The Versatility of Batman

Barnes_tls_376103a Jon Barnes in the TLS:

A year from his seventieth birthday, Batman appears to be perennial – potent, resilient, tirelessly protean. Dreamed up in the Depression by a gang of scribblers and cartoonists led by Bob Kane (who had a germ of an idea about a cloaked avenger and a sketch of a winged man borrowed from Leonardo Da Vinci), Bill Finger (the writer who honed and perfected the concept) and Jerry Robinson (who devised the look of the new hero’s nemesis, the Joker), the character has shifted constantly with the times, regularly transmogrifying to fit the climate of the age.

A violent vigilante from his earliest appearances in May 1939, he subsequently softened with the introduction of a teenaged sidekick, battled against the Axis powers in the comics and in a pair of big-screen serials, became a jovial post-war father figure at the head of an extended family that included a Bat-Woman and a Bat-Hound, encountered primary-coloured robots and aliens at a time when flying saucers were de rigeur at the (B-)movies, and acted as a ninnyishly lantern-jawed straight man to a succession of bad puns and pratfalls in the television series of 1966–68. In the 1970s, under the stewardship of Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams, the comics jettisoned the sidekicks and turned their protagonist into a suave, James Bondian globetrotter, while the 1980s and 90s saw the character diversify into a plethora of different versions – the mouthpiece for Frank Miller’s cranky, Reagan-era satire in The Dark Knight Returns, a dreamer lost in a maze of sign and symbol in Grant Morrison’s densely allusive Arkham Asylum and a diminutive yuppie continually overshadowed by the theatrics of his enemies in two successful films by Tim Burton, in which their director perfected his distinctive strain of fairy-tale gothic. Far more versatile than any of his pop-cultural peers – Superman, say, or Wonder Woman, or Captain America – the character is a barometer of his times, a reflection of what any given age expects of its heroes.

Nancy Fraser on the “Parity of Participation”

Fraser84x84 In Eurozine:

Marina Liakova: An important theme in your writing is the concept of justice. You argue that the main problem of justice is recognition and protection of identities from cultural domination. Could you give a brief definition of justice – does it represent only a lack of domination? And taking this further, is the struggle of modern women for recognition successful and what other accents could you pinpoint?

Nancy Fraser: My own particular view of justice is a highly demanding view. My idea is that the justice requires social arrangements that permit all members to participate in social interaction on a par with one another. So that means they must be able to participate as peers in all the major forms of social interaction: whether it’s politics, whether it’s the labour market, whether it’s family life and so on. And parity of participation is quite demanding. It is not enough that there be simply the absence of legal discrimination; it means that you have all the effective conditions for really being able to participate. So I guess it depends on how you define “domination”. If you treat “domination” as the existence of systemic institutionalized obstacles of participation, that would mean that justice requires the overcoming of those obstacles. If you define “domination” in some more minimal way, it would require more than that. That’s really a matter of definition. But the most important thing for me is that there should be no institutionalized obstacles that prevent anyone from being a full participant in social life.

Is the struggle of modern women for recognition successful? If you accept my definition of justice then the next thing you have to do is ask about what kinds of things can function as obstacles to parity of participation.

Why Do Nations Exist?

Spengler in the Asia Times:

Why do nations and peoples exist, and why do particular nations exist in particular forms? Under the principle of national self-determination, more sovereign nations raised their flags during the past century than at any time in history. Many of them will not survive the next century. The old national states defined by language and ethnicity are in steep decline. Each of the world’s three most populous countries, China, India, and the United States, defies conventional definition in its own way.

Cookie-cutter political science has failed ignominiously, for example, the American conceit that what works in Baltimore or Buffalo also should work in Basra or Beijing. Political science needs a new start, and that is what the distinguished philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain offers in her latest book.

Our concept of the state, as well as the self, begins with our understanding of God, she contends. Absolutism and tyranny emulate a tyrannical God who rules by whim, subject to no law of nature save his own caprice. The constitutional state of self-imposed limits, by contrast, arose from the theology of love and reason taught by St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. Others, notably Michael Novak, have made similar arguments, but Elsthain hacks much deeper at the root of the problem, namely the troubled notion of natural sovereignty. Her research surprises and disturbs, pointing to conclusions more radical than she is willing to draw.

Sovereignty, the one political idea the modern world takes for granted, was not the brainchild of the Enlightenment, but the conceptual bastard of medieval apologists for absolute papal power, Elsthain argues.

