Tony Albert on Gordon Bennett

From ArtAsiaPacific:

Gordon was a real pioneer and set a precedent for political art in Australia. He spoke with an Aboriginal voice that could be universally understood—something that became more and more evident as his career grew and he started to be featured in increasing numbers of international biennials and exhibitions.

One-on-one_420…Gordon unexpectedly and very sadly passed away on June 3 this year. A mutual friend, the curator Simon Wright, called me a few days later to let me know. It was an emotional call. Simon also wanted me to know that he and Gordon had been at lunch just the week before and had discussed my most recent letter. In 2010, I began writing letters to Gordon, inspired in part by his own letters written to Jean-Michel Basquiat. I was jolted one morning after opening the local newspaper to find an article about a prominent football coach who had used the term “black cunt” in reference to an Aboriginal player. As I read the article, Gordon’s early painting Daddy’s Little Girl II (1994) came vividly to mind. I thought of how the father in this artwork sits on his lounge chair in the corner of the living room relaxing with a smoker’s pipe in hand. Wearing a pretty Sunday dress, his blonde daughter plays with toy blocks spelling out the words “ABO,” “BOONG,” “COON” and “DARKIE,” all derogatory names regularly used against Aboriginal people. The girl points the blocks toward her father to gain his approval, love and attention. It is a small but incredibly powerful work in which Gordon brilliantly illustrates the cycle of racism, handed down and taught from one generation to the next. In my last letter to Gordon, which is also included in my artwork for the 2014 Basil Sellers Art Prize, I said:

I wanted to write to you today to thank you for instilling in me a strong sense of pride. Despite the challenges I face as a Blak [sic]man, I will never give up on the fight against racism. There are so many heroes who stand up for our people, and it is those heroes—people like you—who inspire me to carry on.

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lessons in how to write

Henry Hitchings in The Guardian:

Professor-Steven-Pinker-011If you want to start an argument online, make an assertion about English usage. “Apostrophes are on their way out”, or “People who misuse apostrophes deserve to be guillotined”. For extra spice, add a dash of what's commonly considered solecism: “People who fret about apostrophes are, like, literally the worst thing in the world.” This gambit, of course, also works beyond cyberspace. On the page, and in conversation, we frequently observe that one person's idea of linguistic rectitude is another's of insufferable fussiness. Most of us have strong views about how best to use language; where the more intricate details are concerned, those views are often an amalgam of aesthetic taste, ingrained social prejudice, popular myth and a form of reasoning that we insist is logic though it may smell like something else.

In The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker cheerfully launches himself on to this terrain. The Harvard psychology professor is a rigorous thinker whose previous books, including The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought, have been distinguished by a flair for making highly technical subjects seem not just accessible but positively jaunty. Now his distaste for the deathly edicts that glut most current volumes on literary style has led him to create what he calls “a writing guide for the 21st century”. The book has two parts: in the first, Pinker identifies the techniques that make prose compelling and the bad habits that can make it soggy, and in the second he focuses on contentious points of usage, of the sort addressed by the American humorist Calvin Trillin's quip: “'Whom' is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.”

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Sunday Poem


Haunted, they say, believing
the soft, shifty
dunes are made up
of false promises.

Many believe
whatever happens
is the other half
of a conversation.

Many whisper
white lies
to the dead.

“The boys are doing reallt well.”

Some think
nothing is so
until it has been witnessed.

They believe
the bits are iffy;

the forces that bind them,

by Rae Armantrout
from Poetry, Vol. 192. No. 3, June
publisher: Poetry, Chicago, 2008

Outlook: Gloomy


Jacob Burak in Aeon (Photo by Springer Collection/Corbis):

I have good news and bad news. Which would you like first? If it’s bad news, you’re in good company – that’s what most people pick. But why?

Negative events affect us more than positive ones. We remember them more vividly and they play a larger role in shaping our lives. Farewells, accidents, bad parenting, financial losses and even a random snide comment take up most of our psychic space, leaving little room for compliments or pleasant experiences to help us along life’s challenging path. The staggering human ability to adapt ensures that joy over a salary hike will abate within months, leaving only a benchmark for future raises. We feel pain, but not the absence of it.

