A Novel Way to Think About Literary Categories

Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books:

Why do we categorize novels? Fantasy, Chick Lit, Crime, Romance, Literary, Gothic, Feminist… Is it the better to find what we want, on the carefully labelled shelves of our bookshops? So that the reading experience won’t, after all, be too novel.

Or is it simply for the pleasure of putting the world in order? French Literature, German Literature, American, South American, Korean. Or again, Renaissance, Eighteenth-Century, Postwar. In line with the notion of a body of knowledge—such that the more you read from one area, the more you can claim to be an expert, or at least a buff. There is even World Literature, which is not quite the catch-all it seems; rather, those novels that have appealed to many nations over the centuries, or that do so today. One chooses them to be a citizen of the world, perhaps, suggesting that behind the category is the desire to categorize oneself, the pursuit of identity.

In any event, I want to propose a different way of categorizing novels, or at least arranging the ones you have read on your shelves: something that came to me after reading Dickens and Chekhov in quick succession.

More here.

X-Rays of Buddhist Statue Reveal Mummified Monk

Carl Engelking in Discover:

It’s not surprising that Southeast Asia is home to countless ancient Buddha statues, but when one of those statues contains a mummified monk, that is certainly a surprise.

A mummified monk is exactly what researchers at the Netherland’s Meander Medical Center found when they placed a 1,000-year-old Chinese Buddha statue inside a CT scanner. Researchers believe the statue contains the body of a Buddhist master named Liuquan, who may have practiced the tradition of “self-mummification” to reach his final resting place.

Researchers weren’t completely surprised by what the scans revealed. They knew there was a mummified body within the statue, but they didn’t know much else about it.

More here.

Consumption is reframed as a public service performed by heroes, for heroes

Amanda Hess in the New York Times:

It’s jarring how easily the virus has been fused with branding and processed into the optimistic language of advertising. Every crisis begets its own corporate public service announcements — remember the Budweiser Clydesdale tribute to 9/11? — but rarely with such speed and ubiquity. Dozens of TV and online ads have angled to position brands within the pandemic experience, deploying inspirational pop music and gravelly voice-over artists to assure us that in “these unprecedented times” (Buick), that “in times as uncertain as these” (Chick fil A), “we’re all living a new normal” (State Farm), but “even now, some things never change” (Target) because “our spirit is what unites us” (Dodge).

The hallmarks of the coronavirus ad are so consistent they could be generated by bots.

More here.

The Art of Donald Judd

Hal Foster at Artforum:

For all his resistance to “anti-art,” Judd articulated most of his motives in the negative. Above all, he was opposed to “illusionism” and “rationalism,” which, in his view, were closely linked. “Three dimensions are real space,” he wrote in “Specific Objects.” “That gets rid of the problem of illusionism.” Why did Judd object to this “relic of European art” so strongly? Again, his argument was not avant-gardist—that abstraction had voided illusionism once and for all (it hadn’t, in any case). Rather, the problem was that illusionism was “anthropomorphic,” by which he meant not simply that it allowed for the representation of the human body, but that it assumed an a priori consciousness, whereby the subject always preceded the object. In short, like composition, illusionism was “rationalistic,” a vestige of an outmoded idealism in need of expunging. “There is little of any of this in the new three-dimensional work,” Judd insisted. “The order is not rationalistic. . . . [It] is simply order, like that of continuity, one thing after another.”

more here.


Sex and Sincerity

Sigrid Nunez at the NYRB:

So what happens when someone sets out to write fiction that is “100 percent pornographic and 100 percent high art”? According to Garth Greenwell, that was one of his goals in writing Cleanness, a collection of stories so connected they can be read as a novel (he himself has called the book a lieder cycle) and which includes several graphic descriptions of sex, some loving and tender, some brutally S&M, and all tending to read autobiographically. (Like his fictional unnamed first-person narrator, Greenwell is gay, was raised in a southern Republican state, and has lived and taught in Bulgaria. A recent profile in The New York Times suggested that, despite these parallels, readers who assume Greenwell is writing about himself are mistaken. However, when I asked him if it would be appropriate for me to include his work in a course I taught on autobiographical fiction, and if I had his approval to do so, he said yes.)

more here.

