Government Under Review


Daniel E. Ho and Becky Elias examined whether peer review for public servants can make the law more consistent in Boston Review:

Like many good arguments, this one started over a stiff drink. An Earl Grey MarTEAni, to be precise.

In January 2010, Nathalie Louissaint, a New York City health inspector, visited Pegu Club, an upscale cocktail bar. She watched as the bartender mixed the signature tea-infused drink. Borrowing a technique from the nineteenth century, the bartender added raw egg whites, which give the drink a silky body and an alluring layer of foam. Louissaint decided that the raw egg warning on the menu was insufficient and cited the bar for a health code violation.

The citation outraged many. Paul Clarke, a Seattle-based food writer, was perplexed by the department’s rigid position on raw eggs, writing on the website Serious Eats, “Does this mean the health department will begin targeting restaurants that serve raw eggs in a Caesar salad?” Others decried the health department’s seeming mandate to use pasteurized eggs, but those, said Pegu Club owner Audrey Sanders, “impart this really funky wet-diaper nose.” One bartender, who insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisal, told the New York Times, “If they make it illegal to serve egg-white drinks, that would be Hurricane Katrina for us.” In response to the uproar, the health department overruled the inspector.

This confusion is no outlier. Nationwide, implementation of health codes varies dramatically across inspectors and health departments. In Seattle, two inspectors observed Caesar salad dressing prepared with raw (unpasteurized) eggs in the same restaurant, but disagreed about whether to cite a violation. Contrary to New York City health department guidelines, New York State’s website doesn’t mention menu warnings, instead admonishing, “Consider using commercially pasteurized eggs in recipes that use eggs or consider removing the item from your menu.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) document that 80 percent of restaurants nonetheless use unpasteurized eggs.

When it comes down to it, the marTEAni fight is not so much about eggs as it is an endemic challenge across government. From airport security checkpoints and routine traffic stops to home construction permits, citizens and government interact frequently through individual officials. At times, the decisions of these frontline government officials can seem disturbingly arbitrary.

More here.

Beyoncé: many things all at once


Carol Oja in the TLS:

In the two months since Lemonade’s release, it has provoked an extraordinary cultural critique, with articles ranging from besotted fandom to probing essays about its racial and feminist politics. In fact, the visual album is simultaneously clear-as-a-bell and obscure, even at times surreal. In the “Denial” section, for example, Beyoncé falls off a very tall building, then is submerged under water. She floats like a ghost over a bed, ultimately striding forth from a building that suggests a seat of power, and she does so amid yet another surge of water. The omnipresence of water conjures up the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which later moves to the foreground in “Formation”. The narrative ostensibly has an autobiographical thread, albeit with a celebrity tinge, with many critics claiming that it exposes Jay Z’s infidelity.

At a deeper level, Lemonade decries the history of oppression of African American women. “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman”, intones the sampled voice of Malcolm X after “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, the third song in the album.

Lemonade, then, is many things all at once: an extended feminist anthem with a Civil Rights inflection, performance art with an experimental edge, a revenue-generating media spectacle with high-flying aims. It juxtaposes the deep past with the vivid present, still photography with moving images, black-and-white with colour, African and Native American imagery with that of the American South, vandalism with tenderness. A startling twist is that Lemonade was released through Tidal, a streaming service owned by Jay Z and Beyoncé – the same Jay Z whom the work ostensibly exposes as an adulterer. As of mid-May,Lemonade had attracted 1.2 million new subscribers to Tidal.

Lemonade’s political intentions have been questioned: can ideological integrity coexist with big profits? Beyoncé “positively exploits images of black female bodies – placing them at the center, making them the norm”, asserts bell hooks, the African American feminist and social theorist. Yet, she concludes, “Ultimately Lemonade glamorizes a world of gendered cultural paradox and contradiction. It does not resolve”. “Glamour” certainly describes Lemonade, with Beyoncé singing, rapping, and dancing in magnificent gowns and artfully flowing hair. The women around her are also exquisitely turned out. “I’m so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress (stylin’)”, Beyoncé intones in “Formation”, which has frequently been called a “Black Power Anthem” in the press. She flips the bird there, with perfectly manicured nails and wrists laden with expensive silver jewelry.

