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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.
By: Kristi McGuire,
Blog: The Chicago Blog
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From Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip through the Land Art of the American West by Erin Hogan:
The morning after my Spiral Jetty foray, I was ecstatic. So far I was doing exactly what I had set out to do. I had left Chicago with some trepidation, but I had pushed through 1,664 miles and hit my first landmark. Flush with success, I spontaneously decided to try and find Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1976). Holt was Smithson’s wife, an artist in her own right, who shared his drive to marry the natural world with the personal artistic statement. The Sun Tunnels are four giant concrete tubes (eighteen feet long and about nine feet in diameter) in the middle of nowhere, positioned such that at dawn and sunset on the summer and winter solstices, the sun rises and sets in alignment with the tubes; they perfectly frame the sun. At other times, holes in the sides of the tubes form constellations in their interior when the sun shines through them.
I liked the idea of this temporal precision—and the uncertain nature of the work’s existence for the thousands of minutes every year that it isn’t registering those specific astrological alignments. Like Spiral Jetty, the Sun Tunnels are about time in its broadest sense, but while Spiral Jetty undergoes a constant process of evolution, the Sun Tunnels, with their exact and limited focus, are kind of worthless; they exist only as an idea most of the year. This seemed a productive combination of site-specificity and conceptual art, a work that asks the question of whether an idea is enough and of how “relevant” a work has to be throughout the duration of its life.
“When you’re alone in the desert, you’re ageless, timeless. You start to lose a sense of being contained in your body.”—Nancy Holt
By: Kristi McGuire,
Blog: The Chicago Blog
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The PROSE Awards (or, the American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence) are unique to the scholarly and professional publishing communities—not only prestigious, but selected from “over 535 entries of books, reference works, journals,and electronic products in more than 40 categories,” juried by a community of peer publishers, librarians, and academics. In addition to offering congratulations to all the winners, we are delighted to point you toward those books from our own list that received either a PROSE Award or honorable mention for general excellence:
Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North
By Peter John Brownlee, Sarah Burns, Diane Dillon, Daniel Greene, and Scott Manning Stevens
Biological Sciences (Honorable Mention)
The Ornaments of Life: Coevolution and Conservation in the Tropics
By Theodore H. Fleming and W. John Kress
The Lost World of Fossil Lake: Snapshots from Deep Time
By Lance Grande
Education, Justice, and Democracy
Edited by Danielle S. Allen and Rob Reich
Environmental Science (Honorable Mention)
Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century
By Paddy Woodworth
Literature (Honorable Mention)
Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes
By Roland Greene
Music and the Performing Arts
From the Score to the Stage: An Illustrated History of Continental Opera Production and Staging
By Evan Baker
Sociology and Social Work
Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality Ambiguous Danger
By Patrick Sharkey
Maia Bloomfield Cucchiara’s Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities considers the relationship between private markets and public education by focusing on Philadelphia’s Center City Schools Initiative. The Initiative targeted (largely white) middle- and upper-middle class families living in a recently gentrified downtown neighborhood and adopted a slick marketing campaign to convince these residents to elect (and thus, invest in) a series of hand-selected local public elementary schools. Hoping that the Initiative would result in an increase of both property tax revenue and personal investment these schools, proponents saw a viable link between a revitalized downtown and what would become an improved public school system. The problem? The School District of Philadelphia continues to face its worst-ever financial crisis, replete with layoffs, school closures, and program cuts. And those seats in the City Center elementary schools? Turns out they weren’t empty. As Cucchiara reports in a piece at the Atlantic drawn from the book’s research:
The marketing worked: According to my analysis of School District of Philadelphia data, by 2009 the number of Center City children enrolled in first grade in the three most desirable public schools had increased by 60 percent, from 111 to 177. Through fundraising and the activation of social and professional networks, these new families helped bring resources to the schools, including new playgrounds, libraries, and arts programs. But these Center City children weren’t taking empty slots. When they enrolled, they left fewer spots for low-income students from North and West Philadelphia, who had for years used those schools to escape failing ones in their neighborhoods. During this period, the number of first graders in Center City schools from outside the neighborhood decreased by 42 percent, from 64 to 37. Not surprisingly, this shift had racial dimensions: The percentage of white students in these schools in the early grades increased by 30 percent, and the percentage of African American students decreased a corresponding 29 percent.
