Akeel Bilgrami remembers Edward W. Said

Bilgrami4_1Professor Akeel Bilgrami has kindly given 3 Quarks Daily permission to publish the text of a speech he gave at a memorial service for Edward W. Said on September 29, 2003. Professor Bilgrami is the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Heyman Center for the Humanties at Columbia University.

Professor Bilgrami went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and got a Bachelor’s degree there in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. In 1983 he got his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He has published a book in the Philosophy of Language and Mind in 1992 called Belief and Meaning (Blackwell). He has two forthcoming books from Harvard University Press — Self-Knowledge and Intentionality and Politics and The Moral Psychology of Identity. He has published various articles in Philosophy of Mind as well as in Political and Moral Philosophy and Moral Psychology.

Edward Said: A Personal and Intellectual Tribute

SaidpstorThere are a very few intellectuals ––Bertrand Russell, E.P. Thompson, and Noam Chomsky come to mind in the English-speaking world— whose writings and whose lives provide a kind of pole that thousands of people look toward so as to feel that they are not wholly lost or marginal for possessing instincts for justice and humanity, and for thinking that some small steps might be taken towards their achievement. Edward Said was, without a doubt, such a man. The daze and despair so many of us here at Columbia feel, now that we have taken in that he has gone, is only a very local sign of what is a global loss without measure. And to think of what it must be like for his own brutalized people to lose him, is unbearable.


Edward was, as they say, ‘many things to many people’, and though he was too vast to be contained by a mere university, even one as uncloistered as Columbia, he was a teacher and took great pride in being one. So let me say something about that first.

To put it seemingly frivolously, he was deeply ‘cool’. I say ‘deeply’ and mean it. One day, the best undergraduate I have ever taught and my very favourite student, said to me “Prof. Said is really cool”. Now I, who have been trying to be cool for decades, was mildly annoyed by this, and said, “Look, I can understand that you think he is a great scholar and intellectual and a peerless public figure, but why ‘cool’? He doesn’t wear black, he despises popular music, he hangs out with well-heeled professors and other rich and famous people, and he is preposterously handsome –how uncool can you get!” She looked at me dismissively and said, “All that’s really not a big deal. It’s –like– really on the surface.”

Edward’s influence on the young came from his refusal to allow literature to offer merely self-standing pleasures. The connections he made in even our most canonical works, between the narrations of novels and the tellings of national histories, between the assertions of an author and the assertion of power by states, between the unconscious attitudes of a seemingly high-minded writer and some subtle illiberal tendency of social or national prejudice, drew to the study of literature numberless students who, out of a quest for worldly engagement, or more simply out of a cosmopolitan curiosity, demanded just such an integrity of words with morals,. Not long ago while giving a lecture in Honkong, I found that students were passing around a faint and barely readable photographed parchment of one of his unpublished manuscripts — a contribution to a symposium held ten thousand miles away — as though it were a handwritten poem by a Renaissance courtier. No other literary critic has had such a, literally, planetary influence.

And he achieved this without any of the heart-sinking, charmless, prose of the literary avant-garde, nor the natural, unaffected dullness of the old guard. His writing, like his speech, had the voltage of dramatization and (it has to be said) self-dramatization, which no young person could find anything but cool.


Because of his great political courage, because he repeatedly broke his lion’s heart in the cause of Palestinian freedom, because so much of his most familiar and famous writing was intellectually continuous with those political themes and struggles, and because it was expressed with a ceaseless flow of political ardour, Edward’s intellectual legacy will be primarily political, not just among the young, nor just in the popular image, but also in the eyes of academic research. There is no gainsaying this. And it must be so. It will be right to be so. This side of him was of course manifest to his own people, but it was also central to so many others for whom the Palestinian struggle is a reminder that the fight for the most elementary of freedoms is not yet over. Since so much has rightly been written about it, I want to briefly situate that most vital part of his life and thought in the larger setting of his humanism, of which we often spoke in our conversations inside and outside the classes we taught together, and on which he had just completed a book, when he died. It was perhaps the only ‘ism’ he avowed (he was, despite being in the midst of an anti-colonial struggle, consistently critical of nationalism), and he avowed it with a stubborn idealism, in the face of its having been made to seem pious and sentimental by the recent developments in literary theory.

