within the course of a few hours, to behaving like animals towards one another. The crowd took on the character of a bread line during famine or wartime. The sort of behavior one commonly associates with the way they do things in less civilized parts was induced in French people, as if the subjects of a social psychology experiment, simply by obliging them to stand in a Soviet-style queue.
Many French people complained that the Russians had not adequately thought out their system of visa issuance in Paris. One young, rather adventure-hungry French employee of the OSCE, who was on his way back to Kyrgyzstan to monitor a referendum in the violence-stricken region, and who regaled us with stories of his experiences being held at gunpoint by drunk teenaged Kyrgyz soldiers, responded that his countrymen were being naive. Things worked at the embassy the way they did not because no one had thought about how to do it well, but precisely because someone had thought about how to ensure that it not be done well, that it be an ordeal, that it demoralize everyone who goes through it, and that it thereby gives us all to know who's boss.
Russia (alongside the very different case of France) is one of the only countries that continues to see its way of doing things as universalizable, and as a fully legitimate and worthy rival to the American way. When the consulate employee comes out of the Russian embassy in Paris, he speaks Russian to the crowd (not to give us information, but only to remind us that he has no information to give), not English or French, just like his American homologue speaks English and not Russian. Of course, the crowd is much less likely to understand Russian than English, but that doesn't diminish the sense, which seems widespread in Russia in general and must be most deeply felt among the loyal Putinites who get embassy appointments in Paris, that Russian ought to be understood, that it is fitting and natural for people around the world to be addressed in Russian. Again, this is a conviction that is felt only by speakers of two other languages: French and English. (For all our anxiety about the rise of China, one thing that most commentators have overlooked, with the usual sharp exception of Perry Anderson, is that Chinese inwardness and ethnocentrism virtually guarantee that no occupying army or paper-pushing desk clerk outside of China will be expecting us to respond to him in Chinese anytime soon.)
While I could not travel to Moscow this year, I at least remain free to roam as far east as Budapest, and to ride around on Soviet-built metro cars identical to those in Moscow. Having just arrived in Budapest from London, I've had a fresh chance to observe the contrast between two very different species of geopolitical imaginary. London, when it was the center of the British World System, was the center, and whatever was felt to be great in it was never felt to be great in virtue of its similarity to or approximation of something somewhere else. Budapest at its fin-de-siècle peak, by contrast, was thought to be great, both by its local bourgeoisie as well as by visitors, in virtue of its supposed likeness to cities further west. The greatness of Budapest consisted in the fact that a sort of class and refinement ordinarily associated with cities that grew up much closer to the English Channel was successfully transported into deepest, darkest Europe, the part that was still thought to be quasi-Asiatic.
After its double decimation in the mid-20th century, Budapest remains a faded beauty, with blackened and pock-marked art nouveau façades that, then as now, cause visitors to say: 'Ah, so like Paris'. A reverse comparison, looking from Paris to Budapest, is of course unthinkable, while an eastwardly comparison, from Budapest to, say, Moscow, is not unthinkable, but is by definition a comparison with a highly negative charge.
Hungarians are not in fact descended from Huns, any more than Tatars, deformed into 'Tartars' by their enemies, emerged out of sulphuric Tartaros. The exonym 'Hungarian' comes from the Old Turkic term on ogur, 'ten arrows', and its transformation into something resembling the name of the dreaded enemies of the Roman Empire has no basis in genetics or historical linguistics. As nearly as can be made out, the Hungarians came into existence through the confederation of several different ethnicities. According to the national narrative, they were born as a people when they were led into the Pannonian plain by Árpád, the Grand Prince of the Magyars (pictured above), at the end of the 9th century. It is hardly a metaphor to describe this event as a sort of planting, as since 895 the Hungarian identity has been tightly fixed to a definite geographical region with important distinguishing features. They didn't spring up from the soil, but nonetheless came to thrive in it. When the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were dismantled by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, and large chunks of territory under Hungarian control were ceded to Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia, it was understood that the Pannonian plain could not be ceded to anyone. It was essentially Magyar.
But what is that? The way forward for post-communist Hungary has been set in large part by the invention (or recovery, depending on how you see things) of the idea of Central Europe, which contrasts with Eastern Europe in that it has, so its advocates say, always been oriented towards the values and the institutions of the West. Hungary's definition of itself, along with Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, as 'Central' rather than 'Eastern', has necessitated the drawing of a line that is naturally disadvantageous to the solidly 'Eastern' countries, such as Romania and Bulgaria, as well as a good portion of Ukraine, the countries that cannot possibly claim 'centrality', but also do not wish to trace their own cultures and institutions back to tyrannical Muscovy. I understand Hungary's aspirations, but every time I hear the phrase 'Central Europe' with all its post-communist connotations, I can't help but think of the class-climbing young professional who drives a Lexus and shops at Whole Foods, looking down on the one in the Ford Fiesta at Safeway, unaware that there are yet others, still higher up, looking down on everyone equally.
One of the driving forces behind Hungary's recent orientation has of course been its richest son, George Soros, who in 1991 founded the Central European University. At that time, much of Eastern Europe was in the midst of what can only be described as a craze for Popperianism, with its somewhat simplistic account of the contrast between the 'open society' and its opposite, totalitarianism. The 20th century of course brought forth ideas more noxious than this, and I for one would much rather see a craze for Popper than one for either Heidegger or Lenin. But still, the Central European University, where I've had the pleasure of spending the past few days, can't but appear now as the product of a certain historical moment, which involved a certain vigorous reorientation, a reorientation that was, I want to say, fundamentally geographical and not just political, based as much on an ancient sense of the cardinal points and their different valences, as on any preference for demand-side over supply-side economics.
This reorientation has been both spatial and temporal. Particularly in Budapest, I think, there has been an effort to recover a lost greatness from circa 1900 that was and continues to be based on comparisons to Vienna and Paris. One thing that results is an antiquated sense of class and refinement that I myself know principally from having read Thomas Mann's underrated novel, Felix Krull. Much is made, here, of the number of stars a hotel merits, but these stars have little to do with what, dare I say, a real Westerner would associate with comfort; rather, they are a supposed measure of fin-de-siècle authenticity. What one gets with an extra star in Central European hôtellerie is an extra layer of servile bell-hops, but still no functioning AC.
And this brings me to my second main concern here, beyond the jockeying by superpowers for hegemonic clout in the world, namely, the differential ways different nations relate to air-conditioning. How much one could learn from studying the different ways different cultures have incorporated cooling technologies into their respective Lebensräume! Every time I return to deep Europe I have to psychologically prepare myself for weeks in advance just to be able to endure the stuffy unventilated spaces that the locals seem to find perfectly comfortable. It seems the further one travels to the south and to the east, the stuffier it gets, and the more phobic the locals grow about the deleterious effects of something as innocuous as a little breeze. If natural air is greeted with caution, artificial cooling, while it exists, is handled as if it were some dangerous force, some highly charged, almost radioactive technology that must be employed with the utmost restraint. Have you ever rushed, of a hot summer day in the Balkans, to the cold-drinks case of a corner store, only to lay your hand on a bottle of Coke or water that is, as far as the sense of touch can tell, no colder than room temperature? I used to think that this was a consequence of economic underdevelopment, that either the refrigerators did not work, or the shop owners could not afford to turn them on. But even now, in my luxury hotel in Budapest, where I had my internet password delivered up to me on a silver tray by an employee in a bowtie, the inside of the minibar is even warmer than the rest of the room. And have you ever walked into a sweltering store in Istanbul, only to be greeted by a merchant who, having noticed the incoming foreigner, declares 'yes, please!' and 'welcome!' with a beaming grin on his face as he turns on the AC by remote control? He would never think to use it for himself, and doesn't seem to grasp that by the time it's been on long enough to make a difference, any normal customer will be long gone.
There is a certain superficial view according to which the presence of Coke bottles on the table, or of Dallas on the TV screen, provides evidence that some distant culture has been substantially 'Americanized'. This misses all the other cultural borrowings from elsewhere (no American would suppose that the Brazilian soap that comes on next shows that, say, a Romanian TV viewer has been Brazilianized), and it also misses the more important fact that bits of borrowed culture no longer mean the same thing in the culture into which they are borrowed that they did in the culture in which they began. This is as true of technology as it is of soap operas and soft drinks. In some parts of Nigeria, mobile phone technology seems to be largely important as a new means of transmitting hexes. In the Balkans, as in 'Central Europe', something they call air-conditioning certainly exists, but not in the same way it does in the finely chilled banks and supermarkets of my Central Californian youth.
My spouse issues from the Balkans, and I probably need not mention that most of our quarrels are centered around the thermostat. In my imagination, the temperature I come forth to defend is so much more than a temperature: it is a way of life, it is cattle-herding under the big Western American sky, it is the Donner Party; it is, dare I say, freedom. It contrasts with serfdom, medievalism, and totalitarianism. It is also complete bullshit, of course, but I think this sort of bullshit says a great deal about what national character really is, what you can't shake even when you've renounced just about everything there is to renounce in the ethnic package imposed upon you at birth. What's left of my Americanness, when everything else has been cast off like snakeskin, is nothing more than a sense of the proper keeping of my body, of --to speak with Hippocrates-- the airs, waters, and places with which it naturally agrees.
Budapest, 27 June, 2010
Works consulted for this essay include:
John Lukacs, Budapest, 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture, Grove Press, 1988.
Miklós Molnár, A Concise History of Hungary, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.
Heroes and Whistleblowers
A mysterious, white-haired man casts a cautious glance over his shoulder and steps onto a train. Like a man on the lam, he has no fixed address and lives out of the rucksack that he carries. The man could be a character in a Hollywood film, maybe one of the Bourne series, but he isn’t. The man described is Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, an internet site for whistleblowers. And he’s right to be cautious.
Whistleblowing isn’t to be taken lightly. Mordechai Vanunu spent 18 years in prison, 11 of them in solitary confinement, for revealing details of Israel’s nuclear program to a UK newspaper. Amnesty International described Vanunu as a “prisoner of conscience” and he’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize a number of times. He’s paid a heavy price for his courageous actions.
Whistleblowers comprise an important and undervalued genre of hero. Just as traditional heroes, they demonstrate courage and bravery, and accept personal risks in the interests of others.
On a recent Veteran’s Day, I was struck by the extent to which we use the term “hero” to describe soldiers. I don’t disagree with this use, but it seems odd that the term is seldom qualified. What distinguishes our soldiers from the soldiers on the side that we’re fighting? How do we know that we’re the good guys?
“Serving one’s country” without any consideration of the ethical basis for its policies doesn’t seem an especially laudable undertaking. What we’re really doing when we offer blind support for our troops is offering blind support for our governments’ policies. Blind obedience to anything is dangerous. This is what makes huge armies of bad guys possible. This is how genocide happens.
There aren’t enough truly evil psychopathic types to build an entire army of bad guys to carry out atrocities. Could it be that the majority of people who join an army, regardless of the conflict or the side they take, think they’re doing something noble - fighting for freedom, for instance? It seems that if we were to put an army together to carry out unethical acts, we’d have to use ordinary people and convince them that the unethical acts are actually noble.
Which brings me back to whistleblowers and the noble things they represent, like freedom of information and integrity. Heroes and bad guys are distinguished by facts. Both may think they’re doing something noble and both may be lauded as heroes by their fellow countrymen and their family members, but invariably one side is wrong. We can only know which side that is if we have access to complete and reliable information.
