when dealing with the history of philosophy, she is super


Arendt might have fucked a philosopher, but she didn’t want to be registered as one. That was her final position. But what her work on Plato, Kant, Hegel, and Marx (the main subject of the first half of her book) offers is a philosophy that has what she in her teens brought to Heidegger’s stale world: fresh air. The essays in The Promise of Politics are not musty or suffocating from dread—but very much alive, affirmative, and, at times, as easy on the mind as a breeze on the skin. Nietzsche once spoke of philosophizing with a hammer; Arendt philosophized with an open window.

more from The Stranger here (via Bookforum).

the whole sound coming towards us, all of it


Among the collected letters of Patrick White, the sole Australian to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, is a 1977 note to the editorial director of the Viking Press. “There’s an Australian writer at last who I think has it,” White wrote. “His name is David Malouf, his origins mostly Lebanese, part London-Jewish. He was born and grew up in Queensland. He is a poet, who wrote a kind of autobiographical novel called ‘Johnno,’ which to me is one of the best books about Australia. He has now written another very imaginative novel based on Ovid in exile. It will not be the big money-spinner, but it is literature and perhaps Viking can still afford that.”

more from the LA Times here.

Manic mood swings can destroy grey matter

From Nature:

Brain Grey matter in the brains of people with bipolar disorder is destroyed with each manic or depressive episode. This was the finding of an MRI study of 21 patients with bipolar disorder, a mental illness marked by successive episodes of mania followed by deep depression. The patients’ brains were scanned at either end of a four-year period, during which time each patient had at least one episode and some as many as six. In all cases, the amount of grey matter in the temporal lobe and the cerebellum decreased compared to the grey matter in control subjects. These areas of the brain are associated with memory and coordination.

Patients that had suffered more episodes over the four years had the most marked difference in the amount of grey matter that had disappeared.

More here.

sarkosy testifies


It’s truly a French specialty. I do not know a ranking French politician who has not considered at one time or another writing and publishing a book, one with ideological and often even literary ambitions, as an essential rite of passage in his or her career.

Is it the prestige, more acute in France than elsewhere, accompanying the creation of a book, a real book, and not merely a political platform?

Is it the link between the pen and the sword, between politics and literature, which has been particularly close ever since the Encyclopedists and the French Revolution?

Could it be because of writers who, like Chateaubriand, dreamed of being in the cabinet? Or those who, like Malraux, wanted to be renowned for their use of arms as much as for the books they wrote? Or could it be the opposite, Stendhal’s syndrome of lamenting the battle of Waterloo, since because of it he missed by a few days being named prefect of Le Mans?

more from the NYT Book Review here.


From The Washington Post:

Stone As an Egyptian pharaoh, Ptolemy V was a glorified placeholder. Just to preserve his royal title and protect his status as a god, he gave tax breaks to priests and performed favors for two sacred bulls, worshipped by commoners, named Apis and Mnevis. We know this because it is written, in three languages, on the Rosetta Stone.

Before the Rosetta Stone was found by Napoleon’s army in 1799, Ptolemy’s ploys were understandably forgotten, yet he wasn’t the only pharaoh whose feats were unknown: Even the legacy of Ramses, builder of the great temple at Karnak, had sunk into hieroglyphic obscurity. For many centuries, nobody could read hieroglyphics.

As Cambridge professor John Ray writes in The Rosetta Stone, the fractured granite slab “gave us back one of the longest and most romantic chapters of our history, a chapter which had been thought lost beyond recall.” Ray’s brief book evokes the process of rediscovery, succinctly capturing the story of the stone’s recovery and decipherment and passionately, albeit unoriginally, arguing for the slab’s iconic status. Like Ptolemy V, the Rosetta Stone is of accidental significance.

More here.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Future of Chinese Orthography

Yu Rongfu in China Now.

“Either Chinese characters die or China is doomed.”

The author of these words-penned in the same ideographic text he wished to see scrapped—was none other than the writer and rebel Lu Hsun. Lu was one of China’s greatest 20th century writers, its most influential promoter of vernacular fiction, and a key proponent of the New Writing movement of the 1930s.

Although often remembered for donning multiple hats-medical student, artist, activist and political icon-few would associate the author of The Diary of a Madman with the proposed eradication of China’s most unique contribution to the world’s linguistic heritage–the more than 55,000 ideographs (hanzi) that make up the Chinese written language…

Like other reformers, Lu Hsun therefore called for a “Latinized” vernacular phonetic system to replace hanzi entirely, thus expediting a system whose goal was to effect a crucial expansion in literacy and a leveling of the unfair linguistic advantage of the undemocratic literati.

On the Origins of Modern Humans

Michael Balter in ScienceNOW Daily News:

The fight over modern human origins is heating up. A new study of thousands of human skulls claims to confirm genetic evidence that our species arose in Africa and then spread over the globe. But some researchers say that an alternative scenario has not been ruled out.