Underlying the civic passions and the charged impressionism of his political and literary writing was a deep and structured argument of greater generality than anything that is usually attributed to him. (He was always impatient with arguments, and would tell me that it was a philosopher’s obsession, keen to find philosophers as bad as lawyers on this score. But he was wrong about this, and came around to saying that something like this argument was indeed a thread in his work.)

Two elements of frameworking breadth have abided through the diverse doctrinal formulations of humanism, from its earliest classical hints to the most subtle surviving versions of our own time. They can, in retrospect, be seen as its defining poles.

One is its aspiration to find some feature or features which sets what is human apart –apart from both nature, as the natural sciences study it, and from what is super-nature and transcendental, as these are pursued by the outreach of theology and metaphysics.

The other is the yearning to show regard for all that is human, for what is human wherever it may be found, and however remote it may be from the more vivid presence of the parochial. The dictum, ‘Nothing human is alien to me’, still moving despite its great familiarity (and despite the legend about its trivial origin), conveys something of that yearning.

These two familiar poles framed the argument that Edward presented throughout his life as a writer.

At one pole, to explore what sets the human apart, he invoked early on in his work a principle of Vico’s, that we know best what we ourselves make –history. Self-knowledge thus becomes special, standing apart from other forms of knowledge. And only human beings, so far as we know, are capable of that self-knowledge.

At the other pole, to make urgent the Senecan dictum, he plunged into the topical, warning us of the disasters that will follow, and which indeed are already upon us, if we conduct our public lives as intellectuals with an indifference to the concerns and the suffering of people in places distant from our Western, metropolitan sites of self-interest.

Relatively fixed poles though they may be in a highly changeable set of ideas we call ‘humanistic’, these two features are not ‘poles apart’. They are not merely unrelated and contingent elements of humanism. They must be brought together in a coherent view. And Edward tried to do just that.

To bridge the distance between them, he started first at one pole by completing Vico’s insight with a striking philosophical addition. What Vico brought to light was the especially human ability for self-knowledge, and the special character possessed by self-knowledge among all the other knowledges we have. This special character which has affected our paths of study in ways that we have, since Vico’s time, taken to describing with such terms as ‘Verstehen’, “Geisteswissenschaften”, or as we like to say in America,‘ the Social Sciences’, still gives no particular hint of the role and centrality of the Humanities. It is Said’s claim, I think, that until we supplement self-knowledge with, in fact until we understand self-knowledge as being constituted by, self-criticism, humanism and its disciplinary manifestations (‘the Humanities’) are still not visible on the horizon. What makes that supplement and that new understanding possible is the study of literature. To put it schematically, the study of literature, that is to say ‘Criticism’, his own life-long pursuit, when it supplements self-knowledge gives us the truly unique human capacity, the capacity to be self-critical.

Turning then to the other pole, how can a concern for all that is human be linked, not just contingently but necessarily, to this capacity for self-criticism? Why are these not simply two disparate elements in our understanding of humanism? Said’s answer is that when criticism at our universities is not parochial, when it studies the traditions and concepts of other cultures, it opens itself up to resources by which it may become self-criticism, resources not present while the focus is cozy and insular. The “Other’, therefore, is the source and resource for a better, more critical understanding of the ‘Self’. It is important to see, then, that the appeal of the Senecan ideal for Said cannot degenerate into a fetishization of ‘diversity’ for its own sake or into a glib and ‘correct’ embrace of current multiculturalist tendency. It is strictly a step in an argument that starts with Vico and ends with the relevance of humanism in American intellectual life and politics. Multiculturalism has not had a more learned and lofty defence. It may in the end be the only defence it deserves.

James Clifford in a now famous review of Orientalism had chastised Edward, saying that he cannot possibly reconcile the denial of the human subject in his appeal to Foucault in that work, with his own humanist intellectual urges, reconcile, that is, his historicist theoretical vision with the agency essential to the humanist ideal. But if the argument I have just presented is effective, if the methodical link between the two poles I mentioned really exists, it goes a long way in easing these tensions. It allows one not simply to assert but to claim with some right, as Edward did, that criticism is both of two seemingly inconsistent things: it is philology, the ‘history’ of words, the ‘reception’ of a tradition, at the same time as it allows for a ‘resistance’ to that tradition and to the repository of custom that words accumulate.

