Paris, Home of the Avant-Garde

Paris-street-with-giant-p-007 Adam Thirlwell in The Guardian:

I suppose I should worry that the French and military codeword avant-garde still seduces me. This word, after all, can conceal so much snobisme. But then: there's no reason to dismiss something just because it's impure, and this idea of the avant-garde, in its essence, is a noble ideal. The avant-garde is wildness: a wildness of content, and a wildness of form.

And this is one reason why I harbour another complicated attraction. My idea of the avant-garde is so often Parisian.

This isn't, of course, entirely a form of romance. In the bourgeois 19th century, Paris was where the avant-garde was invented. But even then, the ideal of wildness was precarious. It was Walter Benjamin who observed how the association of art and isolation was “all the more dangerous because, as it flatters the self-esteem of the productive person, it effectively guards the interests of a social order that is hostile to him”. And he sardonically quoted Marx: “The bourgeois have very good reasons for imputing supernatural creative power to labour . . .”

As for now: well, you know it. You take the Eurostar to the avant-garde and you end up shopping. The avant-garde is much more likely to be found in Hamra. Paris, I think, can still be useful – but an imaginary, historical Paris: a jukebox of wild examples.

Because you can rehearse the usual arguments about how impossible it might be for writing to be avant-garde, in this era when everything can be recuperated as orthodoxy. Or, say, you can consider the ambiguous pleasures of the trial in Paris in 1956, to determine whether to allow the republication of four novels by the Marquis de Sade. Among the witnesses for the defence were two famous literary figures: Jean Paulhan and Georges Bataille.

When the judge asked Paulhan if he didn't find Sade's dismantling of moral values dangerous, Paulhan sadly agreed. “I knew a young girl who entered a convent after reading Sade's works, and because she had read them.” Was entering a convent, he was asked, such a bad result? “I note that it's a result,” shrugged Paulhan.

And then Bataille came to the stand. Bataille was a man who, in his novel Story of the Eye, had imagined scenes with bull testicles, pissing, the whole shemozzle. Now, 30 years later, in a courtroom, he soberly observed that he couldn't see how Sade's works could be harmful to the public. “I have to say,” he added solemnly, “that I have a lot of confidence in human nature.” To which the judge replied: “I congratulate you, Monsieur. Your optimism does you honour.”

Football as Before

Image Dushko Petrovich in n+1:

Before he became famous for headbutting, Zinadine Zidane was actually known for his composure. At Bordeaux, Juventus, and Real Madrid, his hallmarks as a midfielder were Spartan efficiency of movement, incisive passing, and magnetic control of the ball in tight circumstances. Unlike Pele or Maradona (the greats who came before him) and Chrisiano Ronaldo (probably the most outstanding player since), Zidane wasn’t particularly flashy. When France won the ’98 World Cup, he didn’t even score until the final, against Brazil, when he converted two corner kicks with unfussy, short-range headers to make it 2-0 by halftime. He was known to complete the occasional 360-degree turn, and he did have some smart footwork, but overall, he was more metronome than drum solo. His way of controlling the game was to control—and then suddenly change—the tempo.

In this sense, the real-time structure of Phillipe Parreno and Douglas Gordon’s 2006 movie, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, was somewhat suited to the Frenchman. With the ninety-minute montage (assembled from seventeen cameras placed around the 80,000-person capacity Santiago Bernabeu stadium) focusing entirely on Zidane, even soccer aficionados suffered through spells of cinematic stasis that exceeded the sport’s native tedium. Interrupted only by a few clips from the original TV broadcast, and occasionally augmented by the pleasing Mogwai soundtrack, the iconic image of Zidane himself—sometimes grunting, sometimes sprinting, but mainly just jogging and looking around—was meant to sustain viewers for the full hour and a half.

Usually citing the cool music, or Zidane’s gladiatorial good looks, people uninterested in soccer have often told me the movie exceeded their expectations. For die-hard fans, on the other hand, the film was something of a disappointment. It was hard to put your finger on, but something was missing. It wasn’t only the lack of suspense that came from knowing that Real Madrid would beat Villareal—many of us happily watch taped replays, tributes to past legends, countless YouTube clips. And it wasn’t exactly that we couldn’t see the other players—in fact, David Beckham and Juan Carlos both had entertaining cameos, coaxing laughter from the otherwise stoical Zidane. And there was no lack of sporting drama: Zidane chipped the ball to Ronaldo for a crucial goal, and curiously, in the closing minutes of the April 23, 2005 match Gordon and Parreno happened to record, the leading man was sent off for brawling.

