An interview with Tzvetan Todorov

In Eurozine and via Political Theory Daily:

[Vita Matiss] You place the question of the parallels between Nazism and communism within a specific European post-World War II historical and philosophical context. As you point out, this context was not at all favourable for people like Margarete Buber-Neumann and David Rousset. Is the context for raising the issue of the similarities between these totalitarian regimes significantly more propitious today?

Tzvetan Todorov: Vast question… First of all, a comparison of the two totalitarian regimes is not something new. On the eve of the Second World War, when the first democratic and liberal criticisms of the two regimes emerged in both Europe and the United States, it had even become rather common — just about everywhere, those who observed the rise of these two totalitarian regimes were susceptible to their similarities. This similarity attained its apogee in September 1939, when, after the German-Soviet pact, that is, Nazi-Communist pact, both totalitarian leaders embarked upon a common political path, when Hitler and Stalin simultaneously invaded Poland. At this moment, it was clear for everyone that the two regimes not only resembled each other, but that they were accomplices.

What made the comparison difficult was the Second World War.”

A profile of Robert Trivers

In The Guardian, a profile of Robert Trivers (via Crooked Timber):

“Despite switching disciplines – from maths to law to history then the sciences – Robert Trivers profoundly influenced evolutionary biology with his theory that our sense of justice has Darwinian explanations. But he suffered severe mental breakdowns and his career at Harvard was dogged by controversy. After 15 years in genetics he has now turned to anthropology.

Robert Trivers could have been one of the great romantic heroes of 20th-century science if he’d died in the 70s, as some people supposed he would. But here he is, loping down the quiet, pale corridors of Harvard’s Programme in Evolutionary Development, a powerfully built man about six foot tall, bespectacled, dressed in trainers, narrow blue cord trousers, a black leather jacket and a knitted watchman’s cap. His language matches the macho clothes: for an Ivy League professor, he says ‘fuck’ a lot.”

Crowds go ape over ‘humans’ zoo exhibit


Zoo_1 LONDON – Caged and barely clothed, eight men and women monkeyed around for the crowds Friday in an exhibit labeled “Humans” at the London Zoo. “Warning: Humans in their Natural Environment” read the sign at the entrance to the exhibit, where the captives could be seen on a rock ledge in a bear enclosure, clad in bathing suits and pinned-on fig leaves. Some played with hula hoops, some waved. Visitors stopped to point and laugh, and several children could be heard asking, “Why are there people in there?”

More here.

‘The First Poets’: Starting With Orpheus

Camille Paglia in The New York Times:

Pagl184 Ancient Greece is the fountainhead of Western culture and politics. As Michael Schmidt demonstrates in ”The First Poets,” the evolution from aristocratic rule to democracy in Greece was accompanied by the emergence of a strongly individualistic lyric poetry. While the Hebrew Bible, the other major source of Western literature, expresses a God-centered view of the universe, Greek literature gradually freed itself from the sacred to focus on the uniquely human voice.

More here.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Black and white—and red all over

Review of Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution by Simon Schama, in The Economist:

At the height of the conflict, Britain guaranteed freedom to any slave who fought for the king against George Washington’s slave-owning rebels. And in 1772, in London, Lord Mansfield, nudged by the advocacy of Granville Sharp, an abolitionist, judged that Africans could not be transported against their will. It sounded good. Thousands of slaves, lacking a better offer, joined the king’s cause.

It goes without saying that Britain’s pledge was issued with only token expectation that it would need to be honoured—victory would surely render it irrelevant. But military incompetence and American resolve turned it into a disquieting political reality. After much smudging, a liberal haven—an 18th-century African Zion—was marked out in Sierra Leone. African-Americans began to go “home”.

It was a disastrous enterprise from the start; what began as a rescue mission was later seen as a “racist deportation”.

More here.

The Mystery of Hitler’s Lost Art Collection

From Deutsche Welle:

AhArt experts have long been fascinated with the story of Adolf Hitler’s dream of creating a huge museum in the Austrian city of Linz. A new book looks at where the Nazi leader’s collection came from — and where it went.

It remains at the center of one of World War II’s most enduring mysteries: Hitler’s intended National Socialist museum of art in the Austrian city of Linz was a dream that was never fully realized by the Führer although many thousands of art works were obtained for the project.