Cucchiara goes on to address the grounds that on which these issues take root: “Americans have long accepted two aspects of the present education system as a fact of life. First, we are resigned to the idea that urban schools will always have financial struggles. Second, we do not discuss the divisions between city and suburbs.” You needn’t look far to uncover more of this troubling history: Boston, Chicago, and Detroit are well-evidenced examples. Asking us to question to viability of this institutional wall between city and suburb, Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities points to the problem inherent in funding around this divide: it’s fundamentally inequitable and attempting to recruit middle-class families is neither going to solve nor prevent the next public educational crisis.
As the Cucchiara concludes at the Atlantic, “Indeed, by singling out the middle-class for special treatment, they could end up creating even more unequal systems.”
Congrats due to author Claudia L. Johnson, whose Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures garnered the Christian Gauss Award from the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Johnson, the Murray Professor of English Literature at Princeton University, a specialist in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature, with a particular emphasis on the novel, is also the author of Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel and Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790s—Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen, both of which we were fortunate enough to publish.
Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures
A quick description from the citation:
The Christian Gauss Award is offered for books in the field of literary scholarship or criticism. The prize was established in 1950 to honor the late Christian Gauss, the distinguished Princeton University scholar, teacher and dean who also served as President of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Other previous award winners have included books written by eminent authors such as Harold Bloom, Christopher Benfey, and Marjorie Garber.
Johnson’s book considers the transformation of Jane Austen, sort of well-heeled nineteenth-century author of six novels, into “Jane Austen,” the figure whose silhouette adorns greeting cards sent by your grandmother, who introduced most of the American public to Colin Firth and spawned her own Wikipedia sub-page, “Jane Austen in popular culture.” Johnson attests that for Austenites, the very concept of “Jane Austen” encapsulates powerful ideas and feelings about history, class, manners, intimacy, language, and the everyday. By carefully tracing how and why new generations of readers continue to claim Austen and her characters for all sorts of purposes—never replicated and always venerated?—Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures helps uncover fresh insights and new possibilities for Plain Jane.
After this Sunday, October 13, Hyde Park will never be the same. Jack Cella, the general manager of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore for the past 43 years, will retire after helping the store transform from a locally centered cooperative to the nation’s premier scholarly bookstore, with more 50,000 members and three locations. It would be nearly impossible to exaggerate the depth and breadth of Cella’s contribution to the culture of scholarly publishing and to this remarkable institution, and in turn, his value to the Hyde Park community, and especially to the University of Chicago Press.
From our promotions director Levi Stahl:
Being a regular at a bookstore is one of life’s great pleasures. And what you want above all—your reward for being a regular—is good company: you go to the store to talk with the people there, to find out what they’ve been doing and seeing (and of course reading), to hear what they’ve spotted that they think you might like, to catch up on the flood of new books you’d otherwise miss.
What you want is to talk to Jack Cella. It’s almost impossible to leave a conversation with Jack—quiet, understated, serious, friendly Jack—without a new book if not in hand then at least in mind. His awareness is astonishing: he doesn’t just separate the wheat from the chaff, he goes on to parcel it out perfectly to the people he knows will appreciate it most. Retirement suits readers, and no one would begrudge Jack his, but he’ll be greatly missed. Just as there’s no store quite like the Seminary Co-op, there’s no bookseller quite like Jack.
Similarly, its no understatement to quote UCP author Bruce Lincoln, who said of Cella, “He’s built the best bookstore in the U.S. and maybe beyond. He’s a treasure, and his institution is a treasure. I hope it will thrive without him, though it’s hard to imagine it without him.”
Cella certainly has impacted numerous lives through his endeavor, and Rodney Powell, editor of our film and cinema studies list, is one of them. As manager at 57th St. Books for nearly a decade, Powell wrote a send-off worthy of the man whose “vast storehouse of knowledge have come to symbolize the culture of the Co-op and what members value most about it.” It follows after the jump.
Yes, there they were, in the e-mail of October 1 from the Board of the Seminary Co-op: words that I had not expected to see in my lifetime: “Now that the Co-op is settled into its wonderful new space, Jack will be leaving on October 13.”
Jack leaving? When I had expected him to outlive me and pass away at his desk while checking out the information for a special order? Say it isn’t so!
Well, hardcore fans of the Seminary Co-op will have to accept the fact, and even though we know the Co-op will continue in all its eminence in its “wonderful new space,” we know it won’t be the same without Jack.
