Friday, December 06, 2013

"A prickling at the back of my neck"

Someone gave my new book a very nice review today.

Details at the blog for the book.

A nice way to start out the Twelve Reviews of Christmas.

Please do go take a look.


Sunday, December 01, 2013

Fog in Channel, Continent cut off

There are some interesting figures from a new poll on attitudes to the European Union in four different countries (Germany, France, Poland and UK).

The survey of more than 2,000 people in the UK and over 1,000 in each of Germany, France and Poland, shows a clear parting of the ways. Just 26% of Britons think the EU is, overall, a "good thing" compared with 62% of Poles, 55% of Germans and 36% of French.

Accompanying this anti-EU feeling is an ingrained cultural resistance to the European ideal and the very idea of being European. Just 14% of UK people polled say they regard themselves as European, compared with 48% of Poles, 39% of Germans and 34% of French. Whereas most people in Germany, France and Poland name a fellow European country as their closest ally, the British name fellow English-speaking nations: 33% named the US, 31% Australia and 23% Canada.

Equally striking, in the context of Cameron's attempts to negotiate a new deal for the UK, attitudes to British membership are pretty negative among our partners, who will have to sign off on any future special terms of membership we may want to agree. When asked whether the UK is a positive force in the EU, just 9% of Germans, 15% of French and 33% of Poles say it is. Opposition to giving the UK special membership terms is strongest in Germany, where 44% are against and 16% in favour, with 26% of the French in favour and 36% against. In Poland there is more support, with 38% in favour and 23% against.

While the article in which these number are offered emphasises the apparently growing 'gulf' between the attitudes of Britons and those of their continental neighbours, arguably the most surprising result is the low level of French support for the EU and self-identification as 'European'.

The French also seem more positively disposed toward the British (at least with regard to questions related to the EU) than the Germans are. 

I wouldn't have expected that.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

The youth of Britain, somewhat before their finest hour.

At my blog for my book on the Pace murder trial, I offer a couple of excerpts from a fascinating LRB review of inter-war British masculinity.

With his ‘constant combing of well-oiled locks of long hair, tidy clothes and well-kept hands and nails’, as one exasperated army physical training instructor put it, the new teenager was symptomatic of a greater national effeminisation that was undermining Britain’s ability to defend itself in an ever more dangerous world. 


Ah, the eternal problem of 'today's youth'.





A game full of forlorn hopes (and striking prose)

It strikes me once again that there is something different about writing about cricket than writing about other sports.

E.g.:
Had Gower played that shot he would have been painted as a carefree dilettante wantonly incapable of recognising the gravity of the situation. 
Quite.



Thursday, November 21, 2013

'A certain bluntness'

From my lunchtime reading--an article at the THE on academic rudeness--here is some intercultural knowledge that accords with my own experience and might be helpful to some of you.

According to Gunther Martens, research professor of German literature at Ghent University: 

“Discussions in the Anglo-Saxon context have all kinds of face-saving measures,” he notes, “whereas continental debates pitch individual academics (and their reputations) against each other. At conferences, colleagues in English studies tend to ask questions, but they will always laud the speaker first. Americans are even more friendly…In the German context, a question is either a downright attempt to present one’s own view on the topic [or] a straightforward attack, meant to call into question the authority of the speaker. It is [considered] preferable to say that something is bad rather than to be implicit about it.”

Citing a colleague’s statement that “academic authority is the ability to offend someone”, Martens argues that this is premised on the notion that “a certain bluntness is necessary to arrive at the truth (which is the sole standard and may disregard other standards of sociability)”. German academics, he adds, tend to avoid blogging and tweeting because “their direct style would be misunderstood in the socially indeterminate space of the internet”.

There is the related issue of humour: a distinct asset in Anglo-American academic debate, it is often seen as a handicap in German contexts, apparently as a result of a widespread opinion that being funny and being serious are mutually exclusive.

But that's an issue for another lunchtime.



Sunday, November 17, 2013

Doris Lessing: still needed

While it is not really a surprise, it is saddening to hear of the death of Doris Lessing.

It made me recall a blog post by The Wife back in 2007, 'Why We Need Doris Lessing', commenting on Lessing's receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the ambivalent response that this award generated among some sections of Germany's literary intelligentsia.

To wit: 

Reich-Ranicki and Scheck, although at roughly opposite ends of the age spectrum, share membership in the vociferous anti-Lessing league, which always returns, with a persistence that borders on the obsessive, to the same hackneyed and unfounded prejudices from which its members seem to derive carte blanche to go around rubbishing her work at every available opportunity. These prejudices are:

a) Lessing is a bloody feminist.
b) Lessing is not Virginia Woolf.

Having said that, even those who celebrate Lessing seem determined to get her wrong. Among the more defensive responses was an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which opens with the following line: ‘But for a few weak books, Doris Lessing’s biography is flawless – it is all politically correct. The Nobel Prize for Literature appears to be standing in for the Nobel Peace Prize.’

Drivel like this confirms my sneaking suspicion that many journalists are simply not the sharpest tools in the shed. A politically correct biography!? Doris Lessing? A former Rhodesian Marxist who dumped her boring first husband for a German radical, abandoned two small children to go and live it up in London’s literary set and subsequently dabbled in Sufism and Sci-Fi only to spend most of the rest of her life railing against any form of political utopianism from feminism to Islamism?

She then turned to examining Lessing's 2001 novel  The Sweetest Dream, which we both read and enjoyed in 2007.

There is nothing utopian or politically correct about Lessing’s protagonist. Frances is Everywoman, trying to make do in a world of radically different individuals with conflicting interests and expectations, only to realize that, however hard one tries, there will always be plenty of loose ends left over. It’s those with the grand ideas that have it wrong: the café politicos and middle-class feminists wasting precious time making molehills into mountains. Consider Julie, Frances’s right-thinking journalist colleague at The Defender, a leftish daily modeled on The Guardian, who flies into

a fit of tearful rage when hearing on the radio that it was the female mosquito that is responsible for malaria. ‘The shits. The bloody fascist shits.’ When at last persuaded by Frances that this was a fact and not a slander invented by male scientists to put down the female sex – ‘Sorry, gender’ – she quietened into hysterical tears and said, ‘It’s all so bloody unfair’ (226).
Now, how many ‘politically correct’ feminist icons go around smacking the universal sisterhood upside the head with the more irrational bits of their creed? Like Lessing, Frances resists succumbing to ideology, although at the cost of being excluded from much of what is going on.

The rest is also worth your time. 

Farewell, Doris Lessing.











Saturday, November 09, 2013

Turn, turn, turn

I'm still digesting this rather long, thoughtful essay by Princeton historian David A. Bell on the 'global turn' in history, but I thought I'd post it here both for your own edification and so that I can find it again when I have more time to consider it.

What is 'global history', you ask?

Well... 

What social history was to the 1960s and 1970s, and cultural history to the 1980s and 1990s, global history has become in the first decades of the new century. Forty years ago, a young historian interested in the era of the American Revolution might have undertaken a dissertation on how independence affected daily life in small-town New England. Twenty years ago, she might have traced discourses of masculinity in the newspapers of the early republic. Today, a typical topic is more likely to involve the impact of “global” commodities such as tea and wine on American cities, or the role of foreign sailors on American merchant vessels, or the establishment of correspondence networks between slave-owners in the American South and the Caribbean. 

Everything in its place, I say.

But academia, like everything else, is prone to fashions. 

