Article-2070026-0F0DC67B00000578-919_233x496Lucy Lethbridge at Literary Review:

Of all the books published on Austen this year, the most satisfying – perhaps because it has a succinctness and a refreshing absence of great claims that Austen herself would have appreciated – is Fiona Stafford’s Jane Austen: A Brief Life (Yale University Press 184pp £8.99). It is beautifully written and covers the familiar biographical territory, but it is Stafford’s intelligent discussion of the novels that makes this book stand out. She doesn’t say anything particularly new but she writes with such clarity and perceptiveness that the familiar seems fresh. She is particularly good on the delights and the pitfalls of eloquence. Austen’s default position is humour, capturing the seriousness of the world through the human comedy of its participants. Like Byrne, Stafford draws our attention to the fact that Austen’s novels reveal a deeper truth: that the workings of the heart cannot be more than partially revealed through words. For this most witty of novelists, it might be called the problem of eloquence: how powerful emotion is most powerfully expressed through inarticulacy. When Darcy is berated for not expressing feelings, he can only say, ‘A man who had felt less might’; Mr Knightley tells Emma, ‘If I loved you less I might be able to talk about it more.’ In Persuasion, there is a scene in the White Hart Inn in which every character is engaged in a conversation that carries resonances for Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, though neither of them exchanges a word. It is, writes Stafford, ‘perhaps the most powerful emotional moment in the whole oeuvre’.

more here.

A tale of unlikeable women

Sarah Tinsley in The F Word:

Flesh-of-the-peach-e1500485033954This book starts with a lovely little note: “To all the unlikeable women in fiction and outwith it.” Despite having to look up “outwith”, which I discovered is a Scottish word meaning “outside” or “beyond”, I liked this sentence immediately. The lack of women in literature of any kind is woeful, but it’s just as important to have the ones we despise as those we admire. Too often, prominent women are held up as some sort of beacon for the whole of womankind (often because they’re one of the few out there), or characters are expected to be inspiring role models. The fact is, more women are needed, full stop. And why not the ‘difficult’ ones? Human experience encompasses everything from the divine to the terrible, and we’ve certainly had enough despicable men. From Gatsby to Holden Caulfield, they leer over the literary landscape with their entitled breaths falling on the reader and charming them into believing them somehow flawed or fallible, rather than the downright misogynist bastards they actually are. So it’s about time someone redressed the balance. In Flesh of the Peach, Helen McClory gives us plenty of opportunity to find fault with women. From an alcoholic and abusive aunt, to a distant and indifferent mother, never mind the vain, narcissistic fuck-up that is the main character, we are presented with unapologetically awful people, who just happen to be women. Hurrah.

Sarah is living in New York, having just been dumped by her married lover, Kennedy. If that wasn’t enough emotional trauma for one week, she’s also just found out her mother has died. She’s faced with a choice – to return to the family home in Cornwall to attend the funeral and sort out her mother’s affairs, or to flee across the wilds of the US to the isolated cabin her mother used to escape to in New Mexico. She chooses the latter. She meanders for miles on a Greyhound bus, the knowledge of her newly gained riches from her mother and the pit of unacknowledged grief sitting underneath her. This sense of limbo, where she is waiting for money (the ways she imagines spending it are a highlight of the book) and deciding what to do next, makes the novel fluid and drifting. Once she’s arrived, her journey to some sort of acceptance is far from straightforward, with the locals subjected to her increasingly erratic behaviour as her inner turmoil grows.

An interesting feature of this book is the depiction of Sarah’s sexual relationships. It appears that she genuinely cared for the woman who dumped her when her husband found out about their affair, and there is much emotional softness in relation to her memories of this relationship.

More here.


Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair:

Department-of-energy-0917-01On the morning after the election, November 9, 2016, the people who ran the U.S. Department of Energy turned up in their offices and waited. They had cleared 30 desks and freed up 30 parking spaces. They didn’t know exactly how many people they’d host that day, but whoever won the election would surely be sending a small army into the Department of Energy, and every other federal agency. The morning after he was elected president, eight years earlier, Obama had sent between 30 and 40 people into the Department of Energy. The Department of Energy staff planned to deliver the same talks from the same five-inch-thick three-ring binders, with the Department of Energy seal on them, to the Trump people as they would have given to the Clinton people. “Nothing had to be changed,” said one former Department of Energy staffer. “They’d be done always with the intention that, either party wins, nothing changes.”

