In the Shadow of No Towers

Art Spiegelman told the assembled audience at Cooper Union on September 10 that he couldn’t get a major American media outlet (besides the Forward) to serialize “In the Shadow of No Towers,” the artist’s depiction of September 11, 2001. Instead the panels appeared mostly in Europe. At his lecture and slideshow, the chain-smoking Spiegelman described his famous black-on-black New Yorker cover after the terrorist attacks, as well as his increasing suspicion that the magazine’s “monocle” was a far too reasonable lens for his September 11 work. Michiko Kakutani has reviewed the book here, which is now available from Pantheon. There has been an outpouring of work about the attacks, of course, but, to my knowledge, nothing on this scale from a major artistic or literary figure that attempts to encompass the whole of September 11.

B’nai Brith endorses Islamic Sharia (!)

“This week has seen protests around Canada—and at Canadian Embassies worldwide—as citizens grapple with an issue that blurs the boundary between religious tolerance and oppression. The Ontario government is considering a proposal to allow certain family law matters—including divorce, custody, and inheritance—to be arbitrated by panels of Muslim clerics. Supporters of the proposal say that Canada’s commitment to cultural diversity requires that Muslim law be accorded the same respect as other legal systems. Opponents say Muslim law inherently conflicts with the basic freedoms guaranteed Canadians.” More here from Slate. (Thanks to A. Kynikos for sending this along.)

How slave trade patterns explain African underdevelopment

Brad de Long points to an interesting paper by Nathan Nunn of the University of Toronto on African economic development and the slave trade. The paper, “Slavery, Institutional Development, and Long-Run Growth in Africa, 1400-2000”, seems pretty impressive. I’ve only glanced through it, but the reconstruction of the data for the exports of slaves over a 600 hundred year period is quite an accomplishment. The claim in a nutshell:

Can Africa’s current state of under-development be partially attributed to the large trade in slaves that occurred during the Atlantic, Saharan, Red Sea and Indian Ocean slave trades? Evidence from the historical literature suggests that the answer to this may be yes. This study attempts to answer this question empirically. Combining shipping data with historical records reporting slave ethnicities, I construct measures of the number of slaves exported from each country in Africa between 1400 and 1913. Using this measure, I find the number of slaves exported from a country to be an important determinant of economic performance in the second half of the 20th century. To address the potential problems of measurement error and unobservable country characteristics, I instrument slave exports using measures of the distance from each country to the major slave markets around the world. I also find evidence that the channel through which the slave trade affects development today is through the slave trade’s past impact on the formation of domestic institutions.

Nunn controls for ethnic fractionalization, Islam, Christianity, and primary resource extraction. He also shows that the effects of the slave trade are channeled through their institutional effects: political stability, the quality and accountability of the government, property rights. This of course makes sense in so much as we can expect huge and regular demographic upheavals to disrupt the ability of societies to solve collective problems in ways that benefit all and to open themselves up to predation by opportunists and marauders, inside and outside the state. For those interested, here’s another paper by Nunn outlining this mechanism (in game-theor-ese).

Despite the existence of empirical studies linking Africa’s current underdevelopment to its history of exploitation, a formal theoretical explanation of this link has yet to be made. How could these past events have had apparently lasting impacts? I provide a game-theoretic model that explains how extraction during the slave trade and colonial rule resulted in a permanent increase in rent-seeking behavior and a permanent decrease in the security of private property, both of which have helped foster Africa’s current underdevelopment.

The finds aren’t startling, but we do live in a world in which many have a tendency to downplay the hugely negative consequences of slavery for today and not merely for the past. As with all interesting work, more questions, I expect, will flow from these answers.

How did Shakespeare become Shakespeare?