'What could be one of the most dramatic and exiting election nights since the war'

While looking for some examples of the work of the recently deceased BBC journalist John Cole, I stumbled upon this rather extraordinary video of the BBC's 1992 election coverage.

I only made it about five minutes in, but up to that point you have some pretty interesting viewing, from the overly dramatic TV graphics--which seem more 'X-Factor' than 'Serious Politics'--to the broad and diverse selection of posh accents and the effort to invest the results in Basildon with some sense of drama.

My favourite line: David Dimbleby's ringing announcement (at 1:45) that, 'Here in the studio, we've got bank after bank after bank...of computers.'

That was still the kind of thing you mentioned in 1992, apparently. (And I wonder whether your average smart phone today might be able to handle the number crunching that required those 'banks' back then.)

In any case: the BBC's exit polling in 1992 clearly left a lot to be desired.






Individuality. And idiots.

I have no particularly strong feelings about Jonathan Franzen's novels (I read The Corrections but can't remember much other than one couch-sniffing scene and some kind of Lithuanian political unrest), but I found Joshua Cohen's review (at the LRB) of Franzen's latest book, The Kraus Project, to be not only readable but also informative.

The subject of the novel (and much of the review) is the Viennese journalist and writer Karl Kraus.

But Cohen at a few points turns to the finer points of translation:

‘The masses’ [in Kraus's view] are the by-product of the mass production of language: the linotype machine – the internet of the fin de siècle – ensured the fast and cheap dissemination of more periodicals, and so of more fast and cheap rhetoric, than ever before. In the first Heine essay, Kraus fixates on the industrial capacities of the logos, in a German masterly in its truncations: ‘Glaubt mir, ihr Farbenfrohen, in Kulturen, in denen jeder Trottel Individualität besitzt, vertrotteln die Individualitäten.’

A version of this characteristically untranslatable sentence might be: ‘Believe me, you multicoloured multiculturalists, turning every idiot into an individual turns individuality itself idiotic.’ Franzen has: ‘Believe me, you colour-happy people, in cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads.’ He skips the neurotic beauty of Farbenfrohen, and the economical swerve of the noun Trottel becoming the verb vertrotteln; and though both omissions are forgivable, a culture where prominent American novelists can use the word ‘blockhead’ will itself become a blockheaded culture.

But the most important element lost in this passage, which follows a condemnation of the Frenchification of German, is Kraus’s paradoxical use of Individualität, a noun that had come to German from the French only a half-century earlier. In the 1760s Rousseau redefined individuel from meaning ‘indivisible’, or ‘numerically distinct’, to meaning ‘a single person’, but it was only with the second volume of Tocqueville’s De la démocratie en Amérique in 1840 that individualisme took on the positive connotation of a heroic severance of personality from the herd, and was opposed by negative, greedy égoïsme; both terms were soon shepherded into German.

The rest is also worth your time.

Asgard: a land down under

David Weigel's Slate review of Thor: The Dark World offers a comparison that I was not at all suspecting:

Thor followed the Crocodile Dundee paradigm, the tough guy dazzling people in a new land with his rough manners and strange vest. TTDW is Crocodile Dundee II, which put the fish back in his familiar waters, dragging his New York girlfriend to the Outback. 

'The Crocodile Dundee paradigm': a phrase with which to conjure.

 

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Something new from the Overlook Hotel

Since the relatively late year of 2008, I've been an admirer of Stephen King's horror writing.

But having gone through some of his more 'classic' works in that year -- Salem's Lot, It, The Stand, The Mist -- my free-time reading became captured by other things.

A few weeks ago, Joshua Rothman's New Yorker review of Doctor Sleep, King's newest novel and sequel to The Shining (1977), reminded me of what I enjoyed about King's writing and made me want to read his latest.

But, although I'd -- of course -- seen the film of The Shining (several times), I had never actually read the book.

So I decided to read that first, before checking out Doctor Sleep.

And I'm very glad I did.

Dyed-in-the-wool King fans might think a loud 'Duh!' when reading this, but in case I'm not the last person to find this out: the book is very different than the film. In terms of plot and characterisation it's also much better. (Though I think the film remains a visual and atmospheric masterpiece and very compelling contribution to the horror genre.)

The book creates a much richer constellation of emotions and conflicts and background around the three main characters (married couple Jack and Wendy Torrance and their son Danny). Perhaps most importantly, Jack's struggles with both alcohol and his temper are thoroughly worked out. This background makes the increasingly claustrophobic horror of the Outlook Hotel all the more significant, as Jack's descent into madness -- much more gradual and compelling than in the film -- gets going.

The Shining is a very, very creepy and disturbing book.

In a good way, mind you. 

Anyway, having finished The Shining I carried on to Doctor Sleep  and finished it yesterday.

I'd definitely recommend it to fans of horror and/or fantasy fiction, but it's a very different kind of book than The Shining. Almost the opposite kind of book, in fact: it's far more a geographically sprawling thriller than a claustrophobic horror novel.

But it's definitely intriguing.

As Rothman says:

“The Shining” is introspective, austere, and unsettlingly plausible, which is why it comes to mind whenever you visit a creepy hotel, play croquet, or see an angry dad with his kid. But “Doctor Sleep,” which feels less like a sequel and more like a spinoff, is unapologetically fun, free-wheeling, and bizarre. It’s about a wandering band of psychic vampires who stalk clairvoyant children, kill them, and then inhale their “steam,” or psychic energy, for food. A grownup Dan Torrance—the little boy from “The Shining”—must help a young girl fight off these vampires, who have sensed her psychic abilities from afar and have chosen her as their meal of the week. In place of its predecessor’s unsettling familial violence, “Doctor Sleep” has thrilling gunfights, absurd satanic rituals, and wildly entertaining telepathic showdowns. 

And it contains one of the best (i.e. most harrowing) descriptions of a post-bender hangover that I've ever read.

We're well past Halloween now, but with winter approaching, The Shining makes for perfectly good (i.e., unsettling) night-time reading.

And the sequel's quite good as well. 


If not exactly The Reason for the Season, the two books make a great accompaniment to it.






Hotel Art #6

Part of an occasional series.

Klosterhotel Marienhöhe, Langweiler, Germany. (November 2013)

(No art, you will see, to be found. But a great place all the same.)

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

New blog on humanitarianism and human rights

I've been meaning for some time to draw attention to a lively and informative new blog run by colleagues of mine on the history of humanitarianism and human rights.

But through forgetfulness (and, yes, overwork) I've so far neglected to do so.

But no longer.



So, by all means, do go check them out.

And feel free to tell them that I sent you.



Friday, October 25, 2013

Zazie

This is, I can testify, quite a good choice for a Friday evening film:



Zazie dans le métro, Louie Malle, 1960.

[UPDATE] I have realised, thanks to The Wife, that the German Wikipedia entry on the film is much more extensive than the English-language one.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Missing Norm already

Like many other people, I was very saddened last night to learn of the death of Norm Geras.

I was about to write something like 'I didn't know him personally', but then it occurred to me that in some way I did. What I mean is that I only ever communicated with Norm electronically--via our blogs and sometimes through email and Facebook--since we 'met' some time after I started this blog in 2006. (I forget now how it happened: it might have been at about this moment, in August of that year.)

This is worth mentioning, I think, because Norm frequently argued for the value of the internet as a new way of bringing people together. (And his commitment to this medium is remarkable: despite his illness, only a little more than a week ago he posted a list of book recommendations.)

