Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Academia: the larval stage

Yes, this sounds familiar:

Graduate school is not about learning. If you learn things, it’s only because you’ve already internalized the habit of learning, only because you make the effort on your own and in concert with fellow graduate students. You learn because that’s what you do now, that’s your life. ... Graduate school is not education. It is socialization. It is about learning to behave, about mastering a rhetorical and discursive etiquette as mind-blowingly arcane as table manners at a state dinner in 19th Century Western Europe.

Graduate school is cotillion for eggheads.

Ahh. The good old days.

More wisdom available on the question "Should I go to graduate school" available here from Easily Distracted. Something to hand out to those eager young things who enquire about having an 'academic career'.

Matters of Honour(s)

Having never actually read any of his novels (a fact I normally hold in reserve in case I find myself roped into a hard-fought game of 'Humiliation'), I am relatively ill-equipped to judge the merits of the British government's decision to grant Salman Rushdie a knighthood.

I do know, however, that Sir Salman has said a fair number of very sensible things about the world recently. And I recall well the issuing of the fatwa calling for his death, not least since I worked in a bookshop at the time, and the management apparently took seriously the possibility that violence might be visited upon those who sold it. Although the chain that owned the store did continue to sell the book, it was not displayed. We had to keep them behind the counter to be sold only on request. Rather like the porno-mags. In retrospect, I can see this as a small defeat for values I hold dear.

Furthermore, many of the reactions to this announcement (commented upon by Ophelia and Shuggy) are, all by themselves, reason enough to applaud the government's decision, revealing, as they do, the infantile worldview of those would justify murder for fictional 'blasphemy'.

Consider the comments of the Pakistani religious affairs minister, Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, who reportedly said:

"The west is accusing Muslims of extremism and terrorism. If someone exploded a bomb on his body he would be right to do so unless the British government apologises and withdraws the 'sir' title."

The thought that statements like those in his second sentence might be one of the causes of the accusations referred to in his first sentence does not appear to have crossed his mind.

Nonetheless, without wanting to diminish Rushdie's claim on recognition as an artist--and despite my own conviction that 'blasphemy' is among the most pernicious and idiotic concepts ever developed--I couldn't help but think of J. G. Ballard's reaction when, just a few years ago, he was offered a CBE.

He turned it down.

Why? Well, I'll let him explain.

"I might have been tempted had I been entitled to call myself Commander Ballard - it has a certain ring. I could see a yachting cap and a rum ration as perks of the job. If I was French and was awarded the legion of honour, I might well accept. But as a republican, I can't accept an honour awarded by the monarch. There's all that bowing and scraping and mummery at the palace. It's the whole climate of deference to the monarch and everything else it represents. They just seem to perpetuate the image of Britain as too much pomp and not enough circumstance. It's a huge pantomime where tinsel takes the place of substance.

"A lot of these medals are orders of the British Empire, which is a bit ludicrous. The dreams of empire were only swept away relatively recently, in the 60s. Suddenly, we seem to have a prime minister who has delusions of a similar kind.

"It goes with the whole system of hereditary privilege and rank, which should be swept away. It uses snobbery and social self-consciousness to guarantee the loyalty of large numbers of citizens who should feel their loyalty is to fellow citizens and the nation as a whole. We are a deeply class-divided society.

"I think it's deplorable when leftwing playwrights like David Hare, who have worn their socialist colours on both sleeves for so many years, should accept a knighthood. God almighty, this man actually knelt down in front of the Queen.

"I'm in impressive company [in refusing]. Most of them are thoughtful people and people of spirit and independence. It's good to see quite a few showbusiness people, like Albert Finney, a great actor. There were Aldous Huxley, Robert Graves - it suggests there's quite a large number of people who reject the whole notion of honours in their present form. And it might do something towards bringing the whole system down."
(Source: The Guardian)

'Impressive company' indeed: the same year, the excellent playwright and author Michael Frayn not only turned down a knighthood but had also previously refused as CBE; however, he claimed it was out of relatively prosaic motivations:

"I haven't done this for reasons of modesty," he claimed yesterday. "I like the name 'Michael Frayn'; it's a nice little name to run around with. I've spent 70 years getting used to it and I don't want to change it now."
Despite such caveats, however, I do of course wish Sir Salman a long number of years to get used to his new name.

Be careful, sir.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Cultures of Violence

I am pleased to announce (a bit belatedly, but no matter...clocks move more slowly in the academic world) the publication of Cultures of Violence: Interpersonal Violence in Historical Perspective, edited by Stuart Carroll, now available from Palgrave Macmillan.

Along with some other very fine contributions from internationally renowned scholars, it also includes a chapter from yours truly, entitled 'Conceptualizing Cultures of Violence and Cultural Change', which concludes with the words:
In a seeming paradox, cultures of violence are both robust and fragile. On the one hand, they influence some of the most fundamental beliefs of large numbers of people, thereby playing a role in shaping countless individual conflicts and, alternatively, enabling and repressing many kinds of serious and petty cruelties. However, on an almost daily basis, the contemporary world confronts us with evidence of how rapidly the intricate rules and prohibitions imposed by such cultures can break down. Cultural historians of violence would do well to keep such lessons in mind.
Yes indeed.

From the book's blurb:

Thinkers and historians have long perceived violence and its control as integral to the very idea of 'Western Civilization'. Focusing on interpersonal violence and the huge role it played in human affairs in the post-medieval West, this timely collection brings together the latest interdisciplinary and historical research in the field.

A sample chapter (the introduction, as a .pdf ) is also available.

(And amongst other good stuff, it contains two articles in which decapitation plays a prominent role.)

Monday, June 11, 2007

51st State?