Speculation has always surrounded the origins of the dictator’s collection but since the war ended, this has only intensified as experts attempt to discover where many of the works disappeared to.

Berlin historian Hanns Christian Löhr is the latest to examine the mystery behind the alleged stolen art which was destined for the Linz museum and what happened after the Allies “liberated” the artifacts in his book, “The Brown House of Art.”

More here.

TRYING to translate swedish



The weather here is like a hawk or small factory. Claws grab once and leave things burning, making people go to work while they are deadened from this. Yes, that is the case. That is the omen. When you take a vacation, you know there is hot iron and metal clawing at workers here.

(Pause while her mother comments or asks her something.)

Yes, he is still like small things. Books get read, books get written, framing darker things and pretending to laugh. Making tall, dark, long lives seem funny. Yes, tall, dark, long lives are broken, are scoring, are over torn. I am not laughing, but I am smiling or lonely while shopping. I am here forever. New York airports are so broken, I am here for now, I am here forever, no, no, no … no, not like him.

more from McSweeney’s here.

looking different


Asians and North Americans really do see the world differently. Shown a photograph, North American students of European background paid more attention to the object in the foreground of a scene, while students from China spent more time studying the background and taking in the whole scene, according to University of Michigan researchers.

The researchers, led by Hannah-Faye Chua and Richard Nisbett, tracked the eye movements of the students — 25 European Americans and 27 native Chinese — to determine where they were looking in a picture and how long they focused on a particular area.

more from Wired here.

underground china


It seems that Beijing is a breeding ground for wacky art. Cheto Castellano, a Chilean artist who has lived in China the past year, confirms my suspicion that anything can be done in China. Castellano has a history of working with unconventional materials. In Chile, he made an infamous work with Antonio Becerro: a collection of stuffed dogs tattooed by Castellano that caused an uproar in Chilean society. Castellano became even more of a superstar in the press when he began tattooing drug addicts and homeless people with human organs. Now, in China, Castellano has taken a sudden new step forward, or perhaps under: no longer satisfied by working on live flesh, he is engraving the structure beneath the skin–human bones.

more from NYArts here.

In Every Stroke, Life’s Fierce Pageant

From The New York Times:Snyder

THE Joan Snyder survey at the Jewish Museum, a helping of serious fare during the doldrums of the late summer season, is exasperating and invigorating in the proportions you might expect if you’ve followed Ms. Snyder’s career. For nearly 40 years, she has been the kind of artist whose strength has frequently been her weakness and vice versa – that is, her operatic, restless, almost Snyder_2 shameless need to pile everything, emotionally, autobiographically, even physically speaking, into her paintings. More is more, she is fond of saying. And sometimes it is.

As the art critic Jed Perl, a longtime admirer of Ms. Snyder, has put it, the unpredictability of her work “is an aspect of its richness.”

More here.

The Climax of Humanity

From Scientific American:

Humanity The 21st century feels like a letdown. We were promised flying cars, space colonies and 15-hour workweeks. Robots were supposed to do our chores, except when they were organizing rebellions; children were supposed to learn about disease from history books; portable fusion reactors were supposed to be on sale at the Home Depot. Looking beyond the blinking lights and whirring gizmos, though, the new century is shaping up as one of the most amazing periods in human history. Three great transitions set in motion by the Industrial Revolution are reaching their culmination. After several centuries of faster-than-exponential growth, the world’s population is stabilizing. Meanwhile extreme poverty is receding both as a percentage of population and in absolute numbers. As humanity grows in size and wealth, however, it increasingly presses against the limits of the planet. These three concurrent, intertwined transitions–demographic, economic, environmental–are what historians of the future will remember when they look back on our age. They are transforming everything from geopolitics to the structure of families. And they pose problems on a scale that humans have little experience with. As Harvard University biologist E. O. Wilson puts it, we are about to pass through “the bottleneck,” a period of maximum stress on natural resources and human ingenuity.

More here.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

A Hole in Vincent’s Head

From The Analects of Roshi Bob:

Roshi_bobRoshi here.

I was just looking through a hole in Van Gogh’s head. The hole I was peering through is a painting some call Terrasse de Cafe. It could be called Fire and Ice. Wonderful would be another apt name for it.

