What’s Behind the Notion That Nonfiction Is More ‘Relevant’ Than Fiction?

Pankaj Mishra in The New York Times:

Bookends-Pan-Kaj-Mishra-articleInlineMary McCarthy once described how Henry James had denuded the novel of its 19th-century attributes: “battles, riots, tempests, sunrises, the sewers of Paris, crime, hunger, the plague, the scaffold, the clergy, but also minute particulars such as you find in Jane Austen — poor Miss Bates’s twice-baked apples.” James, she wrote, had “etherealized the novel beyond its wildest dreams and perhaps etherized it as well.” The catastrophe of World War I forced James to examine the confident assumptions of, in his words, “the whole fool’s paradise of our past” — the bourgeois faith in progress, above all — that had informed his work. “The subject matter of one’s effort,” he wrote in 1915, “has become itself utterly treacherous and false — its relation to reality utterly given away and smashed.”

Some prominent literary fictionists in Europe and America were plunged into a no less demoralizing sense of irrelevance by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which shattered what Reinhold Niebuhr once called “the paradise of our domestic security . . . suspended in a hell of global insecurity.” Many readers of fiction, too, found reportage and memoir better equipped to allay their bewilderment and sate their reality hunger. Americans may “think this was . . . the end of civilization. In the third world, this sort of thing happened every day,” Dexter Filkins wrote in “The Forever War,” one of the recent works of narrative nonfiction about geopolitical and economic disasters that appeared to suggest a sturdier relation to reality than etherealized literary fiction. But then, as Robert Musil pointed out in “The Man Without Qualities,” “most people” seeking “refuge from chaos” long for “narrative order, the simple order that enables one to say: ‘First this happened and then that happened.’ ”

More here.

Saturday Poem

I’ve posted this poem before, but think it deserves a periodic reading
because its one of the finest little poems I’ve ever read. —Jim

Ring of Bone

I saw myself
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it

and vowed
always to be open to it
that all of it
might flow through

and then heard
“ring of bone” where
ring is what a

bell does

by Lew Welsh
from Ring of Bone

Unlikely Martyr: Mikhail Khodorkovsky as Noble Dissident in Putin’s Russia


Julia Ioffe in Tablet:

Instead of defending his innocence at the final day of his trial on nebulous charges last November, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man and now imprisoned in a Siberian labor camp near a radioactive mine, read to the court a political manifesto that lambasted the stagnation and corruption into which contemporary Russia has sunk. “The obvious conclusion a thinking person can make is chilling in its stark simplicity,” he intoned in the tiny courtroom packed with reporters and the pensioners who’d come to show their support. “The silovikibureaucracy can do anything,” he said, referring to the powerful faction in the Russian government whose roots are in the security forces. “A person who collides with ‘the system’ has no rights whatsoever.” He added: “I am ashamed for my country.” It was a moving speech that laid out, powerfully and clearly, everything that is wrong with Russia today; it made even my sober male Russian friends tear up.

When the judge handed down the guilty verdict just before the New Year, hundreds protested outside the courtroom. German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the ruling, as did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The White House issued astatement condemning “abuse of the legal system for improper ends.”

Five months later, the case still hasn’t receded from Russian headlines. The press secretary of the court that heard Khodorkovsky’s case revealed to an opposition newspaper that the judge in the case didn’t write the verdict and that he was pressured from the outside. (She has since been made to take a lie detector test—she passed—and been forced out of her job.) Fifty-five “official” celebrities have signed a controversial open letter praising the verdict in the case, and 45 others signed one opposing it.

More here.

Wu Chen’en’s “Journey to the West”


Julia Lovell in the LA Review of Books:

Journey to the West (c. 1580) is one of the masterworks of classical Chinese writing. It recounts a Tang Dynasty monk’s quest for Buddhist scriptures in the 7th century AD, accompanied by an omni-talented, kung fu-practicing Monkey King called Wukong (one of the most memorable reprobates of world literature); a rice-loving pig-spirit able to fly with its ears; and a depressive man-eating monster from a sand dune. It is a cornerstone text of Eastern fiction: its stature in Asian literary culture may be compared with that of The Canterbury Tales or Don Quixote in European letters.

