Intersections in Middle America

by Mara Naselli

_MG_2768 - Version 2When my children entered the gallery at the Grand Rapids Art Museum that contained Anila Quayyum Agha's installation work, Intersections, they took off at a run. The sound of their little feet filled the space. I felt that cinch of parental panic and scanned the room for what they might inadvertently destroy. The room was empty. Empty in the sense that it contained no objects, save the large wood cube illuminated by single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. The gallery, about thirty-feet square, was transformed into something larger by the tapestry of shadow projected onto the walls. I hesitate to use the word sacred, but it was impossible not to feel a certain vastness. The contrast of light and dark created an immersive architecture. “You should have seen it when they were installing it,” said the security guard. “The whole room spun.”


Every September since 2009, Grand Rapids, Michigan, has hosted an open art contest called ArtPrize. Anyone can enter. Anyone can judge. Anyone can win. ArtPrize winners are elected by popular vote. The rules have been adjusted each year, but the basic idea has remained intact: bring art to the public, let the public judge art.

Grand Rapids is a small, quiet city. But when ArtPrize opens, art is everywhere: parking lots, rooftops, bars, bridges, abandoned buildings, churches, even the river. This reserved city transforms into a minimetropolis of raucous, unedited expression.

The cultural context of ArtPrize—that is, the culture of Grand Rapids, Michigan—bears mentioning. When ArtPrize began, I had just moved here from Chicago, and so I watched with some interest at what looked like a large-scale democratic experiment. Some called it a rich kid's art party (the founder, Rick DeVos, is the grandson of the co-founder of Amway). But I thought of it as an experiment in civic discourse, where good art and bad art would duke it out through the intelligent discernment of public opinion. In many ways, the location of ArtPrize made perfect sense. The city has a venerable history in furniture making and design. There's a vibrant arts community here, a grassroots artists' collective, a sculpture garden, a symphony, a ballet, an opera, and a fine art museum—all this in a town of fewer than 200,000. The community in many ways is steeped in arts funded by local philanthropic families such as the DeVoses. Grand Rapids is also conservative and Christian. The fact that ArtPrize was in a very red region of a blue state made the democratic aspect of the contest all the more interesting to me. Taste, culture, and politics would converge as the public would play patron.

Read more »

An anthropologist among sartorialists

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

ScreenHunter_880 Nov. 24 11.09Scott Schuman is in India. On the 6th of November, he announced that he would be posting to his immensely popular fashion blog “The Sartorialist” from the cities of Mumbai, New Delhi, and Varanasi. I must confess that for a few minutes, I cursed my luck at being in the deep South and not on the fashionable streets of Mumbai and Delhi, where Mr.Schuman would most likely be lurking, camera in hand. Surely being spotted by Mr.Schuman would be the rightful validation of my many years of changing clothes four times in a row in order to get to the library? After all, academics, especially those in the fields of cultural studies and contemporary socio-cultural anthropology need necessarily to be fashionable I had often argued to myself. (Let the convenience of this categorization be conveniently ignored for now.)

My sartorialism is highly suspect in any case; dressing up for particular environments has always been a particularly harrowing task. Fashion never came easy. My sensibilities were shaped, first and foremost by a socialist secular republic of few choices and many cut corners. During childhood, a popular sitcom lampooned the state of the market thus; the titular character of Wagle Ki Duniya (Wagle's World), Mr.Wagle marks a festive occasion by procuring large quantities of the same bolt of cloth out of which emerge clothes for himself, his wife, his children, and the drawing room curtains. Despite this situation, I did marvel at the effortless beauty of my parents' and their friends' wardrobes, chiffon and polyester saris and factory uniforms. I, however, thanks to particularly unfashionable school uniforms and awkward teenage years, had no possibility of displaying either ingenuity or taste.