This piece of Vincent is a night sky hung with stellar lanterns as near as lightposts, as if the cosmos was just another canopy slightly beyond the one shielding the cafe. Just a stone’s throw beyond. Within spitting distance. Half a hair’s breadth away.

Stars big as moons hang in this room in Vincent’s skull. Stars ready as wet Cortlands to be plucked from trees in orchards of exploding hydrogen.

Under the cafe canopy nano-figures repose upon cobbles of burning coals.
Sipping wine maybe; savoring oysters; sucking energy from supernovas.
Near and Far opposed as lovers in Vincent’s embracing mind.
There and Here tangled beyond belief.

[Thanks to H. Walsh.]

The iPod is threatening a rare species: the Rock Snob

Michael Crowley in The New Republic:

PetetownshendSince the dawn of rock, there have been individuals, usually young men, of argumentative tendencies who have lorded their encyclopedic musical knowledge over others.” So states the introduction of the recent Rock Snob’s Dictionary, compiled by David Kamp and Steven Daly. I like to believe I’m not the insufferable dweeb suggested by this definition. Certainly, much of the dictionary’s obscure trivia (former Television bassist Richard Hell is now a novelist; Norwegian death metal stars actually murder one another) is news to me. But I do place an unusual, perhaps irrational, value on rock music. I take considerable pride in my huge collection and carefully refined taste. And I consider bad rock taste–or, worse, no rock taste at all–clear evidence of a fallow soul. I am, in other words, a certified Rock Snob. But I fear that Rock Snobs are in grave danger. We are being ruined by the iPod.

More here.

war hawks imploding


“George Packer has to live in the world of the readers of The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker and so forth. Those of us who are strongly for the war are still in the minority. But, I don’t give a shit.” That was how Christopher Hitchens summed up a recent spat he’d had with Mr. Packer over the war in Iraq—which played out in the pages of The New Yorker and then, oddly, made it to Page Six. “I feel no obligation to please or to massage the huge consensus of pseudo-intellectuals that formed against the policy [of George W. Bush],” he continued, speaking by phone from Washington, D.C. “I have the feeling that George Packer wants to split the difference. Mr. Packer’s apologizing for his position. I’m not.”

more form the New York Observer here.

bad painting

The following from The Guardian.

The National Gallery, along with the Today programme, is searching for the best painting hanging in Britain. But not all artworks are so admired. We asked 10 experts to select the pictures they loathe… Ngs_monticelli_fete31

4 A Garden Fete by Adolphe-Joseph Monticelli, c1870-72
Chosen by Sir Timothy Clifford, director general, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh
We have been bequested eight paintings by Monticelli, each one more hideous than the last. In my 21 years here, none has been hung because I think Monticelli produces screamingly awful art. I call this one a Fete Worse Than Death.
Courtesy of NGS

Ten diverse authors make longlist

From The Guardian:Diana1

The countdown for the Guardian First Book Award begins today with a longlist which is the most diverse yet in ethnic origin and theme. The 10 authors come from Iran, Thailand, India, Malaysia, the US, Kent, Oxford, Neasden, Doncaster and Co Tyrone. Four of the 10 books have done well in other prize contests. 26A, Diana Evans’ novel about twins growing up in a semi-secret world within a divided London household, won this year’s first £10,000 Orange international award for new writing.

Stuart: a Life Backwards, a biography of and elegy for a chronically disruptive street vagrant who killed himself while Alexander Masters was writing the book, was shortlisted for the £30,000 Samuel Johnson non-fiction award.

Shortlisted for the same prize was Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, described by another author as “unquestionably one of the most memorable non-fiction books to come out of India for many years”.

Photograph: Diana Evans, one of the longlisted authors, has already won the Orange award for new writing for her novel, 26A. Photo: Charles Hopkinson

More here.

Brain’s Own Pain Relievers At Work in Placebo Effect

From Scientific American:Brain

Sometimes, just thinking you are receiving treatment is enough to make you feel better, a phenomenon known as the placebo effect. Scientists have long wondered what causes this outcome, the magnitude of which is not the same for all people. A new brain imaging study suggests that the body’s natural painkillers, endorphins, play a significant role.