But even before the portentous red card, Zidane’s essence as a player was omitted from the film.

Crossing Erez

Erez2-575 Richard Moore in Guernica:

I’m ready to return to Israel through the Erez Crossing, the northern exit from Gaza. As the afternoon meeting wears on, I start to check the time, increasingly anxious about getting to Erez. I never know whether the crossing itself will take an hour, or three, or even days. Since Erez is subject to closing without notice, I ask my secretary to check just before I leave, trying to ensure I’ll be able to cross.

As the expatriate director of the largest maternal and child health project in the West Bank and Gaza, I come to Gaza at least once every month. The Gaza Strip is forty-five kilometers long and ranges from five to twelve kilometers in width. It is bounded by Israel in the north and east, by Egypt in the south, and in the west by the Mediterranean Sea. Approximately one and a half million mostly impoverished Palestinians live within its mere three hundred and sixty square kilometers, about twice the area of Washington, DC. More than half of the population is made up of refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Entrance to and exit from the strip—for Palestinians or anyone else—is strictly controlled by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). All entries and exits occur only through the few surface checkpoints. This is only one of the draconian Israeli policies involving Gaza. Others include controlling the amount of food and medicines and other essentials that can enter the Strip, as well as restrictions on fishing and exporting. The only cars I ever saw entering Gaza had UNRWA markings, or belonged to other UN or aid agencies. Most people cannot drive from one side to the other. Instead, they have to leave their cars or taxis and walk through one of the checkpoints.

Lula’s Brazil

Perry Anderson in the LRB:

From the start, Lula had been committed to helping the poor. Accommodation of the rich and powerful would be necessary, but misery had to be tackled more seriously than in the past. His first attempt, a Zero Hunger scheme to assure minimum sustenance to every Brazilian, was a mismanaged fiasco. In his second year, however, consolidating various pre-existent partial schemes and expanding their coverage, he launched the programme that is now indelibly associated with him, the Bolsa Família, a monthly cash transfer to mothers in the lowest income strata, against proof that they are sending their children to school and getting their health checked. The payments are very small – currently $12 per child, or an average $35 a month. But they are made directly by the federal government, cutting out local malversation, and now reach more than 12 million households, a quarter of the population. The effective cost of the programme is a trifle. But its political impact has been huge. This is not only because it has helped, however modestly, to reduce poverty and stimulate demand in the worst afflicted regions of the country. No less important has been the symbolic message it delivers: that the state cares for the lot of every Brazilian, no matter how wretched or downtrodden, as citizens with social rights in their country. Popular identification of Lula with this change became his most unshakeable political asset.

Materially, a succession of substantial increases in the minimum wage was to be of much greater significance. These began just as the corruption scandals were breaking. In 2005, the rise was double that of the previous year in real terms. In the election year of 2006, the rise was still greater. By 2010, the cumulative increase in the rate was 50 per cent. At about $300 a month, it remains well below the earnings of virtually any worker in formal employment. But since pensions are indexed to the minimum wage, its steady increase has directly benefited at least 18 million people – the Statute of the Elderly, passed under Lula, consolidating their gains. Indirectly, too, it has encouraged workers in the informal sector not covered by the official rate, who make up the majority of the Brazilian workforce, to use the minimum as a benchmark to improve what they can get from their employers. Reinforcing these effects was the introduction early on of crédito consignado: bank loans for household purchases to those who had never before had bank accounts, with repayment automatically deducted from monthly wages or pensions. Together, conditional cash transfers, higher minimum wages and novel access to credit set off a sustained rise in popular consumption, and an expansion of the domestic market that finally, after a long drought, created more jobs.

Crime and Punishment in Bahrain

Pearl-monument Justin Gengler over at Religion and Politics in Bahrain [h/t: Alex Cooley]:

While the United States is busy providing air cover for government opponents in Libya, its friends in the Arab Gulf have nearly finished mopping the floor with theirs. Backed by some 2,000 ground troops from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, along with a Kuwaiti naval detachment, the Bahraini government has all but stamped out the Shi‘a-led pro-democracy movement that had brought this small island nation to a standstill since mid-February.

