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The Oldest Living Things in the World was a labor of love for artist and photographer Rachel Sussman—the project, to document and photograph continuously living organisms 2,000 years old and older, has been around in one form or another since 2004. The result is a stunning collection of images that function as much more than eye candy in the realm of flora and fauna—Sussman’s work quietly, and with unimpeachable integrity, makes a case for the living history of our planet: where we’ve come since year zero, what we stand to lose in the future if we don’t change our ways, and why we should commit to a more intuitive relationship with the natural world.
Above you can view a trailer for the book, which hints at the spectacular flora with which Sussman comes into contact: an 80,000-year-old colony of aspen in Utah and a 43,600-year-old self-propagating shrub in Tasmania, among them. Sussman continues to make a name for herself as part of a new wave of interdisciplinary artist-researchers, and was recently named a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow, as well as an inaugural Art + Technology Lab awardee from LACMA.
To explore a bit of the meaning behind the images in the book, here’s a brief clip from the Foreword, by science writer Carl Zimmer:
The durable mystery of longevity makes the species in this book all the more precious, and all the more worthy of being preserved. Looking at an organism that has endured for thousands of years is an awesome experience, because it makes us feel like mere gastrotrichs. But it is an even more awesome experience to recognize the bond we share to a 13,000-year-old Palmer’s oak tree, and to wonder how we evolved such different times on this Earth.
To read more about The Oldest Living Things in the World, click here.
To see sample images from the book, click here.
To visit the book’s website, click here.
The Daily Beast recently dredged the archive of zeitgeist-engaged writings as a feature for its recurring column “The Stacks.” What they turned up was novelist Pete Dexter’s wickedly astute profile of Norman Maclean—his first publication for a national magazine when it ran in the June 1981 issue of Esquire—and a piece of writing that is equal parts discomfiting and elegiac, not unlike the work of one Norman Maclean.*
*Caveat: I realize it is part of my job to endorse Norman Maclean, but this is wholly sincere. Maclean’s fascination with toughness was couched under two veils of redemption: his prose is pained in its evocation of loss and its struggle to both narrate and literate the tragic confines of human behavior; and what comes through a work such as Young Men and Fire (which is a World Book Night selection this April 23rd), is the bored patience and cautiously learned excavation of a natural teacher, of someone who cares to rescind the relationship between art and life, and then recast it in a more vigilant if forgiving light. That book is spectacular.
Anyhow, Dexter’s profile is weird and narratively disjointed—it reads like a Barry Hannah short story without the lustful reproach and booze, which I think Maclean would probably appreciate. It’s not a coincidence that Dexter went on to renown as a fiction writer. It’s very much worth reading.
Elsewhere, we recently saw a testament to Maclean’s stature as a teacher: Justice John Paul Stevens did a Q & A with the New York Times and proclaimed Maclean—once a professor who taught a course in poetry at the University of Chicago, in a town he would love all his life—”the teacher to whom [he] is the most indebted.”
To read more about the work of Norman Maclean, click here.
Last week, we were humbled to learn that we received the inaugural International Academic and Professional Publisher Award from the London Book Fair, among a ridiculously esteemed group of nominees across multiple categories. The award, part of a new industry-wide pool of honors, furthers the LBF’s mission to “celebrate the role of the book and the written word at the heart of creative content across all formats.”
More from the press release:
These unique new awards, celebrating achievement across the entire business of publishing, will provide a truly global industry vision. They represent the UK’s recognition of international publishing industry excellence, and take place within the calendar’s most important global publishing event.
LBF and The Publishers Association have selected an group of UK judges, working at the heart of each category, whose international or discipline-specific expertise qualifies them to judge their peers’ work.
For a full list of winners, visit Publishing Perspectives, who mention in their write-up of the awards ceremony:
The global book industry saw the birth of something new on Tuesday night, something that will surely grow to become a fixture on the international publishing calendar, something that seemed so right one wondered why it had never existed before.
Again, we’re humbled and honored—congrats to the other winners and all the nominees (excitedly: a truly global list).
Where the North Sea Touches Alabama is a strange book—I’ve been describing it to strangers (note the relationship between adjective and noun) as an ethnography of mourning, but really it’s a peculiar hybrid of sociological exegesis, lyric essay, and phantasmagorical travelogue. I believe author Allen C. Shelton might consider it a novel, just as Walter Benjamin certainly must have plucked a term from the atmosphere to describe the Arcades Project as he carried its pages in a suitcase like fake currency.
The book considers the tragic life and death of the artist Patrik Keim, a friend of the author’s, and a theoretical muse or Betelgeuse ostensibly traveling between this world and another. That’s the stuff of Western philosophy in the wake of Hegel, or a battered Platonic ideal we repeat to ourselves—the absolute idealism that marks being as an all-inclusive whole: not subject without object, and vice-versa. Shelton takes on this canon—Marx, Foucault, Weber, and especially, Benjamin—and arrives at someplace not entirely recognizable. Maybe that’s because the rest of the landscape he renders—via an epistolary immersion in northeastern Alabama—is so unavoidably specific. Anyhow: not to give too much away. The above trailer should be enough to get you started—like the book, it’s a well-made and unconventional narrative.
And to conclude, from an equally strange—lyrical, inculcating even—review of the book by Daryl White from Paste magazine:
My inner Walter Mitty belongs to a small collective of social science writers.
We call ourselves the Professors Higgin. We commiserate, critique and urge each other to confess our literary sins, our endless little murders of the English tongue. We comprise a teacher, a pragmatist, a printmaker, a contrarian, a recovering atheist, an agnostic, a believer with no object of belief, a jaded millenarian, a Luddite, a backsliding Marxist and, depending on academic circumstances, either an anthropologist or a sociologist—an erstwhile Whitman’s Sampler.
We help each other, endlessly contradict, chide, commiserate and condemn colleagues’ writing. We laugh at our phobias, strain for 12-step clarity and all too rarely acknowledge the debt we owe our students. With ease, we blame them for our petty insanities, resent their ability to absorb our time and in the end know our better selves in their reflections.
We read Where the North Sea Touches Alabama in sustained awe. Inspired. Heartened. Daunted.
To read more about Where the North Sea Touches Alabama, click here.
Congratulations to the 2014 class of Guggenheim Fellows, announced this week by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. The Guggenheim, a “mid-career award” (PS: Clare Vaye Watkins, knocking it out of the park for the younger generation), which honors scholars, scientists, poets, artists, and writers, extends its fellowships to assist with research and artistic creation. As we’ve noted in the past, the fellowship possesses some tortured origins—(John) Simon Guggenheim, who served as president of the American Smelting and Refining Company and Republican senator from Colorado, seeded the award (1925) following the death of this son John (1922) from mastoiditis (Guggenheim’s second son George later committed suicide, and more infamously his older brother Benjamin went down with the Titanic).
We’re delighted to see included among the “professionals who have demonstrated exceptional ability by publishing a significant body of work in the fields of natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and the creative arts,” a roster of fellowship winners affiliated with the University of Chicago Press:
Susan Bee, Fine Arts; contributor of cover images to With Strings: Poems, My Way: Speeches and Poems, Girly Man, and Recalculating, all by Charles Bernstein
Susan Bernofsky, Translation; contributor to The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound (ed. Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin)
Deborah R. Coen, History of Science, Technology, and Economics; author of The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter and Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life
Andrew Cole, Medieval and Renaissance Literature; author of The Birth of Theory
Donald Crafton, Film, Video, and Radio Studies; author of Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898–1928
Latoya Ruby Frazier, Photography; contributor to The Way of the Shovel: On the Archaeological Imaginary in Art
Joseph P. Gone, Psychology; advisory board member for The Child: An Encyclopedic Companion
Yunte Huang, General Nonfiction; contributor to The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound (ed. Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin)
Sarah Kay, Medieval and Renaissance Literature, author of Animal Skins and Human Selves in Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries (forthcoming)
Carla Mazzio, English Literature; editorial board member, Renaissance Drama and author of The Trouble with Numbers: The Drama of Mathematics in the Age of Shakespeare (forthcoming)
Ange Mlinko, Poetry; contributor to The Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine
Monika Piazzesi, Economics; editorial board member, Journal of Political Economy
Rayna Rapp, Anthropology and Cultural Studies; contributor to Connected: Engagements with Media (ed. George E. Marcus)
Victoria Redel, Fiction; author of Swoon (Phoenix Poets)
Haun Saussy, East Asian Studies; editorial board member, Modern Philology
Susan Sidlauskas, Fine Arts Research; editorial board member, Signs
Rachel Sussman, Photography; author of The Oldest Living Things in the World
Emily Talen, Architecture, Planning, and Design; author of Neighborhood: The Measure and Meaning of an Urban Ideal (forthcoming)
Marjorie Welish, Poetry; contributor to The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists
Congratulations, again, to the new cohort of Fellows!
