Judy Chicago and Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick, Tracey Emin: Ben Uri Gallery, London

by Sue Hubbard

Until 10th March 2013

12-11529_The Return of the ButterflyI remember seeing Judy’s Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979) in a rundown Islington warehouse. It was 1985 and I had just arrived in London; a young single parent mother, newly divorced, and a fledgling art critic. The year before that the work had been shown at the Edinburgh Festival. The huge crates had crossed the Atlantic by boat, and then travelled by lorry to Felixstowe, to be carried up two flights of stairs in a 19th century building without a lift. Arranged on a triangular banqueting table, each arm of which measured some 48 feet, there were a total of thirty-nine place settings commemorating women from history. Each setting was laid with a china-painted porcelain plate on which there was a raised central motif – vulvae and butterfly forms – created in a style appropriate to the woman being celebrated. There were also embroidered runners, gold chalices and utensils and the names of another 999 women inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below the table. Disparaged and misunderstood by many at the time I was bowled over by its ambition and emotional reach. I’d never seen a visual art work that spoke so directly about female experience. There was nothing ironic, nothing deliberately sensational about the work. This was a female aesthetic based on the lives of important women, and on the oppression and devaluation of the feminine that had been the norm for centuries and was still current in contemporary society. The art historian, Griselda Pollock, suggested that the piece created “a feminist space of encounter”, where new explorations and new ideas about femininity, modernity and modes of representation could be examined. Its daring helped to open the door for women’s self expression on both sides of the Atlantic and gave permission for women to become real contenders in the art game.

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Conversations with Nicholas Hogg and Chandrahas Choudhury at the Jaipur Literature Festival

by Hannah Green

ScreenHunter_87 Feb. 04 09.49The Jaipur Literature Festival runs off the momentum of globalization and the Internet. Authors and attendees come from around the world. Multi-national corporations sponsor the event. The polite Australian woman in Indian clothing who was in charge of one of the venues (The Google Mughal tent) repeatedly told the audience where to hashtag if they were tweeting. After Sebastian Faulks read a segment of his novel on stage, Supriya Nair, who was also part of that session, said that she couldn’t wait until the talk was over that she could tweet about it.

At the same time, some of the writers lamented the state of literature in the world in light of the web’s rising power. People read less, they said, are less able to concentrate, less able to distinguish between good writing and bad, good information and bad.

To get an inside perspective, I caught up with two young writers at the Jaipur Literature Festival who are relatively new to the literary scene: Chandrahas Choudhury and Nicholas Hogg. Both of their careers have risen in sync with the growth of the Internet. (Another sign of the many options we must choose from in our complex times: I spoke to Choudhury in person and conducted my interview with Hogg over e-mail.) Choudhury’s first novel, Arzee the Dwarf was published in 2009. He told me that he started working on this novel around the same time he got into blogging. During this time, he also worked writing book reviews and as the poetry and fiction editor of The Caravan magazine. Hogg’s first novel Show me the Sky was published in 2008. Before and after the publication of his novel, he wrote short stories that explore different cultural landscapes.

On how twitter and other forms of modern communication have changed language:


Language is liquid. How we communicate – speak, write, play music or make films etc – is forever evolving. From Gutenberg’s press to twitter and texting, it undoubtedly changes literature. For good or bad is subjective. Writers reflect the world they live in, whether it be Shakespeare of the 1500s or Faulkner's divided Deep South, and so their prose rhythms beat to the time.


Even on twitter it’s possible to tell the good and the bad writers apart. You need to learn to use the form not by always using abbreviations but by writing more briefly and concisely… People now on Twitter have developed the super short story. And actually one of the greatest super short stories in the history of literature is too small even for twitter-Hemingway’s six word short story: “For sale, Baby shoes, Never worn.” Which is maybe like forty or fifty characters.* There’s no reason that good writing is incompatible with twitter. But I think the most real pleasure of literature is the pleasure of seeing the mind unfolding. And that’s hard to do on twitter. That requires contrast. With a novel you can change the rhythm of a sentence, so you go from very long to very short. So to me that is the highest pleasure.

* It’s 28.

