Monday, September 30, 2013
3 Quarks Daily Reader Survey
This fall we are on a roll and making various improvements at 3QD. As we proceed with some planned changes, it would be nice if we knew a little more about our current readers. Will you help us by taking a 5-minute survey?
Thanks to Zujaja Tauqeer for putting the survey together, and thank you very much.
P.S. NEW POSTS BELOW
Respect for truth in science and the humanities
by Dave Maier
As you all know, not that long ago Steven Pinker wrote a piece defending "scientism" as a general approach to intellectual matters, including those usually thought to be beyond the scope of science (e.g. the humanities). Leon Wieseltier responded, restating the standard view that the humanities are indeed beyond the scope of science, except around the edges, so to speak, and reaffirming the common use of "scientism" as a term of abuse, referring for example to a tendency to regard the method of the natural sciences as setting the standard for human inquiry generally, a view Wieseltier considers arrogant.
I'm going to try not to get into the back and forth of this today, as my interest is in Daniel Dennett's brief, testy defense of Pinker against Wieseltier in HuffPo a few weeks ago (and besides, I'm still reading the same book of Dennett's I wrote about last time). Dennett is usually secure enough in his views to avoid the scorched-earth rhetoric of (for example) the other "new atheists", but Wieseltier seems to have gotten his goat this time. I myself didn't see that much wrong with Wieseltier's essay. Most of the sentences were true, for example, but on the other hand a bunch of true sentences need not a good essay make. After all, there were a lot of true sentences in Pinker's essay too.
Dennett takes offense at what he sees as Wieseltier's blunt, ignorant rejection of Pinker's sincere offer of a friendly hand across the disciplinary divide. Thus he tells us that "Name-calling and sarcasm are typically the last refuge of somebody who can't think of anything else to say to fend off a challenge he doesn't understand and can't abide." Indeed, in Intuition Pumps Dennett lists and endorses (psychologist Anatol) Rapoport's Rules of successful criticism. I really like Dennett's version:
1) You should attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way".Dennett admits to some difficulty in following these rules himself, even as in his piece he scolds Wieseltier for his lamentable lack of charity. Nor will I follow them here, as I wouldn't be able to finish (2) or (3), let alone (1) in this short space. But I certainly was struck by Dennett's claim, a mere seven sentences after the bit about "name-calling," that
2) You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3) You should mention anything you learned from your target.
4) Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Postmodernism, the school of "thought" that proclaimed "There are no truths, only interpretations" has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for "conversations" in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.Yikes! So much for charity! But wait, here comes the reply (in my head). Dennett's not sifting the good from the bad here, because the sifting has already occurred. He's talking about the bad only – the careless, then-trendy-now-farcical nihilism that rejects the very idea of truth in favor of a bunch of neverending, jargon-ridden blather. It's that stuff, not anything defensible at all (i.e. as required by Rapoport's (1)), which he thinks has derailed the humanties for years, making humanists like Wieseltier defensive and suspicious of outside influence or attack. While "Wieseltier wants no part of this [pomo nonsense]," says Dennett, "his alternative is surprisingly reminiscent of the just discredited fads; perhaps he has not completely purged his mind of the germs of postmodernism."
I think this is waaay too strong, but my point here is more specific and a bit off to the side. Dr. Dan's remedy for these germs, as indicated by the title of his piece, is a newfound "respect for truth", which will allow us to see the value in scientific approaches to what we used to think were the exclusive property of the humanities. I'm actually fine with the idea of humanists borrowing from the sciences if that helps (e.g. in philosophy, where Dennett's own discussion of things like blindsight are really helpful). But this bit about "respect for truth," especially when tied to the sort of thing that science in particular is good at, sounds awfully similar to a lot of very bad philosophy, and even if Dennett himself is not confused about this (which I'm actually not sure about …), most readers of his piece are likely to be less careful.
The word "postmodernism" became meaningless before I came along. That's too bad, as I would have liked to use it myself – and for a position for which Dennett should not only have some actual sympathy, but may even provide a better platform for his project (and may even be "truer") than his own stated naturalism. Briefly, if "modernism" means a specifically Cartesian construal of the separation between object and subject – one intended to make sense of, as well as contribute to, the explosion of the natural sciences in the "Modern" period – then "post-modernism" can be a rejection of that specifically Cartesian idea. Dennett is a primary exponent of that rejection in the context of the philosophy of mind, where he subjects the idea of an inner "Cartesian theater" to devastating criticism, quite independently of the idea of an immaterial soul. But in stating that rejection in consistently naturalistic terms, he seems to me to risk unwittingly endorsing it in another sense. Again briefly. if the problem with the Cartesian vision is a dualism between subject and object, then when we see the "Cartesian inner" as an illusion, so should we reject what we might call the "Cartesian outer": the idea of an "objective" world, "independent" of ourselves in an analogously problematic sense. If we can make sense of the latter rejection as well as the former, without falling into trendy nihilism or whatever, then maybe "postmoderns" is what we should indeed call ourselves.
"Postmodernism" in the dismissive sense Dennett uses is usually considered a Continental thing: Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard; and what supposedly entitles us to dismiss these people is 1) that they are merely self-promoting charlatans, laying down a thick layer of fog to keep everyone from seeing that they've got nothing to say; and 2) that they are relativists who don't believe in truth, but instead in power, or games, or power games. (That (1) and (2) are contradictory is irrelevant, because (1), and if that doesn't satisfy you, (2).) "Respect for truth", it seems, counters both fog and relativism at once.
But as Dennett well knows, the status of the concept of truth has been hotly debated in Anglo-American philosophy as well, and this is what I worry that Dennett's audience may miss. In this context the issue is not a skeptical rejection of science or anything else. In fact it's the exact opposite: an attack on skepticism, or at least the overtly Cartesian sort advanced by philosophers like Barry Stroud and Peter Unger. Skeptics like this point out that no matter how much evidence you have for something, if that evidence falls short of logically entailing the conclusion (as it inevitably will unless we're talking about math or logic), then it is possible that we are deceived. And if we can't rule out that possibility, then we can't claim to know, or even to be justified in believing.
This position is surprisingly easy to defend, once certain innocent-looking assumptions about the objectivity of knowledge and truth are conceded to the skeptic. In fact those assumptions were (and remain, their skeptical consequences notwithstanding) widely shared, so this was a real problem. But after a lot of ink was spilled to no effect – anti-skeptics brought lame counter-arguments (leaving the fatal assumptions untouched), and skeptics swatted them away – people lost interest and moved on. After all, that sort of skepticism isn't really a workable position. What are scientists, or anyone, supposed to make of it? How are we supposed to figure anything out if we can't know anything, or even have a rational right to believe?
Here's one way to look at it. Rather than starting with some a priori requirements about truth and knowledge, let's start with actual scientific practice. After all, science (and everyday inquiry too) sseems to be working rather well. We "find out" things all the time, and are surprised by our interactions with reality a lot less often than we would if we really had no clue what was going on (again, in science as well as in our lives generally). We're still aiming at truth, but given the radical independence of the objective world, we may never know if we get there. We can refute falsehoods when we discover them, but all we can do to theories which work is to "corroborate" them.
This result is called"fallibilism," as made famous by Karl Popper. But epistemologically speaking, fallibilism in this sense just is skepticism (that is, the kind we rejected as unworkable) with a respectable haircut. We've basically agreed we can't ever say that we know anything to be true, and yet here we are striving after truth all the same. A natural succeeding thought could then be this: forget truth – that's something that we don't have any control over. We do our best and the world decides to cooperate or it doesn't. If that latter, either we'll notice (say when the rocket blows up) or we won't (it gets to the moon fine anyway). If we do notice, we'll know that we were mistaken, and we'll try again. If we don't notice, then the difference between reality and our beliefs about it didn't come up; and if it doesn't even come up, how important can it be? All we empirical scientists want is a good workable theory with reliable, observable consequences. So what if philosophers balk at calling it "true"?
If "truth" is an airy abstraction best left to metaphysicians, though, what do scientists (and ordinary citizens) have in its place? Well, we've got the practical, empirical justification we started with (sometimes called "warranted assertibility"). But as it happens this move doesn't work any more than fallibilism did. The problem is not with knowledge – that is, with whether we know that something is the case or only believe it – but instead with the content of what is believed. [I'm collapsing the story a bit here, as it was already with explicit reference to the question of meaning that some philosophers (e.g. Michael Dummett) had advanced the idea of "warranted assertibility" in the first place; but since I don't agree that it works there either, I'm skipping this part.) Briefly: to believe that something is the case is to believe that "_____ is the case" is true whether or not we believe it (and even if we don't formulate our belief in words: the world is that way). Warranted assertibility isn't enough; we need truth after all.
Dennett has written some sensible things about the content of belief (see e.g. "Beyond Belief" as well as "Real Patterns"), but his focus has tended to be on the status of belief as a mental, content-bearing state, rather than on the idea of semantic content itself, as manifested not simply in belief but also in utterances (including but not limited to avowals). He has also engaged quite a bit with Richard Rorty, whom he describes somewhere (in the spirit of Rapoport's Rule 2?) as being absolutely right, if you just multiply by a factor of .741 or so (I forget the exact figure). Dennett consistently resists Rorty's pragmatist rejection of the Cartesian fantasy of "objective truth," preferring to remain loyal to what he calls "Standard Scientific Epistemology and Metaphysics".