He was himself, certainly, (in the face of much counter-evidence) one of the best arguments for the internet being a good and worthwhile thing. With all the fluctuations in my internet habits over the past 7 years, stopping by normblog was among the most consistent parts of my daily online routine.

And, equally consistently, it was one of the most rewarding. Norm's was a voice of reason and sensibility in a world that is all to often the opposite of these things. It was a pleasure to read his reasoning on many issues, even if I found myself not always convinced. (There are, it occurs to me, all too few people with whom it is a pleasure to disagree.)

But I usually did find myself in agreement with Norm, at least eventually.

I know that, for me, his death creates a particular absence that will be difficult to fill. And that is also a strange thought to have about someone I've never met 'personally'.

Condolences, of course, go above all to his family and closest friends.

But the internet is surely left a poorer place without him.

[UPDATE] Tributes to Norm are being collected and reposted at 'normfest'.





Thursday, October 17, 2013

Once again...

...I am reminded why I find Japan endlessly fascinating.



[UPDATE] Even better: they do their thing in Washington, DC (now reopened for business).

Would you like some tea with your Kulturpessimismus?

I think that Fareed Zakaria is a tad too optimistic about the likelihood of a certain breed of American right-winger deciding to abandon his fears of the impending liberal-socialist apocalypse.

But he makes some perceptive comments about the pre-history of the Tea Party phenomenon and its role as a bearer of a distinctive kind of cultural pessimism. 

Modern American conservatism was founded on a diet of despair. In 1955, William F. Buckley Jr. began the movement with a famous first editorial in National Review declaring that the magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” John Boehner tries to tie into this tradition of opposition when he says in exasperation, “The federal government has spent more than what it has brought in in 55 of the last 60 years!”

But what has been the result over these past 60 years? The United States has grown mightily, destroyed the Soviet Union, spread capitalism across the globe and lifted its citizens to astonishingly high standards of living and income. Over the past 60 years, America has built highways and universities, funded science and space research, and — along the way — ushered in the rise of the most productive and powerful private sector the world has ever known.

At the end of the 1961 speech that launched his political career, Ronald Reagan said, “If I don’t do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” But the menace Reagan warned about — Medicare — was enacted. It has provided security to the elderly. There have been problems regarding cost, but that’s hardly the same as killing freedom.

For most Americans, even most conservatives, yesterday’s deepest causes are often quietly forgotten. Consider that by Reagan’s definition, all other industrial democracies are tyrannies. Yet every year, the right-wing Heritage Foundation ranks several of these countries — such as Switzerland — as “more free” than the United States, despite the fact that they have universal health care. 
One might also stipulate that Zakaria is a bit too one-sidedly triumphalist about all things bright and beautiful in post-war America. 


Still, he makes an important point. 

But do I think that reasonable arguments like this will matter to the true-believers? For an answer, I offer some comments from Bruce Sterling on the Tea Party that I posted last year (which somehow seems like an eternity ago):

It's always "the worse, the better" with these Trotsky-style fanatics. Every failure, rejection and common-sense setback galvanizes them to new extremes of faith-based ideological weirdness. As someone who hangs out in Europe, I'm used to bizarre political movements, but the Tea Party is truly impressively strange by anybody's standards. Acidheads have had more coherent thinking than these Creationist Randite gold-bar-eating pro-coal zillionaire market fundie people. They lost the American election, but winning one and governing a superpower never seemed to be on their agenda. That hasn't discouraged them, though. They've got ladder notches and fallback positions all the way to the prepper graveyard.

Of course, this kind of paranoid fear-mongering isn't historically unique to the US: in 1945 the Daily Express was warning readers against a Labour Party victory in 1945 with editorials under titles such as 'Gestapo in Britain if Socialists win'. More recently, your average reader of the Daily Mail (which I could definitely imagine using that 'Gestapo' headline during the next British elections) has also decided that the only good things about Britain exist in the dimly remembered past.

Nor, naturally, is cultural pessimism exclusively the property of the political right.

But it is not encouraging -- as I happened to be saying to a colleague earlier today -- that a mere five years after he left office George W. Bush seems, in retrospect, so...moderate.  

The really interesting development in Washington, I think, is not the conflict between the Tea Party and the Democrats -- which, as loud and fun as it is, makes for pretty predictable theatre -- but rather the signals that the grown-up business types of the sort that used to dominate the Republican Party I remember in my youth just might be getting a bit nervous about what one of them calls 'the Taliban minority'.

I mean, American politics has now become a distant spectator sport for me. I live in a country where the main conservative party has its eye firmly on the nation's economic interests and where a laughable figure like Ted Cruz would have little chance of being taken seriously as a Kanzlerkandidat.

Believe me: I am thankful -- every day -- for the generally boring sensibility of German politics. 

And, hey, even the Germans are showing the odd sign of optimism these days...

It's a funny old world.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The unbearable goodness of reading

Emanuel Castano and David Comer Kidd claim that "reading literary fiction enhances 'mind-reading' skills" (by "mind-reading" they mean, of course, our ability to make inferences about other peoples' intentions, beliefs and desires on the basis of their actions - empathy, in short, or "theory of mind").

This is one of the many recent attempts by representatives of the cognitive sciences to prove the inherent perfectibility of Homo Sapiens Sapiens. If you ask me, it's all part of one huge plot against Richard Dawkins.

I'm not only not so sure about the rather unmotivated distinction between "literary" and "popular fiction" underpinning Castano's and Comer Kidd's research. I also could offer anecdotal evidence a-plenty of sociopathic behaviour in literature departments at universities here and abroad.

Especially in literature departments at universities. Maybe Castano and Comer Kidd should redo their experiments with a new test group.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Triteness is all (selections from the LRB)

The typical knee-jerk reaction I get when explaining to people (that is, colleagues) that my interest for years has been to apply the findings of the cognitive sciences and evolutionary psychology to the study of literature is: "Oh, but that sounds so ... reductive."

In response I tend to smirk: "Read any post-structuralist criticism lately?"

Such facetiousness has resulted in some colleagues ceasing to speak to me. Honestly, if you ever want to feel like an intellectual leper, just say "Steven Pinker" at a humanities conference. Or confront people who think that their fantasies about texts qualify them to also fantasise about the world with something as banal, trite and ... reductive as "facts."

The current LRB provides facts supporting the point for which I have been ostracised so often: Hal Foster's review of Jacques Rancière's Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art. Foster summarises:

The key, for Rancière, is the notion of different ‘regimes’ of the seeable and the sayable, or, as he puts it in The Future of the Image (2003), ‘different articulations between [artistic] practices, forms of visibility and modes of intelligibility’. In his view the Western tradition has experienced only three regimes on this grand scale, which he calls ‘ethical’, ‘representative’ and ‘aesthetic’ respectively. The ethical regime, first articulated by Plato in The Republic, aimed to ensure that all images (this was an age before art was considered a distinct order) were properly founded and appropriately directed, that is, that they were concerned with ideal forms and served the ethical development of the community. In the representative regime, outlined by Aristotle but codified only in the 17th and 18th centuries, ‘the intelligibility of human actions’ became the central criterion of art, which made the refinement of mimesis its essential task. To this end the liberal arts were separated from the mechanical, the fine arts from the applied, and representations were ordered in a strict hierarchy of subjects and genres, with epic poetry and history painting at the top. The aesthetic regime then emerged as the representative order broke down in the revolutionary transformations of the late 18th century. In the aesthetic regime, Rancière writes in The Future of the Image, ‘the image is no longer the codified expression of a thought or feeling’; ‘words no longer prescribe, as story or doctrine, what images should be.’ There developed a new equality among the subjects that could be represented, and a new freedom in the styles that could be used. As a result, the hierarchy of subjects and genres was overthrown, and even the division between fine and applied arts was challenged. Art as a privileged category of its own was finally secured.