By afternoon the silence was deafening. “Day 1, we’re ready to go,” says a former senior White House official. “Day 2 it was ‘Maybe they’ll call us?’ ”

Teams were going around, ‘Have you heard from them?’ ” recalls another staffer who had prepared for the transition. “ ‘Have you gotten anything? I haven’t got anything.’ ”

“The election happened,” remembers Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, then deputy secretary of the D.O.E. “And he won. And then there was radio silence. We were prepared for the next day. And nothing happened.” Across the federal government the Trump people weren’t anywhere to be found. Allegedly, between the election and the inauguration not a single Trump representative set foot inside the Department of Agriculture, for example.

More here. [Thanks to Gerald Dworkin.]

Trump and the Trumpists


Wolfgang Streeck in Inference:

STRANGE PERSONALITIES arise in the cracks of disintegrating institutions. They are often marked by extravagant dress, inflated rhetoric, and a show of sexual power. The first Trumper of the postwar era was the Danish tax rebel, Mogens Glistrup, the founder of the nationalist Progress Party, who, having put his principles into practice, went to prison for tax evasion. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Boris Johnson in England are hairstyle Trumpers. Pim Fortuyn and Jörg Haider were both dandies. They died in their finery. Beppe Grillo, Nigel Farage, and Jean-Marie Le Pen, are each one third of a full Trump.

Trumpers generate their populist charisma among Trumpists by defying convention; they appear extraordinary to those who are intimidated but not impressed by society’s machinery of social control.1 With hindsight, it seems as though the capitalist democracies have been waiting for their Trumpers, men and women eager to liberate public speech from its commitment to the unbelievable. Donald Trump’s promise to make America great again is an acknowledgement that the United States is a power in decline, embarrassingly unable since Vietnam to win, or even to finish, any of the wars that it started. When Trumpers ask about NATO, they are asking why NATO should continue to exist a quarter century after the end of the Soviet Union. Calls for economic protectionism raise the question, long taboo among liberal internationalists, of whether new free trade agreements are really to everyone’s benefit, and why, in particular, the government of the United States should have let its country deindustrialize. The United States has an elaborate immigration policy, and yet there are eleven million illegal immigrants in its territory. Trumpers say this is odd, and Trumpists agree with them.

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx recounted the coup d’état of 1851 by which the nephew of Napoleon I, Louis Bonaparte, seized power, ruling France first as its president, and a year later as its emperor. He governed as Napoleon III until 1871, when the Prussian army under Helmuth von Moltke put an end to his administration, along with his amour-propre. Marx described Bonapartism as a popular form of government by personal rule. It arose, he argued, in stalemated European societies, with the capitalist class too divided, and the working class too disorganized, to instruct or inform the government. The result was a degree of relative state autonomy, one expressing, even as it masked, a deadlock between social classes.

Bonapartist politics is driven by the idiosyncrasies of its Bonaparte. This is not a recipe for effective rule. Since a capitalist society under Bonapartism lacks the power to control, or contain, market forces, capitalists can afford to let their Bonaparte stage spectacles of political bravado; behind the scenes, markets do what markets do. In reflecting on the two Napoleons, Marx remarked that the first was a tragedy, but the second, a farce.

More here.

Why pray?


Benjamin Dueholm in Aeon:

'Gods change up in heaven, gods get replaced, prayers are here to stay.’ So wrote the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. Anyone not sharing his conviction might consider a visit to the Blue Lotus Buddhist temple in Woodstock, Illinois. There, in a converted church, worshippers take their places between a massive new statue of the Buddha and the original stained-glass Christ, solicitous of his sheep. A series of actions takes place that could be focused on either image: a bell rings, the people stand, the clergy enter, and everyone bows in reverence. Then the work of prayer and meditation begins. The people chant their desire to take refuge in the Buddha and set themselves to focus on loving kindness.