The argument, thus, gives literary humanism a rigour and intellectual muscle, as well as a topicality and political relevance, that makes it unrecognizable from the musty doctrine it had become earlier in the last century –and it gives those disillusioned with or just simply bored with that doctrine, something more lively and important to turn to than the arid formalisms and relativisms of recent years. For this, we must all be grateful.


I first met Edward twenty years ago when I noticed an incongruously well-dressed man at a luncheon talk I gave as a fresh recruit at the Society of Fellows, on some theme in the Philosophy of History. With a single question, asked without a trace of condescension, he made me see why the issues of substance and urgency lay elsewhere than where I was labouring them. I knew immediately that he was a good thing, though I did not know then that I would never change my mind. One had heard so much about him. No person I knew had more political enemies. They did not find it enough to hate him, they wanted the whole world to hate him, and they weaved fantastications and myths in order to try and make it happen. For those who admired his indomitable political will, these scurrilous attacks against him made him seem even more iconic, and for those who knew him well, his seductive, self-pitying responses to them, made him even more dear.

An essential part of his great and natural charm was that friendship with him was not without difficulty, nor without steep demand. He would do his best sometimes to appear a credible swine, if for no other reason than to raise a spark in the conversation. I recall when we were on the stage together at some public meeting, after the idiotic fuss that was made about his having thrown a stone in the air at a site in Lebanon which had just been evacuated by the Israeli army. The person who introduced us began with me, and gave me the modest introduction I deserved, and then went on to poetic heights about him, and concluded by saying that he was the author of over twenty books. As she finished, I leaned into my microphone and said “Over twenty books! Somebody has to stop this terrorist! First he throws stones! Now he is cutting down trees!” He immediately leaned into his own microphone, and said, “My dear fellow, you should worry just a bit that for a man who has not written that much, that remark will come off as bitter rather than funny.” On another occasion, we were sitting in his flat last New Year’s Eve for dinner, with a gathering of his friends from the Modern Languages Association, which had just had its annual meeting in New York City. The talk that evening had had much to do with feminism in the academy, the usual drill about the feminine pronoun, and all of us had self-consciously displayed our impeccable commitments. The conversation came around to whether my wife and I would be moving our daughter from Brearley to the newly started school for the children of faculty at Columbia University, a subject of vexed indecision for us. Edward asked us impatiently, “So are you bringing her to the Columbia School? What the hell is holding you up?” And I said, “Well, I am not sure, she is very happy at Brearley”. And he said, throwing a glance around at the women, “Who cares, she’s a GIRL!!!” This teasing sometimes became willfully, even if delightfully, dangerous. Charlie Rose once asked him on television, if he had read a recent book on Wagner, which had come to the extraordinary conclusion that his music was so infused with anti-Semitism that if someone who was not anti-Semitic heard his operas, he or she would become anti-Semitic by the end of it. What, Rose asked, do you think of that conclusion? Edward, who despised anti-Semitism as much as anyone I know, but perfectly aware of the obvious dangers of the subject for a person with his political commitments, leaned forward and said, as if in earnest: “You know, I tried it. I got all my Wagner out and heard it all day and half into the night.” He then paused, allowing the menace to build up, and then, shaking his head, “ It didn’t work.”

Yes, he was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, and he was a great and good and inspiring and beloved man. It is very hard to bear the loss of someone, so large of heart and mind.

As I wrote those last words, I was reminded that that heart and mind were lodged in a body, which, for all its robustness, was cursed with a wretched illness that he fought with such heroism for a dozen years. Reminded too of that more muted and less recognized form of heroism -forbearing and endlessly giving- with which his remarkable wife Mariam stood by his side each day for all those years, and of that obscure and nameless thing she will need now that he is gone, to be without the presence of the most present person she, and his children, and his friends, have known. I wish her vast reserves of it, whatever it is, and of every other good thing.

[See also this remembrance of Edward Said by S. Asad Raza.]