And of course it could not be— institutions change as personnel change. But it’s hard not to wax sentimental about Jack. Although he would be the first to downplay his own contribution, we also know—not to take away anything from the many others who have contributed to the Co-op’s success—that Jack has been its principal architect. Certainly that success could only be achieved in a community that loves books and shows its love by supporting such a bookstore. But without Jack’s unwavering commitment to making the Co-op one of the world’s best, it wouldn’t have happened.
However, to avoid the sentimental, I want to emphasize something other than Jack’s almost legendary modesty—his steely resolve to get things done despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I have some first-hand knowledge of that resolve because I was the manager of 57th St. Books when it opened in 1983 (and for about a dozen years thereafter); I was in on both the planning and working out of the plans for that enterprise, as well as the day-to-day operations that make or break any business.
So Jack was my boss—and in his own quiet way quite a tough cookie. That is, you didn’t want to disappoint him, to not do what he expected. And, of course, since he worked more than anybody else, whining about too much to do wouldn’t go very far, even if sympathy was expressed.
As I reflect on this quality after all these years, it seems to me analogous to the ruthlessness that artists must have about doing their work—you get it done, period. Think about the conclusion of Stephen Sondheim’s great song from Sunday in the Park with George, “Finishing the Hat”:
That however you live,
There’s a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out the sky,
Finishing a hat…
Starting on a hat…
Finishing a hat…
Look I made a hat…
Where there never was a hat.
Thank you, Jack, for making the hat that has served not only Hyde Park, but also a community of readers and scholars around the world, so well for so many years. Your will and work made it possible. Our best thanks for your efforts will be to treasure and maintain this remarkable institution, difficult as that will be after you leave.
Ave atque vale!
Alexander von Humboldt was a biogeographical maximalist, if that makes any sense. The Prussian-born von Humboldt had traveled through much of Latin America by the time he was 40, where he scientifically documented many of its surface features for the first time, and forwarded research that developed the burgeoning fields of meteorology and physical geography. His approach was holistic—by the end of the nineteenth century, “Humboldtian science” was the term generated for the combination of scientific empiricism, precise instrumentation, and the pursuit of the interconnectedness of all things von Humboldt found in his approach to the natural world.
A recent profile in Nature Conservancy magazine, “Humboldt’s New World,” takes on the explorer-scientist and his encounters in Latin America, many of which involve terrain protected by the Conservancy. Of his journey, Julian Smith writes:
The Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was midway through a five-year, 6,000 mile voyage of scientific discovery through Latin America that would revolutionize thinking in fields form astronomy to zoology. Charles Darwin himself called Humboldt “the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived,” and when Darwin set off on his own journey aboard the Beagle three decades later, he took a copy of von Humboldt’s seven-volume travel narrative.
The article goes on to engage with von Humboldt’s travels at length, helping to raise the profile of this forgotten scientist as, among other roles, a big-picture conservationist.
We publish volumes integral to the further study of von Humboldt (a series aptly named, “Alexander von Humboldt in English“), which include Political Essay on Cuba , Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, and Essay on the Geography of Plants. Interested readers might want to know that the image Humboldt made of the Chimborazo volcano mentioned in the Nature Conservancy piece, as translator Sylvie Romanowski pointed out, is part of a much larger plate, “Physical Tableau of the Andes and Neighboring Countries,” which is reproduced full-size and folded into the Chicago edition of Essay on the Geography of Plants, accompanied by analysis from Romanowski and detailed bibliographic materials from the book’s editor, Stephen T. Jackson.
The most recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement reviews Roger Grenier’s A Box of Photographs, a chronicle of Grenier’s exploits in writing (as a journalist; an editor at Éditions Gallimard; and the author of more than thirty novels, short stories, and literary essays) alongside the story of a life spent in conversation with the medium of photography. Included are vignettes about his own experiences and those of the photographers he admired or with whom he crossed paths while paired on assignment for newspapers like Combat (founded by Albert Camus) and France-Soir. All of this comes, of course, with meditations on the photographic image, as Grenier champions the work of those like Lee Miller, who placed themselves in positions perilous to their own safety to capture the atrocities of war, and voices disapproval for those photos circulated by the “proto-paparazzi,” filled with a kind of carrion fatigue, often portraying the moments just before or after famous death.
