Magnus Ryner in Eurozine:
The financial crisis presents us with a political paradox. The contagion effect of the US sub-prime mortgage crisis damaged global financial markets so severely that the very institutional foundation of the world monetary system was cast into doubt. This was not only another speculative bubble that burst spectacularly (although it was that too). Given the highly complex packaging of financial products through processes of securitisation, it became impossible for buyers and sellers to sort out good debt from bad. Revelations about the balance sheets of the most iconic of “blue-chip” financial corporations generated an uncertainty in markets whose magnitude caused economic activity to seize up entirely. The destruction of values was such that even the most ardent of neoconservatives, such the former Secretary of the US Treasury Hank Paulson, were advocating massive nationalisations and state bailouts. It is hard to imaging a more damning indictment of the efficient market hypothesis, which had been the nodal point of decades of neoliberal policy prescriptions. Even the sturdiest of hegemonic discourses have difficulties surviving such dissonance.
Not surprisingly, the crisis raised questions about the possibility of a revival of social democracy. The financial crisis would seem to invite more tempered views about the market. The slogan associated with the Bad Godesberg Programme of 1959 captures the spirit of the time: “As much market as possible; as much planning as necessary.” But here we encounter the paradox. Accompanying neoliberalism's loss of hegemonic aura is the absence of social democracy as an effective political agent. Social democratic parties were severely battered in the EU parliamentary elections of 2009. Notwithstanding recent success in the local elections, the French PS is a long way from the corridors of power. The Italian left is in a state of shambles. The German SPD, after suffering its worst election result of the post-war era, has been expelled to opposition. In the UK, the Tories – pioneers of financialisation and neoliberalism – look set to form the next government, their main opponents being the Liberal Democratic Party rather than Labour. Particularly telling is the state of affairs in Sweden – supposedly the most sturdy of social democratic citadels. Once again, a “bourgeois” coalition government has experienced an economic crisis during one of its rare tenures. This time around, however, the crisis has correlated with dramatic loss of support for the SAP, so that the conservative Moderate Party, which leads the coalition, now has a serious chance of becoming the majority party. This is almost without precedence in Swedish electoral history.
Social democracy's perhaps counter-intuitive failure as a political contender in the current conjuncture is no coincidence.
Benjamin Kunkel reviews Fredric Jameson's Valences of the Dialectic in the LRB:
Fredric Jameson’s pre-eminence, over the last generation, among critics writing in English would be hard to dispute. Part of the tribute has been exacted by his majestic style, one distinctive feature of which is the way that the convoy of long sentences freighted and balanced with subordinate clauses will dock here and there to unload a pithy slogan. ‘Always historicise!’ is one of these, and Jameson has also insisted, under the banner of ‘One cannot not periodise,’ on the related necessity (as well as the semi-arbitrariness) of dividing history into periods. With that in mind, it’s tempting to propose a period, coincident with Jameson’s career as the main theorist of postmodernism, stretching from about 1983 (when Thatcher, having won a war, and Reagan, having survived a recession, consolidated their popularity) to 2008 (when the neoliberal programme launched by Reagan and Thatcher was set back by the worst economic crisis since the Depression). During this period of neoliberal ascendancy – an era of deregulation, financialisation, industrial decline, demoralisation of the working class, the collapse of Communism and so on – it often seemed easier to spot the contradictions of Marxism than the more famous contradictions of capitalism, and no figure seemed to embody more than Fredric Jameson the peculiar condition of an economic theory that had turned out to flourish above all as a mode of cultural analysis, a mass movement that had become the province of an academic ‘elite’, and an intellectual tradition that had arrived at some sort of culmination right at the point of apparent extinction.
Over the last quarter-century, Jameson has been at once the timeliest and most untimely of American critics and writers. Not only did he develop interests in film, science fiction, or the work of Walter Benjamin, say, earlier than most of his colleagues in the humanities, he was also a pioneer of that enlargement of literary criticism (Jameson received a PhD in French literature from Yale in 1959) into all-purpose theory which made the discussion of all these things in the same breath established academic practice. More than this, he succeeded better than anyone else at defining the term, ‘postmodernism’, that sought to catch the historical specificity of the present age.