Literature Contra Ideology

Gaoxingjian4601 An interview with Gao Xingjian in the Guardian:

Aged 68, Gao lives in Paris’s 2nd arrondissement with Céline Yang, a novelist who left China after 1989. Gao, who also writes in French, has translated and directed plays in his adopted language, and was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 2000. He sees himself as a “fragile man who has managed not to be crushed by authority and to speak to the world in his own voice”. As he pointed out recently at Warwick University, on a rare visit to Britain, most of his life’s work has been done since leaving China. While the Swedish academy saw him as a “perspicacious sceptic” possessed of “bitter insights”, for Ma, Gao is a “tranquil yet engaged presence; a very composed, mild-mannered man, but a passionate reader and artist”. Speaking in French, smiling readily though he seems frail, Gao recalls the Nobel prize as a “whirlwind. I was carried away, and it was difficult to organise my life. Very soon after, I fell ill, and had two big heart operations one after the other. It was because of the fatigue and pressure. I became an ornament on the political scene.”

The official Chinese reaction to the Nobel was predictably hostile. The head of the Chinese Writers’ Association said the prize had been “used for political purposes and thus has lost its authority”. According to Ma, that body had “campaigned for years for the Nobel prize to be awarded to one of their state-sanctioned writers, so they were furious when it went to a political exile”. Yet Gao has also been attacked by dissidents – notably for his play Escape (1989), written within months of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the ostensible trigger for all his work being banned in China. Its three characters take refuge from the army crackdown in a warehouse, amid sexual tensions and cynicism about self-proclaimed heroes. “Exiled writers said my play blackened the democracy movement,” Gao says. “Even today, those attacks continue.” In Ma’s view, “It was criticised by the pro-democracy activists because it failed to show the students in a heroic light.”

According to Gao, a writer’s only responsibility is “to the language he writes in”. Determined to rid himself of others’ ideologies, to live, as he says, “without isms”, he advocates a “cold literature”, detached from both political agendas and consumerist pressures, whose purpose is to bear witness.

Sunday Poem

Fast Food
Richard Thompson

Big mac, small mac, burger and friesImage_renaissance_big_mac

Shove ’em in boxes all the same size

Easy on the mustard, heavy on the sauce

Double for the fat boy, eats like a horse.

Fry them patties and send ’em right through

Microwave oven going to fry me too

Can’t lose my job by getting in a rage

Got to get my hands on that minimum wage.

Shove it in their faces, give ’em what they want

Got to make it fast, it’s a Fast Food Restaurant.

Shake’s full of plastic, meat’s full of worms

Everything’s zapped so you won’t get germs

Water down the ketchup, easier to pour on

Pictures on the register in case you’re a moron.

Keep your uniform clean, don’t talk back

Blood down your shirt going to get you the sack

Sugar, grease, fats and starches

Fine to dine at the golden arches.

Shove it in their faces, give ’em what they want

Got to make it fast, it’s a Fast Food Restaurant.

Baby thrown up, booth number 9

Wash it down, hose it down, happens all the time

Cigarettes in the coffee, contact lens in the tea

I’d rather feed pigs than humanity.

Shove it in their faces, give ’em what they want

Got to make it fast, it’s a Fast Food Restaurant.


Math Is Harder for Girls

From The City Journal:

Math The New York Times is determined to show that women are discriminated against in the sciences; too bad the facts say otherwise. A new study has “found that girls perform as well as boys on standardized math tests,” claims a July 25 article by Tamar Lewin—thus, the underrepresentation of women on science faculties must result from bias. Actually, the study, summarized in the July 25 issue of Science, shows something quite different: while boys’ and girls’ average scores are similar, boys outnumber girls among students in both the highest and the lowest score ranges. Either the Times is deliberately concealing the results of the study or its reporter cannot understand the most basic science reporting.

Science’s analysis of math test scores only confirms the hypothesis that cost Summers his Harvard post: that boys are found more often than girls at the outer reaches of the bell curve of abstract reasoning ability. If you’re hoping to land a job in Harvard’s math department, you’d better not show up with average math scores; in fact, you’d better present scores at the absolute top of the range. And as studies have shown for decades, there are many more boys than girls in that empyrean realm. Unless science and math faculties start practicing the most grotesque and counterproductive gender discrimination, a skew in the sex of their professors will be inevitable, given the distribution of top-level cognitive skills. Likewise, boys will be and are overrepresented among math dunces—though the feminists never complain about the male math failure rate.