A Woman by Sibilla Aleramo – groundbreaking

John Self in The Guardian:

In 1906 in England, literature was dominated by the well-behaved worlds of novelists such as Arnold Bennett, EM Forster and John Galsworthy. At the same time in Italy, Marta Felicina Faccio, who later became a leading feminist, published her first book under the pseudonym Sibilla Aleramo. A Woman is a groundbreaking, earthquaking vision, a story and a manifesto, and a literary performance so energetic it almost demands to be read aloud.

As a child, the narrator – who is unnamed, though the novel is essentially a memoir of Aleramo’s early life – worships her father and disregards her mother: which is where the trouble begins. How could it be otherwise? Her father is the source of knowledge, of money, of all that seems valuable; her mother is “readily prone to tears, while my father could not bear the sight of them”. When the family moves from Milan to southern Italy, things get worse. In a shocking, disorienting scene, her mother tries to take her own life and never fully recovers. The girl’s own struggles have barely begun. Helping in her father’s factory at the age of 15, she attracts the attention of a worker, who rapes her. This overturns her thinking to the point that she wonders, “Did I belong to this man now?”, ultimately marries him, and they later have a son together. Yet it is from this experience that she begins to see that the self often works against its own interests; that by favouring her father over her mother “I had never stopped to imagine my future life as a woman”. It leads to a suicide attempt of her own.

More here.

Research Teams Reach Different Results From Same Brain-Scan Data

Ruth Williams in The Scientist:

In a test of scientific reproducibility, multiple teams of neuroimaging experts from across the globe were asked to independently analyze and interpret the same functional magnetic resonance imaging dataset. The results of the test, published in Nature today (May 20), show that each team performed the analysis in a subtly different manner and that their conclusions varied as a result. While highlighting the cause of the irreproducibility—human methodological decisions—the paper also reveals ways to safeguard future studies against it.

“This is a landmark study that demonstrates clearly what many scientists suspected: the conclusions reached in neuroimaging analyses are highly susceptible to the choices that investigators make on how to analyze the data,” writes John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at Stanford University, in an email to The Scientist. Ioannidis, a prominent advocate for improving scientific rigor and reproducibility, was not involved in the study (his own work has recently been accused of poor methodology in a study on the seroprevalence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in Santa Clara County, California). Problems with reproducibility plague all areas of science, and have been particularly highlighted in the fields of psychology and cancer through projects run in part by the Center for Open Science. Now, neuroimaging has come under the spotlight thanks to a collaborative project by neuroimaging experts around the world called the Neuroimaging Analysis Replication and Prediction Study (NARPS).

…“The lessons from this study are clear,” writes Brian Nosek, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and executive director of the Center for Open Science. To minimize irreproducibility, he says, “the details of analysis decisions and the underlying data must be transparently available to assess the credibility of research claims.” Researchers should also preregister their research plans and hypotheses, he adds, which could prevent SHARKing.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

The Niagara River

As though
the river were
a floor, we position
our table and chairs
upon it, eat, and
have conversation.
As it moves along,
we notice—as
calmly as though
dining room paintings
were being replaced—
the changing scenes
along the shore. We
do know, we do
know this is the
Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.

by Kay Ryan
Sixteen Poems
Persimmon Tree.org

Monday, May 25, 2020

“A World of Tears”: Rubens, Nietzsche, and tragic ecphrasis

by Rafaël Newman

Morgan Meis, The Drunken Silenus: On Gods, Goats, and the Cracks in Reality (Slant Books, 2020)

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Drunken Silenus” (1616/1617)

Reviewing a new translation of the Iliad, the military historian Edward Luttwak speculates about the enduring popularity of the ancient epic:

Why are our contemporaries so keen on buying and presumably reading the Iliad’s Iron Age reminiscence of Bronze Age combat? Publishers certainly view it as a paying proposition: at least twenty new English-language translations have been published since 1950, not counting ones from private presses. In Greece, as in Italy for students of the liceo classico, it is a compulsory school text (several modern Greek versions also serve as cribs), but why are the passengers at Terminal 2 in San Francisco buying the English versions? Uniformed and desert-booted soldiers are a common sight in US airports – the uniform secures lounge access and early boarding – and it is a fair surmise that warriors and would-be warriors, these days more often college-educated, are war-book buyers, of which the Iliad is the echt and ur. Some of course – nasty fellows – would widen the explanation by seeing Americans as a whole as war-lovers, hence war-book addicts, hence Iliad buyers. That’s lame to begin with, for there are countless ways of getting that fix much more easily than by reading 15,693 lines of hieratic verse bound to offend military history buffs, because of … the extreme, pervasive emotionalism – all the weeping wives of other war books are outdone by the floods of tears of Homer’s greatest warriors…