Access to information is one of the most important freedoms that people can have. Without it, we can’t know what side of any conflict we should be on. And we can be easily manipulated. We can be led to believe that we have freedoms that we lack. We can be led to believe that ordinary people are “bad guys”. And we can become the “bad guys” ourselves.
In terms of loss of life, the 9/11 attacks stand out as the worst terrorist attack in history. For each hijacker, 157 civilians were killed. In January, Pakistani authorities reported that American drone attacks in 2009 killed 140 civilians for every targeted al-Qaeda or Taliban member. If there had been 2 or 3 more hijackers on the planes that hit the World Trade Center, the ratios would be the same. If these figures are accurate, then the US is committing horrific acts of terrorism, framed as part of a “war on terror”. Americans can’t know if they should be outraged or proud, since the figures vary widely. Other sources claim that only a third of those killed were civilians.
Courage and bravery on their own aren’t worth celebrating. It takes courage and bravery to poke a mean dog with a stick - that doesn’t mean it’s laudable. We can’t be sure that our soldiers are heroes unless we have accurate information. The Wikileaks video, Collateral Murder, revealed a sharp discrepancy between events as they happened and as they were reported. The video shows a number of people being fired upon from a US apache helicopter. Initially, it was reported that those killed in the attack were militants, but the video revealed that the dead included civilians and Reuters staff, and the injured included a couple of children. The most chilling part of the video, of course, was the alacrity with which they killed and congratulated each other on their nice hits. The take home message, however, is that the mainstream media cannot be trusted to provide an accurate account of events.
Governments simply can’t be trusted to provide us with accurate information. A 2008 study by Charles Lewis and Mark Reading-Smith of the Center for Public Integrity revealed that Bush and seven of his top officials “waged a carefully orchestrated campaign of misinformation about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq”. According to the report, in the two years following 9/11, they made 935 false statements. Americans went to war for bogus reasons. Perhaps the war was justified, but whatever valid justification there might have been, it wasn’t the one that was served up to the public. How confident should we be that our soldiers are heroes if we don’t know why the war is being fought?
It should be clear to everyone that governments and international agencies can’t be trusted to dispense accurate and complete information. I think we can safely say now that the threat from swine flu was exaggerated. We can also say that the World Health Organization wasn’t as transparent about potential conflicts of interest as it should have been. If there is any doubt about the inappropriateness of the relationship between the WHO and the pharmaceutical industry, documents leaked through Wikileaks should clear it up.
Dishonesty and lack of transparency are serious problems. They fuel conspiracy theories and generate controversy where there should be none. Given the state of affairs, it’s not entirely irrational to doubt authorities. Industry is enormously powerful and bias in research and reporting is a real phenomenon. The mainstream media is corporate-owned and even government-sponsored media is non-democratic and subject to bias. When a group can benefit by manipulating public opinion and it is has the power to do so, it will.
It’s no secret that public opinion can be manipulated and people’s behaviors influenced. Political campaigns can influence the way we vote, commercials can influence what we buy and what we’d like to have. The information that we take in through other people, and through movies and forms of entertainment, shapes the way we see the world. Huge amounts of money are spent on marketing research and strategies. Those who would benefit from controlling public opinion and attitudes would be foolish not to make use of this knowledge.
The power of marketing can be harnessed for our good or to our detriment. Public health campaigns employ such strategies to improve people’s lives. Marketing of fast food may contribute to obesity, which has led some to call for a ban on the marketing of such foods to children. Some argue that the ban should be implemented for children since they're unable to understand the intent of the advertising. But, while adults can understand the intent of advertising, they are not immune to its influence. Any age can be targeted. In a sense, marketing fast foods, or any unhealthy product, amounts to a public unhealth campaign of questionable ethics.
The information we receive also shapes our attitudes toward violence. Societies can be groomed for war or for peace. In the 1980s, the US spent millions on textbooks for Afghan school children in an attempt to nurture violent fundamentalism to fight Soviet communism. The books were laden with militant Islamic teachings and violent imagery.
In the West, the glorification of violence and militarism is accomplished largely by entertainment media. Hollywood tells us who our heroes are. Jason Bourne is cool and he’s an assassin; it’s cool to be an assassin. The glorification of the military in Hollywood films is no accident. Liaison officers from the Pentagon work with Hollywood producers to generate what amounts to feature length advertisements for the military.
The public stands to benefit immensely by controlling the information it receives. The information to which we are exposed is like the curriculum of an academic program in which we never willfully enrolled. Given the power that information has over us, it’s reasonable to suppose that we should have democratic control over our media.
Controlling information is as important as government itself. Power is not held just by the people who make decisions, but by people who can garner the support needed for the implementation of their plans. You can’t lead if you can’t get people to follow. And you can’t get people to follow if you can’t influence the information they receive. When an elected government acts in a manner that's inconsistent with the wishes of the people it represents, there is no greater threat than transparency and free-flowing information. An informed public is a force to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately, we the people are not in charge of the information we receive. Our governments decide what they want to do and then manipulate public opinion to suit their purposes. This was made clear by a CIA document leaked through Wikileaks this past March. The document outlines PR strategies for manipulating public opinion in France and Germany, with the intention of bolstering support for increased troop deployment in Afghanistan. The report says: “The Afghanistan mission’s low public salience has allowed French and German leaders to disregard popular opposition and steadily increase their troop contributions to the International Security Assistance Force.” This is not democratic leadership.
With greater reliance on electronic media and electronic forms of information storage, there comes greater ability to manipulate information and to distort reality. People are less willing to seek out hard copies to confirm facts, and in some cases printed copies may not be available. When multiple versions of a story surface on the internet and attempts to check facts yield “file not found” the truth has been effectively obscured.
The power to control information is being wielded in more sophisticated ways than ever before. The Israeli foreign ministry coordinates vounteer efforts to spread propaganda on the internet. They recognize that public opinion is not determined by the facts, but by which version of reality gets more favorable media exposure.
Thanks to the internet, a wide variety of information sources is easily available to us. However, some countries have already taken steps to restrict this information. China and Iran already have internet censorship, and Australia has recently followed suit. This has been served to Australians under the guise of managing obscenities like child pornography and sites that advocate terrorism. While this may sound reasonable, the blacklist, leaked through Wikileaks, proved to be inexplicably broad and included many sites that had absolutely nothing to do with pornography or terror, like Wikileaks.
We can’t afford to ignore the power that information has over us. If we value democracy and freedom, we need to have democratic control over our media. If we don’t have control over the information we receive, we can’t know when our leaders behave undemocratically. There’s a war being waged over our most important freedoms, and whistleblowers are on the front line. They are the heroes of free societies.
Oil on paper.
Thanks to my sister Azra for introducing me to this artist's work.
Good Government: The Imperative for These Timesby Michael Blim
In the Chicago of the Daley dynasty, they have been disparaged as the “goo-goos.” They are the “good government” types whose passion for honesty and the pursuit of the public good have offended generations of political machine hacks whose motto for the great seal of the city, Mike Royko was fond of saying, consisted of the two word phrase “Where’s Mine?”
Good government in Chicago was and still is an honorable tradition. It produced Paul Douglas, Adlai Stevenson, Abner Mikva, and Barack Obama. It joined with Chicago’s black community to elect Harold Washington. With Jane Addams and John Dewey acting as its exemplary turn of the 20th century intellectuals and activists, Chicago’s good government movement is one of the taproots of American liberalism.
I confess that it has taken me a while to accept that Barack Obama, for better or worse, is a “goo-goo.” He is the latest in a distinguished line of pragmatist, intellectually inclined politicians who believe that the public interest can be served by intelligent decision-making based upon the analysis of facts and the implementation of technically sound rules and administration.
What is interesting about the new “goo-goo-ism” of Obama is that it is shorn of its more radical roots. The radical reformism and pacifism of Jane Addams and John Dewey, despite Obama’s community work that derives from their inspiration, is notably absent. Missing too is the New Deal version of good government: there is no left wing in the White House west wing as there was under Roosevelt. There is no one the likes of Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, or Raymond Moley, just to name a few that put a radical liberal edge on the New Deal, to push the Obama Administration from within toward more fundamental government guarantees for a people being battered by economic crisis and an inept political system.
Here perhaps one example suffices to illustrate how the Obama administration “skipped” the New Deal tradition in its policy-making. Franklin Roosevelt broke with the Progressive tradition of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson that was largely content with reform through regulation by creating jobs directly through public works of all sorts – from dams to drama one might say – as an answer to the private sector’s inability to solve the massive unemployment problem. Obama instead has taken passive measures such as extending unemployment benefits and supporting business recovery via a variety of means. Yet the unemployment problem is grave and growing, as the proportion of the long-term unemployed rises relentlessly. Whole social strata ranging from poorly educated factory workers to young people seeking a foothold in the job market from all sorts of backgrounds are being savaged. Yet, one hears not a peep from Obama’s administration of how absent direct government employment, 15% of America’s workers are to find their feet again economically.
The goo-goo instincts of the Obama administration thus reflect more accurately the turn of the 20th century progressive politics of Wilson and the elder Roosevelt than those of the New Deal. As Robert Wiebe in his much-celebrated Search for Order (1967) argued, the new middle class from which progressivism flowed was distinctly managerial in orientation, seeking a new rationality through the technologies of bureaucratic organization and regulation. It represents and operates in and on the world as if there were a class-less general interest that can be safeguarded through the wise administration of enlightened experts drawn from a meritocratic elite. Its justification thus is of competence rather than of the fulfillment of more radical goals such as using government as a primary agency of resolving social injustice through direct economic redistribution.
Obama proposes good government, in other words, which is something we dearly need. Since Reagan, we have lived in a society where government was not merely a necessary evil, but evil per se. Successive administrations either savagely or passively looted the federal government of expertise and practical power of personnel that guarantee the country’s basic laws. The ballooning list of government regulatory failure grows by the day. Whether in regard to health and safety, food and drugs, or natural catastrophes and civil defence, it as if, as concerns government resources, to cite Gertrude Stein, there is no there there. The now infamous neglect of basic environment safety propagated by British Petroleum and sanctioned by the Minerals Management Service of the Interior Department has led to our latest disaster, and Katrina debacle displayed how thoroughly disemboweled the federal government had become under successive regimes of government-haters and weak executives of Republicans and Democrats alike.
Obama’s two “great reforms” are cut from the same cloth: in essence they consist of regulation through the wise management of experts. In health care and finance, the task is to manage the status quo more efficiently, not transform it. Not my choice, of course. But it is theirs, and now they must really manage these two great chunks of the American economy wisely with some notion, however watered-down, of the public interest.
As regards health care, they have created via private insurance a network of care in where the incentives still point the wrong way: the profit motive still governs the system. If the federal government does not govern the health market directly with a firm hand, citizens, now mostly insured under one title or another will find themselves continually victimized by insurers and providers seeking to shift costs and increase profits by either sticking the other with increased costs and diminished profits, or sucking the difference out of the insured via low reimbursements, exclusions and billing tricks. If you find yourself in frequent conflict with your health provider and/or your insurer, your aggravations and financial liabilities are guaranteed to grow under the new scheme – unless the Obama administration staffs up the new regulatory entities, appoints tough good government reformers, and supports them politically.