“A young man from a small provincial town — a man without independent wealth, without powerful family connections and without a university education — moved to London in the late 1580’s and, in a remarkably short time, became the greatest playwright not of his age alone but of all time. His works appeal to the learned and the unlettered, to urban sophisticates and provincial first-time theatergoers. He makes his audiences laugh and cry; he turns politics into poetry; he recklessly mingles vulgar clowning and philosophical subtlety. He grasps with equal penetration the intimate lives of kings and of beggars; he seems at one moment to have studied law, at another theology, at another ancient history, while at the same time he effortlessly mimics the accents of country bumpkins and takes delight in old wives’ tales. Virtually all his rivals in the highly competitive theater business found themselves on the straight road to starvation; this one playwright by contrast made enough money to buy one of the best houses in the hometown to which he retired when he was around 50, the self-made protagonist of an amazing success story that has resisted explanation for 400 years.”

More here by Stephen Greenblatt in the New York Times Magazine.

Plains Verse

Midwesterners tend to be viewed as measured people. As a longtime resident of Garland, Neb., do you think there is any truth to the popular image?

I’ve often thought that in any village you could find the seeds of every variety of personality, from the ax murderer to the opera diva.”

From a short interview of Ted Kooser, the new US Poet Laureate by Deborah Solomon in the New York Times Magazine.

The Duel Between Body and Soul

“What people think about many of the big issues that will be discussed in the next two months – like gay marriage, stem-cell research and the role of religion in public life – is intimately related to their views on human nature. And while there may be differences between Republicans and Democrats, one fundamental assumption is accepted by almost everyone. This would be reassuring – if science didn’t tell us that this assumption is mistaken.

People see bodies and souls as separate; we are common-sense dualists. The President’s Council on Bioethics expressed this belief system with considerable eloquence in its December 2003 report ‘Being Human’: ‘We have both corporeal and noncorporeal aspects. We are embodied spirits and inspirited bodies (or, if you will, embodied minds and minded bodies).'”

More here in an editorial by Paul Bloom in the New York Times.

Islamic reformation?

“The Muslim world is changing. Three years after the atrocity of 9/11, it may be in the early stages of a reformation, albeit with a small ‘r’. From Morocco to Indonesia, people are trying to develop a more contemporary and humane interpretation of Islam, and some countries are undergoing major transformations.” More here by Ziauddin Sardar in The New Statesman (via Arts & Letters Daily).

On a related note, in India last year, the well-known poet, and Bollywood scriptwriter and lyricist, Javed Akhtar, started a group known as Muslims for Secular Democracy, which hopes to give voice to the silent majority of muslims who are not fundamentalists. Predictably, he has been threatened and told to stay in line by conservatives. More here.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Fine Art vs. Graphic Design

I have been saying to anyone who will listen for years that the most arresting visual images are often to be found on billboards and on the advertising pages of glossy magazines, not in art galleries. Andrew Otwell has now pointed out this article in The Guardian: “From record covers to road signs, posters to packaging, graphics and typography touch every area of our lives. Forget fine art, Rick Poynor argues: it’s design that is at the core of 21st-century visual culture .” I told you so.

Gender Issues

Coincidental to Abbas’s post a couple of days ago titled “Men are from Earth, and so are Women”, I was reading a fascinating and very moving book called “She’s Not There – a life in two genders”, by Jennifer Finney Boylan, co-chair of the Dept of English at Colby College in Maine.

Here is an excerpt from the book:

“I was looking forward to introducing Russo that evening. It would be my first official re-introduction to the college community since I’d switched from Regular to Diet Coke. I knew the reading would be packed, too, the room likely to be filled with a couple hundred people. It would definitely be an occasion. To make it stranger, everyone knew that Rick had been my best friend back when I was a man. As a writer–and as a man–Russo was something of a tough guy. Having his best friend turn into a woman hadn’t struck him as a great idea at the time.”

From the book jacket (other reviews can be found here):
“By turns funny and deeply moving, Jennifer Finney Boylan explores the remarkable territory that lies between men and women, examines changing friendships, and rejoices in the redeeming power of family. She’s Not There is a portrait of a loving marriage—the love of James for his wife, Grace, and, against all odds, the enduring love of Grace for the woman who becomes her “sister,” Jenny.

