Deresiewicz on James

William Deresiewicz reviews Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts, in The Nation.

I started reading Cultural Amnesia on my way down to the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, the professional organization of literary academics. Nothing in a long time has focused my discontent with academic life more pointedly than James’s assertion that “Vienna was the best evidence that the most accommodating and fruitful ground for the life of the mind can be something more broad than a university campus.” In James’s cosmology, the university is the infernal (and infertile) counterpart to the paradise of the cafe. Humanism means interconnection, and the cafe gives that interconnection social form. Academia necessitates specialization and incessantly discourages intellectual breadth (now more than ever, no matter how much lip service is paid to “interdisciplinarity”). The academic conference, where small groups of identically specialized professionals meet to debate narrow questions of interpretation and doctrine, is the cafe’s demonic double.

But James’s evocation of Viennese cafe society is elegiac, and not just because that society was destroyed by Hitler. James, too, has been a denizen of cafes, but he has haunted them alone. Friedell and Polgar and Altenberg were sitting on the table, not around it. Though James’s life has been richly social, as he hints from time to time, still, “most of [my] listening was done by reading.” For a host of reasons–the expansion of universities, of suburbs and of telecommunications, to name three–the kind of face-to-face intellectual-artistic life that Vienna exemplified, and that flourished in other twentieth-century cities, simply no longer exists. James’s answer to this bereavement is the book itself. Here is the cafe he has created in his mind, a convocation of voices that respond to one another across the barriers of language, outlook, expressive form and, most of all, time.

James on Zweig

The latest adapted excerpt from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia is of the great and sadly increasingly forgotten Stefan Zweig.


“Heart-warming hours” sounds less corny in German: herzliche Stunden. Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) had a house in Salzburg, and from the terrace he could see across the border into Germany, to the heights on which the exterminating angel perched, gathering its strength. If Hitler had looked in the other direction, he would have seen, on Zweig’s terrace, everything he was determined to annihilate, and not just because it was Jewish. There were plenty of gentiles who came to see Zweig. But they were all infected with Kulturbolschewismus, the deadly international disease that presumed to live in a world of its own: the disease that Hitler, in his role as hygienist, had a Pasteur-like mission to eradicate.

Zweig (1881-1942) is a fitting coda to this project, because his life, work, exile, and self-inflicted death combine to sum up so much of what has gone before, which is really the story of the will to achievement in the face of all the conditions for despair.

Unger Joins Brazilian Government

Dani Rodrik informs us that Roberto Unger has been appointed to the post of minister in the Brazilian government.

It seems like stuff out of a dream. My Harvard Law School colleague Roberto Mangabeira Unger, at once the most erudite and impenetrable man I know, has just been appointed a minister by President Lula in Brazil. Roberto will be heading a new ministry called, improbably, “the special secretariat for long-term actions.” His task: to draw out a long-term strategy for Brazilian government and society.

I taught a course called “One Way or Many” with Roberto for three years, and he has been one of my two most important sources of inspiration in recent years. He is not an easy man to follow, and I have often joked that it took me the whole three years to understand what he was saying in our course.

Pretty good getting, for a gal that came up the hard way


At the Totten Foundation, a scholarly establishment on the Upper West Side, a professor of English bids farewell to a young lady who has been assisting him in his research. “Make no mistake,” he says, “I shall regret the absence of your keen mind. Unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.”

I have always taken these lines to be the high-water mark of American Cartesianism. When we consider the duality of body and mind, we assume that the two can be trusted to get along; that our minds can go about their noble business without being diverted by the physical forms in which they are encased. This theory holds firm up to the exact point at which it bumps into Barbara Stanwyck. It is to her that those regretful words are spoken. The movie is “Ball of Fire”—released in 1941, directed by Howard Hawks, written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, and starring Stanwyck as a night-club chanteuse called Sugarpuss O’Shea.

more from The New Yorker here.

if I was not myself, I would arrest myself


To the academic world’s small population of postmodernists, Slavoj Zizek – a shambling, rambling Slovenian philosopher – is a folk hero. At any lecture podium, any time, anywhere, he will emit hazy clouds of gaseous theory with the speedy intensity and comic riffs of Bill Hicks.

He seemed to emerge fully formed from the wreckage of the former Yugoslavia with an ec lectic magpie-philosophy, rapidly spewing out books and essays on everything from opera to the use of torture in the TV series 24. Zizek is the biggest box-office draw postmodernists have ever had, their best punch at the bestseller lists. The press fawns upon him; he has been called an “intellectual rock star”; and, according to a recent profile in the New Yorker, Slovenia has a “repu tation disproportionately large for its size due to the work of Slavoj Zizek”.

more from The New Statesman here.

chicago’s party


So, is The Dinner Party great art? Well, not by the standards of today’s art world. It’s too middlebrow, too literal, and its earnestness is out of step with today’s endlessly self-ironizing sensibility. And its pudendal imagery, once radical, looks silly and heavy-handed today. But as an emphatically populist work with a clear set of political and educational imperatives, The Dinner Party has held its ground. It’s nervy, ambitious, uncompromising, and—unlike most recent art, feminist or otherwise—truly original.

more from Slate here.