The same is true for financial reform, essentially a “reset” of the same big capital game under some new rules. Most of the elements that led the economy over the cliff are still in place. Most importantly, banks escaped the more radical impulse to redefine them as public utilities, thus leaving a pure profit motive at the heart of their operations. It will take extraordinary capacity-building on the part of the federal government to enforce its new laws, and more still to apprehend new forms of mischief in the works. Once more, the appointment of stalwart good government experts and supporting their efforts become critical.
The political challenge is enormous, particularly as good government is a sort of political odorless, tasteless, colorless, classless gas that surely fuels the good government experts to do their best, but fails to ignite the citizens on whose behalf they govern. I have been on the road for the last month and so did not actually see the reportage on Obama’s spill site visits, nor did I see his White House address on the BP disaster. I have gotten back in time to hear all the carping about his seemingly technocratic and dispassionate approach to the problem.
The disappointment of the chattering classes is wrongly put, I think. With his seemingly Zen-like concentration, Obama is staying “inside” himself, matching his beliefs and methods with his actions, and showing careful attention to detail and the need for dispassionate judgment. There is some “truth” in his rhetoric in as much as it appears to reflect his character and beliefs, and I would argue that this internal correspondence between character, belief, and action is a value per se in an American political environment full of insinuation, fraud, and character assassination.
It is not the Obama I wanted. I wished for more than a “goo-goo.” But a goo-goo is what we got. Though his mission may be modest by my lights, our lives will be a little bit better if he succeeds in providing good government after a generation of government destruction and neglect.
However, it must be said that his disavowal of radical reform even of the ultimately balanced sort offered in the New Deal is bound to cause him problems politically. In trying to solve everyone’s problems in the “general interest,” he solves no one’s in particular. No one is his majority. Should he be re-elected, it will be because voters one by one in a plebiscite on his rule, will decide that some good government of a modest, technocratic sort is preferable to a right-wing reconstruction.
Reality Hunger: Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before1
The format: David Shields’ Reality Hunger is written as a series of short, numbered paragraphs. The content: Reality Hunger, according to the flyleaf, “is a rigorous and radical attempt to reframe how we think about ‘truthiness,’ literary license, quotation, appropriation.’ That means mashups, sampling, the whole ‘meta’ thing. Get it?
The book's numbered-paragraph format is, among other things, ideally suited to presenting ideas as aphorisms and aphorisms as stand-alone objects. David Shields quotes a lot of aphorisms and writes some others himself. I just opened the book at random to look for some, and in the pages that presented themselves I found three.
The above statement about opening the book at random just now and finding three aphorisms is true. That makes it a piece of reality writing about Reality Hunger. Here are the three: “There is properly no history, only biography.” “All that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt.” “The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.” They are from Emerson, Yeats, and Wilde. Aphorisms, especially absent their original context, are a stimulating but ultimately unsatisfying form. They’re popcorn shrimp on the buffet table of literature, postage stamps on the billets-doux and unpaid utility bills of the human spirit. To be honest, I think they're cool and fun to quote just as much as the author does. But then I love popcorn shrimp, too, so my original point stands.
As for those paragraphs, here's one: “In hip-hop, the mimetic function has been eclipsed to a large extent by manipulation of the original …theft without apology …” Followed by this: “In the slot called data, the reality is sliced in – the junk-shop find, thrift store clothes, the snippet of James Brown, the stolen paragraph from Proust, and so on.” See? He’s telling you why he’s throwing all those aphorisms in there without crediting the authors who wrote them. He's doing it to echo what he says is the new, magpie-like structure of 21st Century creation: appropriation without credit. But, as he explains in the end, the lawyers made him credit everyone at the end of the book anyway. He suggests you cut those pages out of your edition with scissors, but I’m not going to do that. It would diminish the resale value of the book.
So this book adheres to a self-referential form of literary construction, the “form follows function follows form” school that looks for a unifying concept and then seeks to mimic it in its own structure. It's not as bad as poems about vases that are shaped like vases, but there's some relationship there.
As for that paragraph, I beg to differ: Sampling James Brown is nothing like quoting Proust without attribution. Sampling James Brown is like collaborating with Proust from beyond the grave. (His, not yours.) It’s like eating the heart of a powerful warrior to imbibe his strength. It’s both respectful and rebellious, like those Zen guys who call themselves Buddhists yet say “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Hip-hop appropriation is cannibalism, not theft. Quoting a Proust paragraph without attribution is not cannibalism; it’s a trip to some museum where the exhibits are beautiful but unlabeled.
Shields quotes something from The Commitments (the movie; he says he didn’t read the novel) about soul music being “basic and simple.” Don’t go quoting that bullshit around me, Mister! Soul is rhythmically sophisticated, musically eloquent, and often lyrically elegant. (From Sam & Dave's "May I Baby," for example: "Each step you take my heart beats three times ...") So he’s quoting a fictional movie character who is derived from a fictional book character who is himself experiencing a form of second-hand culture. It’s the Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox, so no wonder the quality is bad. It’s pointless to repeat that stuff; there’s no point to it. Errors of condescension and superficiality are too high a price to pay for a self-referential literary model.
Shields likes Sarah Silverman and lavishes praise on her for the way she uses her own life as material. Okay, she’s funny, but so is Shecky Greene. Or should I have said Morey Amsterdam? (They called Morey “The Human Joke Machine.”) All comedians use their own lives for material. Most of them would eat the fingers right off their own hand for a laugh. Raiding their own biographies is standard operating procedure. Ain’t nothin’ new about about Sarah Silverman in that regard.
David Shields: I’m reading this book and I keep thinking “I like him," then "I don’t like him.” Sometimes he’s like the guy at a party who annoys you by constantly talking. Then you realize he’s really erudite and is saying some interesting things. Then he starts to annoy you again because he's so full of himself. I saw a guy like that at a party last week. I really did.
Now Shields is quoting Montaigne: “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Okay, now he's definitely the annoying guy at the party. Except that with that quote he becomes a stoned college freshman in 1971, and he's hitting on a SUNY Binghamton student who's wearing a burgundy leotard. She’s Jewish but not religious – in fact, she looks a little like Sarah Silverman - and she has an empty bottle of Mateus with a candle in it in her dorm room. Does he succeed? Depends on who owns the narrative, I guess.
Wait. I think I’m getting his rhythm. On the next page (I’m making notes as I go at the moment) he tells a story not unlike the one I just jotted down, about reading the diary of a girl named Rebecca. I don’t necessarily believe the story is true, but then again I don’t much care either way. (Note to self: Pitch a humor piece for a literary magazine about Proust’s sixth-grade essay on “how I spent my summer vacation.”)
I once wrote this about Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: "Some will argue that it's unfair of me to make snap judgments about a book that, by my own admission, I never finished reading. But isn't that supposed to be the point?" I mention that because it may seem unfair that to be mimicking Shields’ style. Hey, I’m appropriatin’ here!
Dude is erudite, though, I'll give him that. And that's enjoyable. I know what he is: He's a covers band. I like covers bands. I've played in few myself. It's an honorable profession, so long as you remember you're in a Led Zep tribute band and don't start thinking you're Jimmy Page.
This book reminded me a little of Love’s Body by Norman O. Brown, which as I recall also had a series of paragraphs in it, each a riff on a quote from someone else. I don’t remember the format for sure, though, and I’m not going to disrupt the reality-based structure of this writing experiment by looking for a copy. In any case, if the “highest form of criticism is autobiography” then that’s how I remember Love’s Body, and I’m the one doing the writing in this little transaction between us. I was lonely the week I read Love's Body. Roberto Bolano's novel Antwerp has numbered paragraphs too, but that's fiction. This isn't fiction. Or is it?
Shields talks a lot about Oprah. Know what would be cool? If he got on Oprah. That would be so meta. But he gives a free pass to James Frey – we all fictionalize, blah blah blah. Frey fictionalized his story about addiction and what it takes to recover. He lied about a program that helps people (one of several approaches, to be sure) and pretended you can conquer the worst addictions through self-will. People probably denied themselves the help they needed and died because of what Frey wrote. That’s where the cute stops being cute – when playing with ideas becomes more important than thinking through the real-life consequences of what we say.
The genre genre, the meta-level criticism. If that’s what Shields is doing, then what the hell am I doing? I’m writing about writing that’s all about other writing. It’s like this whole exercise is a set of those nesting Russian dolls, but in reverse, and with fictional narratives and hip-hop references painted on them instead of babushka scarves.
“You don’t need a story. The question is: How long do you not need a story?” That question appears on page 122. The answer for me is: Well before page 122.
Also on that page: “Nothing is going to happen in this book.” That’s an Annie Dillard line, but consider it fair warning.
Somewhere else he suggests there really is a story but it’ll take some effort on the reader's part to find it. Effort requires motivation.
At the end I sorta liked the guy. He sounds like a lot of my friends, some of whom can be irritating sometimes too. So I either need to give this book a better review or find new friends. I was entertained by the book, for sure. It helped me survive a cross-country flight, even if it had fewer insights per mile than I expected. Still, it was awfully hard to see past the over-reaching and excesses. It almost seemed as if someone decided it would be a good idea to write a provocative book about our appropriating mashup culture, wrote a successful proposal, then retrofitted the whole book to the marketing proposal-ish concept.
I was left wishing I had gotten paid something for this review, since I paid real cash money for my copy of the book. Still, I respect anyone who can write a book that gets published and provokes some real debate. People will ask: Is he just a bombthrower? Like that's a bad thing. Bombs cast light - but then, only briefly and with a lot of wasted energy. (Hey, is that an aphorism?)
I wish this was a better review - as in both "better written" and "more favorable" - but somebody said that life is a series of compromises. If this sounds like a book you want to read, go right ahead. I won't assume the authoritative voice and pretend I can decide for you. Maybe I can quote somebody who says “buy it” and somebody who says “don’t buy it.” Then you can mash them together while dancing to music by James Brown with lyrics by Proust. Or something like that. Hey, do what you want. I'm not going to tell you where this next line comes from, no matter what the goddamned lawyers say, but frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.
And you can quote me.
Editor's Note: In the spirit of The New Yorker's popular caption contest, we will be presenting original cartoons done for 3QD by the very talented Robert Pichler. Unlike The New Yorker, we are not running a real contest, but just for fun, we encourage you to suggest captions in the comments area.
The sound of silent art: Colin Marshall talks to writer, composer and sonic curator David Toop
David Toop is a composer of sound, writer about sound, curator of sound and research fellow at the London College of Communication. His works in text include Ocean of Sound, Exotica, Haunted Weather and the Rap Attack books. His latest is Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener, which explores the sound of silent art. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
The idea of doing a book about the sound of silent artworks — it's served you well. It's made an interesting book. It's made a book I've enjoyed reading, and presumably you've enjoyed writing. But there is a certain core absurdity to that idea that I'm sure is not lost upon you. Is that an advantage, the sheer humor, in a sense, of writing about the sound of things that are without sound?Yeah, It's a kind of crazy idea. I was very conscious of it, particularly when I felt I was moving into areas that an art historian is really qualified to deal with. I thought, "Why hasn't this been written about?" Of course, one of the reasons it hasn't been written about before is because it doesn't exist. It's purely speculative.
For example, I write a lot about sound in 17th-century Dutch genre painting, the way acts of listening are represented. I hope I've made a convincing case. I was very conscious that these speculations, certainly based on research and intensive looking, but in the end, you can't hear the paintings. You can listen as intently as you like; there's no sound actually there. It's partly dependent on the development of an idea, for sure.