The novel commences with a spirited prologue — seven chapters long — recounting the Monkey King’s many attempts to achieve immortal sagehood, in the course of which he acquires knowledge and weapons that will serve him well through the book as a whole: the ability to perform “cloud somersaults” that carry him 30,000 miles in one leap, a gold-hooped staff (weighing almost 20,000 pounds) that can shrink to the size of a needle. He becomes a master of subterfuge by learning to transform himself into 72 different varieties of creature (though his human disguises lack perfect authenticity due to his inability to lose his tail). He studies demon-freezing spells and how to turn each of the 84,000 hairs on his body into other animals (including clones of himself) or objects. Yet time and again he is brought low by his irrepressible love of mischief. Finally, after taking up a bureaucratic sinecure in the heavenly government of the Jade Emperor, he commits the unforgivable crime of gorging himself on the peaches, wine, and elixirs of immortality.

More here.

Transitive Measures: Tragedy and Existentialism in African Literature


Ato Quayson in Berfrois:

Readers of Things Fall Apart will recall the moment in the penultimate chapter of the novel when the gathering of the people of Umuofia is rudely interrupted by messengers from the white man. The messengers are confronted by Okonkwo, who happens to have taken a position at the very edge of the gathering. We have already identified the central protagonist as a man of few words and a volatile disposition:

‘What do you want here?’

‘The white man whose power you know too well has ordered this meeting to stop.’
In a flash Okokwo drew his matchet. The messenger crouched to avoid the blow. It was useless. Okonkwo’s matchet descended twice and the man’s head lay beside his uniformed body.

The waiting backcloth jumped into tumultuous life and the meeting stopped. Okonkwo stood looking at the dead man. He knew Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers escape. They had broken into tumult instead of action. He discerned fright in the tumult. He heard voices asking: ‘Why did he do it?’

He wiped his matchet on the sand and went away (145).

The salience of this momentous event is not so much in the evidence it provides of Okonkwo’s final severance from his society, as in the peculiar contrast suggested in his “knowing” that the tribe will not go to war set against their bewildered question: “Why did he do it?’ For the contrast amounts to the difference between a profound Aristotelian anagnorisis (recognition) and an insuperable epistemological impasse. The recognition is private but the impasse is communal.

More here.

Citizen Marx

Download (1)

Sam Stark in The Nation:

A New York Times obituary for Karl Marx used verbs like these—born, began, edited (theRheinische Zeitung), suppressed, fled, arrested, sent (across the frontier!), found (refuge!), occurred (revolution!), hastened, revived, remained, expelled, proceeded, supported (himself!), labored (hard!), conceived (the International!)—to show that he had led a life “full of adventure, like all political conspirators.” The paper was impressed by Marx’s productivity as a journalist—Capital hadn’t yet been translated—but it identified him first and foremost as “the ostensible leader of the famous International Society in Europe.” This International Society, it explains, was “originally intended to work for the benefit of working men in general, partially on the trade-union system,” but then “became a purely political organization, which has since grown to formidable dimensions throughout Europe.” What happens when working men meddle in politics? “It is believed by many that the Commune in France was really inspired by the International Society, though the charge has been strenuously denied.”

Although it was erroneously published in 1871, twelve years before Marx died, this obituary already shows the paranoid circumlocution that is still used to implicate him in historical events without clearly defining his role. By the same logic that holds Marx responsible for several twentieth-century revolutions, he appears here as the “ostensible” leader of a shadowy group that meant well but went wrong and inspired some catastrophe. Each step in this argument is speculative and muddled, beginning with the first. Marx was officially a coordinating secretary to the International Workingmen’s Association (1864–1876), a loose-knit network of many different kinds of groups that mostly worked together on labor issues like the organization of strikes and the regulation of the working day. Marx himself staunchly opposed revolutionary conspiracies: “There is no mystery to clear up, dear sir,” he is reported to have told a curious interviewer for the New York World, “except perhaps the mystery of human stupidity in those who perpetually ignore the fact that our Association is a public one, and that the fullest reports of its proceedings are published for all who care to read them.”

More here.

What Kind of Problem is the ACA Rollout for Liberalism?


Mike Konczal over at Rortybomb (via Rick Perlestein):

People are naturally asking about the practical and political implications of this disaster. Is it a problem for the Affordable Care Act as a whole, with its mixture of individual mandates and risk-pooling? Is it a political disaster for President Obama and the Democrats? Does this show us major problems in the way that government procures its contractors?

These are important questions, but some are asking a bigger one: is this a problem for liberalism as a political governance project? Does this rollout failure discredit the core goals of a liberal project, including that of a mixed economy, a regulatory state, and social insurance?