As it happens I share Dennett's qualms about Rorty's version of pragmatism, which seems to me as well to recoil too strongly from the idea of objectivity, when (this is me now, not Dennett) all it needs is a contemporary (postmodern, in the sense of post-17th century?) reconstrual. But my Rorty-correlation factor (RCF) is about .741 as well. If we could figure out how to detach the rejection of the "Cartesian outer" from Rorty's contempt for "objective truth," we might all be able to get what we want, and no-one would have to call anyone any nasty names.
This is why the specifically semantic aspect of the content of belief is so important here. For another philosopher with a comparable RCF to mine and Dennett's is Donald Davidson, who advanced a radically anti-Cartesian conception of objectivity in his reflections on meaning and truth. But here's the frustrating part. Rorty was one of the first (and still few) philosophers who saw the anti-Cartesian power of Davidson's views; but he never got past what he saw as Davidson's privileging of truth, which he himself made it a point to overcome. As a result, Rorty's own quasi-relativism poisons his use of Davidson, making the real power of the latter's view easy to miss (and thus to read him, as most commenters still do, as just another analytic philosopher of language, out of favor now that "theories of meaning" are outdated).
If we could just rescue Davidson from Rorty's idiosyncratic spin, we would retain the anti-Cartesianism Rorty likes, but shed any fraction of a hint of a suggestion that this view disrespects truth in any way. But now Dennett, hearing this, will probably say: see, you agree! Rorty took us away from truth – not as badly as the French did, but just as unsatisfactorily – and now, as you say, we find (with Davidson, if you like) that it is necessary after all. So, "respect for truth", right?
Well, yes and no. I referred to Davidson's anti-Cartesianism as radical, as radical an attack on the "Cartesian outer" as Dennett's is on the "inner", and thus possibly two sides of the same virtuous coin. (Yes, I'm just claiming this here. You can read my dissertation if you want; but I wouldn't recommend it.) But as Rorty seems to imply in his own less radical moments, once we tweak the notion of truth to detach it (and successful science) from the dualistic notion of objectivity, we are no longer in a position to see it as the sole preserve of the natural sciences, i.e., due to their rigorously objective method. We can perfectly well speak of truth as a goal of, or at least a constraint on, humanistic inquiry as well, their ineliminable subjectivity notwithstanding.
That's because it's not the "subjectivity" of bias, but merely the necessary involvement of the subject in creating meaning – and thus truth as well. This point is innocuous in one sense, but radical in another. So it doesn't fit well with Dennett's description of postmodern relativistic bafflegab; but neither does it belong on the side of rigorous scientific objectivity, as opposed to an unending conversation without any hope of progress. That is, without any suggestion that the sciences should change their practices, or that they don't give us knowledge (when they succeed), it reveals as nonsense the idea that the humanities need to adopt a scientific attitude in order to "respect truth".
Food and Power: An Interview with Rachel Laudan
All photos courtesy of Rachel Laudan
Rachel Laudan is the prize-winning author of The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage, and a co-editor of the Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science. In this interview, Rachel and I talk about her new book, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, and her transition from historian and philosopher of science to historian of food.
Rachel Laudan: I can remember when there was no such discipline as history of science! In fact, moving to history of food was a breeze. After all, the making of food from plant and animal raw materials is one of our oldest technologies, quite likely the oldest, and it continues to be one of the most important. The astonishing transformations that occur when, for example, a grain becomes bread or beer, or (later) perishable sugar cane juice becomes seemingly-eternal sugar have always intrigued thinkers from the earliest philosophers to the alchemists to modern chemists. And the making of cuisines is shaped by philosophical ideas about the state, about virtue, and about growth, life, and death.
A lot of food writing is about how we feel about food, particularly about the good feelings that food induces. I'm more interested in how we think about food. In fact, I put culinary philosophy at the center of my book. Our culinary philosophy is the bridge between food and culture, between what we eat and how we relate to the natural world, including our bodies, to the social world, and to the gods, or to morality.EH: Your earlier book, The Food of Paradise, necessarily dealt with food politics and food history. So many cultures were blended into local food in Hawaii. I treasure that book -- almost a miniature of what you’re doing in Cuisine and Empire.
RL: Well, thank you. It came as a surprise to me that I had a subject for a book-length treatment of something to do with food or cooking -- as interested in the subject as I certainly was. The only genre I knew was the cookbook, and I am not cut out to write recipes.The book was prompted by a move to teach at the University of Hawaii in the mid 1980s. I went reluctantly, convinced by the tourist propaganda that the resources of the islands consisted of little more than sandy beaches and grass-skirted dancers doing the hula.
I couldn't have been more wrong. These tiny islands, the most remote inhabited land on earth, have extraordinarily various peoples and environments. They were an extraordinary laboratory for observing the encounter of three radically different cuisines inspired by totally different culinary philosophies.
EH: It wasn’t all that long ago -- going on 18 years -- but you were a pioneer in the approach you took. It was history, not a compendium of anecdotes. And it was a treatment of culinary philosophies. Was there anything to tell you it would be so well received?
RL: Not at all. Mainland publishers were interested only in a book with exotic tropical recipes. I wanted to use the recipes as illustrations of how three cuisines were merged into a fusion cuisine called Local Food. Readers were welcome to cook from them, but that wasn’t their point.The University of Hawaii Press, after some anguishing about whether a mainlander could write a book about the politically touchy subject of foods in Hawaii, took the manuscript. So I was bowled over when it won the Jane Grigson/Julia Child prize of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
EH: Any publisher might have had more confidence, originally, in your cultural sensitivity, if they’d seen how many cultures you had by then participated in. And the list has grown. You’ve really gotten around.
RL: I have had the luck to have been successively immersed in four distinct cultures: those of England, the United States mainland, Hawaii, and Mexico. Growing up in Britain, I ate the way that many foodies today dream about: local food, entirely home cooked, raw milk from the dairy, home preserved produce from the vegetable garden. I never saw the inside of a restaurant until my teens. When I was 18, before I went to college, I spent a year teaching in one of the first girls' high schools in Nigeria, something that I later realized taught me a lot about the food of that part of the world. In addition, I have lived, shopped and cooked for periods of months in France, Germany, Spain, Australia, and Argentina.
EH: Were you always teaching?
RL: Not always. My husband Larry Laudan and I left academia of our own free will when we were in our 50s, thinking it would be exciting to try something different. We thought lots of others would do the same, but no. It turns out that is unusual.
EH: Unusual, I’ll say! How did you make the shift not only to a new field, but to a more independent life as a scholar and writer?
RL: At the time, I decided to put in cold calls to people I thought were doing interesting work: Joyce Toomre; Barbara Wheaton; Barbara Haber who were working on Russian, French, and American food history in Cambridge, Mass.; Alan Davidson, founder of the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery in England; Gene Anderson, the anthropologist and historian of Chinese cuisine; and the food writer Betty Fussell and the nutritionist Marion Nestle in New York. They could not have been more encouraging, inviting me to speak, join their groups, calling from England, and introducing me to others, including Elizabeth Andoh, expert on Japanese cuisine, and Ray Sokolov, then working for the Wall Street Journal, who had just published Why We Eat What We Eat, that examined long-distance exchanges of food. I was buoyed by this sense of community as I jumped fields and left academia.
EH: You weren’t even thinking whether the history of food was a serious area of study, were you?
RL: Not at all. I’ve always believed that if you can show people you are on to an important problem and have things to say about it, they will listen. Soon after I began working on food I spent a year as a research fellow at the now-defunct Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at MIT. There, to the horror of many, I proposed a seminar on the European culinary revolution of the mid- seventeenth century when main dishes flavored with spices and sugar and the acid, often bread or nut-thickened sauces of the Middle Ages were abandoned. They were replaced by a rigid separation of salt and sweet courses and sauces based on fats, as well as by airy drinks and desserts. This was the beginning of high French cuisine.
I argued that this was due to the replacement of Galenic humoral theory by a new theory of physiology and nutrition deriving from the work of Paracelsus and accepted by the physicians in the courts of Europe. Once it became clear that my theory could account very precisely for the change in cuisine, they were all ears. A scholarly version won the Sophie Coe Prize of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery and was published in the pioneering food history journal, Petits Propos Culinaires. And a popular version was later published by Scientific American.
EH: I am moved and impressed that you left academe with a plan. Many people would have just waited by the phone rather than build a new network. Yet your central concerns, as an independent scholar, remained the same as when you were teaching, and have come to full fruition in Cuisine and Empire. Food and technology require to be considered together, do they not?
RL: Indeed they do. Food, after all, is something we make. Plants and animals are simply the raw materials. We don't eat them until we have transformed them into something we regard as edible. Even raw foodists chop, grind, mix, and allow some heating. So I could bring to food history, the hard won conclusions of historians of technology.
EH: What are historians of technology mainly concerned with?
RL: Well, historians of technology are not primarily concerned with inventions. The infamous light bulb was useful only as part of a whole electrical system. Similarly soy sauce, say, or cake, have to be understood as part of whole culinary systems or cuisines. When these are transferred, disseminated, copied, they change the world.