Graduate life in America brought forth another set of quandaries. While well schooled by now and comfortable in “Western” clothing, I longed uncharacteristically for loose cottons and salwar kameezes and allowed myself in the Texas heat to switch back and forth, even as I kept away from events conducted by the Indian Cultural Association. Neither their Diwalis nor their Holis held any attraction to my thoroughly disdainful anomic self. But those few kurtas declared my allegiance to some culturally specific India, and brought me attention nevertheless. Many years later, I was told that people had seen me as performing ethnicity for their benefit.

Read more »

Music to watch girls go by

by Sarah Firisen

Catcall“The boys watch the girls while the girls watch the boys who watch the girls go by…” so sang Andy Williams in 1967.

Boys looking at girls, and then reacting with admiration; what could be more natural? In movie after movie a barrage of wolf whistles following Sofia Loren and Marilyn Monroe as they sashay down the street are meant as innocent signs of appreciation. To today’s men, who often react with a distinct lack of sympathy to modern women’s complaints about callcalling and its associated behavior, what we’re complaining about is no different, at least in intent, to behavior that 40 years ago was seen as a badge of honor for attractive women. I have no idea whether it was really felt and taken that way by women in past generations, perhaps that is nothing more than a romantic rose colored view of what was clearly felt as harassment even then. I truly have no idea. What I do know is how the modern forms of this behavior looks and feel to me and any woman I’ve ever asked about it.

If you’re on some form of social media these days, it’s almost impossible that you haven’t witnessed some of the latest volleys in the catcall wars. There has been a steady stream of women trying to fight back in one way or another: one of my personal favorites, a young lady who handed out cards to the men harassing her on the street trying to educate them, almost always without success, about how it felt to be the recipient of that attention. Another one I really like is; because what could really be more innocuous than telling a woman how pretty she would be if only she would smile, or telling her “hey, smile, it could be worse”? Except, how the hell do you know it could be worse? Perhaps someone just died. Perhaps I just got a cancer diagnosis. Or maybe I have really bad cramps. Or maybe, it’s none of your business whether I smile or not.

And of course, one of the more infamous recent examples, where a woman (an actress hired for the video) walks around New York for 10 hours with a cameraman surreptitiously recording what this woman has to put up with. She doesn’t say anything to these men, she doesn’t look at them, she’s not dressed in provocative clothing and she engages with them in no way, and yet she is harassed over 100 times. As female Facebook friend after friend reposted this video, there was a very predictable explosion of comment threads and some got pretty nasty. One friend posted an interesting observation, which I’ve now tried to verify for myself: she says that when she’s all dressed up (as she often is quite beautifully), she actually attracts less attention from men. But it’s when she’s in her sweats, no makeup, hair unwashed that she can’t seem to shake the catcalls, the men following her, harassing her.

Read more »

The aural time traveler

by Charlie Huenemann

GrafonolaSome years back my musicologist friend introduced me to the charming world of gramophones. (A brief history may be in order: before there were iPods and YouTube, there were CDs; before that, there were vinyl records, still very much in vogue among hipsters today; and before that – from roughly 1895 to 1950 – there were thick and heavy shellac records that were to be played at 78 revolutions per minute. That's what I'm talking about. Wikipedia, of course offers a much longer history.) I became an enthusiast on the spot, and we formed the Logan Gramophone Society, which meets on secret dates set to the lunar calendar, and involves scones, tea, and fezzes. Our university's music department has a veritable treasure trove of old records which supplies us with an inexhaustible supply of the quirky, the charming, and the incredible.

The earliest recordings were made before there were any amplifiers, let alone mixers or equalizers. Recording artists played into a horn, and some mechanism translated their sound waves into a wavy line scratched into wax. (We should all devote a moment to marveling at the fact that the sound of a singer accompanied by strings and tuba can all get squashed into a single wavy line.) That wavy line was then wrapped into a spiral and stamped upon many shellac disks, which were sold through record stores. Consumers would then buy the discs, take them home, place them upon their turntables, and place a needle at one end of the spiral, and send the disc into motion. Then the whole process would reverse itself: the wavy lines would vibrate the needle, and those vibrations would be sent out the horn for all to enjoy.