Millenia (and more) of human cultural production and only three 'regimes' of the seeable and the sayble? Now if that isn't a wee bit ... reductive? Foster thinks so, too, though he manages to phrase the peanut-buttered ire I splattered across the breakfast table after reading the above in much more hygienic terms:

How useful is the notion of regime in any case? Although Rancière broke with Althusser, he retained an Althusserian fascination with epistemological orders. Like Althusser, Rancière wants to avoid a grand Hegelian arc to history, and opts for the category of regimes in resistance to the ‘teleologies inherent in temporal markers’, as he puts it in The Future of the Image. This approach does help him to taxonomise the artistic discourses of the modern period, but it also makes it difficult to understand how they are determined. It is an old complaint about this method – often made against Foucault – that it turns discourse not only into its own cause but also into an agent in its own right. A related complaint is that it does not grasp historical change very well: epistemes, regimes and the like seem to come from nowhere, and to vanish just as suddenly, as if catastrophically. Finally, they can have the odd effect of explaining a lot and a little at the same time, which is to say that the insights are often so general as to appear at once momentous and obvious.

A good man, Hal Foster, but maybe a bit careful. Rancière seems to deserve more of a metaphorical thrashing. Something like Adam Phillips' comment on The Hamlet Doctrine by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster (in the same issue of the LRB):

[Critchley and Webster] introduce their book by telling us that it is ‘the late-flowering fruit of a shared obsession … we are married and Shakespeare’s play, its interpretation, and philosophical interpreters have been a goodly share of our connubial back and forth over the last couple of years.’ We can sort of imagine what that might be like. Later on, by way of qualification, they make it as clear as they can that even though, in their view, Goethe and Coleridge saw themselves as Hamlet, ‘We do not see any aspect of ourselves or each other in Hamlet.’ Any? This is not, I think, quite as clear as they might want it to be. By the very end of the book they have something to confess, and as in all confessions something is claimed and something apparently regretted. ‘We write as outsiders, for shame, about Shakespeare, with the added shame of doing so as husband and wife with the implicit intent of writing about love. Perhaps we have completely betrayed ourselves. Perhaps this book will be the undoing of our marriage.’ ‘Completely’? ‘Perhaps’? The outsider thing can be a bit wearing; real outsiders don’t keep telling you that they are outsiders: they just do something unusual and other people call them outsiders. Shame, by contrast, is something the book is unusually interesting about (‘At its deepest,’ they write, ‘this is a play about shame, the nothing that is the experience of shame’). Still, we are left wondering, as perhaps we are supposed to be, what this marriage, their marriage, really has to do with the Hamlet Doctrine.

Wonderful: "The outsider thing can be a bit wearing; real outsiders don’t keep telling you that they are outsiders: they just do something unusual and other people call them outsiders." Of course, as a well-heeled American academic you are about as far as it gets from outsiderdom, which is probably why the concept must become your mantra.

Both reviews well worth reading, which is unusual for the LRB.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

And there's gonna be a party when the wolves come home

A recent Mountain Goats live performance. For your delectation.

0:16 - Up the Wolves
4:27 - Animal Masks
7:22 - You Were Cool
11:00 - Cubs in Five



Wednesday, October 02, 2013

An unintended conflation

Somehow it strikes me that this is one of the best correction notices I've read in a long time:

This article was amended on 26 September to correct a conflation of Sid Caesar and Ed Sullivan.

And the interview that forms the actual article itself -- with Woody Allen -- is worth reading too.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Hotel Art #5

Part of an occasional series.




A renovated farmhouse somewhere in the vicinity of Bruges, Belgium (September 2013). 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A 'rich and textured archaeology' of a murder trial

At the blog for my (still new, I'd say) book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England, I have noted a few recent reviews from the academic journals.

Academics are often a finicky bunch, but I've picked out some of the nicer things they've said about the book.

Among the words to be found there: 'engaging', 'impressive', 'thoughtful' and 'readable'.

What, you haven't yet gotten around to buying a copy? Why wait?! If you act fast, you'll have time to read it yourself and then give it to someone as a Christmas gift, all in the thrifty spirit of our austerity-ridden times!

(A comprehensive reviews page can be found here.) 

A few recent publications

Last week, I received a pre-press proof of an essay I wrote a couple of years ago. It has had a relatively long gestation process as a result of what sounds like some challenging financial issues faced by the editor, which appear now to have been solved. In any case, the surprise was a pleasant one, and I'm happy that the not insignificant amount of work I invested in it will at least result in a publication (which will not only be the first publication related to my new research project but also my first German-language entry on my publication list).

It then occurred to me that, since a few other things of mine have recently seen the light of day, I might note them briefly here, in case you're interested in this sort of thing.

1. First, I contributed a chapter to the new collection Moral Panics, Social Fears and the Media: Historical Perspectives, edited by Sian Nicholas and Tom O'Malley (Routledge, 2013).

The chapter is titled 'Watching the Detectives (and the Constables): Fearing the Police in 1920s Britain', and it is one of the last of a series of publications to emerge out of a research project I was involved in a few years ago that focused on a series of British policing scandals in the late 1920s and how they were discussed in the press . (I first stumbled upon these scandals in the context of my research on the Pace murder trial, which became my second book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England.)

A final draft version of the chapter is available for reading or download at my pages at academia.edu or ResearchGate, and here is  a brief excerpt:

There were specific worries about the reliability of police evidence, the rough handling of demonstrators, the over-zealous policing of ‘indecency’ and the possible use of intimidation during questioning. The press gave significant attention to allegations of wrongful arrest and poor treatment, especially when they involved socially prominent or even simply ‘respectable’ people.

An Evening Standard cartoon inspired by the police scandals.
Anxieties peaked in 1928 with two sensational scandals, the Pace and Savidge cases, described in more detail below. These events were given exhaustive press coverage and provoked commentary regarding an apparent crisis in police-public relations. A 1928 Daily Mirror editorial observed, ‘the impression has long been prevalent that, once a man or a woman falls foul of the police, there is no possibility of struggling out of the net that evidently catches the innocent as well as the guilty’.

An essay by A. P. Herbert entitled ‘Stopping People from Doing Things’ [Sunday Express, 27 May 1928, 2] captures the tone of such criticism well, seeing police misconduct as a symptom of wider problems: ‘The habit of the governing mind at the present day is one of continual interference in things that do not matter to the neglect, very often, of the things that do, a habit of meticulous insistence on petty rules and prohibitions; and, naturally, the police have caught the fever from their masters’. Herbert argued:

‘The petty tyrannies of policemen are only the natural and logical consequences of the large policy of social tyranny for which our rulers are responsible. We fondly thought that we fought the Great War for Liberty, but conquered Berlin is a free city, and London is as free as a kindergarten school.’

2. Secondly, the contribution I wrote to a collection on the reception of the ideas of Oswald Spengler (he of Decline of the West fame) that I had previewed earlier this year came out a couple of months ago. The collection, Oswald Spengler als europäisches Phänomen: Der Transfer der Kultur- und Geschichtsmorphologie im Europa der Zwischenkriegszeit 1919-1939 was ably edited by Zaur Gasimov and Carl Antonius Lemke Duque, and it considers Spengler reception in several countries. I was responsible for Britain, and in '"German foolishness" and the "Prophet of Doom": Oswald Spengler and the Inter-war British Press' (one of three English-language contributions to the collection), I focus, as the title suggests, on how Spengler's ideas were discussed in a range of major newspapers and magazines.