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Hamas: The Perils of Power

Hussein Agha, Robert Malley in the New York Review of Books:

HamasOut-and-out victory was not what Hamas had expected or, for that matter, what it had wished for. It had come to see itself as a watchdog on the sidelines, sitting in the legislature without controlling it, shaping the government’s policies without being held accountable for them, taking credit for its successes and escaping blame for any setbacks. Its triumph presents it with challenges of a different, more urgent, and less familiar sort. Hamas suddenly finds itself on the front line, with decisions to make and relations to manage with the world, international donors, Israel, Fatah, and, indeed, its own varied constituents. The Islamists may have secretly expected to sweep the elections but, if so, that secret remains well kept. Referring to Iraq, President Bush once spoke of America’s catastrophic success. Judging from the Islamists’ initial, startled reactions to their triumph, this may well be theirs.

More here.

How Many Lives Did Dale Earnhardt Save?

Stephen J Dubner and Steven D. Levitt in the New York Times Magazine:

Dale_earnhardt_largeAnd how many drivers have been killed since his death in 2001?

Zero. In more than six million miles of racing — and many, many miles in practice and qualifying laps, which are plenty dangerous — not a single driver in Nascar’s three top divisions has died.

On U.S. roads, meanwhile, roughly 185,000 drivers, passengers and motorcyclists have been killed during this same time frame. Those 185,000 deaths, though, came over the course of nearly 15 trillion miles driven. This translates into one fatality for every 81 million miles driven. Although traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for Americans from ages 3 to 33, this would seem to be a pretty low death rate (especially since it includes motorcycles, which are far more dangerous than cars or trucks). How long might it take one person to drive 81 million miles? Let’s say that for a solid year you did nothing but drive, 24 hours a day, at 60 miles per hour. In one year, you’d cover 525,600 miles; to reach 81 million miles, you’d have to drive around the clock for 154 years. In other words, a lot of people die on U.S. roads each year not because driving is so dangerous, but because an awful lot of people are driving an awful lot of miles.

More here.

The Bedside Book of Birds

John Huxley in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Screenhunter_1_5A few years back, at the end of a tiring book promotion tour, Graeme Gibson and his wife, fellow novelist Margaret Atwood, took time out to do some serious birdwatching in northern Australia.

One evening, while sitting on the balcony of Cassowary House, north of Cairns, they spotted red-necked crakes – rare rainforest birds – scuttling through the underbrush.

As Atwood, who won a Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin, later explained, it was in that moment that her dystopian novel, Oryx and Crake, was conceived. “It occurred to me almost in its entirety. When two or more birders are gathered together they always talk about ruination and horrible population crashes and extinction and things like that … I began making notes immediately.”

By a happy coincidence, this land, that trip, those birds, also inform and illuminate Gibson’s marvellous avian miscellany, which reads, looks and, perhaps because of the quality of the production, even smells good.

More here.

Mathematical proofs getting harder to verify

Roxanne Khamsi in New Scientist:

A mathematical proof is irrefutably true, a manifestation of pure logic. But an increasing number of mathematical proofs are now impossible to verify with absolute certainty, according to experts in the field.

“I think that we’re now inescapably in an age where the large statements of mathematics are so complex that we may never know for sure whether they’re true or false,” says Keith Devlin of Stanford University in California, US. “That puts us in the same boat as all the other scientists.”

As an example, he points to the Classification of Finite Simple Groups, a claimed proof announced in 1980 that resulted from a collaboration in which members of a group each contributed different pieces. “Twenty-five years later we’re still not sure if it’s correct or not. We sort of think it is, but no one’s ever written down the complete proof,” Devlin says.

Part of the difficulty is the computer code used nowadays to construct proofs, says Thomas Hales, at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US, as this makes the proofs less accessible even to experts.

More here.

In Dissent, a Symposium on the Future of the American Labor Movement

Joshua Freeman, Gordon Lafer, Michael Merrill, and Eve Weinbaum discuss the state and future of the labor movement.

[Joshua Freeman] Many of us feel ambivalent about the split in the labor movement. The discussion that accompanied it was narrow and rancorous. The odd alliances that emerged seemed as motivated by individual and institutional self-interest as by principle. Enormous energy was devoted to a parting of ways that might not have been necessary. Still, some good may come of it.

Unionists on both sides of labor’s fissure were deeply disappointed by the events of the last decade. The ouster of the old leadership of the AFL-CIO brought refreshing breezes into the musty, sometimes foul, atmosphere of the House of Labor. John Sweeney and his allies did so many things right: embracing militancy and the cause of low-wage workers; preaching the gospel of organizing; beefing up labor’s political operation; reaching out to students, clergy, and the left; and bringing greater diversity to the leadership of the AFL-CIO. Yet today, in many respects, labor is worse off than when Lane Kirkland held office.

