Sunday Poem

Doce Mel

we were hot and thirsty
so we went into a tiny place to get an agua com gás Poems from Brazil with title
the place was called
Doce Mel
the woman who served us was tiny
and she wore a kind of turban hat

before we left we noticed they had
pudim and suco de açai
so we planned to come back after climbing the 1000 steps

when we came back
the tiny woman with the turban hat
greeted us like
long lost old friends
we had pudim
it was the best we’d ever tasted
we had a pitcher of açai juice
oh how we missed açai
we asked her about the other cakes in the display case
when she said, “aipim bolo com coco
Julie nodded
so she brought us a piece
it was the best we’d ever tasted

I wanted to let her know how happy she’d made us
I wanted to tell her what a special place she made in this world
but we just smiled
and thanked her and left

by Robert Markey
from Poems from Brazil


doce mel: sweet honey
agua com gás: carbonated water
pudim: pudding
suco de açai: açai juice
aipim bolo com coco:
cassava cake with coconut

Barack Obama: his most important racial justice speech

Brittney Cooper in Salon:

Barack_obama26-620x412President Obama gave an unprecedented speech focused exclusively on the social plight of Black women and girls at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual weekend of events. This speech represents a moment of triumph for intersectional politics, a term Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw invented to describe the ways that racism, sexism and classism work in interlocking fashion to make Black and other women of color invisible in the broader body politic. But Black feminists have also argued for several decades now that placing Black women at the center of political discourses about race and gender would have a positive effect on every marginalized group. Addressing the disproportionate poverty Black women face necessarily helps other women who struggle with poverty. Combating racism helps all people of color and not just Black women. And dealing with the war on women and its effects on Black women automatically improves the condition of other races of women.

As the president noted, Black women’s work “to expand civil rights opened the doors of opportunity, not just for African-Americans, but for all women, for all of us – black and white, Latino and Asian, LGBT and straight, for our First Americans and our newest Americans.” Using Black women’s narratives to highlight the struggles of other groups of marginalized Americans in the extensive way that Obama did on Saturday simply has never been done before in American public life.

More here. (Note: At least one post will be dedicated to honor Black History Month throughout February)

Pierre Boulez’s path to total purity

Ivan Hewett in Prospect:

The death in January of Pierre Boulez at the age of 90 robbed the musical world of a great conductor, a brilliant polemicist and an agitator for musical modernism. He was also a charismatic and intransigent human being—charming and generous to those who shared his vision, but prepared to thwart those who did not.

That much is certain about Boulez. But there is also his other role, the one he would surely like to be remembered by: as a composer. Here the situation is less certain. His music was a part of his grand project to yoke all of contemporary music to the modernist ethos. He would lead the way, through his activities as conductor of major orchestras, head of a research institute and as a composer—and he fully expected the other Young Turks of post-war modernism like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio to march in step with him. Certainty had dissolved, the old hierarchies had crumbled and everyone had to work out their own salvation. According to Boulez, to adopt the musical grammar and manners of the past was reprehensible escapism.

If Boulez was right, then reprehensible escapism is now the condition of both classical and pop music. The past has never been more in vogue. “Will pop eat itself?” is a question often asked, as old pop albums haunt the charts and younger bands echo their elders. The outpouring of grief over David Bowie’s death is surely bound up with this sense that pop’s great days are behind it. The question could be asked about film music too, where the gestures of the genre’s golden age come round again and again. And it could be asked about classical music, where to be obsessed with the past, and to weave references to it into one’s own music, is almost de rigueur.

Some of this could justly be described as escapism. But not every reference to the past is reprehensible. On the contrary, it could be said that without some coherent connection to the past, artistic expression becomes impossible. The great exemplars of modernism, from TS Eliot to James Joyce to Arnold Schoenberg, were in love with the traditions they rebelled against. They proved time and again that a work of art can only join the tradition by reworking it from within. Simply mimicking the surface gestures of a great work leads to stale pastiche.

This would seem to make Boulez’s stance a simple misunderstanding.

More here.

Really Good at Killing


Thomas Nagel reviews Scott Shane's Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President and the Rise of the Drone, in the LRB:

Pacifists are rare. Most people believe that lethal violence may be used in self-defence, or the defence of others, against potentially lethal threats. Military action is justified by a collective institutional version of this basic human right, which sets an outer limit on the right to life. Lethal aggressors who cannot be stopped by lesser means are liable to lethal attack, and this does not violate their right to life so long as they remain a threat. Killing in self-defence is distinct from execution, the killing of someone who is no longer a threat as a punishment for past conduct. It is also usually distinct from assassination, which can be carried out for a wide range of reasons: revenge, political or religious hatred, nationalistic passion and so forth – though occasionally someone who is a lethal threat to the assassin or his community may be targeted.