Hundreds of scientific studies from around the world confirm our negativity bias: while a good day has no lasting effect on the following day, a bad day carries over. We process negative data faster and more thoroughly than positive data, and they affect us longer. Socially, we invest more in avoiding a bad reputation than in building a good one. Emotionally, we go to greater lengths to avoid a bad mood than to experience a good one. Pessimists tend to assess their health more accurately than optimists. In our era of political correctness, negative remarks stand out and seem more authentic. People – even babies as young as six months old – are quick to spot an angry face in a crowd, but slower to pick out a happy one; in fact, no matter how many smiles we see in that crowd, we will always spot the angry face first.

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Will Scotland Choose Independence?


D.D. Guttenplan in The Nation (AP Photo/Jill Lawlless):

The question on the ballot is simple—and binding: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” For most Scots, the answer is simple, too. Polls show at least 40 percent on either side, with the Noes ahead—but the Yeses gaining. “England looks like a strange country,” says Lesley Riddoch, author of Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish. “That’s what you can’t see if you live in it.”

“If we split we’re no’ going to have an army, a navy or an air force—just a coast guard,” says the taxi driver who picks me up at Edinburgh’s Waverly Station. “You can only defend an island if we stick together.”

Anxiety about how Scotland would fare on its own is a common theme among No supporters—though more often expressed in terms of economics than national security. Would the Royal Bank of Scotland—which got a £46 billion bailout from the British taxpayer in 2008—have survived? Can a small country generate the jobs, and the exports, needed to prosper in the global economy?

Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), argues that thanks to North Sea oil, “Scotland is one of the richest countries in the world, wealthier per head than France, the UK and Japan.” Speaking at a forum at Edinburgh University, Salmond’s biographer, David Torrance, dismissed such claims as “intellectually dishonest.”

Nor is Torrance sympathetic to the view that only the dead hand of London-centered rule keeps Scotland from becoming a Scandinavian-style social democracy. “All the tools required to decrease inequality—taxation, property tax, education, welfare provision—already exist,” says Torrance, pointing out that the Scottish Parliament currently controls spending on health and education, and that Labour and the Tories have both pledged greater devolution if the referendum fails.

For Better Together backers like novelist J.K. Rowling, independence is a risky distraction. “All the major political parties are currently wooing us with offers of extra powers,” said Rowling in June, announcing a £1 million donation to the No campaign. If Scotland leaves now, she warned, “we will have to deal with three bitter neighbours.”

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Back to Yalta?: Stephen Cohen and the Ukrainian crisis


Nikolay Koposov in Eurozine (Photo: Zurbagan / Source: Shutterstock):

Cohen built his reputation as a leading scholar of Russian studies in the 1970s, and his interest in Soviet history was informed by his leftist political sympathies. Cohen's focus has always been on the “lost alternatives” to Stalinism and the possibility of “socialism with a human face”. In the 1980s, he was an ardent supporter of Mikhail Gorbachev's attempt to reform Soviet society. But the more hope he invested in perestroika, the bitterer his disappointment became in Boris Yeltsin's “dismantling” of the USSR. Cohen considers Yeltsin's reforms “the worst economic and social catastrophe ever suffered by a major nation in peacetime”, and even a case of the “de-modernization” of a highly developed society. Hence his sympathy for Putin, whom he refuses to accuse of “de-democratizing” Russia simply because what Yeltsin built had (according to Cohen) nothing to do with democracy. However, the United States wholeheartedly supported Yeltsin through its “ill-conceived and ultimately disastrous crusade to transform post-communist Russia into 'the kind of Russia we want'”, or a society similar to the American one. But for Cohen, that was a purely messianic and unrealistic goal.

Cohen's critics have suggested several explanations for his praise of Putin: a desire to always go against the flow, ardent anti-Yeltsinism, or a rejection of “American imperialism” that makes him blind to the problems associated with its opponents. Some even suspect him of anti-Americanism. For his part, Cohen presents himself as a “political realist” and an American patriot whose concern is the security of the United States, which according to him has been consistently undermined by US policymakers and experts whose incompetence and “Putinophobic follies” have deprived the United States of “the best potential partner we had anywhere in the world to pursue our national security”.

This is not perhaps the most natural self-presentation for a leftist intellectual. However, it reflects the contradictory situation in which an “old-school leftist who has carried on the mental habits of decades of anti-anti-communism seamlessly into a new career of anti-anti-Putinism” can find himself. Indeed, Putin's Russia, “a country of corrupt crony capitalism […] and a repressive state that increasingly leans on a subservient church as its source of moral authority” can only “stand for everything a leftist should detest”. The “fellow travellers” of the 1930s managed to overlook the gulag because their dreams of the “radiant future” were associated with the USSR. There are no similar dreams in the present-day world: “Russia is not the vessel for their [former Soviet fellow travellers'] ideological fantasies, but merely a placeholder for their accumulated discontent”, writes Jonathan Chait.”