A brief excerpt: 

Oswald Spengler, looking jaunty as usual.
Although Spengler's work was highly controversial in his homeland, British commentators tended to depict it representing something typically German. On this basis, in a radio broadcast titled »Spengler–A Philosopher of World History« (reprinted in the Listener in 1929), popular philosopher C.E.M. Joad sought to explain national differences related to Spengler's reception: »The Germans have an appetite for ideas which rivals, if it does not exceed, the English appetite for emotions«*. Referring to then-popular authors of romance novels and histories, he observed: »While the Englishman is enjoying a feast of passion at the luscious boards of Miss Dell or Miss Hull, the German refreshes himself with draughts of pure thought from the fountain-head of some abstruse philosopher«**. Spengler's sentences, he continued, »seem to be the necessary accompaniments of German philosophy in the grand manner: Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, all wrote them and worse; they sound the authentic German note«. [166-67]
----------
* Listener, 27 February 1929, p. 250.
** »Spengler, the most abstruse German now writing, is also the most popular. He belongs, it is clear, to the grand tradition of German philosophy«. Ibid. Ethel M. Dell was a romance novelist and Eleanor Hull wrote Irish history. See also: »[F]or whereas the success of the Anglo-Saxon best-seller depends upon a facile acceptance of emotions, the Teutonic best-seller demands of the reader an equally facile acceptance of ideas«. New Statesman, 3 July 1926, p. 332.  

3. Finally, a couple of my reviews have also come out this year.

  • One at the open-access journal Law, Crime and History on Shame, Blame and Culpability: Crime and Violence in the Modern State, edited by Judith Rowbotham, Marianna Muravyeva and David Nash. (Issue here, direct link to review [pdf] here.)
  • Another at Reviews in History on Haia Shpayer-Makov's excellent new police history: The Ascent of the Detective: Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England. (Link to review.)

I have, incidentally, uploaded most of the reviews I've written over the last ten years or so to both academia.edu and ResearchGate.

Happy reading!



Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Somewhat belated late summer reading list

There were several things that contributed to the relaxation and enjoyment we shared during our recent holidays on the French and Belgian coasts. One of them was the complete absence of any internet connection and, in our second week, of any media source whatsoever.

Another key thing was doing a lot of reading, but, importantly, for the most part reading that had little or nothing to do with 'work'. Given the absence of any forms of multimedia distraction and the presence of either a quiet beach or an even quieter semi-remote farmhouse, it was a relief to rediscover that now all-too-rare commodity of deep focus. 

My reading list for those two weeks ended up being shorter than I had hoped, but I might have been a bit ambitious:
  • Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren (I had started this one before we left: given that it's a bit of a slog -- an interesting slog, yes, but still pretty heavy going -- I was happy to have plenty of time to race through the last few hundred pages) 
  • Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget
  • Paul Fussell, Class: A Guide through the American Status System
  • James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime
  • Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (first time, I must admit)
  • James Salter, Light Years
  • James Salter, All That Is
  • and, more or less intermixed among them all, Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder.
As usual with holiday reading, I tend to mix in things I know and like quite well (Light Years, Class) with new things that are long-time entries on my meaning-to-read list (Brideshead) combined with a few random choices that more or less occur to me in the weeks before we leave (everything else).

I thought everything was worthwhile and absorbing, but the main reading joys of this journey were Judt and Snyder's collection of interviews on twentieth-century intellectual history and the novels by Salter.(And, I'd give an honourable mention, Paul Fussell's Class, which I've now read three times at different points in my life: while a bit dated in terms of some of its specifics -- it is, after all, now 30 years old -- it gets a vast amount fundamentally right. It's an unsettling experience, though, to have so many of your own family's class signifiers described in such unrelentingly perfect detail by a complete stranger.)

For an overview of several streams of twentieth-century thought (especially those having to do with Marxism, which, however you feel about it, is an essential part of understanding the twentieth century), I would highly recommend the Judt and Snyder book. It is, however, partly biographical and loosely structured around different phases in the life of Tony Judt, who -- very sadly -- died a few years ago at a far too young age. This mix might put some people off (especially if you're not familiar with Judt's other work). He had an interesting life, however, and as the book is about the intellectual development of various thinkers and interpreters of society, culture and history, the two streams in it tend to mix quite smoothly, I thought.

That is, if you're interested in two historians talking about intellectuals. I happen to like that kind of thing. (Further commentary on the book in this brief piece at the New Yorker.)

The Salter novels are in a very different key. I had read Light Years a couple of years ago and enjoyed it very much. But reading these three novels was much more of a serious plunge into Salter's very unique style.

I can do no better than to point you to James Meek's recent LRB essay on Salter, which is actually what inspired me to re-read Light Years and to try out the other two.

This is the section that focuses on Light Years:

In Light Years, Salter’s mastery of time, his themes of nobility, ruthlessness and failure in the quest for love and glory, his interest in the erotic and the aesthetics of pleasure, achieve their richest realisation. To the portrayal of moments, seasons and years is added the portrayal of entire adult lives, Viri’s and Nedra’s, in a long marriage and its aftermath. [...]

But the story, what the book is ‘about’, matters less than what the book is: an extraordinary replication not of the experience of a marriage but of the memory of the experience of a marriage. For while we remember stories, memory is not a story. Salter strips out the narrative transitions and explanations and contextualisations, the novelistic linkages that don’t exist in our actual memories, to leave us with a set of remembered fragments, some bright, some ugly, some bafflingly trivial, that don’t easily connect and can’t be put together as a whole, except in the sense of chronology, and in the sense that they are all that remains. Over these surviving fragments of the past, where the distinction between the unique and the repeated is blurred, Salter sets the characters’ reflections hovering, in the way our present thoughts will flutter back to burnish and brood over, and find connections between, the same small set of memories we get to keep....
(I think it was this rather melancholic, fragmented sense of memory that made me think, while reading all three books, of the films of Terrence Malick, which I like very much and about which there was also recently a strikingly good LRB essay by Gilberto Perez.)

I think that Light Years remains my favourite of the three.   

We've actually been back for a few weeks, and the reading material has since been much more work-related.

Which is also interesting, though in a different way: one that I hope to get around to talking about here at some point.

But reader, I tell you: being offline for a few weeks was good for my soul.

There might be more periods like that in the future.





Hotel Art #4

Part of an occasional series.


Ibis Budget hotel, Liège, Belgium (August 2013).

Thursday, August 15, 2013

'For goodness sake, grow up'

I'm not, to be sure, on ex-Archbeard Williams's 'side', but there are a few things he said here which are definitely not wrong.

Such as on the issue of words and their use.

Words, that is, like 'persecution':

"When you've had any contact with real persecuted minorities you learn to use the word very chastely," he said. "Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. 'For goodness sake, grow up,' I want to say."

True persecution was "systematic brutality and often murderous hostility that means that every morning you wonder if you and your children are going to live through the day". He cited the experience of a woman he met in India "who had seen her husband butchered by a mob".

Or, 'spirituality':

He added: "Speaking from the Christian tradition, the idea that being spiritual is just about having nice experiences is rather laughable. Most people who have written seriously about the life of the spirit in Christianity and Judaism spend a lot of their time telling you how absolutely bloody awful it is."  