For the ancient heroes in Homer’s epic – Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus – are indeed often to be found weeping, whether in conventionally lachrymose settings, such as over the death of a comrade in battle or at a funeral, or when enraged and frustrated at the indignities visited on them, or, signally, when recalling their own brilliant past and lamenting their impending mortality, and subsequent obscurity. Read more »

David Petrasek: Activist, Scholar and Mensch

by Ram Manikkalingam

David interviewing Fatou Bensouda, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

It was December 1999. Two years before the attacks on the Twin Towers by Al Qaeda. I landed at Geneva airport and checked into my hotel. I was on my way to Colombo. I had stopped in Geneva to meet David Petrasek. I had never met him before. But I knew that he was working on a project on the human rights violations of armed groups. Human rights activists in Sri Lanka were struggling with the violations of the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers controlled territory and ran a de facto state in the North. While people on the ground in these areas were dealing with the oppressive rule of the Tigers through small scale resistance or highlighting their violations, there was no coherent international framework in human rights to confront the violations of armed groups, other than the laws of war. But these dealt with fighting and its impact on civilians and soldiers, not with the behaviour of non-state armed groups in other situations.

States were wary of conceding that these groups controlled territory and managed quasi-governmental functions. Doing so would be an admission of weakness on their part. An admission that they did not control all of their sovereign territory. And many international human rights organisations, not to mention legal instruments laid primary, if not sole responsibility, for violations with the state. This was both a legacy of the struggle against one party dictatorships in Eastern Europe and military dictatorships Latin America. But this was a far cry from reality. The lived experience of people in large swathes of Latin America, Asia and Africa was different. Many armed groups were not necessarily seen as freedom fighters struggling against oppression, but often as oppressive violators of human rights, themselves.

At that time, I was working at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York. I was looking for innovative and interesting initiatives that connected local challenges to international efforts in the area of peace, security and human rights. I heard about David’s initiative and decided to meet with him on my way home to Colombo. David looked at the silences in human rights work – what were policy makers, human rights activists and scholars not talking about – either because of political bias, academic fashion or political correctness. David could not have predicted that two years later, on September 11th, 2001, the issue of armed groups, their funding, and their actions, not to mention, their impact on world politics literally exploded on the international security and human rights scene. But David was already prepared as a thinker and an activist. Read more »

Reimagining Public Education

by Eric J. Weiner

In the wake of the pandemic, many people sense an opportunity to reimagine and rewrite public education so that it aligns with their particular political agendas. Progressives sense an opportunity to reassert the critical capacities of a democratic education. From the religious right, there is an attempt to blur the lines between secular and religious goals and needs. Neoliberals sense an opportunity to further privatize public education and align learning to the needs of capital. Democratic socialists sense an opportunity to recreate a system that can equitably distribute opportunity across race, class and gender. Technologists see the potential to create a techno-utopia of learning that is no longer constrained by terrestrial notions of time and space. Neoconservatives want to reclaim public education as the engine of white nationalism and free-market capitalism through the curricular standardization of “core” knowledge. What they all can agree on is the essential political nature of public education; it has always been a mirror that reflects the best and worst impulses of our nation. If you want to get a sense of a nation’s health, just look at its public education system. From the good and the bad to the downright ugly, our schools have always represented who we have been, who we are, and who we hope to be.

As the pandemic continues to rip back the curtain on economic and political inequality in the United States, it also has highlighted the nation’s failure to provide meaningful and equitable educational opportunities to all of our school-age children. With this in mind, I’ve provided a very brief and admittedly incomplete blueprint that might help at a foundational level guide all of those people–some more qualified than others–who are now sensing an opportunity to reimagine public education. Read more »

Liberty and Disunion

by Michael Liss

There is a statue of Daniel Webster in Central Park. It is tucked in at the intersection of West and Bethesda Drives, massive and unmoving, implacable and forbidding. Despite its size, it goes largely unnoticed, except as a meeting point.