And, perhaps most important, new ideas or prompt changes in technology. They cause cooks, for example, to come up with or adopt new techniques. As the shift to French high cuisine shows, if people change their minds about what healthy food is, they will change their cuisine. When they adopt new religious beliefs, Buddhism or Christianity, say, they abandon meat cooked in the sacrificial fire for enlightenment-enhancing foods such as sugar and rice in the case of Buddhism, or for periods of fasting in the case of Christianity. When they reject monarchy as a political system, as happened in republican Rome, the early Dutch republic, and in the early United States, they reject the extravagant dining associated with reinforcing kingly or imperial power.
So a large part of the book is dedicated to laying out the culinary philosophy underlying each of the world's great cuisines. When that culinary philosophy is transformed, so is the cuisine.
EH: Ah! Just one reason I am so excited about Cuisine and Empire is that I cannot think of anyone else who could take all this on, even if they thought to.
RL: My background in history of science and technology was a big help. It had become clear that this was not simply one damn experiment and discovery after another but shaped by great traditions of scientific inquiry shaped by atomism or Newtonianism or uniformitarianism, to turn to my specialty, geology. And I had explored the parallels between science and technology as cognitive systems, arguing that technology too was not just one invention after another but shaped by traditions of knowledge that, for example, specified materials, techniques, and ways of handling them in say, the evolution of gearing, or interchangeable parts, or jet engines.
My experience in Hawaii had already suggested that there were far reaching traditions in food too. So I asked “If even the history of the foods of Hawaii has to be told in terms of the cross-oceanic, cross-continent expansion of a few great culinary traditions, might not that also be true of world food history?"
Cuisine and Empire answers that with a resounding yes. It's possible to capture most of food history in the last 20,000 years by talking about the expansion of about a dozen different cuisines.
EH: I will be thinking about this book for years and years. I’m already starting to wonder what broad cultural assumptions, that I’ve never thought to identify, much less question, I must bring with me when I cook... These are assumptions about science and technology, too, because science exists within culture. Despite how well prepared -- I want to say uniquely prepared -- you were for writing Cuisine and Empire, it was a tremendously ambitious project, was it not?
RL: It was ridiculously ambitious.
EH: Now, this is a question everyone who writes will understand. Did it ever seem so huge and unwieldy you wanted to chuck it?
RL: More times than I care to admit. What was I writing about? Farming? Cooking? Dining? What were the big turning points? And what about all the regions such as Central Europe and Southeast Asia that got short shrift? On the other hand I had the wonderful gift of time to take on a big project and I didn’t want to fritter it away. So I gritted my teeth, kept re-working my organization, telling myself I was as well prepared as anyone.
EH: How so?
RL: On the practical side, I had grown up on a working farm. And I learned early on that cooking was just as important as farming. One of my earliest memories was the day my father decided he would make bread with the wheat he had grown. At the time, there was no internet to look up how this might be done. He put it in a pestle and pounded it. Nothing but flattened grains, even though many of the archaeologists in our part of the world assumed without experimenting that that was how it was done. He screwed the meat mincer on to the side of the large kitchen table and put the grains through that. Nothing but little lumps. Finally, he put a handful of grains on the flagstone floor and attacked them with a hammer. Fragments scattered all over the kitchen, but still no flour. With barns full of wheat, we could have starved because we did not know how to turn wheat into flour to make bread.
Later I had the chance to shop and cook in Europe, Australia, the USA and Mexico so I had a pretty good grip on a variety of cuisines. In Nigeria and Hawaii, I had experienced cuisines based on roots, not grains. At the University of Hawaii, I taught a wildly popular hands on world history of food, learning a huge amount from my students, almost all of them of Asian ancestry. And in Mexico, women taught me what my father couldn’t, namely how to grind grains into flour.
On the intellectual side, in the course of my academic life I’d also taught social history, an eye-opener about what life, including diet, was like for ordinary people until very recently. And at the University of Hawaii, with its polyglot population, I’d had a chance to talk with many of the pioneers of world history.EH: Unlike when you were writing The Food of Paradise, was there also a wave to catch? In the form of other like minded scholars and writers at work?
RL: A wave? If there was, it was more in world history than in food history, which in spite of the efforts of some fine scholars, did not really become mainstream until a few years ago. World historians such as William McNeill, Philip Curtin, Alfred Crosby and Jerry Bentley -- the latter my colleague at Hawaii -- were drawing on decades of detailed historical scholarship to see if they could trace big patterns of disease, warfare, enslavement, ecological change, and religious conversion.
Why shouldn't I jump into the fray and see if there were big patterns to be traced in food? Surely it was just as important in human history as their topics. I'd always loved making sense of masses of complicated data. Now here was a real challenge.
EH: Rachel, I expect lots of readers for your book. Which other books do you think it will be on the night table with? I’m thinking particularly of Michael Pollan and Bee Wilson -- is there a cogent comparison? I note Paul Freedman blurbed your book, by the way -- along with Naomi Duguid, Anne Willan, and Dan Headrick. Gee, good company!
RL: Well, if mine ends up on the night table with these books, I will be tickled pink. And I think it complements them nicely. Michael Pollan's recent book, wonderfully written as always, is a long meditation on contemporary cooking. I differ from him in not drawing a sharp distinction between cooking and processing. Processing (pre and post industrial) and cooking are on a continuum of stages in food preparation. Bee Wilson's delightful book is also about cooking and full of wonderful historical insights as befits a historian. But whereas she treats themes such as knife, fire, and measure, I organize by the origin, spread, and transformation of cuisines. In my wildest dreams, I would like to think of this as the historical counterpart to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking.
EH: Readers will be intrigued by your historical treatment of “processing.” It’s become a bad word –- code for turning food into non-food. I regularly read your blog, so I know you mean it a certain way that looks at the very big picture, including labor economics. But the food you personally like is emphatically not processed…
RL: Not if you limit “processed” to what many call junk food. I’ve never acquired a taste for fast-food hamburgers or soft drinks, have never eaten Wonder Bread or its siblings, and cook at home six nights out of seven. Picky is what I am. At the same time though, I think that we hinder our understanding of food if we don’t understand that all our food, with the exception of a few fruits, has been transformed, that is, processed, before we eat it. The foods that humans eat are one of their greatest creations, one of their greatest arts in that dual sense of technique and aesthetics, and we should celebrate that they are artifacts, not bemoan it. Like all human creations, some foods are better than others, and should be judged as such, but they are all creations.
EH: So there! How do cuisines speak to you personally -- as someone who loves food and cooking? If a cuisine does reveal a culture, then would tasting and analyzing it be as telling as listening to a poem or seeing a drama?
RL: Absolutely. Every time you go into the kitchen, you take your culture with you. As you plan a meal for guests, say, you bring to it assumptions about how to mesh their preferences with yours, about how much it is appropriate to spend on the meal, about how to accommodate their religious or ethical food rules, and about what they believe to be healthy and delicious.
I like to play a little game with myself when I go to a different country or meet someone from a different background. Knowing the history of that place or the heritage of that person, can I guess what the cuisine will be like? Or conversely, if presented with a meal, can I read it, dissecting, say, the noodles, the condiments, and the meat to tell a story about how it evolved over the centuries? And the answer is almost always yes.
EH: What holds a cuisine together?
RL: Again it was Hawaii that gave me the clue. It was not the local plants and animals because Hawaii had almost nothing edible before humans arrived. It was systems of belief or ideas or culture. The Pacific Islanders all valued taro, which had a place in their traditional religion, they all had a variant of the same herbal medicine. The Asians (apart from the Filipinos) had all been touched by Buddhism with its veneration of rice, and all subscribed to some form of humoral theory. And the Anglos came from a Christian tradition that placed high importance on raised bread and they followed modern nutritional theory.
EH: You have empires in the title, but you haven’t mentioned them yet. Where do they fit in?
RL: Empires have been the most widely spread form of political organization and as such the major theater in which cuisines have been created and disseminated. It's not a case of one empire, one cuisine, though. Because aspiring leaders always copy and adapt the customs of what they see as successful rivals, cuisines were copied and adapted from one empire to another. In the ancient world, for example, Persian cuisine was copied and adapted by the Indians and the Greeks, and then the Romans copied and adapted Greek cuisine.
EH: So cuisines spread from empire to empire. Is it a coherent story all around the world?
RL: Amazingly, yes. Beginning with the first states, interlinked barley-wheat cuisines underpin all the early empires. Then in the next phase, Buddhism transforms cuisines of eastern Asia, followed by the Islamic transformation of cuisines from Southeast Asia in the east to parts of Africa and Spain in the west (and the shaping of the Catholic cuisines of medieval Europe), and Catholic cuisines transform the cuisines of most of the Americas in the sixteenth century. Protestant critiques open the way to modern cuisines in Europe, with the rest of the world quick to make similar changes. Protestant-inspired high French cuisine becomes world high cuisine, Anglo cuisines create a middle way between high and humble cuisines, a middle way that is copied from Japan to Latin America in late nineteenth century. Although there are countless wrinkles, exceptions, and idiosyncrasies, at the core is a simple, coherent story of a few big families of cuisine and three major stages.
EH: If empires spread cuisines, does the reverse apply? Does food affect the success of empires, or smaller states? I have read in Jared Diamond about food affecting the success or failure of a whole society – the Norse colony in Greenland, whose people starved rather than ate fish for instance. What about embracing a culturally new food for political reasons?