Hillary L. Chute spent a significant portion of the past decade studying, hanging out with, and interviewing many of the artists whose iconic images have helped define contemporary graphic arts. In Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists, Chute collects these interviews in book form for the first time, delivering in-depth discussions with twelve of the most prominent and accomplished artists and writers in comics today, and revealing a creative community that is richly interconnected yet fiercely independent. The interviewees include Lynda Barry and Alison Bechdel, Charles Burns and Joe Sacco, and even a never-before published conversation between Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware.
In addition to unparalleled access into the cartooning world, Outside the Box also puts narrative power into the hands of this cast of masters—without whom our eyes (and ears) would not take in such gripping stories.
For Chicagoans, Chute will talk about the book and her experiences as documentarian and scholar of the cartooning community at two upcoming events:
A discussion at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 S. Woodlawn, Thursday, April 10th, 6 PM
A talk and signing at Quimby’s, 1854 W. North Ave., Saturday, April 19th, 7 PM
To read more about Outside the Box, click here.
Just in time for garden prep, our free e-book for April is Jonathan Silvertown’s An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds.
“I have great faith in a seed,” Thoreau wrote. “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
The story of seeds, in a nutshell, is a tale of evolution. From the tiny sesame that we sprinkle on our bagels to the forty-five-pound double coconut borne by the coco de mer tree, seeds are a perpetual reminder of the complexity and diversity of life on earth. With An Orchard Invisible, Jonathan Silvertown presents the oft-ignored seed with the natural history it deserves, one nearly as varied and surprising as the earth’s flora itself.
Beginning with the evolution of the first seed plant from fernlike ancestors more than 360 million years ago, Silvertown carries his tale through epochs and around the globe. In a clear and engaging style, he delves into the science of seeds: How and why do some lie dormant for years on end? How did seeds evolve? The wide variety of uses that humans have developed for seeds of all sorts also receives a fascinating look, studded with examples, including foods, oils, perfumes, and pharmaceuticals. An able guide with an eye for the unusual, Silvertown is happy to take readers on unexpected—but always interesting—tangents, from Lyme disease to human color vision to the Salem witch trials. But he never lets us forget that the driving force behind the story of seeds—its theme, even—is evolution, with its irrepressible habit of stumbling upon new solutions to the challenges of life.
To download your copy, click here.
For more about our free e-book of the month program, click here.
The detection of a slight swirling by scientists at the South Pole using the BICEP2 telescope makes a case for the existence of gravitational waves—and that, in turn, would point to the cosmic inflation of the Universe, support the theory of the Big Bang, and confirm another facet of Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity and general relativity. Though these observations are not yet confirmed, scholar and expert Harry Collins, author of Gravity’s Ghost and Big Dog: Scientific Discovery and Social Analysis in the Twenty-First Century, was kind enough to elaborate on the process, as well as what the experimental results might mean—and what then is at stake for different scientific communities. You can read his post after the jump.
Gravitational waves and discoveries at the South Pole
On March 17, 2014, there was a huge fuss about the discovery of primordial gravitational waves that could tell us something about the Big Bang’s first tiny fraction of a second. Since I have spent most of my academic life studying the sociology of the—so far fruitless—direct search for gravitational waves, I received a lot of emails asking me about whether this was the real thing at last. I had to answer “no.” Let me take this opportunity to explain.
There’s not much sociology here: only an attempt to explain the science that provides the context for my professional studies. I have to point out that I do not represent the gravitational wave detection community, among whom there are many different opinions, including some revealing much more enthusiasm for and engagement with these findings than are expressed here.
The biggest and best-known direct detection devices are two interferometers, each with two four-kilometer arms at right angles. They are located in Washington and Louisiana, and together comprise the American “Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory,” or “LIGO.” The 3-kilometer Italian-French device (“Virgo”), the 600-meter German-British device (“GEO”), and a few others in construction also exist, scattered around the world. Gravitational waves are often described as ripples in space time; they are incredibly weak. If LIGO finally “sees” a wave, its effect will be to change the relative length of its two arms. The change in length of a four-kilometer arm will be equivalent to the rise in the water level of one-square-mile Cardiff Bay caused by adding 1/100,000th of a drop. It is a hard science!
Since gravitational waves are so weak, their expected sources are huge events in the heavens, such as the explosion or collision of stars, or anything else that shifts stellar amounts of mass around in an asymmetrical way. The direct search community is split into four groups. The “burst group” looks for ill-defined packets of energy, such as might be emitted by a supernova or maybe an earthquake on a neutron star; the “inspiral group” looks for the well-defined waveforms emitted by binary-star systems at the very end of their life when they ‘inspiral’ together and coalesce; the “continuous wave group” looks for well-defined long-duration waves emitted by asymmetric pulsars or the like (these waves are specially weak but their effect can be integrated over years); the “stochastic group” looks for random waves coming, from among other places, the Big Bang—this is the gravitational equivalent of the cosmic microwave background. So far, there has been no confirmed detection of any kind, but assuming no one has made a terrible error, there are reasons to hope that with a more sensitive generation of detectors coming on air, binary-star inspirals might begin to be detected a few years from now.
Matters get complicated because there are other ways to detect gravitational waves. Waves can be detected because of their influence on matter, such as the way they change the length of the interferometers’ arms. This is referred to as “direct” detection even though those changes have to be measured by electromagnetic means. But gravitational waves also affect the matter of stars. They have already been detected in this way by Hulse and Taylor—winners of the 1993 Nobel Prize in physics—who observed for a decade the slow decay of a widely separated binary system’s orbit, and showed it was consistent with the energy emitted by gravitational waves. Given that this observation concerns changes in the separation of lumps of matter (stars) detected by electromagnetic means, it could be argued that this detection is no more indirect than the potential detections that will be made by the interferometers. Maybe that’s a bit too philosophically cute, but maybe not; it can depend on whether you own a telescope or an interferometer (and that’s sociology). What is certain is that when (if) LIGO and the international network of interferometers start observing, they will be looking in different wavebands than did Hulse and Taylor, and they will be able to see many more of many different kinds of phenomena. The observation of a binary inspiral, or a supernova, or a neutron starquake will take seconds or less, not decades, and there should be many per year once full sensitivity is reached. The true justification for the interferometers is then gravitational astronomy—including our first look into the heart of colliding black holes—with the direct discovery of gravitational waves exciting but not so surprising as it once would have been.
Now, if it is confirmed, BICEP has observed gravitational waves in another indirect way. The group has inferred their existence from the polarization patterns of electromagnetic waves (the microwave background). Once more there is scope for arguing that this too is no more indirect than the interferometric detections that may one day be made by the stochastic group; for some, what one calls “direct” and “indirect” seems like a matter of taste. What also seems likely is that the interferometers may one day be able to see primordial gravitational waves at different frequencies and with different kinds of resolution from those seen by BICEP—in other words, a combination of both techniques seems likely to give the best information about the first moments of the universe.