How accurately could I say the book is based on specifically your perceptions? After 40 years of intense listening, this is specifically about what David Toop hears in artwork?
It's certainly very personal. One other aspect of the book is the idea of sound as being very uncanny. I write a lot about, for example, sound in ghost stories and supernatural fiction, writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens. That, for me, connects with deep childhood experience. One of my first memories of sound is of lying in bed, feeling very frightened, hearing a sound; I didn't know what the source was. Just lying in bed as still as I could, as quietly as I could, believing I could hear somebody walking around my bed in the dark. What I was hearing would've been the normal sound that houses make in the night, creakings and groanings, the staple of horror films and ghost stories.
But this had a very profound effect on me as a child. It stayed with me. I've come to the point now where I'm asking myself, "Why is this so powerful, this idea of sounds that can't be connected with their source?" Why is it so useful to filmmakers, to people writing these kinds of stories? You come to the idea that sound, because it's so intangible, because it's so transient, it's something that we can't grasp, we can't see. It always has this property of being unstable in some way, elusive, uncanny. That, to me, is fascinating. Of course, yes, it's the David Toop perspective on things. It goes right back to this time when I was a child, having this very personal experience. At the same time, I don't think that makes it an experience so personal that other people can't relate to it. This phenomenon of things that go bump in the night, creaking noises and fear of the unknown as heard through sounds is extremely common.
I was watching a film last night with my wife, Paranormal Activity, which was on the television. We'd seen it before at the cinema. I thought one of the striking things about this film is that there's nothing frightening in it — except for sound. I mean, you see absolutely nothing. You see nothing. Nothing terrifying really happens. Toward the end of the film, a few small things like bedclothes being dragged off the bed and so on, but mostly you're hearing strange sounds: knockings and so on. Some people find this film really frightening. I think it's a good illustration of how powerful this is, this notion that sound is somehow threatening, somehow strange and uncanny. Someone once said that, in film, you shoot things with the camera to show the audience how they look, but you do the sound design to show the audience how things feel. Is that a line you've heard before?
Not in that form, but something very much like it. I think there's a lot of truth in it. Sound, because of this intangible property it has, has strong connections for us with memory, with loss, and it connects very deeply with our feeling level, our emotional level. Of course it has all these other properties: it can be structured in ways which are very sophisticated, mathematically, it has an intellectual component, it has a very strong physical presence. But it does connect deeply with the emotional side of ourselves. If you took the sound away from a film like Paranormal Activity and just left the voice track and the images, it would be unbearable to watch; you would lose patience with it in about ten, fifteen minutes. It's just because you have this idea that something is making a sound, you can't see what it is, and that raises all kinds of fears.
One of the things I talk about in the book is eavesdropping. Eavesdropping is something we all do, either wanting to or not wanting to, but when you think about it, eavesdropping is common to us all, because that's our experience before we're born. We're there in the womb, we're unable to see anything, but we can hear sounds. We don't know what they are. We hear these muffled sounds — maybe more accurately, we hear and feel simultaneously these sounds from outside. But we have no experience of the world. The beginning of perception, of engagement with the world, comes in a form of eavesdropping. It's very powerful.
With the whole phenomenon of eavesdropping as you see it in the non-sonic arts — you mentioned earlier the 17th-century Dutch genre painting. You see some paintings of eavesdroppers. Was this the catalyst for you to cohere these ideas together, or was it something else?
Definitely the Eavesdropper painting was a catalyst. At that point — and this was a few years ago now — I had a few disparate ideas. I certainly knew I wanted to write a book about perception and listening and ways of hearing. I didn't quite know how to bring everything together; there were too many diverse elements. I went to the Wallace Collection museum in London, and I saw this painting, The Eavesdropper by Nicolaes Maes, who was a pupil of Rembrandt. I thought, "That's extraordinary, because what it shows is somebody listening." It shows a woman standing in the center of a house, poised one food about to descend on a staircase, and she's listening to the maid and a soldier in the house kissing in the downstairs room of the house. She can't see what's happening, but she's looking at you, the observer, who's looking at the painting. Her finger is on her lips, as if to say, "Ssh — be quiet. Let's enjoy this moment together."
It's funny, because it stretches across the centuries, this complicity between you and this person in the center of the painting, both eavesdropping on this scene. If you look at the painting, you're drawn into this whole story. He painted six of these paintings, as I discovered when I started to research it. Four of them, fortunately, are in London. They're all like different scenes from a film or a play; they all show similar incidence of eavesdropping, and they're all concerned with the same theme of somebody listening from within a painting. It's unavoidable. It's funny when art historians describe these paintings, because quite often they say, "Oh, the finger to the lips is pointing," as if everything can be reduced to looking, but it's very clear that what this woman is saying is, "Ssh, be quiet."
So there you have it; the silent medium is no longer silent. You're in a world of sound. I find this fascinating. In one sense, you could say it's predicting the future of the movies, or it's a kind of sound recording. Obviously sound recording didn't exist for us until the late 19th century, but people must've thought before then, "How can I preserve this sound?" You had the means to preserve memories through writing, you had the means to preserve material culture, objects and so on. "How can I preserve sound?" They must've thought about this.
What became evident to me was that certain painters were very interested in this idea, and others were simply not interested at all. You can test it for yourself: go around a museum, particularly of pre-20th-century paintings, and ask yourself, "Which of these painters enjoyed listening, and which of them didn't?" I found it becomes very clear very quickly, that, certain painters, there's nothing in the paintings that indicates any sound at all. Others, they're full of sound; you can virtually hear them. They're almost like a notation, or a score for musical composition. It's fantastic.
Before you saw the Eavesdropper paintings, how much, when you would experience the purely visual arts, were you thinking about their sonic aspect? I can imagine that, considering how much of your life you've devoted to the reception, the production, the listening of sound, your mind would go to a sonic place.
It's funny you should say that, because I actually trained as a visual artist. I played music in bands when I was a teenager, but my idea was that I would become a visual artist of some kind, a painter, I don't know. I went to art school, and I eventually dropped out of art school and became a musician. Over the years, my desire to visit art galleries and look at art diminished. At a certain point, I felt I really wanted to re-engage. I was going to galleries and thinking, "I don't know how this works. How does it work to go to a gallery and look at paintings, look at artworks? How do you do it?" A strange disconnect, you know. You stand there for two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes? Or you just walk quickly around?
It's a weird thing: if you've spent your whole life going to music concerts where it's fairly clear how to relate — sitting in a chair or dancing or standing or something, but you know how it works — I had this strange disconnect. It's ridiculous; I don't know how to look anymore, properly. I felt my senses were completely out of balance; everything was so focused on listening. That was part of the whole process. I started going to museums and galleries again and looking at paintings. It was only then, through this process, that I came across this painting, The Eavesdropper, which gave me the gift, I suppose you could say, this revelation. After that, I started listening to everything I looked at. It was a great new discovery. But I certainly couldn't claim that, in previous years, I'd really been listening to paintings in the same way.
Certainly I've been conscious of connections. There's a very famous connection between the artists in New York and the composers: John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Morton Feldman, Philip Guston. There's a tight relationship between them, an influence that bent both ways, the composers influencing the painters and the painters influencing the composers. That came more from a knowledge of 20th-century arts, rather than this almost tangible sensation of being able to hear paintings. The challenge, of course, was to extend that into the 20th century, when you move away from representation. You can look at a painter like Francis Bacon: a lot of his paintings, sound is central to them. You have these screaming figures, and it's absolutely fundamental to the impact of those paintings.
Then as you move into abstraction, it becomes more difficult. That's where the latter part of the book really concentrates; you're trying to find, for example, this idea of the void, examining silence. A lot of people have made a comparison between certain abstract paintings, particularly monochrome paintings, and the idea of silence. But I was thinking, if you have a monochrome painting that's completely black, and then you have a monochrome painting that's completely white, are they both silent? In a sense, they're opposites, aren't they? Plenty of food there fore re-examing those ideas and trying to draw out what connections actually are.
When you originally left the visual arts, put them aside for sound and music, how much of it was this durational aspect, the fact that music is set in time, that made it more appealing to you?
The durational aspect was part of it, but I don't imagine I understood it in that way at the time. It's difficult for me to say, but I know I was at art school and started playing music. At a basic level, I found it more exciting. It felt more dynamic to me. Some deep part of myself was addressed by working with sound and playing music. Of course, the analytical side, the writing side, has ruin in parallel with that, has been equally important, but music has always been necessary to me as something that touches me very deeply.
I somehow lost interest in this aspect of seeing the world. We have this thing in our sociey that reality is imagined through seeing and touching. We have all these phrases like "Seeing is believing." In that sense, sound and music has an air of unreality; it's insubstantial, and some people would use that word in a derogatory sense. It has no solidity; it has no reality. It's a bit like when you're growing up and your father says to you, "Be realistic. You can't make a living with this stuff." That's our social view: music is important to us, but sound in itself isn't sufficient to describe reality. At some point in my life, I felt that, for me, it was sufficient, which is not to say that seeing and touching and all the rest of it became completely unimportant to me.
But maybe in some ways it's partly redressing the balance, that things get out of balance, our sensory engagement with the world can get out of balance. You have to work on developing what's been lost, to some extent. Certainly for years that's what I did, and what I still do with listening. I still spend a lot of time listening hard to whatever's around me. Maybe you came across it in the book, but some inspiration came from just taking the dog for a walk, walking through the local woods and using that opportunity to really listen to the environment and analyze what's going on. As I said before, that's something I'd forgotten how to do, looking. But I do think that listening touches a core part of myself, and maybe when I was 19, which was when this break happened, when I moved from visual arts into music, I had a realization: that was more important to me.
How much of this ephemeral, transient quality of sound — the fact that you're never going to again hear whatever sounds you happen to be hearing, whatever mixture of sounds you happen to be hearing, ever again — is directly appealing to you? How much of the appeal of sound to you can be explained by the fact that you like this one-timiness of so much of sound?
It's not just me. I think it's why we value music so highly. It doesn't matter whether it's a recording or live performance. It doesn't matter whether the performance, once it's over, will be lost forever, or whether you can listen to it immediately again, which is something that's now possible with MP3s. You can listen again to what happened three seconds ago. It doesn't alter the fact that it's always disappearing in time. I think we value that in the same way we value the seasons and the weather.
In Japanese gardening, there's a strong focus on the passing of the seasons and the sense of loss that gives you. That pain of feeling that even as you experience springtime, it's disappearing, is highly pleasurable, is very much a part of the way we make sense of the future, the way we make sense of the past and the way we engage with the present. It's as if, when you listen to music, when you listen to sound. You just have that split second in which to do so. Then it's gone. Then, obviously, you're on to the next split second.
That makes it sound mechanical, which it's not; it's a seamless flow. The sense of something passing by has an intensity to it. I think that's one of the reasons music can be so locked into peoples' memories, their passions, their sense of identity, their emotional engagement with the world, in a way other forms of art... other forms of art, we have a slightly different relationship to. Nostalgia is a very big thing with music, isn't it? People get fixed on a certain period of their life when they were listening to a certain kind of music.