More here.

Comics versus Art


Hillary Chute reviews Bart Beaty new book in Critical Inquiry:

The cultural legitimization of comics; it is a topic that I, a scholar of contemporary literature and visual culture who has focused on comics, find singularly boring. It can feel backwards looking, instead of forward thinking. I certainly note this issue constantly, a natural impulse, as I track the public discourse around anything that compels me, but I have found that today the question of how and if comics is legitimated is often the least interesting avenue of inquiry one could consider about the form. I am, however, fascinated by the question of what constitutes art, as a practice and as material iteration—and how the form of comics has presented a productive challenge, particularly in the post WWII period, to conceptions of art and literature, and how and where they meet. Bart Beaty’s Comics versus Art, with its polemical title and 1978 Gary Panter illustration of a cape and beret-sporting superhero on the cover, appears a welcome and exciting contribution; finally someone, I thought, will wade right into these murky waters for the length of entire monograph, unfolding connections and possibilities; the title must just be a hook. Beaty, an English professor at Toronto who published the excellent studies Frederic Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture (2005) and Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s(2007), among others, has also translated some of the most sophisticated French scholarship on comics by Thierry Groensteen and Thierry Smolderen.

But the simplicity of the title is the real critical framework here. Beaty “interrogates the specific historical and social processes that have led to the devaluation of comics as a cultural form and takes note of the recent rise to art world prominence of (certain kinds of) comics. . . . In an increasingly postmodern world in which the distinction between high and low culture is often assumed to have been eroded, outmoded biases continue to persist” (p. 7). Beaty argues throughout, predictably, that the art world hasn’t accepted comics on its own terms, yet. Specifically, Beaty is interested in analyzing comics from a sociological perspective as its own “distinct art world” and network. Inspired by Howard Saul Becker’s 1982 Art Worlds (along with Pierre Bourdieu and a smattering of Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory ofressentiment), he disputes what he suggests are formalist definitions of comics that ignore the “comics world” and its relation to cultural value.

More here.

the philosophy of ugliness

P1_Ground1Ian Ground at the Times Literary Supplement:

Central to what is known as the “paradox of the ugly” is that ugliness does not just repel but also invites fascination and (prima facie at least) aesthetic appreciation. Thus the blobfish, the no doubt proud recipient of the ugliest animal award, the goblin shark and the naked mole rat hold – and in an as yet unexplained sense, reward – our attention. Deformity and injury – for all the moral problems that swirl around our reactions – excite a morbid fas­cination. And, of course, countless artworks and traditions have long enlisted negative responses to the revolting, disgusting, horrific and abject in pursuit of their positive goals.

Three strategies can go some way to sidestepping the sense of paradox. First, we may say that the paradox arises because of a failure to distinguish between the aesthetically and the artistically valuable. The ugly may be put to beautiful artistic purpose. But in such cases it could be that the aesthetically bad may be artistically good. For example, it would be intelligible to say of Francis Bacon’s “Screaming Pope” that the painting is insufficiently ugly. The ugly may be beautifully represented by the artist.

Second, we may say that the ugly is the vehicle for the appreciation of certain thoughts and feelings that could not otherwise be expressed. It might be the vehicle for cognitive value, for instance, in the traditional artistic duty of holding up a mirror to its audience. Third, we may say that the delight we take in the ugly is a parasitic response to the norm.

more here.

On Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Long Road of Sand”

4400202_killing-of-italian-director-pier-paolo-pasolini_89cc7501_mAra H. Merjian at Bookforum:

Setting out in his Fiat 1100 from the Ligurian coast in June of 1959, Pier Paolo Pasolini spent the next couple months wending his way around Italy’s seemingly endless shoreline, arriving—at summer’s end—in the northeastern seaport of Trieste, not far from the Slovenian border. Commissioned by the magazine Successo, Pasolini’s spirited travelogue appeared in successive issues, illustrated with shots by the photographer Paolo di Paolo of chaises longues and beachside cafés, the holiday jet-set and throngs of teenagers clad in swimwear. Expertly translated by Stephen Sartarelli (whose renderings of Pasolini’s poetry came out from University of Chicago Press in 2014), this handsome English-language edition of Pasolini’s features photographs by Philippe Séclier, who retraced Pasolini’s journey, taking images that provide striking counterpoints to the text and update di Paolo’s repertoire in a more personal, intimate vernacular.

A notoriously heretical Marxist and sworn enemy of modernity, Pasolini calls to mind anything but the bourgeois trappings of “success.” His verse, cinema, journalism, and theater waged, in fact, tireless opposition against Italy’s neo-capitalist transformation, in nearly every medium imaginable. Yet here, just as the country’s post-war “economic miracle” picks up steam, we find Pasolini waxing enthusiastic about its future, reveling in those countless pockets of dialect and regional culture that still marked the peninsula’s coast, from sprawling resort towns to tiny fishing villages.

more here.

thinking about postcapitalism

4168CHYVRPLOwen Hatherley at The London Review of Books:

The point Mason reiterates again and again is that in the struggle between postcapitalism and its alleged neoliberal enemies, ‘everything is pervaded by a fight between network and hierarchy.’ This is perhaps the issue on which he differs most from Srnicek and Williams. The first part of Inventing the Future mounts a critique of local, self-organised, non-hierarchical politics. Srnicek and Williams prefer to call it ‘folk politics’, though it seems as deeply enmeshed in the internet and its social networks as the futurism they advocate; more so, in fact. The participants in folk politics, like Mason’s young networked individuals, prefer ‘the everyday over the structural … feeling over thinking’. Their exponents can be found in Occupy, 15M in Spain, the Zapatistas and most forms of politics predicated on direct action: immediacy is all. In folk politics, ‘the importance of tactics and process is placed above strategic objectives,’ so that the mode of communication – whether the face-to-face deliberations in a protest camp or the use of social media to organise – becomes a fetish, and political content secondary. So far as Srnicek and Williams are concerned, the idea of being the change you want to see in the world practically guarantees that change won’t take place.

Why does folk politics apparently thrive in the networked world of contemporary protest? Because, they claim, it creates a warm glow, a sense that you are indeed ‘doing something’, reinforced when a minor battle is actually won: ‘Small successes – useful, no doubt, for instilling a sense of hope – nevertheless wither in the face of overwhelming losses.’ The ‘key challenge facing the left today,’ they write, ‘is to reckon with the disappointments and failures of the most recent cycle of struggles.’

more here.

Trump & Me by Mark Singer: ‘an extremely funny profile’

Stephen Robinson in The Telegraph:

TrumpThis is a journalist’s account of the ordeal of spending time with Donald Trump, and it is often very funny indeed, for it turns out that Trump’s elaborately sculpted hairweave is by no means the weirdest thing about him. Like any true narcissist and mountebank, Trump often talks of himself in the third person, and like some very rich men, he views women as commodities to be traded when marital sentiment turns bearish. When Singer asks him if he confides in anyone during moments of tribulation, he replies: “Nobody, it’s just not my thing.” So then what, Singer asks, is Trump’s notion of ideal company – well, comes the reply, “a total piece of ass”. Now on the campaign trail, he demands a high wall be built along the southern border with Mexico, and showily suggests that Muslims be banned from the United States until he has got the Islamist terror thing sorted out. Despite the hand-wringing of the Republican establishment, these are not “gaffes”, for they do not reveal a concealed truth; nor are they evidence of a blunt political outsider speaking truth to Washington elites. They are just cynical little morsels tossed into the crowd of angry American men (mostly) who are fed up with stagnant wages and immigrants. Trump lies so brazenly and routinely that one former New York political figure declared he would not trust a word he said even “if his tongue were notarised”. The man who presents himself as a self-made tycoon in fact inherited a multi-million-dollar New York real estate fortune from his father. The self-styled tough guy was not drafted for the Vietnam war because of a “heel spur”, although this did not give Trump pause when he questioned the valour of Senator John McCain, who was held prisoner for five years by the North Vietnamese.