Prayer is a concept that baffles and beguiles. It eludes definition, comprehending wildly disparate and even contradictory practices. It includes humane self-fashioning and bitter imprecation, strict formality and total improvisation, wordless meditation and lengthy monologue, the intention prolonged in a spun wheel or a lit candle. And to the extent that prayer is not now, and perhaps never has been, understood as a way to cajole and influence the power that governs the world, it is not always obvious what prayer is supposed to accomplish.

As anyone who has successfully abandoned a regular prayer practice can say, it isn’t hard to get by without. Yet this particular gathering and focusing of consciousness must be doing something. Prayer is religion’s hermit crab; it scuttles recognisably from age to age and purpose to purpose, while attempts to refute or confirm are left to grasp its shells. It endures, shaping the mind, altering the body, or reflecting and resisting the forces of modern life. In its irreducible variety and seeming gratuitousness, it remains a puzzle. But if prayer itself resists explanation, it can still be illuminating to map its dimensions.

More here.

Across the globe, governments are cracking down on civic organizations. This is why.

Imrs (1)

Kendra Dupuy, James Ron and Aseem Prakash in The Monkey Cage:

Scholarly understanding of the factors systematically driving public support — or lack thereof — for local NGOs is still nascent.

It may be that when governments label foreign-funded NGOs as “foreign agents,” the charge resonates because of painful colonial legacies. Yet nationalism is a potent force everywhere, and a recent history of Western imperialism is not always necessary.

In 2014, for instance, U.S. critics made much of Norwegian government support for policy research by established U.S. think tanks. The politically explosive issue of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election is another example.

Indeed, a representative for the Hungarian government notes that their NGO law was similar to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, “which requires those engaging in political activities on behalf of foreign principals to register and disclose their activities.” You don’t have to be a Hungarian, Russian or Egyptian to resent foreign involvement in your country’s domestic politics.

The real problem here is the financial disconnect between NGOs and the communities they say they serve. When NGOs raise funds from co-citizens, they build the local ties that will translate into political support. Here’s an example: If President Trump were to try and crack down on the American Civil Liberties Union, the group’s many thousands of individual donors would almost certainly mobilize.

When NGOs depend on outsiders for their existence, they are drawn into an “NGO scramble” for international aid that leaves them locally disconnected and politically vulnerable. To continue the ACLU example, if the organization depended on Norway for its money, it would find far fewer domestic supporters willing to spend the time and energy to come to the NGO’s defense.

More here.

Could it be that there is a double Michael Fried?

263193Marnin Young at nonsite:

In a contribution to a 1987 panel at the Dia Art Foundation, Fried himself had stated that “the antitheatrical arguments of ‘Art and Objecthood’ belong to a larger historical field than that of abstraction versus minimalist art in 1967. […] Indeed, part of the interest ‘Art and Objecthood’ still has for me is that more than any of my early essays it represents a link between the art criticism I had been writing since the early 1960s and the art history I would soon go on to write.”6 Less than a decade later, however, he had substantially changed his tune. He stated his new position in the introduction to his collected art criticism, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews: “between myself as historian of the French antitheatrical tradition and the critic who wrote ‘Art and Objecthood’ there looms an unbridgeable gap.”7

Certain elements of art criticism and art history, Fried insisted, had to be understood as separate. One is the notionally distinct roles inhabited by the critic and the historian. Whether this amounts to the “resolutely nonjudgmental” position of the art historian could be debated, but Fried insisted that an interpretation of the art of the past requires a certain historicizing of aesthetic judgment as such (“Introduction,” 51). (The flipside is the impossibility of historicizing one’s own critical judgments.) Fried also emphasized the distinction between the antitheatrical tradition of French art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the attempts to defeat theater in the modernist painting and sculpture of the postwar period. The two situations are perhaps, as Anthony Grudin has argued, parallel responses to capitalism, but for Fried they remain non-continuous and quasi-autonomous.8 In these respects, the art historical and critical approaches to art are non-identical twins. Is there a “double Michael Fried?” he asked, quoting Robert Smithson. “Whatever the right answer was in 1967, the answer now is yes” (“Introduction,” 52).

more here.