The point is that the sound travels from producer to consumer without ever disappearing into some electronic circuit to be changed or shaped. Jascha Heifetz plays his violin into a horn, those vibrations become scratches, those scratches become vibrations, and I hear Heifetz play. Everything is on the surface; nothing ever goes into a black box. I am one step away from direct, physical connection to Heifetz, as I would be if I handled his bow or tried on his hat. It is a form of aural time travel.

Read more »

The continuing relevance of Immanuel Kant

by Emrys Westacott


Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is widely touted as one of the greatest thinkers in the history of Western civilization. Yet few people other than academic philosophers read his works, and I imagine that only a minority of them have read in its entirety the Critique of Pure Reason, generally considered his magnum opus. Kantian scholarship flourishes, with specialized journals and Kant societies in several countries, but it is largely written by and for specialists interested in exploring subtleties and complexities in Kant's texts, unnoticed influences on his thought, and so on. Some of Kant's writing is notoriously difficult to penetrate, which is why we need scholars to interpret his texts for us, and also why, in two hundred years, he has never made it onto the New York Times best seller list. And some of the ideas that he considered central to his metaphysics–for instance, his views about space, time, substance, and causality–are widely held to have been superseded by modern physics.

So what is so great about Kant? How is his philosophy still relevant today? What makes his texts worth studying and his ideas worth pondering? These are questions that could occasion a big book. What follows is my brief two penn'th on Kant's contribution to modern ways of thinking. I am not suggesting that Kant was the first or the only thinker to put forward the ideas mentioned here, or that they exhaust what is valuable in his philosophy. My purpose is just to identify some of the central strains in his thought that remain remarkably pertinent to contemporary debates.

1. Kant recognized that in the wake of the scientific revolution, what we call “knowledge” needed to be reconceived. He held that we should restrict the concept of knowledge to scientific knowledge–that is, to claims that are, or could be, justified by scientific means.

2. He identified the hallmark of scientific knowledge as what can be verified by empirical observation (plus some philosophical claims about the framework within which such observations occur). Where this isn't possible, we don't have knowledge; we have, instead, either pseudo-science (e.g. astrology), or unrestrained speculation (e.g. religion).

3. He understood that both everyday life and scientific knowledge rests on, and is made orderly, by some very basic assumptions that aren't self-evident but can't be entirely justified by empirical observations. For instance, we assume that the physical world will conform to mathematical principles. Kant argues in the Critique of Pure Reason that our belief that every event has a cause is such an assumption; perhaps, also, our belief that effects follow necessarily from their causes; but many today reject his classification of such claims as “synthetic a priori.” Regardless of whether one agrees with Kant's account of what these assumptions are, his justification of them is thoroughly modern since it is essentially pragmatic. They make science possible. More generally, they make the world knowable. Kant in fact argues that in their absence our experience from one moment to the next would not be the coherent and intelligible stream that it is.

Read more »

Big ideas are destroying international development

Michael Hobbes in The New Republic:

ScreenHunter_878 Nov. 23 18.04It seemed like such a good idea at the time: A merry-go-round hooked up to a water pump. In rural sub-Saharan Africa, where children are plentiful but clean water is scarce, the PlayPump harnessed one to provide the other. Every time the kids spun around on the big colorful wheel, water filled an elevated tank a few yards away, providing fresh, clean water anyone in the village could use all day.

PlayPump International, the NGO that came up with the idea and developed the technology, seemed to have thought of everything. To pay for maintenance, the elevated water tanks sold advertising, becoming billboards for companies seeking access to rural markets. If the ads didn’t sell, they would feature HIV/AIDS-prevention campaigns. The whole package cost just $7,000 to install in each village and could provide water for up to 2,500 people.