Researchers have long debated two opposing hypotheses for modern human origins. According to the Out of Africa hypothesis, our ancestors appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago and then replaced all other human species, including Homo erectus and the Neandertals, with little or no interbreeding. The multiregional hypothesis holds that modern humans emerged from populations of “archaic” hominids in Africa, Europe, and Asia that evolved locally but also exchanged genes. Numerous genetic studies support the single-origin model, finding that the genetic diversity of today’s human populations is greatest in Africa and decreases steadily with distance from that continent. The idea is that diversity declined because each group of migrants founded a new population, creating genetic bottlenecks. But some researchers see traces of mixing between moderns and archaics in the genetic data.

Is There A Human Right to Democracy?

Joshua Cohen looks at the question, in Christine Sypnowich, ed., The Egalitarian Conscience:Essays in Honour of G. A. Cohen.

Is there a human right to democracy? My answer, in brief, is ‘no’. Five interconnected claims will play a role in my argument for this conclusion:

1. Justice requires democracy.

2. Human rights are a proper subset of the rights founded on justice: so a society that fully protects human rights is not ipso facto just.

3. A conception of human rights is part of an ideal of global public reason: a shared basis for political argument that expresses a common reason that adherents of conXicting religious, philosophical, and ethical traditions can reasonably be expected to share.

4. That conception includes an account of membership, and human rights are entitlements that serve to ensure the bases of membership.

5. The democracy that justice requires is associated with a demanding conception of equality, more demanding than the idea of membership associated with human rights.

An underlying thought that runs through the argument is that democracy is a demanding political ideal. The thesis that there is a human right to democracy—while it may seem to elevate democracy—threatens to strip away its demanding substance.

The Battle Over Derrida’s Papers

In the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

Along with his intellectual legacy, a voluminous paper trail of Derrida’s thought remains. Most of those papers — 116 boxes and 10 oversized folders taking up 47.8 linear feet — are housed at the University of California at Irvine. Derrida, who held a professorship at Irvine, had, more than a decade before his death in 2004, chosen the university’s library as the final resting place for his manuscripts. But there are more papers that remain in the office and attic of his house outside Paris, including his later writings, letters to colleagues, books from his personal library, and so on.

Last fall the university sued Derrida’s widow and his children after they refused to turn over the remainder of his papers. It was a startling move, considering the almost casual way in which the deal was struck: Neither Derrida’s initial gift of his papers to Irvine, nor an amended version of it, was witnessed by a lawyer or notary public. The dispute between Derrida’s heirs and the university had gone on in secret for more than two years. The lawsuit brought it into the open and, at the same time, infuriated scholars who were close to him.

Mr. Cogito’s Eschatological Premonitions


Until this year, Zbigniew Herbert was hardly known, if at all, by English-speaking readers. An excellent selection of his Selected Poems, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott in 1968 and reprinted in 1986, was almost impossible to find. We can be grateful that Ecco Press has brought out a long-overdue edition of Herbert’s Collected Poems, which include the Milosz-Scott translations with new translations by Alissa Valles. Herbert, who won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 1995, is a titan of not only Polish poetry, but of twentieth-century European poetry. His celebrated alter ego, Mr. Cogito, ranks as the one of the most original characters in modern poetry. Mr Cogito first appeared in 1974 and Herbert added poems by or about him in every book until his last in 1998.

The name of the alter ego derives from Descartes’ famous line: “Cogito ergo sum.” (“I think, therefore, I am.”) Mr. Cogito is ironic, droll, humble, self-deprecating, stubborn, valiant and philosophical. Many of the Mr. Cogito poems treat grand philosophical and metaphysical themes with a down-to-earth, no-nonsense attitude that is at once hilarious and profound; such poems include, among others, “Mr. Cogito Reflects on Suffering,” “Mr. Cogito on Virtue,” “Mr. Cogito and Pure Thought,” “Mr. Cogito’s Reflections on Redemption,” “Mr. Cogito and the Imagination,” and “Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza.”

more from Brooklyn Rail here.