The development of drone warfare has put these distinctions under strain, and that helps to explain the visceral reaction many people have against it, in spite of its being much less destructive than more traditional forms of military violence. Drones, or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), are more selective in the killing of enemies, produce less collateral damage to non-combatants and impose no physical risk to those who pilot them, since they are sitting in a control station thousands of miles away. Who could ask for more?

In Objective Troy, Scott Shane explains why Barack Obama, when he became president, favoured drone warfare as his chief anti-terrorism tactic over the conventional wars of his predecessor:

The number of al-Qaida plotters whose aim was to attack Americans was in the hundreds. Yet several hundred thousand Iraqis and Afghans, and some four thousand American troops, had died in the two big wars since 2001 … The drone, it seemed, if used judiciously, offered a way to scale the solution to the problem, picking off America’s real enemies one by one.

‘Let’s kill the people who are trying to kill us,’ Obama would say.

More here.

Read Harper Lee’s Essay for Vogue, “Love—In Other Words”


Julia Felsenthal reproduces Harper Lee in Vogue:

Many years ago an aging member of the House of Hanover, on learning that the duty of providing an heir to the throne of England had suddenly befallen him and his brothers, confided his alarm to his friend Thomas Creevey: “ . . . It is now seven-and-twenty years that Madame St. Laurent and I have lived together; we are of the same age and have been in all climates, and in all difficulties together, and you may well imagine the pang it will occasion me to part with her . . . . I protest I don’t know what is to become of her if a marriage is to be forced upon me . . . .”

Amused by the Duke of Kent’s predicament. Mr. Creevey recorded the incident in his diary and preserved for us a timeless declaration. The man who made it was not overly endowed with brilliance, nor had he led a noteworthy life, yet we remember his cry from the heart and tend to forget his ultimate service to mankind: He was the father of Queen Victoria.

What did the Duke of Kent tell us? That two people had shared their lives on a voluntary basis for nearly thirty years—in itself a remarkable achievement; that they had survived the fevers and frets of intimate relationship; that together they had met the pressures and disappointments of life; that he is in agony at the prospect of leaving her. In one graceful sentence, the Duke of Kent said all there is to say about the love of a man for a woman.

And in so saying, he tells us much about love itself. There is only one kind of love—love. But the different manifestations of love are uncountable:

At an unfamiliar night noise a mother will spring from bed, not to return until every corner of her domain is tucked safely round her anxiety. A man will look up from his golf game to watch a jet cut caterpillar tracks through the sky. A housewife, before driving to town, will give her neighbour a quick call to see if she wants anything from the store. These are manifestations of a power within us that must of necessity be called divine, for it is no invention of man.

What is love? Many things are like love—indeed, love is present in pity, compassion, romance, affection. What made the Duke of Kent’s statement a declaration of love, and what makes us perform without second thought small acts of love every day of our lives, is an element conspicuous by its absence. Were it present, the Duke of Kent would have left his mistress without a pang; the sound barrier breaking over her head would not rouse the mother; sinking his putt would be the primary aim of the golfer; the housewife would go straight to the store with no thought of her neighbour. One thing identifies love and isolates it from kindred emotions: Love admits not of self.

More here.

All about the ego tunnel


Richard Marshall interviews Thomas K. Metzinger over at 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: You’re interested in the philosophy of consciousness and the self.

TM: Yes, it is true that I have had a long-standing interest in consciousness. In 1994 I founded the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness together with Bernard Baars, the late William Banks, George Buckner, David Chalmers, Stanley Klein, Bruce Mangan, David Rosenthal, and Patrick Wilken. I hung around in the Executive Committee and various committees of the ASSC for much too long, even acted as president in 2010, but a couple of thousand e-mails and 19 conferences later it is satisfying to see how a bunch of idealists actually managed to create an established research community out of the blue. The consciousness community is now running perfectly, it has anew journal, brilliant young people are joining it all the time and my personal prediction is that we will have isolated the global neural correlate of consciousness by 2050. I also tried to support the overall process by editing two collections, one for philosophers and one of an interdisciplinary kind: Conscious Experience (1995, Imprint Academic) and Neural Correlates of Consciousness (2000, MIT Press)

In the beginning of the ASSC, foundational conceptual work by philosophers was very important, followed by a phase in which the neuroscientists moved in with their own research programs and contributions. Observing the field for more than a quarter century now, my impression is that what we increasingly need is not so much gifted young philosophers who are empirically informed in neuroscience or psychology, but more junior researchers who can combine philosophical metatheory with a solid training in mathematics. The first formal models of conscious experience have already appeared on the horizon, and as we incrementally move forward towards the first unified model of subjective experience there are challenges on the conceptual frontier that can only be met by researchers who understand the mathematics. We now need open minded young philosophers of mind who can see through the competing formal models in order to extract what is conceptually problematic – and what is really relevant from a philosophical perspective.