Just a few hundred feet to the west of Webster is The Dakota, where John Lennon lived and died, and Strawberry Fields, a small memorial inside the Park dedicated to Lennon’s memory. In non-viral times, buses line up near The Dakota, and platoons of tourists pause there for pictures, then walk to Strawberry Fields, then across to Bethesda Fountain. If you happen to be jogging, they will wait until you pass, many with bemused looks at the strange beings who inhabit this odd corner of the universe. Occasionally, a guided tour will take brief note of Webster, but most move on. Such is fame. 

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when Daniel Webster was seen as a giant, one of the foremost statesmen of the first half of the 19th Century. He, along with Kentucky’s Henry Clay and South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, were known as the Great Triumvirate of the Senate. All three also served as Secretary of State; all three ached for the Presidency and never quite got there; all three were antagonists, rivals, and sometimes collaborators. Clay was the Great Compromiser. Of Calhoun, the historian Richard Hofstadter said he was “probably the last American statesman to do any primary political thinking.” Webster was an orator so esteemed that Stephen Vincent Benét had him besting the Devil himself.  

These qualities all came together in one of the most fascinating and consequential debates in our history, South Carolina’s drive for Nullification, and, eventually, its assertion that it had the right to leave the Union. William F. Freehling called it a “Prelude to Civil War” (in a book of the same title) and, in its issues and its sectional animosities, one can see why. It certainly had high drama—florid speeches, torchlight parades, marching and mass rallies, dueling, armed militias drilling, and the glowering presence of the biggest personality of all, Andrew Jackson. Read more »

Notes on the Academy During the Time of Covid

by Akim Reinhardt

Miss Crabtree (June Marlowe), "Our Gang" | TV and Movie Teachers ...I’ve taught shittily these last two months. That’s nothing a teacher ever wants to admit and normally has no excuse for, but these are not normal times.

I work at a public university in Maryland. There are multiple layers of bureaucracy, not all of it always terribly efficient. Maryland is a border state, and a senior colleague once described these university administrative processes as Northern bureaucracy meets Southern efficiency.

So you just knew that figuring out what to do about coronavirus was going to take a while. In all, there were two false starts before the final reckoning.

First they told us school was closed for the three days leading into Spring Break, but we would be back after that. Then, shortly before we were to return from the break, they told us the first two weeks back would not actually be “back”; instead, we would be teaching online. Some time thereafter, the third and final edict came down: we would be online for the rest of the semester.

I had spent my Spring Break planning to adapt my three different courses for two weeks of online teaching. I dove into it, coming up with the best plan I could for a limited disruption. Then, with not much time to adapt, I had to extend that two weeks into seven and a half. What to do? Read more »

Visual Histories: Ranu Mukherjee

by Timothy Don

The current economic crisis is crushing artists, museums, and galleries everywhere. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, an exorbitant rental market made maintaining a practice difficult before this crisis hit. It’s even harder now. With 3QD’s permission, I’m going to use this column to talk about the work of some of the artists and art professionals I have met in the Bay Area. I ask you to support artists wherever you find them and however you can.

“Breach”, from the “Extracted Trilogy,” by Ranu Mukherjee, 2015. Single-channel video, 4 minutes.

An explosion has occurred; a cave at the mouth of a prospecting site has been blown apart. Surfaces and shards of color and rock float in undefined space. Lonely, fragmented, incoherent, they seem to be searching for an order in which to gather, a language that would speak their place and purpose in creation. Guided by forces unseen, they look for hinges, sympathies, and affinities. Everything is present, yet nothing makes sense—until a coalescence transpires. Rhythm and energy emerge. With almost gravitational intention, shapes find their place, nestle together, and are transfigured, returning to themselves and becoming once more glowing rock, moving stream, dark cave. The entire experience transpires in a mere four minutes.