The direct detection community is excited by the BICEP result, because apart from its cosmological importance, it shows that the phenomena that they are looking for are there to be found one day. In the same way, they were pleased by the Hulse-Taylor observation, given that at one time there was doubt whether gravitational waves could be detected even in principle. Speaking now purely as my unprofessional self—a citizen with a schoolboy interest in science, but one who is perhaps biased by lengthy contact with these groups—I think building mind bogglingly fine gossamer webs that can capture exquisitely ephemeral waves is more exciting than inferring their existence from the movement of stars or from patterns in the much stronger electromagnetic spectrum. This is because it leads to more than new understanding: it demonstrates unprecedented control over nature and a heroic extension of our means to uncover its secrets.
Harry Collins is the Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology and director of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise, and Science at Cardiff University, and a fellow of the British Academy. He is the author of numerous books, including Gravity’s Ghost and Big Dog: Scientific Discovery and Social Analysis in the Twenty-First Century, Gravity’s Ghost: Scientific Discovery in the Twenty-First Century, and Gravity’s Shadow: The Search for Gravitational Waves.
Ted Cohen, legendary professor at the University of Chicago and scholar of aesthetic philosophy, whose expertise included, “jokes, baseball, television, photography, painting and sculpture, as well as the philosophy of language and formal logic,” passed away last Friday at age 74.
From the University of Chicago News:
While some philosophers aim to construct large-scale theories, others “look with a very fine, acute eye at specific phenomena and work from the example outwards, beginning with the ordinary and exposing the extraordinary within it,” said Cohen’s longtime friend and colleague Josef Stern. “Ted was that kind of philosopher.”
Many students remembered him as an expert in his field and an excellent professor, always welcoming others’ insight and connecting his rambling anecdotes back to the text. The “classic image” of him smoking outside of Harper Memorial Library wearing a red beret will also be a part of that memory, said fourth-year Julie Huh. “His presence exuded such nonchalance, and he always took his time with his cigarette outside Harper.”
We remember Ted Cohen as the author of Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters (1999) and contributor to The Great Latke–Hamentash Debate (2005), the latter of which chronicles the event held each November at the University of Chicago, moderated by Cohen and marked by his droll wit.
Welcome to the boundless third dimension: university presses—figuratively speaking—in space!
From the website:
“University Presses in Space” showcases a special sampling of the many works that university presses have published about space and space exploration. These books have all the hallmarks of university press publishing—groundbreaking content, editorial excellence, high production values, and striking design. The titles included here were selected by each Press as their strongest works across a variety of space-related topics, from the selling of the Apollo lunar program to the history of the Shuttle program to the future of manned space exploration and many subjects in between.
As part of the “University Presses in Space” program, we were geeked to select Time Travel and Warp Drives: A Scientific Guide to Shortcuts through Space and Time by Allen Everett and Thomas Roman, which takes readers on a clear, concise tour of our current understanding of the nature of time and space—and whether or not we might be able to bend them to our will. Using no math beyond high school algebra, the authors lay out an approachable explanation of Einstein’s special relativity, then move through the fundamental differences between traveling forward and backward in time and the surprising theoretical connection between going back in time and traveling faster than the speed of light.
Even better? The book lent itself to twelve video demonstrations of concepts like nontransversable wormholes and, ahem, the cylindrical universe.
To read more about “University Presses in Space,” visit the website here.
For more on Time Travel and Warp Drives, click here.
For her column at Bookslut, Jenny McPhee considers the fantasy of the “intellectual and sensual super-sophistiquée” in twentieth-century Paris—and reviews the ever-expanding body of literature dedicated to pursuit of this theme. Among it? Alice Kaplan’s Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, which focuses on each woman’s time abroad, articulating the influence French culture exerted on their then-burgeoning womanhood and identities (among others) as writer, editor, activist, debutante, and icon.
McPhee notes in particular of Davis a thread that the three women hold in common—how their time in Paris left indelible marks on their self-perception:
Davis spent her junior year in Paris, the only black student of forty-six in the Hamilton program. Very familiar with the work of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Proust, Camus, and Sartre, she was one of six students advanced enough for an intensive course in contemporary literature at the Sorbonne. While she was in France, four Birmingham girls—friends and neighbors of Davis’s—died when a bomb exploded in a Baptist Church, and Kennedy was assassinated.
In 1965, after graduating from Brandeis, she studied in Frankfurt with the social critic and philosopher Theodor Adorno, then worked on her PhD with the political theorist Herbert Marcuse at University of California, San Diego. Much of her reading during the years she was developing her own radical political philosophy was in French: Jean-Paul Sartre on colonialism and post-colonialism, Pierre Vidal-Naquet and Henri Alleg on torture, Henri Lefebvre and Louis Althusser on Marxist theory, and Daniel Guérin on anarchism.
Later, when Davis was imprisoned for her alleged role in a California courtroom shooting, four hundred French intellectuals, including Daniel Guérin, Jacques Derrida, Marguerite Duras, Julia Kristeva, and Roland Barthes, signed a letter demanding her release. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Foucault, Louis Aragon, and Pablo Picasso wrote another letter of protest to Governor Ronald Reagan. In 1971, sixty thousand people marched in Paris for her liberation. Angela Davis’s story, writes Kaplan, itself became mythic.
To read more about Dreaming in French, click here.
Left: National Gallery of Art curator James Meyer with art historian Huey Copeland at a party for the University of Chicago Press. Right: Art historians Richard Meyer and Andrew Uroskie at a party for the University of Chicago Press.
Recently at Artforum, Chicago-based critic Jason Foumberg assessed the state of the art (world)—at least the academic art world, as manifested in the most recent annual meeting of the College Art Association. Pivoting on the panel discussion “Identity Politics: Then and Now,” Foumberg noted:
CAA accommodates an extraordinarily diverse offering of topics, from medieval to new media art, but everyone agrees on one thing: We must learn from the past. The recent past of identity politics provided a brilliant example, with Gregg Bordowitz at the helm of the evolving revolution. “Stop trying to be radical. Stop privileging ‘radicality’ as a term. The radicals do it out of necessity. What is your necessity?” Bordowitz rhetorically asked the audience.
A surprise addition to the account was the inclusion of several snapshots from UCP’s wine reception (see above), catching authors Huey Copeland and Andrew Uroskie in the act of non-radically taking a breather from the din of all that ruckus, celebrating their respective publications Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America and Between the Black Box and the White Cube: Expanded Cinema and Postwar Art.
Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Jan Mieszkowski reviews The Death Penalty: Volume I, the latest collection of Jacques Derrida’s seminars to appear in print. Drawn from the first half of a two-year seminar he gave from 1999 to 2001, the book postulates the American position on capital punishment as complicit with a logic in which a sovereign state has the right to take a life. In this takeaway from his review, Mieszkowski positions Derrida within today’s academy:
Derrida’s prominence in North American universities has waned, at least superficially, in the decade since his death. A new group of European philosophers has supplanted him as the must-reads of the moment, including Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, and the Slavoj Žižek. In the intellectual circles in which Of Grammatology and Specters of Marx were once standard fare, the works of Gilles Deleuze or Giorgio Agamben are now more likely to enjoy pride of place. Perhaps most striking for those who remember a time when Derrida’s oeuvre was viewed as a fount of productive positions on virtually every philosophical topic, there is an increasing tendency to refer to his “one or two” major ideas, as if his thought were distinguished not by its range but by its lack thereof. Of course, fashions in academic citation practices may be poor measures of Derrida’s abiding influence, which makes itself felt in numerous contexts in which he is never mentioned by name, not least because so many of his strategies and positions are now widely taken for granted.
Taking off from this, it’s worth pointing the reader toward Arne De Boever’s interview with the translator and coeditor of Derrida’s seminars in English, Peggy Kamuf, which accompanies the review:
One other thing that struck me reading this course — and you’ve gestured to it already in several of your answers—is how US-focused it is. Derrida was of course teaching the course in both France and the US. But there’s more to it than that: he repeatedly states in the lectures that his topic, the death penalty, is particularly pertinent to the US and its demographic. Reading the course I wonder if we still think of Derrida too much as a “French” philosopher—he’s almost just as much an “American” philosopher, wouldn’t you say? Focusing on issues that are central to contemporary American life? “America” is certainly a recurring theme in his work.