Conservatives in particular think this website has broad implications for liberalism as a philosophical and political project. I think it does, but for the exact opposite reasons: it highlights the problems inherent in the move to a neoliberal form of governance and social insurance, while demonstrating the superiorities in the older, New Deal form of liberalism. This point is floating out there, and it turns out to be a major problem for conservatives as well, so let's make it clear and explicit here.

So what has gone wrong? People are still trying to figure this out. There are the general problems of doing too much with too little time and resources and rolling out a big final product rather than smaller incremental pieces. These are things that, while problematic, don’t particularly have a political story to tell.

However, four bigger problems jump out.

More here.

Daljit Nagra: re-writing Punjabi epics for a modern audience

Sameer Rahim in The Telegraph:

Daljit_Nagra_2712552bNext Sunday, Indians all over the world will celebrate the festival of lights, or Diwali. The brightly coloured lamps and fireworks commemorate the climax of the epic poem The Ramayana, when the hero Rama brings home his abducted bride Sita. This much most schoolchildren will know from religious studies classes. But for the poet Daljit Nagra, born in Britain in 1966 to Punjabi parents, Rama’s story was a powerful part of his upbringing. “My family would tell me the story in the small hours around Diwali time,” he tells me over a fish curry at Rasa near Bond Street. “It was a good vs bad moral story – working hard and being dutiful rather than sensual or lazy.” Until his twenties Nagra only knew The Ramayana in the Punjabi oral version. Then he discovered a prose retelling by the masterful Indian novelist RK Narayan, and soon found there were literally thousands of retellings in dozens of languages from Sanskrit to Javanese. After publishing two successful poetry collections with Faber – the first, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, won the Forward Prize for best debut – Nagra has now written his own version of The Ramayana. “It’s aimed at the educated, middle-class British reader,” he says, “who knows the European classics but probably doesn’t know the Eastern.” The story of an army going to war to rescue an abducted woman has some similarities to The Iliad. “That’s really striking,” he says, “but people tend to be very serious in retelling Homer and, to me, The Ramayana feels like a really fun story.” He looks at me with a mischievous eye. “I wanted to capture some of the humour: I imagine it as a family entertainment piece.”

In the late Eighties in India, a 78-part television adaptation of The Ramayana brought the country to a standstill. “Shops would shut, people who didn’t have a telly, they’d find a telly in the village and gather around.” For some it was a religious experience: “People would do prayers and execute rituals, watch it with incense on.” Channel 4 also broadcast the series, and Nagra tells me that as a British Asian teenager he found the bright costumes and over-the-top acting a bit embarrassing. But there was also pride that this remarkable story was being presented to a wider public. Nagra’s version is fizzy and up-to-date. Rather than solely relying on Indian speech patterns, he uses global English to make the story universal. A king is compared to a CEO with “tough-guy leadership skills”; Raavana, the lord of the underworld, is like a Bollywood villain supplied with “assassins, ghazis, nabobs/riff-raff doolallys”; and there is even a hint of Yoda-speak – “Raavana was now a supreme being becoming!”

More here.

New insight into why each human face is unique

From MedicalXpress:

FaceThe human face is as unique as a fingerprint, no one else looks exactly like you. But what is it that makes facial morphology so distinct? Certainly genetics play a major role as evident in the similarities between parents and their children, but what is it in our DNA that fine-tunes the genetics so that siblings – especially identical twins – resemble one another but look different from unrelated individuals? A new study by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has now shown that gene enhancers – regulatory sequences of DNA that act to turn-on or amplify the expression of a specific gene – are major players in craniofacial development.

…In all, Visel, Attanasio and their colleagues identified more than 4,000 candidate enhancer sequences predicted to be active in fine-tuning the expression of genes involved in craniofacial development, and created genome-wide maps of these enhancers by pin-pointing their location in the mouse genome. The researchers also characterized in detail the activity of some 200 of these gene enhancers and deleted three of them. A majority of the enhancer sequences identified and mapped are at least partially conserved between humans and mice, and many are located in human chromosomal regions associated with normal facial morphology or craniofacial birth defects.

More here.

On Meat-eating


Antti Nylén in Eurozine:

There's a certain type of conservatism that takes on an almost elegiac quality in its statements on the ultimate inexplicability of the world. The myth of complexity is the salvation of the conservative thinker; it is the object of his love, his praise and his undying gratitude. When the background noise of the unbridled, indistinct, mystical “forces” of sin, nature and capitalism reaches a crescendo, the conservative can be sure of feeling at one with himself, serene on the uncomplicated foreground of the world at large. His affairs are all in order, because the rest of the world is in shambles. Or as Alain Badiou has it: “Our world is in no way as 'complex' as those who wish to ensure its perpetuation claim.”