The donations gushed in. In 2006, the U.S. government and two major foundations pledged $16.4 million in a public ceremony emceed by Bill Clinton and Laura Bush. The technology was touted by the World Bank and made a cameo in America’s 2007 Water for the Poor Act. Jay-Z personally pledged $400,000. PlayPump set the goal of installing 4,000 pumps in Africa by 2010. “That would mean clean drinking water for some ten million people,” a “Frontline” reporter announced.

By 2007, less than two years after the grants came in, it was already clear these aspirations weren’t going to be met. A UNICEF report found pumps abandoned, broken, unmaintained. Of the more than 1,500 pumps that had been installed with the initial burst of grant money in Zambia, one-quarter already needed repair. The Guardian said the pumps were “reliant on child labour.”

More here.

Disgust is often used as a tool of persuasion. But are gut feelings ever a reliable guide in questions of right and wrong?

Carol Hay in Aeon:

Falun-52258036Every spring a pro-life group – one whose campaigning methods are so shockingly offensive that I won’t publish their name here – sets up shop on my university’s campus quad. The group’s shtick involves displaying billboard-sized images of aborted foetuses juxtaposed with gory photos of atrocities such as mass graves and lynchings.

The group has been haunting me for years; when I was in grad school, their designated free-speech zone happened to be right outside my cubicle window. Most years, I took advantage of my location to plaster the window with pro-choice signs of my own. A few years ago, they visited the campus where I’m now an assistant professor, setting up their grisly billboards in a 20-foot circle right in the middle of campus. Several of my students, tickled at the prospect of witnessing their visibly pregnant, feminist ethics professor debate the morality of abortion, managed to convince me to try to talk to the protesters. It went about as well as you might expect.

What went considerably better was the response from the rest of the student body. After the initial shock wore off and they came to understand that, as a public university, we were obliged to respect the protesters’ rights to free speech, the students mounted a spirited counter-protest.

More here.

Aga Khan Museum

Nadia Al-Issa in Art Asia Pacific:

Qureshi_rise_and_fall_346Housed within the 6.8-hectare Aga Khan Park—designed by Serbian-Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic—are two new additions to Toronto’s cultural scene. One is the Ismaili Centre Toronto, designed by renowned Indian modernist architect Charles Correa. The other is the Aga Khan Museum, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. Under development for almost a decade, the much-awaited cultural complex, situated in Toronto’s Don Mills neighborhood, opened to the public this September. The complex is an initiative of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), part of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). Founded by His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam of the Nizari Ismailis, AKDN is a group of non-denominational development organizations that work in sectors as diverse as the environment, education, health, rural development, culture and architecture in the Muslim world. The Ismailis are the second largest Shia Muslim community, with 15 million followers in 25 countries within Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America and Australia. The community’s history spans 12 centuries and at its height included the reign of the Fatimid Caliphate (909–1171), a formidable Islamic state that was seated in Cairo.

…Connecting the Ismaili Centre and the Aga Khan Museum is the centerpiece of the Aga Khan Park: inspired by the gardens at Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain, Djurovic’s design is a contemporary take on the Islamic “Garden of Paradise.” The Aga Khan Park’s centerpiece harkens back to the Charbagh, a traditional Persian garden divided into four parts by walkways or water channels that intersect at a central fountain or pool. In Djurovic’s rendition, concrete paths separate four granite-lined reflecting pools and converge onto a massive central pool flanked by flowering serviceberry trees. Adjacent to the reflecting pools is a site-specific floor painting by contemporary Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi. Part of the museum’s inaugural show, “The Garden of Ideas: Contemporary Art from Pakistan,” the installation renders a landscape of violently splattered foliage and delicately executed flowers, which speaks to the complex process of domesticating nature and nature’s inherent unruliness.

Picture: IMRAN QURESHI, Rise and Fall, 2014

More here.