As Peter Read writes in the TLS:
Divided into short chapters, like selections from a newspaper column or pages from a photo album, A Box of Photographs tells in words and images the story of a life spent with cameras and typewriters, while also tracing a path through the social and cultural history of twentieth-century France. A voice at the outset instructs the author, “Talk about photography all you like, but spare me the clichés,” and although the pun is untranslatable, because a cliché in French is both a photograph and a hackneyed truism, we get the message that Roger Grenier cares as much about language as he does photography.
This might be more of less obvious to those familiar with Grenier’s life in print, which weaves its way into both the book and this particular review. Near the end of A Box of Photographs, Grenier remembers:
After I left the world of journalism, I started to walk around with a camera, like everyone else. Once you make it your business to be a writer, photos—whether you’ve taken them yourself or not—become much more than memories or documentation. They are trampolines for the imagination, a source of inspiration I could not do without. Writing becomes like those curious infrared photos where, thanks to the body heat that’s been left behind, the film manages to record the image of someone who hasn’t been there for an hour, who is already swallowed up by the past.
Read captures the spirit of the book when he picks up a proposition silently espoused by Grenier: “writers and photographers are often natural soulmates.” As he concludes:
Grenier wrote the preface for that book [Brassaï's tome on À la Recherche du temps perdu] and in A Box of Photographs he in turn explores the relevance of photography to his own literary output. Photographs are for him an essential creative springboard, prompting recall of past events otherwise lost in the vast archives of memory, events that then inspire essays, novels and short stories. He also refers to those opportunities that Willy Ronis called “the perfect moment,” making photography a metaphor for life itself, well lived if you seize the time.
In 1983, the University of Chicago Press published David Ferry’s Strangers, the first book of poems in its Phoenix Poets series, to critical acclaim. The New York Times Book Review lauded Ferry for his “short, sparse lyrics [that] are as perfectly and simply composed as Japanese haiku,” calling them, “a rare accomplishment in poetry written in English.” Thirty years later, the Press is still publishing a robust list in American poetry, from young poets pushing forward their first books to those still engaged masters, like Ferry, at the peak of storied careers.
Our free ebook for October, Thirty Years of Phoenix Poets, 1983–2012: An E-Sampler, presents some of the best poets and poems from those three decades, beginning with that first book by David Ferry and ending with his latest, the National Book Award–winning Bewilderment. The selections in between reveal the changing landscape of American poetry, though all are distinguished by keen awareness of the history and possibilities of poetry, as part of the mission of the Phoenix Poets series.
Those poets included: Elizabeth Arnold, Peter Balakian, Turner Cassity, Dan Chiasson, Michael Chitwood, W. S. Di Piero, David Ferry, Kenneth Field, Christine Garren, Reginald Gibbons, Susan Hahn, Mark Halliday, Ha Jin, Paul Lake, James Longenbach, Randall Mann, Gail Mazur, Greg Miller, Robert Polito, Jim Powell, Victoria Redel, Lloyd Schwartz, Alan Shapiro, Tom Sleigh, Bruce Smith, Jason Sommer, Susan Stewart, Joshua Weiner, Eleanor Wilner, Anne Winters, Stephen Yenser
Download your copy here.
Deborah Solomon’s American Mirror: The Life and Work of Norman Rockwell takes on the touted icon of American normalcy with a bit of a charge—paralleling the illustrator’s rise at the Saturday Evening Post with the unraveling of his marriages (some occasioned by loss) and his close friendships with other men. By the time the artist was invited to dinner with the Eisenhowers, he was deeply engaged in therapy with Erik Erikson. There are lots more anecdotes from Solomon over at the Smithsonian Magazine, including a bit about Andy Warhol’s fascination with and attendance at Rockwell’s first, late-in-life gallery show.
Before there was Solomon’s biography, there was Richard Halpern’s Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence, which argues that that the sense of innocence we locate in Rockwell’s work arises from our reluctance—and also Rockwell’s—to acknowledge its often disturbing dimensions (lust, desire, voyeurism, perversion), even though these acts remain more or less hidden in plain sight. As Halpern notes:
“To lay my cards on the table right away: the kinds of material that Rockwell’s work both exposes and disavows are to no small degree sexual in nature. The claim that forms of sexuality, often perverse, find a place in so wholesome and apparently innocent a figure as Rockwell maybe prove shocking and repellant to some of this more traditionally minded fans. It may be tempting to defend against the idea by chalking it up to the perversity of the interpreter, namely me, or to certain obsessions inherent in Freudian thinking itself. I counsel only patience and an open mind while I make my case. Individual readers may then decide whether, and to what degree, the case is convincing. This is not, in any event, an exercise in orthodox Freudianism, since I often criticize or modify Freud’s thinking. Freud offers nothing more than an initial way into Rockwell—a useful starting point for thought, not its goal. My argument relies not on psychoanalytic dogma bu ton a careful attention lavished upon the images themselves. My reading of Rockwell aims to be, in the end, a Rockwellian rather than a Freudian one. At the same time I feel that Rockwell and Freud are, in certain respects, kindred spirits—unrelenting analysis of the self and culture who often pose similar kinds of questions.”