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The Future by Al Gore – review

John Gray in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_86 Feb. 03 21.56Applying a formidable mix of history, science and common experience, Gore has produced a luminously intelligent analysis that is packed with arresting ideas and facts. The peaking of global conventional oilproduction that occurred some 30 or more years ago, the risks to fresh water supplies posed by fracking, the rapid ongoing evolution of cyber-warfare, the dangers and potential benefits of biotechnology and the possibility of genetic engineering of human brains are only a few of the facts, likely developments and possibilities that the former American vice-president explores. Summarising this rich and ambitious book in any detail is impossible. You simply have no alternative to reading it.

Some themes stand out as being especially salient. Unlike those – pious bien-pensants as much as religious bigots – who fume and splutter whenever the subject of population is mentioned, Gore recognises the increase of human numbers as one of the world's largest challenges. “During the last century alone, we quadrupled the human population. By way of perspective, it took 200,000 years for our species to reach the one billion mark, yet we have added that many people in just the first thirteen years of this century.” With unchecked population growth and worldwide industrialisation, humankind has embarked on “an unplanned experiment with the planet”.

Despite the incessant machinations of climate deniers, there is no scientific basis for doubt as to the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Some who accept the evidence suggest that rather than attempting to halt the activities that result in global warming we should adapt to the process as it goes along; but in Gore's view, muddling through is not an option.

More here.

Before Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak invented Apple, they hacked phones

Geeta Dayal in Slate:

1302_SBR_EXPLODINGPHONE_COVERIn his new history of phone phreaking, Exploding the Phone, engineer and consultant Phil Lapsley details the story of the 1960s and 1970s culture of hackers who, like Tufte, devised numerous ways to outwit the phone system. The foreword of the book is by Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple—and, as it happens, an old-school hacker himself. Before Wozniak and Steve Jobs built Apple in the 1970s, they were phone phreaks. (Wozniak’s hacker name was Berkeley Blue; Jobs’ handle was Oaf Tobar.)

In 1971, Esquire published an article about phone phreaking called “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” by Ron Rosenbaum (aSlate columnist). It chronicled a ragtag crew sporting names like Captain Crunch and the Cheshire Cat, who prided themselves on using ingenuity and rudimentary electronics to outsmart the many-tentacled monstrosities of Ma Bell and the FBI. A blind 22-year-old named Joe Engressia was one of the scene’s heroes; according to Rosenbaum, Engressia could whistle at exactly the right frequency to place a free phone call.

Wozniak, age 20 in ’71, devoured the now-legendary article.

More here.

Did Hemingway Really Write His Famous Six-Word Story?


David Haglund in Slate (via The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research):

Quote Investigator is a terrific website that examines the provenance of popular quotations, which, as you may have noticed, frequently get misattributed online. On Monday, the site’s proprietor, Garson O’Toole, looked into a six-word fiction supposedly written by Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Hemingway’s authorship of the classified ad-inspired short-short story is frequently described as a “literary legend,” which, to be fair, is a perfectly accurate way of putting it. Snopes looked into the legend a few years ago, and decided that its basis in fact was “undetermined.” But after reading O’Toole’s more thorough investigation, it’s very hard to believe that Hemingway had anything to do with the tale.

Ernest Hemingway died in 1961, and the earliest published evidence known to QI connecting him to this tale appeared in 1991. The author Peter Miller included a version of the anecdote in his book Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing. Miller stated that he was told the tale by a “well-established newspaper syndicator” circa 1974.

The case for Hemingway does not get stronger from there. As O’Toole documents, the precursor to the story seems to be a 1921 newspaper column by Roy K. Moulton, who “printed a brief note that he attributed to someone named Jerry.”

There was an ad in the Brooklyn “Home Talk” which read, “Baby carriage for sale, never used.” Wouldn’t that make a wonderful plot for the movies?

That note was reprinted in multiple newspapers.

The League of Authoritarian Gentlemen


Alexander Cooley in Foreign Policy:

For years now, the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia have been talking about the importance of common efforts to promote human rights and democratic values around the world. If the liberal democracies pooled their efforts, there seemed good reason to believe that they could embed these values in international law and succeed in fostering the growth of freedom.

It turns out, however, that the autocrats haven't been asleep at the wheel, either. And nowhere is this truer in Eurasia, where Russia, China, and the Central Asian states have been busy discovering the virtues of alliance in a common cause. They've been working hard to forge an international front of anti-democrats, developing a new set of counter-strategies and regional legal tools. It seems to be working. The latest edition of Freedom House's global survey of political rights notes that its findings are “particularly grim for Eurasian countries.”