Or the pleasure people get from listening to birdsong; they know birdsong is very transient, is otherworldly, in a sense. It gives a deep pleasure to listen to it. It's the sense of something always passing. As human beings, we're conscious of our own mortality, aren't we? We're conscious of our given span. Music, in a sense, is a metaphor for that. It doesn't matter how joyful it is; it's always going to end. It's a kind of sweet and sour feeling, let's say, pleasure and pain simultaneously. That's what gives it its piquancy.
In writing the new book, how much of it was a guiding principle, then, to find the work of non-sonic artists — of writers, of painters, of all that — of artists who truly understood the transience of sound and seemed to have an eye toward expressing that transience, or evoking the transience or ghostliness? What that in your mind as the type of artist you wanted to think and write about here, or did it just end up that way?
I went into it with an open mind. I had some ideas because I do have some background in art history. I read a lot, so ideas had built up over the years. But I really went in with an open mind. You mention the writers I talk about; I started to read as much as I could of supernatural fiction. You can find a writer, Algernon Blackwood, for example — fantastic descriptions of sound. Sound is constantly important in his stories. Clearly it was very important to him. He was very sensitive to it, and he realized it was a useful device for conveying certain feelings of dread or fear, mysterious feelings,atmospheric feelings.
Edgar Allan Poe is another great example. Poe was the first serious writer I read when I was a child. You can say it almost scarred me, in a way. Reading stories like "The Telltale Heart" had a huge impact on me when I was a child, something I return to over and over again over the years. This was the first opportunity for me to really analyze these stories, to ask myself, "How is he using sound? Why is is important in the stories? What's it doing in the stories?"
And of course, you make discoveries, you go into these things with a fairly open mind and you make discoveries. Those are wonderful. In terms of the paintings, it's had a very big effect on me. I travel quite a lot, and every time I travel now, if there's a museum in the city I'm going to, I head for the museum. It's a great thing; it's like it's a privilege, in a sense, that you're being paid to go do your work and travel and experience this foreign city, but you also have the opportunity to see these wonderful artworks. It's been a very enriching experience, I must say, writing this book.
I want to get an idea of what I imagine as being the feedback loop between you writing this book, which prompts you to look at and listen to things which may be relevant to the book, which you of course bring back to the book, then that changes the book. How much of the material, how much of the art, were you already aware of when beginning the book, and how much did you discover in the process of getting into the world of this book, the mindset of this book?
Seeing the Eavesdropper painting by Nicolaes Maes was a kind of epiphany. Something clicked in my mind. I thought, "This is fantastic. This is a new way of experiencing this work." Of course, from that point, I was going everywhere, sort of experimenting: go to the National Gallery in London or the Art Museum in Dublin or the Louvre in Paris or wherever and ask myself, "What can I hear in these paintings?" It's a new way to appreciate these works; it doesn't cancel all the other ways that exist.
Take the example of 17th-century Dutch genre painting. This is a style of painting that has been extensively analyzed by art historians. It's so full of symbolism, it's so full of innovation in terms of perspective, it's so revealing of social structures, of the way people lived, the domestic environments, the social life of the streets, the architecture. They're so rich, these paintings, that when you look at the bibliography, it's vast. Now, you look at the bibliography of books about sound in general, it's very small. You think, "There's a lot of work to do here." That's very, very exciting.
You ask me about a feedback loop; definitely, there was a very strong feedback loop going on. In a way, I was trying to be cautious: on the one hand, I was conscious of moving into territory which was not my own, moving into literary analysis and art history and so on, which is quite a dangerous thing to do. I've tried to write the book so I'm never pretending to be what I'm not. Do you know what I mean? What I'm saying, I hope, is that I'm a specialist in sound, a specialist in music and listening. I'm not a specialist in these other areas, but as an outsider, I think I've spotted something that is worthy of more research, more study. Perhaps it's interesting enough for somebody else to come in and give other views on it.
That sense of having made a discovery was very stimulating for me. Yes, there was a sense of searching, and then finding new things within the material. These things become obsessive after a while. There came a point where everything I was reading, I was just putting post-it notes in every page that had an interesting reference to sound. There comes a point where you think, "Will this ever end? Will I be able to read a book again, free of this peculiar perspective?" Of course, in one sense, you're not.
I just finished a really interesting book by a Scottish writer, John Buchan. It's got some great passages which are very sensitive to sound. My feeling was that, because we are a visuo-centric culture, because we tend to value seeing and touching more than we value listening, this is a kind of undervalued aspect of our culture. There it is, it exists, it's plain to see, but it's barely recognized. In a sense, my work here is to expose it, just to say, "Here it is. This is my view of it." Then your book comes out and you hope somebody else finds it of some interest or value, or actually finds it credible in some way. That remains to be seen.
I want to get an idea of the approach you've taken to the challenges such a book poses formally. With three of your past books, Exotica, Haunted Weather and Ocean of Sound, people who have written about them have said you use a subjective style, an eclectic style, a lot of unusual connections. Some say "stream of consciousness" — I think that's a little bit unfair. To what extent have you followed the lead of those books with this new one?
There were two extremes at work on me in this book that were, to some degree, in opposition. One of them is the fact that, for the last ten years, I've had a position in academia. It's not a teaching position; it's as a research fellow. I have a great deal of freedom, but at the same time, for the first time in my life since I dropped out of art school, I'm within an educational institution.
Of course that began to have an effect on me. I was being invited to speak at academic conferences, and to some extent feeling the weight of the — let's say — catastrophe of my own education, having to deal with that. I was beginning to supervise postgraduate students and reading more and more scholarly literature. This had a big impact on my writing — a crisis, even, at a certain point. I suddenly didn't know how to write anymore, and it took me a few years to resolve that problem. What kind of style do I use? Do I completely reject my past style, which, as you say, has some aspects of stream-of-consciousness? I worked as a music journalist for ten years, so obviously that has been an influence on me. How do I resolve that? Do I abandon that style completely and work in a scholarly way, according to all the conventions of academia, or do I continue and ignore all that?
That was a difficult problem to resolve; I would say it took me a couple of years. Some of the period in which I was writing this book, I really struggled with it a lot. I hope I've come to a resolution. I don't know what you think about it, but I think it has some sense of the previous style, but maybe it's more careful in certain areas. It's less — what's the word? — cavalier about some of the more philosophical assertions or arguments, let's say. On the other pole to this, partly I was writing about the key modernist writers: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Faulkner, Samuel Beckett. All of these writers wrote in extraordinary ways about sound. You could argue that James Joyce's last book, Finnegans Wake was completely about sound. He described it as music, just music. Virginia Woolf, her books were full of passages which anticipate John Cage by many years, passages about listening and the effects of sound. Faulkner — extraordinary, a book like The Sound and the Fury. It's an auditory book. You hear it as an outpouring of conversation, inner thoughts, sounds.
These writers who were instrumental in the technique of what we call stream-of-consciousness were very much on my mind as I wrote the book, and to some extent influential. Certainly there are passages where James Joyce is coming through very strongly, Samuel Beckett's coming through very strongly, particularly at the end of the book, which is examining Joyce's short story "The Dead" from Dubliners. It ends with this image of Samuel Beckett walking through art galleries and hearing the sound of his own boots. This became very real to me, this technique of writing, this was of, in a sense, honoring more closely the way we think, or even the way we dream, in the case of Finnegans Wake.
I won't pretend it wasn't a conflict: on the one hand, the urge towards academic respectability, and on the other hand, the extremes of high modernism. I leave it to you to come to a conclusion about your feelings as to whether it works or not, but certainly for me it was a fascinating struggle. I am interested in writing. I'm not just a person who's obsessed by music and who just cranks it out; I'm interested in the process of writing, the practice of writing. It's very important to me, the reader's relationship to the books. It's not just facts and information.
And Sinister Resonance does feel different than your previous books, although I can't put my finger on it. In many ways, it feels similar to them; nobody would mistake it for someone else's book. It's interesting you mention your relatively new academic position, because I've always thought of you and your work as the work of a non-academic, in a very good way. I do think a lot about the position of the academic: they can write for academics, in which case their audience is quite limited and often the work itself is not particularly accessible, or they can write for a wider audience, but the problem of academics writing for a wider audience is that their next meal is not coming from that project. I don't know if you know what I mean —
The stakes are different, and not necessarily in a good way. How important is it to you to keep the not-an-academic feel? Is this something you've even considered part of your identity?
I was never given the opportunity to be an academic until ten years ago. Even though I was interested in scholarly work — I've read a lot of anthropology over the years; I've certainly done a lot of research in these areas — I was never part of an institution. I felt very conscious of that, maybe even had a chip on my shoulder about it because I had a very difficult experience myself with education as a teenager. Coming to terms with that was quite difficult. I must say I had a degree of prejudice; I freely admit that.
A lot of the time, prejudice comes from a lack of understanding. As I've spent time within academic institutions and worked with people who have a much more scholarly approach, I begin to appreciate it more and understand it more clearly. You develop sympathy, but at the same time, if I have a value, it's as something of an outsider. The value of the outsider is that they can come up with these new ideas, like this crazy idea of being able to hear paintings. I did try to talk to a couple of art historians about it, but they more or less ignored my e-mails. I think what they feel is, "Oh, this is too risky for us. It's too shaky. We can't get involved with this."
I respect that. I understand that. They have a position which is dependent upon fulfilling certain rules of the academy. I don't. I'm much more of a freelance kind of person. Being a freelance kind of person means you live with a certain kind of insecurity, but it means you do have the advantage of being able to say what you want to say. You just put it out there and other people judge it. I've always felt that I wanted my books to be available in bookshops, not just university libraries and so on. That's been very important to me. The feedback I've had from a book like Ocean of Sound — I still get feedback. I opened my Facebook page two days ago and somebody had posted something and they said, "Oh, I'm just reading Ocean of Sound for the third time." I think that's great. That's fantastic. That's a book that came out in 1995, and people are still drawing something from it. People say to me, "That book, I just came across it by accident."
That's probably the difference, isn't it? Books like mine you could come across by accident, whereas more academic books, much more expensive, much harder to find — it's very unlikely you'll come across them by accident. You have to go through a research program, then eventually you'll come across them. My books, you can just walk into a bookstore and pick them up. They have attractive covers, which is another thing that's always important to me. Leaf through it, and maybe it's something you've never considered before. Maybe you're a person who doesn't like experimental music. One of the things I think I do is to make links. Sometimes those links are unexpected, but they do connect you from something you know to something you don't know.
In our society, there has tended to be a very strong compartmentalization of different experiences, different cultural forms, different genres. We can talk in a very broad sense and say art is separate from science, for example, or body is separate from mind, or we can talk in a specific sense and say one certain form of dance music is separate from one form of, say, heavy metal. I don't really buy those compartmentalizations. I understand why they exist, how they've come into being and why they're convenient, but it's not the way I think, it's not the way I experience the world, it's not the way I believe things should be. What I hope for my books is that somebody could pick one up and, for example, if they're looking at Ocean of Sound, they find a chapter about Kraftwerk and think, "Oh, I like Kraftwerk because I like techno music," and then they're reading about Sun Ra. They've never listened to any jazz in their life. Equally with this book, somebody could say, "I'm interested in ghost stories" or "I love Charles Dickens" or whatever, and the next thing they know they're deep into listening to the sound of leaves underfoot.
