The Human Peacock’s Ghastly Tail

by Liam Heneghan

“He was violent?”

She exhaled. “I don’t know. What’s ‘violent’ anymore? He was a teenage guy. Then, a guy in his twenties.”

—Richard Powers, The Echo Maker

Once upon a time, there was an editor of a short-lived academic journal called Evolutiona Pathologica who was fired in disgrace. In an interview published after his dismissal, the editor, a notoriously fastidious man, reported that papers in his journal often had a pronounced impact on the field primarily because they were unsound; unsound in their conception, imperfect in their analysis, defective in their conclusions drawn from meager data, and inflated in the claims they made about their practical implications. The papers were often wide of the mark, he conceded, and even occasionally bonkers. Yet, many papers were masterpieces precisely because refuting the claims strengthened the subdiscipline of evolutionary pathology. Or so he said. Kaveri River

Recently, while archiving the material from the defunct journal, I reread the manuscript the publication of which resulted in the editor’s dismissal. I also discovered an internal report on the dismissal that shed light on the case..

Before reproducing the offending paper – some of you, of course, will remember it well – I’ll remind you of some of other mildly controversial pieces that appeared in the journal. For instance, in a rather famous special issue on the pathological origins and implications of bipedality, Professor J. P. X deRossa-Ellman made the celebrated claim that upright walking evolved to reduce the overstimulation of reflexology points on the hands and to intensify the quality of the massage on the feet. “As hominins shifted from an arboreal habitat,” deRossa-Ellman opined, “pressure on the hands, especially on the zones associated with the small intestines inclined Australopithecines to a frightful gassiness. In contrast, the laudatory effects of passively massaging the feet by walking on the dewy grasses of the East African savannah produced a sense of well-being that disposed our primitive forbears to recreational coitus. Those more upright proto-humans joyously copulated thus leading to increased fitness.” To the embarrassment of the journal it was later discovered that deRossa-Ellman ran a specialized massage parlor on the near North side called “Strange Beginnings/Happy Endings”. He also did a brisk business selling “genuine savannah grass”. Apparently you could also smoke the stuff.

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Monday Poem


Wake up as much as possible
before you sleep
………………… catch
your breath while the sun’s up
……….in February after a snow
everything’s so soaked with light
……… is impossible
and all that’s left is to catch a day
by an hour
………………. and dance
.. ….in incandescence

……….. about sleep and dreams
……….. the doldrums and
……….. to what the crows caw
cackling over road kill
……………… ……… wake
to the wind's insistence that
……………….. is the way
the world works
to its
……….. alarm

by Jim Culleny

How To Implode A Myth

by Misha Lepetic

“If you design with a view to optimize anything, it is bound to end up suboptimal, because it can’t cope with change. This applies as much to political constitutions, universities and buildings”
~ Jeff Mulgan


Recently I had the good fortune to catch “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” at the IFC Center here in New York. The docuementary is a fascinating corrective to the perception that when we talk about failed public housing, we are talking about failed architectural design. The documentary makes liberal use of the above 1972 picture and footage, which has become visual shorthand for, as Alexander von Hoffmann writes:

…an icon of failure. Liberals perceive it as exemplifying the government’s appalling treatment of the poor. Architectural critics cite it as proof of the failure of high-rise public housing for families with children. One critic even asserted that its destruction signaled the end of the modern style of architecture.

There is much to be said about the story of Pruitt-Igoe. Its history, and the narratives and ideologies that are woven around that history, constitute a microcosm of how we choose to perceive many aspects of architecture, urban planning and public policy during the 20th century. Unsurprisingly, such a grand flameout was bound to attract grand pronouncements, since there was something for everyone to cherry-pick for his or her own agenda.

The genesis of a housing development as large as Pruitt-Igoe was made possible by the United States Housing Act of 1949, but flight to the St Louis suburbs was already in motion. Postwar migration from the South, in the form of the Second Great Migration, re-filled that urban core with poor families that could not afford much better than the tenant buildings run by slumlords. However, even this migration was not sufficient to re-inflate the population of the City of St Louis, which would peak at 857,000 in the 1950 census. Currently standing at 319,000, the 63% loss in population has left the city at roughly the same size as during the 1870 census. Even more remarkably, the St Louis Metropolitan area – the destination of urban flight – saw its population grow from 400,000 to well over a million in the same 60-year span.