Previous studies had shown general changes in brain activity associated with the placebo effect by using functional magnetic resonance imaging, and scientists had hypothesized that the brain’s opioid system was involved. This time, by utilizing positron emission tomography (PET) brain scans for the new work, the researchers were able to focus on a specific type of brain receptor and track its response to a placebo. The PET scans employed by Jon-Kar Zubieta of the University of Michigan and his colleagues measured the activity of mu-opioid receptors, which are an integral part of the body’s natural painkilling system and help transmit pain signals from one nerve cell to the next.

More here.

The Kanisza Virus

Carl Zimmer, in his always-excellent blog, The Loom:

kanisza.jpgScientists have been making some remarkable discoveries about viruses recently that may change the way we think about life. One place to start understanding what it all means is by looking at this picture.

You can’t help put see a bright triangle with its three corners sitting on top of the black circles. But the triangle exists only in your mind. The illusion is known as a Kanisza triangle, and psychologists have argued that it plays on your brain’s short-cuts for recognizing objects. Your brain does not bother to interpret every point of light that hits your retina in order to tell what you’re looking at. Instead, it pulls out some simple features quickly and makes a hypothesis about what sorts of objects they belong to. It’s fast and pretty reliable, allowing you to make quick decisions. For getting us through our ordinary lives, it’s good enough. But as a guide to objective reality, it is far from perfect. What’s really weird about the Kanisza trinagle is that even when you accept that it doesn’t exist (cover up the circles and watch it disappear) you can still can’t stop yourself from seeing it. You just have to accept that your brain’s short-cuts are fooling you.

More here.

Why not Shakespeare?

Brian Vickers in the Times Literary Supplement:

Shakespeare_3Those who seek to deny Shakespeare’s authorship of over thirty plays, two narrative poems and a collection of sonnets are driven to strange expedients. Consider the following stories:
(1) Francis Bacon, despite his busy life as a barrister, involved in both state and private legal cases, who kept up his connections with Gray’s Inn as a law lecturer, an MP and chairman of several committees, a rising government legal officer (SolicitorGeneral 1607, Attorney General 1613), and a scholar whose avowed ambition was to reform science so that it could benefit mankind despite all this, had enough time to write the works published under Shakespeare’s name, with the connivance of the actor from Stratford. Either they managed to deceive all the theatre people with whom Shakespeare worked on a daily basis his fellow actors; those who shared with him the management of both the theatre company (the Lord Chamberlain’s Men until 1603, thereafter the King’s Men) and their playhouse (the Theatre until 1599, thereafter the Globe); and the playwrights (Peele, Middleton, Wilkins, Fletcher) with whom he co-authored at least six plays, a process involving much viva voce discussion of plotting or else all these people were in on the secret. Bacon concealed his authorship during his and Shakespeare’s lifetime, but thoughtfully left some encoded messages in the First Folio, which were not deciphered until 1856. Bacon was also the President or Imperator of the Rosicrucians, an adept of the Kabbalah, and the leading English freemason.

(2) Although Christopher Marlowe was to all appearances killed in a tavern brawl in Deptford on May 30, 1593, his death being certified at an inquest held on June 1 and presided over by the Queen’s coroner, at which sixteen local jurors acquitted the assailant, Ingram Frazer, on the grounds of self-defence, this was all an elaborate scam arranged by Thomas Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster and Marlowe’s homosexual lover. The body buried in an unmarked grave in St Nicholas’s Churchyard on June 1 was in fact that of John Penry, the
Separatist leader, who had just been executed.

More here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Anthony Hecht & landscape

David Yezzi on the uses of landscape in the poems of Anthony Hecht, in The New Criterion:

AnthonyhechtAny number of fine poems memorialize poets—W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” for example, or, in a less reverent vein, Tom Disch’s “At the Grave of Amy Clampitt,” written, oddly, while Clampitt was still alive. Such poems tend to announce either affinity or difference, friendship or rivalry, as one poet suggests—either critically or cordially—his relationship to the person or work of another. The poet J. D. McClatchy has an exemplary poem in the admiring vein titled “Auden’s O.E.D.”, which fondly recounts McClatchy’s first meeting with Auden. As a student at Yale, McClatchy buttonholed the elder poet after a reading and nervously asked him if Auden would sign his book. Auden took stock of this eager young chap and told him to bend over. Auden, you see, wanted to use McClatchy’s back as a writing desk. McClatchy then reverses the image to suggest, in a witty and touching homage to the master, that he has been writing on Auden’s back ever since.

More here.