It's being able to make that leap. Suddenly you're in an area you don't know anything about, but you're not so totally uncomfortable or lost that you can't cope with it, which I think happens in a lot of academic books. They're so specialist, necessarily so, that if you don't know about the subject, you're really lost. You feel you need to go back ten steps to have a greater understanding. And there's a certain amount of snobbishness, isn't there, in all kinds of areas? Classical music is a prime example, but it's not just classical music; dance music culture can be very snobbish, hip-hop culture can be very snobbish. "If you don't know about this, you're nobody" kind of thing. That's not what my books are about. They're about moving more fluidly, let's say, between all these areas of expression.
Yes, classical and hip-hop and electronic dance music are three areas where the sub-genre walls stand quite high indeed, often triple-reinforced. In life, were these boundaries something you had to de-program out of your own brain, or did you just never acquire them, and that's why you've taken the path you have?
It's an interesting question. I certainly went in for a certain amount of deprogramming in my late teen age and early twenties. I very deliberately began to listen to forms of music or forms of sound that had a very different structure, very different things going on in them to what I had grown up with, what I was familiar with. But I must say, if I go back further than that — and this comes through in a book like Exotica — I grew up in the 1950s. Rock and roll was part of that, and had a huge impact on me, but also it wasn't such a fine demographic tuning that goes on these days. It didn't exist then.
If you listened to the radio in the 1950s, you would hear such a bizarre cross-section of music. Particularly living in this country, in England, you'd hear strange Latin music and country music and sort of like classical music and bits of rock and roll. Everything was mixed up together. I think for some people, that was a terrible thing, and as soon as they became a teenager, they separated out: "I just listen to soul music" or "I just listen to rock music" or "I just listen to pop music" or "I just listen to classical music before 1890" or whatever. I took this experience of this strange mix, haphazard, almost random mix of musics, and that was the way I listened.
That's not to say that I didn't have strong tastes; I did. When I was a young teenager, I identified with certain kinds of music, but I think I was always looking for what's beyond what you're given. I started listening to the Rolling Stones when their first single came out, and almost immediately I started thinking, "Where does this music come from? What's the original? What's that sound like?" I went to the original, which happened to be by Chuck Berry, and I thought, "Actually, this is better. This is more interesting." That process was very rapid for me. Everything I listened to that was produced here, I could go to the source, and I found the originals more interesting.
Of course, once you start on that path, then you're constantly looking for what's beyond. In that sense, yeah, I developed a form of quite open listening early, early on. Once you've got that, you don't really lose it. You're fairly open to anything you find interesting. I had a strange experience a few years ago: I had a kind of brainstorm. I decided to do this opera-writing course as a student. Opera was maybe the one music in the world I couldn't stand. I knew nothing about it and I didn't want to know anything about it. I'd never been to the opera. Everything I heard of opera, I didn't like. But for some weird reason I decided I wanted to do this opera-writing course. Things really happened after that. I was awarded a fellowship to compose an opera, and that's what I did. I've become more open to opera, but I realized that we have certain areas that we dislike because we don't feel a part of it.
This is where racial divisions or class divisions or education comes in. Then we have certain other areas of music we reject through prejudice: in my case, opera was one of these examples. We have certain ares of music maybe we don't understand, and then we have other areas of music that are either tuned or not tuned to who we are as a human being. That accounts for taste, I suppose, our preferences. You can be as open as you like, but you still have preferences. And then you have critical faculties: you say, "I like the idea of black metal, but when I listen to it, most of it sounds really terrible, badly made, so I like these examples, but I don't like these examples." You have that necessary critical discrimination. It's not all great; it's not all terrible. You begin to develop discernment within that.
Staying open is very important, and I think as you get older — I'm 61, and I can really feel the pressure to not stay open. It becomes more important to expose yourself to maybe what you don't like or don't understand. Otherwise there's a kind of ossification; it's just part of that natural process of human aging. There's a sensation that you can get tired of always listening to new stuff. That's something you have to work harder at, but it's still possible to do it, I think, and if you have that foundation of openness, it doesn't matter if it's the new thing, the next big thing. You kind of understand what's going on in it. Sometimes something comes along, you think, "Oh, I don't understand that at all. What's going on here?" What you've heard is probably a great music, or a real breakthrough. That's a fantastic moment, when you just don't get it. It's an openness. That's how I would describe it.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.
Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deceptionby Sue Hubbard
The first work in Tate Modern’s retrospective of the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs is, fittingly, a chimera. Projected onto the wall is a 16mm film of a mirage shimmering on the horizon of a Patagonian desert highway. There is no sound, except for that of a tolling cathedral bell from another work in an adjacent gallery. Like the Yellow Brick Road, the image beckons with utopian possibilities. Yet, as modern sophisticates, we know, in our hearts, that such promises are unobtainable. It is at once a simple, seductive, sad and rather profound image. Entitled A Story of Deception 2003-6, it gives its name to the whole show.
So what is this ‘deception’ that preoccupies Francis Alÿs, a Belgian artist born in 1959, who trained as an architect before decamping to Mexico City in 1986? Essentially it appears to be the false hope and subsequent disillusionment at the heart of the modernist project, and the desire to find appropriate metaphors to reflect the urgent political, economic and spiritual crises of contemporary life. He invites us to assess the relationship between poetics and politics and question the underlying absurdity and ‘senselessness’ of everyday situations in order to create new spaces for alternative ways of thinking and doing.
There is a lightness of touch about his work, a slapstick quality that, like Beckett’s knock about tramps, belies its seriousness. In Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing)1997, the artist pushes a block of ice around the dusty streets of Mexico City like some Dadaist Charlie Chaplin, until after nine hours he is left with nothing but a puddle. Alluding to the unproductive hardships that constitute the daily reality for most people living in the region, Alÿs avoids heavy political didacticism in favour of his own form of the theatre of the absurd. Life as a Sisyphusian struggle is revisited in his video Rehearsal I, 1999-2001. Here a plucky little red VW Beetle climbs a dusty slop on the impoverished outskirts of Tijuana, accompanied by the sound of a brass band rehearsing. Each time the band pauses the driver removes his foot from the pedal so that the little car slides defeated back down the slope. As an allegory for those struggling to reach the US border from Latin America it is a poignant image. Like the clown in the circus, who continually goes back for yet another custard pie to be thrown in his face, we cannot help but admire the little car’s heroic stoicism as an enactment of Beckett’s famous “fail again fail better.” After all what else is there to be done? Structured around the recording of the brass band’s rehearsal, the film evolves into an apparent comic narrative that highlights the difficulties of Latin American societies to resist western models of ‘development’ before they regress back, all too soon, into another economic crisis.
Alÿs’s works have no fixed forms. They include videos, drawings, objects and documents, as well as some rather good little paintings. Many of them are modest in nature and simply involve walking through a city – as one work describes “as long as I’m walking, I’m not choosing, smoking, fucking or stealing - others require months of bureaucratic planning, the seeking of permits and volunteers, the hiring of equipment and cameramen. Unorthodox methods of dissemination have always been central to his practice. In the mid-1990s he contributed to Insite, an exhibition held in the border region between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico. Using his commission he travelled from Tijuana, across to Australia, north up the Pacific Rim and south through Alaska, Canada, and the United States, reaching San Diego without having to cross the Mexican- US border. The point of this extravagant journey was to emphasis the difficulties faced by Mexican citizens trying to enter the US. Although the ‘act’ was itself ‘the work’, Alÿs disseminated his ideas in a series of free postcards that challenged preconceptions as to what constitutes a work of art, implying that there are many forms of seeing and understanding. Through this process Alÿs emphasised the vulnerable and precarious nature of an artwork allowing it no greater value or right to survival than the multitude of logos, jpegs and ephemera that characterise what Maurizio Lazzerato terms an age of ‘immaterial labour’.(1)
Among Alÿs’s most potent works is the video made for the Lima Biennale in 2002, When Faith Moves Mountains. Five hundred volunteers equipped with shovels were asked to form a single line with the intent of moving by 10 cm a 500 metre long sand dune from its original position. The cri de coeur - ‘maximum effort, minimum result’ – is an absurdist inversion of the lies told about contemporary productivity from the Nazi "Arbeit macht frei", to communist and capitalist credos on the efficiency of labour. Yet the piece succeeds far beyond a piece of political polemic. For despite the fact that the task was hot and tiring, and the volunteers barely displaced the sand dune more than a few invisible paces, many of those taking part felt a sense of elation. Evoking the biblical parable about faith moving mountains, the work demonstrates the positive experience of collective endeavour, as well as posing questions about the enormous burden of establishing social and economic change in comparison to the paucity of the actual gains achieved. That the event took place on a barren slope on the edge of Lima, where many millions of displaced rural people migrated during and after the civil war of the 1980s, and that those taking part were mostly students whose lives are generally removed from such collaborative acts of physical endeavour, is not coincidental. It also implies a critique of 1960s Land Art such as Robert Smithson’s heroic Spiral Jetty, where land takes on a romantic role as opposed to one of nurture and sustenance.
“There is no fixed line between wrong and right,/ There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed,” the American poet Robert Frost once sagely wrote. Although Alÿs has long maintained a studio in the old centre of Mexico City, and much of his work focuses on Latin America, he is also concerned with broader commentaries. Following on from a 1995 work in São Paolo called The Leak, in which he walked from a gallery around the town dribbling a trail of blue paint; he adopted a similar method in a poetically charged work made in Jerusalem in 2004. Walking along the armistice border, known as ‘the green line’, originally pencilled on a map by Moshe Dayan in 1948 at the end of the war between Israel and Jordon, which had remained the border until the 1967 Six Day War when Israel moved to occupy the Palestinian-inhabited territories, Alÿs casually dribbled a line of green paint from a can as he went. The trail emphasised the arbitrary nature of the border that had originally been drawn with a blunt pencil on a map, along with the implicit violence that such an act entailed. The fragile trail of green paint became not only a reminder of the 1948 armistice line at the very time when a new boundary – ‘the separation wall’ was marking the boundary east of the original green line, but also a reminder of Frost’s words, that such boundaries are neither preordained or morally fixed.
In Alÿs’s most recent work Tornado 2000-10, we see the artist running in and out of a series of tornados spiralling around dusty Mexican fields. Not only can this be read as a comment on the precarious nature of South American society, where catastrophe such as the recent swine ‘flu pandemic in Mexico and the huge loss of life from violent incidents connected with drug trafficking are ever present, but it demonstrates that nature is no respecter of artificial borders. History is shown as spiral of destruction. Walter Benjamin imagined it as a storm of ‘progress’ blowing the angel he had witnessed in Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus away from paradise, a storm so violent that even the angel could not mend the wreckage left behind. Since Benjamin the notion of ‘progress’ feels even less linear. The tornado has made an appearance in Alÿs’s work when the promises of modernism seem particularly meaningless in the light of economic crisis, global warming, famine and constant war. Yet Alÿs does not simply stand watching as an impartial observer. Running in and out of the tornados he becomes covered in its dust and dirt. He dirties his hands and makes a choice to be involved.
Alÿs never harries, his voice is never shrill. He simply creates complex visual metaphors that reflect the dilemmas of contemporary life and allows us to read them as we will, for poetry is as much in the thoughtful eye of the beholder as it is in the mind of the artist. He holds up a mirror on the world knowing as Walter Benjamin wrote that: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”. (2)
1.Maurizio Lassarato, ‘Immaterial Labor, in Michael Hardt and Paulo Virno (eds.) Radical Thought in Italy, Minneapolis 1996, pp.133-47
2. Theses on the Philosophy of History, VII (1940; first published, in German, 1950, in English, 1955)
June 27, 2010
Keynes and Social Democracy TodayRobert Skidelsky in Project Syndicate:
For decades, Keynesianism was associated with social democratic big-government policies. But John Maynard Keynes’s relationship with social democracy is complex. Although he was an architect of core components of social democratic policy – particularly its emphasis on maintaining full employment – he did not subscribe to other key social democratic objectives, such as public ownership or massive expansion of the welfare state.