This was a matter, first, of cataloguing postmodernism’s superficial textures: the erosion of the distinction between high and pop culture; the reign of stylistic pastiche and miscellany; the dominance of the visual image and corresponding eclipse of the written word; a new depthlessness – ‘surrealism without the unconscious’ – in the dream-like jumble of images; and the strange alliance of a pervasive cultural nostalgia (as in the costume drama or historical novel) with a cultural amnesia serving to fragment ‘time into a series of perpetual presents’. If all that now sounds familiar, this owes something to the durability of Jameson’s account of postmodernism, first delivered as a lecture in 1982 and expanded two years later into an essay for New Left Review: a 40-page sketch that caught the features of the fidgety sitter more accurately than many longer studies before and since.
For those in the NYC area, The Rap Guide to Evolution is playing tomorrow, Friday and Saturday at the Bleecker Street Theatre. Olivia Judson reviews the show in the NYT:
The lights go down. The room fills with music — a pulsating hip-hop rhythm. And then, over the music, you hear the voice of Richard Dawkins reading a passage from “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin: “Whoever is led to believe that species are mutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction. For only thus can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed.”
So begins one of the most astonishing, and brilliant, lectures on evolution I’ve ever seen: “The Rap Guide to Evolution,” by Baba Brinkman.
Brinkman, a burly Canadian from Vancouver, is a latter-day wandering minstrel, a self-styled “rap troubadour,” with a master’s degree in English and a history of tree-planting (according to his Web site, he has personally planted more than one million trees). His guide to evolution grew out of a correspondence with Mark Pallen, an evolutionary biologist and rap enthusiast at the University of Birmingham, in Britain; the result, as Brinkman tells us, is “the only hip-hop show to have been peer-reviewed.”
It is also, I suspect, the only hip-hop show to talk of mitochondria, genetic drift, sexual selection or memes. For Brinkman has taken Darwin’s exhortation seriously. He is a man on a mission to spread the word about evolution — how it works, what it means for our view of the world, and why it is something to be celebrated rather than feared.
To this end, he has concocted a set of mini-lectures disguised as rap songs. When he comes to human evolution, for example, he has the audience sing along in call-response fashion to “I’m a African” — a riff on an earlier song of that name by the radical, pan-Africanist hip-hop duo Dead Prez. The point of Brinkman’s version is that because humans evolved in Africa, we are all Africans: pan-Africanism meets population genetics. A few moments later, he’s showing a video of individuals of the social slime mold Dictyostelium discoidium streaming together while rapping about how cooperation evolves.
Our own Mark Blyth, and Jonathan Hopkin, in Foreign Affairs:
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown could delay the inevitable for only so long. Convention requires the government to hold general elections every five years, and with the last election held in 2005, that deadline was drawing inexorably closer. Although Brown and his Labour Party were slipping in popularity, Brown called elections for May 6.
This election will be far from ordinary. It is not only a referendum on Brown, who became party leader and prime minister in 2007, after waiting ten years for the more charismatic Tony Blair to resign; it is also a referendum on Labour's 13 years in power and, on an even more basic level, on the economic principles that have guided the party's rule. It is in such moments that, as Karl Marx once mused, “all that is solid melts into air.” Britain has had a few such upheavals before. The 2010 election will likely be one, and its consequences for foreign and domestic policy will be profound.
In 1997, a public hungry for change after almost 20 years of Conservative Party rule handed Labour a landslide victory in the House of Commons. Labour — which had rebranded itself New Labour during the campaign — initially adopted a degree of economic conservativism that even actual Conservatives had shied away from when in power. It granted operational independence to the Bank of England, honored campaign pledges not to raise taxes, and favored fiscal prudence over more traditional left-wing redistributive policies. It also abided by the economic principles that the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced in the 1980s, avoiding inflation above all.
During the Final Scene
Even then, in those early days,
time was a lukewarm bathtub.
You steadied your wrist & pooled
a Palindrome Fossil with a floating hand
to circumnavigate the dial, my smiling
sun & moon clock, the wall clocks,
alarm clocks, even our tiny hour-
glass timer from the top of the stove—
put them all in a silver bucket,
buttoned your jeans, pulled on your boots,
& marched them to the backyard
where you buried them in a dream
during the final scene of Apocalypse Now.