RL: Certainly most people in the past believed that food could affect the success or failure of a whole society. At the end of the nineteenth century, for example, leaders around the world looked at what seemed to be the unstoppable expansion of the Anglo world, that is, the British Empire and the United States of America.
One explanation was that Anglo strength derived from a cuisine based on white wheaten bread and beef served at family meals. Unlike alternative explanations such as the special characteristics of Anglos or their upbringing in bracing climates, this offered a strategy for countering this expansion. If you could persuade your subjects or citizens to abandon corn or rice or cassava, and shift to bread or pasta, if you could persuade them to eat more meat, if you could persuade them to eat as families, then they might become stronger.
EH: Well, I’m naïve, then. “Eating as a family” is not a given across cultures? Please tell me more.
RL: The importance of the family meal as the foundation of society and the state is so deeply ingrained in the American tradition that it’s hard to appreciate just how American it is, perhaps inherited from Dutch settlers. Of course many meals were prepared in the home throughout history, though institutional food was more important than we realize. Just think of the courts, the military, the religious orders, as well as prisons, boarding schools, poor houses, and so on. Just think of the pictures of dining in the past and how rarely it is a family that is depicted. Who you ate with reflected rank rather than family ties.
But even when prepared in the home, the meal was often very different from that depicted in Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want.” The children might eat in the nursery, as in nineteenth-century middle class England. Or the father might eat in a different place and at a different time from the wife, as in Japan. Or the father might eat food prepared by different wives on different days, as in Nigeria. Or the meal might include unrelated apprentices and farmhands. So to many societies, the idea of the communal family meal as offering both physical and moral/social nourishment was a novelty.
EH: And the shift to bread, pasta, and meat?
RL: Even in the United States, there were concerted efforts to persuade southerners, particularly in the Appalachians, to abandon corn bread for biscuits of wheat flour. And Brazilians, Mexicans, Venezuelans, Colombians, Indians, and Chinese debated, and often put in place policies to bring about this change. The most successful efforts were in Japan where the diets of the military and of people living in cities were changed to add more meat, more fat, more wheat, and to introduce family meals.
EH: Ah! Taking on the strength of the aggressor, or of the dominant culture! I wonder who’s doing that right now, and with regard to whose food… I’m fascinated with the cover of Cuisine and Empire. I know it’s a Japanese print. I wanted it to be the Jesuits, but that’s centuries off the mark.
RL: It’s a print in the Library of Congress collection by the Japanese artist, Yoshikazu Utagawa, made in 1861 just a few years after the forcible opening of Japan to the West. It shows two Americans, great big fellows, one of them baking bread in a beehive oven and the other preparing a dish over a bench top stove. I chose it because it so nicely illustrates the themes of the book. It puts the kitchen at the center. And it shows the keen interest that societies took in observing, and often copying, the cuisines of rivals.
EH: The kitchen at the center of history -- a beautiful phrase. The book launches very soon.
RL: I believe the official launch date is in November. Copies, though, will be available this week.
EH: Well, mine will arrive today or tomorrow. Thank you so much for this fascinating preview and discussion. I’m already thinking how to incorporate 20,000 years of causality into the book party menu.
A different version of this interview, emphasizing gastronomy in history, is available at The Rambling Epicure.
Read Rachel’s article for SaudiAramco World on the Islamic influence on Mexican Cuisine
Read Rachel’s personal blog, “A Historian’s Take on Food and Food Politics” at http://www.rachellaudan.com/Live in or around Boston? Come with me to a talk by Rachel Laudan the evening of October 28 at BU!
Making a Home
What I think over and over
eventually I do
I’ve been training body all along
to dance the cantos of my thoughts,
how can it not do what it learns?
Innocence seeps away
through the interstices of neglect—
to house a pure idea
it will move on to a better man
and leave my vacant skull to host
what loathes a vacuum
by Jim Culleny
Is German humor an oxymoron?
by Brooks Riley
Is German humor an oxymoron? Someone said that it was. It might have been Jay Leno, it might have been someone else. It could have been many people, all clutching a cliché as worn out as an old shoe, and one that never really corresponded to reality. That Germans have humor also interferes with our other clichés, most of them emanating from our own World War II movies, which indoctrinated us to the ‘Achtung' school of German intransigence.
The cliché that refuses to die was reinforced by a 2011 poll, which voted Germany the most unfunny country in the world. (With the British coming in 4th place and US in 5th, one has to wonder who was voting.)
Maybe it's time to take another look. The video of a spontaneous combustion of laughter on a subway in Berlin went viral in 2011, racking up 3 million viewers who simply had to see it to believe it.
Germans like to laugh. They like to laugh so much that humor, a Kleinkunst (minor art) once dubbed the Tenth Muse, is more than just a cottage industry. Contrary to the accepted wisdom, their humor did not emigrate in 1933 even though many of its better exemplars did leave the country or were later arrested and murdered by the Nazis. One of those who stayed behind was the legendary Karl Valentin, a Bavarian comic whose nightly show began with music by Mendelssohn. One night during the Third Reich, he was visited by the SS, who told him he would have to stop playing that music because Mendelssohn was Jewish. Valentin answered: ‘Then you'll have to turn off the lights, Edison was Jewish.' So much for Achtung.
My introduction to Valentin was fortuitous. I wanted to hear Walter Schmidinger reading from the works of Thomas Bernhard at the Salzburg Festival. Sometime after I bought the ticket, Thomas Bernhard died. In his will he forbade the public performance of his works in his native Austria. A letter informed me that Schmidinger would be unable to read Bernhard but would read from the works of Karl Valentin. Karl who? I fully intended to return the ticket, but didn't. On the evening in question, I debated whether or not to attend. My comprehension of German was nascent at the time, and although I knew Bernhard's works in translation, I would probably not be able to understand much of this other guy.
Curiosity won out. Walter Schmidinger is a brilliant, noble Austrian actor of nuance and pathos. Schmidinger reading Valentin is a bit like John Gielgud reading H.L. Mencken or Mark Twain. Or maybe not. The evening was prodigiously funny. Valentin's monologues are deceptively simple, ambushing the audience with the obvious ("I used to live on Sendlinger Street--not on it . . because the streetcars drive through. . ." ). With a vocabulary of about 20% I was able to understand nearly 80% of the humor. It was partly Schmidinger stepping out of his dignity suit, but it was also the delerious absurdity of Valentin's prose. The German-speaking audience howled, and I was right there with them--only much more surprised than they were.
One of Valentin's most famous works is the ‘Bookbinder Wanninger', which he recorded in the Thirties, about a bookbinder calling a client (a company) to tell them that their books are ready. What follows is the switchboard operator passing him on to all sorts of irrelevant employees, including the company president. It still resonates today, as we desperately try to make telephone contact with the right person at a business address.
Someone who ‘goes into the cellar to laugh' is how Germans describe a rare breed of German without a sense of humor. Curiously, the phrase also implies that even the most poker-faced Bürger has to laugh somewhere, sometime. But humor is expendable in perilous times: It could be that the whole nation went into the cellar to laugh during the Third Reich, allowing atrocity to rule the day.
A recent New York Times article about Chancellor Merkel claims that ‘in private she is highly engaging and even funny.' Perhaps the chancellery has a cellar where she goes to nurture her inner Dorothy Parker.
Stand-up comedy in the US tends to be a series of extraneous one-liners strung together into a monologue. In Germany, the monologue is a single-subject delicacy, sometimes served to the subjects themselves. Once a year, during the strong beer season at the Nockherberg, a locale in Munich, important politicians watch themselves being lampooned on stage. Although an acting chancellor rarely appears, enough other well-known figures from the different parties are on hand to take the heat. It makes the annual White House press corps dinner look tame. Half the fun is watching the politicians themselves and suspecting that more can be learned about them from their reactions at the Nockherberg than from their sober sound bites in the Bundestag.
A comedian is called a Komiker (the stand-up, one-liner kind à la US) or a Kabarettist (more dramaturgical, as monologist, or in a duo or ensemble). These days, they come in all shapes and sizes, all ages and all nationalities. Turkish comedians are popular, mining a rich vein of immigrant humor (Kaya Yanar, Bülent Ceylan). One of the best is Django Asül, a Bavarian of Turkish descent who delivers his humor in a heavy Lower Bavarian accent. Nothing exposes a people and their idiosyncracies better than the inside experience of an ‘outsider'. Audience shots of Germans laughing at themselves are especially reassuring when the barbs come from Germany's newer citizens.
Kaya Yanar gets stopped for speeding
The country is full of comedy clubs or cabarets. Humorists tend to be regional although appearances on television bring them national exposure; north Germans, Berliners, Germans from the populous Ruhr region, all have their favorite humorists. German Wikipedia has entries for 607 comedians, and that's not including the Austrians, the Swiss and the ones nobody's ever heard of.
Bavaria is a plentiful source, some of the humor very dark--Bruno Jonas, Sigi Zimmerschied, Ottfried Fischer, Sissi Perlinger, Michael Mittermeier. The hilarious monologues of Gerhard Polt have accompanied me on long car trips, his first-person travails buoying me along at 100 mph with a risus sardonicus on my face.
Gerhard Polt: Mahlzeit (a form of greeting at lunchtime; literally ‘meal time'.)