Yes, it is, but nowhere perhaps as insistently as in The Death Penalty, for reasons that are obvious. As for Derrida being an American or “American” philosopher, I would say no. Which doesn’t mean he is therefore a French or a “French” philosopher. (Although his passport would have said otherwise.) True, he wrote in the language called French, but he also wrote in or with an idiom that would have been his own, all the while treating and translating texts from both other languages (German, Greek, Latin, or English) and other idioms. Insofar as philosophy passes itself down in writing, it has to contend with the problem of couching the universal in a particular language/idiom. The solution cannot be a set of philosophical nationalisms, “American” and “French” or even analytic and continental. On the contrary, philosophy has to suppose the possibility of translation. Either that or, as Hegel tried to show, all philosophers would have to learn to speak German. But is translation indeed possible? Derrida more than once has defined “deconstruction” as “plus d’une langue,” a phrase that English has to translate twice in order to capture the sense of “more than one language” but also “no more of just one language.” You could say that deconstruction is philosophy in the wake of the commandment at Babel to translate what is impossible to translate.
To read more about The Death Penalty: Volume I, click here.
Every other year, shortly before the Ides of March and just as precarious an omen, cometh the Whitney Biennial. This year’s model splits the show more or less into three floors, each curated by a different individual, and each thus aligned with a particular sensibility, hierarchy, and vision. Reviews started trickling in after the media preview, among them kudos for Floor 4, helmed by Michelle Grabner, coeditor of The Studio Reader and professor of painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Hyperallergic notes the floor as “the most tightly curated and coherent of the three,” and includes a photo essay sampling the work; critic Jerry Saltz, in an otherwise lukewarm review of the show, acknowledges Grabner’s curation as “includ[ing] the show’s visual and material high point: a central gallery crammed with colorful painting, sculpture, and handmade objects as well as ceramics and textiles.”
In an interview with Artspace, Grabner comments on her familiarity with the milieu she documents in The Studio Reader and how it informed her selections for the Biennial:
I am exceedingly comfortable in studios and among the materials of art and art-making. So needless to say, I felt confident visiting artists in their studios and sure-footed during the installing and juxtaposition of artworks in the galleries. I was least comfortable when the process of curating was merely the developing of quantifiable information.
The Whitney Biennial runs through May 25, 2014.
Read more about The Studio Reader here.
This photograph of a 9,550-year-old Swedish spruce tree is one of several images shot by photographer Rachel Sussman, featured in a slideshow at Time magazine. The photos are drawn from Sussman’s latest project, The Oldest Living Things in the World, which chronicles the decade Sussman spent traveling the globe, taking stunning photographs of continuously living organisms that are 2,000 years old and older.
From the Time piece:
There’s a sense of wonder imbued in these photographs of organisms that seem to be a physical record of time, but there’s also a call to action. Many of these subjects of Sussman’s portraits are under threat from habitat loss or climate change or simple human idiocy. (Sussman has written movingly about the loss of the 3,500-year-old Senator tree in Orlando, destroyed in a fire that was almost certainly set on purpose.) “The oldest living things in the world are a record and celebration of our past, a call to action in the present and a barometer of the future,” Sussman has said—and the images that follow prove her out.
Read more about The Oldest Living Things in the World here.
Chicagoland, a non-scripted documentary series produced by Robert Redford for CNN, premieres tonight. The show, touted as “Where policy meets real people’s lives,” ostensibly focuses its eight parts on the plight of a “heartland” city “generating change and innovation in social policy, education, and public safety.” Rick Kogan, writing for the Chicago Tribune, pins down the first episode’s emerging storylines—violence and public schools—as not necessarily un-akin to the offerings of scripted urban dramas like The Wire (the Trib will be live-blogging this evening’s premiere). Whether and what the show delivers remains to be seen, but Kogan’s review hints at a beautifully shot advertisement for a rebranded CNN and a program which, for better or worse, could define the city for years to come. Tune in for a cameo by UCP author Neil Steinberg, whose You Were Never in Chicago similarly captures our city in the raw through a series of essays that chronicle Steinberg’s own fixations and proclivities.
You can read more about You Were Never in Chicago here.
More about Economics for Humans, our free e-book for March:
At its core, an economy is about providing goods and services for human well-being. But many economists and critics preach that an economy is something far different: a cold and heartless system that operates outside of human control. In this impassioned and perceptive work, Julie A. Nelson asks a compelling question: If our economic world is something that we as humans create, aren’t ethics and human relationships—dimensions of a full and rich life—intrinsically part of the picture? Is it possible to take this thing we call economics and give it a body and a soul?
Economics for Humans argues against the well-ingrained notion that economics is immune to moral values and distant from human relationships. Here, Nelson locates the impediment to envisioning a more considerate economic world in an assumption that is shared by both neoliberals and the political left. Despite their seemingly insurmountable differences, Nelson notes that they both make use of the metaphor, first proposed by Adam Smith, that the economy is a machine. This pervasive idea, Nelson argues, has blinded us to the qualities that make us work and care for one another—qualities that also make businesses thrive and markets grow. We can wed our interest in money with our justifiable concerns about ethics and social well-being. And we can do so if we recognize that an economy is not a machine, but a living, beating heart that circulates blood to all parts of the body while also serving as an emblem of compassion and care.
Download your copy here.
By: Kristi McGuire,
Blog: The Chicago Blog
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Above: Goethe’s published poems, color-coded by genre. From Andrew Piper’s striking analysis of Goethe’s shifting vocabulary, with its turn in later years to an increased degree of generic heterogeneity, part of a larger digital humanities project on aging and writing, which can be found here.
By: Kristi McGuire,
Blog: The Chicago Blog
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The jacket copy for Fred Turner’s The Democratic Surround summarizes the book:
In this prequel to his celebrated book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Turner rewrites the history of postwar America, showing how in the 1940s and ’50s American liberalism offered a far more radical social vision than we now remember.
One of the tricks of writing jacket copy, of course, is condensing the voluminous particularities of scholarship into an affable soundbite that neither undermines the intelligence of its reader nor offends the sensibilities of its author, who is most often the expert on her particular topic. The copy for Turner’s book is a classic example of this—and the excerpt below, from a recent post at Public Books, demonstrates just how much depth informs that single, sparse sentence. This is nothing new: the marketing of scholarly works has been around at least as long as the 1771 edition of Encyclopedia Brittanica and parallels roughly the development of industrial capitalism. Maybe it is because I’m a fan of Turner’s work that I find the pantomime between what’s printed on the jacket and what informs that encapsulation so fascinating—or perhaps it is a much more unwillingly narcissistic positioning of myself as a consumer—either way, you can read Turner in Turner’s own words below.
From a conversation between Turner and Clay Shirky at Public Books:
The Democratic Surround might be an ending—even though it is a prequel—to my last book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture. In that earlier book I traced countercultural idealism and its impact on how we think about digital media from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. I was surprised to discover that in the 1960s, the countercultural folks I was writing about were reading books from the 1940s by people like Erich Fromm and Margaret Mead. I began to wonder what was going on, especially since I’d always been told that the counterculture had rebelled against the culture of the 1940s, not embraced it. I especially began thinking back to Marshall McLuhan and all the wild, psychedelic multimedia environments that were built in the ’60s. In that period people had tremendous faith that entering into these environments and participating in them would make you a different kind of person. You would experience a new kind of consciousness. I began to wonder, “Where the heck did that come from?”
I started tugging on different historical threads and I ended up at a really odd moment: 1939. In 1939 American intellectuals of all stripes feared that mass media could somehow trigger our unconscious and literally make us fascists. Now, remember that, in 1939, the idea of the Freudian unconscious was only about 30 years old in America. The idea of the unconscious supported a terrible fear: mass media could reach down, turn off our reason, and cause us to become authoritarians. Germany was the living proof. For the last century or so, Germany had been the emblem of high culture for many Americans. And suddenly the country that had brought us Beethoven and Goethe was being led by a wacky, mustachioed former clerk. American intellectuals and journalists tried to explain how that happened and one answer they came up with was mass media. They feared that media like radio and the movies did two things. First, they put the audience in the position of a mass being spoken to all at the same time by a single leader and from a single source. Second, they transmitted what many believed was the clinical insanity of fascist leaders directly into the minds of their audiences. In this view, Hitler had taken his personal craziness, sent it out over the radio airwaves, and infected his countrymen with it.