It's striking how similar some of the comments he made here are similar to those sometimes made within a group of (mainly Anglican) Christian intellectuals in the 1930s and 1940s that I'm currently researching. 

Especially things like this:

"The risk of being reduced to an NGO, another woolly, well-meaning liberal thinktank or ambulance service – that's not a fate I would relish for my church," he said.
I can see that, I have to say. 


Saturday, August 03, 2013

'Initiative in a world afflicted with comprehensive helplessness'

That Bruce Sterling, he does have a way with words.

This time about Messrs. Assange, Manning and Snowden and the the consequences that have followed in the wake of the secrets they have revealed.

It’s a wrestling match of virtuality and actuality, an irruption of the physical into the digital. It’s all about Bradley shivering naked in his solitary cage, and Julian diligently typing in his book-lined closet at the embassy, and Ed bagging out behind the plastic seating of some airport, in a jetlag fit of black globalization that went on for a solid month.

And, those tiny, confined, somehow united spaces are the moral high ground. That’s where it is right now, that’s what it looks like these days.

You can see that in the recent epic photo of Richard Stallman — the Saint Francis of Free Software, the kind of raw crank who preaches to birds and wanders the planet shoeless – shoulder-to-shoulder with an unshaven Assange, sporting his manly work shirt. The two of them, jointly holding up a little propaganda pic of Edward Snowden.

They have the beatific look of righteousness rewarded. Che Guevara in his starred beret had more self-doubt than these guys. They are thrilled with themselves.

People, you couldn’t trust any of these three guys to go down to the corner grocery for a pack of cigarettes. Stallman would bring you tiny peat-pots of baby tobacco plants, then tell you to grow your own. Assange would buy the cigarettes, but smoke them all himself while coding up something unworkable. And Ed would set fire to himself, to prove to an innocent mankind that tobacco is a monstrous and cancerous evil that must be exposed at all costs.

And yet the three of them together, they look just amazing. They are fantastic figures, like the promise of otherworldly aid from a superhero comic. They are visibly stronger than they’ve ever been before. They have the initiative in a world afflicted with comprehensive helplessness.
And there’s more coming. 

Lots, lots more.

I can't judge whether Sterling is right about his conclusions.

But can say that this essay is certainly one of the most interesting things I've read on this topic.

And that, for the moment is enough.

Well that and another another killer line from the same essay: 'Personal computers can have users, but social media has livestock.'

Well said, sir.

(Thanks to Simon at Ballardian for bringing this to my attention.)

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Foul language

Philip Oltermann considers German obscenities:

Linguist Hans-Martin Gauger spent several years comparing swearwords in 15 different languages and concluded not so much that Germans were inordinately obsessed with faecal matters, but that there were inordinately reluctant to use sexual metaphors to express negative sentiments.

Look up "motherfucker" in the Langenscheidt dictionary and you get Arschloch (arsehole). In German you don't say: "Verfick dich (fuck off)," but "Verpiss dich (piss off)"; you don't feel "fucked off" but "beschissen (shat upon)". Even Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was happy to use the filthy German equivalent of "kiss my arse" in his 1773 play Götz von Berlichingen: "Er aber, sag's ihm, er kann mich im Arsche lecken!" Only the Swedes share a similar reluctance to use sexual metaphors as swearwords.

Gauger admits that, with the globalisation of German, that reluctance is starting to wear off, but he insists that Germans should, at any rate, not be ashamed of their linguistic habit, but proud of it. "I find it much more troubling when we use sexual organs as terms of abuse." 

I can see that.

On the other hand, the amazingly easy, effective and somehow elegant all-purpose obscenity of the f-word is one thing I do miss in German.

Exhibit, uh, 'F' (caution: harsh language):

Monday, July 01, 2013

Important anniversary

We actually do have a wedding anniversary later this month, but that's not what I mean here.

The one I'm referring to is an anniversary of a rather different nature.

Tomorrow is the 85th anniversary of the opening of the trial of Beatrice Pace for the alleged arsenic murder of her husband Harry. Although the case has, today, largely been forgotten, it was a massive press sensation in the late 1920s and even led to political debates about the fairness and functioning of Britain's justice system.

My recent book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England, examines this dramatic case from several angles and sets it within the fascinating cultural context of inter-war Britain.

As I suggest in a short post at my book-related blog, it might be something that belongs on your summer reading list.

Now that summer, it seems, has finally arrived.


Happy reading!



Sunday, June 30, 2013

When I'm 64. And the rest of it.

At the end of a Guardian article which is a bit tiresome in its generational navel-gazing there are a few interesting passages on how to best manage that inevitable process of getting older:

In his 2003 book Aging Well, George Vaillant, an American psychiatrist, drew lessons from three longitudinal studies that followed 824 people – the parents of the baby boomers – for more than 60 years. He was fascinated by why some became "sad sick" as the years progressed and others "happy well". One of the studies selected a Harvard group for their soundness of mind. Yet a third had suffered mental illness by their 50s. "They were normal when I picked them," one researcher told Vaillant, "It must have been the psychiatrists who screwed them up." Childhood isn't decisive. How you start out, Vaillant learned, is no indicator of where you will end up.

He looked at those people, male and female, who had fared well emotionally as octogenarians and saw patterns in their 50s that gave signals. They were in a stable relationship, did not smoke, drank little, exercised, had a normal weight and had the maturity to handle emotional issues well, "and make a lemon into lemonade". Comfortable in their own skins, they would not have mouthed the words of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman: "I still feel kind of temporary about myself."

It is this "social aptitude" or emotional literacy that Vaillant discovered, not intellectual brilliance, or income or parental social class or genes that leads to successful ageing – that is being rich in well being and not alone.

Some of the wealthy in his studies died alone, prematurely and miserably just like a number of the poorest.

As you age, Vaillant advised: "Don't try to think less of yourself … try to think of yourself less."

Moderation, consistency, loyalty, a lack of self-obsession and being a Mensch. Not exactly a surprising list.

But I've heard worse advice. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

If we had to take up arms again, my heart would shed a tear

Am just getting ready to head off to Göttingen to give a talk (pdf) on my new project.

I've never been there before.

But this song about it sure is pretty.


(English translation of lyrics)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

"I think not"

 A striking passage from Iain Banks's last interview:

"I can understand that people want to feel special and important and so on, but that self-obsession seems a bit pathetic somehow. Not being able to accept that you're just this collection of cells, intelligent to whatever degree, capable of feeling emotion to whatever degree, for a limited amount of time and so on, on this tiny little rock orbiting this not particularly important sun in one of just 400m galaxies, and whatever other levels of reality there might be via something like brane-theory [of multiple dimensions] … really, it's not about you. It's what religion does with this drive for acknowledgement of self-importance that really gets up my nose. 'Yeah, yeah, your individual consciousness is so important to the universe that it must be preserved at all costs' – oh, please. Do try to get a grip of something other than your self-obsession. How Californian. The idea that at all costs, no matter what, it always has to be all about you. Well, I think not."

I think not too.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

On loving thy archbishop as you suggest he loves himself

Some harsh words, at least by Anglican standards, are brought to our attention by Barbara Ellen at the Guardian: 

This week, a somewhat unusual religious story. After Justin Welby's recent anti-gay marriage speech, Rev Marcus Ramshaw went on to Facebook to denounce him as a "wanker" (yes, you did read right). Saying that the archbishop did not speak for him, Ramshaw also called Welby a "massive mistake" and said he was getting up a petition for him to resign.