Over the last year, Vladimir Putin's Russia has renewed its crackdown on democratic opposition, most recently by staging an all-out assault on non-government organizations with foreign ties. The Chinese Communist Party has also been doingits best to silence critics and maintain its tight control over dissidents. Yet far less attention has gone to the two countries' transnational efforts to band together in their efforts to snuff out democratic impulses.

The rise of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a case in point. Comprised of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the SCO presents itself as a new-style international organization that champions the principle of non-interference in the sovereign affairs of its member states — a not-too subtle jibe at the political and economic conditions imposed by other Western-led groups. Originally, the SCO's precursor, the Shanghai Five, resolved lingering Soviet-era border disputes among its members, but the group has now expanded its activities to include security, economic initiatives, infrastructure development and education. Though the organization's formal headquarters is in Beijing, cooperation among the SCO's internal security services are conducted through the poetically named Regional Antiterrorist Structure(RATS) located in Tashkent.

Under the mantra of combating the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism, and separatism, RATS maintains a consolidated watch list of regional “extremist” individuals and organizations. The list has expanded dramatically, initially from 15 organizations and individuals in 2006 to 42 organizations and over 1100 individuals in 2010. Human rights groups fear that this expansion is the result of authoritarian “logrolling,” as each country lists its own regime threats in exchange for agreeing to other countries' designations, which may include political opponents in addition to bona fide terrorists.

Slaying Saints and Torching Texts


Emily O'Dell in Jadaliyya:

Cultural heritage in Mali is under attack. But just as the armed conflict there is not simply a battle between Islamic extremists and a weak Malian army supported by the French, nor is the destruction of Sufi shrines and Islamic manuscripts merely the result of an iconoclastic and intolerant religious fanaticism. While these violent attacks on Mali’s Islamic heritage are indeed tragic, they are sadly not isolated or unique. Sufi shrines have come under widespread assault in the past several years in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Pakistan, and Kashmir—and similar bouts of destruction have occurred throughout Islamic history. Sufi shrines and Sufi “bodies”—of both saints and worshippers—have recently been attacked by a wide variety of Islamists for a multitude of reasons: to repudiate grave visitation, to discourage belief in the intercessory power of deceased mystics, to oppose the government, to resist foreign occupation, to call for national liberation, and to protest the US funding of various Sufi initiatives throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. While these attacks on Sufi heritage have been widespread, it is only in Mali that attacks on Sufi shrines have been used to bolster the case for foreign intervention.

In mid-January at a meeting with representatives of the International Committee of Blue Shield at the World Archaeological Conference in Jordan, we discussed the “grave” situation in Mali, and the archaeological ethics of whether or not archaeologists should collaborate with the military to protect Mali’s cultural heritage. While archaeologists and anthropologists before 2001 traditionally steered clear of such collaboration, over the past decade, scholars have been working in tandem with the armed forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali and Syria to provide maps—and even baseball cards—of cultural heritage sites to be protected. Having done research myself on Sufi shrines in both Mali and Afghanistan, the parallel could not be more striking between the current international outcry by scholars and the media over the desecration of Sufi heritage in Mali, and the international hysteria and politicization of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001, which was also used to build the case for a foreign military intervention in Afghanistan.

Just as the Taliban were vilified as intolerant fundamentalists incapable of grasping the importance of so-called “universal” concepts such as art, history, and world heritage, so too are groups like Ansar Deine being framed as “savages” and “barbarians.” Such a reductive analysis frames heritage solely as a victim, instead of a weapon of war cleverly employed to attract media attention, garner support and legitimacy among regional and international Islamists, and provide potent religious symbolism.

Englishness, class and manners

From New Statesman:

EnglishThe author takes us through history to describe how manners originated at royal courts but then became the province of the middle class. They also had much to do with the concept of personal space and allowing the integrity of the individual; and they have a great deal to do with bodily functions. Almost all of those we wish to do without the gaze of others, apart from the function that usually requires two. It became a mark of refinement not to emit toxic odours, or to belch, or to smell for want of attention to personal hygiene: but all that was quite recent.