…There is a type of liberal, conventional American who will tell you how it is “real scary” that Trump could one day be president. That will not happen, of course, as they know perfectly well: the Trump campaign is already showing signs of unravelling, and it is not impossible that the party elders will strike to kill him off at the convention in Cleveland next month. But anyway, it isn't feasible to run for the White House against American women, Hispanics, Muslims and gays. As a Republican presidential contender you can afford one or two useful enemies, but not the whole gamut, because then the numbers simply don’t work. Trump’s campaign is now failing because, as Singer notes, he has “no core beliefs, no describable political philosophy, and not an iota of curiosity about the practicalities of policy or governance”. Ultimately, you almost feel sorry for the man, with his “suspicion that an interior life was an intolerable burden” and his germophobe’s terror of shaking hands with the great unwashed he claims to represent.

More here.

The Laws of Mixed Reality — without the rose-colored glasses

John Rousseau in KurzweilAI:

Matrix-RevolutionsThe future of human consciousness will be a hybrid affair. We will live and work in a ubiquitous computing environment, where physical reality and a pervasive digital layer mix seamlessly according to the logic of software and the richness of highly contextual data. This is mixed reality (MR) — and it will soon simply be reality: projected onto our mind’s eye, always on, always connected, and deeply personalized. It will be delivered first through a head-mounted display, and ultimately embedded in our perception via subtler inputs. The resulting human network will be a massive, dynamic system capable of generating enormous value for humankind, as we embrace our cyborg future and the superpowers it enables. We’re not there yet, though this vision is far from science fiction. Today’s MR/VR products are somewhat clunky in terms of hardware, awkward in terms of user experience, and constrained by practical performance issues and limited content. However, these are temporary limitations that will be solved in time — and probably more quickly than we expect. Future hardware will be capable of rendering high-resolution digital content that blends seamlessly with our environment, and devices will be small enough to wear all the time. The complex UX challenges will be resolved, and new interaction models will emerge along with a new computing paradigm. And eventually, the infrastructure, bandwidth, content, and connectivity will be in place to support a fully integrated experience.

…There is a clear risk that the types of behaviors we notice now — being “in your phone” rather than in the world — will be exacerbated by mixed reality. Future digital experiences need to counter this tendency and improve our ability to be present for ourselves and others, and help users balance complex streams of information, notifications, and stimuli within a holistic experience. There is an opportunity to counter the addictive aspects of technology (FOMO — fear of missing out) that impair our ability to focus, lead to increasingly short attention spans, and lessen human productivity and potential.

More here.

Friday Poem

A Color of the Sky

Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,

driving over the hills from work.

There are the dark parts on the road

when you pass through clumps of wood

and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,

but that doesn’t make the road an allegory.

I should call Marie and apologize

for being so boring at dinner last night,

but can I really promise not to be that way again?

And anyway, I’d rather watch the trees, tossing

in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.

Otherwise it’s spring, and everything looks frail;

the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves

are full of infant chlorophyll,

the very tint of inexperience.

Last summer’s song is making a comeback on the radio,

and on the highway overpass,

the only metaphysical vandal in America has written


in big black spraypaint letters,

which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.

Last night I dreamed of X again.

She’s like a stain on my subconscious sheets.

Years ago she penetrated me

but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,

I never got her out,

but now I’m glad.

What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.

What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.

What I thought was an injustice

turned out to be a color of the sky.

Outside the youth center, between the liquor store

and the police station,

a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;

overflowing with blossomfoam,

like a sudsy mug of beer;

like a bride ripping off her clothes,

dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,

so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.

It’s been doing that all week:

making beauty,

and throwing it away,

and making more.


by Tony Hoagland

from What Narcissism Means to Me

Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota