Lionel Trilling & the critical imagination

Gertrude Himmelfarb in The New Criterion:

9780300152692Why Trilling Matters: it is a curiously defensive title for a book about a man who was a star in the much-acclaimed circle of “New York intellectuals,” who delivered the first of the Jefferson Lectures bestowed by the government for “distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities,” and whose major collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination, has gone through half-a-dozen editions since it was first published in 1950 (most recently in 2008), totalling 70,000 copies in hard cover and more than 100,000 in paperback.1 Yet that defensive tone, unfortunately, is warranted. In spite of the availability of his work, Lionel Trilling today is almost unknown in academia, resurrected occasionally in an article or book, more often to be belittled or criticized than celebrated.

Adam Kirsch, seeking to restore Trilling to his rightful place in the literary and intellectual world, tells us that as an English major in the mid-1990s, he never read Trilling or even heard him discussed in class. It was only later that he came to the critic on his own and read him for “pleasure.” He then discovered that Trilling does indeed matter—and matters all the more because literature itself, he regretfully observes, seems to matter so little. In 1991, Dana Gioia, later the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, wrote an essay “Can Poetry Matter?” complaining that poetry no longer mattered, that, unlike fiction­, it had become the specialized calling of a small and isolated group. Five years later, the novelist Jonathan Franzen made the same complaint about fiction, deploring the neglect of novels in favor of movies and the web. In 2004, a survey by the nea found that the reading of any kind of literature is in dramatic decline, especially, and most ominously, among the young.

Trilling matters, then, Kirsch insists, because literature matters—and literature as Trilling understood it.

More here.

The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami

Sam Anderson in the New York Times Magazine:

23murakami1_span-articleLargeI prepared for my first-ever trip to Japan, this summer, almost entirely by immersing myself in the work of Haruki Murakami. This turned out to be a horrible idea. Under the influence of Murakami, I arrived in Tokyo expecting Barcelona or Paris or Berlin — a cosmopolitan world capital whose straight-talking citizens were fluent not only in English but also in all the nooks and crannies of Western culture: jazz, theater, literature, sitcoms, film noir, opera, rock ’n’ roll. But this, as really anyone else in the world could have told you, is not what Japan is like at all. Japan — real, actual, visitable Japan — turned out to be intensely, inflexibly, unapologetically Japanese.

This lesson hit me, appropriately, underground. On my first morning in Tokyo, on the way to Murakami’s office, I descended into the subway with total confidence, wearing a freshly ironed shirt — and then immediately became terribly lost and could find no English speakers to help me, and eventually (having missed trains and bought lavishly expensive wrong tickets and gestured furiously at terrified commuters) I ended up surfacing somewhere in the middle of the city, already extremely late for my interview, and then proceeded to wander aimlessly, desperately, in every wrong direction at once (there are few street signs, it turns out, in Tokyo) until finally Murakami’s assistant Yuki had to come and find me, sitting on a bench in front of a honeycombed-glass pyramid that looked, in my time of despair, like the sinister temple of some death-cult of total efficiency.

More here.

Todd Gitlin on Why OWS is Different From All Other Social Movements

Matt Bieber in The Wheat and the Chaff:

ToddGitlinTodd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph. D. program in Communications at Columbia University. In 1963-64, Gitlin served as the third president of Students for a Democratic Society. Later, he helped organize the first national demonstration against the Vietnam War and the first American demonstrations against corporate aid to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

MATT: During a panel last week at Harvard’s Kennedy School, you suggested that there’s a key difference between the Occupy Movement and other social movements. While most social movements begin with sparse public support, the Occupy Movement begins with potentially widespread support for its goal of reducing wealth inequality. Say more about this distinction and what it might mean for the Occupy Movement.