Organized labor itself caused some of the problems. Although the AFL-CIO managed to bring new attention to workplace injustice, it failed to engineer a wholesale shift in national perceptions.

The Turing Archive for the History of Computing

Slide1_4Here’s an interesting site, the Turing Archive for the History of Computing:

The documents that form the historical record of the development of computing are scattered throughout various archives, libraries and museums around the world. Until now, to study these documents required a knowledge of where to look, and a fistful of air tickets. This Virtual Archive contains digital facsimiles of the documents. The Archive places the history of computing, as told by the original documents, onto your own computer screen.

This site also contains a section on codebreaking and a series of reference articles concerning Turing and his work.

Ode to Joy

Reviewed by Felicia Nimue Ackerman in The Washington Post: HAPPINESS, A History by Darrin M. McMahon.

Happy_1 Even when the subject is, alluringly, happiness, readers may fear that a 544-page, heavily annotated book will be a dry, abstruse tome. Be not afraid. Erudite and detailed without being pedantic, Happiness is lively, lucid and enjoyable. Darrin M. McMahon’s history of happiness concentrates on the great books of the Western world. From ancient Greek tragedies’ portrayal of happiness as a gift of the gods, through Roman celebrations of everyday comforts and pleasures, the medieval Christian focus on eternal bliss, and the modern conviction that earthly happiness is not just a right but practically a duty, McMahon traces the way conceptions of happiness have changed. The author, a professor of history at Florida State University, demonstrates “not only the centrality of the issue of happiness to the Western tradition, but the centrality of that same tradition and legacy to contemporary concerns.”

His book abounds with intriguing material. For example, it shows how G.K. Chesterton’s aphorism “The world is full of Christian ideas gone mad” applies to happiness. Also noteworthy is McMahon’s observation that traditionally, “a life of privilege was a life without labor . . . .That men and women should come to believe — even to expect — that work . . . should sustain their happiness, serving as a source of satisfaction in its own right, is therefore a recent and quite remarkable development.” McMahon displays his gift for nimble commentary by adding that it is “one of the delicious ironies of history” that “Marx’s contention that not only should we enjoy the fruits of our labor, but labor itself should be our fruit, is today a central tenet of the capitalist creed.”

More here.

In search of a land that may not exist

Randy Dotinga in the Christian Science Monitor:

P15aIn her captivating book The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule, British author Joanna Kavenna brings the Thule myth to life, seamlessly combining elements of travelogue, detective story, and history book.

Don’t be alarmed if you’ve never heard of Thule. It’s more well-known in Europe than in the United States, and even across the pond the word probably rarely crosses anyone’s lips. But Thule is far from forgotten.

The whole story begins back in the 4th century BC, when a Greek explorer named Pytheas claimed to have discovered the most northerly land in the world, which he named Thule. North of France, north of Britain, it was near a frozen ocean and home to inhabitants accustomed to seasons of eternal light and darkness.

More here.

The Palestinian Patient

Raja Shehadeh in The Nation:

Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews have fundamentally different attitudes toward the origins of the conflict that at once divides and binds them. The number of Israeli books about the early settlements and the 1948 war–histories, memoirs, novels–exceeds by far the number of those written by Palestinians. In the face of a work like Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial, which drew upon spurious demographic “data” to deny that Palestinians were ever the majority in their own land, a Palestinian is angered but not moved to action. Indeed, the rebuttal to Peters came not from a Palestinian but from Norman Finkelstein, an American Jew.

This may seem strange, but it is not. For the question of whether Palestinians did or did not exist in Palestine when the first Zionist settlers arrived is more of an American/Israeli issue than a Palestinian one, as is the question of whether Palestinians were driven from their homeland. Among Palestinians there is no debate about their roots in Palestine, or about the causes of their dispossession. They either had family living in 1948 Palestine or heard from those who had family about what life was like and the circumstances under which they were forced to flee. A Palestinian author writing in Arabic for an Arab audience is not weighed down by the burden of having to prove anything about the Nakba, “the catastrophe.”