Halpern’s book is worth a look if you’re interested in exploring this deviously brilliant artist and want to further consider the complexities of his treatment of young boys and women, the displacement of guilt and humiliation found in his portrayal of courtship and marriage, and the “repudiated underbelly” of his happy, painted world.
Victor Brombert is the Henry Putnam University Professor Emeritus of Romance and Comparative Literatures at Princeton University. He is also an escapee of German-occupied France and a veteran of the Second World War; a scholar of comparative narrative studies and the history of ideas; the author of more than a dozen books; former president of the Modern Language Association and of the Association of Literary Studies; a Fulbright Fellow, a National Endowment for the Humanities Senior Fellow, a two-time Guggenheim Fellow, a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, and is Commandeur des Palmes Académiques.
Death is a theme that has preoccupied Brombert at least as long as his youth: first, as the opening pages of his latest book Musings on Mortality alerts us, following the death of his pet canary, and later in the wake of his experiences during World War II. The liner notes read something like, death can be found all around us, but the literature we produce is on the side of life. In the book, Brombert takes on Coetzee, Bassani, Camus, Kafka, Woolf, Thomas Mann, and Primo Levi, among others, in order to ground the works of these writers in the philosophical complaints of the human condition, most notably their meditations on mortality.
From a recent review in the Times Higher Education:
Brombert begins with his childhood and the death of a beloved canary and quickly proceeds, along a widening autobiographical trajectory, to the death of his sister Nora and the deaths of his parents, to war, to the death camp in Auschwitz, to the visceral fear he experienced as a soldier at Omaha Beach. Beloved things become alien and feared, whether it is the one enlarged pore he notices on his dead father’s face or the “trains I so loved in my childhood, and continue to love in their remembered glory” which enter into “sinister associations” with wartime Europe. He begins, under the influence of André Malraux, to understand that in the face of encroaching death it is “art and the love of art” that allow us “to negate our nothingness.” Towards the end of the book he argues convincingly that “literature commemorates what death has undone.”
An excerpt from Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi:
Does Tolstoy, in his late years, load the dice for the sake of teaching a moral lesson? Does he leave room for any ambivalence, for any genuine irony? Edward Wasiolek reported years ago that his students, fed on Henry James’s belief that reality had myriad forms, used to complain that Tolstoy’s famous novella The Death of Ivan Ilych was arbitrary, preachy, painfully lacking in ambiguity and “levels of meaning.”
The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886) is in fact deceptively simple. Written years after War and Peace and Anna Karenina, this powerful narrative about dying and death is remarkable for its brevity, its succinctness, its ordinariness. The narrator himself comments on this apparent banality at the beginning of the story: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary, and therefore most terrible.” The tragic dimension of this work is thus from the outset attributed to a very common life experience. The title itself provides obvious signals: “Ivan Ilych.” It is hard to imagine a more remarkable first name and patronymic. It is like calling the protagonist John Smith or Everyman. And nothing could be more common or widespread than death, the first substantive of the title, a word that in Russian comes bluntly without a definite article, a reminder of a stark and generalized human condition, so generalized indeed as to exclude uniqueness.
All of us, Tolstoy might say, cherish the illusion that we are unique. Ivan Ilych recalls that in school he had learned from a textbook the syllogistic formula “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal.” But what logically applied to Caius and to all the Caiuses of this world did not apply to him. He was special, after all—or so he had felt until now. He was not Caius; he was Ivan, or Vanya, as his mother used to cal him, and a very special Vanya at that. But, now that his body is failing and the terror of death has become a daily reality, he can no longer avoid staring into the face of a common destiny. In this new awareness of common law, a common doom, he feels more lonely than ever. As he lies on his deathbed, he hears the sounds of merriment in his household, the sounds of singing and laughter. He almost chokes with anger: “but they will die too! Fools! I first, and they later.” For they too will have to recognize the truth of the terrible law.