Originality and timing are the keys to successful comedy—think Steven Wright, Woody Allen or Robin Williams: Or the gaunt professorial Piet Klocke elevating ADHD to an art form with his unfinished sentences; Georg Schramm with his multiple personas and agressive diatribes; Eckart von Hirschhausen, a medical doctor who specializes in hippocratic humor; or Hape Kerkeling with his multiple alter-egos, including the nerdy buck-toothed town crier ‘Horst Schlämmer'. Kerkeling as Cleopatra, Napoleon, Martin Luther and other historical figures spices up the hybrid six-part documentary series for ZDF's Terra X, ‘Underway in World History' (Unterwegs in der Weltgeschichte), a unique blend of solid information, luscious photography, and anecdotal humor, with Kerkeling as tour guide and impersonator.
Hape Kerkeling – Trailer for ‘Unterwegs in der Weltgeschichte'
Or the multi-talented Helge Schneider who delivers a brand of humor that is almost accidental. Embarrassing and irresistible, it also defies description. Schneider is well-educated, and can play great jazz on the piano, for instance, but when he sets out to amuse people, it's with a bland silly song called Katzenklo (Litter box, or Cat toilet)—and that's the point. Schneider is hit-or-miss as a comedian (he doesn't even call himself one) and his is a precarious brand of humor, but when he's good he's pathetically good.
Another, newer star is Olaf Schubert, a Saxon (the Saxonian accent is part of the package, as it is with the Bavarians) whose nervous east German Weltanschauung is so hermetic that he brings to mind a kind of post-modern Simplicius Simplicissimus.
Austria has its own star examples, the hang-dog fatalism of Josef Hader, or Cornelius Obonya, an actor at the venerable Burgtheater: Not strictly a comedian, he nevertheless delivered a nearly three-hour monologue ‘Córdoba—the return match' in dozens of voices on an empty stage, to a standing ovation. The title refers to the only time the Austrian soccer team ever beat the Germans, in Córdoba, Argentina in 1978, but the monologue itself more or less mines every social and political controversy since then.
Josef Hader on film acting at the German Film Awards.
The German-speaking Swiss can't be left out, with Ursus Wehrli (of the duo ‘Ursus und Nadeschkin'), now much more famous for putting the world in order than for his appearances on the cabaret circuit. Or Emil Steinberger, Switzerland's most famous and prolific comedian.
Ursus Wehrli puts art in order (in English)
Television offers plenty of ways to make people laugh. The Heute Show, a variation of ‘That was the week that was', is a no-holds-barred take-down of politicians and their weekly gaffes, moderated by a sports reporter with perfect comic timing: Oliver Welke and his ensemble can be brutally funny and dead-on. Chancellor Merkel, otherwise known as Angie, or Mutti (Mom), is a favorite target, although the show is an equal-opportunity free-for-all that leaves no politician unscathed. Neues aus der Anstalt, (News from the Asylum) is another irreverant show about the news.
Americans may have their Breaking Bad, but Germans have their Tatortreiniger, a half-hour comedy about someone who washes up after crime scenes. Or Josef Hader's two-part TV film (Aufschneider, or one who cuts open things) about a sad-sack coroner whose colleague kidnaps her own dead father from the morgue because she can't bear for him to be autopsied.
Humor pops up in TV crime fare too, notably in a popular sub-genre called the Dorfkrimi, or village crime story. The crime is often incidental to the drollery of bumpkins in their picture-book habitats, their dirty little secrets as hoary as the codgers playing skat down at the local tavern, their sheep providing inofficial roadblocks, and their chickens and pigs contaminating crime scenes. Several weekly series follow this premise (Mordshunger and Mord mit Aussicht,or ‘Murder with a View'), but the more successful examples are movies of the week, from directors like Markus Imboden (Möderische Jagd), Julian Pölsler (Polt muss weinen and three other Polt films), Max Färberbock (Sau Nummer vier) or Rainer Kaufmann (Erntedank and Föhnlage).
Humorous crime novelists enjoy wide readership: Jörg Maurer and his five Alpenkrimis (Alpine crime stories), Max Bronski with his junk-dealer's-eye-view of the criminal class, but above all the inimitable Austrian writer Wolf Haas, whose perennially down-and-out detective Brenner is the sieve through which dubious aspects of the Austrian character are filtered and ruthlessly exposed. Thomas Bernhard probably would have loved Haas's books (in the cellar). At least one of them has been translated into English but it's hard to imagine his comedy travelling well in spite of his stylish prose.
Josef Hader as Brenner in the film version of Haas's Silentium (Trailer).
A dark past is not necessarily a prerequisite for dark humor, but when the two combine, as they did in a recent German student film, a glossy mock commercial for a new Mercedes with sensors that can react to danger before the driver does, the nation debated—without much humor—whether one can laugh about Hitler.
Mock Mercedes commercial
It's rather late for this discussion. At the film premiere of Schtonk!, Helmut Dietl's 1992 satire about the forged Hitler diaries, I was the only one in the audience who laughed at the opening flashback, a faithful valet combing the dead Hitler's hair in his open grave. More recently, though, a new satirical novel by Timur Vermes, ‘Er ist wieder da' (‘He's back.'), has topped the bestseller list for months, and film director Dani Levy has satirized Hitler in My Führer—the really truest truth about Adolf Hitler. Whether they like it or not, Germans aren't shaking off Hitler anytime soon, but are they shaking with laughter about him? Slowly but surely. It might be the best medicine.
Disclaimer: It was not easy to select video examples in a language foreign to many readers. My choices were based on length, and on gags that might be understood in spite of the language. For those who do speak German, there is a wealth of material on YouTube.
How Exceptional Is America? Let Me Count The Awful Ways
by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash
Well, he's wrong. We ARE exceptional. Here are the ways in which we are more exceptional than any other nation on earth:
1. We like to kill people. Especially helpless women and children. Since the end of WW2, we've slaughtered more folks in more wars than any other nation on earth. Not by the hundreds. Not by the thousands. But by the millions. No nation comes close to America when it comes to mass murder. No other nation is more evil than we are. And then we call our troops heroes, when they're nothing but hired killers.
2. Our former leaders -- George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld et al -- can't leave the country to travel overseas because they will get arrested as war criminals. How's that for exceptional?
3. We don't just specialize in killing foreigners. We like killing ourselves as well. Americans kill more Americans than any other nation on earth kill each other. It's like a continuation of the Civil War.
4. We are more cruel to animals than any other nation on earth. On our factory farms, we raise cattle and hogs and chickens so caged in, they can't move. Unlike an advanced country like Sweden, where they have laws protecting animal rights, we are the world's biggest sadists in our treatment of animals. (BTW, if you want to find some nations that are truly exceptional in a good sense, look no further than the Nordic nations of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland: they have the most generous and robust social welfare safety nets, with high taxes, yet they are the most economically competitive nations on earth, with successful world-wide brands like Ikea, Lego, Volvo, Nokia, Absolut Vodka, etc. The tiny nation of Denmark leads the world in wind power technology, generating 20% of its energy from wind. And these three countries spend proportionately more on foreign aid and helping other nations than any other. When it comes to exceptionalism, America is at least a century behind Scandinavia.)
5. With 5% of the world's population, we have 25% of the world's prisoners -- more than Russia proportionately had under Communism, or South Africa under apartheid. We also spy on our citizens more than any other country. We're a complete police state. Witness our police suppression of the Black Panthers and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
6. Our government routinely ignores what the American people want them to do for us. We wanted a public option in our health care; the gorvernment ignored us. We wanted full employment; the government ignored us, even though they could start a public works program to fix up our crumbling infrastructure, and pay people for working instead of paying them unemployment insurance for not working. We wanted the crooks on Wall Street prosecuted; our government ignored us. We're not a democracy, we're a plutocracy.
7. We spend twice as much money as other industrialized nations on healthcare with worse outcomes. That's because we've left (outside of Medicare and Medicaid) our healthcare to private industry. In other words, we look upon people being sick as a great profit opportunity. No other nation is as immoral as us in this regard.
8. Our government is totally dysfunctional. We have a House of Congress that passes the repeal of Obamacare more than 40 times, and has done nothing much else. Our government refuses to govern. The GOP rules the House even though Republicans got 1.4 million fewer votes than Democrats over all. With gerrymandering, our government doesn't even represent us.
9. We spend more on weapons of mass destruction than any other nation on earth, yet we have the gall to lecture others. We export more arms than any other nation. We make more money off killing people than any nation on earth. Why do we need such an big army? Why do we need more than 800 military bases overseas? No other nation is as paranoid as we are.
10. We have less social mobility than any other industrialized nation on earth. We have more income inequality than any other industrialized nation on earth. We have more poor people proportionately than any industrialized nation on earth (46 million at last count), even though we are the richest country.
In short, we are the most heartless, sadistic, paranoid and psychopathic nation on earth. Sure, we're exceptional. Exceptionally fucked up.
Here, down in the valley, when the news broke, people were, as was to be expected, up in arms. A contract had been awarded to XNexst. It was for a system for monitoring citizens and to create a unified registry system for the identification and targeting of deviants: threats to society—those who do not belong to civil groups --those who refuse to belong to communities--those-who refuse to get jobs like the rest of us—those who refuse to play by the norms that were so clearly laid out for our collective good---you know--- groups representing low proclivity to consume. These deviants, of course, are also those who do not belong to the clearly defined civil groups and minorities defined around allergies and who do not perform well on our happiness indexes---The system was meant to identify these deviants and dispose of them. Everyone must belong to a minority. And everyone must demonstrate that they are happy. Otherwise, the system cannot assign a value to them.