Not so for Palestinian authors writing in English for a Western audience. This may explain why much of the historical work on the Nakba by Palestinians such as Walid Khalidi and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod was written originally in English–and why the Israeli “new” historians who reached the same conclusions much, much later found it easier to persuade readers in the West that the 1948 refugees had not simply left of their own accord. As Edward Said frequently observed, part of being Palestinian is being denied the right to narrate one’s own experience.

More here.

Predators ‘drove human evolution’

From BBC News:Neanderthal

The popular view of our ancient ancestors as hunters who conquered all in their way is incorrect, scientists have told a conference in St Louis, US. Instead, they say, early humans were on the menu for predatory beasts. This may have driven humans to evolve increased levels of co-operation, according to their theory. Despite humankind’s considerable capacity for war and violence, we are highly sociable animals, according to anthropologists. James Rilling at Emory University in Atlanta, US, has been using brain imaging techniques to investigate the biological mechanisms behind co-operation. He has imaged the brains of people playing a game under experimental conditions that involved choosing between co-operation and non-co-operation.

From the parts of the brain that were activated during the game, he found that mutual co-operation is rewarding. People also reacted negatively when partners do not co-operate. Dr Rilling also discovered that his subjects seemed to have enhanced memory for those people that did not reciprocate in the experiment. By contrast, our closest relatives – chimpanzees – have been shown not to come to the aid of others, even when it posed no cost to themselves. “Our intelligence, co-operation and many other features we have as modern humans developed from our attempts to out-smart the predator,” said Robert Sussman of Washington University in St Louis.

More here.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Bigger, Better, More Commercial 3QD!

Abbas_in_seersucker_suitDear Readers,

As you can see, we have expanded. Literally. We have some new features, such as:

  • A listing of all our Monday columns, alphabetically by the last name of the author (we are still updating these, it should be finished by next week or so)
  • A conveniently located site search
  • A listing of recent comments in the right-hand column

But most noticeably, we now have advertising. As Robin, Morgan, Azra, and I are spending more and more time (we look through scores of online journals, magazines, blogs, and other sources, each, every day, to find the things we post) on the site, as well as spending our money on the design and upkeep of the site, we saw no reason that we shouldn’t see if it generates some small bit of income for us. Indeed, the amount of time that I myself devote to 3QD is approaching at least half of a full-time job. Up to this point, we have been one of only a small number of similar sites that do not have advertising.

There is now also a button to donate funds to 3QD. This is the standard tip jar that many such sites have. You could think of it this way: if you read 3QD regularly and get some enjoyment out of it, it is like having a magazine subscription. Only, in this case, you pay only if and when you want, and only as much as you feel it is worth to you. We will certainly appreciate it. Last, I suppose it is obligatory for me to say this: please support our sponsors!

Oh, and one other thing: no doubt some of you who appreciated the clean simplicity of the old design might be vexed by the new look. Trust me, you get used to it really quickly. I already have. And we have tried hard to maintain as much visual continuity with the previous design as possible. We look forward to your comments.

Thanks to Dan Balis, who helped recode the pages. And thank you for your support.

Yours ever,


P.S. If some things don’t look exactly right, or don’t work like they are supposed to, please be patient, we’ll be working out the kinks in the next few days. Thanks.

Female Feoticide Rates Increase in Punjab

Outlook (India) looks at rising female feoticide in the province of Punjab:

Dhanduha’s [a village in Punjab’s Nawanshahr district] register shows that of the seven babies born in the last six months, there were six boys and just one girl. In the last one year, against 12 boys only three girls were born, and in the last five years, 34 baby boys were born as against only 18 girls. A sex ratio of just 529:1000!

But it’s not fair to point fingers at Dhanduha. Everyone in the district knows of Nai Majara, the village where an on-the-spot survey conducted by deputy commissioner Krishan Kumar a month ago, of children in the 0-1 age group, came up with a ratio of 437:1000. A local NGO staged an instant demonstration in the village but its sarpanch Satnam Singh wrings his hands in despair. “It’s such a shame for our village, but what can I do? This happens everywhere.” Sure it does. And much more than anyone previously imagined.