Astrophysicists tell us that at the moment of creation, when the universe gave birth to itself with explosive and ever-expanding energy, everything that exists now was present then in an infinitely dense point. A singularity. A black hole. A primordial cave. Breach, which records the image of a cave being blasted apart and then reassembling itself back into a cave, suggests that the universe is best imagined as a kind of cosmic cavern. The universe gave birth to itself from a cave, and as it cools and condenses, it becomes a cave. Read more »

The injured bird – Conversations with a member of Wittgenstein’s ‘Swansea School’

by John Hartley

Ludwig Wittgenstein

One wet January I happened to attend a meeting of the Newman Association – a Catholic group concerned with ecumenism. Long tailbacks on the motorway meant the guest speaker, making his way from Birmingham, was delayed. When Archbishop Bernard finally appeared an hour later, I was deep in conversation with my neighbour, a slightly built octogenarian with dishevelled white hair and a brown blazer.

David Ieuan Lloyd, I learnt, had studied and taught alongside Rush Rhees, Peter Winch and R F Holland, Howard Mounce and D Z Phillips, Dick Beardsmore and David Cockburn, in what was known as the ‘Swansea school’. The Philosophy department of Swansea University first cropped up on my radar some years earlier, when İlham Dilman’s treatise on Free Will singlehandedly side-tracked my undergraduate dissertation!

“Yes, I knew İlham well,” Ieuan reflected.

“What’s the big deal with Wittgenstein,” I finally asked, “It just seems like a load of nonsense!”

Ieuan gave a wry smile and what followed led to a series of semi-regular coffee shop conversations. Our inaugural meeting was a Pandora’s Box of maxims, rabbit holes and tangents, of which Ieuan later reflected “I hope the time today was of some use. I wondered when walking back that I stayed too long on the scepticism matter. More positively, would it be an idea when we next meet that you write a short menu on what you would like to discuss.”

Over the course of eighteen months I came to understand something of the ‘Swansea School’, from the many second-hand stories of someone who lived and breathed it, long after its cessation. Ieuan once recalled a story Rush Rhees had told. Read more »

Po Mo No Go

by Denis Robinson

Some philosophers I know seem to be engaging in a “this is what I work on in no long words” meme game. I’m retired and I don’t think I could have done it anyway. But in 2005 there was a wee game of that ilk, in which the aim was just to write some philosophy in words of one syllable. I wrote some thoughts I had had: short words but a long piece. I’ve taken this opportunity to make a couple of improvements I’ve long thought of. Here is the whole thing:

Some say it’s all just text and what it means must be as may be, no neat or sharp thoughts or claims which mean just what they say, no grand tales we can know to be true, just a mix of words which shift as we look at them or speak them or hear them some way or not, say “yes” or “no” to them, or play our word games with them just as we play our life games, fight our word wars with them as we fight our life wars, and so on and on and all this and that. If it takes text to say what text means, and then yet more text to say what that text means, and so on, how can it end but in text? At least in France.

But I say this. You can think of words as like tools.

So let’s think of tools for a bit. Stone age folks had a few rough tools, which would do a few rough jobs – split a rock, or a tree, or a skull, crush a nut, spear or skin a fish or a deer, store an egg or some seeds, light a fire, but all no more than fair for what few things they had to do. You might think a lot of rough tools could just make more rough tools at best. Not so. We now have lots of good fine sharp tools, which cut and draw and rule straight and true, we can make a neat screw bolt with a nut to fit tight on it, we can weigh a small wee bit of an ounce or a gram, we can build a plane or a ship or a great big house or mall or hall or bridge, we can see things much too small for the eye to see on its own, we can make small hard drives which store gigs and gigs of stuff, we can surf the net and phone some place on the far side of the world while still on line. We have tools which each do their own jobs well, just as we wish them to, more or less, and each new lot of tools lets us make the next lot yet more fine and use them for yet more things.

I say, so it went with words. It may be that once we had just rough blunt words as tools to speak our speech and think our thoughts. It may be that back then our thoughts, or at least our words and what they meant, were vague, not clear, a mix, like things seen in dreams. Our words would not add all that much to our ways of life, just help us share a bit, work a bit, play a bit, each with each, but all vague, each like a broad dim patch, not a bright spot or dot in the great field of things we might think or mean. But just as you can start with blunt tools and make tools that are sharp, you can start with dim thoughts and make thoughts that are clear, start with vague words and make words that mean things sharp and true, words that do well to state just what you mean and such that each one who knows those words knows what you mean when you say them. Read more »