Perhaps it is true (not that Hitchings says so) that nowhere else in the western world is such attention paid to table manners, and nowhere is there such a link between a certain sort of manners and class. The person who holds his or her knife like a pen remains an object of outrage in golf cubs all round suburban England. Indeed, it remains a metaphor for the “not quite one of us” school to speak of such an outsider as one “who does not hold his knife and fork properly”.

More here.

Slave Life

From History:


Slave Punishment:

Wilson Chinn, a freed slave from Louisiana, poses with equipment used to punish slaves. Such images fueled Northern resolve against slaveholders during the American Civil War (photographed in 1863). (Photo Credit: CORBIS)

(Note: At least one daily post throughout February will be devoted to African American History Month)

More here.

Sunday Poem

The Taste of Earth

I am the desert dreaming of oases.
A dream of those who condemn
my scorching sands.

When the forests bloom
and rain arrives on the green earth,
when snow falls in the mountains,
I remain the burning earth.

I am the fever of the sun
not cooled by moonlight.
Remembering the rain,
I become the butcher's laughter.

I too love flowers
but not the rain.
Its chill is a curse;
it'll put out my fire.

Those who have travelled
from the Saraha to the sea
know the taste of my heat.

by A. Ayyappananandan
translation: Sri Koyamparambath Satchi

Speak, Memory

Oliver Sacks in the New York Review of Books:

Sacks_1-022113_jpg_230x1195_q85In 1993, approaching my sixtieth birthday, I started to experience a curious phenomenon—the spontaneous, unsolicited rising of early memories into my mind, memories that had lain dormant for upward of fifty years. Not merely memories, but frames of mind, thoughts, atmospheres, and passions associated with them—memories, especially, of my boyhood in London before World War II. Moved by these, I wrote two short memoirs, one about the grand science museums in South Kensington, which were so much more important than school to me when I was growing up; the other about Humphry Davy, an early-nineteenth-century chemist who had been a hero of mine in those far-off days, and whose vividly described experiments excited me and inspired me to emulation. I think a more general autobiographical impulse was stimulated, rather than sated, by these brief writings, and late in 1997, I launched on a three-year project of writing a memoir of my boyhood, which I published in 2001 as Uncle Tungsten.1

I expected some deficiencies of memory—partly because the events I was writing about had occurred fifty or more years earlier, and most of those who might have shared their memories, or checked my facts, were now dead; and partly because, in writing about the first fifteen years of my life, I could not call on the letters and notebooks that I started to keep, assiduously, from the age of eighteen or so.

I accepted that I must have forgotten or lost a great deal, but assumed that the memories I did have—especially those that were very vivid, concrete, and circumstantial—were essentially valid and reliable; and it was a shock to me when I found that some of them were not.

More here.

Seven Minutes Inside Bernard Henri Lévy’s Head (Because that’s all we could take)

Karl Sharro in Karl reMarks:

ScreenHunter_114 Feb. 02 15.58Philosopher, intellectual, diva, poster boy for humanitarian interventionism, post-Foucauldian striptease artist. Bernard Henri Lévy has been called many things over the years, but none of those descriptions quite capture the essence of France’s Numéro Un public intellectual (now that all the others have died). Who is the real BHL, as he is lovingly referred to in France, and why does his moniker sound like the name of a French department store? In order to answer those questions, and have an excuse to call him a few more things, we spent seven minutes inside his head. Here’s the transcript narrated by the Gallic Über-coif himself.

I woke up feeling rather good this morning. We had taken Timbuktu. My heart pumps with anticipation at the thought of handling the ancient erotic manuscripts from Timbuktu’s library. And the locals that we liberated from the tyranny of the barbarians of course. But those manuscripts! The glistening naked bodies under the hot desert sun, depicted with love and attention by great artists. I am breathless. (At this stage, we had to interject and tell BHL to move on, it was getting awkward.)

I spend a mere 35 minutes in front of the mirror arranging my hair in its classic form, a visual allusion to Napoleon’s famous hat, recreated in the gentle upward curves of my hair strands. I am of course the embodiment of his persona and political will. I reminded, what’s his name,… oui, Hollande, of this the other day. I said, ‘Philip, we must go into Mali. This is your chance to leave your mark on history.’ Then I remembered his name was Francois, but he didn’t seem to mind. The Napoleon analogy was attractive to him. A simple man.