A Reading from and Interview with Edwidge Danticat

At the Lannan Foundation, Edwidge Danticat reads from The Dewbreaker and gives a interview about her work. An excerpt from the story “The Book of the Dead” from The Dewbreaker:

My father is gone. I’m slouched in a cast-aluminum chair across from two men, one the manager of the hotel where we’re staying and the other a policeman. They’re both waiting for me to explain what’s become of him, my father.

The hotel manager—mr. flavio salinas, the plaque on his office door reads—has the most striking pair of chartreuse eyes I’ve ever seen on a man with an island Spanish lilt to his voice.

The police officer, Officer Bo, is a baby-faced, short, white Floridian with a potbelly.

“Where are you and your daddy from, Ms. Bienaimé?” Officer Bo asks, doing the best he can with my last name. He does such a lousy job that, even though he and I and Salinas are the only people in Salinas’ office, at first I think he’s talking to someone else.

I was born and raised in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and have never even been to my parents’ birthplace. Still, I answer “Haiti” because it is one more thing I’ve always longed to have in common with my parents.

Baudrillard on the Riots in the Banlieuses

In the New Left Review, Jean Baudrillard goes, er, Baudrillard, albeit in brief, on the banlieuses ablaze:

‘Integration’ is the official line. But integration into what? The sorry spectacle of ‘successful’ integration—into a banalized, technized, upholstered way of life, carefully shielded from self-questioning—is that of we French ourselves. To talk of ‘integration’ in the name of some indefinable notion of France is merely to signal its lack.

It is French—more broadly, European—society which, by its very process of socialization, day by day secretes the relentless discrimination of which immigrants are the designated victims, though not the only ones. This is the change on the unequal bargain of ‘democracy’. This society faces a far harder test than any external threat: that of its own absence, its loss of reality. Soon it will be defined solely by the foreign bodies that haunt its periphery: those it has expelled, but who are now ejecting it from itself. It is their violent interpellation that reveals what has been coming apart, and so offers the possibility for awareness. If French—if European—society were to succeed in ‘integrating’ them, it would in its own eyes cease to exist.

Yet French or European discrimination is only the micro-model of a worldwide divide which, under the ironical sign of globalization, is bringing two irreconcilable universes face to face. The same analysis can be reprised at global level. International terrorism is but a symptom of the split personality of a world power at odds with itself. As to finding a solution, the same delusion applies at every level, from the banlieues to the House of Islam: the fantasy that raising the rest of the world to Western living standards will settle matters.

American tradition of using violence to make a point?

Robert Wright in the New York Times:

The American left and right don’t agree on much, but weeks of demonstrations and embassy burnings have pushed them toward convergence on one point: there is, if not a clash of civilizations, at least a very big gap between the “Western world” and the “Muslim world.” When you get beyond this consensus — the cultural chasm consensus — and ask what to do about the problem, there is less agreement. After all, chasms are hard to bridge.

Fortunately, this chasm’s size is being exaggerated. The Muslim uproar over those Danish cartoons isn’t as alien to American culture as we like to think. Once you see this, a benign and quintessentially American response comes into view.

Even many Americans who condemn the cartoon’s publication accept the premise that the now-famous Danish newspaper editor set out to demonstrate: in the West we don’t generally let interest groups intimidate us into what he called “self-censorship.”

What nonsense. Editors at mainstream American media outlets delete lots of words, sentences and images to avoid offending interest groups, especially ethnic and religious ones.

More here.  [Thanks to Syed T. Raza.]

Eleven Reasons Why ‘You’ Don’t Exist: #10…

From The Huge Entity:

As ‘You’ Like It
by Jaime Morrison
The Nonist

don’t take this personally but your depth of sensation, though perhaps impressive echoing as it does in the enclosed space of your own mind, is stunted. comically so in fact. your five senses, on which you rely totally, are capable of offering you only the tiniest subset of the total information available for you to process. your mind unceremoniously filters out large segments of this already reduced sensory payload immediately upon arrival and interprets the fractional amount of data remaining. this mind of yours is a dynamo of hubris, presumptuously drawing all manner of conclusion with only the most circumstantial evidence. were it a prosecutor its case would be thrown out. and yet this mind of yours has the audacity to tell you what “reality” is and what “you” are. 

this might be a bit embarrassing if “you” actually existed.

but i do exists! and how dare you insinuate otherwise?!

well, then, by all means prove it. you have the floor.