More Debates on The Black Swan

Here’s an interesting discussion between Nassim Taleb and Andrew Gelman on Taleb’s The Black Swan. First, Gelman’s criticisms:

The book is about unexpected events (“black swans”) and the problems with statistical models such as the normal distribution that don’t allow for these rarities. From a statistical point of view, let me say that multilevel models (often built from Gaussian components) can model various black swan behavior. In particular, self-similar models can be constructed by combining scaled pieces (such as wavelets or image components) and then assigning a probability distribution over the scalings, sort of like what is done in classical spectrum analysis of 1/f noise in time series. For some interesting discussion in the context of “texture models” for images, see the chapter by Yingnian Wu in my book with Xiao-Li on applied Bayesian modeling and causal inference. (Actually, I recommend this book more generally; it has lots of great chapters in it.)

That said, I admit that my two books on statistical methods are almost entirely devoted to modeling “white swans.” My only defense here is that Bayesian methods allow us to fully explore the implications of a model, the better to improve it when we find discrepancies with data. Just as a chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg, Bayesian inference is just a theory’s way of uncovering problems with can lead to a better theory.

Next, Taleb responds to Gelman:

[Gelman] On page 127-128, Taleb discusses the distinction between uncertainty and randomness (in my terminology, the boxer, the wrestler, and the coin flip). I’d only point out that coins and dice, while maybe not realistic representations of many sources of real-world uncertainty, do provide useful calibration. Similarly, actual objects rarely resemble “the meter” (that famous metal bar that sits, or used to sit, in Paris), but it’s helpful to have an agreed-upon length scale. We have some examples in Chapter 1 of Bayesian Data Analysis of assigning probabilities empirically (for football scores and record linkage).

N[assim] – The way I see it is that a framework that accepts no metaprobabilities is defective, period. This is where a Bayesian like you will never accept the difference “Knightian nonKnightian”. The only one I accept is qualitative: ludic/nonludic.

The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace

From The New Republic:Iraq

You go to war with the press you have. This was certainly not war in the Jimi Hendrix era. Iraq was lethal, and no outsider could get around. The women, available everywhere in Vietnam, were off-limits here. There would be no romance, no high war writing. Instead it was all alien and remote. In these books, Iraq is hunkered down and hidden, its people and ways and language inaccessible to the writer-adventurers. (France had left its language behind in Vietnam, which provided Western writers with a kind of entry into the culture.) In Iraq the outsiders were on their own, captives of the Green Zone, of the “minders” and the interpreters.

It was hard, practically impossible, to bond with the place. Shiism was not waiting to be deciphered or understood; Moqtada Al Sadr had no time, and no desire, to explain the origins of his worldview, his noble pedigree, the high clerical tradition of his family, to the American journalists in the bubble of the Republican Palace. It was enough for him that his devoted followers knew the magic of his lineage. The reclusive Ali Al Sistani, in his modest home on a lane in Najaf’s souk, kept the invading power — and the press that came with it — at bay. In one of my favorite anecdotes of Iraq, an American diplomat of considerable sway asked an Iraqi interlocutor what the term hawza meant — the word for a Shia study group and academic circle. “It’s amazing,” the Iraqi academic answered. “You send a huge army to this country, but you don’t know the most rudimentary thing about its life.”

We had made our way into a land that had been hermetically sealed to outsiders.

More here.

MacKinnon: ‘Women are not human’

From The Harvard Gazette:Mackinnon

Women are not in charge. Worldwide, it is men — not their gender counterparts — who have power over families, clans, villages, cities, and nations. That may not seem like a new message. But lawyer, feminist author, and international equal rights advocate Catharine A. MacKinnon gives it a new subtlety, adds legal context — and even includes a ray of hope. MacKinnon, who once taught at Harvard Law School, is a professor of law at the University of Michigan and one of the most widely cited legal scholars in the English language. She visited the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study last week (April 19) to deliver the annual Maurine and Robert Rothschild Lecture: “Women’s Status, Men’s States.”

MacKinnon — tall, regal, and with a gift for precise talk — has star power, and drew 250 people to a jammed Radcliffe Gymnasium. At Radcliffe, MacKinnon could just as well have called her lecture “Are Women Human?” In case you wondered, the answer to that question is no — perhaps to be expected in a book that includes an essay titled “Rape as Nationbuilding.” In legal terms, women are not human, according to MacKinnon, who discovered that fact while parsing the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The 1948 United Nations document defines what a human is, and what people are universally entitled to — but fails to explicitly recognize women, and their “full human status in social reality,” said MacKinnon.