After World War II started, this German story presented Americans with their own media problem. The American state and many intellectuals wanted to rally Americans to go to war. But how could they use propaganda on their own people without turning them into fascists? If mass media made fascists, what kinds of media could American leaders make that would help create democratic persons and a democratic kind of unity?
Enter the Committee for National Morale. The Committee was led by Arthur Upham Pope, a Persian art historian, and it included 60 of America’s most interesting thinkers—people like anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, Mead’s husband, Gregory Bateson, the psychologists Gordon Allport and Kurt Lewin, a refugee from Germany. Together they theorized a new kind of media, a multi-media that could surround individuals and allow them to practice the perceptual skills on which democracy depended: the skills of selection, of integration, of knitting together diverse perspectives into a uniquely individual identity that Committee members called the “democratic personality.” This kind of personality was open to difference: open to racial difference, open to sexual difference. It was the opposite of the fascist personality. And it was the basis of a democratic mode of unity, a way of being together and at the same time remaining individual.
For the Committee for National Morale, making multimedia wasn’t really an option. They were writers. But in New York at that same time, there were half a dozen unemployed Bauhaus artists who had come to the US in the mid-1930s with a very highly developed multimedia, multi-screen aesthetic. Herbert Bayer, in particular—the man who developed the all lowercase typeface that we associate with the Bauhaus now—had developed a theory of display that he called 360-degree vision. He imagined art exhibitions in which images would hang from the ceiling and the walls and look up from the floor. They would surround the viewer. And you would be like an eye encircled by images, knitting them together into a pattern that was meaningful for you.
In Weimar-era Germany, Bayer and other Bauhaus artists imagined that synthesizing visual and aural experiences from many sources would allow people to resist what they thought of as the atomizing pressures of industrial life. Bauhaus artists called the person who could do this the “New Man.” When Bayer came to the US, he needed a job, and he offered to build 360-degree exhibition environments to help make a new “New Man”—the democratic person. At the start of World War II, he began working with Edward Steichen, making propaganda environments at the Museum of Modern Art. His ideas became the basis of later shows like “The Family of Man,” and ultimately filtered right up into psychedelic media environments of the 1960s.
The Democratic Surround moves forward from that moment along two tracks. One track follows multimedia environments as they are developed by the United States Information Agency for propaganda purposes abroad. The other track follows the development of those same environments for the liberation of individual selves and the making of democratic community in places like Black Mountain College right up into the happenings of the 1960s. It ends in 1967 at the first Human Be-In, where people danced in Golden Gate Park and saw themselves as free, liberal individuals, diverse, racially mixed, sexually mixed, and open in every way. The Human Be-In helped bring us San Francisco’s Summer of Love and the high counterculture of the late 1960s. But the book shows that it was also the endpoint of the movement against fascism that Margaret Mead and the Bauhaus artists spawned.
To read more about The Democratic Surround, click here.
To watch a video interview between Turner and media theorist Howard Rheingold, click here; more information about Turner’s scholarship, here.
By: Kristi McGuire,
Blog: The Chicago Blog
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Photo credit: Yesica Barrera
Peggy Shinner is a lifelong Chicagoan and author of the forthcoming collection You Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body. A Q & A about bodies, the book, and Shinner’s process follows below.
What led you to write a collection of essays about the body?
The first piece I wrote was about knives. At the time I was a practicing martial artist, and we trained with them in class. We called them practice knives; they were fake—rubber or wood. “Go get a knife,” the teacher would say. And so there we were, a room full of students stabbing and slashing each other. The purpose, of course, was to learn to defend ourselves against them. But I found the whole thing odd and disconcerting. Here I was learning to stab someone. From knives I went on to autopsies. I’d authorized one for my father, and for a long time after I’d been uncomfortable with that decision. Knives, autopsies. It didn’t take long for me to see that I was on to something, and from there the essays seemed to emerge.
You reveal very personal things about yourself in your essays. How is your collection of essays different from a memoir?
It’s true that I start off with personal material but that’s never what interests me, at least not in and of itself. For a long time, for instance, I’d wanted to write something about posture. I myself have bad posture. But so what? What was I going to say? Poor me, I have bad posture? That doesn’t interest me and I don’t think it would interest anyone else.
What fascinates me is the framework I can build around this material. How do we understand slumping in a historical context? Why did slumping, embodied by the debutante slouch—a posture taken on by women in the early twentieth century—become a form of social rebellion? Why, in some quarters, was slumping seen as an indicator of moral depravity? It’s questions like these that drive the work, and if I can’t always answer them, I can dive in and explore them. I’m interested in that place where my personal experience collides with the larger world.
Martial arts has had a profound influence on your life. Has it also influenced your writing and what you choose to write about?
In a sense, my martial arts practice provided a backdrop for these essays. I wrote most of the book while I was studying and teaching karate, and when you’re punching and kicking on a daily basis you have a heightened awareness of your body. There’s a certain kind of body check-in that you do, conscious and unconscious. As a martial artist, you have a corporeal experience of the world. That awareness undoubtedly filtered into the book. There’s also something about the methodology of the martial arts that translates to writing. Karate is a highly repetitious practice. You do the same techniques over and over again. A hundred backfists in a single class. There’s discipline and there’s drudgery. Your love of the martial arts derives from the dialectic of those two attributes. And I think the same thing is true of writing. It requires a studied discipline, out of which comes both dreariness and delight. Put the comma in, take the comma out, as Flaubert so famously said. This is how you develop a “writer’s callus.”
Objects seem to hold particular weight in your essays. In one, writing about a letter “thrill kill” murderer Nathan Leopold sent to your mother, you say, “The letter was an artifact, like her wallet, wristwatch, keychain, Social Security card, also put away in a drawer—a memento of my mother.” In another you focus on your father’s death certificate, “a document brimming with possibilities.” Can you talk about the importance of these artifacts?
I think about the essays in terms of an archaeological expedition or excavation. And one of the tools is memory; but memory, of course, can only dig up so much, and often incompletely. So these artifacts become stand-ins, things I can turn over and subject to interrogation. The letter, the Social Security card, the death certificate—what can they tell me about my parents, the bodies I came from? I try to squeeze information out of them. Take them apart and perhaps put them back together in a slightly different configuration. Do they fill in the gaps? No. But they allow me to speculate about my parents and myself and our place in the world and perhaps get to know them a little better.
Can you talk about the title of your book You Feel So Mortal?
Well, what is the body but a mass of skin and bone and muscle and sinew and systems. The whole enterprise is tough, amazing, fragile, and transitory. There are so many things, over the course of a lifetime, we do to the body—decorate, alter, arouse, feed, exert, nurse, curse, cut, sew, and abuse it. It’s how we meet and apprehend the world. And then the whole adventure’s over, and we leave it behind. The phrase itself, “you feel so mortal,” came from a line I’ve since discarded in one of essays. The title is what remains.
To read more about You Feel So Mortal, click here.
By: Kristi McGuire,
Blog: The Chicago Blog
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Some images from behind the scenes by sleuth photographer and marketing director Carol Kasper:
By: Kristi McGuire,
Blog: The Chicago Blog
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Paddy Woodworth is an investigative reporter and journalist whose most recent book, Our Once and Future Planet, considers the case for environmental restoration. Woodworth recently participated in a Q & A with our promotions director, Levi Stahl; you’ll find the full transcript below:
Let’s start with the story of how you came to this subject, because (as I have the advantage of knowing) it’s a good one—and it involves a a couple of other writers.
By a happy accident! In 2003, I had recently published Dirty War, Clean Hands, a book on the very different subject of terrorism and state terrorism in the Basque conflict. On the back of that book, I was invited onto the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Weary of writing about why people kill each other, I was looking for a happier subject in natural history, but I found myself adrift, ignorant, and lost.