Some of us took a moment at this point: did a reverend just call the archbishop of Canterbury a "wanker"? Was it a communal hallucination, or perhaps a long-lost Chris Morris sketch? Could somebody step in and control this situation please! As if on cue, Church of England director of communications Rev Arun Arora went online to admonish Ramshaw, saying: "Calling another Christian a wanker doesn't work for me as a priestly response." An agreement was reached for Ramshaw to delete his comments. Arora added: "I think any right-minded person would find a priest calling his archbishop an onanist to be utterly outrageous." 

Or, of course, a right-minded person might find it utterly amusing. 

Not least since the church has now done its bit to resurrect the under-used word 'onanist'.


Sunday, June 02, 2013

Silent Posting


Shopping and praying

An interesting historical comparison at Blood & Treasure regarding the current unrest in Turkey:

Historically, the whole thing has a 19th century French feel to it, in the sense of government dominated by a pious, provincial bourgeoisie wanting to tame the big city antinomians. But reading about this stuff it’s amazing how well a certain type of – in this case – Islamic piety dovetails with neoliberal concepts of modernization. Maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising when you look at places like Dubai, but it’s remarkable how exact the comparisons are. The same basic suspicion of ‘urbanity’ in the widest sense of the word, the dislike for forms of life, commerce and culture perceived to be messy or low prestige, the way in which a form of commercial standardization seems to complement or substitute for a repressive moral code and the way in which the only unthreatening secular activity that the economic, political and in this case religious establishment can imagine is shopping.

I am in no way competent to address the complicated political situation in Turkey (the list of various grievances cited in the above-linked post is pretty illuminating), but this makes it seem like something more immediately graspable.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Speaking in tongues

The guardians and shepherds of the French language have, at least according to the Telegraph, apparently decided to officially recognise a new word for what the anglais and américains have long referred to as 'French kissing'.

It sounds a bit...surprisingly unromantic.

Sadly, they have not preserved the 'French' in the kiss, choosing instead 'galocher' - to kiss with tongues - which sounds a bit too close to 'galoshes' for my liking, which are something a bit like Wellington boots, only they go over your shoes instead of in place of them, and is very definitely Not Sexy. 

It is odd, I think, that their version takes no national credit for the practice of kissing with tongues.

You'd think you'd want your country's name on that particular activity.

Minor digression: I think the above-noted author sorely underestimates the sexiness of Wellington boots.

Though whether we need a special verb for that sort of thing is another issue altogether.
 



On "Panzerschokolade" and other fun German inventions

Not least because a couple of friends have pointed me to it, I thought I would pass along a reference to this fascinating little article from the English-language version of Spiegel Online that explores the origins of 'crystal meth', finding it in late 1930s Germany.

When the then-Berlin-based drug maker Temmler Werke launched its methamphetamine compound onto the market in 1938, high-ranking army physiologist Otto Ranke saw in it a true miracle drug that could keep tired pilots alert and an entire army euphoric. It was the ideal war drug. In September 1939, Ranke tested the drug on university students, who were suddenly capable of impressive productivity despite being short on sleep.

From that point on, the Wehrmacht, Germany's World War II army, distributed millions of the tablets to soldiers on the front, who soon dubbed the stimulant "Panzerschokolade" ("tank chocolate"). British newspapers reported that German soldiers were using a "miracle pill." But for many soldiers, the miracle became a nightmare.

As enticing as the drug was, its long-term effects on the human body were just as devastating. 

And 'devastating', of course, remains an accurate term for the drug's impact.

On discovering that yet another major illegal drug has its origins in German chemistry I was reminded of an earlier post I wrote at this blog pointing out that, in the early 20th century, my adopted homeland was the leading global supplier of cocaine.

The above facts combined with another recent online reference pointed out to me by a friend -- to a Bayer-branded bottle of heroin -- got me thinking.

If we -- as in we Germans -- ever need a new motto to replace 'unity and justice and freedom' (which is, I will admit, not bad), can I now just suggest that the following might be appropriate for the country that invented heroin, cocaine and crystal meth: 'Germany: getting the party started since 1855'.


  



Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Tiny visitor

We found this little fellow -- a baby blue-tit -- on our front doorstep when we came home from work this evening.



He fluttered around there for a while (actual flying still seems beyond his abilities) before hiding in some ivy in our back garden.

While we ate our own dinner, we watched him (we've rather spontaneously named him Ferdinand) be fed by his parents.

Shortly afterwards, we noted two other baby birds on a branch in another part of the garden. We think they're redstarts, but they might be finches.

It's all gotten very lively in the garden all of a sudden.

We're just hoping that they survive the neighbourhood cats. 

Fingers crossed.

[UPDATE]: They are redstarts. The Wife just saw the parents feeding them what seemed to be grubs. Yum!

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Hotel art #1

An occasional series: art in hotel rooms I (or we) have slept in.


Hotel Ullrich, Elfershausen, Germany (April 2013).

The present is a foreign country

I haven't been reading too much in detail about UKIP -- because, well, really, who wants to spend time thinking about these people? -- but the relative success of the anti-EU, anti-immigration party in Britain's local elections last week has brought forth a new round of attention to them.

Via Max Dunbar, I discovered Andrew Rawnsley's analysis of the UKIP phenomenon, which concludes with these striking passages:

All the main parties have cause to be anxious about Ukip and so all have been trying to understand the rise of the Farageists. One way they do this is to put together focus groups of voters who have switched to Ukip to try to fathom why these people are attracted to Nigel Farage's gang. One senior party strategist says he listened in some wonderment as his focus group of Ukip voters spent an entire 90-minute session wailing and gnashing their teeth about the state of Britain. Not a good word did they have to say about the country today. At the end of the session, he thanked them for their time, and said he had one more question. Was there anything about Britain that made them feel proud? There was a silence. Then one man leant forward and said: "The past." The rest of the group nodded in agreement.

The Ukip manifesto is a nonsense of contradictions. David Cameron, Nick Clegg or Ed Miliband would be torn to shreds by the media if they ever tried to offer anything similar. Mr Farage promises tax cuts for everyone and spending increases on just about everything from building more prisons to restoring the student grant to more generous pensions. But strategists from the main parties tell me that they get nowhere when they try to discuss policy with sample groups of Ukip voters. Even when they agree that the Ukip prospectus doesn't make sense, reports one party pollster: "They just don't care about that."

A Ukip vote is not mainly, if at all, about making a choice based on an assessment of policy. More than anything, it is about expressing an emotion – usually a feeling of intense rage about how Britain has changed and how they are served by the established political parties. It is a howl against the modern world, a scream against the establishment. There's no arguing with that. Or, if there is a way of dealing with it, none of the main parties has yet discovered what it is.

The politics of Kulturpessimismus have a long and not very encouraging history.

Dunbar, by way of addressing a claim made by Dan Hodges at the Telegraph that the results disprove the existence of a 'progressive majority' in the UK, himself points to grounds for a different kind of pessimism: that about finding an effective response to Farageism:

In fact, there are plenty of progressives in this country. They’re just not in politics. As I’ve argued recently, British politics is not a place for reasonable people anymore. Smart progressives who want to make a difference don’t go into politics, they go into public policy or advocacy or journalism or law or the police or the Royal Marines. Because smart people are leaving politics, the field is left clear for maniacs, illiterates, thieves, neo-Nazis and toytown power merchants. This is particularly true at local level.