Lewin claims that the “researchers looked at the average of the test scores of all students, the performance of the most gifted children and the ability to solve complex math problems. They found, in every category, that girls did as well as boys.” This statement is simply wrong. Among white 11th-graders, there were twice as many boys as girls above the 99th percentile—that is, at the very top of the curve. (Asians, however, showed a very slight skew toward females above the 99th percentile, while there were too few Hispanics and blacks scoring above even the 95th percentile to compute their gender ratios.)

More here.

How an Emotion Became a Virtue

From In Character:

Pity Compassion today is widely regarded as a good, and those who display it as good people. Indeed, many see compassion or some related virtue (e.g., empathy) as the core of goodness, as the virtue of virtues. It’s not only a private but also a public virtue, much cherished in our politicians. Even in international affairs, of all places, the apex of virtuous action is widely taken to be “humanitarian intervention” or the use of force to relieve suffering. Compassion has not always enjoyed so lofty and uncontroversial a status; will it someday once again relinquish it?

That compassion is natural to human beings there is no question. But does it pertain to our higher or to our lower natures? As even or precisely those who take compassion for a virtue acknowledge, it is an emotion. Can an emotion be a virtue? Yes, if the keynote of virtue is naturalness in the sense of spontaneity or authenticity. No, if what defines virtue is the perfection of our nature through the triumph of reason over passion. For this reason the long history of thought about compassion (stretching back at least 2,500 years now) has revolved around just this issue.

More here.

SSRC Podcast: Breaking Out of the Iron Cage

You can download it here.

In another conversation with Paul Price, Craig Calhoun continues his analysis of supposedly irrational factors at play in electoral politics. This time they focus on charisma: to what extent is Barack Obama’s unique mix of political passion and a cool demeanor the source of his political appeal? Referring to Max Weber’s model of charismatic leadership, Calhoun notes that Obama has the gift of making us see him as someone who stands outside the traditional structures of government-and therefore someone who can help Americans break the “iron cage” of bureaucracy, politics-as-usual and dominant social roles.

Once Again, Is International Justice the Enemy of Peace?

Authors_photo Aryeh Neier in Project Syndicate:

It is only a little more than fifteen years ago that the first of the contemporary international courts was created to prosecute those who commit war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. That court, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, may soon mete out justice to a new defendant, following the arrest in Belgrade of Radovan Karadzic, wartime leader of Bosnia’s Serbs.

Yet there is already a persistent theme in criticism of such tribunals: in their effort to do justice, they are obstructing achievement of a more important goal, peace. Such complaints have been expressed most vociferously when sitting heads of state are accused of crimes. The charges filed by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court against Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur are the latest example. Indeed, the denunciations of the justice process this time are more intense and more vehement than in the past.

The complaints were also loud in 1995, when the ICTY’s prosecutor indicted Karadzic and his military chief, General Ratko Mladic, and even louder when they were indicted again later in the same year for the massacre at Srebrenica. The timing of that second indictment especially aroused critics, because it came just before the start of the Dayton peace conference. Because they faced arrest, Karadzic and Mladic did not go to Dayton.

But, as matters turned out, their absence did not hinder the parties from reaching an agreement. Indeed, it may have helped as the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia, and Yugoslavia negotiated an end to the war in Bosnia.

Filling the Gap in Stellar History

200873121 Phil Berardelli in ScienceNOW:

Cosmologists probably know more about the first few minutes after the big bang–thought to have occurred about 13.7 billion years ago–than they do about the following billion years of the universe’s existence, sometimes known as the cosmic dark ages. Within that interim, the first stars formed and began to light up the universe.

The problem with studying those very early stars is that they no longer exist. According to theory, all or nearly all of them began as supergiants hundreds of times more massive than the sun. Then they expended their nuclear fuel and exploded within a few million years. This early demise was good for the evolution of the universe, because the supergiants dispersed the heavy elements necessary to form smaller stars as well as planets and, eventually, people. But unfortunately for scientists, the primordial beasts also expunged all detectable evidence of themselves.

A team led by physicist Naoki Yoshida of Nagoya University in Japan set out to fill this cosmic evolutionary gap in the only way currently possible: They carried out a computer simulation that duplicates the process of star formation in the very young universe.

Tzvetan Todorov on Being European

In Reset DOC:

You have often written wonderful words about European values. Does a European identity exist and what are the main European values?