TODD: I hadn’t realized this until I checked off the movements of my recollection, that they had started as minority uprisings – at least expressions of dissidence – in comparison to the population as a whole. So the Civil Rights Movement, which obviously was popular with black people but not with Americans overall, certainly not in the South, when it broke out. The anti-Vietnam War movement represented a small minority, maybe a little more than 10%, when it erupted. The women’s movement, it’s hard to say – possible exception there. The gay movement was certainly not a popular movement over all. I see this more as the rule than the exception. Perhaps the major exceptions in American history were the Populist and labor movements against the robber barons in the late 19th century. But of course there were no polls, so nobody knows.

More here.

Should a Scientific Meeting Attempt to Address Questions of Faith?

Mungerstained_HSDave Munger in Seed:

Scientists were asking three big questions about the Faith and Science panel at the World Science Festival last month. Should the panel be funded by the Templeton Foundation, which some accuse of harboring a pro-religion agenda? Should the panel include a “New Atheist” like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett? And should a festival devoted to “science” discuss matters of faith at all?

The last question might be the easiest to answer. While many scientists believe that science and faith are completely separate, others argue that science shows that faith and religion are unnecessary. Ironically, if this latter argument is true, then it follows that a session on faith and science is essential for proper understanding of science. As Razib Khan, a blogger for Discover magazine, observed last year, over 50 percent of scientists believe in God or some higher power. And as medical writer Tom Rees noted, the phenomenon isn’t going away: younger scientists are more likely to hold religious beliefs than older scientists. While the finding could suggest that religious people are more likely to leave science as they get older, it could also mean that religious beliefs are growing among scientists. If the New Atheists are right and science really does invalidate religion, then it’s essential that these increasingly religious scientists discuss the issue at scientific meetings. If the New Atheists are wrong, then scientists should still be discussing the issue to address this apparent deficiency in the atheists’ scientific reasoning.

Science Controversies Past and Present

FigureSteven Sherwood in Physics Today:

In the decades before Galileo began his fervent promotion of Copernicanism, the Catholic Church took an admirably philosophical view of the idea. As late as 1615, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine acknowledged that “we should . . . rather admit that we did not understand [Scripture] than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true.” But the very next year he officially declared Copernicanism to be false, stating that there was no evidence to support it, despite Galileo’s observations and Kepler’s calculations. Institutional imperatives had forced a full rejection of Copernicanism, which had become threatening precisely because of the mounting evidence.

Even Albert Einstein was not immune to political backlash. His theory of general relativity…undermined our most fundamental notions of absolute space and time, a revolution that Max Planck avowed “can only be compared with that brought about by the introduction of the Copernican world system.” Though the theory predicted the anomalous perihelion shift of Mercury’s orbit, it was still regarded as provisional in the years following its publication in 1916.

When observation, by Arthur Eddington and others, of a rare solar eclipse in 1919 confirmed the bending of light, it was widely hailed and turned Einstein into a celebrity. Elated, he was finally satisfied that his theory was verified. But the following year he wrote to his mathematician collaborator Marcel Grossmann:

This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.

Instead of quelling the debate, the confirmation of the theory and acclaim for its author had sparked an organized opposition dedicated to discrediting both theory and author. Part of the backlash came from a minority of scientists who apparently either felt sidelined or could not understand the theory. The driving force was probably professional jealousy,6but scientific opposition was greatly amplified by the anti-Semitism of the interwar period and was exploited by political and culture warriors. The same forces, together with status quo economic interests, have amplified the views of climate contrarians.

The historical backlashes shed some light on a paradox of the current climate debate: As evidence continues to accumulate confirming longstanding warming predictions and showing how sensitive climate has been throughout Earth’s history, why does climate skepticism seem to be growing rather than shrinking? All three provocative ideas—heliocentricity, relativity, and greenhouse warming—have been, in Kuhn’s words, “destructive of an entire fabric of thought,” and have shattered notions that make us feel safe. That kind of change can turn people away from reason and toward emotion, especially when the ideas are pressed on them with great force.

Vibrant Matter, Zero Landscape: Klaus K. Loenhart interviews Jane Bennett

GAM07_234wOver at eurozine:

Klaus K. Loenhart: For the Zero Landscape edition of GAM, landscape and the environment, often perceived as the seemingly passive background to our cultural endeavours, are elevated to the status of a protagonist. In your own work “on the seemingly passive”, how did you arrive at your position of a political ecology of things and matter?