Or in one common Fate with us be join’d


Of all the great English poets, Dryden must be the least enjoyed. Once honoured ‘rather in the stiffness than in the strength of his eminence’, he was soon ‘laid carefully away among the heroes’, according to Mark Van Doren, the critic who is still, nearly a century on, the most persuasive of his would-be resurrectors. The same melancholy afflicts his most authoritative modern biographer, James Anderson Winn: ‘Any candid teacher of English literature must admit that many students find little pleasure or stimulation in those few selections from Dryden we now ask them to read.’ The difficulty is not confined to students, or to recent times. ‘I admire his talents and Genius highly, but his is not a poetical Genius,’ Wordsworth said; perhaps predictably, since his notion of poetry differed from Dryden’s as much as Romantic ‘imagination’ differed from Augustan ‘wit’. But here is Dr Johnson: ‘to write con amore . . . was . . . no part of his character.’ Verse starved of parental love may well have problems attracting affection later. T.S. Eliot took a charitable interest in the case in 1921, but his contribution is rather reminiscent of Mr Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre enjoining the Lowood girls to be glad of their burned breakfast: ‘We cannot fully enjoy or rightly estimate a hundred years of English poetry unless we fully enjoy Dryden.’

more from the LRB here.

el anatsui’s trash


“Gawu” is an optically and emotionally stunning show drawing from the recyclia oeuvre produced by El Anatsui over the last decade (and distinct from the also gorgeous chain-sawed wood sculptures for which he first drew Art World attention). Substantially reconfigured from the version mounted throughout the U.K. in 2004, the “Fowler Gawu” (a Ghanaian Ewe-language neologism meaning “metal cloak”) adds work dated as recently as 2007. In addition to the five enormous and intricate signature bottle-cap-mosaic textiles, the show includes a monolithic architectural intervention assembled out of already once-recycled sheets of rusty scrap metal laced with perforations that allow them to function as root graters (Crumbling Wall, 2000), a giant Oldenburgian Wastepaper Bag (2003) patched together from crumpled single-use aluminum printing plates bearing ghostly imprints of obituaries, hospital bills and other funerary ephemera, and an installation of soft geometric cones made from discarded evaporated-milk-tin lids (Peak Project, 1999).

more from the LA Weekly here.

Edith Wharton

From The New Republic:

Wharton Over her lifetime of seventy-five years, Edith Wharton, born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862 to a moderately wealthy New York family, spent less and less time in her native city. When she was there, she generally wished to be somewhere else. According to James, she was a “poor dear goaded wanderer” — beginning with childhood travels in tow to her parents, later hopping from friend to friend at estates with portentous names like Qu’Acre and Hill Hall, or for colloquies with James at Lamb House, or with Bernard Berenson at I Tatti — sometimes accompanied by her occasionally “violent & scenic” (James’s words) husband Teddy, more often without him as he went off on his own to such exotic places as India, where the “obsessive Indian consumption of whiskey and soda” earned his disapproval — mainly, one suspects, because of the diluting effect of the soda.

Like James, Wharton wrote especially well about Americans in Europe. She knew the subject from within. She kept homes in London and, most happily, in Paris, at No. 53, later No. 58, Rue de Varenne, until the end of World War I, when she moved to the quieter district of Saint-Brice-sous-Fort, where she lived until her death in 1937. Paris, as she says of a character in a late novel, was her “great traceried window opening on the universe.”

More here.

That’s Why the Lady is a Tramp

From Science:

Bee When a new queen begins her reign over a colony of honeybees, she gives up her virginity with gusto. Venturing outside the hive and flying to a height of 6 meters or more, the queen mates in midair with a dozen or so male bees, called drones, who all die after ejaculating. The reason for this acrobatic orgy–polyandry is the polite term–has long been a puzzle.

Here’s the conundrum: When the queen buzzes back to the hive and lays eggs, she fertilizes them with sperm from the various drones she mated with. That means many of the female workers will be half-sisters, and these bees should be less likely than full sisters to work for each others’ benefit, at least according to the theory of kin selection. So why doesn’t the queen mate with a single male and keep the hive as one tight family?

According to a study in the 20 July issue of Science, a genetically diverse hive can be vastly more productive than a homogenous hive of sisters.

More here.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Moebius Strip Riddle Finally Solved

In Seed:

Since 1930, the Moebius strip has been a classic poser for experts in mechanics. The teaser is to resolve the strip algebraically–to explain its unusual shape in the form of an equation.

In a study published on Sunday that lyrically praises the strip for its “mathematical beauty,” two experts in non-linear dynamics, Gert van der Heijden and Eugene Starostin of University College London, present the solution.

What determines the strip’s shape is its differing areas of “energy density,” they say.

“Energy density” means the stored, elastic energy that is contained in the strip as a result of the folding. Places where the strip is most bent have the highest energy density; conversely, places that are flat and unstressed by a fold have the least energy density.

Race and Criminal Justice in America

Glenn C. Loury in the Boston Review:

Never before has a supposedly free country denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens. In December 2006, some 2.25 million persons were being held in the nearly 5,000 prisons and jails that are scattered across America’s urban and rural landscapes. One third of inmates in state prisons are violent criminals, convicted of homicide, rape, or robbery. But the other two thirds consist mainly of property and drug offenders. Inmates are disproportionately drawn from the most disadvantaged parts of society. On average, state inmates have fewer than 11 years of schooling. They are also vastly disproportionately black and brown.