In The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Keynes ends by summarizing the strengths and weaknesses of the capitalist system. On one hand, capitalism offers the best safeguard of individual freedom, choice, and entrepreneurial initiative. On the other hand, unregulated markets fail to achieve two central goals of any civilized society: “The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.” This suggested an active role for government, which dovetailed with important strands of left-wing thought.
Until The General Theory was published in 1936, social democrats did not know how to go about achieving full employment. Their policies were directed at depriving capitalists of the ownership of the means of production. How this was to produce full employment was never worked out.
His Master’s Voice: a Cartoon Homage to Jaques TatiKaleem Aftab in The National:
It was a request to use some footage from the Jacques Tati’s classic Jour de Féte that led to Sylvain Chomet being given the opportunity to make The Illusionist, a screenplay written by the legendary French filmmaker, who died from lung cancer in 1982.
There is a scene in Chomet’s 2003 animated film Triplets of Belleville where the principal characters are watching television, and Chomet thought that it would be more interesting and surprising if the characters were watching a live action movie. It immediately struck him that he should use footage from the man who is famous for making the universe look like a cartoon, the great master Jacques Tati.
To get permission to use footage wrote to the head of Tati’s estate, his daughter Sophie Tatischeff. He explains: “We had to show her some elements of Triplets, some graphics, the script, when it was only around a third done. Sophie said she really liked the idea and the style and everything and it made her think about this script written by her dad that had never been made.
“For her this script was really important because it was a message from a father to his daughter. She didn’t want the film to be done in live action, as she didn’t want someone else to play her dad’s role, so she thought it would be perfect as a cartoon. So just four months before she died – she died like her father of lung cancer, because they’re really heavy smokers – I finished Triplets and on my way to Cannes to present Triplets, I read the Tati script and fell in love with it. I never got to meet Sophie, or even speak to her about the script.”
The Illusionist is about a once popular stage magician who upon reaching the latter stages of his career realises that audiences are more interested in emerging rock stars than his vaudeville show.
WordsTony Judt in the NYRB blog:
I was seduced by the sheen of English prose at its evanescent apogee. This was the age of mass literacy whose decline Richard Hoggart anticipated in his elegiac essay The Uses of Literacy (1957). A literature of protest and revolt was rising through the culture. From Lucky Jim through Look Back in Anger, and on to the “kitchen sink” dramas of the end of the decade, the class-bound frontiers of suffocating respectability and “proper” speech were under attack. But the barbarians themselves, in their assaults on the heritage, resorted to the perfected cadences of received English: it never occurred to me, reading them, that in order to rebel one must dispense with good form.
By the time I reached college, words were my “thing.” As one teacher equivocally observed, I had the talents of a “silver-tongued orator”—combining (as I fondly assured myself) the inherited confidence of the milieu with the critical edge of the outsider. Oxbridge tutorials reward the verbally felicitous student: the neo-Socratic style (“why did you write this?” “what did you mean by it?”) invites the solitary recipient to explain himself at length, while implicitly disadvantaging the shy, reflective undergraduate who would prefer to retreat to the back of a seminar. My self-serving faith in articulacy was reinforced: not merely evidence of intelligence but intelligence itself.
Did it occur to me that the silence of the teacher in this pedagogical setting was crucial? Certainly silence was something at which I was never adept, whether as student or teacher. Some of my most impressive colleagues over the years have been withdrawn to the point of inarticulacy in debates and even conversation, thinking with deliberation before committing themselves. I have envied them this self-restraint.
Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
Evans got his start working for the government. The Great Depression was on and the WPA was in full swing. The Farm Security Administration was looking, in particular, for photographic documentation of what the Depression was doing to the American farmer. Fortune magazine was interested in the same thing and, famously, notoriously, sent the writer and critic James Agee along with Walker Evans to produce a text with photographs. Fortune killed the story but it survived as the now iconic piece of work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
While Agee's text focused on the misery, it has often been remarked that Evans' photographs, bleak as they are, also capture something noble and unbowed in the individual faces he captured on film. Susan Sontag picked up on this fact in her own analysis of American photography from her classic work, On Photography. She saw a Whitman-esque spirit in Evan’s photography, a deeply democratic viewpoint that allowed each object, each person, to express the dignity of his own specific existence. She wrote, "American photography has moved from affirmation to erosion to, finally, a parody of Whitman's program. In this history the most edifying figure is Walker Evans. He was the last great photographer to work seriously and assuredly in a mood deriving from Whitman's euphoric humanism." This Whitman-style exuberance was doomed to be shattered on the rocks of actual historical experience, thought Sontag. The happy American is also the childlike American. Whitman himself may have been special; he could sing the body electric all night long and still be humming the tune the next morning. The rest of us were not so lucky. The years pile up and do their dirty work.
Roger Ebert at his website:
In a way rarely seen, "Putty Hill" says all that can be said about a few days in the lives of its characters without seeming to say very much at all. It looks closely, burrows deep, considers the way in which lives have become pointless and death therefore less meaningful. It uses fairly radical filmmaking techniques to penetrate this truth, and employs them so casually that they seem quite natural.
Matthew Porterfield's film, which takes place in a poor, wooded suburb of Baltimore, involves the death by overdose of a young man named Cory. We never meet him, although we see his portrait at a memorial service. The portrait tells us nothing: He projects no personality for the camera. His family and friends gather for his funeral, and we meet them in unstructured moments that tell us much about them but little about Cory.
The sad truth is, nobody knew Cory that well.
More here. [Thanks to Akbi Khan.]
Sunday PoemThe Bridge
I’ve had enough
I’m sick of seeing and touching
Both sides of things
Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody
Can talk to anybody
I explain my mother to my father
my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother
my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks
the Black church folks to the ex-hippies
the ex-hippies to the Black separatists
the Black separatists to the artists
the artists to my friends’ parents…
I’ve got to explain myself
I do more translating
Than the Gawdamn U.N.
I’m sick of it.
I’m sick of filling in your gaps
Sick of being your insurance against
the isolation of your self-imposed limitations
Sick of being the crazy at your holiday dinners
Sick of being the odd one at your Sunday Brunches
Sick of being the sole Black friend to 34 individual white people
Find another connection to the rest of the world
Find something else to make you legitimate
Find some other way to be political and hip
I will not be the bridge to your womanhood
I’m sick of reminding you not to
Close off too tight for too long
I’m sick of mediating with your worst self
On behalf of your better selves
I am sick
Of having to remind you
Before you suffocate
Your own fool self
Stretch or drown
Evolve or die
The bridge I must be
Is the bridge to my own power
I must translate
My own fears
My own weaknesses
I must be the bridge to nowhere
But my true self
I will be useful
by Donna Kate Rushin
from This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color
Kitchen Table Press, 1983
Mijn land is Vlaanderen
Rock and Rule
Man dies again!
From The Immanent Frame:
“Man dies again.” Or so might one entitle a tabloid version of Stefanos Geroulanos’s excellent work on the history of antihumanist thought in twentieth-century France. The phrase, of course, echoes a New York Post headline—“Pope dies again”—that supposedly appeared when Pope John Paul I died in 1978, a mere 33 days after Pope Paul IV’s passing. Like that likely apocryphal tabloid title, the simplistic formula is an apparently contradictory, but perhaps telling, misreading. First, it drastically reduces the density, richness, and rigor of Geroulanos’s argument, which retraces multiple—at once overlapping and competing—formulations of atheistic critiques of humanism in the politically and intellectually turbulent decades following World War One. And second, it draws an associative link between the Post’s unintentional précis of papal political theology and those strains of French thinking which most insistently worked against the divinization of “Man.” Both the condensation and the displacement at work in the phrase seem to distort the book’s aims and claims beyond recognition.
And yet, the exaggerated brevity of “Man dies again” does encapsulate what I take to be one of the central—and powerful—claims of this book, namely, that the “Man” who has been called into question by antihumanism is not always the same Man, but rather a historically shifting intellectual and political construct. Precisely because these philosophies do not always have the same target at the same moment, Man’s imminent effacement is invoked repeatedly, rather than once and for all. What might be understood as a negative anthropology in one context—for example, Kojève’s 1930s account of man’s negation with the end of history—is radically revised and reinterpreted as a Marxist anthropology in the postwar era.
June 26, 2010
Kraken Rising: How the Cephalopod Became Our Zeitgeist MascotMark Dery in h+ magazine:
As H.P. Lovecraft devotees know, Cthulhu (“kə-THOO-loo”) is the octopoid horror that slithered across the intergalactic wastes, in the time before Time, and slumbers now in the ocean’s abyssal depths, dreaming of apocalypse. As described in “The Call of Cthulhu,” he’s a cosmic obscenity, a partial-birth nightmare of “vaguely anthropoid outline” with the scaly hide and “rudimentary wings” of a dragon. But his most memorable aspect is his cephalopod head, variously described as an “octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers,” an “awful squid-head with writhing feelers,” or just “pulpy” and “tentacled.”
When the stars align, Cthulhu will rise again to resume His dominion over the Earth, ushering in an age of frenzied abandon. Humankind will be “free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy” — Aleister Crowley’s idea of Primal Scream therapy, maybe, or what Burning Man might look like if the Manson Family were called in as rebranding consultants.
Recovering English majors will be reminded of the leviathan in Tennyson’s poem “The Kraken,” which rises from the abyss at the end of the age, when “fire shall heat the deep.” (The Lovecraft scholar Robert M. Price thinks the author drew inspiration from the Tennyson poem.)
As it happens, the many-tentacled One is rising these days, though less as an omen of apocalypse than as an emblem of the zeitgeist. The cephalopod — octopuses and squid, especially the giant squid, Architeuthis — has emerged, in recent years, as a tribal totem for geeks and hipsters of the Threadless T-shirt persuasion, celebrated in tattoos, skateboard decks, Gama-Go’s Giant Squid messenger bag, the Colossal Squid onesie retailed by Hipster Baby Tees, artist Adam Wallacavage’s tentacled chandeliers, Etsy seller OctopusMe’s sterling-silver rings cast from actual tentacles, and let us not forget the Screaming Octopus Mini Vibrator or the insertable silicone Tentacle from Whipspider Rubberworks, a “g-spot stimulator” studded with glow-in-the-dark suction cups. (Both go well with tentacle hentai, the only-in-Japan cartoon-porn genre devoted to fantasies of wide-eyed Lolitas ravished by cephalopods).
First Working Replacement Lung Created in LabKer Than in National Geographic:
For the first time scientists have reconstructed working lungs in the lab and transplanted them into a living animal.
The achievement is a breakthrough in biomedical engineering that could lead to replacement lungs for humans in the near future, experts say.
Currently, the only way to replace diseased lungs in adults is a lung transplant, a high-risk procedure that's vulnerable to tissue rejection.
In a new study, researchers took lungs from a living rat and used detergents to remove lung cells and blood vessels, revealing the organ's underlying matrix.