In the violent crackdown that followed only one day after the arrival of the “Peninsula Shield” force, more than a dozen people were killed, hundreds were injured, and still more remain missing. The leaders of all but one of the main opposition groups were arrested in turn. The military “liberated” Bahrain’s main hospital, where relatives of those killed and injured had been camped. At last, martial law was declared and the symbol of the entire uprising–the Pearl monument–was unceremoniously demolished. If it’s gone that means nothing ever happened, right?

While no one is likely soon to forget the patch of barren land that just two weeks ago was “Martyrs’ Square,” life in Bahrain is indeed slowly returning to normal. Curfews have been shortened. Roads have been reopened. First elementary and now middle school students have returned to classes. Malls, hit hard by the turmoil as has Bahrain’s entire economy, have been keen to bring back shoppers, advertising their hours on Twitter and Facebook. And, most telling of all, the thousands who gathered last Friday for the sermon of Bahrain’s highest Shi‘a religious authority, Sheikh ‘Isa Qasim, did not continue on to a customary post-prayer rally; they simply returned home.

At the same time, however, untouched by this outward improvement remains Bahrain’s underlying political conflict, which today is no closer to resolution than when protests began.

Tunisia: What comes next?

From Prospect Magazine:

Tunis Tunis is oddly calm and normal for the capital of a country that has just triggered the greatest upheaval in the Arab world since the end of the first world war. Nor would you guess from the current provisional government that the revolution was driven by frustrated young people using the latest networking technologies; the combined ages of the new Tunisian president and prime minister is 161 years. But the two old men are bridging the generation gap and, for now, keeping the show on the road. The attention of the world has of course moved elsewhere since Tunisia, much to its own amazement, lit the torch at the end of December. But on a recent trip to Tunis I discovered that the Tunisians have not been idle since the president of 23 years, Ben Ali, fled the country on 14th January.

They are now on to their third government, having got rid of Ben Ali’s unpopular prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, at the end of February. The new prime minister, 84-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, a veteran of the 1950s independence movement and largely untainted by the Ben Ali regime, announced elections on 24th July for an assembly to draw up a new constitution. From not having had a proper election, ever, Tunisia is poised to have three in quick succession—culminating with elections for a new president and parliament, perhaps at the end of the year. This modest former French colony could now set the pattern for the next, trickier stage of Arab democratic reform. “We can be the test-bed for the whole Arab world, but we must not rush,” says Raoudha Ben Othman, professor of linguistics at Tunis University.

More here.

Thursday Poem

One Hundred White-sided Dolphins on a Summer Day

1.

Fat,
black, slick,
galloping in the pitch
of the waves, in the pearly

fields of the sea,
they leap toward us,
they rise, sparkling, and vanish, and rise sparkling,
they breathe little clouds of mist, they lift perpetual smile,

they slap their tails on the waves, grandmothers and grandfathers
enjoying the old jokes,
they circle around us,
they swim with us –

2.

a hundred white-sided dolphins
on a summer day,
each one, as God himself
could not appear more acceptable

a hundred times,
in a body blue and black threading through
the sea foam,
and lifting himself up from the opened

tents of the waves on his fishtail,
to look
with the moon of his eye
into my heart,

3.

and find there
pure, sudden, steep, sharp, painful
gratitude
that falls –

I don't know – either
unbearable tons
or the pale, bearable hand
of salvation

on my neck,
lifting me
from the boat's plain plank seat
into the world's

4.

unspeakable kindness.
It is my sixty-third summer on earth
and, for a moment, I have almost vanished
into the body of the dolphin,

into the moon-eye of God,
into the white fan that lies at the bottom of the sea
with everything
that ever was, or ever will be,

supple, wild, rising on flank or fishtail –
singing or whistling or breathing damply through blowhole
at top of head. Then, in our little boat, the dolphins suddenly gone,
we sailed on through the brisk, cheerful day.


by Mary Oliver
from What Do We Know
© Da Capo Press, 2002

Dying for a long life

From Nature:

Worm A chemical dye that lights up the protein clumps characteristic of Alzheimer's disease also slows ageing in worms. The lifespan-boosting effects of the dye — called Thioflavin T or Basic Yellow 1 — support the idea that the build-up of misshapen proteins underlies ageing. Drugs that recognize such toxic detritus and alert the cell's natural repair and protein-recycling systems could, therefore, be used to treat diseases of old age, says Gordon Lithgow, a molecular geneticist at the Buck Institute in Novato, California, who led the study, published today in Nature1.

