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


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.