All this time spent to say it was nothing,
really. Yet we both knew the value
of two beers & a shared cigarette.
What happened? That was the question
when you opened your eyes to my side
of the couch, but you'd been so late
in waking, so long in gathering, so diligent
stockpiling our time, I said nothing
& we held there, watching the credits.
by Lisa Fay Coutley
John Allen Paulos in his excellent Who's Counting column at ABC News:
In belated recognition of April being Math Awareness Month, my column this May will deal with parity.
The notion refers to the evenness or oddness of a number, say April the fourth month versus May the fifth. Despite its simplicity parity plays an important role in many areas of mathematics.
It also lends itself to some nice little puzzles, including Rubik's cube and the 15 puzzle. Here are five or six easy examples. The sixth one is fuzzy and involves politics and the Supreme Court, so it doesn't really count.
The answers to the puzzles appear at the end of the column, but don't peek first … Unless, of course, you feel like peeking.
1. A loose leaf notebook consists of 100 sheets of paper. Number them, front and back, from 1 to 200. Tear out any 25 of the sheets, and add up the 50 page numbers on them. Can you choose the sheets so that the sum of the 50 numbers is 2010?
Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
An old Chinese man went to Yosemite and it blew his mind. To explain why, we have to go back a few thousand years. Chinese people have an old civilization. Older, perhaps, than anybody else's civilization. That depends on how you define “civilization,” but who has the time to fight about these things? Point is, it's old. Chinese art thus has a lot of tradition. Chinese artists predictably spend a lot of time coming to terms with that tradition. You study the old masters, you reject the old masters, you copy the old masters, you desperately try to ignore the old masters, you become the old masters.
Xie Zhiliu was born in 1910 and he died in 1997. He grew up in Changzhou, which is known to have had a great tradition of Chinese painting, especially bird and flower stuff, which is the bread and butter of hundreds of years of Chinese painting. He later moved to Shanghai, where he was a professor of painting and an advisor to the Shanghai Museum. He was as firmly implanted in the tradition as a man can be.
An exhibit of Xie's work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — “Mastering the Art of Chinese Painting: Xie Zhiliu (1910–1997)” — makes that traditionalism very clear. We see all kinds of birds and flowers and landscapes and calligraphy. Often, we see them right next to reproductions of the older classics Xie was imitating. The exhibit is thus a quick and highly enjoyable lesson in the history of Chinese painting and drawing.
Then you get to the last room of the exhibit, where something special happens.
H. M. Naqvi in the Global Post:
The road into Baluchistan is dual carriage, the topography is flat. There are fronds in the sand, an occasional crooked tree and the intimation of the sea. Narrow scratched paths lead inland and close to the horizon, we can make out clusters of structures — mud rooms, thatched tents — and the local population: tanned fishermen and women and children.
Not more than two hours into the journey, we turn left at a solitary petrol pump attached to a roadside restaurant. After announcing ourselves at a checkpoint — hum Hingol ja rahay hain — we cruise down the Makran Coastal Highway.
I am riding shotgun in a Jeep with a mangy, taciturn, chain-smoking adventurer. He offers me a dry omelet-and-hunter-beef sandwich. I take a bite. It is difficult to swallow but I don’t protest. Who knows when sustenance will be offered next?
We have entered the badlands of Pakistan, the purported seat of the resurgent Taliban. Somewhere across the expanse lurks Mullah Omar, the murderous, indefatigable, one-eyed leader of the shura. Although there is strength in numbers — we are traveling in a caravan of 11 vehicles comprising the Off Roaders Club – we are only armed with poles, pegs, hammers and other camping equipment. I’m no outdoorsman, no adventurer. I wonder what the hell I am doing in Baluchistan.
Christopher Hitchens in Slate:
An officer candidate being interviewed for a posting on the British general staff was once asked to define the role of cavalry in modern warfare. He replied that it was to lend some color and dash to what would otherwise be a somewhat dreary and sordid occasion. Nick Clegg, the leader of Britain's Liberal Democrats, is the equivalent of the cavalry in the case of Thursday's British general election. Until his eruption onto the scene, the muddy battlefield was a dull trench war between two heavily armored divisions, each of them wearily familiar with the tactics and strategy of the other.