I'm not sure which of the following is more discomforting, this:

So eager is the country to accommodate Mr. Bush that Parliament unanimously approved a bill last month allowing “American forces to engage in any kind of operation, including the use of force, in order to provide security for the president.” One newspaper, reporting on the effusive mood, published a headline that read, “Please Occupy Us!”

Or this:

After the visit on Sunday, some people expect to see a rash of babies named George.

And this, I don't understand at all...

“Nowhere else can you find such respect and hospitality for the president of the United States. Even in Michigan, he wouldn’t be as welcome.”

Even in Michigan, huh. Wow, that's saying something.

I think there's going to be some time that needs to pass before Albania joins the EU.

Under a leader, undoubtedly, named either Bill or George.

(From the New York Times, via Atlantic Review.)

The Crimes of Paris

Yep, that just about nails it:

(From A General Theory of Rubbish, via Shuggy.)

Just thinking....

As anyone who stops in here semi-regularly might have noted, things have gotten a bit slow of late.

This has partly had to do with my need to spend a greater percentage of my limited attention span and my sitting-at-the-computer time (there is only so long I can manage to do that these days...the fucking ageing process, as my mother used to call it, I suppose) on work-related projects and writing.

Which have been going well, so there's one gamble that's paid off.

I've also been travelling a bit, including to London last week. It was a very fine trip, not least since a good friend of mine (with excellent taste in such things) had arranged tickets for a comedy show by Daniel Kitson.

I'd never heard of him, but it was a great evening. But it was also an odd one.

Kitson is very funny, but his humour seems to contain more than a slight undercurrent of feelings that range somewhere between melancholy and outright existential despair. It's an unusual mix, but a very effective one.

At the show I saw, this combination of emotions was amplified by the opening set consisting partly of some excellent songs by a friend of his (whose name I've forgotten but whose music I haven't) which had the kind of effortless heartbreaking quality that many songwriters would kill for. (I can speak from experience...and I was myself quite close to homicidal thoughts on the evening in question.) [UPDATE: Ah, it was Gavin Osborn, whose Myspace...um...space...is here. Great stuff.]

In any case, the cycle of songs about a youthful love that was quietly longed for, forgotten, re-found, carefully tended and, ultimately, cruelly obliterated, was a strange (but lovely, really) appetizer for the comedy that followed.

It's also rare to find comedy that makes you think while still making you laugh at a word like 'cock'.

Kitson's website contains some very worthwhile audio and video files.

Speaking of thinking, though...

Some time ago You Are Here very kindly granted me a 'Thinking Blogger Award', an internet meme that started, appropriately enough, at The Thinking Blog and was aimed at recognising those bloggers that...well, that make you think.

The rules are 1) If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think and 2) Link to the original post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme. Winners get to display the nifty award logo.

I like the thought behind this award and I've been terribly remiss in living up to my part of the deal. So, I thought I'd do my duty and pass along the love...

It's a difficult choice, since I find things that make me think at many blogs, but if I really had to name those that I consistently find worthwhile to visit they would be (in no particular order):

1. Click opera: Momus's blog was actually one of the first ones I read and the one that suggested to me that there was something worthwhile in the whole phenomenon. A very fine mix of keen observation, art, music, philosophy, politics and appropriate solipsism.

2. 'Notes and Comment' (at Butterflies and Wheels): Butterflies and Wheels is one of the few sites that is literally worth looking at every single day to keep up on how things are going in the battle for reason and sanity. (Usually, they're not going all that well...) At the blog, Ophelia Benson comments on the fray. I don't always agree. But I do mostly. And in either case, I find it to be time well spent.

3. Geoff Coupe's Blog: Next to Ophelia's blog, I think I have found more interesting things to read on a regular basis via Geoff than through any other source. And I think in the ability to surprise me with a truly unexpected gem, Geoff takes second place to no one. (And, unlike your humble narrator, he has learned a useful thing or two about brevity.)

4. Fisking Central: Search as you might, it is rare indeed to find a place where the fine arts of argument and sarcasm are more fully developed. Mainly devoted to taking things apart rather than putting them together again...but as Franz Ferdinand has so succinctly put it, 'What's wrong with a little destruction'?

5. Pharyngula: Hardly an obscure link, I know. But really...this is about as good as it gets, thinking-wise. And I can't put it any better than that.

Thanks, all, for the thoughtful times.

And here's looking forward to many more.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Arguing against the gods

For a quite intelligent journal, this is quite a singularly stupid opening sentence:
SINCE arguments about God have run for thousands of years, it is a little peculiar to ascribe overwhelming importance to the publication of Darwin's “On the Origin of Species” in 1859.
No, no, and no.

'Arguments about God' may have been going on for 'thousands of years', but it's only comparatively recently that the arguments against have gained real evidential force.

(Just as was the case with the 'arguments'--including many fairly stupid ones--which raged about things such as the causes of disease until the mid nineteenth century.)

Before there was evidence of a round Earth, arguments about a flat one were on an equal footing.

Before evidence emerged of a heliocentric solar system, the geocentric vision was a somewhat reasonable one.

Before there was a convincing naturalistic argument to explain the development of life on this planet, there was a good reason to believe in fairy tales.

But no more.

And Darwin was a significant part of that shift.

So what's so 'peculiar' about recognising that?

Besides which, Mr. Collins seems like a deeply confused man:

Mr Collins has no time for intelligent design but conceives God to be of the non-interfering sort, a kind of divine CCTV camera. Yet he believes that Jesus was His son and he prays regularly.
Oh yes, sounds like a man to give serious attention to....

Welcome back Jack

Welcome back to freedom.

And here's wishing you a life, and death (not too soon, I hope), with dignity.