The Strange Tale of an Extra Special Talking Mongoose

Download (2)Bee Wilson at the LRB:

‘He does not feed like a mongoose,’ James Irving said of the talking mongoose that had taken up residence – or so it was said – in his remote Isle of Man farmhouse in the early 1930s. Irving told psychic investigators that his family had tried the mongoose – who went by the name of ‘Gef’ – on bread and milk, only to have their food rejected. Slowly and patiently, the Irvings found a repertoire of things that Gef would consent to eat. Before they went to bed at night, they would set out tidbits of bananas and oranges, chocolate and biscuits, sausage and bacon – ‘he always leaves the fat part.’ In the morning, the mongoose chatted to them through the wainscotting in his clear high-pitched voice about which of the items he had eaten.

For several years in the 1930s the case of this Manx mongoose – who was said to speak in a range of foreign languages including ‘Hindustani’, as well as singing, whistling, coughing ‘in a human manner’, swearing, dancing and attending political meetings – was discussed across Britain. As a fantastical beast, he was a contemporary of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, who was first supposedly photographed in 1933, although his fame was shorter-lived. Sometimes he called himself an ‘earthbound spirit’ and sometimes a ‘marsh mongoose’. When he first arrived at the Irving house in 1931, he was said to be a malevolent presence, a kind of ‘man-weasel’ who frightened the family with satanic laughter. Over the months, however, the Irvings warmed to some of Gef’s ways, and he became a pet of sorts, who amused the family with his gossip and jokes. He was less eager to share these witticisms with outsiders who came to the house to check him out. He didn’t like to speak to people who doubted him and punished them with silence and insults or threatened to blast them away with a shotgun.

more here.

The Tarot of Alejandro Jodorowsky

16jodorowsky5-master675Michelle García at The Baffler:

IN THE LAST FEW DAYS, a carnival of tarot, music, and psychomagic made its way through New York City in the guise of shamanistic filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and his family. The elder Jodorowsky and his son, Adan, made appearances at museums, theaters, and a downtown lounge to promote Endless Poetry (Poesía sin Fin), their new film (which was directed by the father and stars the son). With this project, perhaps the world’s biggest cult filmmaker returns his audience to his native Chile, where he picks up the thread of his previous work, The Dance of Reality, albeit with slightly less Oedipus complex (and self-indulgence). For its part, the poetic film’s color-saturated cosmology was shot by famed cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love), and it features an ecstatic Jodo-esque parade of dancing skeletons, puppetry, tender sensuality—and an enormous plummeting penis.

In the film, Jodorowsky chronicles his youthful rebellion against a bullying, money-obsessed father, which ultimately leads to him deserting his parents’ home for the bohemian world of muses, artists, and poetry. “Poetry, you shall illuminate my path like a blazing butterfly,” says a young Jodorowsky. With time, the poet and the butterfly coalesce. A wizened Jodorowsky later tells us that at the end of life “you become a butterfly, a being of pure light.”

The New York art world, it turns out, is not accommodating to butterflies of pure light.

more here.

Friday Poem

A Small Measure

stars are born, people die
more stars than people
by far reborn as stars

and more stars than grains of sand
the number of grains of sand?
(7.5 x 1018 grains of sand)

seven quintillion, five hundred-
quadrillion grains we believe
(give or take a few grains of sand)

the number of stars, 70 thousand million,
million, million stars (the same number
as molecules in ten drops of water)

so there are more worlds
in eleven of your teardrops
than stars (or grains of sand)

by Paul Casey
from Poetry International, 2017

The Kafkaesque Process of Cancer Diagnosis

Paul Putora and Jan Oldenberg in Nautilus:

Cancer-a-239The date of diagnosis? Do you mean a specific day?” The well-mannered older man with advanced lung cancer sighs, pauses, takes off his glasses, strokes through his gray, cared-for beard, and looks at me as if trying to decide whether or not I will be able to follow his thoughts. “Kafkaesque! That's what it is, Kafkaesque.” He was obviously pleased with his exclamation, which to be honest, did not help me much. Looking in my eyes, he felt my uncertainty, sighed again, not in an unfriendly or arrogant manner, but perhaps with a bit of disappointment that I was unable to share his moment of delight at finding a fitting expression. Few tasks are more challenging than breaking bad news, especially if a patient seems reluctant to engage in conversation. Any question posed by a patient provides an opportunity to get started. What made this situation unusual is that the question referred only to the time of diagnosis. This lovable bibliophilic man introduced me to the particular atmosphere in Kafka's work: “…instances in which bureaucracies overpower people, often in a surreal, nightmarish milieu which evokes feelings of senselessness, disorientation, and helplessness.”