In the early Sixties it was Hilary Putnam who, in a short series of seminal papers, took Turing’s inspiration and transposed concepts from the mathematical theory of automata – for example the idea that a system’s “psychology” would be given by the machine table it physically realizes – into analytical philosophy of mind, laying the foundations for the explosive development of early functionalism and classical cognitive science. One major criticism was that some mysterious and simple “intrinsic” qualities of phenomenal experience exist (people at the time called them “qualia”) and that they couldn’t be dissolved into a network of relational properties. The idea was that there are irreducible and context-invariant phenomenal atoms, subjective universals in the sense of Clarence Irving Lewis (1929:121-131), that is, maximally simple forms of conscious content, for which introspectively we possess transtemporal identity criteria. But the claim was shown to be empirically false and nobody could really say what “intrinsicality” actually was.

More here.

‘War Music,’ by Christopher Logue

0228-BKS-Brown-blog427Jeffrey Brown at The New York Times:

In a Paris Review interview in 1993, Logue did not have good things to say about Lattimore and other “professors” who had taken up Homer. “They are the translation police,” he said. “It is easy to see why: It keeps Homer in their hands.” Perhaps the Uzi was excessively warm against Logue’s hip that day, for this is far too harsh. He had his own “professor,” after all, in Carne-Ross, who provided word-for-word translation, a “crib,” as needed. As for the rest of us, we who lack the language — and I lost my ability to read Greek at Homeric level long ago — we rely on the professors. We choose our favorites and set aside others. Mine was Robert Fitzgerald. Many years later, I still grasp Zeus by the knees and ask that he bless the translators.

And Christopher Logue, among them, bless him highly, Zeus. We can judge a translation or an “account” (the word Logue preferred) by its own intent and then by its impact on us as readers. How does poetry move from one language to another? Count the ways: Through the precise meaning of the words, the truth of the story. Through the sound or music of the language. What about other, mistier qualities — a poem’s “feel,” the “strangeness” it once had for its readers in the original? In his introduction to the popular “Iliad” translation by Robert Fagles, the classicist Bernard Knox writes that the language of Homer was “brimful of archaisms — of vocabulary, syntax and grammar — and of incongruities: words and forms drawn from different dialects and different stages of the growth of the language.” Homer, that is, was strange from the beginning, wonderfully, heroically strange. And Logue, in turn, is wonderfully, Homerically strange.

more here.


Body-nettelWalter Biggins at The Quarterly Conversation:

Most of us don’t know much, even into our thirties and forties. In our teens, though, the ratio of what we don’t know vs. what we think we know hovers somewhere around 100 to 1. Adulthood is largely about closing that gap, doing so by learning how to think beyond our immediate experiences, and to empathize with unfamiliar people.

Part of what makes Guadalupe Nettel’s The Body Where I Was Born work so well is that, though it’s so autobiographical in nature that its protagonist has the same lazy eye that’s apparent in Nettel’s author photo, the Mexican writer treats herself as a stranger. Nettel’s life seems alien to herself as she tries to recall it accurately, and to convey it diligently to otherss. To a large degree, it’s a novel precisely about this alienness, and the emotional wooziness that can cause. The Body Where I Was Born is then a novel rooted in, but wary of, the memoir form.

That’s true to life. We’ve all looked back at our childhoods and wondered, “Who the hell wasthat guy?” Those of us who have gone through therapy realize how much we bury our past selves, and how those parts can claw back to the surface in discomforting, confusing ways. In order to see our past selves in our present lives, counseling helps us to see our thoughts and actions from the outside.

more here.

‘Some Rain Must Fall’, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

535b686b-2e5a-4820-bc1d-167ff04f1dbbLaurence Scott at The Financial Times:

In a recent interview, the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard said that “a [romantic] relationship is based on lies and lies and lies . . . If you don’t lie it collapses.” His relationship with his readers, on the surface at least, depends on an opposite pact: that he will lie about nothing.

Knausgaard’s intensely autobiographical six-novel cycle, My Struggle, has become a literary monument to the aesthetic value of tactlessness. Across its thousands of pages he explores his feelings towards his loved ones with brutal candour. This commitment to the truth not only challenges the mutual illusions of family life, but also deprives his prose of the traditional novel’s formal excitements: narrative pace, suspense, symbolism. Most of our days are not, in reality, the stuff of page-turners. His characters walk around nude, stripped of all their novelistic vestments; their only meaning comes from the fact that Knausgaard has experienced them. And yet, the charisma of these books, a combination of critical acclaim, commercial success and the strange brilliance of their form, has made being hypnotised by their extensive descriptions of ordinary Norwegian life a sort of cultural obligation.

more here.

Saturday Poem

Can Poetry Matter?