Being human first requires being “real to power,”

More here.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

six quarks and three leptons


And there are many answers to the question of how much longer this Russian-doll game will continue. If one is to be absolutely honest, none is reliable, although at least there is a fascinatingly stringent basic system, from whose hat all the currently known subatomic particles can be pulled: the Standard Model of elementary particle physics. It knows six quarks and three leptons (with their respective anti-particles and neutrinos) as well as four bosons which mediate the forces between particles. All these particles and their combinations – christened with nice little names like Charm, Pion and Kaon – are well defined within the model, whose clairvoyant powers border on the magical. And yet particle physicists are not entirely satisfied with their construction kit, because it has a few gaps in it which prevent them from sleeping at night.

more from Ulrich Woelk on the origin of things at Sign and Sight here.

slip of the tongue?


WHO IS PETER HANDKE? He is the strongest, most inventive writer to have emerged in German literature since, well, Günter Grass. Handke, like Grass, is a great prose stylist. But unlike Grass, or any other novelist of note for that matter, Handke is also one of the most prominent defenders of the late Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, a fact that made Handke the most controversial writer in Europe throughout the spring and early summer of 2006. The most controversial, that is, until the media eruption unleashed by Grass’s confession buried Handke’s actions and statements under a deep wash of newspaper ink.

What exactly had Handke done? Milosevic was on trial for war crimes, including genocide in Bosnia for overseeing the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica, when he died in his prison cell in The Hague on March 11, 2006. Handke spoke at his funeral in Belgrade one week later, when Milosevic’s coffin was displayed in the Museum of the Revolution before an overflow crowd of some 20,000 radical Serb nationalists.

more from The American Scholar here.

A Letter on Rape in Prisons

David Kaiser in the New York Review of Books:

To the Editors:

Jason DeParle’s thoughtful and wide-ranging overview of American incarceration policy and its consequences hardly mentions rape in detention. Yet this is not a rare or trivial part of life behind bars. Neither is it, as some believe, an inevitable one.

Prisoner rape has been largely ignored: by journalists, advocates, policymakers, and researchers. The available data therefore, especially on its frequency, are not very good. Still, it is possible to have some notion of the problem’s magnitude. Recent studies of prisons in four midwestern states suggest that approximately 20 percent of male inmates are pressured or coerced into unwanted sexual contact; approximately 10 percent are raped. Rates of sexual abuse in women’s facilities, where the perpetrators are most likely to be male staff, seem to vary more by institution but are as high as 27 percent of inmates.

Since the US now incarcerates more people than any other country, both relative to population and in absolute terms, these percentages translate into horrifying real numbers.

More here.

31 Different Ways To Lace Shoes

From Ian’s Shoelace Site:

Latticelacing1Whilst mathematics tells us that there are more than 2 Trillion Methods of feeding a lace through the six pairs of eyelets on an average shoe, this section presents a (somewhat more realistic) typical cross-section of traditional and alternative lacing methods that I’ve either found or created or that have been sent to me by web site visitors.

The selection is limited to those methods that I considered worthy of devoting the time required to create instructions, either because they are widely used, have a particular feature or benefit, or just because I like the way they look.

Lacing Technique – Method 1 – Shorter Laces:

Latticelacing6a1. The lace runs straight across the bottom (grey section) and emerges from both bottom eyelets.

2. Cross the ends over and feed into the 4th set of eyelets up the shoe (skip past 2 sets of eyelets).

3. Both ends now run straight up and emerge from the 5th set of eyelets.

4. Cross the ends over and feed into the 2nd set of eyelets up the shoe (skip past 2 sets of eyelets).

5. Both ends now run straight up and emerge from the 3rd set of eyelets.

6. Cross the ends over, feed under and emerge from the top set of eyelets (skip past 2 sets of eyelets).

Many more here.

More on The Black Swan

Niall Ferguson in The Telegraph:

Black20swanIt was predictable. Cho Seung-Hui was a taciturn, moody loner. Four of his professors expressed concerns about the content of his work or classroom conduct. After complaints by two female students, the campus police and a college counsellor tried to have him committed to a mental institution. But a doctor didn’t agree with the judge that he presented a danger to others. And guns are easy to buy in America (though banned on Virginia campuses). As a result 33 people are dead.

Journalists’ efforts to explain the Virginia Tech massacre perfectly illustrate one of the central points of an idiosyncratically brilliant new book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Penguin/Allen Lane). Having been completely caught out by some random event, we human beings are wonderfully good at retrospectively predicting it. In reality, however, Cho was what Taleb calls a “Black Swan”.