Years ago, when I toiled as a columnist for The Nation, Nick Clegg was my intern. (So, for that matter, was Edward Miliband, Gordon Brown's minister for energy and climate change and brother of Brown's most likely replacement, Foreign Secretary David Miliband.) I have done my best to trade on this mentoring relationship with power, to little avail. Clegg worked for me in the magazine's New York offices while I was writing from Washington, so our direct contact was limited. What I chiefly remember, apart from his now-famous personal charm, was how “European” he was. His parentage was partly Dutch and partly Russian. He has since married a Spanish woman and has three children with Spanish names. And, of course, his party is the one most closely identified with the British aspiration to full British engagement in the European Union. This is the strength and the weakness of his position, and of his party.
Michael Schaub in Bookslut:
In the eight months that I've lived where I live now, I've probably walked around my neighborhood hundreds of times. I have dogs; my neighbors all know their names, but not mine. I have memorized every front yard, every awning on every business, from the plumbing supply store (“The Water Heater King”) to the deli with the big Oregon Lottery sign in front to the punk-rock strip club I live behind. But I don't really remember these walks, or most of them. I remember walking back from buying cigarettes one night when a drunk old man in the Masonic lodge parking lot yelled, as I recall, “You're not the Scandihoovian!” to me. But every other one kind of blurs together. I haven't even lived here a year, but I have become automatic. I look down when I'm walking, and talking to people, and usually at pretty much all other times. I feel like I wasn't always this way. For the past several weeks I've been trying to reconstruct conversations with someone I used to know. I've been trying to remember the last one, in particular: What are the last words I said to this person who is now gone? What are the last words he said to me? So I look down and I walk down sidewalks I've memorized.
I've read Ten Walks/Two Talks three times now, once before something sudden and awful happened in my life, and twice after. I don't know if I would have even thought about how I walk in my city if I hadn't, or if I would have tried to commit every conversation with a friend I have to memory even while I'm talking, afraid I'll lose it like I've lost most of my first 32 years of conversation. This is a small book: ten brief accounts of walks in New York City by Fitch, and two transcribed conversations between Cotner and Fitch, the first in Central Park, the second in a grocery store.
Concert in the Garden
The hour is an enormous eye.
Inside it we come and go like reflections.
The river of music
enters my blood.
If I say body, it answers wind.
If I say earth, it answers where?
The world, a double blossom, opens:
sadness of having come,
joy of being here.
I walk lost in my own center.
by Octavio Paz
from The Collected Poems 1957-1987;
Carcanet Press Limited
Concierto en el Jardín
La hora es un ojo inmenso.
En ella andamos como reflejos.
El río de la música
entra en mi sangre.
Si digo: cuerpo, contesta: viento.
Si digo: tierra, contesta: ¿dónde?
Se abre, flor doble, el mundo:
tristeza de haber venido,
alegría de estar aquí.
Ando perdido en mi propio centro.
Meera Lee Sethi in Proto:
It takes no handwriting expert to recognize the cramped, drooping, uncertain signature as a manifestation of the Führer’s cramped, self-centered approach to life,” concluded the graphologist Nadya Olyanova in 1939, six years before Hitler’s suicide, according to her 1991 obituary in the New York Times. Olyanova had studied with the Austrian psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, and she was a consultant to the psychiatric services of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, reported the Times. But like the practice of phrenology—the notion that the bumps and indentations of the skull form a map of character—attempts to analyze one’s disposition through the curve of an o or the tail of a g are considered spurious.
How curious, then, is medical graphology: the use of handwriting to diagnose disease. In the 1950s, the Austrian-American graphologist Alfred Kanfer proposed the idea that because cancer affects the brain’s ability to manage fine motor control, early signs of the disease could be detected in the pauses between pen strokes. Most scientists demurred.
Still, diagnostic links between sickness and script seem to exist. “Writing is an exquisite fine motor skill—unlike brushing your hair, for instance,” explains José Contreras-Vidal, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health. “People spend years practicing it, consolidating a very robust motor-control program in the brain.” So, he says, deterioration of that finely honed skill is a red flag that something may have gone awry in the brain’s ability to run the program.
Barack Obama went to Harvard Law School to learn “power’s currency in all its intricacy in detail.” An exclusive excerpt from The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, David Remnick shows how much Obama learned in law school.