The patient continued, “You understand that the many tests and the elusive information of the recent weeks remind me of Franz Kafka's words in his famous work Der Prozess, meaning both trial and process.” “The verdict does not come suddenly, proceedings continue until a verdict is reached gradually.” Another way to translate the sentence from German would be: “The verdict does not come suddenly, the process gradually transforms into the verdict.” The patient went on. “First there was this cough, not unusual for me, but a bit more pronounced than in recent months. One day I had to consult my general physician after I had tripped and broken a rib. I think my process/trial started as my first x-ray touched the backlight in my GP's office.

“A ‘shadow’ was visible. A CT scan was ordered the same week. A ‘mass’ is described—in my right lower lung. “My physician advised me not to think too much before cytology results were available; samples would be taken the next day. Of course, I was absorbed by frightening scenarios, including a painful death. How could I avoid these thoughts after losing friends whose processes/trials started with shadows and masses and culminated in the verdict of a death sentence? My trial had begun—consuming my days and my thoughts.”

“…without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.”

More here.


Morgan Meis in The Porch:

ScreenHunter_2772 Jul. 27 17.07Every ghost story that has ever been told has its roots in existential panic. It is a panic we’ve all experienced at some time or other, generally in the wee hours when the mind turns to fear and death. The secret truth is that the ghost stories we tell later, once we’ve calmed down, are really a form of consolation. The stories serve to forestall our root fear by means of spooks and scares. The idea that there are spectres out there, many of them malevolent, is preferable to the alternative, which is that there is nothing “out there” at all. An evil spirit is, at least, confirmation of an afterlife, if an angry confirmation.

The scariest ghost story imaginable, then, would be a ghost story in which there is no ghost, in which there can be no ghosts, because there is only the abyss.

David Lowery’s new film A Ghost Story flirts at the edge of such an abyss. In the film, a young man (Casey Affleck) dies in a car crash, leaving his young wife (Rooney Mara) to mourn him. The young man, whose name we never learn, comes back in the form of a ghost. We know he’s a ghost because he is wearing a white sheet over his head. The white-sheeted ghost proceeds to “haunt” the house in which he previously lived. Eventually, his wife moves out. But the ghost stays. New tenants come and go. The ghost stays. The house is demolished and a giant office is built in its place. The ghost stays. The ghost is thrown back in time (just go with it) and experiences events at the same spot long before the house was built. Still, the ghost stays.

More here.

Google enters race for nuclear fusion technology

Damian Carrington in The Guardian:

2048Google and a leading nuclear fusion company have developed a new computer algorithm which has significantly speeded up experiments on plasmas, the ultra-hot balls of gas at the heart of the energy technology.

Tri Alpha Energy, which is backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has raised over $500m (£383m) in investment. It has worked with Google Research to create what they call the Optometrist algorithm. This enables high-powered computation to be combined with human judgement to find new and better solutions to complex problems.

Nuclear fusion, in which atoms are combined at extreme temperatures to release huge amounts of energy, is exceptionally complex. The physics of nuclear fusion involves non-linear phenomena, where small changes can produce large outcomes, making the engineering needed to suspend the plasma very challenging.

“The whole thing is beyond what we know how to do even with Google-scale computer resources,” said Ted Baltz, at the Google Accelerated Science Team. So the scientists combined computer learning approaches with human input by presenting researchers with choices. The researchers choose the option they instinctively feel is more promising, akin to choosing the clearer text during an eye test.

More here.

The hidden friendship between Queen Victoria and her Indian servant Abdul

Radhika Sanghani in The Telegraph:

ScreenHunter_2771 Jul. 27 16.59It was on a family trip to the Isle of Wight’s Osborne House that Shrabani Basu discovered a secret that had lain untold since Queen Victoria’s death. The Indian journalist had taken her two teenage daughters with her to the former Queen’s palatial holiday home to witness the restored Durbar Room; an original banquet hall.