Sunday Poem

Closet Case

why is it
that you always
say the most significant
when you’re walking away
looking into your closet
for something to wear

you must know
I think
that I cannot make out
what you’re saying

and then
you hold it
against me
like an old
that’s too tight
to wear anymore

why is it
that you always
tell me later
that you told me
and make me feel
as if I was there
next to your old
wool sweater
that you used to love
but no longer

by Bill Schneberger

efusing Marcuse: 50 Years After One-Dimensional Man


Stephen Whitfield in Dissent (photo from Wikimedia Commons):

However closely or accurately New Leftists and others might have read One-Dimensional Man, as well as Marcuse’s subsequent works, he was once taken very seriously. He helped to define the zeitgeist in a way that needs to be understood, if not resurrected. But in the decades since the New Left crested and collapsed, has the stature of any intellectual fallen more dramatically than that of Herbert Marcuse?

To be sure, his reputation has not faded into utter oblivion. An International Herbert Marcuse Society still holds biennial conferences, and anthologies and monographs on his work continue to appear. But they are not central to academic discourse and tend to be reviewed only in specialized journals.

In 1987, the social critic Russell Jacoby traced a downward trajectory in the vitality and scope of the American intelligentsia, yet his The Last Intellectuals mentions Marcuse only briefly. Eight years later, One-Dimensional Man did not make the Times Literary Supplement list of the hundred most influential books published since the end of the Second World War. Nor did the TLS cite any of Marcuse’s other works—not even what he regarded as his “most important book,” Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry Into Freud (1955), the volume that had presumably irritated Pope Paul VI.

Marcuse’s stature has shrunk even as scholarly interest in other exemplary figures of the Frankfurt School has intensified. Consider Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Each of them dealt directly, explicitly and frequently with cultural questions, and far less with political ones. Yet they have recently been the subjects of massive biographies, which make the case for their continuing salience in grasping the implications of modernity itself. Marcuse is associated with the crisis of Marxism, however, in a way that they are not. The “crisis” could be defined as Marxism’s historical entanglement with the tyrannies of Stalinism and Maoism, or its imminent demise given the capacity of capitalism to generate mass acceptance and even allegiance that doomed any hope of systematic change. Even though Marcuse’s dissertation topic had addressed the way that novelists portray artists (the Künstlerroman), his death roughly coincided with the emergence of cultural studies, which marked an abrupt shift in academic fashion.

More here.

Wishing Away the World Without the West


Naazneen Barma, Ely Ratner and Steve Weber in The Monkey Cage over at the Washington Post (photo Takaki Yajima/AFP):

In our original World Without the West essay (2007), we argued that emerging powers are preferentially engaging with each other — “routing around” the Western liberal order rather than joining it or trying actively to undermine it. This argument attracted two main criticisms. Consistent with realist theories of international politics, the first critique posits that what we’re witnessing today is simply the early stages of an eventual attempt to overthrow the liberal order. (We disagree, but we’ll save that one for another day.) On the other side of the spectrum, however, is the view articulated by Voeten that a combination of interests, inducements and constraints will lead countries like China to ultimately conform, more or less, to the way the United States and the West have done business for the last 70 years.

The crux of our disagreement with this liberal internationalist perspective largely revolves around two questions. Will Chinese-led multilateral institutions “really fundamentally challenge the existing order or have profound implications for China’s ties to global multilateral institutions?” And even when they have similar functional objectives — on issues like regional stability, counterterrorism or poverty alleviation — will their approach be sufficiently different from liberal practice so as to diverge from prevailing norms and institutions? Voeten thinks the answer is no to both these questions.

We disagree because we think it’s overly optimistic to assume that Chinese interests and behavior will conform quite so neatly to the post-WWII system. And, to put a finer point on it, we believe both logic and evidence are now frequently pointing in the opposite direction.

More here.

The Banality of Islamic State: How ISIS Corporatized Terror


Cam Simpson in Bloomberg ​Businessweek (Photograph by Reuters):

The group’s leaders portray themselves as akin to seventh century warriors thundering forth on horseback to expand their religious empire by sword. They call their car bombs “steeds” and their drivers the “death admirers, the knights of martyrdom.” But in many important ways they have much less in common with ­medieval warriors than they do with modern ­bureaucrats, and a successful attempt to defeat them may require understanding their logistics, their financing, and their management structure as much as their extreme theology.