We were outraged. The proposal was to monitor all internet activity, perform a deviant survey based on deviant activities score card and then based on the score— link each of the eyes on screen or EoS and the deviant score to a national identification card for easy targeting and for initiating logging out and cancelation. Disposal was to be done through mobile disposal units—much like the garbage trucks that prowl through cities every night. In this case—after the deviating EoSs log out—yes---die as a result of a deep sensation of depression which would cause either a stroke or a hemorrhage—or both, after this, disposal teams would move in---unlock the codes on the computerized lock systems on buildings apartment doors, and houses—since now every single home conforms to code and this building standard —the disposal teams would pick up the bodies and throw them into the garbage truck to be taken to a disposal site for instant incineration.
Our people were horrified when this news broke. No attention to detail at all! In comparison, our entire proposal was so much better! Much more effective and cost efficient. Of course it was. We were the ones who had designed and implemented the happiness index monitoring system. Hello! An efficient measure of success as linked to each bank account: Happiness. So of course just as elegantly and relevantly, for this, for our proposal for XNexst we had proposed a much more sure fire way of logging out—without any risk of failure—It had a two-step approach if step one which resembled XNexst's approach failed, step two would kick in—in this phase an added doze of subliminal messaging would persuade the EoS to click on the fire arm and body bag facsimile option and then walk out of their dwellings to a point of pick up, PoP. Then on the sighting of the approaching disposal truck the EoS would get into the body bag and shoot himself.
Plus our proposal used garbage trucks which had built in functions for separating bones, blood and flesh. We had pilot tested the process in several locations when the opportunity had presented itself. And another one was coming up. Soft drinks are not the only product testing that follow our troops! In our proposal our system not only took the waste product and immediately disposed of it by incineration, creating fuel for heating while the rest of the waste product was turned to compost for organic farms. In addition to contributing to a green economy we had also noted in our proposal that our firm was one hundred percent minority owned and minority run. Our happiness index was well off the charts: in the top one percent of the top quintile. It was an air tight case. So for this to have gone to someone else---was a travesty. We are planning a strong protest. Such injustice has to be resisted.
The lament of the online dater
by Sarah FirisenMy topic today, online dating
Is this really the best way for mating?
Is it worth all the pain?
The interest I feign
In the men who on my nerves are grating?
Was the bar scene so great in its day?
Does venue change the games that we play?
Is this way really worse?
Are the men more perverse?
Am I seen more as their sexual prey?
From boys barely out of high school
Who think that a cougar is cool
And try to pretend
That sex alone’s not the end
All these years doesn’t make me a fool
Then there’s each man who’s age is just right
But who want abs and butt that are tight
Or think they have one last bid
To get them a kid
Interest from that demographic is slight
And so often when a man sounds just great
I know that I just have to wait
Then the truth comes along
He’s really so wrong
And enthusiasm starts to deflate
I sigh as it starts to emerge
That he’s really relieving an urge
I try to heap scorn
I’m not here as his porn
Clearly our interests diverge
Each day I think, “Should this be the end?
And the best use of time I expend?”
But what else to do
If this I eschew?
And my profile I decide to suspend?
The problem isn’t really the way
That I find all these men who dismay
I’d forgotten the scene
Was bound to demean
Is there no better game I can play?
Why the Rodeo Clowns Came
by James McGirk
I live surrounded by retirees in rural Oklahoma. They are spry. They own arsenals of gardening equipment: lawnmower-tractor hybrids that grind through the fibrous local flora with cruel efficiency; they wield wicked contraptions, whirling motorized blades that allow withered men to sculpt hedges into forms of sublime and delectable complexity. Their lawns are soft to touch and inviting and deep emerald green. They host garden parties. They know the mysteries of mulch and sod, their vegetables bulge with vitality and nutritious color, their compost heaps are not heaps at all, they are tarry and primordial, oozing and glowing with health. Their flowers glow. Their insects are harmless flutterers, not the stinging biting buzzing slithering demonic horde that inhabits my yard.
In the spring I chose a manual mower to help maintain my garden. I am no environmentalist nut, but as an ostensible elite urbanite, I wrinkled my nose at the fumes belched by my neighbors’ devices. This was a grave error. My man-powered motor leaves bald patches when I hoist the thing through a rough patch uphill and it accidentally sheers too close, and leaves miniature Mohawks when the sturdier weeds simply dip beneath my blades and spring up behind me unscathed. But I cannot blame the device. This is an operator error. I chose the thing, and I vowed to live with the consequences.
For months I huffed and puffed, hauling the bright orange plastic and metal contraption through the thickets in my yard. I felt close to the land. Its contours became familiar to me: the mysterious dead patch, which I fantasized came from natural gas seeping up from the Cherokee Shelf, five fathoms below; or the pits dug by the previous tenants where I once found a black snake tangled in my spinning blades (coward that I am, I let him crawl away instead of dispatching a merciful death: and lo the next afternoon my elderly neighbor came over to apologize for the shriek I might have heard because the poor thing had taken shelter in her kitchen before her husband—an octogenarian—beheaded it with a rake) and the plunging predator birds and the mysterious mushrooms and the owl feathers and squawking fledglings and tiny tragedies: the robin’s nest spilled on the ground after a titanic storm, her pale blue eggs still intact, the nest like a spun basket, and the mother’s frayed carcass a few feet away. I watched it slowly decay.
The blade on my mower can be adjusted to clip between four inches and one inch. The closer the shave the more effort it takes to cut. Any growth above two inches looks like an overgrown haircut. Sloppy, grubby and neglected. Seedy might be the precise word I want. Could this be a word that entered the vernacular from our centuries of lawn care? Next to the martial precision of our neighbors’ yards our shaggy lawn looked degenerate as the summer dragged on. Though I made a valiant effort to sustain it, I kept having to set my blade higher: one-and-a-half became two became three… and when I returned from a trip even four inch cut couldn’t make a difference I had to call for reinforcements.
Early in the season, lawn care was easy to arrange. People prowled the streets of Tahlequah looking for opportunities to lock down a lucrative contract: a summer of care, 40 dollars U.S. every two weeks. Our nasty yard was a cry for help. Knockers came daily offering help and fistfuls of fliers touting their services. But by September those plucky entrepreneurs had gone. I hunted for lawn care professionals. The Yellow Pages, pinned to the drawing board in the local Laundromat, there was nothing! After a week of searching I finally found a tout in the classified ad section of the local paper: Several decades of experience! Equipment and tools! It seemed sober and professional. I snipped and called the number.
A preoccupied, frail voice responded. He was driving, but said if I would just give him a moment he would take my call. “Let me call you back,” I tried interjecting, but he was adamant we speak. I heard grunts and the moans of zooming traffic seemed to recede. “Okay,” he said. “You’ve got me now. I’m in the parking lot of a bank, let’s talk estimates,” he said, and he told me he would be by. “Okay,” I replied. It’s the only house on the block with grass an elephant could hide in. “A what?” He said. “Never mind,” I replied and recited my address.
He pulled up in a white Ford pickup truck a few hours later. “You James?” He asked me. “Sure am,” I replied. He stepped out of the cab and told me his name. Now, Tahlequah is an awfully small town so I won’t repeat it here. He was shorter than I expected. Older too. I guessed he was about the age of my neighbors—someone who’d retired long ago. He wore a cowboy hat, blue jeans and a bright white shirt button-up shirt. Didn’t notice his boots, but I expect they were tough and leathery too. He wore a beautiful ring. Bright yellow gold on a thick band with what looked like a chunk on onyx as a stone.
We shook hands. Already, I felt ashamed. I could barely breathe in the air it was so hot let alone mow my own lawn. His face was flushed pinkish-red: a distinctly cardiac color. He waved away my offer of a glass of water.
We chatted as we strolled the grounds together. He appraised the lawn. My weeds were no problem at all, and they had to go, and he was happy to trim the edges of our lawn, which was crucial because edges are like shoes: if they’re scruffy it ruins the effect of everything else and are absolutely impossible to trim without one of those whirling edge-trimmers. Not for nothing is a tidy lawn a reflection of an orderly household and a stable income and sober minds within. It takes hard work or cold hard cash to maintain one.
My front lawn is misleading – it looks tidy and easy to maintain but there’s a pretty steep slope and there are thickets of spongy clover-like stuff that resists cutting. He said this was no problem. He was an old hand around these parts, trimmed the yards of massive estates ones with hills that made ours look like mere pimples. I took him around back. We have a narrow gate (someone who lived must have once owned a dog) and I worried about him getting his riding mower in, but waved away my concerns. This was no serious problem, he said, we could just unscrew the fence if it didn’t fit.
I was starting to notice his gait. He had a stiff, painful walk. He noticed me noticing: “just had my hip replaced,” he said. A two thousand pound steer had fallen on him. “Let me rest for a bit.” We leaned against the fence and then he slumped over on his side. “Just have to let it set,” he said. “I’m tough. I’ll be fine.” He asked me where I was from. “New York,” I said. And he told me about how he’d been part of a construction team up there, hired from Louisiana to come up and put power-lines up, but the local union types “had objections.” So “we Cajun boys had to straighten ‘em out with wrenches and pipes.”