I value Cohen's calls for critical re-examination of US foreign policy as well as Russian history. However, this re-examination need not lead us to support an openly anti-democratic regime and identify its interests with the legitimate interests of the country it runs.

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The Age of Hobsbawm

07freedland-master495Jonathan Freedland at The New York Times:

In these lectures and reviews, he argues that the high culture that was once the basic diet of the European bourgeoisie is shriveling fast — either unknown to new generations or else swamped by today’s deluge of permanent, round-the-clock electronic entertainment, “the great simultaneous circus show of sound, shape, image, color, celebrity and spectacle that constitutes the contemporary cultural experience.” Addressing the Salzburg Festival, he cites as an example “the crisis in classical music, whose fossilized repertoire and aging public” mean that a once vital form is now reduced to a handful of great works repeated as if on a loop, performed in lavish but subsidized opera houses to a rich but diminishing audience. With a knack for the telling fact, he reports that the core public for live classical music in New York is estimated “at no more than some 20,000 people.”

Again and again, he mourns those features of the European cultural landscape that have been erased. One chapter is devoted to the disappearance of Mitteleuropa, its once ethnically mixed, plural cities now rendered monochromatically “mononational”; another laments the destruction of the place Jews made for themselves within German culture. The grief of that observation is personal. For Hobsbawm — though born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1917 — grew up in Austria and Germany. He was a schoolboy witness in Berlin the day Hitler was sworn in as chancellor. And yet, departure from Germany was not solely a relief. It was also a loss.

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UrlLaura Sims at The Quarterly Conversation:

A recluse is someone who “lives a solitary life and tends to avoid other people . . . often for religious meditation.” The novelist David Markson, famously reclusive in the last few decades of his life, would have scoffed at the latter part of that definition—unless you count literature as a religion, of course. In one of his notes to me from Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson, which recounts our seven-year correspondence and friendship, he brings up his “goddamn reclusiveness” himself, saying he “cannot explain” it, “but it’s in the last few books, I’m sure.” It certainly is—his books are full of narrators shut off from the world—either by choice or circumstance, or a little of both. The narrator of Reader’s Block, for instance, often remarks, “Nobody comes. Nobody calls,” perhaps because “Children depart, miscellaneous relationships wither. Friends move to distant places. Friends die.” But he also recalls that, “In fact Protagonist has any number of friends. Among the living and accessible,” and that he himself doesn’t know “why or even when it was that he commenced to fall out of touch.”

Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a nightmare—even after he’d said “I will will will see you when you’re here,” and committed to a date, time, and place, he would often cancel at the last minute, citing one or more of his myriad illnesses, his anxiety over the pending results of medical tests, or even inclement weather.

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Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love

1d952e3b-fa0a-477e-973f-cd86e026a506Roger Lewis at the Financial Times:

Philip Larkin was the greatest poet of the 20th century, his works an elegy for England and Englishness, a meditation on loneliness and loss. I salute James Booth for making this plain in his new book, for ever since the early 1990s the crude critical consensus has been that beneath the “monument” of Larkin’s reputation ran a sort of “sewer” that for some reason called his artistry into question.

Yet since when was it necessary to be a nice person if you wanted to be a creative genius? Wagner was horrible. Orson Welles was difficult. The controversy over Larkin’s apparent misogyny and Little Englandism took hold, however, and Booth does brilliantly well to remind us of the “quirky self-ironic euphoria and manifest enjoyment of the process of writing itself” that always characterised every Larkin sentence, whether in his verse, his letters, his reviews or his pair of novels. It is perhaps the sheer playfulness of Larkin’s high intelligence that the professors couldn’t tolerate. Booth, literary adviser to the Philip Larkin Society and a former colleague of the poet’s at Hull university, reminds us that this was a person of myriad facets – ribald, reactionary, wistful, astringent, reflective by turns.