Proteins are essential for almost everything a cell does, from communicating with other cells to generating energy. But sometimes proteins form the wrong three-dimensional shapes. Misfolded proteins don't function properly and, worse, tend to accumulate and gum up other cellular systems. To prevent this from happening, cells deploy 'chaperones', whose job it is to refold misshapen proteins. In more extreme cases, cells can degrade these potentially dangerous proteins. “There's a growing appreciation that protein misfolding may be one of the very fundamental events of ageing,” says Richard Morimoto, a molecular biologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who was not involved with the study. Worms genetically engineered to have a revved-up protein-recycling system, for instance, live longer than normal worms23.

More here.

India beat Pakistan to reach World Cup final

From Times of India:

World-Cup-2011 Twenty-eight long years after that magical Indian summer in England, the Men in Blue are one victory away from proving that India is truly cricket’s superpower, not just commercially but also on the field. One victory away from being world No.1 in ODIs, in addition to Tests. One victory away from giving the ultimate thank you gift to the greatest cricketer since Don Bradman, and a fitting farewell to a coach who has contributed so much to their rise. And one victory away from giving millions of young Indians born after 1983 – including several members of the present team – the joy of knowing what it actually feels like to have your squad lift the Cup that counts before your jubilant eyes. Kumar Sangakkara – Sanga to millions of fans – is waiting with his formidable Lankans. But so is the opportunity of a lifetime for Dhoni’s Daredevils.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

The Wish to be Generous

All that I serve will die, all my delights,
the flesh kindled from my flesh, garden and field,
the silent lilies standing in the woods,
the woods, the hill, the whole earth, all
will burn in man's evil, or dwindle
in its own age. Let the world bring on me
the sleep of darkness without stars, so I may know
my little light taken from me into the seed
of the beginning and the end, so I may bow
to mystery, and take my stand on the earth
like a tree in a field, passing without haste
or regret toward what will be, my life
a patient willing descent into the grass.

by Wendell Berry
from The Collected Poems, 1957-1982

worrying about the singularity

Intelligencedeficit

If you’ve got any spare change, the Lifeboat Foundation of Minden, Nevada, has a worthy cause for your consideration. Sometime this century, probably sooner than you think, scientists will likely succeed in creating an artificial intelligence, or AI, greater than our own. What happens after that is anyone’s guess — we’re simply not smart enough to understand, let alone predict, what a superhuman intelligence will choose to do. But there’s a reasonable chance that the AI will eradicate humanity, either out of malevolence or through a clumsily misguided attempt to be helpful. The Lifeboat Foundation’s AIShield Fund seeks to head off this calamity by developing “Friendly AI,” and thus, as its website points out, “will benefit an almost uncountable number of intelligent entities.” As of February 9, the fund has raised a grand total of $2,010; donations are fully tax deductible in the United States. The date of this coming “Technological Singularity,” as mathematician and computer scientist Vernor Vinge dubbed the moment of machine ascendance in a seminal 1983 article, remains uncertain. He initially predicted that the Singularity (sometimes referred to, in less reverential tones, as the “Rapture of the nerds”) would arrive before 2030. Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, whose book The Singularity Is Near was turned into a movie last year, places it in 2045. Those predictions are too conservative for Canadian science fiction juggernaut Robert J. Sawyer: in his WWW trilogy, whose third volume, Wonder, appears in April, the Singularity arrives in the autumn of 2012.

more from Alex Hutchinson at The Walrus here.

night and day

GrahamGreene

Night and Day, a literary magazine founded and run by Graham Greene in the early 20th century, survived for six months. The fact that it is remembered at all is testament to the extraordinary hold that small magazines are capable of exerting on the memories of publishers and writers alike. It’s odd, after all, that a publication that wobbled into existence so briefly should prompt two 21st-century publishers to declare that they intend to re-launch it “to celebrate our imprints’ rich and illustrious history”; to “bring forth… the vagaries of publishing life and an enviable slice of literary heritage”. But what is this history, and why is it worth celebrating?