Then the great American novelist and naturalist Peter Mathiessen led us on a prairie restoration field trip and discussion. I had never heard this word, ‘restoration’, applied to anything other than houses or paintings. The idea that an ecosystem might be restored, that we could reverse some of the damage we have done to the natural world, seemed counter-intuitive, but also inspiring. Traditional conservation had taught me that the options were preservation of supposedly pristine landscapes—I soon found that these do not really exist, see below—or total degradation.
Ecological restoration indicated that a different, respectful engagement with nature was possible. A ‘Third Way,’ if you like. A friend on the program, English novelist Gregory Norminton, commented that if restoration projects existed in other parts of the world—we really were completely clueless about it all—they would make a great subject for a book. My heart rose and fell in the same instant. This was the book I wanted to write, but it was his idea. Two weeks later, I bought him so much beer that he agreed I could write the book—he doesn’t do non-fiction anyway—as long as I told this story at every opportunity. As you see, I’m still, very happily, repaying this debt.
Once you knew that you wanted to write about ecological restoration, how did you go about plotting out your trajectory? How did you pick your projects and the people to talk to?
I sought advice from American restoration veterans, who luckily happened to be nearby, at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, and the Madison Arboretum. They pointed me towards the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER), and at its conferences I learned that there were indeed a wealth of restoration projects around the world, and that no one had previously attempted to survey them, or to assess restoration as a global conservation strategy.
I tried to select projects that would indicate the range of restoration projects, and the variety of challenges they face, across representative geographical, ecological and socioeconomic contexts. I think the book does reflect that kind of range: it includes chapters on South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Chicago, Italy, Costa Rica, and Ireland. But I have to confess that projects sometimes picked me almost as much as I picked them. For such an ambitious book, funding was a constant problem. I did find very generous mentors and sponsors, but nonetheless I could not go everywhere I wanted to. Asia is a big gap I still want to fill. But if I had gone everywhere significant, I might never have finished the book, and it might have been three times as long. Kind as the University of Chicago Press has been to me, that wouldn’t have worked for anyone.
A magazine commission influenced my choice of South Africa’s Working for Water program early on, and a university grant brought me to New Zealand. But in each case the projects I researched were of prime importance as paradigms for core restoration issues—combining social, economic, and ecological aims in one case, taking very radical measures to eradicate alien mammals in the other. My decision to focus on the Lacandon rainforest restoration in Mexico was the culmination of a long search for a project that engaged with traditional ecological knowledge in a sensitive but also robustly scientific manner. It was a sparked by a chance encounter with Samuel Levy Tacher, who initiated the project, in Cuba. I thought long and hard about including Dan Janzen’s Guanacaste restoration, and the North Branch restoration in Chicago, because both had been covered so well by others already, but finally decided they were so significant that I had to provide my own account of them.
And sometimes you just have to look at what’s close to home, and I was happy—if initially rather guiltily surprised—to explore excellent projects I had been unaware of in my native Ireland, and a very challenging restoration of a cultural landscape in Italy’s Cinque Terre, where we happen to have holidayed for 15 years.
Obviously, in doing this writing, you were stepping right into active scientific work and debates—and you’re not a scientist. How did you convince scientists to take you seriously and engage with you?
Not only am I not a scientist, I had no background whatsoever in ecology, apart from a few sometimes confused and often outdated ideas I had gleaned in a lifetime’s birding. I had to learn everything from the ground up. But sometimes this is a good thing as a writer, because the broad public one hopes to communicate with is not specialist either, and it helps you to see things always from that point of view. Experts and insiders are not always the best people at communicating their own ideas.
I found scientists working in restoration ecology, and practitioners of ecological restoration, enormously generous with their knowledge and experience. I think they were aware that the restoration movement has had a surprisingly low public profile, and were hopeful that an outsider with a track record in the media might help change that.
Very early on, restoration ecologists James Aronson and Andy Clewell, and later some other colleagues, began to ask me to comment on, and edit, their articles and book chapters before publication. This was a tremendously useful exercise for me. It enabled me to see some of the cutting edge of restoration thinking as it was still cutting, as you follow me, and it gave me permission to ask lots of questions.
As I got deeper into the subject, I found that science, like every field of human endeavor, is influenced by strong personalities and deeply held ideological inclinations. Restoration ecologists are generally tremendously committed to reversing the degradation of the biosphere, but they are often deeply divided about how best to it. And as positions get taken up and harden, it seems to me that counter-productive factions develop, much as they do in politics.
I came to feel that part of my task in the book was to unpack the language behind these debates. Rhetorical devices and colorful metaphors do not just dress up our thinking, they often shape it more than we realize. I labored to find out whether there was common ground underlying heated polemics, especially on the significance of ‘novel ecosystems’, itself a very problematic phrase in my view. On some occasions at least, I found that apparently irreconcilable differences could be resolved through more light and less heat, though I’m sure I’m not immune to adding some heat myself at times. But I do believe that, to borrow a metaphor from one of the main protagonists, Richard Hobbs, a scientific debate should not be like a dumb-bell, with all the weight at each end, but more like a spectrum of intermediate, communicating, and flexible positions responding to new evidence as it is produced.
What was most surprising to you about what you found as you dove into this subject?
The sheer number and variety of restoration projects was the first big surprise. The second surprise was how little we know about how ecosystems actually work, how much we have to learn. The third surprise was that one of the best ways of expanding that knowledge is through attempting restoration. The fourth surprise was how rapidly that knowledge base is expanding, and how much is being achieved even on the basis of limited knowledge.
The extraordinary success of some projects was a delightful surprise, the most dramatic being the restoration of the jarrah eucalyptus forest by the Alcoa Corporation in SW Australia. Having destroyed the forest and mined away several meters’ depth of soil, a meticulously planned restoration is achieving the recovery, over just two decades, of almost all the old forest’s biodiversity. In my view, this project demonstrates that the greatest barrier to restoration is economic, not ecological. If every public and private enterprise invested a similar (very small) percentage of their profits in restoration as Alcoa do here (they don’t do it elsewhere, unfortunately!), we could be much more sanguine about the future of the planet.
As I mentioned above, restoration is often counter-intuitive, and that makes for constant surprises, sometimes hard to digest, but always thought-provoking. You cut down trees and poison their stumps to enable the native savannah to rebuild itself in Chicago; you trap and kill cute and furry mammals to save endemic bird species from extinction in New Zealand.
Another surprise, and a recurrent one, was what we might call the ’1492 phenomenon,’ the recent recognition of the degree to which humans, including indigenous peoples, have impacted on ecosystems we have liked to think of as ‘pristine.’ I learned that even my local oakwoods in the lovely valley of Glendalough, which I had fondly thought of as ancient and unsullied, were in fact very heavily modified secondary growth. There are two ways of reading this new insight: ‘humankind has spoiled everything, boo-hoo!’; OR ‘human engagement with nature isn’t always destructive, we aren’t always the bad guys on planet Earth.’ I happily choose the second reading.
The most unwelcome surprise was the speed with which climate change shifted the agenda of restoration in the short decade I have studied it. Just as I thought I had mastered the basics of the restoration game, the cards were tossed into the air, and we are still not sure how they will fall. How do we restore Mediterranean systems where the climate is shifting fast towards semi-desert conditions, as in California today? That is the kind of hard question that necessarily remains unanswered at the end of my book.
On a personal note, the most gratifying surprise was that writing about restoration restored my own relationship with nature. Learning a little more about ecosystems, from soil to sky, and especially learning a little more about Irish native plants through the seasons, has made the world I walk on a much more richly populated place, and one to whose seasons I feel much more deeply connected.
You return again and again to the importance of communication, clarity, and community involvement in ecological restoration. Why do you see that as so important—and why do you think lack of it is a recurring problem?
Catastrophic news about the environment is communicated to the public with deadly regularity. As restoration scientist Robert Cabin puts it, ‘the press seems to love ‘the death of the last po’ouli’ story far more than stories such as “PEP saves another species”.’ I’m not suggesting that the bad news—real and getting worse—should be suppressed, of course. I am a journalist, after all. But I think it is very important that people also learn that positive change is possible, so that they are galvanized into action rather than beaten down into despair and apathy.