Now, if my front yard was the ski-slope equivalent of a red slope (or a single black diamond for our American readers), my backyard was a professionals-only black. There were crannies and pits and the aforementioned snake and I tried to point out all the deep pits where I had fallen and nearly broken my leg. “Are you sure you can do this?” I asked him. He sure was.
I walked him back to his truck. We shook hands, agreed on a price—slightly more than the eager hordes were quoting me earlier this season—and he told me he would be back the next morning at eleven.
It was really hot. Well over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit and close to a hundred percent humidity (spills wouldn’t dry up on their own, the air felt steamy, the bugs were fizzing like crazy). He showed up an hour early. And unloaded a wide riding mower. He zoomed back and forth, and the front yard seemed to be done in an instant. I chatted with him for a bit – he regaled me with his story about the Cajun boys showing up the Jersey thugs again, and then we attempted to tackle the back. But the riding mower wouldn’t fit through the narrow gate. It was wired together so it couldn’t be unscrewed (at least not without my landlord’s permission). He asked if he could summon a friend with a smaller mower.
“Of course,” I said. “And if it’s too hot you should come back…” he wouldn’t hear of it, and eased himself down in the same shady spot as before and began punching numbers into his phone. His friend arrived in a scruffy blue truck with ancient gas mower in the back; he himself was tall and thin and came dressed head to toe in blue denim the exact worn shade as his truck. The old mower wouldn’t start. The two men discussed strategy. I handed over their money (and a substantial, guilt-induced tip) thinking nothing would get done, and turned to leave for an art exhibit.
“Hey, James!” shouted the ring-wearer, who was lying on his side again. “Did you ever think, coming from New York, you’d have two old rodeo clowns mowing your yard?”
A cold, sick feeling spread through my guts; as did a peculiar feeling of déjà vu.
I needn’t have worried. Though I did when I arrived home that night to find their old gas mower still in my yard and only a quarter of the grass cut (an effect not unlike being interrupted mid shave), three days later my lawn was completely trimmed and the clowns were alive and kicking. It took me a little longer to identify why their interaction felt so uncannily familiar.
It was their air of conspiracy and the compact little world the two rodeo clown friends had made for each other. I had encountered it once before. For a couple of months I worked for a pair of friends who were running a hedge fund. It was a wild idea they were gambling on, one that on paper sounded cynical and deliciously depraved but was really just playing at being soldiers and spies; and this pair of financiers—they even looked like the two rodeo clowns, one was stout and fair the other lean and dark—used the promise of making a pile of money to lure people—myself included—senior executives and former government officials who should have known better into their fantasy. And when it all blew up they were left unscathed. That moment of plotting I witnessed between the two clowns, reminded me of the two financiers plotting before a meeting with Goldman Sachs; and it felt good to see it. Working as a freelance writer in the hinterlands of America can be a lonely business—so even though my garden looked like shit when they left and it took a week of raking to get in order, and even though it was only because the financiers’ secretary felt sorry for me and shamed the pair that I was eventually paid for my work; but it didn’t feel as bad as it could have.
I enjoyed the japes, just wished for once I could have been cut in rather than been played. I’d better go. My lawn is looking haggard again. I’ll have to haul out the mower again.
Sunday, September 29, 2013
Richard Holton: Problem of Free Will
Salman Rushdie, Edward Said, and Moral Courage
Sarah Waheed in the Asian American Writers' Workshop:
This past April, in an op-ed for the New York Times, Salman Rushdie pondered over the ways in which public respect for moral courage has diminished, noting how strange it is that we have become increasingly “suspicious of those who take a stand against the abuses of power or dogma.” Rushdie provided several examples of moral courage, ranging from South African activist Nelson Mandela, to Saudi poet Hamza Kashgari, to the Russian band Pussy Riot. The one that caught my eye was the late cultural critic and scholar of comparative literature, Edward Said (1935-2003). Rushdie, in the op-ed, described Said as an “out of step intellectual,” noting that he was “dismissed, absurdly, as an apologist for Palestinian terrorism.” Said had been one of Rushdie’s greatest admirers, and was particularly enamored of the way Rushdie wove the complexity of cultural differences into his early literature, essays and critiques. One wonders what route the friendship between Said and Rushdie would have taken, since such complexity no longer informs Rushdie’s political stances.
Thomas Jefferson’s Quran: How Islam Shaped the Founders
Richard B. Bernstein in The Daily Beast:
One of the nastiest aspects of modern culture wars is the controversy raging over the place of Islam and Muslims in Western society. Too many Americans say things about Islam and Muslims that would horrify and offend them if they heard such things said about Christianity or Judaism, Christians or Jews. Unfortunately, those people won’t open Denise A. Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. This enlightening book might cause them to rethink what they’re saying.
Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an examines the intersection during the nation’s founding era of two contentious themes in the culture wars—the relationship of Islam to America, and the proper relationship between church and state. The story that it tells ought to be familiar to most Americans, and is familiar to historians of the nation’s founding. And yet, by using Islam as her book’s touchstone, Spellberg brings illuminating freshness to an oft-told tale.
Spellberg, associate professor of history and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, seeks to understand the role of Islam in the American struggle to protect religious liberty. She asks how Muslims and their religion fit into eighteenth-century Americans’ models of religious freedom. While conceding that many Americans in that era viewed Islam with suspicion, classifying Muslims as dangerous and unworthy of inclusion within the American experiment, she also shows that such leading figures as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington spurned exclusionary arguments, arguing that America should be open to Muslim citizens, office-holders, and even presidents. Spellberg’s point is that, contrary to those today who would dismiss Islam and Muslims as essentially and irretrievably alien to the American experiment and its religious mix, key figures in the era of the nation’s founding argued that that American church-state calculus both could and should make room for Islam and for believing Muslims.
Science vs. the Humanities, Round III
In TNR, Steven Pinker, on one side:
In his commentary on my essay “Science is Not your Enemy,” Leon Wieseltier writes, “It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art.” I reply: It is not for Leon Wieseltier to say where science belongs. Good ideas can come from any source, and they must be evaluated on their cogency, not on the occupational clique of the people who originated them.
Wieseltier’s insistence that science should stay inside a box he has built for it and leave the weighty questions to philosophy is based on a fallacy. Yes, certain propositions are empirical, others logical or conceptual or normative; they should not be confused. But propositions are not academic disciplines. Science is not a listing of empirical facts, nor has philosophy ever confined itself to the non-empirical.
Why should either discipline stay inside Wieseltier’s sterile rooms? Does morality have nothing to do with the facts of human well-being, or with the source of human moral intuitions? Does political theory have nothing to learn from a better understanding of people’s inclinations to cooperate, aggress, hoard, share, work, empathize, or submit to authority? Is art really independent of language, perception, memory, emotion? If not, and if scientists have made discoveries about these faculties which go beyond received wisdom, why isn’t it for them to say that these ideas belong in any sophisticated discussion of these topics?
And Leon Wieseltier on the other:
What Pinker cannot bring himself to accept is that his beloved sciences, even when they do shed some light on aspects of art and literature, may shed little light and—for the purpose of understanding meaning (Pinker’s scare quotes around “meaning” may indicate a scare)—unexciting or inconsequential light. I gave the examples of the chemical analysis of a Chardin painting and the linguistic analysis of a Baudelaire poem. Many other examples could be given. “The theory of parent-offspring conflict”—I hope the grants for that particular breakthrough were not too large—is quite superfluous for the explication of Turgenev or Gosse. Nothing in the physical world, in the world of the senses, in the world of experience, can be immune from or indifferent to the categories of the sciences; but there are contexts in which scientific analysis may be trivial. That is not to say that science is trivial, obviously. But the belief that science is supreme in all the contexts, or that it has the last word on all the contexts, or that all the contexts await the attentions of science to be properly understood—that is an idolatry of science, or scientism. Pinker is wrong: I am not censoring scientists. They can say anything they want. But everything they say may not be met with grateful jubilation. So let the scientists in—they are already swarming in—to the humanities, but not as saviors or as superiors. And those swaggering scientists about whose intentions Pinker wants humanists to “relax”: they had better prepare themselves for a mixed reception over here, because over here the gold they bring may be dross.
The Writer as Reader: Melville and his Marginalia
William Giraldi in The LA Review of Books:
Melville remains one of the best American examples of how every important writer is foremost an indefatigable reader of golden books, someone who kneels at the altar of literature not only for wisdom, sustenance, and emotional enlargement, but with the crucial intent of filching fire from the gods.
How might Melville react to today's writers' conferences and creative writing workshops in which so many have no usable knowledge of literary tradition and are mostly mere weekend readers of in-vogue books? An untold number of Americans will finish a book manuscript this year, and the mind-numbing majority of them will be confected by nonreaders. How can a nonreader imagine himself an author, the creator of an artifact that he himself admittedly would have no interest in? Can you fathom an architect who's not fond of impressive buildings, or a violinist who has never listened to music? The erroneous assumption among the multitude is that writing doesn't demand specialized skills. In The War Against Cliché, Martin Amis offers this explanation why so many wish to “join in” the game of literature: “Because words (unlike palettes and pianos) lead a double life: we all have a competence.”