It may sound bizarre for a group calling itself a caliphate, but the foundation of its management model, as identified by experts, is more akin to that of General Motors than it is to a ­religious dynasty from the Dark Ages. After decades, we may have arrived at the ultimate professionalization of terror.

During a routine January 2007 patrol in Anbar province, in a town along the Euphrates called Tuzliyah al Gharbiyah, a unit of U.S. Marines stumbled on a cache of nine documents in a roadside ditch. They included financial records, payrolls, supply purchase records, administrative records, and other details of fund flows into and out of a single local cell in Anbar of a group then calling itself the “Islamic State of Iraq.” Not long after, Iraqi militiamen working with the U.S. stormed a home in a town farther down the Euphrates. They found a computer hard drive holding ledgers with 1,200 files detailing the finances and operations of provincial-level managers overseeing the cell and others like it across Anbar province.

Taken together, the Anbar records allowed for a forensic ­reconstruction of the back-office operations of a terrorist ­insurgency from its local level up to its divisional headquarters. The data were handed over to the National Defense ­Research ­Institute of Rand Corp., a U.S. ­Department of Defense-funded think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif. Seven researchers set out to ­determine what the ledgers, receipts, memos, and other records meant. What they concluded in a 2010 report, written for then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, should be ­familiar to students of business management: The group was ­decentralized, organized, and run on what’s called the “multidivisional-­hierarchy form” of management, or M-form for short.

More here.

the life of larkin

23larkin-illo-master495Clive James at The New York Times:

James Booth’s new biography of Philip Larkin is not very exciting, perhaps because Booth has the sense to leave the exciting writing to Larkin. But it is very welcome. If you believe that Larkin (1922-85) wrote some of the best English-language poems of modern times, then it has been a trial to see his questionable track record as an everyday human being get in the way of his reputation as an artist.

The obfuscation happened in a hurry, only a few short years after Larkin’s death. His pair of distinguished literary executors, Anthony Thwaite and Andrew Motion, served him faithfully with a selection of his letters (edited by Thwaite) and a biography (written by Motion). Unfortunately for Larkin’s image — which had been fairly staid until then, the poet having lived a quiet and mostly provincial life as a university librarian — it became evident that he had indulged himself in racist and sexist language. It had not occurred to the executors that they might have prefaced their respective volumes with a health warning in capital letters pointing out what should have been obvious: that Larkin talked that way only in his private life; that he believed his letters to be part of his private life, too; and that in his public life he was courteous and charming to anyone he met, of whatever gender or racial background.

more here.

Patrick Modiano’s ‘Suspended Sentences’

La-ca-jc-patrick-modiano-20141123-001David L. Ulin at the LA Times:

When Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature in October, a lot of readers (myself included) were taken by surprise. Until now, he has been relatively unknown in the U.S., although he is a bestseller in his native France and winner of the Prix Goncourt who has published steadily since his first novel, “La Place de l'Étoile,” appeared in 1968, and co-wrote the screenplay for Louis Malle's 1974 movie “Lacombe Lucien.”

Like that film, much of Modiano's fiction has roots in the paradoxes of the Vichy era, which remains, for him, a matter of both personal and collective history. Born in 1945, he grew up estranged from his father, a black marketeer, and has called himself “a product of the dunghill of the Occupation, that bizarre time when people who should have never met did meet and by chance produced a child.”

Such tensions are very much at work in “Suspended Sentences,” a book that gathers three novellas originally published between 1988 and 1993 and now available in English for the first time. “I thought I'd written them discontinuously, in successive bouts of forgetfulness,” Modiano has said of these efforts, “but often the same faces, the same names, the same places, the same sentences recur from one to the other.

more here.