Jane Bennett: Prior to reading GAM's call for papers, I had not focused on the sensibility-shaping powers of the category “landscape”. But of course “landscape” (like “environment”) has presented the world as naturally divided into active bodies (life) and passive contexts (matter). I think many people now find this picture implausible. For us, landscape is better understood as an “assemblage” or working set of vibrant materialities. In Vibrant Matter[1] I inflected Deleuze and Guattari's notion of assemblage in this way: “Assemblages are living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent presence of energies that confound them from within. They have uneven topographies, because some of the points at which the various affects and bodies cross paths are more heavily trafficked than others… Each member of the assemblage has a certain vital force, but there is also an effectivity proper to the grouping as such: an agency of the assemblage”. Clearly, a landscape possesses an efficacy of its own, a liveliness intermeshed with human agency. Clearly, the scape of the land is more than a geo-physical surface upon which events play out. Clearly, a particular configuration of plants, buildings, mounds, winds, rocks, moods does not operate simply as a tableau for actions whose impetus comes from elsewhere.

You ask how it came to pass that it now seems to me wrong (not morally wrong but perceptually imprecise) to speak as if materiality or landscape were mere matter. No one knows exactly how one comes to believe and perceive as one does, but I'll give it a try, speaking first of a biographical factor, and then naming some literary-philosophical influences.

Drawing the Holocaust

Spiegelman_prisoners_day_jpg_470x514_q85The NYRB blog has two excerpts from a book of conversations between Hillary Chute and Art Spiegelman about his Maus books, the first of which came out 25 years ago. The first on “Why Mice?” can be found here. From the second:

Hillary Chute: You mentioned your parents had some books about the war around the house when you were growing up. How did they inform your thinking?

Art Spiegelman: Well, there were the small-press books I told you about, and one called The Black Book, a cataloguing of the atrocities- and one paperback on the same hidden shelf of forbidden knowledge that was about Aleister Crowley and Satanism called The Beast 666. Anyway all of it kind of sat together as a kind of semi-pornography for me. In fact, I think House of Dolls, a sleazily unhealthy fiction/memoir by a survivor that was a widely read paperback book in the fifties about the whorehouses of Auschwitz, might have been on that shelf too. Many years later I read Shivitti, a memoir by the House of Dolls author, Ka-Tzetnik, about his LSD therapy and revisiting Auschwitz on acid, and trying to come to terms with an incestuous relationship with his sister who died in the camps-what an astounding character! Anyway I read part of House of Dolls as pornography, which, I guess, is the way most people read it: as part of the whole leather-bondage sexy-Nazi pathology. As a kid, the connection between the pornographic aspect of the death camps—the forbidden, the dangerous and fraught—was all one big stew that I couldn’t separate out.

To say those books informed my thinking, or even to say I was thinking about this at all in my early teens, would give me too much credit. It was all just part of The Big Taboo. It occurs to me right now, though, that perhaps the whole taboo-smashing ethos of the underground comix scene did allow me to stir up the buried connections to the unspeakable that my mother’s secret bookshelf opened up.

Karachi is violent, unhealthy, and unequal. Is that so bad?

Steve Inskeep in Foreign Policy:

ScreenHunter_04 Oct. 21 20.34Karachi is the economic heart of Pakistan, its main port and financial capital, and an industrial center for everything from textiles to steel. Home to about 400,000 people upon Pakistan's independence in 1947, the city has since expanded to more than 13 million souls by the most conservative estimate, having taken in migrants from every corner of Pakistan and beyond.