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The Emptiness of Pluralism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

1274595994XBH6HaxIn last month’s post, we argued that value pluralism is the view that there are objective and heterogeneous goods, goods that are distinct and irreducible. To hold that there are distinct and irreducible goods is to hold that there is no summum bonum, no ultimate good that explains the goodness of all other goods. It also is to hold that there is no master good against which to measure the value of the other goods. According to the value pluralist, then, there is at least one pair of objective goods, A and B, such that A is neither better than B, worse than B, nor equal in value to B. This is to say that, according to value pluralism, some goods are incommensurable with other goods. Value pluralism thus is the three-pronged thesis that (1) there is a plurality of objective goods, (2) of these goods, some are irreducible to any other good, and (3) these irreducible goods are incommensurable with other irreducible goods. That’s pluralism in a nutshell. Pluralism about anything comes to this tripartite thesis, mutatis mutandis.

When presented in this way, value pluralism may seem an esoteric view. The meager degree of precision introduced above suffices to dampen the halo effect of the term. Now the term no longer seems like a catch-all for a collection of virtues or term of approval for a moral disposition. Rather, what we have with value pluralism is a philosophical thesis about the nature of value.

We will not attempt here to determine whether value pluralism is true. Instead we seek to defeat a consideration commonly offered in support of value pluralism. Consistent with its status as a paradigmatic halo term, advocates of value pluralism often claim that their view is uniquely positioned to supply philosophical backup for a politics of inclusion, toleration, open-mindedness, diversity, and difference. In fact, the father of value pluralism, Isaiah Berlin, went further than this in his famous essay on “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Berlin held not only that value pluralism entails a politics of toleration and individual liberty, he also claimed that value monism – the view that all good things are good in virtue of sharing some single property – fosters intolerance, tyranny, and despotism.

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ValleyofRocks1 Nightwalks series

Tim Knowles. Valley of Rocks #1. Nightwalk Series. 2008.

C-type print mounted on Aluminium and framed with non-reflective glass.

Nightwalks are a series of illuminated walks that Tim Knowles created in the countryside during a new moon. Over the period of an hour, the artist walked away from the camera while carrying three wide-beam torches. His path, along a precarious rocky ridge in the darkness, was illuminated and captured using a long-exposure, large-format photograph.

More here and here.

David Shrigley: Brain Activity

by Sue Hubbard

Until 13th May 2012, Hayward Gallery, London

The term black humour was first coined by the Surrealist André Breton in his 1940 anthology of texts, which traces the literary history of the satire of death. In 1896 Alfred Jarry’s Absurdist play Ubu Roi ushered in Surrealism which created a platform for political and psychological disruption against the events of the early 20thcentury, particularly the atrocities of the First World War. Satire provided a way of facing death as well as subverting authoritarian thinking.

Ds5aAbsurdist humour forms the basis of David Shrigley’s art practice. His drawings with their dead-pan one line jokes, his videos and taxidermy have created a whole new category that sits somewhere between popular culture and fine art. It’s as if the jottings of a nerdy comic loving teenager had been plastered round the Hayward Gallery. Some of his drawings are very funny indeed: the pair of feet that says ‘clap your hands’, the wall painting of a man where his ankle has been labelled ‘tooth’, and his penis ‘chimney’. Or the sign high on the gallery wall that simply reads: Hanging Sign. Yet as I write this down something is stripped away. It just doesn’t sound so funny – but it is. Often it is simply the tension between the object, the context and the text, the stating of the obvious in a way that’s never quite obvious until Shrigley does it, that creates the humour. There is also something very English about it. His are the sort of jokes you might find in those old school boy comics the Dandy and the Beano or in Monty Python.