But restorationists are often bad at communicating what they are doing, even at the basic level of putting up signage saying why the trees in the local park are being cut down. With scarce resources, this is understandable, but not acceptable. It is only by engaging a much, much broader public that restoration stands the slightest chance of success.
Clarity—and honesty—are vital. The public backlash against the otherwise exemplary and inspiring North Branch restoration in Chicago, leading to a 10-year moratorium on further restoration work, is a disaster whose lessons, sadly, have still not been fully learned. Restorationists should not behave like an illuminated self-selecting vanguard who don’t need to explain themselves, and won’t engage in real debate, because what they are doing is so good. In democracies, the only legitimate way to work on public land is by enlisting public support from the outset. It may be slower, and sometimes the public may stop a good project in its tracks, but there is no alternative.
Communication of restoration can be damn difficult. Restoration science can never offer future-proofed certainty, and should never pretend to. We can and do make mistakes, and this year’s solution may turn out to be next year’s problem. As Hobbs once told me, ‘the public wants sound bites, and science can only offer more and more complexity.’ So yes, engagement with the public can be like grasping a nettle, but as Shakespeare told us in a very different context, ‘Out of this nettle . . . we pluck this flower. . . .’
Global warming colors every single discussion about ecology, restoration included. What would you say to people—and there definitely are some—who view all this sort of work as essentially rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?
I find it very disturbing that this argument is becoming so dominant. So many people deny climate change, and therefore want us to do nothing about it. But as you say, many supposedly more enlightened people recognize that climate is changing fast – and then use that knowledge as an excuse for doing nothing also. Okay, maybe they demand that we should stop all use of fossil fuels yesterday across the world, and somehow reduce our population by half. But in the meantime, they do nothing and seem almost proud of it. That’s what I mean by catastrophic news producing despair and apathy.
Again, I’m not saying we should not campaign for the elimination of fossil fuels, the reduction of population, and for changing our economic paradigm from consumerism and endless ‘growth’ to sustainability. We should all do all these things, every day.
But in the meantime we should also be going out and getting our hands dirty doing what we can do for a healthier environment. Every square mile of good restoration work is likely to slow the speed of climate change, and on a large scale the odds are good that restoration can greatly increase the resilience of landscapes in the face of change.
So, no, restorationists are not rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. They are down in the hold, staunching the flow of water, and up with the lifeboats, making sure they are ready and fit for survival.
One of the great things about this book is that even as it’s completely honest about the problems and failings of ecological restoration, it’s also incredibly inspiring and hopeful. Is there a way that individuals can turn that hope into something tangible that they can do at home? With gardening season approaching, at least here in North America, is there anything people could do even in their own little backyard plots to nudge ecological diversity along?
Absolutely. I’m not a big gardener, and I don’t pretend to be knowledgeable in this area, but lots of small changes add up to the big changes we so badly need. Here are some obvious pointers:
Garden in accordance with your local ecosystem. That sounds complicated, but it just means using native plants—consult a reputable local supplier or public agency—as much as possible. And don’t try to maintain green grass lawns if you live in Nevada; keep a desert garden, one that will bloom all year and support native animals and birds, without stopping the rivers from flowing.
Not all exotics are ‘bad,’ and they are often very attractive. But you should find out whether you have an exotic plant or tree in your garden that is behaving invasively in the wider landscape. If so, remove it, or at the very least prevent it from setting seed.
Keep your hard surfaces to an absolute minimum. Every extra square foot of concrete or asphalt heats the planet, and impedes the water cycle that is vital to all life—and too much hard surface can lead to very costly flood damage in your home.
What’s next for you?
Researching and writing the book put me in a touch with a dynamic international network of people who are changing the world. Publishing it widens that circle every day, and I am finding new opportunities for engaging with a number of restoration projects, at home and abroad. I’m looking forward to promoting the book further, both through readings and conferences here in Ireland, and in the United States through a fellowship to DePaul University in Chicago next fall, at the kind invitation of Liam Heneghan.
I’m also currently on the organizing committee for a national conference on ‘Natural Capital: Ireland’s Hidden Wealth.’ The aim is to assist public and private institutions to meet their commitments under European law to build the economic value of our ecosystem goods and services, and the cost of degrading them, into our accounting systems.
Another project I’m engaged with is the Mediterranean Ecosystems Restoration Initiative. This is a joint venture of the natural reserves system of the University of California, and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London, led by Bruce Pavlik and Peggy Fiedler. The aim is to workshop restoration solutions to key environmental problems on the reserves with experts from the world’s mediterranean regions; then test those solutions over time; and finally test them as temple strategies for solving similar problems in South Africa, Australia, Chile and the Mediterranean Basin itself. It’s very challenging and ambitious, but Bruce and Peggy have recognized the value of communication from the outset, inviting me to chronicle the project’s progress in print, and the landscape artist Hank Pitcher to chronicle it on canvass. I’m very excited about this, but of course it still needs funding to get off the ground.
I hope to continue writing weekly pieces on the environment, local communities, art and education for the Irish Times, a series that keeps me in touch with a wealth of promising restoration and conservation work in my own country.
I want to start growing vegetables properly at our home in the Wicklow mountains.
I’ll keep editing restoration ecology articles as long as people ask me to.
Will I write another book? I don’t know right now, there is still too much life and energy in this one I think.
But I’m attracted by the idea of attempting an ecological and political history of Glenmalure, the valley where we have our Wicklow home. Sculpted by a glacier, it has a fascinating landscape, which once sheltered one of Europe’s first guerrilla modern movements, inspired by the democratic values of the American and French Revolutions. Such a book would be a bracing challenge, combining my long-term interests in political conflict and democracy, and my new-found love of the natural world. Above all, I hope to spend more precious time with my wife Trish, our families, and our friends.
By: Kristi McGuire,
Blog: The Chicago Blog
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The Folio Prize is the first major English-language book prize open to writers from around the world—an alternative to the Booker Prize (UK) and the National Book Award (US), featuring an international cast of nominees, that aspires, “to celebrate the best fiction of our time, regardless of form or genre, and to bring it to the attention of as many readers as possible.”
On Monday, the Folio committee announced their shortlist for the inaugural 2014 Prize, which followed rounds of nominations from their Academy and requisite letters of support from publishers. We could not be more delighted (truly!) to see Sergio De La Pava’s debut novel A Naked Singularity (published in the UK by Maclehose Editions) among the finalists, praised by Lavinia Greenlaw, chair of the judges, for its “detonating syntax.” Here’s the whole list, which certainly constitutes good company:
Red Doc by Anne Carson
Schroder by Amity Gaige
Last Friends by Jane Gardam
Benediction by Kent Haruf
The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava
Tenth of December by George Saunders
The winner will be announced March 10. Congrats to all the finalists—but we know who we’ll be pulling for!
To read more about A Naked Singularity, click here.
By: Kristi McGuire,
Blog: The Chicago Blog
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From Janet Burroway, editor of A Story Larger than My Own:
We were shocked to learn of the death of Maxine Kumin, who in spite of a serious horse-riding accident, a year spent immobile in a metal “halo,” and permanent pain, continued to write fine poetry and prose and to exude essential vitality.
Kumin at 88 was what Carol Muske-Dukes calls the last member of the “august sisterhood of poets,” which included Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich.
In one of her last published essays, Kumin traced her journey in “Metamorphosis: From Light Verse to the Poetry of Witness,” a kind of template for the writers in this book and for women of her generation, who began their careers in the fifties or early sixties and grew in stature as feminism grew. “I did not yet know that a quiet revolution in thinking was taking place,” she writes of her situation as a pregnant mother of two in 1956. “Of course motherhood was not enough. Perhaps I could become a literary critic?” She did that and much more.
