Attacks and defenses of bad writing

The fourth and last bad writing contest was won by Judith Butler in 1999 for this sentence in an article in Diacritics.

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

Many of those accused of bad writing respond in Just Being Difficult? (Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb eds.). Here’s a review of that book from Philosophy and Literature (subscription required).

“In 1999, Philosophy and Literature gave the top prize in its annual Bad Writing Contest to Judith Butler, and the national press echoed the journal in denouncing critical theory as overblown, jargon-ridden, and ungrammatical. Academic theorists reacted with pique, but not a soul in the public sphere came to their defense. Now, the professors have issued an anthology justifying their prose and denouncing Denis Dutton and other critics of bad writing. They claim that bad, or rather ‘difficult’ writing has a critical thrust: to break down common sense and dismantle unjust social notions.They fail to make their case. Much of the writing is, alas, bad. Entries offer tendentious, petulant reactions to the hubbub. Rarely do they address the basic point of the contest: that humanities professors no longer respect ideals of wit, eloquence, and learning. Instead, we have another parade of academic parochialism and radical chic passing itself off as adversarial culture and social justice.”

Men Are From Earth, and So Are Women

“Are American college professors unwittingly misleading their students by teaching widely accepted ideas about men and women that are scientifically unsubstantiated?

Why is the dominant narrative about the sexes one of difference, even though it receives little support from carefully designed peer-reviewed studies?

One reason is that findings from a handful of small studies with nonrepresentative samples have often reported wildly overgeneralized but headline-grabbing findings about gender differences. Those findings have then been picked up by the news media — and found their way back into the academy, where they are taught as fact. At the same time, research that tends to debunk popular ideas is often ignored by the news media.

Even worse, many researchers have taken untested hypotheses at face value and used them to plan their studies. Many have also relied exclusively on statistical tests that are designed to find difference, without using tests that would show the degree of overlap between men and women. As a result, findings often suggest — erroneously — that the sexes are categorically different with respect to some specific variable or other.”

More here from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Lack of Political Art

“During the past 150 years, artists have regularly challenged power: Modern art emerged, after all, from revolutionary traditions. Artists made posters to rally rebels, lampoon officialdom, and propose new and better worlds. Last week, George Bush and the Republican National Convention staked out New York City—the capital of the American art world—and presented to the eye a large, inviting, and even outlandish target. More than 200,000 protesters, by some accounts, marched up Seventh Avenue. And yet apart from a few pro forma group shows, surprisingly little of note emerged from the traditional art world. What doesn’t happen is sometimes significant. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes: ‘Why didn’t the art world bark?'”

Short article here from New York Magazine.

Crackberry

“In the annals of consumer electronics, certain devices have proven so compelling, they’ve created consumer cults. You know, Mac heads. Palm freaks. TiVoholics. Among the white-collar crowd, though, one particular gizmo has earned a street nickname all its own: CrackBerry. That’s a reference to the RIM BlackBerry, an addictive wireless palmtop that displays your e-mail in real time, as it arrives. The airports and commuter trains on both coasts are filled with BlackBerry fanatics, hunched over, eyes glazed, flailing at its microscopic alphabet keyboard with their thumbs callused in funny places. But for all its popularity among executives and financial-industry types, the BlackBerry is practically unknown to everyone else. RIM hopes to change all that with the BlackBerry 7100t, which it unveiled yesterday. (The device, with phone service from T-Mobile, will go on sale next month.)”

Review of the new Blackberry 7100t here from the New York Times.

Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Self-help Book From Top Porn Star

jameson184“In the sex trade, sellers work hard to make buyers believe they will get their money’s worth. That’s sure true of Jenna Jameson’s extra-large memoir and improbable self-help book, ‘How to Make Love Like a Porn Star.’ Jameson, who is today’s top name in what is known as adult entertainment, takes readers on a round-the-world bender that begins in a tattoo parlor in Las Vegas, where as a 17-year-old biker chick she decides to become a stripper, and culminates at the pinnacle of dirty-movie success, the Hot D’Or awards in Cannes, where at 21 she is anointed Best New American Starlet.” Jane and Michael Stern review How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale by Jenna Jameson with Neil Strauss, here in the New York Times.

The Future of Search

“What is the next stage in the evolution of internet search engines? AltaVista demonstrated that indexing the entire world wide web was feasible. Google’s success stems from its uncanny ability to sort useful web pages from dross. But the real prize will surely go to whoever can use the web to deliver a straight answer to a straight question. And Eric Brill, a researcher at Microsoft, intends that his firm will be the first to do that.” More here from The Economist.

It’s on.