How did it come to this? One argument is that the massive increase in incarceration reflects the success of a rational public policy: faced with a compelling social problem, we responded by imprisoning people and succeeded in lowering crime rates. This argument is not entirely misguided. Increased incarceration does appear to have reduced crime somewhat. But by how much? Estimates of the share of the 1990s reduction in violent crime that can be attributed to the prison boom range from five percent to 25 percent. Whatever the number, analysts of all political stripes now agree that we have long ago entered the zone of diminishing returns. The conservative scholar John DiIulio, who coined the term “super-predator” in the early 1990s, was by the end of that decade declaring in The Wall Street Journal that “Two Million Prisoners Are Enough.” But there was no political movement for getting America out of the mass-incarceration business. The throttle was stuck.

Iraq: The Way to Go

Peter Galbraith in the NYRB:

The Iraq war is lost. Of course, neither the President nor the war’s intellectual architects are prepared to admit this. Nonetheless, the specter of defeat shapes their thinking in telling ways.

The case for the war is no longer defined by the benefits of winning—a stable Iraq, democracy on the march in the Middle East, the collapse of the evil Iranian and Syrian regimes— but by the consequences of defeat. As President Bush put it, “The consequences of failure in Iraq would be death and destruction in the Middle East and here in America.”

Tellingly, the Iraq war’s intellectual boosters, while insisting the surge is working, are moving to assign blame for defeat. And they have already picked their target: the American people. In The Weekly Standard, Tom Donnelly, a fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote, “Those who believe the war is already lost—call it the Clinton-Lugar axis—are mounting a surge of their own. Ground won in Iraq becomes ground lost at home.” Lugar provoked Donnelly’s anger by noting that the American people had lost confidence in Bush’s Iraq strategy as demonstrated by the Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress. (This “blame the American people” approach has, through repetition, almost become the accepted explanation for the outcome in Vietnam, attributing defeat to a loss of public support and not to fifteen years of military failure.)

Berman’s The Primacy of Politics

In the TLS, Vernon Bogdanor reviews Sheri Berman’s remarkable study The Primacy of Politics:

Sheri Berman begins by asking why it is that the history of Europe since 1914 falls so neatly into two contrasting periods. Between the wars, the continent was marked by turbulence and crisis, but, for nearly sixty years, its western half has known political stability and high rates of economic growth. What caused this transformation? To this question, two answers have been given. The first suggests that it was a result of the triumph of democracy over its enemies, Stalinism, Fascism and National Socialism; the second claims that it was the philosophy of the market which had triumphed over socialism and communism. Historically, however, democracy and the market have been regarded as in conflict with each other. Liberals from Tocqueville to Hayek feared that the market could not survive the coming of democracy, for universal suffrage would give power to the unpropertied and ill-educated; Marxists in a sense confirmed their fears by predicting that the majority in a bourgeois democracy, the working class, would not tolerate capitalism but would overthrow it, by peaceful means if possible, by violent means if not. Yet, both liberals and Marxists came to be confounded when, in the post-war era, capitalism and the market came to be reconciled. How did this come about? That is what Sheri Berman seeks to explain in The Primacy of Politics.

Her answer is that it was an undervalued ideology, social democracy, which formed the ideological basis of the post-war settlement and resolved “the central challenge of modern politics: reconciling the competing needs of capitalism and democracy”. Social democracy, Berman argues, offers, a genuine “third way” that preserves both. Historians, she believes, have not noticed this because they have overemphasized “the role of the middle classes and liberal parties” in achieving this synthesis; yet the key role was played, not by liberals, but by parties of the moderate “revisionist” Left and by the institutions of the Labour movement.

Over at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell has some comments on the review.

The Perceptions of James Joyce

John Kelleher in The Atlantic Monthly: [Ed. Note. This review first ran in the Atlantic Monthly, March 1958.]

Joyce If the day should come that I walk into the classroom, unfurl my opening lecture on Joyce; and find at the end of the hour that I had as well been talking about Alfred Lord Tennyson, I shall not be unduly surprised. No writer’s original fame lasts forever with the young. Joyce has already had an unusually long run with them; and though their interest shows no present signs of weakening, when it does fail it will likely fail suddenly. Everything in literature has its term, and, if worthy, its renewal. That the rediscovery of Joyce will occur, with full fanfare, within a generation after his rejection, may be taken as certain. However, that will be no affair of mine.

Meanwhile, I predict with confidence that when the rest of Joyce’s books pass into temporary disfavor A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man will go on being read, possibly as much as ever, by youths from eighteen to twenty-two. They will read it and recommend it to one another just as lads their age do now, and for the same reasons. That is, they will read it primarily as useful and reassuring revelation — not as literature, for they will be blind to its irony and its wonderful engineering, the qualities Joyce most labored to give it.

More here.