Tolstoy knew that fear and trembling remain supremely personal, that the discovery of death is made in utter solitude. Yet the sense of dereliction also comes with an awareness of a common destiny and a common humanity. Ivan Ilych is not a tragic figure. He is no King Lear; but in his illness, like Lear driven mad, he discovers that he too is not “ague-proof,” that the hand his courtiers used to kiss smells of mortality.
The crucial question for Tolstoy is how we face this revelation, what it tells us about the way we have lived. Ivan Ilych learns—the lesson may come too late—that emptiness, self-deception, and false values have been at the core of his life, that in the process of living we all deny the truth of our human condition, that we lie to ourselves when we pretend to forget about death, and that this lie is intimately bound up with all the other lies that vitiate our moral being. It is a denunciation of a spiritual world.
To read more about Musings on Mortality go here.
A piece on Terrence Malick’s latest film To the Wonder appeared shortly after its release this April at New York Magazine‘s online site Vulture. Nothing about the title of the piece need grab you at first engagement—though “Radiant Zigzag Becoming: How Terrence Malick and His Team Constructed To the Wonder” is elegiac and ponderous and a bit of a mouthful, not unlike the reputation of Malick’s oeuvre. What ends up fascinating in this article—besides lines we like such as, “the film has struck some as a particularly Malick-y Terrence Malick film”—is the breakdown of that radiant zigzag becoming, which the writer traces to a scholarly introduction penned for an edition of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded, a tawdry Stockholm Syndrome-done-good epistolary novel that shocked and awed its eighteenth-century readers. The Intro was written by our own Margaret A. Doody, the John and Barbara Glynn Family Professor of Literature at Notre Dame and a specialist in Restoration and eighteenth-century British literature.
The relevant connection to Doody’s work?
One odd but telling reference point Malick gave his editors was Margaret A. Doody’s introduction to the Penguin Books edition of Samuel Richardson’s revolutionary 1740 novel Pamela. In the intro, Doody discusses the fact that Richardson’s novel, which unfolds as a series of letters, presents an internalized narrative that appears, on the surface, to lack any and all artifice. “He loves the formless, the radiant zigzag becoming,” Doody writes, and the phrase “radiant zigzag becoming” soon became an unofficial motto for the film, representing its constant sense of movement and the fact that the characters’ relationships seem to always be in flux.
For less radiant zigzag becoming and more screwball ancient whodunit, stay tuned for Doody’s Aristotle Detective novels this spring. Until then, more info about the series can be found here.
(H/T Alan Thomas via Margaret Doody via Fred Rush)
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Actual page from a program distributed by the University of Notre Dame at the Michigan State–Notre Dame game on September 21, 2013, with FEATURED ACADEMIC Julia V. Douthwaite, professor of French and Francophone studies and expert on the French Enlightenment, the Revolution, and French–English relations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—
From Douthwaite’s The Frankenstein of 1790 and Other Lost Chapters from Revolutionary France:
Consider a Juicy Couture print advertisement of 2010. A Marie Antoinette look-alike with an enormous pink hairdo stares out at viewers dolefully. She is cradling, with one hand, a huge bottle of perfume that has a bird perched on top, and gesturing suggestively, with her other hand, to her nether parts. This portrait’s subtle repurposing of the Greuze painting Jeune Fille qui pleure son oiseau mort (1765) or the eighteenth-century motif of a girl lamenting her pet bird’s demise or escape (read her lost virginity) makes a provocative commentary on the queen’s rumored promiscuity while inviting consumers to try it on for themselves. Or consider the bizarrely menacing “Napoleonic” ad campaign for Dolce and Gabbana clothing launched in 2006, one of whose advertisements showed two men in dapper period fashions threatening a third in a chair while another lay on the floor bleeding from a head wound. The melancholy for a racier, more dangerous time is tangible. Lest one judge these ads too harshly, it is essential to recall that their delivery systems, that is, high-end fashion magazines, predetermine the cultural values they can be expected to impart. The visual shock provided by sexual provocation and allusions to sadism and torture are attractive commodities among sixteen- to twenty-five-year-olds. It is unreasonable to expect messages of moral restraint and civic responsibility to be reproduced in a genre and product designed to market luxury to the young; elitism, power, and exclusivity sell better. Nevertheless, the slavish admiration of privilege that runs through these images gives pause: why should we citizens of modern democracies mourn this version of the past?