To this extraordinary true story, Boylan brings the humorous, fresh voice that won her accolades as one of the best comic novelists of her generation. With her distinctive and winning perspective, She’s Not There explores the dramatic outward changes and unexpected results of life as a woman: Jenny fights the urge to eat salad, while James consumed plates of ribs; gone is the stability of “one damn mood, all the damn time.”

In the New York Times – Janet Maslin wrote:
Although this story is by no means pain-free (one friend commits suicide), Ms. Boylan places her emphasis elsewhere. What she accomplishes, most entertainingly, is to draw the reader into extremely strange circumstances as if they were utterly normal. It’s easy to feel, as Mr. Russo apparently did, when being told by his friend’s doctor that sexual reassignment surgery and novel writing require similar precision.

More at Professor Boylan’s website.

Did the tax cuts cost jobs in the US?

Daniel Gross has an article in Slate which suggests that the Bush tax cuts worsened unemployment. There are two elements to his argument. Taxs cuts designed to boost capital spending “leaked”, that is, the moneywas spent on capital good purchased abroad. Gross’s second reason for stangant unemployment (and declining labor force participation) is that the tax cuts accelerated the substitution of capital for labor.

The Jobs and Growth Act of 2003 aimed to give corporations an extra incentive to rush out and buy more capital goods by allowing them to write off larger chunks of the purchase price more quickly. . .

If more companies moved up orders and purchase decisions for trucks, machinery, and computers, that would create jobs for manufacturers and subcontractors and for the people who build, deliver, and install the goods. What’s more, companies would then have to hire people to run and maintain all those new machines.

Jobs and Growth made simple, right? Yes, if this were still the 1950s, when capital purchases were largely labor-intensive goods made entirely in the United States. Today, an order for a capital good doesn’t necessarily translate automatically into U.S. jobs. Instead of buying a Gulfstream G-450, a company could buy a jet from Brazil’s Embraer. . .

Many companies have taken advantage of the temporary rule to increase their purchases of so-called enterprisewide applications. These are big, expensive software packages, made by companies like Cognos and Business Objects, that are designed to make operations more efficient. Buying a new copy of Adobe Acrobat 6.0 might not be a capital purchase, but when a large company like Home Interiors & Gifts Inc. installs BusinessObjects Data Integrator across the corporation, it can be. The rub is that such products, production and installation of which isn’t particularly labor-intensive, are expressly designed to allow companies to operate with fewer—rather than more—employees.

Now the question is that why hasn’t the savings been translated into more investment and thereby more employment. One possible conclusion is that productivity is growing faster than demand (or effective demand), and therein lies the puzzle.

The New New York Skyline


“The skyline is back.”

“For the last three years, our collective focus has been on ground zero. Meanwhile, some of the world’s most prominent architects have been quietly pressing ahead with plans that will remake the city’s skyline on a level not seen since the World Trade Center was built in the 1970’s. The most remarkable expression of that shift is a growing list of stunning residential towers designed by celebrated talents like Richard Meier, Santiago Calatrava, Christian Portzamparc and Enrique Norten. But it also includes visions of corporate gluttony: colossal mega-structures that are essentially hybrids of residential skyscrapers and suburban office parks. And it coincides with the slow but inevitable erosion of the boundaries that have defined the edges of the Manhattan skyline for a century.”

This exciting article (at least for us New Yorkers) is from the New York Times. Thanks to my architect friend Shabbir Kazmi for bringing it to my attention. Shabbir’s own very beautiful entry in the competition to design a memorial at the WTC site can be found here. (Over 5,000 teams and individuals submitted designs.) Be sure to look at the slide show in the NYT article.

Thursday, September 9, 2004

War poem

I read of a thousand killed.
And am glad because the scrounging imperial paw
Was there so bitten:
As a man at elections is thrilled
When the results pour in, and the North goes with him
And the West breaks in the thaw.

(That fighting was a long way off.)