This lung "skeleton"—made of flexible proteins, sugars, and other chemicals—consists of a branching network that divides more than 20 times into smaller and smaller structures. (See an interactive graphic of lung structure.)
The researchers placed these "decellularized" lungs into a bioreactor, a machine filled with a slurry containing different types of lung cells extracted from rat fetuses.
Within several days, the fetal cells naturally attached to the lung matrix and formed a functional lung.
"By and large, the correct subsets of cells went to their correct anatomical locations," explained study leader Laura Niklason, a biomedical engineer at Yale University. "It appears that the lung matrix has cues, or 'zip codes,' that tell the cells where to land."
When the team implanted the engineered lungs into an adult rat for short periods of time—between 45 minutes and two hours—the lungs exchanged oxygen and carbon dioxide in the same way as natural lungs.
Not for ProfitGuy Dammann reviews Martha C. Nussbaum's Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, in The New Statesman:
As the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues in this limpid polemic, the vacuum left by conventional ideas about the value of education has been filled by an instrumental conception tied not to the notions of citizenship and moral autonomy, but to short-term economic benefit. The stakes, Nussbaum says, could not be higher. "If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful, docile, technically trained machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticise tradition, and understand the significance of another person's sufferings and achievements." The price, in other words, is capitalism's noble partner, liberal democracy.
Nussbaum describes a "worldwide crisis" taking place in education. She identifies the ways in which democracy relies on the values embedded in the arts and humanities. Societies have always used their arts and history as a mirror in which to see, understand and question their own values and desires, their fears and dreams, and their internal contradictions. But the value of the arts, in this respect, is contingent on the ability to think, judge and criticise for oneself.
The citizen educated in the art of following "argument rather than numbers", Nussbaum writes, "is a good person for a democracy to have, the sort of person who would stand up against the pressure to say something false or hasty. A further problem with people who lead the unexamined life is that they often treat one another disrespectfully."
This aspect of tolerance and openness occupies the core of Nussbaum's case.
A Genome Story: 10th Anniversary CommentaryFrancis Collins in New Scientist:
For those of you who like stories with simple plots and tidy endings, I must confess the tale of the Human Genome Project isn't one of those. The story didn't reach its conclusion when we unveiled the first draft of the human genetic blueprint at the White House on June 26, 2000. Nor did it end on April 14, 2003, with the completion of a finished, reference sequence.
Instead, human genome research is an epic drama being played out year after year, in sequel after exciting sequel, as scientists continue to make new discoveries about the role of our DNA instruction book in health and disease.
The First Law of Technology says we invariably overestimate the short-term impact of a truly transformational discovery, while underestimating its longer-term effects. Indeed, that appears to be true about the sequencing of the human genome. Many news articles are coming out right now reflecting upon what has—or hasn't—happened in the decade since we announced the first draft sequence. Cynics tend to view the immediate health benefits from genomic research as a glass half empty, but I see a glass half full—and growing fuller every day.
For me as a physician, the great appeal of the Human Genome Project was the opportunity it offered to seek answers to some of medicine's biggest puzzles. Today, as I look across all fields of biomedical research, it is clear that genomics is helping to piece together many of those puzzles. Whether their work focuses on cancer, diabetes, infectious diseases, mental illness or other conditions, researchers are using tools that have sprung out of the Human Genome Project to identify the molecular causes of disease and to develop new strategies for diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.
the last tuna
Applying more pressure, I felt the needle slide into the flank, felt the resistance of the dense sushi flesh, raw and red and most certainly delicious. But for the first time in my life I felt tuna flesh for what it was: a living, perfect expression of a miraculous adaptation. An adaptation that allows bluefin to cross oceans at the speed of a battleship. An adaptation that should be savored in its own right as the most miraculous engine of a most miraculous animal, not as food. Perhaps people will never come to feel about a tuna the way they have come to feel about whales. Whales are, after all, mammals: they have large brains; they nurse their young and breed slowly. All of that ensconces them in a kind of empathic cocoon, the warmth of which even the warmest-blooded tuna may never occupy. But what we can perhaps be persuaded to feel, viscerally, is that industrial fishing as it is practiced today against the bluefin and indeed against all the world’s great fish, the very tigers and lions of our era, is an act unbefitting our sentience. An act as pointless, small-minded and shortsighted as launching a harpoon into the flank of a whale.more from Paul Greenberg at the NYT Magazine here.
picking up bits of the past
When Anthony Thwaite first read Philip Larkin’s work, in 1955, he was “as transfixed as I was when I first read The Waste Land”. The two poets became friends and collaborators. Thwaite helped Larkin to compile his Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse and edited a festschrift, Larkin at Sixty. “One day in March 1971,” Thwaite recalls, “I got a letter from him. ‘Oh, by the way,’ he wrote, ‘I’ve just written a little poem that might suit Ann’s next Garden of Verses for the Kiddies’,” [Ann, Thwaite’s wife, was compiling a children’s annual called Allsorts] “and there was This Be The Verse.” So Thwaite was first to read that now-iconic poem that begins “They f*** you up, your mum and dad . . .”. Thwaite’s reaction was odd. He says he “felt got at”, as a father of four, by the childless Larkin. Only much later did he realise that Larkin meant him to publish it, if he dared, in the New Statesman, where he was literary editor. He is still dismayed that this poem predominates whenever Larkin is mentioned. I protest that Larkin’s reputation thrives anyway — and it’s a useful poem, hence its ubiquity.more from Valerie Grove at The Times here.
The human brain is a kluge
There's a cartoon on my office wall captioned, "How our brain recalls things." It shows an old galoot (overalls, baseball cap) in a stockroom, leaning on the drawer of a filing cabinet, one hand draped across the folders, the other holding up a sheet of paper. A phone receiver is tucked under his chin, and he seems to be relaying the extracted information to someone upstairs. It's a satisfying metaphor for a process that neuroscientists have struggled to pin down for decades. In "101 Theory Drive," Terry McDermott gets us a lot closer to the problem of how the brain records experience. The intrepid McDermott, a former national reporter for The Times with no background in neuroscience, does this by embedding himself in the lab of Gary Lynch, a leading memory researcher and one of the field's most radical practitioners. "101 Theory Drive" is the lab's address at UC Irvine. Hard-drinking, cigar-chomping and potty-mouthed, Lynch — described by one colleague as "the hippie of neurobiology" — is nothing if not good copy.more from Sara Lippincott at the LA Times here.
His fondest wish was to turn himself into a nuclear bomb and get dropped on India
Shakil Chaudhary in Viewpoint:
India is Pakistan’s eternal enemy. Unless we defeat it in a nuclear war, it will keep plotting conspiracies against Pakistan, said Mr Majeed Nizami, the owner of the Nawa-i-Waqt, The Nation, and Waqt TV channel, while addressing a function in his honour (Nawa-i-Waqt, June 24). Our missiles and nuclear bombs are superior to India’s ghosts, so tackling India is imperative, he declared. “Don’t worry if a couple of our cities are also destroyed in the process.”
Dr Mujahid Kamran, vice chancellor, Punjab University, Syed Asif Hashmi, chairman, Evacuee Trust Property Board, Bushra Rahman, MNA, Niaz Hussain Lakhvera, director, Lahore Art Council, Pervez Malik, PML-N MNA and finance secretary, Shoaib Bhutta, a staunch journalist friend and fan of President Zardari, and Khushnood Ali Khan, chief editor of Jinnah newspaper, paid glowing tributes to the “living legend”. Mr Bhutta blasted the Jang Group by saying that Aman ki Asha was a conspiracy to turn Pakistan into Hindus’ slave. “They want to annihilate the two-nation theory.” Only Majeed Nizami can stop the Hindu culture from entering Pakistan in the garb of Aman ki Asha, he added. Pervez Malik described Mr Nizami as the most credible (motabir) personality in Pakistan. He also praised Mr Nizami’s position on the Kashmir issue, saying that it deserved to be followed by everybody. Only Majeed Nizami’s power and force can save Pakistan, said Mr Lakhvera. Khushnood Ali Khan said that one of the missiles should be named after Mr Nizami.
Mr Nizami has changed his rationale for initiating a nuclear war with India. The Nawa-i-Waqt (Nov 5, 2008) quoted him as saying: “Pakistan should not hesitate to use nuclear weapons to wrest Kashmir from India”. He had also said that his fondest wish was to turn himself into a nuclear bomb and get dropped on India. In the 1980s, General Zia once invited him to accompany him to India. He angrily turned down the invitation saying “If I ever go to India, I will travel by tank.”
More here. [Thanks to Omar Ali.]
Conservation and Eugenics: The environmental movement's dirty secret
From Orion Magazine:
THE RAIN HAD JUST STOPPED in the little eastern Kansas town of Osawatomie when thirty thousand people, gathered in an atmosphere not unlike that of a country fair, fell quiet. Their hero, former president Teddy Roosevelt, climbed atop a kitchen table and began to speak in a high, almost falsetto voice, orating amid cheering for ninety minutes. When finished, he had delivered the most controversial and influential address of his career, in which he described a radical new program that was both denounced and celebrated in newspapers across the country. The date was August 31, 1910. The New Nationalism Speech, as it came to be known, emphasized conservation, as did most of Roosevelt’s speeches written by his friend Gifford Pinchot, who had been his conservation chief for the two terms of his presidency. But it also newly placed the “moral issue” and “patriotic duty” of conservation into the context of a racial conversation, as well as a much broadened concept of progressivism.
In appealing to the folks in Osawatomie, Roosevelt went well beyond the program he had pursued in office, proposing a powerful national government strong enough to address many of its citizens’ problems. In this new regime, government would be a general antidote to corporate power. Federal programs would control wages and hours, health, and corporate governance. The government would take over utilities and railroads if necessary to stop monopolies. Corporate political contributions would be limited and publicly reported. Most radically, this vastly empowered national government would transform America’s economy to reward only merit, using graduated estate and income taxes to pull down the fortunes of the very rich.
The Psychology of Bliss
From The New York Times:
In 2003, a German computer expert named Armin Meiwes advertised online for someone to kill and then eat. Incredibly, 200 people replied, and Meiwes chose a man named Bernd Brandes. One night, in Meiwes’s farmhouse, Brandes took some sleeping pills and drank some schnapps and was still awake when Meiwes cut off his penis, fried it in olive oil and offered him some to eat. Brandes then retreated to the bathtub, bleeding profusely. Meiwes stabbed him in the neck, chopped him up and stored him in the freezer. Over the next several weeks, he defrosted and sautéed 44 pounds of Brandes, eating him by candlelight with his best cutlery.
Hold on a minute. Why does this story appear in “How Pleasure Works,” a book whose jacket copy promises a “new understanding of pleasure, desire and value”? If this is a “new understanding,” maybe we’ll just stick with the old one, thank you very much. For heaven’s sake, we’re only on Chapter 2, and already we’re deep into cannibalism, compounded by a suicidal-masochistic impulse. Still to come are such topics as rubber vomit, human grimacing contests and monkey pornography. But stick with it and trust the author, Paul Bloom, to use these weird digressions to get us someplace interesting. Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, has written a book that is different from the slew already out there on the general subject of happiness. No advice here about how to become happier by organizing your closets; Bloom is after something deeper than the mere stuff of feeling good. He analyzes how our minds have evolved certain cognitive tricks that help us negotiate the physical and social world — and how those tricks lead us to derive pleasure in some rather unexpected places.