The Austrian journalist Karl Kraus, an aphorist as scathingly accurate as Oscar Wilde and H.L. Mencken, once quipped: "So many people write because they lack the character not to." By "character" Kraus meant the good sense to know that not every story is worth telling; not everyone can muster the intellectual, emotional, and narrative equipment needed to succeed as a novelist. But the abracadabra of the internet has transformed us into a society of berserk scribblers; now anyone can have a public voice and spew his middling stories and thoughts at will. Forget that blog is just one letter away from bog, or that the passel of burgeoning “literary” websites is largely a harvest of inanity with only the most tenuous hold on actual literature. Our capacity for untamed, ceaseless communication has convinced us that we have something priceless to say.
Mario Banana I and II
william gaddis in conversation
Sergiu Celibidache in Rehearsal with London Symphony Orchestra
There’s More Than Meets the Eye: A René Magritte Survey
Holland Cottor in The New York Times:
Oh, no, I thought when I heard that the Museum of Modern Art’s big fall show was a René Magritte survey. Dozens of undersung modernist painters, many of them women, on at least five continents, have never had a New York moment, and here we’re getting an artist we practically can’t avoid. The pipe; the giant eye; the choo-choo in the fireplace. As it turns out, “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938,” which opens at MoMA on Saturday, is good solid fun, because Magritte is solid and fun. There’s no mystery about why he’s so popular. His paint-by-numbers illustrational mode reads loud and clear from across a room — a good thing, as the exhibition galleries are sure to be jammed — and reproduces faultlessly, even on a cellphone screen. And he had ideas. He was a sophisticated trickster, a bourgeois gentilhomme with a geek inside, hacking into everyday life and planting little weirdness bugs: legs sprouting from shirt collars, rain falling upward, words having lives of their own. He was an attention-grabber with one gift, but a crucial one: for puzzle-making. You may not get, at first glance, what’s going on in his paintings, but you get that there’s something to get. So you look again. And again. Which is, of course, a marketer’s dream.
One thing’s for sure: We’re unlikely ever to see Magritte look better than he does in the MoMA show. Its organizers, Anne Umland, a curator of painting and drawing at the museum, and Danielle Johnson, a curatorial assistant, have zeroed in on a single — and I would say the only — consistently fresh and interesting decade in his long career, when he was inventing the artist he wanted to be and when his art was all over the place in a good way: witty, nasty, brilliant and bad at the same time.
More here. (Note: Saw the show. Loved it. Recommend highly.)
What are the rules of polygamy?
Julia Layton in How Stuff Works:
Plural marriage is as old as the Bible. Abraham and Jacob each had more than one wife. King David had six. King Solomon had 700 (not to mention 300 concubines). Solomon lost God's favor when he married women who did not give up idolatry, David when he sent a woman's husband to the front lines so he could marry her. Whether ancient or modern, polygamous or monogamous, marriage has rules. There may be ages and genders to consider. In early America, there were races to consider. Often, those considerations draw on religious beliefs: The Quran allows a man to take up to four wives. In Fundamentalist Mormonism, there is no set limit to the number of wives in one marriage. Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet who first delivered God's directive that Mormons practice plural marriage, ultimately took dozens of wives.
Sunday PoemDream Tales From the Barn
The white rooster is too new at this,
too newly glorious, victorious, to notice
how the west wind has flattened
its hand against the barnboards.
Yesterday's hero, named Choochoo,
still flaunting the sheen of his plumage
minus the prize green tail feathers, waiting
for his red crest to rise bravely
from the ashes of frostbite,
has taken it all in, flat wind and flimsy wood,
but he's too busy stewing about the hens
gone over to the other side, and the bald spot
on his back pecked larger by the day.
The flea-bitten brown cock who never stood a chance,
never sees the light of day, sits drilled into his lonely corner,
smugly aware of the wind's highly organized goings-on
cheering for it in his sad, airless heart, waiting
for the barn to cave in on a wild feathered frenzy,
waiting for the dust to settle, one chance in three.
by Ellen Doré Watson
from We live in Bodies
Alice James Books 1997
Rafiq Kathwari wins Kavanagh poetry award
From the Irish Times:
He graduated from the University of Kashmir in 1969 before studying at the New University in New York and Columbia University. Most of his working life has been spent with Ethan Allen, a large manufacturer and retailer of home furnishings based in the United States. He has also worked as photojournalist. Mr Kathwari has published poems in print and online in the US, Ireland and Asia.
Saturday, September 28, 2013
Building India’s "Shock City of the Twentieth Century" from the Top Down
Samantha Christiansen in Berfrois reviews Howard Spodek's Ahmedabad: Shock City of Twentieth-Century India:
The field of South Asian urban history has a rich history of examining India’s major urban centers. Numerous astute studies of Delhi, Bombay (Mumbai), and Calcutta (Kolkata), for example, have contributed to our understanding of not only the rapid urbanization (and later suburbanization, as explored in the remarkable collection of essays that appeared in a recent special edition of Urban History [February 2012]) of the subcontinent, but the human and economic development that has shaped the region as well. Yet while the field is rich, there are noticeable silences around relatively large swaths of the region. Cities outside of the Indian national border, such as Karachi or Dhaka, rest quietly in the periphery of the historiography; others within the border, such as Ahmedabad, while mentioned in virtually all historical discussions of the subcontinent (being the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram after all), have received little focused attention. Howard Spodek’s Ahmedabad thus provides an important contribution to the field as both an examination of a place conspicuously underrepresented in the urban history of the region and as an excellent piece of urban history that not only greatly informs our understanding of South Asian development, but also has application to a number of cities globally.
Spodek presents a compelling sketch of the last hundred or so years in a city that has been called the “Manchester of India.” In Spodek’s presentation of the city, we see a microcosm of some of India’s major political, economic, and social trajectories: the rise of Gandhi and the independence movement, the drive for modernity and industrialization in postcolonial India, the collapse of the labor unions and the restructuring of the economy within new global markets, and struggles with communal violence and corruption. Spodek successfully balances his portrayal of a city shaped by a concentrated body of power elites within a larger global context, placing Ahmedabad at the center, but recognizing the external forces playing out in the process. In this way, as a case study in urban history, Ahmedabad is instructive both in content and method.
The History of Fear
Corey Robin discusses fear in political philosophy, over at his blog:
It was on April 5, 1588, the eve of the Spanish Armada’s invasion of Britain, that Thomas Hobbes was born. Rumors of war had been circulating throughout the English countryside for months. Learned theologians pored over the book of Revelation, convinced that Spain was the Antichrist and the end of days near. So widespread was the fear of the coming onslaught it may well have sent Hobbes’s mother into premature labor. “My mother was filled with such fear,” Hobbes would write, “that she bore twins, me and together with me fear.” It was a joke Hobbes and his admirers were fond of repeating: Fear and the author ofLeviathan and Behemoth—Job-like titles meant to invoke, if not arouse, the terrors of political life—were born twins together.
It wasn’t exactly true. Though fear may have precipitated Hobbes’s birth, the emotion had long been a subject of enquiry. Everyone from Thucydides to Machiavelli had written about it, and Hobbes’s analysis was not quite as original as he claimed. But neither did he wholly exaggerate. Despite his debts to classical thinkers and to contemporaries like the Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius, Hobbes did give fear special pride of place. While Thucydides and Machiavelli had identified fear as a political motivation, only Hobbes was willing to claim that “the original of great and lasting societies consisted not in mutual good will men had toward each other, but in the mutual fear they had of each other.”
But more than Hobbes’s insistence on fear’s centrality makes his account so pertinent for us, for Hobbes was attuned to a problem we associate with our postmodern age, but which is as old as modernity itself: How can a polity or society survive when its members disagree, often quite radically, about basic moral principles? When they disagree not only about the meaning of good and evil, but also about the ground upon which to make such distinctions?More here and the second part here.
The Pantheon of Animals
Justin E. H. Smith in his own blog:
I’m waiting in line, embarrassed to be here by myself. I’ll be turning forty later this month, and here I am at the natural history museum, childless. The ticket lady is going to look at me funny. There is some kid behind me, four years old or so, speaking Swedish to his dad. He is wearing thick, round glasses made of blue plastic, and a colorful backpack with a cartoon image of a Cro Magnon on it. His progenitor is getting a lecture about how birds are, in truth, dinosaurs. The kid is beaming with pride at his own knowledge of this. To my right is a statue, which, as with all statues, I have taken some time to notice. But when I do, I am startled. It is Émmanuel Fremiet’s 1895 masterpiece, Orang-Outang Strangling a Savage of Borneo, a work of horrible violence, and a congealing of sundry, transparent anxieties of the fin-de-siècle European man. The Swedish boy is now on to the difference between mammoths and mastodons.
I’m next in line. I’m at the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, the ground floor of a three-storey building also housing the Gallery of Paleontology, both of which are part of the vast complex of galleries, greenhouses, and gardens at the Paris Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, in the Jardin des Plantes on the Left Bank of the Seine. “Un billet,” I manage to say. “Plein tarif.” I shouldn’t really be here, I know. But it's the only place I really want to be, in this foreign, difficult city, at this puzzling stage of life. I am not a boy, but it is where I belong: among the many bones, whose collectors hoped to lay bare through them the very order of nature.