Forgetting therefore an election
Being fought with votes and lies and catch-cries
And orator’s frowns and flowers and posters’ noise
Is paid for with cheques and toys:
Wars the most glorious
Victory-winged and steeple-uproarious
… With the lives, burned-off,
Of young men and boys.

As the number of US troops killed in Iraq exceeded one thousand, Chritopher Hitchens has dredged up this poem, “A Thousand Killed,” by little known British poet Bernard Spencer here in Slate.

Has outsourcing turned Paul Samuelson into a heretic?

Paul Samuelson, perhaps the greatest economist of the post-war era, has weighed in on the debate on outsourcing, on the side of its critics, or rather against the enthusiasts.

“His dissent from the mainstream economic consensus about outsourcing and globalization will appear later this month in a distinguished journal, cloaked in clever phrases and theoretical equations, but clearly aimed at the orthodoxy within his profession: Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve; N. Gregory Mankiw, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers; and Jagdish N. Bhagwati, a leading international economist and professor at Columbia University.

These heavyweights, among others, are perpetrators of what Mr. Samuelson terms ‘the popular polemical untruth.’

Popular among economists, that is. That untruth, Mr. Samuelson asserts in an article for the Journal of Economic Perspectives, is the assumption that the laws of economics dictate that the American economy will benefit in the long run from all forms of international trade, including the outsourcing abroad of call-center and software programming jobs.

Sure, Mr. Samuelson writes, the mainstream economists acknowledge that some people will gain and others will suffer in the short term, but they quickly add that ‘the gains of the American winners are big enough to more than compensate for the losers.’

That assumption, so widely shared by economists, is ‘only an innuendo,’ Mr. Samuelson writes. ‘For it is dead wrong about necessary surplus of winnings over losings.’

Trade, in other words, may not always work to the advantage of the American economy, according to Mr. Samuelson.

Although, “Mr. Samuelson and Mr. Bhagwati agree that the way to buffer the adjustment for the workers who lose in the global competition is with wage insurance programs.” That fits with my social democratic sensibilities.

The article and the response by Jagdish Bhagwati, Arvind Panagariya, and T. N. Srinivasan are forthcoming in the American Economic Association’s The Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Danto on Bontecou

“Walking through the retrospective exhibition of Lee Bontecou, on view at MoMA-Queens, is uncannily like visiting an out-of-the-way museum of natural history, as if her entire work to date had been dedicated to the creation of a single work of installation art: a musée imaginaire. It begins with some animal sculptures and continues through what look like scientific instruments–cameras and other devices for the observation and recording of nature. These evolve into larger and larger structures, made of wire armatures covered with scraps of used fabric, each with one or two dark holes; like tribal masks, they convey an air of menace and mystery. One could construct a speculative anthropology for these extraordinary structures–what they mean, and how they function.”

Arthur Danto, still one of the sharpest art critics around, reviews the Lee Bontecou exhibit at MOMA here in The Nation. See also my earlier post on Bontecou here.

Attacks and defenses of bad writing

The fourth and last bad writing contest was won by Judith Butler in 1999 for this sentence in an article in Diacritics.

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

Many of those accused of bad writing respond in Just Being Difficult? (Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb eds.). Here’s a review of that book from Philosophy and Literature (subscription required).

“In 1999, Philosophy and Literature gave the top prize in its annual Bad Writing Contest to Judith Butler, and the national press echoed the journal in denouncing critical theory as overblown, jargon-ridden, and ungrammatical. Academic theorists reacted with pique, but not a soul in the public sphere came to their defense. Now, the professors have issued an anthology justifying their prose and denouncing Denis Dutton and other critics of bad writing. They claim that bad, or rather ‘difficult’ writing has a critical thrust: to break down common sense and dismantle unjust social notions.They fail to make their case. Much of the writing is, alas, bad. Entries offer tendentious, petulant reactions to the hubbub. Rarely do they address the basic point of the contest: that humanities professors no longer respect ideals of wit, eloquence, and learning. Instead, we have another parade of academic parochialism and radical chic passing itself off as adversarial culture and social justice.”