Every Superhero Needs His Own Theme Music

Lady-Gaga-Telephone-4 Bradley Manning, who is accused of providing data to Wikileaks, allegedly did so while listening to Gaga:

(2:14:21 pm) Manning: listened and lip-synced to Lady Gaga's Telephone while exfiltratrating [sic] possibly the largest data spillage in american history

Audio is a most seductive medium. In 2004, when the IPOD was but a finicky, clicky-hard drived baby, New York Times reporter Warren St. John went to New York’s streets to chart what effect the device had on the urban landscape and the human relationships within. Were New Yorkers becoming as atomized, as isolated, as Californians were in their cars? Baristas and bagel bar owners were quoted lamenting that Ipod listeners were holding up the line, not hearing the cashier shout “Next!” New Yorkers love their imagined tribes, and one likened Ipod owners to one, identifiable only by those little white wires. Another tribal said the machine “makes him feel as though he is in his own music video.”

This last idea is the only one in the article that still seems relevant: somehow our bagel lines move smoothly again even if we’re all plugged in, but the idea of creating one’s own little cinemascape, audience of one, is stickier. The listener St. John quoted isn’t at all concerned by the idea of being in his own music video. It is rather an empowering, joyous thing, one any urban dweller who moves through the city freely and possesses such a device might relate to. Indeed, the idea that the Ipod might have a pernicious, or at least complicated side, struck Apple as “wacky” in St. John’s article ''it's a little wacky to look at it that way, when the iPod has brought so much happiness into people's lives.''

The social aspects of music enjoyment – at a concert or a club, or even through Ipods and mobile phones (Wayne Marshall's teenagers “clustered around a tinny piece of plastic broadcasting a trebly slice of the latest pop hit”), are recognized as important, or demonized, parts of the urban tapestry. There’s a lot being said about what this all means for the public space. Here though, I want to focus on the private space: that more intimate, profoundly antisocial relationship, between oneself, one’s music, and one’s earbuds. When you’re not sharing, when its just for you. What does it mean to be in one’s own music video?

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Monday Poem

“The only God worth keeping is a God that cannot be kept.
The only God worth talking about is a God that cannot be talked about.
…God is present when I confront You.” *

Modern Times
by Jim Culleny
I and Thou (stern and bow)
may have plowed from then to now
(but can’t make way from now to then
through angry seas) split apart
end from end
I and Thou must make amends
and join ourselves bow to stern
one with one from now till now
—as of now! or we will burn
I and Thou, one with one
into the red eye of the sun
—being we, being now
being one, you and
and Thou

Let’s forgive each other darlin’, let’s go down to the greenwood glen
Let’s forgive each other darlin’, let’s go down to the greenwood glen
Let’s put our heads together, let’s put old matters to an end **


* Walter Kaufmann; prologue to I and Thou by Martin Buber
** Bob Dylan; Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Modern Times

This Land Was Your Land

by Jeff Strabone

Why is it that people who argue against the government's role in the economy don't likewise advocate for the flip side: that corporations should not be allowed to influence government? Is there an industrialized democracy more in need of checking corporate power over government policy than the United States? I expect that in any society, in any era, the powerful will have more sway over the making of laws than the powerless. Here in the U.S., corporate influence does not just distort our laws: it distorts our land. The power of the petroleum and automobile industries is inscribed in our very topography, and recent decisions by Republican governors to scuttle federally-funded rail projects suggest that their power to warp the landscape remains as strong as their power to warp democracy. The two go hand in hand. Dunnfoundation

Corporate power leaves its mark on the world in many ways. Coalmines and mercury-poisoned rivers are the most obvious examples. But what about strip malls and highways and the everyday landscape that many people take for granted as they drive a few miles to the nearest supermarket? Aren't they as American as the amber waves of grain that are the stuff of national song? Let us ask ourselves, how did they get here and what do they tell us about our national inability to build the high-speed rail lines that are the pride of so many other countries?

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Moharram and me

By Maniza NaqviWaterpeace

I laugh now, at how, as a child, I understood the narrative of Moharram and still (I think) managed to get the point of all the fuss.

I was left to understand the narrative of Moharram mostly on my own—because my parents, while observing its essential features for the first ten days of it weren’t really interested in instilling religion in me. I pieced it all together through my grandmother, who was very interested in telling me the “facts.” And I picked it up through various other sources of information available to me which included Pakistan Times, Radio Pakistan, the war with India and movies about cowboys and Indians. Through all of them I tried to patch together and make relevant the stories told to me about the events of 1400 years ago when the prophet’s grandson and family, the good guys, were besieged at Kerbela, denied water, died fighting for justice and did not submit to Yezid’s overwhelming force of bad guys. I imagined the heat, the desert, the overwhelming military force of the oppressor. And I concluded from the people around me that all this sorrow led to an abundance of poetry and painting. And when politics was added into the discussion mix with wine then the heroism of Kerbela was sure to be remembered. My father always read to us a Marsiya by Mir Anis’s on the tenth of Moharram. It was also mentioned many times over that Faiz Ahmed Faiz had written a Marsiya after Sadequain chacha had told him that an Urdu poet isn’t a real poet unless he has written a marsiya.

Last Christmas eve, when asked about how Moharram was proceeding for me given that the lunar calendar placed the first ten days of Moharram during December 18-28th I came up with my usual answer, that as usual, I had done nothing. I am a Shi’a and identify myself as one. And during Moharram or any time of the year I can weep and feel the pain personally at the mention of the plight of the innocents, the family of the prophet Mohammad, at Kerbela, in 680 AD and in their journey to and imprisonment in Damascus. I am moved deeply at the very mention of Hussain’s sacrifice at Kerbala, particularly the trials of his sister Zainab and her exemplary and courageous conduct. Such is the power of this immortal narrative of courage and resolve against tyranny, as received and passed on through the centuries from Zainab, the daughter of Imam Ali, the sister of Imam Husain and Hazrat Abbas, the witness and narrator of Kerbala. Such is the affect of the story of Kerbela as received from Zainab that through the centuries it has been expressed through dirges, passion plays and laments about struggle and resistance and it is for me and for millions of others an article of faith.

But as a child a little knowledge left me shaken and not stirred. As a child I lived in an enclave in Pakistan nestled between Mirpur and Mangla on the border with India. Water and rivers dominated my world—Mangla dam where my father was an engineer and where American contractors were building a massive dam was the world I grew up in, insulated from the larger Pakistani society. I tried to make sense of Moharram within the context of the world I lived in. I grew up in what would be labeled, in today’s world of fear and apologies, as a secular-agnostic Shi’a Muslim family. My upbringing as a child was isolated from the larger Pakistani society and confined to a rural enclave where an international community was busy building the largest earth filled dam of the time. And then, of course, there was the atmosphere of war in 1965, we were close to the Indian border and the constant fear of India attacking was very frightening for me.

On Christmas eve my first grade American teacher borrowed me from my parents—not clear why I was borrowed or lent—but it was because my teacher and her husband didn’t have children of their own to shower presents upon on or to spend Christmas with and so I got to be the proxy. In hindsight, I would hazard a guess that they were young missionaries, probably Mormons, who, out of the best of intentions, like my grandmother, were seeking to save my sweet soul.

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Spark Gaps and Circuits: Probing the holes in Fiction

Writers are risk-averse. Necessarily so, because writing is really a sort of willful blindness, each sentence depending on all the ones preceding it, the way digging a tunnel depends on each shovel scoop. Experimentation is potentially catastrophic (or worse, embarrassing). With the exception of a few scurries into modernism and postmodernism prose has barely evolved since Charles Dickens’ era, at least compared with its poetic and visual counterparts. The reason for this is partly that writing is intelligible on a granular level; word for word, there is far less room for ambiguity between words than brushstrokes on a painting. A word that isn’t understood is moot; like a blockage in the aforementioned tunnel. That goes double for syntax. A reader can endure a fair amount of acrobatics for a short duration, like a poem, but kicking through 75,000 words of strange… is difficult. Good writing is clear, concise and almost always formally conventional, that is, on the page. Drafting and re-writing do, in theory, let an author step back and intervene in a more architectural manner, but such interventions are powerful and jarring and are used sparingly, often only in the most dire of circumstances. Drafting is more akin to buttressing than transmutation. Shifting tense, or modes of narration (from a first-person “I” to an omniscient third-person, for example) can easily collapse a text. Yet as rigid a channel as prose writing may be, there are a few zones of complete ambiguity in a piece of prose, which have become the site of a rich, strange and evolving alchemy.

Readers of unsolicited texts –‘ slush piles’ in publishing industry argot – develop an uncanny ability to identify monstrous prose from a mere glance. Some of this is obvious: choosing a quirky font, for example, is never a good sign; but there are other more subtle queues. A series of monotonously sized paragraphs marching down the page is an unambiguous tell that something has been written by a rank amateur. Paragraph breaks may not have semantic content, but they contribute something tangible to a text. Same goes for any other whitespace. An author who doesn’t manipulate his or her spaces is likely not paying much attention to anything else in his or her prose. But this suggests something else as well. Absence of text may not ‘say’ something but it does do something.

The paragraph break is probably smallest unit of absence in a prose text. Words and sentences map onto reality pretty well, since, for the most part one’s internal monologue seems to consist of words and sentences – or at least sentence fragments, and it is easy to imagine punctuation marks as pauses for breath, a querulous chirp, or sudden spurt of rage; but a paragraph is a strange and unnatural thing. It is an artificial break; a gap in what should be a continuous feed of chatter from the brain. Higher-orders of division are more peculiar still – sections, chapters, books, volumes and sets – some are vestiges of the printer’s trade, others evolved from older forms, but all share one quality: they interrupt text, break it into a segment, and by doing so delineate a beginning and an end to a discrete unit of information; or to put it another way, they force a feed of information into a rigid form.

Captured, text circulates: it has a beginning, an end, and, ostensibly, a way to reel back to the beginning all over again.

The larger the gap, or to put it another way, the more of an impediment to the reader an interruption becomes – ranging from a few milliseconds flex of one’s ocular muscle through a line of blank space, to closing a book and (perhaps) starting over – the stronger the circulation. Within a text, each a paragraph break transfers momentum, a quantum of flexion, almost like a heartbeat. Alone, this is meaningless, but as paragraphs accrete, they develop a rhythm, one that a skilled operator can use to modulate the momentum of a piece of writing, or even alter its meaning.

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Dinner Table Science: My 3 Favorite Findings of 2010

Last year, at Christmas dinner with my husband’s family, I was stumped by a seemingly simple question: “What was the biggest scientific discovery of 2009?” What a great question, I remember thinking, as the papers and news I’d read over the past year churned through my mind, struggling to bubble up to consciousness. For a biology graduate student, it should have been easy; I should have been able to come up with something, anything, that was a notable scientific achievement, yet also engaging enough to be of interest to my in-laws. (The overlap between these two spheres of science is smaller than you might think. In fact, as I tried in vain to pull an answer from the murky depths of my memory, I was beginning to believe it was non-existent.)

I fumbled for a long minute, and exchanged a blank glance with my husband (who was also a grad student) – he too was at a loss. (After all, not all research comes with the headline-grabbing, NASA-approved stamp of extra-terrestrial life.*) One of us eventually bumbled towards an answer (I think it was the Mars rover’s discovery of water), but I vowed at that moment to be better prepared in 2010.

So today, I present you with three science-y things from 2010 that you can talk about around the dinner table. Some were striking enough for me to remember on my own, others were featured in ScienceNOW’s excellent compilation of the most popular stories of the year, or Nature magazine’s top science articles of 2010. All have two things in common: 1. They make great conversation starters. 2. You don’t have to be a scientist to understand them.

#3. Men with good dance moves attract women.

Dancing avatar The Gist: What exactly is a ‘good’ dance move? Researchers at Northumbria University in the UK identified the essential elements of a man’s good moves by devising a way to separate the attractiveness of the dancer from the attractiveness of the dance. When attempting to quantify a woman’s perception of a man’s dancing ability, it’s nearly impossible to control for the appearance of the dancer. His height, clothing, body shape, and facial features can all influence her impression of his skills.

To remove these confounding factors, the authors in the study used 3D motion-capture technology to create computer-generated avatars. Each dancing male wore 38 reflective markers distributed from his wrists to his neck to his ankles, and danced to a 30-second clip of music in front of a camera that recorded every shake, twist, bump, and grind. Videos were played for women, and researchers analyzed body position, movements, and speed.

The Controversy: No real controversy (or surprises) here. Heterosexual women like men (or at least purple gender-neutral computer avatars) who can dance. The authors speculated that good dance moves could signify important qualities in a potential mate (such as coordination, health, vigor, and athletic prowess). Don’t fret if you’re a badly dancing heterosexual male though; this study offers instructional advice. My favorite tip? Get that right knee moving. According to the study’s authors, it was one of the most important signs of dance quality.

Why I like it: It may not be ‘the greatest scientific discovery of 2010’, but it’s worth watching the videos of good and bad dancing avatars on YouTube. (I’m not the only one who likes them; combined, the videos have nearly 740,000 hits- not bad for a scientific article.) There’s no word yet on whether the ‘good’ moves have sparked a new dance craze, but I’m holding out hope.

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Stories We Tell

by Hasan Altaf

Granta_pakistan Reading about Pakistan has become, for me, a fraught experience. Every time I see the country mentioned in a headline, my first reaction – the news or analysis being so unending, and so uniformly disheartening – is to hold my breath. I don’t know how other people interpret our current ticking-time-bomb situation, but to me, it feels like a particularly bizarre and dramatic existential crisis, dragging on and on without end. I can never resist the articles, but it’s an exercise in masochism.

For that reason, I was both eager and anxious to read two recent collections of Pakistan-centered writing. The cover of Granta’s Pakistan issue, designed like one of the brightly painted trucks that were the representation of our country in what seems like a happier time, was a pleasant surprise; by itself, it did a great deal to alleviate my nervousness. The Life’s Too Short literary review was impressive for its novelty, its uniqueness – and its sheer audacity, too: In the middle of the madness, life goes on, life is lived, and life is always too short.

LTS_journal Beyond theme, the two collections have little in common, and they leave the reader with very different impressions. At first read, Granta seems more familiar, more in sync with other contemporary coverage of Pakistan. It’s not all beards and bombs, but none of the pieces seem too far away from the country we read about every day in the New York Times or the BBC – it has that sense to it, of bated breath, of decades of decay, of disaster around every corner.

The other anthology is kind of jarring; reading it, you would never know that this country has become a war zone, a deathtrap, a state whose list of failures grows by the day. In these stories, Pakistan is just a place, where people live and die, get by or don’t, fail and succeed, love and hate – as people do everywhere, anywhere. These are really the more familiar stories: what we did today, where we went, where we came from – but in the context of Pakistan, somehow I did not expect such ordinariness.

It would be oversimplifying to say that the difference between the two is that of macro and micro, capital-H History and ordinary stories. It’s more likely that the collections simply reflect their different intentions. Granta is geared to the “international market,” which in this context means, I imagine, the Western market, and that market has certain expectations from Pakistani writing. The Life’s Too Short anthology will probably not be read as much, outside of the country, and so does not have to meet those expectations.

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The Thirty Years’ Reform

Healthcare-credibility If you’ve paid attention to American politics over the last two years (real politics, not beauty contest gossip) it’s understandable if you’re sick of hearing about health care reform. It was a daily topic for nearly a year leading up to the historic legislation passed in March 2010, has not receded much since, and will likely be a top issue again in 2011 with Republican efforts to repeal health care reform in both the House and the Supreme Court. If you’re not in the health care industry and don’t know much about its inner workings, all of this may be snooze-inducing, especially since you’ve probably heard that the current round of reforms isn’t very radical and keeps the current system pretty much in place–just expands it to an approximation of the universal coverage other developed nations already have. But health care reform will not go away, and for good reason: like a leech-wielding barber of old, America’s health care industry is slowly bleeding it dry.

Unfortunately, nothing that has been done by the Democrats so far, and nothing that is likely to be done by the Republicans over the next year or two, will make a large dent in the most massive problem created by America’s health care sector today: it costs nearly $1 trillion dollars too much, each year, and the cost is growing at a rate faster than the economy. To put that in perspective, America’s expenditure on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined, over nine years, is bit over $1 trillion dollars. To put it another way, an extra $3,000 is spent by the average American every year on health care without, for all we can tell, contributing to a better quality of life or a single day more of it, compared to European and other industrialized nations. (see here, here and here.)

The rate of growth is as much a problem as the absolute cost. The projected increase in health care spending for the Federal government constitutes almost the entire long run projected growth in national debt. Without health care, there is no looming fiscal crisis for the United States, but with health care’s current trajectory, either the US will have a fiscal collapse in the lifetime of most people reading this, or taxes will have to rise to levels higher than the “socialist” nations that Americans are so determined to reject, just to pay for the government portion of health care.

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Reflections on the Density of City Life

I: Reflectvertising in Tokyo’s Liquid Desert
The white neon apple, visible all the way down Chuo Avenue, Reflectvertizing_ginza makes finding the Ginza Apple Store deceptively easy. I say ‘deceptively’ because it’s not until you’re about to enter that you realize you've been chasing after a reflection, a perfect double emblazoned on the frosted glass of the Matsuya Department store directly across the street. Tokyo’s upturned desert of glass preserves, from its former days as sand, the ability to proliferate mirages and fata morgana, sends wanderers deeper and deeper into the wild.

Restaurant reflectvertisements are slung around Tokyo's street-corners, billboard reflections dragged over the curved surfaces of its slow-moving
taxi cabs. Storefront neon sloshes about like oil in narrow waterways, luring then repelling, tempting then deterring. Looking out over this liquid Sahara, it’s hard to say whether reflectvertisements fall more on the side of visiting or intruding, hanging out or loitering. What can be said is that this economy of intangible light operates very differently from the economy of invisible air over which radio, television, and cellular companies bid so ravenously. And while all things may not pass amicably between reflectvertising neighbors in Tokyo, more notable than the tallying of strife is the mood of the city excited by all this uneven thrumming.
However much dictionaries may want us to think of reflections as “the throwing back by a body or surface of light, heat, or sound, without absorbing it” I can’t help but feel Reflectvertizing_street that while reflections may bounce coldly off individual surfaces in Tokyo, taken together, they soak throughly into the warm skin of the city.

II: The Relative Pressures of City Life

Whenever I happen to lay my hand against the side of a skyscraper in Tokyo or New York, I wonder why it is that these structures don’t get hot from all the millions of pounds of vertical pressure coursing down through them. Where does it all go? As it passes into the streets, through nut vendors, and out the exhaust pipes of busses, might it be possible to follow it into subway tunnels or trace it up elevator shafts back to the top floors of office buildings? City smells, city sounds, and so many of
the city’s weighty little annoyances push us along the same stress-strain curve as its towering buildings, at every turn making trial of our tensile strength. When late for a business meeting, wouldn't we do better to measure the long wait for an elevator in pascals rather than in seconds, with a barometer rather than with a wristwatch? We Razor_thin_building_shiodome inhabitants of megacities are little Titans, miniature Atlases, each hefting a little of the city's load on our aching shoulders.

When I was a child, I’d greet my father at the door, and, tired after a hard day’s work, he’d always make me the same deal. “I'll give you a piggyback ride to the kitchen,” he’d say, “but only if you carry this heavy briefcase for me.” Giving out a groan as he dropped his burden into my extended hand, and then, lifting me up onto his back, he’d march about, play-acting an unfettered lightness of being. I have a sneaking suspicion that the logic of city life turns on a similar principle; that the city carries our freight upon its shoulders as long as we bear a small measure of its upon ours. Despite common sense telling us all this heavy-lifting ought to result in more, not less, cumulative pressure, what keeps the operation moving, both for my father and for the city, is not a diminishing of pressure, but the inverse; its amplification, spiked with a communal ecstasy over the senselessness of it all.

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Cuban medics in Haiti put the world to shame

Castro's doctors and nurses are the backbone of the fight against cholera.

Nina Lakhani in The Independent:

Haiti_523319t They are the real heroes of the Haitian earthquake disaster, the human catastrophe on America's doorstep which Barack Obama pledged a monumental US humanitarian mission to alleviate. Except these heroes are from America's arch-enemy Cuba, whose doctors and nurses have put US efforts to shame.

A medical brigade of 1,200 Cubans is operating all over earthquake-torn and cholera-infected Haiti, as part of Fidel Castro's international medical mission which has won the socialist state many friends, but little international recognition.

Observers of the Haiti earthquake could be forgiven for thinking international aid agencies were alone in tackling the devastation that killed 250,000 people and left nearly 1.5 million homeless. In fact, Cuban healthcare workers have been in Haiti since 1998, so when the earthquake struck the 350-strong team jumped into action. And amid the fanfare and publicity surrounding the arrival of help from the US and the UK, hundreds more Cuban doctors, nurses and therapists arrived with barely a mention. Most countries were gone within two months, again leaving the Cubans and Médecins Sans Frontières as the principal healthcare providers for the impoverished Caribbean island.

More here.

Sunday Poem

“The lives of men would be universal hell without the gnat of morality
—all praise to the God of Gnats.” –Roshi Bob

Housing Shortage

I tried to live small.
I took a narrow bed.
I held my elbows to my sides.
I tried to step carefully
And to think softly
And to breathe shallowly
In my portion of air
And to disturb no one.

Yet see how I spread out and I cannot help it.
I take to myself more and more, and I take nothing
That I do not need, but my needs grow like weeds,
All over and invading; I clutter this place
With all the apparatus of living.
You stumble over it daily.

And then my lungs take their fill.
And then you gasp for air.

Excuse me for living,
But, since I am living,
Given inches, I take yards,
Taking yards, dream of miles,
And a landscape, unbounded
And vast in abandon.

You too dreaming the same.

by Naomi Replansky
from No More Masks
Anchor Books, 1973

The new 20-somethings: Why won’t they grow up?

From Salon:

Kids This is a difficult time to be a young adult in America. As one passage from the new book “Not Quite Adults,” by Richard Settersten and Barbara Ray, aptly sums it up: “After two decades on Easy Street,” they write, “young adults awoke in early 2009 to a new nickname, Generation R, for 'recession.' All too suddenly, the party was over and only the hangover lay ahead.” As of April 2010, the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds stood at 17.2 percent, nearly double the national average. One half of 18- to 24-year-olds have not left home, a 37 percent increase since 1970. And it’s not just the fresh-out-of-college set: 30 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds live with their parents.

With its telling subtitle: “Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing A Slower Path To Adulthood, And Why It’s Good for Everyone,” Settersten and Ray's book gathers eight years of MacArthur Foundation research and hundreds of personal interviews to take the pulse of America’s young adults. Yes, more of them are living at home, delaying other big-person milestones like marriage and child-rearing. But while they sleep in their childhood bedrooms, they are also paying off debt, experimenting with careers and preparing for the time when they are ready to leave the nest and enter a hyper-competitive economy that doesn’t take kindly to failings and missteps.

More here.

The Trouble With Autobiography

From Smithsonian:

Theroux-at-home-in-Hawaii-631 I was born, the third of seven children, in Medford, Massachusetts, so near to Boston that even as a small boy kicking along side streets to the Washington School, I could see the pencil stub of the Custom House Tower from the banks of the Mystic River. The river meant everything to me: it flowed through our town, and in reed-fringed oxbows and muddy marshes that no longer exist, to Boston Harbor and the dark Atlantic. It was the reason for Medford rum and Medford shipbuilding; in the Triangular Trade the river linked Medford to Africa and the Caribbean—Medford circulating mystically in the world.

My father noted in his diary, “Anne had another boy at 7:25.” My father was a shipping clerk in a Boston leather firm, my mother a college-trained teacher, though it would be 20 years before she returned to teaching. The Theroux ancestors had lived in rural Quebec from about 1690, ten generations, the eleventh having migrated to Stoneham, up the road from Medford, where my father was born. My father’s mother, Eva Brousseau, was part-Menominee, a woodland people who had been settled in what is now Wisconsin for thousands of years. Many French soldiers in the New World took Menominee women as their wives or lovers.

More here.

The Structuralist

1292264773kirsch_121310_380px Adam Kirsch in The Tablet:

In Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory (Penguin Press, $29.95), Patrick Wilcken has written the biography not just of a man, but of an intoxicating intellectual moment. This was the moment of structuralism, a new way of thinking about human culture that emerged in France in the 1950s and enjoyed a worldwide vogue. The literary critic Roland Barthes, the cultural historian Michel Foucault, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan—all were structuralists of one sort or another, and all declared their indebtedness to Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of “structural anthropology.” Half a century later, all these names are still by-words for strenuous difficulty and theoretical sophistication; though they are classics by now, they retain the acrid perfume of the avant-garde. When people express contempt or dismay about “French theory,” it is usually the structuralists they have in mind.

It is a wonderful irony, then, that this most cutting-edge and Parisian of movements can be traced to a moment of epiphany in a primitive Indian village in western Brazil. In 1936, Lévi-Strauss and his wife Dina led an anthropological expedition to study the indigenous peoples of this region, at that time barely accessible from the big cities of Brazil’s Atlantic coast. One of the tribes they visited was the Bororo, and though Lévi-Strauss spent just three weeks with them, Bororo culture and myth would lie at the heart of his work for the next 60 years.

What fascinated Lévi-Strauss was not the picturesque elements of Bororo life—what Wilcken calls “the fetishized objects of the Western imagination: penis sheaths, multicolored headdresses, nose feathers, lip ornaments and body paint.” Rather, he became obsessed with the way the Bororo village was laid out.

Carl Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba

TELOS153_MEDDavid Pan and Julia Reinhard Lupton in Telos:

If recent discussions of Schmitt in these pages have made a broad case for the centrality of culture for his thinking, the current issue both specifies and generalizes this approach. The specificity derives from our focus on one key text by Schmitt that is often passed over but is in fact crucial for understanding his work. The generality is a result of the breathtaking sweep of issues that this text opens up for the contributors to this issue: the relation of sovereignty to popular will, the ontological status of modernity, the role of myth in society, the representational structure of human existence, the relation of art and theology to the public sphere. These discussions take our understanding of Schmitt into new directions that draw out not just the aesthetic and cultural aspects of his thought, but also reveal the import of his methods for fundamental questions of epistemology and ontology. He arrives at such questions through the consideration of a single exemplary case: Shakespeare's Hamlet.

His critical intervention has led to an increasing engagement by Renaissance scholars with Schmitt's work over the last decade. In the work of scholars such as Victoria Kahn, Anselm Haverkamp, and Kathleen Biddick, the example of Schmitt never functions as a simple template that would assert the isomorphism of religion and politics, but rather as an invitation to an impasse. What is it about politics that finds itself bound up in the person of the sovereign, the drama of the decision, and the state of exception even while regrounding the rule of law and the legitimacy of a constitution? What is it about politics that remains distinct from the content of ethics, economics, and culture while nonetheless bearing on them? Finally, what is it about politics that both courts and resists theology, catching civic and religious life in an impossible dance of failed separation and catastrophic rapprochement, the Scylla and Charybdis instanced by secularization on the one hand and fundamentalism on the other?

Thomas Bernhard, the Alienator

Peck-t_CA0-articleInline Dale Peck reviews Thomas Bernhard's My Prizes, in the NYT:

For the sympathetic Anglophone charged with reviewing newly translated texts by the Austrian playwright and novelist Thomas Bernhard, the task is a paradoxically onerous one. Put aside the near certainty that Bernhard would have disparaged anything you might say about his work — not just disparaged it, but attacked it with an acid-tongued rant that eviscerated your words, your intellect and your pathetic petit-bourgeois existence. You still have to deal with the almost overwhelming ambition, common to Bernhard fans, to correct his woeful stature in the English-speaking world, as well as the equally oppressive realization that opportunities for doing so are fast running out.

The 21 years since Bernhard died after a lifelong battle with tuberculosis have witnessed a slow but steady trickle of translations, including Old Masters, The Loser and Extinction, which, with Woodcutters, form a loose tetralogy (or, in the formulation of the Bernhard scholar Gitta Honegger, a classical trilogy to which Old Masters is appended as satyr play). These four books, along with “Concrete,” “Yes,” “Wittgenstein’s Nephew” and the five-volume memoir “Gathering Evidence” — oh, and the plays, the plays! — together constitute what some people, this writer included, regard as the most significant literary achievement since World War II. Despite this, Bernhard’s international reputation has never solidified in the manner of a W. G. Sebald, Christa Wolf or Peter Handke, let alone the three most recent German-language writers to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Günter Grass, Elfriede Jelinek and Herta Müller — all of whom, one wants to say with a dash of Bernhardian bile, are vastly inferior talents when compared with the master.

All the more urgent, then, for one of those reputation-making panegyrics akin to that with which D. H. Lawrence resuscitated Herman Melville. But how to write it, when most of what’s left of Bernhard’s oeuvre would appear to be ephemera and juvenilia?

The Fading Dream of Europe

Istanbul_Herzau_blog_jpg_470x427_q85 Orhan Pamuk in the NYRB blog:

That Turkey and other non-Western countries are disenchanted with Europe is something I know from my own travels and conversations. A major cause of the strain in relations between Turkey and the EU was most certainly the alliance that included a sector of the Turkish army, leading media groups, and nationalist political parties, all combining in a successful campaign to sabotage negotiations over entry into the EU. The same alliance was responsible for the prosecutions launched against me and many writers, the shooting of others, and the killing of missionaries and Christian clerics. There are also the emotional responses whose significance can best be explained by the example of relations with France. Over the past century, successive generations of the Turkish elite have faithfully taken France as their model, drawing on its understanding of secularism and following its lead on education, literature, and art. So to have France emerge over the past five years as the country most vehemently opposed to the idea of Turkey in Europe has been heartbreaking and disillusioning. It is, however, Europe’s involvement in the war in Iraq that has caused the keenest disappointment in non-western countries, and in Turkey, real anger. The world watched Europe being tricked by Bush into joining this illegitimate and cruel war, while showing immense readiness to be tricked.

When looking at the landscape of Europe from Istanbul or beyond, the first thing one sees is that Europe generally (like the European Union) is confused about its internal problems. It is clear that the peoples of Europe have a lot less experience than Americans when it comes to living with those whose religion, skin color, or cultural identity are different from their own, and that many of them do not warm to the prospect: this resistance to outsiders makes Europe’s internal problems all the more intractable. The recent discussions in Germany on integration and multiculturalism—particularly its large Turkish minority—are a case in point.

As the economic crisis deepens and spreads, Europe may be able, by turning in on itself, to postpone its struggle to preserve the culture of the “bourgeois” in Flaubert’s sense of the word, but that will not solve the problem.

A Question of Character

Kennedy_35.6_tocquevilleDavid M. Kennedy reviews Claude Fischer's Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character, in The Boston Review:

From that comparative perspective and in that relatively homogeneous cultural setting, a gifted group of scholars, including some eminent historians, seriously interrogated an idea first elaborated by Tocqueville in Democracy in America: not merely the American state, but American society as a whole, exhibits characteristics that define a distinctive national identity.

Gunnar Myrdal, in An American Dilemma (1944), found those defining characteristics in the “American Creed,” a cluster of values concerning equality, freedom, fairness, and individual dignity, which he posited as the birthright of even the most bigoted redneck, and therefore a reliable platform on which to build a claim for racial justice. Daniel Boorstin’s trilogy, The Americans (1958–1973), emphasized the workings of a resilient, adaptive, un-dogmatic practicality, a commonsensical, can-do spirit nurtured on the frontier but eventually pervading the entire society. Louis Hartz, in The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), offered a virtuoso dilation on Tocqueville’s great insight that “the Americans were born free, instead of becoming so.” The absence of a feudal phase in American historical development, Hartz said, arrested the familiar European historical dialectic and attenuated the range of political and ideational disagreement in America (just as many contemporary commentators have suggested that the absence of a historical experience equivalent to the Reformation or the Enlightenment has given modern Islamic cultures their own distinctive caste). H. Richard Niebuhr found the roots of America’s peculiarly vigorous and fissile religious behavior in the absence of an established church and in the traits bred among an egalitarian people spreading over a large territory. David Potter, the most intellectually rigorous and influential of these several authors, claimed in People of Plenty (1954) that an unusual degree of material abundance had shaped distinctively American institutions, behaviors, values, and habits, including advertising, mobility, consumerism, and even notably indulgent child-rearing practices. Henry Nash Smith, in Virgin Land (1950), found a set of myths about physical space and individual autonomy, however dubiously rooted in documentable historical reality, to be nevertheless-powerful influences on the society’s enduring belief structures. David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) introduced the term “other-directed” to define a peculiarly American personality type, formed by constant interaction with others in a society where ranks were indeterminate and people were therefore chronically anxious about status, identity, and self-worth. Seymour Martin Lipset described American society as a prototype for modernity itself in The First New Nation (1963), compared American and Canadian national identities in Continental Divide (1989), and summed up a lifetime of thinking about national character in American Exceptionalism (1996). Both Robert Bellah, in Habits of the Heart (1985), and more recently Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone (2000), have argued that unbridled individualism—a term coined by Tocqueville to describe the historical novelty of the American mindset—had by the late twentieth century dangerously undermined civic engagement and possibly threatened the society’s integrity.

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