look at me! i’m tearing a phone book in half! i’m going over niagara falls in a barrel! i’m stomping on an ant! yeah, i’m crushing an ant under my heel. ask him whether i exist or not!

ah yes. that machine which is your body… it would seem a great ally when seeking to prove your existence – but then we’re not really talking about your bones and spleen and nostril hairs here are we? or do you consider your physicality to be interchangeable with your “self”?

well, not exactly…

good. because while you are running for office and reading poetry and murdering a stranger in an alleyway, your body is busy with other matters, like keeping your blood oxygenated, doling out nutrients, and making sure you don’t walk into any blazing fires; that kind of thing. truth be told, your body is probably not all that interested in the trifles “you” are. your body’s got work to do.

More here. (Including the other 10 reasons you don’t exist!)

hitchens on Robert Conquest


In 1983, a study of Fascism (Fashizmut) was published in Bulgaria, under the imprint of the People’s Youth Publishing House of the Central Committee of the Democratic Youth Union. Its author, Zhelyu Zhelev, did a thoroughly laudable job of anatomizing his subject. In his section on “The Structure of the Fascist State” he adumbrated the whole “Fascist” totalitarian phenomenon, covering in chapter after chapter the importance of indoctrinating “the masses”, the need to keep out foreign influences, the role of farcical elections and a powerless “parliament”, the necessity of fanaticism, the view that Western “academic freedom” was false. Above all there was the single party and that party’s control of the state, of mass organization, of all opinion, of literature and the arts, of the police, of the courts. Before it was suppressed for its hyper-correct analysis of the problem, Fashizmut had become a minor classic among Bulgarian and even Russian dissidents, with some free spirits visiting the Party bookstore and enquiring for copies of Zhelev’s Kommunismut. I was annoyed with myself for not having known about Zhelyu Zhelev (later a distinguished post-1989 President of his country) before: he seems like an ironic Swiftian hero in the later mould of Czeslaw Milosz or Milan Kundera. But this is part of the reason why one always reads anything by Robert Conquest, who just happens to speak Bulgarian, to have served with the Bulgarian resistance in the Second World War and to be fairly conversant with most salient points of Bulgarian culture.

more from the TLS here.

updike on homer (winslow)


Before Mr Homer’s barefoot urchins and little girls in calico sun-bonnets, straddling beneath a cloudless sky upon the national rail fence, the whole effort of the critic is instinctively to contract himself, to double himself up, as it were, so that he can creep into the problem and examine it humbly and patiently, if a trifle wonderingly … Mr Homer goes in, as the phrase is, for perfect realism, and cares not a jot for such fantastic hair-splitting as the distinction between beauty and ugliness. He is a genuine painter; that is, to see, and to reproduce what he sees, is his only care; to think, to imagine, to select, to refine, to compose, to drop into any of the intellectual tricks with which other people sometimes try to eke out the dull pictorial vision – all this Mr Homer triumphantly avoids. He not only has no imagination, but he contrives to elevate this rather blighting negative into a blooming and honourable positive … We frankly confess that we detest his subjects – his barren plank fences, his glaring, bald, blue skies, his big, dreary, vacant lots of meadows, his freckled, straight-haired Yankee urchins, his flat-breasted maidens, suggestive of a dish of rural doughnuts and pie, his calico sun-bonnets, his flannel shirts, his cowhide boots. He has chosen the least pictorial features of the least pictorial range of scenery and civilisation; he has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial, as if they were every inch as good as Capri or Tangier; and, to reward his audacity, he has incontestably succeeded.

more from the Guardian here.

return fire


The current group show at SoHo’s Pomegranate Gallery is the first American glimpse of contemporary art from war-torn Iraq. It paints a picture of a national school in formation, and offers a subtle essay on the many things that art can mean in dire times.

Pomegranate, which has only recently opened, claims the distinction of being the first U.S. space dedicated to contemporary art from the Middle East. The setup is a little unusual. A large coffee bar occupies the front of the space, and the gallery is filled with tables where people can chat and have lunch. Gallery director Oded Halahmy, a sculptor who is an Iraqi Jew by birth, says he wanted an atmosphere that recreates the social vibe of cultural spaces in the Middle East. In any case, the works in the current show are considerably more interesting than what might typically hang on café walls.

more from Artnet here.