As Basu wandered through the house’s Indian wing, she couldn’t help notice several portraits and a bust of an Indian servant called Abdul Karim. “He didn’t look a servant,” explains Basu, 54, from her North London home. “He was painted to look like a nobleman. He was holding a book, looking sideways. Something that about that expression struck me, and when I moved along, I saw another portrait of him looking rather gentle. It was very unusual.”

At the time, in 2003, everything she knew about Queen Victoria’s Indian servants came from a book she had written on curry several years earlier – namely that the Queen had loved curry (chicken curry and daal being a particular favourite), and had servants from India who cooked it for her every lunchtime.

“It was in the back of my mind all along, so when I saw the portraits of Abdul, including a tableau of ladies serving him, I was intrigued,” says Basu. “I knew I had to look into this.”

More here.

How bosses are (literally) like dictators

GettyImages_657279310.0 (1)

Elizabeth Anderson in Vox:

Consider some facts about how American employers control their workers. Amazon prohibits employees from exchanging casual remarks while on duty, calling this “time theft.” Apple inspects the personal belongings of its retail workers, some of whom lose up to a half-hour of unpaid time every day as they wait in line to be searched. Tyson prevents its poultry workers from using the bathroom. Some have been forced to urinate on themselves while their supervisors mock them.

About half of US employees have been subject to suspicionless drug screening by their employers. Millions are pressured by their employers to support particular political causes or candidates. Soon employers will be empowered to withhold contraception coveragefrom their employees’ health insurance. They already have the right to penalize workers for failure to exercise and diet, by charging them higher health insurance premiums.

How should we understand these sweeping powers that employers have to regulate their employees’ lives, both on and off duty? Most people don’t use the term in this context, but wherever some have the authority to issue orders to others, backed by sanctions, in some domain of life, that authority is a government.

We usually assume that “government” refers to state authorities. Yet the state is only one kind of government. Every organization needs some way to govern itself — to designate who has authority to make decisions concerning its affairs, what their powers are, and what consequences they may mete out to those beneath them in the organizational chart who fail to do their part in carrying out the organization’s decisions.

Managers in private firms can impose, for almost any reason, sanctions including job loss, demotion, pay cuts, worse hours, worse conditions, and harassment. The top managers of firms are therefore the heads of little governments, who rule their workers while they are at work — and often even when they are off duty.

More here.



Julianne Tveten and Paul Blest in Current Affairs:

To see why Silicon Valley policy-making would be so insidious, we should look at a plan that seems, on the surface, like one of its most progressive ideas: the tech community’s recent embrace of the “Universal Basic Income” (UBI). The idea of a UBI is that all people should be guaranteed a baseline income from the government, which would ensure that they can subsist and that nobody would be in dire poverty. It would be a truly universal guarantee, in that there would be no requirements for receiving it. The idea has long been a favorite of the left, since it would ensure the downward redistribution of wealth, based on criteria of need rather than “merit.”

But even though the UBI has often seemed like a utopian leftist pipe dream, in recent years it has picked up support in an unexpected place: Silicon Valley. A number of tech entrepreneurs have begun to publicly endorse it. Mark Zuckerberg has publicly signed on. And Y Combinator, the most prestigious and obnoxious of the Silicon Valley startup incubators, announced it would launch a local universal basic-income pilot program, giving monthly disbursements of $1,000 to $2,000 to 100 families throughout Oakland and seeing what happens after six months or a year.

That Silicon Valley—home of the callous libertarian billionaire—has come to embrace what’s traditionally viewed as a principle of leftist origin may seem contradictory. Why would a hotbed of private enterprise suddenly latch onto something that sounds an awful lot like socialism?

The answer lies in the concept’s malleability; there are many kinds of “UBI,” and the socialist UBI and the Silicon Valley UBI are not one and the same. One of them is an attempt to create a world of equality and prosperity for all. The other is an attempt to offer bare subsistence as a replacement for government programs, while leaving a fundamentally unequal economic and power structure fully in place.

More here.