The city has grown so swiftly that it evades all efforts to control it. Millions live in illegal neighborhoods, where developers seize and subdivide government land, bribing police not to notice as they sell tiny homes to the poor. Many residents get electricity by tapping power lines, adding stress to a grid that's already overwhelmed, with hours of blackouts every day. Karachi's Lyari River, which used to be a seasonal stream, now flows year-round with untreated sewage. Ultimately, the waste reaches fishing grounds in the Arabian Sea. “Thirty years ago you could drop a coin in the water and see it below the surface,” a Karachi fisherman told me this month. “Now the sea is like a gutter.” Local politics encourage even harsher metaphors. The city faces a political crisis so severe that it has gone more than a year and a half without an elected mayor or city council.

All this makes Karachi an especially vivid place to test some theories about the world's growing cities.

More here.

Steve Jobs Regretted Wasting Time on Alternative Medicine

From Gawker:

ScreenHunter_03 Oct. 21 20.26Everyone else wanted Steve Jobs to move quickly against his tumor. His friends wanted him to get an operation. His wife wanted him to get an operation. But the Apple CEO, so used to swimming against the tide of popular opinion, insisted on trying alternative therapies for nine crucial months. Before he died, Jobs resolved to let the world know he deeply regretted the critical decision, biographer Walter Isaacson has told 60 Minutes.

“We talked about this a lot,” Isaacson told 60 Minutes of Jobs's decision to treat a neuroendocrine tumor in his pancreas with an alternative diet rather than medically recommended surgery. “He wanted to talk about it, how he regretted it….I think he felt he should have been operated on sooner… He said, 'I didn't want my body to be opened…I didn't want to be violated in that way.'”

The account lends credence to a Harvard cancer researcher we quoted in a controversial post last week.

More here.

Why your cat’s eyes have slit pupils rather than round ones

Yfke van Bergen in The Times of London:

198609_10150121811064425_513199424_6424588_2117423_nThe trouble is that single-focus lenses such as those in humans suffer from chromatic aberration. This means that different wavelengths of light are focused at different distances from the lens and, as a result, some colours are blurred.

In the latest issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology , the researchers reveal that many animals solve this problem by using multifocal lenses.

These are composed of different refractive zones in concentric rings, with each zone tuned to a different wavelength.

Almost all animals with multifocal lenses have slit pupils, which help them to make the most of their unique lens, according to the paper. This is because, even when contracted, a slit pupil lets an animal use the full diameter of the lens, spanning all the concentric refractive zones, allowing for all colours to be sharply focused.

More here.

One of the most cunning and improbable feats of modern dictatorships

Max Fisher in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_02 Oct. 21 20.09In the first few months of 1969, Libya was so filled with rumors that the country's senior military leadership would oust the king in a bloodless coup that, when the coup actually happened on September 1, nobody bothered to check who had led it. A handful of military vehicles had rolled up to government offices and communication centers, quietly shutting down the monarchy in what was widely seen as a necessary and overdue transition. King Idris's government had become so incapable and despised that neither his own personal guard nor the massive U.S. military force then stationed outside Tripoli intervened. Army units around the country, believing that the coup was an implicit order from the military chiefs, quickly secured local government offices. Not a single death was reported; all of Libya, it seemed, had welcomed the military revolution.

It was not until almost a week later that an unknown 27-year-old lieutenant with the army signal corps announced that he and a group of 70 low-level officers had in fact staged the coup. They had, in a sense, faked the senior military takeover that everyone had been expecting. But by then it was too late — the upstarts were already in charge of Libya. The young signal corps lieutenant, a nobody named Muammar al-Qaddafi who'd been raised in a Bedouin tent, had effectively tricked Libya and its powerful Western allies into helping him take over a country he had no business ruling.

More here.

Aamer Hussein on ‘The Cloud Messenger’

From The Paris Review:

Hussein300Though The Cloud Messenger is Aamer Hussein’s first novel, it comes after five collections of stories and a novella, Another Gulmohar Tree. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, but a long-time resident of London, Hussein has dramatized the sorts of encounters between and within cultures that reflect his own facility in seven languages. He writes with intelligent restraint about the experience of displacement, but also the indelible richness of wherever we like to think of as home. The Cloud Messenger draws on his own unsentimental education as a student of Farsi to create a romance about language and the unexpected life that reading and translating can take. Last year, we met to discuss the Granta anthology of writing from and about Pakistan at his home in West London.

Could you begin by explaining your background?

I’m from Karachi, third-generation in almost an accidental way, because both my grandfather and father were born there, even though they hadn’t lived there very much until after partition because of certain historical … mishaps, you might say. My mother is from Northern India and from a much more traditional family, although her father was an academic. My own background is very mixed, but all my education was English until I left Pakistan. At the same time, both languages were spoken at home and both parents were practicing believers. Yet we had no sense of confusion about our belonging. It was only when we left the country that we realized how Western we were.

More here. (Note: Both Another Gulmohar Tree and The Cloud Messenger are exquisite books!)

When Gertrude Stein Toured America

From Smithsonian:

Gertrude-Stein-in-Bilignin-631When people envision the life and times of Gertrude Stein, it is often in the context of 1920s Paris. Her home at 27 rue de Fleurus was a fabulously bohemian outpost, where she, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and writers, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, discussed the merits of art. It was the type of salon that makes writers, artists and historians swoon, “If only I were a fly on the wall.” Perhaps that is why Woody Allen transports his time-traveling character there in his latest film, Midnight in Paris. Gil, a modern-day Hollywood screenwriter portrayed by Owen Wilson, asks Stein (with Kathy Bates in the role) to read his fledgling novel.

The story of the writer’s “salon years” is a familiar one, after all. Stein popularized that interlude in her most successful book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. But it is entirely fresh stories, as relayed by Wanda M. Corn, a leading authority on Stein, that we encounter in the Stanford art historian’s “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories,” an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery on view through January 22.

More here. (Note: I just read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and it is extremely good and extremely funny!)

Secularism: Its Content and Context

Power-of-Religion-200x300Akeel Bilgrami over at The Immanent Frame. (The post is an excerpt from a longer SSRC Working Paper.)

If secularism has its relevance only in context, then it is natural and right to think that it will appear in different forms and guises in different contexts. But I write down these opening features of secularism at the outset because they seem to me to be invariant among the different forms that secularism may take in different contexts. It is hard to imagine that one hasn’t changed the subject from secularism to something else, something that deserves another name, if one finds oneself denying any of the features that I initially list below. Though I say this is ‘hard to imagine,’ I don’t mean to deny that there is a strong element of stipulation in these initial assertions to come. I can’t pretend that these are claims or theses about some independently identified subject matter—as if we all know perfectly well what we are talking about when we speak of secularism—and the question is only about what is true of that agreed upon concept or topic. The point is rather to fix the concept or topic. But, on the other hand, such talk of ‘fixing’ should not give the impression that it is a matter of free choice, either. Once the initial terminological points about ‘secularism’ are made, the goal of the rest of the paper will be to show why they are not arbitrary stipulations. So the reader is urged to be unreactive about these initial topic-setting assertions until the dialectic of the paper is played out.

First, secularism is a stance to be taken about religion. At the level of generality with which I have just described this, it does not say anything very specific or precise. The imprecision and generality have two sources. One obvious source is that religion, regarding which it is supposed to take a stance, is itself, notoriously, not a very precise or specifically understood phenomenon. But to the extent that we have a notion of religion in currency—however imprecisely elaborated—‘secularism’ will have a parasitic meaning partially elaborated as a stance regarding whatever that notion stands for. Should we decide that there is no viability in any notion of religion, and should the notion pass out of conceptual currency, secularism too would lapse as a notion with a point and rationale. The other source of imprecision is that I have said nothing specific or precise about what sort of stance secularism takes towards religion. One may think that it has to be in some sense an adversarial stance since surely secularism, in some sense, defines itself against religion. This is true enough, but still the very fact that I find the need to keep using the qualifier ‘in some sense’ makes clear that nothing much has been said about the kind of opposing stance this amounts to. Part of the point of this essay is to add a little precision to just this question.

Second, for all this generality just noted, ‘secularism’—unlike ‘secular’ and ‘secularization’—is quite specific in another regard. It is the name of a political doctrine.