Why a black swan? Taleb’s starting point is what philosophers call the problem of induction. Suppose you have spent all your life in the northern hemisphere and have only ever seen white swans. You might very well conclude (inductively) that all swans are white. But take a trip to Australia, where swans are black, and your theory will collapse. A “Black Swan” is therefore anything that seems to us, on the basis of our limited experience, to be impossible.

More here.

Dani Rodrik wins the first Albert O. Hirschman Prize

From the SSRC:

The Hirschman Prize is awarded annually by the Social Science Research Council to scholars who have made outstanding contributions to international, interdisciplinary social science research, theory, and public communication, in the tradition of Albert Hirschman. A professor at Columbia, Yale, Harvard and for many years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Hirschman pioneered the field of economics and politics in developing countries, particularly Latin American development. Author of such classic works as The Strategy of Economic Development; Exit, Voice, and Loyalty; and The Passions and the Interests, Hirschman has long been acclaimed for his creative, interdisciplinary approach to academic research…

“Professor Rodrik’s research is distinguished by analytical and empirical rigor, combined with a critical attitude toward policy orthodoxy,” said Eichengreen, who led the Hirschman Prize selection process from a field of 31 nominees. “While an economist by training, Rodrik takes a broad interdisciplinary view of problems of international trade and economic development, paying careful attention to their social, political, and historical dimensions—very much in the Hirschman tradition,” he noted.

Hitchens Weighs in, Now On The Religion Debate

In Slate, excerpts from Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything:

The argument with faith is the foundation and origin of all arguments, because it is the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city. Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other. For this reason, I would not prohibit it even if I thought I could. Very generous of me, you may say. But will the religious grant me the same indulgence? I ask because there is a real and serious difference between me and my religious friends, and the real and serious friends are sufficiently honest to admit it. I would be quite content to go to their children’s bar mitzvahs, to marvel at their Gothic cathedrals, to “respect” their belief that the Koran was dictated, though exclusively in Arabic, to an illiterate merchant, or to interest myself in Wicca and Hindu and Jain consolations. And as it happens, I will continue to do this without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition—which is that they in turn leave me alone. But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing. As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon. Religion poisons everything.

The Namesake: A Review

From Ego: 

Namesake_main3_2The movie adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake is out all over since March 9th. True to form, Mira Nair has done it again- the movie is a cinematographic treat, from the moment it opens in Calcutta. The scenes of Ashok, and then Ashima, going about their lives and how they decide on their arranged marriage are breathtakingly real. Equally true to life and haunting are their initial scenes set in New York.

Tabu as the mother Ashima is resplendent in her sarees in Calcutta, inspirational yet entertaining as the outspoken wife/mother everywhere else, and manages to carry the story (which has been shifted to rest a bit more on her shoulders than in the book) from start to end. Irfan Khan, as the father Ashok, brings a haunting quality to his character and is a real pleasure to watch as usual. Kal Penn, who seems to revel in this more serious role, plays Gogol very convincingly, slipping into the various ages and situations dexterously. The other actors are also all true to their roles – namely Sahira Nair as Sonia Ganguli, Zuleikha Robinson as Moushumi Mazumdar and Glenne Headley as Lydia Ratliff.

Mira Nair directs the camera to capture every detail, every nuance superbly. The movie is threaded with various sexual encounters, sometimes more graphic than what Lahiri wrote but quite unforgettable for their lyrical, sensual treatment. Even where there is no overt nakedness, as when Gogol first encounters the grown-up Maushmi, the audience can feel the heat.

More here.

End of the Melting Pot?

From Harvard Magazine:

Mexicans_2 In 1986 after receiving amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act, Jorge Montes began looking for a good place to raise his family. He settled on Gainesville, Georgia, a small manufacturing city outside Atlanta, because it reminded him of his hometown in Mexico. He and his wife could afford a decent house on his truck driver’s wages, and the schools were good. His son studied hard and became the star kicker on the Gainesville High School football team, winning the admiration of native residents.

In Gainesville, where immigrant labor has reinvigorated the poultry-processing industry, nearly 30 percent of the 30,000 inhabitants today are foreign-born Mexicans. The speed of change has strained public resources and stoked native resentment, threatening the goodwill that greeted earlier newcomers like the Montes family. Letters published in local newspapers accuse immigrants of “taking over”—of burdening schools and welfare agencies, lowering wages, spreading crime, and “refusing to learn English.”

Will the current tide of poor, low-skilled Hispanic labor migrants (legal or not) gradually blend into the American mainstream like their European predecessors? Or will they remain a growing but segregated population, marginalized by race, class, language, and culture?

More here.