more from Aime Williams at The New Statesman here.

one of history’s most unsuccessful utopias ever

Showalter_03_11

In June 1843, Bronson Alcott, his small family, and three of his Transcendental disciples from Alcott House in England – Charles Lane, who financed the project, his eleven-year-old son William, and their friend Henry Gardiner Wright – went to live in a utopian commune in Massachusetts called Fruitlands. Their six-month effort at being a ‘Consociate Family’ was traumatic and almost tragic. The philosophers knew nothing about agriculture, disapproved of the use of ‘noxious’ manure, and did not wish to oppress animals by ploughing the fields. They were extreme vegetarians (what we would call vegans), and by the winter were half-starving on a diet of apples, water and rough bread. For some of the thirteen members, Fruitlands was too fanatical; for others it was not fanatical enough. Gradually some decamped to more sociable environments, while the Lanes went off to a stricter Shaker community nearby, who later did not want to release William: as a celibate community, they needed every child they could get. The Alcotts soldiered on alone – father, mother Abigail (‘Abba’), and the four daughters Louisa, Anna, Elizabeth and May – until Bronson had a severe, almost suicidal breakdown. The entire enterprise was a disaster, what Richard Francis calls ‘one of history’s most unsuccessful utopias ever’.

more from Elaine Showalter at Literary Review here.

Why We Read ‘Don Quixote’

From The Paris Review:

Quixote_wiley_BLOG2 What does it mean to be “quixotic” today? Are street-corner preachers quixotic? Is Bono? What about film directors who dementedly pursue the unlikely grail of adapting a difficult book for the screen? The word endures because its source endures. Don Quixote de la Mancha is the first modern novel, and two weeks ago I found myself on the Upper East Side, at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute, tracing the word part of the way toward its origin. In the inevitable absence of Miguel de Cervantes, it was left to the book’s most recent English translator, Edith Grossman, the publisher, Andrew Hoyem, and the artist, William T. Wiley to explain the book’s riverine significance. The Quixote Delta has proved fertile ground for world literature, branching off into numerous tributaries, irrigating any number of national traditions and, finally, trickling down into the work of some of the most singular figures in world literature, from Nabokov to Borges, Fielding to Garcia Marquez.

But doesn’t quixotic threaten to swamp Quixote? Aren’t these words, which get coined in tribute to an author or a book, almost always treacherous? Can all the possibilities and implications of a character, or even—more ambitiously—a life’s work, be contained within the semantic boundaries of just one word? We think of Orwellian as adjectival shorthand for a state apparatus of terror and surveillance, but what if we also took it to mean window-pane clarity of expression or even a marked aversion to the poetry of Stephen Spender? In the same way, Don Quixote is not only a cautionary tale about the perils of idealism: among other things, it is also the first great book about books, a visionary parable about the responsibilities of reading and writing fiction that arrived early on in the age of printing. The river feeds into an ocean.

More here.

Khan Academy aims to reinvent education through video

From PhysOrg:

Salman_khan The problems with basic education, both in the US and other countries, are complex, but one website may have the ability to improve education on a global scale. The Khan Academy, whose mission is to “provide a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere,” currently has 2,200 video tutorials on subjects ranging from math to science to history. Not only could the free educational videos help individual students learn better, but the concept could also reform schools by redefining the teacher’s role and laying the foundations for a global classroom.

Since the site was launched in 2006, the videos have been viewed millions of times. The videos have received positive reviews from viewers due to their clear, conversation-style approach and simple drawings, which are made in SmoothDraw. But, as founder Salman Khan explained at a TED conference earlier this month, he thinks the Khan Academy could do a lot more. Khan wants to increase the academy’s video library to tens of thousands of video tutorials – each about 10 minutes long – that would watch in the evening as “homework.” Then the next day in class, the students would work on homework-like assignments, where they could ask the teacher questions and work with their peers. In essence, by “flipping the classroom,” students could watch a video lecture as many times as they like, at their own pace, and then have time in class to ask specific questions.

More here.