And it’s not true, by the way, that UKIP represent an ‘anti-politics party’. UKIP are more pro politics than anyone. They encourage huge unrealistic expectations of what politics can deliver. Vote for me and I’ll give you everything you want or need, your darkest fear, your fondest dream.

I don't know enough about the contemporary British political scene to make any deeply reasoned judgements about the above claims.

But I must say, I'm not feeling very optimistic.



Friday, May 03, 2013

Coolness is overrated

Though I haven't yet heard more than the two tracks that have so far been released (one of which I previously noted), I'm pretty excited about the new Vampire Weekend album, since I love their first two.

(There are albums for which I want to be in the right state of mind before I hear them, and I just haven't gotten there yet in this case.)

There's a passage from today's Guardian review of the album and interview with the band that has only reinforced that anticipation:

Ezra [Koenig] speaks like a throwback from 1920s New York: clipped, nasal, articulate. It could come off as an affectation, and read like standoff-ish arrogance in print. But in person, he is quietly charming and intelligent with an undefinable star quality. There are no errant words in his sentences, no gauche contemporary "likes" or "y'knows". Despite being the product of an age where over-stimulation and lack of attention span has apparently made it impossible for us to be bored (and therefore, the theory goes, be creative), he philosophises a lot, too. About what it means to be in a band; about wanting money ("I'm not ashamed to say it"); about accepting it's OK not to be "cool". For instance: "It's great to be like everyone else, it's great to be able to identify what's important to you and respect what's important to other people and find a middle ground where you feel connected to people. There's something narcissistic about thinking you're special and everyone else is boring, and if you end up doing normal things you're a loser. You have to find your way around that otherwise it will just fuck you up." 

That quote reminded me of something I recently read in a not-so recent interview with John Darnielle, of The Mountain Goats:

Pitchfork: You started putting out Mountain Goats albums in the midst of 1990s indie culture, which some associate with generational cynicism.

JD: People are afraid of not looking cool, which involves dismissive and exclusionary stances. I grew up in Claremont, Calif., and when we would all go to L.A., we'd always worry that we weren't fitting in. When our bands would try to play there, we'd get a big "no" from all the clubs. We didn't know any of the right people. So we constructed our own scene where there were bands that you could not, for the life of you, try to figure out what they were trying to accomplish-- but you'd find the beat and nod your head to it. There's been a movement over the past few years toward focusing on good-hearted things that bring pleasure. Thrash kids back in the day talked about being badass, wicked, and evil. Those were all positive terms in that scene. You learn to present dark things without including their ability to harm, treasuring them for what they are.

To which I can only say: 'Cool'. 

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Investigating the investigators

For those of you interested in this sort of thing, my review essay on Haia Shpayer-Makov's fascinating new book on the history of police detectives has just been published at Reviews in History.

It starts like this:

‘A detective’, wrote a crime-fiction reviewer in 1932, ‘should have something of the god about him’:

It was the divine, aloof, condescending quality in the old great ones of Poe, Gaboriau, Wilkie Collins and Sherlock Holmes that made their adventures so glamorously irresistible. A writer of detective stories might have a style as brilliant as Poe’s, as consummately competent as Collins’s, as pompously absurd as Doyle’s – it did not matter: what mattered was whether he gave us a detective whom we could worship.

Even the most ardent fan of crime fiction might think ‘worship’ an overstatement; nonetheless, by the time those words were written, detectives had indeed become among the most popular figures of modern literature. In the decades since that ‘golden age’ of crime fiction, police detectives have often even managed to hold their own against their previously more celebrated private counterparts, whether in print, on television or at the cinema. As The Ascent of the Detective makes clear, such trends are remarkable in view of the suspicion that greeted real-life police detectives in their early years and their frequent literary belittlement.

I hope you find the rest worth reading: both the review and the book.





Saturday, April 27, 2013

George Jones, 1931-2013

One of the greats, no longer hurtin'.






Changing perspectives on the history of violence

One shouldn't, perhaps, take such things too seriously, but I was interested to see the results of Prospect magazine's 'World Thinkers' list last week.

More specifically, I was pleased to find a few of my own favourite authors placing highly and equally glad to have some potential new favourites brought to my attention who are now on my -- sadly ever-expanding -- to-read list.

There they are, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond and a few others: people who, while I might not agree with everything they've argued or written, have nevertheless positively influenced how I see the world.

They're people with whom I find it's even worthwhile disagreeing, and you can't say that about everyone.

(There are some people on the list for whom that doesn't apply...but I've been trying to focus on the positive recently, so I won't go into that.) 

Coming in at number three is Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, whose most recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, surely needs little introduction, seeing that it was both a bestseller and generated a substantial amount of debate and discussion.

I'm particularly pleased about that, for a few reasons. 

His earlier book The Blank Slate was one of those works that began shifting my views on violence from being more or less at home within 'cultural theory' toward trying to integrate cultural history with what might be called 'biological', 'evolutionary' or 'behavioural science' perspectives. (The others being works by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Robert Wright and Frans de Waal.) 

An early version of that shift can be glimpsed in a 2007 essay that I wrote on violence and cultural change; the most recent culmination of my thinking on the matter was in an article that appeared as part of a special issue in the British Journal of Criminology in 2011.   

Steve and I engaged in several mutually rewarding email discussions of violence, psychology and history while Better Angels was taking shape (it is humbling to find myself in the book's acknowledgements), an exchange that we were finally able to take up in person a couple of times in recent years in Bern and London.

Bern, Switzerland, September 2011
We also exchanged our most recent books as gifts. Going by weight and page length, I fear that Steve might feel he got the worse of this deal, but it was very nice to find him recommending my new(ish) book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England, on Twitter as 'A fascinating real-life murder story.'

So, for all these reasons -- and like some other people -- I feel inspired to add my personal congratulations on yet another public recognition.

Then, relatedly and coincidentally, last week I received (from the author) a copy of a review essay in the current issue of the English Historical Review that that considers Better Angels together with some other recent works on violence history.

In the article, Gregory Hanlon -- author of the pioneering Human Nature in Rural Tuscany: An Early Modern History -- offers some constructive criticism of Better Angels from the perspective of an early modern historian; however, he argues that historians will 'learn a great deal' from the book's analysis of the psychological abilities that encourage and restrain violence.

He then critically considers some recent broad-scale analyses of long-term changes in European which have emerged from a more traditional social/cultural history perspective and concludes by pointing out a few more recent contributions to the debate that have begun (whether on a more theoretical or empirical level) to seek some degree of methodological integration.

For those historians interested in (though even for those perhaps sceptical about) behavioural-science approaches to violence history, this essay should certainly be on your reading lists.

And it occurs to me, once again, that I am very fortunate to know such fascinating people. 

Congratulations, Steve!

Well done, Greg!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Doing her bit

Inspired by my last post -- as the image is used as the cover of the book I quoted -- I thought I would post this British Second World War poster.

I have always loved it since I first saw it.

This is not least, I suppose, since my mother actually did, during the war, work in an aircraft factory (one that, if I recall correctly, built and repaired Bristol Beaufighters.)


But it's also just beautifully designed.

If I remember her words accurately, my mother didn't take up that job because she was inspired by such a poster or out of some surfeit of patriotic fervour but rather because the labour exchange suggested it to her, after her father forbade her from taking up the other recommended employment: bus conductress.

He was himself a bus conductor, you see, and was concerned, as she put it, about the (im)moral influences to which she might be subjected in such a job.

Though, from her other reminiscences, I didn't have the impression that the factory was actually that much better.