Well, I actually think that one should not try to enumerate European values, because the European identity is an open one, it is changing, and because it can always include new ingredients as well. Nevertheless, the European identity is not something arbitrary. By this I mean that in Europe a specific status for differences has been created. This is really what characterizes Europe, compared to other major civilizations and groups such as China, the United States or even Russia, where there is always an attempt to unify even what is a very heterogeneous society within the same values and the same centralized organization. The specificity of Europe, and of the European Union in particular, is that it maintains the diversity of its members while providing them with a certain status, which means that first of all, there is of course an obligation of tolerance (we no longer wage wars against each other), but beyond that we elaborate our opinions by becoming capable of comparing and criticizing the opinions of our neighbours.

james thurber


You don’t hear much about James Thurber (1894-1961) anymore, and it’s not just because the glory days of the New Yorker as a humor magazine are many decades in the past. His work is perennially in print, and his “Writings and Drawings” have merited a Library of America edition. But Thurber aficionados do not present a united front because usually people are devoted to a single aspect of Thurber’s comic genius: his dogs, noble animals carrying on with dignity in a world gone mad; the stories in his hilarious gem of a Midwestern memoir, “My Life and Hard Times”; his cartoon characters, brilliantly described by Neil Gaiman as “lumpy men and women who looked like they were made of cloth, all puzzled and henpecked and aggrieved.” We Thurberites would need a convention to honor all our different passions.

more from the LA Times here.

I feel as though I am eating the alphabet


Ammon Shea, a sometime furniture mover, gondolier and word collector, has written an oddly inspiring book about reading the whole of the Oxford English Dictionary in one go. Shea’s book resurrects many lost, misshapen, beautifully unlucky words — words that spiraled out, like fast-decaying muons, after their tiny moment in the cloud chamber of English usage. There’s hypergelast (a person who won’t stop laughing), lant (to add urine to ale to give it more kick), obmutescence (willful speechlessness) and ploiter (to work to little purpose) — all good words to have on the tip of your tongue when, for example, you’re stopped for speeding.

Shea’s book offers more than exotic word lists, though. It also has a plot. “I feel as though I am eating the alphabet,” he writes halfway through, and you want him to make it to the end. This is the “Super Size Me” of lexicography.

more from the NY Times here.

Saturday Poem

“When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again.  After this, nothing happened.” –Alaxchiiaahush (Plenty Coups or Plenty Achievements), Chief of the Crow tribe, 1880

Painting_buffaloHerd of Buffalo Crossing the Missouri River on Ice
William Matthews

If dragonflies can mate atop the surface tension
of water, surely these tons of bison can mince
across the river, their fur peeling in strips like old

wallpaper, their huge eyes adjusting to how far
they can see when there’s no big or little bluestem,
no Indian grass nor prairie cord grass to plod through.

Maybe because it’s bright in the blown snow
and swirling grit, their vast heads are lowered
to the gray ice: nothing to eat, little to smell.

They have their own currents. You could watch a herd
of running pronghorn swerve like a river rounding
a meander and see better what I mean. But

bison are a deeper, deliberate water, and there will
never be enough water for any West but the one
into which we watch these bison carefully disappear.


Hemingway as His Own Fable

Alfred Kazin in The Atlantic Monthly:

A Moveable Feast by Earnest Hemingway.

[Ed. note: This review was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly, June 1964.]

Earnst So much impulse to autobiography probably springs from some deeply uneasy sense of one’s self as detached from early kindred and natural ties. But to a writer like Hemingway the effect of such detachment is not to make oneself powerless, but, on the contrary, to be seized by the possibilities of a new subject — by the self as an aesthetic and dramatic unit whose moving, walking, eating, drinking, loving, fearing, and tasting become marvelously vivid material. People today are notoriously not more independent and self-directing than they used to be, but more personal, more concerned with the self, more solicitous of and interested in the self than people used to be. Romanticism, psychology, and middle-class solicitude for oneself have made up the background of our interest in Hemingway. And it is the intense, almost clinical accuracy with which Hemingway has been able to convey the self’s sensations, as if each were called up for some separate erogenous zone, that is behind the physical excitement with which one reads Hemingway even at his worst. Hemingway is the great modern poet of the self as all-sufficient subject. What the self thinks, wants, eats, drinks, loves, and hates, Hemingway had put into relief as sharp and beautiful as the head of a lady poised against far-off mountains and valleys in a painting of the Italian Renaissance. But to be this much concerned with the exact feel of pebbles in your boots and the shock with which your shoulder can receive the recoil of a gun, with the coldness of a martini glass in your hand and the brightness of the stars overhead as you make love, is to identify the strength of writing with the presentation of the self. So much emphasis on the self as artistic subject is to turn other people into irrelevancies and distractions.

More here.