Heart feels the time has come to compose lyric poetry.
No more storytelling for him. Oh, Moon, Heart writes,
sad wafer of the heart’s distress. And then: Oh, Moon,
bright cracker of the heart’s pleasure. Which is it,
is the moon happy or sad, cracker or wafer? He looks
from the window but the night is overcast. Oh, Cloud,
he writes, moody veil of the Moon’s distress. And then,
Oh, Cloud, sweet scarf of the Moon’s repose. Once more
Heart asks, Are clouds kindly or a bother, is the moon sad
or at rest? He calls scientists who tell him that the moon
is a dead piece of rock. He calls astrologers. One says
the moon means water. Another that it signifies oblivion.
The girl next door says the Moon means love. The nut
up the block says it proves that Satan has us under his thumb.
Heart goes back to his notebooks. Oh, Moon, he writes,
confusing orb meaning one thing or another. Heart feels
that his words lack conviction. Then he hits on a solution.
Oh, Moon, immense hyena of introverted motorboat.
Oh, Moon, upside down lamppost of barbershop quartet.
Heart takes his lines to a critic who tells him that the poet
is recounting a time as a toddler when he saw his father
kissing the baby-sitter at the family’s cottage on a lake.
Obviously, the poem explains the poet’s fear of water.
Heart is ecstatic. He rushes home to continue writing.
Oh, Cloud, raccoon cadaver of colored crayon, angel spittle
recast as foggy euphoria. Heart is swept up by the passion
of composition. Freed from the responsibility of content,
no nuance of nonsense can be denied him. Soon his poems
appear everywhere, while the critic writes essays elucidating
Heart’s meaning. Jointly they form a sausage factory of poetry:
Heart supplying the pig snouts and rectal tissue of language
which the critic encloses in a thin membrane of explication.
Lyric poetry means teamwork, thinks Heart: a hog farm,
corn field, and two old dobbins pulling a buckboard of song.

by Steven Dobyns
from Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides
Penguin Books, 1999)

The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition

Ira Berlin in The New York Times:

BookWithout question, the most important liberation movement in American ­history — from Jacksonian democracy to gay rights — was the long struggle against slavery. Abolition established the principles and rhetoric, while setting the strategies and tactics, that have guided all subsequent reform movements — even those that have stood opposed to one another like prohibitionism and antiprohibitionism, or pro- and anti-abortion rights. Recently, historians have been taking a new look at the struggle against slavery as a way of examining contemporary movements for securing human rights, expanding democracy, liberating colonials and criticizing capitalism. Manisha Sinha, a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is one of those historians who are trying to connect the war against slavery to other liberation movements. She is the author of previous studies of slaveholders and their ideologies. In “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition,” she turns her attention from the slave masters to their greatest opponents, and her new book is an encyclopedic survey of the movement against slavery in the United States from its first stirrings before the American Revolution to the institution’s final demise in the ashes of civil war. It is difficult to imagine a more comprehensive history of the abolitionist movement.

Sinha’s work is also a biographical dictionary, naming practically every individual and group that struck a blow against slavery. She tells us that “The Slave’s Cause” can best be appreciated as an interpretation of abolition’s long history, though the seemingly endless detail presented over the course of nearly 600 pages of text and another 100-plus pages of notes frustrates her effort to present a clear alternative narrative to the familiar one.

More here. (Note: At least one post will be dedicated to honor Black History Month throughout February)

Academic Drivel Report: Confessing my sins and exposing my academic hoax

Peter Dreier in American Prospect:

QualitydrivelasideI don’t know if there is a statute of limitations on confessing one’s sins, but it has been six years since I did the deed and I’m now coming clean.

Six years ago I submitted a paper for a panel, “On the Absence of Absences” that was to be part of an academic conference later that year—in August 2010. Then, and now, I had no idea what the phrase “absence of absences” meant. The description provided by the panel organizers, printed below, did not help. The summary, or abstract of the proposed paper—was pure gibberish, as you can see below. I tried, as best I could within the limits of my own vocabulary, to write something that had many big words but which made no sense whatsoever. I not only wanted to see if I could fool the panel organizers and get my paper accepted, I also wanted to pull the curtain on the absurd pretentions of some segments of academic life. To my astonishment, the two panel organizers—both American sociologists—accepted my proposal and invited me to join them at the annual international conference of the Society for Social Studies of Science to be held that year in Tokyo.

I am not the first academic to engage in this kind of hoax. In 1996, in a well-known incident, NYU physicist Alan Sokal pulled the wool over the eyes of the editors of Social Text, a postmodern cultural studies journal. He submitted an article filled with gobbledygook to see if they would, in his words, “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions.” His article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” (published in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue), shorn of its intentionally outrageous jargon, essentially made the claim that gravity was in the mind of the beholder.

More here.