In fact, the most difficult things are those that are held to be difficult – in the sense of being “preserved” (Lat. conservare). Nobody's making us. It's a maxim that applies often, if not always.

Veganism, for instance, a practice commonly held to be blisteringly difficult, is actually ridiculously easy. To be idle while others act.

Then there are downright arduous things, like building the Great Wall or translating the Iliad, but I am not concerned with those.

An impossible thing is a phenomenon unto itself. You can no more transform yourself into a millipede than you can spontaneously grow an extra arm, because human nature is simple: it is physical. Therein lies the beginning and the end of any and all metaphysical significance. The world, too, is simple and physical; the world = the Earth.

More here.

The Counterreformation in Higher Education


Christopher Newfield reviews Andrew McGettigan's The Great University Gamble : Money, Markets, and the Future of Higher Education, in the LA Review:

AMERICANS WHO WONDER what the heck is happening to their public colleges can find answers in the British case. While American educational and political leaders deny the negative outcomes of the actions they barely admit to be taking, the United Kingdom’s Tory government has offered explicit rationales for the most fundamental restructuring of a university system in modern history. The stakes are very high. Both countries have been downgrading their mass higher education systems by shrinking enrollments, reducing funding for educational quality, increasing inequality between premier and lower-tier universities, or all three at once.

Oddly, policymakers are doing this in the full knowledge that mass access to high-quality public universities remains the cornerstone of high-income economies and complex societies. The public has a right to know what politicians and business leaders are really doing to their higher education systems, why they are doing it, and how to respond.

Those who tried to follow the British drama through scattered newspaper articles and government reports will be glad to know that we now have a one-stop comprehensive guide to the whole affair. It is Andrew McGettigan’s The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets, and the Future of Higher Education. No one has assembled the political and financial pieces of the story as he has, and the book has started to reanimate discussion of higher education policy in Britain.

More here.

How science goes wrong

From The Economist:

ScreenHunter_379 Oct. 25 12.37A simple idea underpins science: “trust, but verify”. Results should always be subject to challenge from experiment. That simple but powerful idea has generated a vast body of knowledge. Since its birth in the 17th century, modern science has changed the world beyond recognition, and overwhelmingly for the better.

But success can breed complacency. Modern scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying—to the detriment of the whole of science, and of humanity.

Too many of the findings that fill the academic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis (see article). A rule of thumb among biotechnology venture-capitalists is that half of published research cannot be replicated. Even that may be optimistic. Last year researchers at one biotech firm, Amgen, found they could reproduce just six of 53 “landmark” studies in cancer research. Earlier, a group at Bayer, a drug company, managed to repeat just a quarter of 67 similarly important papers. A leading computer scientist frets that three-quarters of papers in his subfield are bunk. In 2000-10 roughly 80,000 patients took part in clinical trials based on research that was later retracted because of mistakes or improprieties.

More here.

Christening the Earliest Members of Our Genus

Carl Zimmer in the New York Times:

18skull-articleInlineAround 1.8 million years ago, human evolution passed a milestone. Our ancestors before then were little more than bipedal apes. Those so-called hominids had chimpanzee-size bodies and brains, and they still had adaptations in their limbs for climbing trees. But the fossils of hominids from 1.8 to 1.5 million years ago are different. They had bigger brains, flatter faces and upright bodies better suited to walking.

Their geography changed, too. While earlier hominid fossils have only been found in Africa, the newer ones also turn up at sites stretching across Asia, from the Republic of Georgia all the way to Indonesia. These cosmopolitan hominids are so much like modern humans that paleoanthropologists consider them the earliest members of our own genus, Homo.

But they didn’t belong to our species, Homo sapiens. After all, their brains were still no more than two-thirds the size of our own, and they could only make simple hand axes and other crude stone tools. But if not Homo sapiens, then Homo what? What species did these fossils belong to?

That turns out to be a remarkably hard question to answer — in part because it is difficult to settle on what it means to be a species.

More here.

Rihanna, Lady Gaga and what’s really behind burqa swag

Arwa Mahdawi in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_378 Oct. 25 12.23Ladies! Wondering what to wear tonight that will turn heads and get all the boys excited? May I suggest a sexed-up burqa or perhaps a naughty niqab? While harem pants are v last season, veils are terribly in vogue. Not only do they add an exotic edge, but black is extremely mu-slimming.