A course in Environmental Art at the Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s and early 1990s seems an unlikely springboard for such zany work. Yet it appears to have provided a sense of context for his absurdist interventions. Leisure Centre (1992) depicts a white flimsy cardboard box with a cut-out door on which he has written LEISURE CENTRE. Placed in the middle of a muddy building plot it implicitly comments on the paucity of local authority services. Another placard stuck in dry ground announces RIVER FOR SALE, whilst a sheet of paper pinned to a tree simply reads: LOST. GREY+WHITE PIDGEON WITH BLACK BITS. NORMAL SIZE. A BIT MANGY-LOOKING. DOES NOT HAVE A NAME. CALL 2571964. The bathos and pathos of this little narrative are almost worthy of Sam Beckett.

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The search for a two-thousand-year-old city

by Hartosh Singh Bal

Lost to history, a number of cities of classical antiquity once existed along the banks of the river Narmada in central India. Many of these cities date back to the 3rd century BC, to the time of the emperor Ashoka, who united the subcontinent into an empire whose extent was never again to be matched in the history of India. The emperor ruled from Patliputra (modern day Patna) in the heart of Magadh in the Indo-Gangetic plain but the spread of his empire made it inevitable that there would be other centers of administration. It was carved into four provinces, after Magadh the most important of these was Avanti with its capital Ujjain. Along the highway connecting the two capitals a number of cities came up and prospered, including some on the banks of the Narmada.

A coup by a Brahmin commander-in-chief who in all likelihood could not tolerate the ascendance of Buddhism brought down the Mauryan Empire. In the aftermath Patliputra could no longer exercise control over the unwieldy empire, the cities soon went their own way. One of the most important of these was Mahismati. Despite several references that crop up in classical Sanskrit literature, today it is difficult to pin down its exact location. This has given rise to a host of claimants along the Narmada, residents of modern day towns such as Mandla and Maheshwar still wage a fevered battle – leaving nothing aside, myths, fanciful notions, borrowings from questionable sources, notions that historians of repute would never touch.

ScreenHunter_12 Feb. 06 10.47There remains one authentic source for delving into the history of these cities. Coins dating back as far as the third century BC have been recovered in such abundance from the Narmada valley that the subject now forms a separate field of study. Borrowing symbols used on coins once struck at the Ujjain mint, we can guess at the existence of cities such as Bhagila, Kurara and Madavika only through the markings on their coins.

The coins do not differ much in size from the modern coin, though square shapes seemed to have been preferred. They are often crowded with symbols. A single square coin, no larger than the modern 25paisa coin, could accommodate as many as five symbols on each face. Some of these symbols were in use across the subcontinent, such as the swastika; others such as the Ujjain symbol resembling the iron cross demarcated a region.

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Superbowl Spleen

Justin E. H. Smith in his blog:

6a00d83453bcda69e20147e255274e970b-250wiLet's see, how should I spend my Sunday? Should I keep reading Herwig Wolfram's magisterial History of the Goths? Should I perhaps go a-hunting online for some whimsical new videos of cats doing unexpected things? Or should I check to see if there are any noteworthy athletic spectacles on television?

There has been a dull din, growing louder over the past few weeks, that suggests to me that some big sports event is in the offing. Distant memories from childhood cause me to associate this din, in this particular season, with football. These associations, in turn, conjure up others still: of Ronald Reagan, of high-school meatheads in letter jackets telling me not to stand too close to their girlfriends, of ROTC, of PromiseKeepers, of words like 'buddy', of a model of American masculinity that quite literally spit me out as indigestible.

More here.

Myth and Fiction at the Jaipur Literature Festival

William Dalrymple in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_10 Feb. 05 17.43While those journalists who actually attended the festival were able to write with accuracy about what happened, the further away journalists and columnists were from the event, the more distorted became their reports. Increasingly we have seen ourselves, and the festival we run, caricatured beyond all recognition.

The first myth I have watched developing after Salman cancelled his visit was that there was never any threat to his life. This is nonsense.

While we at the festival have no way finally to determine if the intelligence agencies really did exaggerate the threat perception to Salman—and that is certainly possible — what we do know is that there was a very real threat of violence at the venue if he did come. In a meeting held in Jaipur with representatives of 19 Muslim organizations on the 19th of January, the day before our opening, while the great majority of the groups were happy to pursue peaceful protests, we organizers were confronted by a few thugs who were hell bent on creating serious trouble and threatened large scale violence and personal harm to Salman and us.

They screamed threats and made it clear that they had no compunction about maiming or murdering to get their way. There were strong hints given that money had been offered to disrupt the event by any means possible. When Salman made the decision to cancel his visit, writing to us that “I can’t imperil the audience or my fellow writers or any of you,” I have no doubt that, sadly, he made the right call.

More here.

Qatar Purchases Cézanne’s The Card Players for More Than $250 Million, Highest Price Ever for a Work of Art


Alexandra Peers in Vanity Fair:

The tiny, oil-rich nation of Qatar has purchased a Paul Cézanne painting, The Card Players, for more than $250 million. The deal, in a single stroke, sets the highest price ever paid for a work of art and upends the modern art market.

If the price seems insane, it may well be, since it more than doubles the current auction record for a work of art. And this is no epic van Gogh landscape or Vermeer portrait, but an angular, moody representation of two Aix-en-Provence peasants in a card game. But, for its $250 million, Qatar gets more than a post-Impressionist masterpiece; it wins entry into an exclusive club. There are four other Cézanne Card Players in the series; and they are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musée d’Orsay, the Courtauld, and the Barnes Foundation. For a nation in the midst of building a museum empire, it’s instant cred.

Is the painting, created at the cusp of the 20th century, worth it? Well, Cézanne inspired Cubism and presaged abstract art, and Picasso called him “the father of us all.” That said, “$250 million is a fortune,” notes Victor Wiener, the fine-art appraiser called in by Lloyd’s of London when Steve Wynn put his elbow through a Picasso, in 2006. “But you take any art-history course, and a Card Players is likely in it. It’s a major, major image.” For months, he said, “its sale has been rumored. Now, everyone will use this price as a point of departure: it changes the whole art-market structure.”

More here.

Dear Super Bowl Advertisers: No Spoilers!

From The New Yorker:

Ferris-bueller-adSuper Bowl ads have been a major part of the game’s telecast since 1984, at least. That was the year that Apple débuted its “1984” spot, which was directed by Ridley Scott and showed a benumbed crowd herded into an auditorium before being liberated by an enlightened, hammer-throwing revolutionary. The commercial was a homage to George Orwell’s novel, of course, but also a suggestion that Apple Macintosh users might be more interested in individuality and energy than, say, P.C. users. It ran during the Super Bowl and only once more before it was removed from circulation; cult fame was instant.

There had been notable Super Bowl ads before “1984”: Joe Namath hawked Noxzema in 1973 and Xerox launched its famous monastery spot in 1977. But “1984” kicked things up a notch. Apple returned the following year with the “lemmings” ad, in which P.C. users marched off a cliff; it was considered a failure, but still generated tremendous interest in the week leading up to the game. In 1990, Ridley Scott directed a spot for Nissan that courted criticism for what some said was a glorification of street racing. In 1993, basketball dominated: Larry Bird and Michael Jordan played an increasingly Byzantine game of H-O-R-S-E, and Jordan was featured in a second ad that featured Looney Tunes characters and became the basis for the movie “Space Jam.” And then there was the post-9/11 Clydesdales ad of 2002, where the famed Budweiser horses crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and then bowed their heads in prayer.

More here.

Maya Angelou: Global Renaissance Woman

Bio6Dr. Maya Angelou is one of the most renowned and influential voices of our time. Hailed as a global renaissance woman, Dr. Angelou is a celebrated poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, and civil rights activist. Born on April 4th, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, Dr. Angelou was raised in St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas. In Stamps, Dr. Angelou experienced the brutality of racial discrimination, but she also absorbed the unshakable faith and values of traditional African-American family, community, and culture. As a teenager, Dr. Angelou’s love for the arts won her a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. At 14, she dropped out to become San Francisco’s first African-American female cable car conductor. She later finished high school, giving birth to her son, Guy, a few weeks after graduation. As a young single mother, she supported her son by working as a waitress and cook, however her passion for music, dance, performance, and poetry would soon take center stage. In 1954 and 1955, Dr. Angelou toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, danced with Alvin Ailey on television variety shows and, in 1957, recorded her first album, Calypso Lady. In 1958, she moved to New York, where she joined the Harlem Writers Guild, acted in the historic Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet's The Blacks and wrote and performed Cabaret for Bio5Freedom. In 1960, Dr. Angelou moved to Cairo, Egypt where she served as editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer. The next year, she moved to Ghana where she taught at the University of Ghana's School of Music and Drama, worked as feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times.