At the website of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School:
By the time Obama arrived at Harvard, the law-school curriculum had grown much more flexible than in its early days and the student body more diverse, but the school was still a fractious place, riven by political conflict and intramural resentments. As if to flaunt its own unhappiness, the law-school community commonly referred to itself as a bastion of Levantine infighting—alternately “Beirut on the Charles” and “the Beirut of legal education.”
Obama said that Harvard Law School was the “perfect place to examine how the power structure works.” Indeed, the “power structure”—a phrase common in organizing circles—and how it is, or is not, examined by the likes of Harvard Law School was the focus of a battle that had already raged for a decade when Obama enrolled. In 1977, a group of legal academics—radicals, as most would readily have identified themselves—met at a conference in Madison, Wisconsin, to discuss a barely formed school of thought that was soon to be called Critical Legal Studies. Influenced by post-structuralism, the Frankfurt School of critical theory, and the Legal Realism of the nineteen-twenties, the scholars interested in Critical Legal Studies sought to demystify the law and the language of law and legal studies, to challenge its self-regard as a disinterested system of precedent. Critical Legal Studies posited that law is politics by other means, that the practice and discourse of law—and legal education—is merely another lever of entrenched power, a way of enforcing the primacy and perquisites of the wealthy, the powerful, the male, and the white.
According to the adherents of Critical Legal Studies, many of the conditions of the legal status quo—the high incarceration rates among people of color, the higher penalties for drugs used mainly among the poor—are inscribed in a legal system that only pretends to be consistent and nonideological.
By the time Obama appeared on campus, there had also appeared an increasing number of conservative and libertarian scholars centered on the Federalist Society, a many-branched group that had begun in 1982 at Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago.
More here. And a talk with David Remnick about all this, here.
Natalie Angier in The New York Times:
The word organic means different things to different people. To the gardener it means compost heaps. To the chemist it means carbon compounds. To the artist Fabian Peña, it means American cockroaches, those chunky nocturnal charmers often seen skittering around drainpipes or on the street. “I have collected cockroaches from many different places,” Mr. Peña said. “From Cuba, Mexico, Miami, Houston, everywhere I travel.” He kills the cockroaches with a spray, pops them into a jar, takes them back to his studio in Florida, and then puts their parts to work in his art. He glues their legs together into long, lacy cylinders that look like giant larval casings. He arranges their wings into medically precise images of a human skull, foot bones and hand bones, all scaled to his own head and appendages.
Mr. Peña likes the medium of cockroach aesthetically, the way he can use the different tones in the wings as his palette to convey light and shadow. He likes it metaphorically, how we are disgusted by something with which we have so much in common — the same taste in foods, the same easy adaptability to every possible niche. “Cockroaches are a witness to our daily lives,” Mr. Peña said. He also likes his medium pragmatically. “It’s a material that I can easily find,” he said, “and it’s cheaper than buying paint.”
Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:
Linux bears an uncanny resemblance to the genes in a living cell. Many genes make proteins that act as switches for other genes. The proteins clamp onto DNA near a target gene, allowing the cell to read the gene and make a new protein. And that new protein may, in turn, grab onto many other genes. Thanks to this hierarchy of switches, cells can respond to changes in their environment and quickly carry out complex behaviors, such as reorganizing themselves to feed on a new kind of food.
A number of scientists have begun to compare natural and manmade networks. A lot of the same rules appear to be at work in the growth of the Internet, airport connections, brain wiring, ecosystem food webs, and gene networks. But very often, scientists are finding, it’s the differences between natural and manmade networks that are most revealing, offering clues to the different ways in which people and evolution build complex things.
In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, Koon-Kiu Yang of Yale and his colleagues present the first detailed comparison of Linux’s network to a gene network. (The paper will be here.) Thanks to the open-source nature of Linux, the scientists could look at every line of code in every version of the system over the past two decades, from Torvald’s first primitive stab to its current sophisticated form. And for a living cell, Yang and his colleagues turned to the living equivalent of Linux–a biological network they could analyze from top to bottom. They chose E. coli. coli, since it is the best-studied species on Earth. (Why E. coli? There’s a certain book that will explain it to you.)