All the celebs are getting involved. One such person is Rihanna, who was recently asked to leave a mosque in Abu Dhabi after posing for photos wearing her own interpretation of a burqa. Pairing a hooded black jumpsuit with bright red lipstick, Ri-Ri's brand of Islama-chic proved a hit on Instagram, but not among staff of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Ri-Ri is reported to have been ejected, and there followed a statement that the photos were “inconsistent with the sanctity of the mosque”.

Rihanna's entire Instagram account is a chronicle of controversy and questionable decisions, so this latest episode isn't much of a surprise. What is noteworthy about the Abu Dhabi incident, however, is that it is the latest in a long line of attempts by western popular culture to eroticise the veil. From the creation of a burqa Barbie to Diesel ads featuring a tattooed woman wearing nothing but a denim niqab, overtly sexual depictions of the veil are suddenly everywhere. You can even buy a “Sexy Middle Eastern Arab girl burqa Halloween costume” from eBay. And there's a suitably ghastly name for this phenomenon: “burqa swag”.

More here.

The Sound of Terror: Phenomenology of a Drone Strike

Nasser Hussain in the Boston Review:

UAV-web“The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.” This account of what a drone feels and sounds like from the ground comes from David Rohde, a journalist who was kidnapped and held by the Taliban for seven months in 2008. Yet this kind of report rarely registers in debates in the United States over the use of drones. Instead these debates seem to have reached an impasse. Opponents of drone strikes say they violate international law and have caused unacknowledged civilian deaths. Proponents insist they actually save the lives of both U.S. soldiers, who would otherwise be deployed in dangerous ground operations, and of civilians, because of the drone’s capacity to survey and strike more precisely than combat. If the alternative is a prolonged and messy ground operation, the advantage of drone strikes in terms of casualties is indisputable, and it is not my intention to dispute it here.

But the terms of this debate give a one-sided view of both the larger financial and political costs of drones, as well as the less than lethal but nonetheless chronic and intense harm continuous strikes wage on communities. This myopia restricts our understanding of the full effects of drones; in order to widen our vision, I provide a phenomenology of drone strikes, examining both how the world appears through the lens of a drone camera and the experience of the people on the ground. What is it like to watch a drone’s footage, or to wait below for it to strike? What does the drone’s camera capture, and what does it occlude?

More here.

If your DNA is sequenced at birth, how would if affect your life? A new project aims to find out

Carl Zimmer in Slate:

ScreenHunter_376 Oct. 24 15.46In June 2007, James Watson, a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, went to Houston to pick up his genome. At a ceremonial press conference at Baylor College of Medicine, scientists handed the 79-year-old Nobel Prize-winner a DVD on which they had recorded a highly accurate reading of all the DNA nestled in the nucleus of each of his cells. There was, however, one glaring gap.

Watson spoke at the conference about the value of genomes to medical research. “I think we'll have a healthier and more compassionate world 50 years from now because of the technological advances we are celebrating today,” he declared. In addition to giving Watson his genome on a DVD, the Baylor team also put the sequence into the public database GENBANK, where scientists can download it and compare it to other publically available human genomes. But scientists will not be able to see one of Watson’s 20,000 genes. The gene encodes a protein called apolipoprotein E. A variant of the gene, called ApoE4, dramatically increases the risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Watson’s grandmother had died of Alzheimer’s disease, and Watson decided he would rather not know if he carried the variant.

More here.

Oprah Winfrey and the Misuse of Celebrity Entertainment Platforms

Tauriq Moosa in Big Think:

ScreenHunter_375 Oct. 24 15.37Winfrey, like many celebrities renowned for their good work, has managed to make herself into a powerful brand (this is not necessarily a bad thing, merely a statement of fact). Like Lady Diana Spencer – or Diana, Princess of Wales – and others, Winfrey has managed to make her first name sufficient for identification. This is incredible marketing.

Further, there is little doubt that Winfrey herself is a remarkable person, or that she has done much to help many people’s lives (perhaps saved countless). She’s done more to make the world better than me and, probably, most people reading this (her Angel Network has raised over $80 million dollars for charity).

But doing remarkable work in one area doesn’t excuse you from serious wrongs done in another. Immunity is not acquired through charity.

Winfrey has allowed her powerful platform to be the fertile soil for many modern day weeds of thinking, dominating the light of visibility: quack medicine and its practitioners, pseudoscientific babble under the guise of science, and even “therapy” that is, in fact, entertainment – not actual help vulnerable people need.

More here.