An excerpt from “Metamorphosis: From Light Verse to the Poetry of Witness”:
Hoping to find direction, I subscribed to the Writer, a Boston magazine. There I found my destiny in an advertisement for Richard Armour’s Writing Light Verse, $3.95. I would begin there and if I hadn’t published anything by the time this baby was born, I would turn my back on the Muse forever. My first ever four-liner appeared in the Christian Science Monitor in March of that year. When the check for five dollars came, I had recovered my investment in Armour’s book, and had broken into print with this:
There never blows so red the rose,
So sound the round tomato
As March’s catalogues disclose
And yearly I fall prey to.
To read more about A Story Larger than My Own, click here.
By: Kristi McGuire,
Blog: The Chicago Blog
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Scott Cutler Shershow’s Deconstructing Dignity: A Critique of the Right-to-Die Debate employs Derridean theory to uncover self-contradictory and damaging assumptions that underlie both sides of the controversial discussion. In the piece below that Shershow drafted for the Chicago Blog, he contextualizes two cases that generated recent headlines about how—and to which extents—we define life, especially in light of its termination.
“Thinking and Rethinking the Right to Die” by Scott Cutler Shershow
The vexed question of a so-called “right to die” pushes its way to our attention again.
Hasn’t this all happened before, many times? An intimate family story is catapulted into the media spotlight; an unconscious being (once again, as is almost always the case, a female) becomes the figurehead for a protracted medical, legal, and political struggle; and each side accuses the other of being motivated by money.
In one of the two cases that have recently occupied our attention, the family of California teenager Jahi McMath, declared by her doctors to be “brain dead” after routine surgery, were granted permission by a judge to keep the girl on what is commonly called “life support” (a respirator and feeding tube). In the other case, a pregnant Texas mother, Marlise Munoz, was kept on life support for two months despite being declared brain-dead, against the wishes of her husband (in accordance with a state law intended to protect the fetus).
At first, such cases command a certain reticence, and not just because of the unreserved compassion we owe to those who live and die among painful complexities. These troubling cases, which seem at once so familiar and so new, strain the limits not only of our laws and ethics, but our language.
At their surface, these cases bring to light obvious political contradictions within the debate about a right to die. When a patient cannot decide for herself, the immediate question is always: Who has the right (and power) to decide for her? Should it be the family, the doctor, or the state? Consider how Bobby Schindler, brother of the late Terri Schiavo and executive director of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, finds his position constrained between each of these two new cases. The Jahi McMath case, he says, is about “the right of parents and families”—as opposed to government bureaucrats—to “make private medical decisions.” But with regard to Marlise Munoz, according to Fox News, Schindler “sides with the state”—which means, in this case, that he thinks the state, not the family, should have the right to decide what happens.
These cases also put pressure on language and expression, as the sentences I have written here indicate. What does it mean to withdraw or continue “life support” from a patient already deemed to be dead? As philosopher Giorgio Agamben first observed twenty years ago, the phrase “brain death” fails to do precisely what it is supposed to do: furnish a term and a set of decisive criteria for the absolute end of a human life. The use of this phrase has produced, if anything, the reverse effect. It forces us to distinguish between this so-called brain death and a broader or more absolute condition of “death” itself—understood as the complete cessation of all bodily activity—or, as we often put it in common language, “when the heart stops beating.”
Laurence McCullough, a professor at the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, has been cited in news accounts of these cases explaining that “brain death” must be understood as, “no different than any other sort of death.” But our language will not allow him to make this point: he is only able to distinguish between this brain death and “other sorts” of death. This semantic problem produces sentences that strain the logic of identity and difference. In the McMath case, McCullough states, “the patient is now a corpse”; in the Munoz case, he says, “you have a pregnancy in a cadaver.”
To observe this is no mere pedantic cavil, for right-to-die cases often turn precisely on these terminological problems. In the Munoz case, the hospital claimed to be acting under the Texas Advance Directives Act, which states: “A person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment … from a pregnant patient” (emphasis added). In court papers filed in January 2014, Erick Munoz declared that he, “oppose[d] any further medical treatment to be undertaken on the deceased body of his wife.” In the end, the court decided that the law did not apply to Marlise Munoz, who was ruled to be no longer a patient but rather, a body or corpse.
Similarly, Christopher Dolan, the attorney for the McMath family, has argued in both the court and media that it should be up to families, not doctors, to determine when death takes place. The concept of brain death, dependent as it is on a range of highly technical questions about bodily activity, would seem to suggest that only doctors can make such a determination. Yet when Jahi’s mother writes about her daughter, in an open letter released to the press, that “despite what they say, she is alive. I can touch her, she is warm,” I do not know precisely which words could successfully contradict her.
To put it another way: in any attempt to think or to speak about these two human beings, we somehow have to think of each one as (at least potentially) a human being, a patient and a corpse. Jahi and Marlise, like Karen Quinlan, Nancy Cruzan, and Terry Schiavo before them, seem to have (as Agamben writes), “entered a zone of indetermination in which the words ‘life’ and ‘death’ [have] lost their meaning.”
Although the question of a right to die has been debated for a long time, these two new cases trouble conventional positions either for or against. Those generally in favor of this right often argue the point in terms of personal autonomy and individual freedom. Such arguments, however, only truly apply to cases in which an otherwise fully conscious and competent adult individual seeks to end her life because of terminal illness or disastrous disability. In both the present cases, there was no “individual” to decide autonomously in this way.
Jahi McMath is both incompetent and a minor—and the law often allows parents of minor children to make decisions for them. In this case, the patient is theoretically the one who has chosen this course, via her legal representatives. As Christopher Dolan reminds us (in an op-ed dated January 21, 2014), the rights at stake in the McMath case are ultimately rights of privacy analogous to “contraceptive rights and abortion rights.” The awkward irony is that many partisans of a right to die have spoken out against the McMath family’s decisions. Surely any “right to die” worthy of its name cannot be understood as an obligation to die; rather, it must be a freedom to choose in either direction.
Beyond all these difficulties with regard to the definition of death and the proper role of states, doctors, hospitals, and families in end-of-life decisions, another persistent confusion is brought to light. With regard to a right to die, economism, a conditional logic, underwrites arguments that claim to stand or fall on the basis of unconditional principles, such as “human dignity” or “the sanctity of life.” Bobby Schindler, whose flip-flop about the proper role of the state in right-to-life cases was noted above, has also suggested in the McMath case that the hospital was simply, “unwilling to absorb additional expenses to sustain a life they think has ended.” Others have raised questions about the propriety of the McMath family’s actions in creating a “Jahi McMath Fund” on the website Go Fund Me, which has raised nearly $60,000 so far.
Partisans on both sides of this issue seem to bring up only economic questions when they accuse their opponents of being mercenary. Yet it remains necessary to ask—especially of those who otherwise oppose government-funded health-care—what will happen to Jahi should she still be “alive” when her family’s funds are exhausted? Would the “pro-life” demonstrators outside the hospital where Marlise Munoz was kept on life support be willing to pay higher taxes to guarantee a lifetime of care for her and her (likely disabled) child, as well as others like them nationwide? Now that Marlise has been allowed to die, the obvious, if awkward, question that remains is: Who will be responsible for the two months of care given to her by the hospital against the wishes of her husband and family?
Above all, in observing the difficulties of these and other similar cases, we must not presume to provide some rule by which all such cases, now and henceforward, might be decided in advance. Jacques Derrida famously argued that any responsible or truly ethical decision has to endure the ordeal of the unknown; to decide something merely by following a rule is to decide as a calculating machine.
In the Munoz case in particular, the ultimate culprit is obviously a state law which, for ideological reasons, predetermined a set of hypothetical future decisions with regard to the care of pregnant women who become mentally incompetent. Such laws, which now prevail in thirty-one states, claim to be guided by an alleged state interest in “respecting life,” and yet—as Supreme Court Justice William Brennan already pointed out more than twenty years ago in another right-to-die case—they provide neither state funding nor insurance programs for the medical care they mandate. All laws do try to set norms for future decisions, but not all the ways they do so are equally tenable—as these disastrous state laws indicate. The fact that laws like this one can be deconstructed is not to be regretted; rather, one can see in such deconstructibility the chance for every kind of historical, ethical and political progress.
To read more about Deconstructing Dignity, click here.