More here.

What I learned about empire in the West Bank

Nathan Schneider in Killing the Buddha:

ScreenHunter_113 Feb. 02 15.52It took three vehicles to get to Jenin. The first and last were shared taxis that played pop music the whole way; the one in the middle was a bus driven by a handsome and solemn man with a big, religious beard, whose television played music videos memorializing martyrs. If the West Bank is shaped like an hourglass, Jenin is at the top of the upper bulb, where the sand is when it’s full. Thousands of years ago, the dusty city was named after its gardens, but more recently Ariel Sharon called it a “hornet’s nest of terrorism.”

My destination, a place called the Freedom Theatre, adjoined a refugee camp that was completely flattened by made-in-the-USA Israeli bulldozers during the Second Intifada. On the walls of buildings all over town were posters celebrating young men with big guns. At the time, one of the Freedom Theatre’s founders, Zakaria Zubeidi, was sitting in a Palestinian Authority jail with no formal charge. Before turning to theatrical resistance, he had been the local commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, which for a time put him at number one on Israel’s most-wanted list. A year earlier, a gunman murdered the Freedom Theatre’s half-Israeli co-founder, Juliano Mer-Khamis, in the courtyard where the final taxi dropped me off.

I had come for the inaugural tour of the Freedom Bus, a ten-day sequence of performances across the West Bank. The other internationals along for the ride made for a varied group, the main factions being college students from the United States and retirees associated with the Swedish National Touring Theatre. The first night at our lonely hotel in Jenin, fatigue led me to fantasies of escape, of hiding back across the Green Line in Israel-proper, where for the previous day the half-Jew in me had felt the rare and guilty pleasure of being among my own.

More here.

a warning against civilisational hubris


One of the most astonishing things about the western involvement in Afghanistan of the past decade, and the British shambles in particular, has been the failure to learn from or, indeed, to read accounts of previous failed interventions – even those by the officers of British regiments whose later incarnations are fighting in the country today. Ignorance of Afghan history has not stopped a procession of contemporary “experts” from throwing about the cliché that we are in the grip of a new “Great Game”. Aside from its lack of imagination, this parallel misses the most important point about the original: that, far from being a vital issue in 19th-century geopolitics, it was in fact something between a sideshow and an illusion. Within a few years of Rudyard Kipling’s coining the term, the British and Russian empires wound up their rivalry in the region when faced with the real common threat of Wilhelmine Germany. This belated recognition of the pointlessness of the entire affair did not, of course, bring back to life the countless people who had died in the course of these imperial adventures over the previous 70 years.

more from Anatol Lieven at the FT here.

Distinctly undelightful


Nonetheless, there is no arguing with the claim that Agassiz, a Swiss immigrant, was pivotal to the making of American science. He was “one of the first,” Irmscher writes, “to establish science as a collective enterprise.” He was extraordinarily prolific and influential in many fields, including paleontology, zoology, geology and glaciology. He pioneered field research and was among the first to propose that the Earth had endured an ice age. A charismatic teacher whose students in natural history went on to become the teachers and scientists of the next generation, he was also an obsessive collector, enlisting the American public in a vast campaign to send him natural history specimens so he could build a remarkable museum of comparative anatomy. The range of Agassiz’s interests and expertise seems remarkable to a modern reader, given the narrow specialties of contemporary scientific practice, but in many ways, it was this restless curiosity that made him a transitional figure. He may have forged the path for research as a profession ensconced in universities endowed with posts and chairs, but he also belonged to the older age of the ­polymathic natural philosopher.

more from Rebecca Stott at the NY Times here.

Inside Joy Division


In the three decades since he committed suicide, singer Ian Curtis has become both a symbol and a caricature. Curtis’ seemingly tortured life as a member of the English post-punk band Joy Division and early death in 1980 have been transformed into myth and Curtis into a modern-day Thomas Chatterton or Sylvia Plath. His life offers a perfect narrative for disaffected, sun-averse souls the world over: a young genius too pure to live. As described in former Joy Division and New Order bassist Peter Hook’s honest, punchy and rough-hewn document of that period, “Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division,” Curtis was as tragic and magnetic a figure as the legend suggests, though at the time Hook saw him mostly as a beer-drinking, prank-playing pal.

more from Randall Roberts at the LA Times here.