Those who fantasize about history’s great athletes facing the best of the present should watch the U.S. Open quarterfinals (USA network, right now). Top-ranked Roger Federer, tennis’s virtuoso emergent, meets perpetually resurgent Andre Agassi, playing his nineteenth straight year in Flushing Meadows. The Nosferatu-like Agassi, after all, is the sport’s past living in its present, having started during the days of McEnroe and Connors, and played through the eras of Lendl, Becker, Edberg, and Sampras. The dude abides. If, however, you think ponytailed youth will inevitably defeat bald wisdom, don’t be so sure. Two years ago, a thirty-two year-old Agassi faced the dominant number one and defending U.S. Open champion, twenty-one year-old Lleyton Hewitt, in the semifinals here. Agassi swept Hewitt off the court in an exhilarating display of precise hitting. Tonight, Roger may be rusty, having had four days off due to an opponent’s default. Agassi, famously a fast starter, might well hammer his way to an early lead. Whether he can weather the ensuing barrage Federer is likely to rain upon him should produce some captivating drama.

More on Chechnya and Beslan

The events in Breslan again raise a familiar, difficult, and depressing issue. I’ve followed the problem of Chechnya for a while. I remember the leveling of Grozny. Here’s a brief primer by Masha Gessen of Bolshoi Gorod.

“The war, which began on Dec. 11, 1994, lasted nearly two years, cost at least 80,000 Chechens and about 4,000 Russian soldiers their lives, and ended in military defeat for Russia. In 1996, Russia pulled its troops out of a virtually demolished Chechnya, leaving it to fester—again. For the next three years, Chechnya, whose infrastructure had been bombed out of existence, turned into a state run by and for criminals. . . . The second war in Chechnya began in September 1999, following a bizarre and brutal series of terrorist acts. Two apartment buildings in Moscow and one in the south of Russia exploded, killing more than 300 people.” (read on)

Gessen side steps a very large issue: a host of movements and peoples who’ve been the victims of horrid atrocities have not chosen to kill children en masse. And we may be left to only judge them to be evil or psychotic or both.

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Beslan

Like the attacks of 9/11/01, the recent terrorist atrocity in Russia has been so shockingly evil in character and scale, that most of us are still left in choked silence about it. Sometimes it feels like our hearts and souls might finally be damaged beyond repair. But like last time (and every time), we must overcome our grief, once more gather our courage, regain our resolve to prevent such enormities, recover our hope, and again try to make sense of a stunningly senseless act of the most extreme barbarity possible. As the usual sensationalistic replay of the footage of the tragedy dies down, a few brave souls have taken up the challenge of bringing reason to bear on this calamity, and I salute them. Every decent or even normal human being knows that those who prepetrate these acts are vile monsters, but all too often our hatred for them and anger at them gets turned toward other decent and moral people who might disagree with us about why these things happen or how to prevent them, thereby poisoning rational discussion of the issues involved. Let’s see if we have learned anything from the recent bitter past.

Here are a couple of starting points in the blog world to look at, and you’ll find more things from there.

Debate on Naomi Klein and Muqtada al-Sadr

A new article by Naomi Klein in The Nation, entitled “Bringing Najaf to New York,” has sparked debate and condemnation from corners inside and outside the magazine.

“Before Sadr’s supporters began their uprising, they made their demands for elections and an end to occupation through sermons, peaceful protests and newspaper articles. US forces responded by shutting down their newspapers, firing on their demonstrations and bombing their neighborhoods. It was only then that Sadr went to war against the occupation.”

Christopher Hitchens, unsurprisingly, has this to say about it.

“When I quit writing my column for The Nation a couple of years ago, I wrote semi-sarcastically that it had become an echo chamber for those who were more afraid of John Ashcroft than Osama Bin Laden. I honestly did not then expect to find it publishing actual endorsements of jihad. But, as Marxism taught me, the logic of history and politics is a pitiless one. The antiwar isolationist ‘left’ started by being merely ‘status quo’: opposing regime change and hinting at moral equivalence between Bush’s ‘terrorism’ and the other sort.”

But responses have also come from Marc Cooper from The Nation.

“I find these assertions, simply, astounding. Al Sadr’s group are, indeed, terrorists. Maybe not ‘generic’ ones,. But certainly ultra-fundamentalist gangs. There is, in fact, no evidence whatsoever that they represent the ‘mainstream sentiment’ in Iraq. If so, then why has none other than Ayatollah Sistani (who now outflanks Naomi Klein on the left!) negotiated their disarmament? Most disturbing is the last line of this graph. Al Sadr’s ultimate goal, Klein concedes, is a ‘theocracy’ but ‘for now’ his demands are democratic because he’s for elections and he’s against the U.S. occupation. These twin assertions are so blatantly self-contradictory that it would be overkill to say anything more about them.”

and from Doug Ireland.

“It is useful to remember that the deeply flawed logic of ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ motored US policy in the Cold War, driving it to embrace all manner of repressive regimes and dictators from Franco to Pinochet to Suharto. That’s why it’s sad to see Klein engage in the same sort of thinking in her column justifying the depradations of the so-called ‘Mahdi Army’ as somehow expressing the desire of genuine Iraqi democrats. Muqtada al-Sadr is a sanguineous religious fanatic, whose thuggish followers engage in the slaughter of the innocents.”

As interesting are the debates it has sparked in the comments. Decide for yourself.

Political Scientists’ Presidential election predictions

Well, a number of models by Americanists (people who study the United States) suggests that Bush will win the November presidential election.

Predictions in Short:

Alfred Cuzán and Charles Bundrick predict that George Bush will win with 52% of the vote.

Ray Fair predicts that George Bush will win with 60% of the vote.

Allan Lichtman predicts that George Bush will win but gives no forecast of the share of thevote that he’ll receive.

Michael Lewis-Beck and Charles Tien believe that the election is too close to call.

Brad Lockerbie predicts that George Bush will win with 57.6% of the vote.

Helmut Norpoth forecasts that George Bush will win with 54.7% of the vote.

Wlezien and Erikson predict that Bush will get 52.5% of the vote.

I guess we’ll see in November whether any of this is worthwhile.

Extract from The Ancestor’s Tale

The Guardian has this extract from Richard Dawkin’s latest book, The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution.

“The Ancestor’s Tale is cast in the form of an epic pilgrimage from the present to the past. All roads lead to the origin of life. But because we are human, the path we shall follow will be a human pilgrimage to discover human ancestors. As we go, we shall greet other pilgrims who join us at a series of rendezvous points, as we encounter the common ancestor we share with each of them.”

Seamus Heaney on Czeslaw Milosz

“For quite a while now, those who knew Czeslaw Milosz couldn’t help wondering what it was going to be like when he was gone. In the meantime he more than held his own, writing away for all he was worth in Kraków, in his early nineties, in an apartment where I had the privilege of visiting him twice. On the first occasion he was confined to his bed, too unwell to attend a conference arranged in his honor, and on the second he was ensconced in his living room, face-to-face with a life-size bronze head and torso of his second wife, Carol. His junior by some thirty years, she had died from a quick and cruel cancer in 2002, and as he sat on one side of the room facing the bronze on the other, the old poet seemed to be viewing it and everything else from another shore. On that occasion he was being ministered to by his daughter-in-law, and perhaps it was her hovering attentions as much as his translated appearance that brought to mind the aged Oedipus being minded by daughters in the grove at Colonus, the old king who had arrived where he knew he would die. Colonus was not his birthplace, but it was where he had come home to himself, to the world, and to the otherworld; and the same could be said of Milosz in Kraków.”

More here from The New Republic.

Four More Years or Four More Variables?

“A well-known Yale economist has written a book using the mathematical technique of regression to predict the outcome of presidential elections. Ray C. Fair’s Predicting Presidential Elections and Other Things grew out of his 1978 paper that provides quite accurate descriptions of these quadrennial elections dating back to 1916. Before getting to his very surprising prediction for this November (with which I disagree), let me sketch the idea behind the technique.” That’s John Allen Paulos writing in his regular column at ABC News. More here.

Socially Sanctioned Lunacy

Natalie Angier reviews The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris:

It’s not often that I see my florid strain of atheism expressed in any document this side of the Seine, but ”The End of Faith” articulates the dangers and absurdities of organized religion so fiercely and so fearlessly that I felt relieved as I read it, vindicated, almost personally understood. Sam Harris presents major religious systems like Judaism, Christianity and Islam as forms of socially sanctioned lunacy, their fundamental tenets and rituals irrational, archaic and, important when it comes to matters of humanity’s long-term survival, mutually incompatible. A doctoral candidate in neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles, Harris writes what a sizable number of us think, but few are willing to say in contemporary America: ”We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common, we call them ‘religious’; otherwise, they are likely to be called ‘mad,’ ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional.’ ” To cite but one example: ”Jesus Christ — who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death and rose bodily into the heavens — can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad?” The danger of religious faith, he continues, ”is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy.”

More here from the New York Times.

Battleground Art: Revisiting the Culture Wars in Cincinnati

“It’s hard to imagine a better time or place than this election year and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati to mount the exhibition ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors: Politics in U.S. Art of the 1980’s.’ What more symbolic venue could there be for a show about yesteryear’s culture wars? It was the Contemporary, after all, that was besieged in 1990 when its then director, Dennis Barrie, was hauled into county court for ‘pandering obscenity’ after showing Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs. Cincinnati remains a conservative redoubt in a battleground state. But the selection of paintings, sculptures, videos and photographs in this show — on view through Nov. 21 in Zaha Hadid‘s acclaimed new building — feels like a brave attempt by a rejuvenated institution to confront its local audience, and perhaps at the same time begin to repair the city’s reputation for cultural provincialism.”

More here from the New York Times.

Monday, September 6, 2004