During her years abroad, Dr. Angelou read and studied voraciously, mastering French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti. While in Ghana, she met with Malcolm X and, in 1964, returned to America to help him build his new Organization of African American Unity. Shortly after her arrival in the United States, Malcolm X was assassinated, and the organization dissolved. Soon after X's assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Dr. Angelou to serve as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King's assassination, falling on her birthday in 1968, left her devastated. With the guidance of her friend, the novelist James Baldwin, she began work on the book that would become I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Published in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published to international acclaim and enormous popular success. The list of her published verse, non-fiction, and fiction now includes more than 30 bestselling titles.

More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we will be linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).

Sunday Poem

One of the best leaves: Wislawa Szymborska, 1923-2012

Could Have

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.

You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.

You were in luck — there was a forest.
You were in luck — there were no trees.
You were in luck — a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant . . .

So you're here? Still dizzy from
another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn't be more shocked or
how your heart pounds inside me.

by Wislawa Szymborska
from View With a Grain of Sand
Harcourt, Brace, 1996)
translation: Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

Adonis: a life in writing

Maya Jaggi in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_09 Feb. 05 16.47Adonis, the greatest living poet of the Arab world, ushers me down a labyrinthine corridor in a stately building in Paris, near the Champs Elysées. The plush offices belong to a benefactor, a Syrian-born businessman funding the poet's latest venture – a cultural journal in Arabic, which he edits. Fetching a bulky manuscript of the imminent third issue of the Other, Adonis hefts it excitedly on to a coffee table, listing the contributors “from west and east”, many of them of his grandchildren's generation. He turned 82 this month. His eyes spark: “We want new talents with new ideas.”

A Syrian-born poet, critic and essayist, and a staunch secularist who sees himself as a “pagan prophet”, Adonis has been writing poetry for 70 years. He led a modernist revolution in the second half of the 20th century, exerting a seismic influence on Arabic poetry comparable to TS Eliot's in the anglophone world. Aged 17, he adopted the name of the Greek fertility god (pronounced Adon-ees, with the stress on the last syllable) to alert napping editors to his precocious talent and his pre-Islamic, pan-Mediterranean muses. Since the death of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in 2008, it would be hard to argue for a poet of greater stature in a literary culture where poetry is the most prestigious form as well as being popular.

He moved to Paris in 1985, and was named a commander of France's Order of Arts and Letters in 1997. Last year he was the first Arab writer to win the Goethe prize in Germany, and each autumn is credibly tipped for the Nobel in literature – the only Arab recipient of which to date was the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz in 1988.

More here.

What happened to Iraqi universities under US occupation?

Hugh Gusterson in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

Baghdad_university_tshirt-p235760504810379080zi7td_400As the last American soldiers left Iraq in December, so, too, did many of the journalists who had covered the war, leaving little in the way of media coverage of post-war Iraq. While there were some notable exceptions — including two fine articles by MIT's John Tirman that asked how many Iraqis had been killed as a result of the US invasion — overall the American press published few articles on the effects of the occupation, especially the consequences for Iraqis.

As a college professor, I have a special interest in what happened to Iraqi universities under US occupation. The story is not pretty.

Until the 1990s, Iraq had perhaps the best university system in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein's regime used oil revenues to underwrite free tuition for Iraqi university students — churning out doctors, scientists, and engineers who joined the country's burgeoning middle class and anchored development. Although political dissent was strictly off-limits, Iraqi universities were professional, secular institutions that were open to the West, and spaces where male and female, Sunni and Shia mingled. Also the schools pushed hard to educate women PDF, who constituted 30 percent of Iraqi university faculties by 1991. (This is, incidentally, better than Princeton was doing as late as 2009.) With a reputation for excellence, Iraqi universities attracted many students from surrounding countries — the same countries that are now sheltering the thousands of Iraqi professors who have fled US-occupied Iraq.

More here.