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Future Footprints

Rob Nixon in The New York Times:

BookFor the first time in history, a sentient species, Homo sapiens, has become a force of such magnitude that our impacts are being written into the fossil record. We have decisively changed the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle and the rate of extinction. We have created ­new atomic isotopes and plastiglomerates that may persist for millions of years. We have built mega­cities that will leave a durable footprint long after they have vanished. We have altered the pH of the oceans and have moved so many life-forms around the globe — inadvertently and ­intentionally — that we are creating novel ecosystems everywhere. Since the late-18th-century industrialization that marks the Anthropocene’s beginnings, humans have ­shaken Earth’s life systems with a profundity that the paleontologist Anthony Barnosky has likened to an asteroid strike. The Anthropocene — the Human Age — provides Diane Ackerman with the subject for her 24th and most ambitious book. Ackerman has established herself over the past quarter of a century as one of our most adventurous, charismatic and engrossing public science writers. Since her 1990 breakout title, “A Natural History of the Senses,” she has demonstrated a rare versatility, a contagious curiosity and a gift for painting quick, memorable tableaus drawn from research across a panoply of disciplines. “The Human Age” displays all these alluring qualities, as Ackerman delves into fields as diverse as evolutionary robotics, urban design, nanotechnology, 3-D printing and biomimicry. The book simultaneously raises unanswered questions about the politics and ethics of the Anthropocene idea.

…We learn that at Stockholm’s Central ­Station engineers are harvesting the concentrated body heat from 250,000 daily commuters to warm a 13-story office building nearby. We learn how research into what the biologist Joshua Lederberg describes as “the menagerie of the body’s attendant microbes” is altering assumptions about the multispecies being that we habitually call the self. We hear about brain scientists measuring the evolutionary impact of the online life, not least on our Google-corroded memories. We hear how, as humans are precipitating the planet’s sixth extinction, we are also producing unheard-of synthetic “species.”

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Philosophy, science and expertise

Mark English in Scientia Salon:

ExpertiseLet me make a very simple — and, I hope, uncontroversial — point about expertise and authority before looking at some questions pertaining to the current (increasingly bitter) debate about the nature and status of philosophy and its relation to the sciences.

Expertise implies epistemic authority: the expert — by definition — speaks with authority within his or her area of expertise. If the expertise is recognized, the authority automatically follows and doesn’t have to be claimed or argued for.

But the word “expertise” normally applies only to reasonably narrow, clearly defined and recognized areas of knowledge, theoretical or practical. And general philosophy (encompassing all the traditional sub-disciplines) is just too broad and ill-defined for the word to apply in any natural or straightforward sense. Its meaning must be, as it were, stretched to fit.

There is even disagreement about what philosophy is about — or if it is about anything at all.

Some see it as the normative study of rationality. But it is simply not plausible in my view that philosophy (or any single discipline) could effectively encompass the entire realm of reason or rationality. Logic perhaps, but reason is a much broader concept.

Massimo Pigliucci prefers to see philosophy as being concerned with the exploration of conceptual as distinct from empirical space (the sciences being focused on the latter)[1]. But, again, conceptual space is just too vast an area to be subsumed by any one discipline. Besides, unconstrained by empirical (or mathematical) considerations, conceptual space is really not all that interesting. And of course, the sciences are just as much about model-building (i.e., exploring conceptual space) as they are about empirical evidence; and mathematics is pretty much all about exploring conceptual spaces of certain kinds.

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Can news literacy grow up?

Lindsay Beyerstein in the Columbia Journalism Review:

Newslit1In 2005, as Howard Schneider was developing a plan for Stony Brook University’s new journalism school, he taught a course called Ethics & Values of the American Press as a way to get to know the students. He was shocked to discover that about a third of his students believed everything they read—from The New York Times to People magazine—and judged it all to be equally credible. Another third reflexively rejected anything in the news as hopelessly biased. And the remaining third were confused and peppered him with questions, like, “Is Michael Moore a journalist?” and “Is Oprah a journalist when she interviews the survivors of Hurricane Katrina?”

“That class haunts me,” says Schneider, a former editor at Newsday. It also shaped his proposal for the new journalism school. At the time, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s 2000 treatise on the decline of civic engagement in America, had helped spur a national debate about the future of democracy and what our young people needed to be effective citizens. Schneider was convinced that a modern journalism school could no longer teach only journalism; it needed to reinvent itself as the purveyor of a core competency for the entire student body: the ability to be savvy and critical consumers of news and information.

He oversaw the creation of a 15-week “news-literacy” class, open to all students at Stony Brook, and a movement was born. In 2006, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation gave Stony Brook $1.7 million to enroll 10,000 students in the course—the university hit that mark this fall.

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