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To catch the wave of year-end lists and Best of the Best citations, we thought to extend our reach beyond the books we publish here at the Press, and ask some of our scholarly tastemakers the works they’d endorse as most praiseworthy in 2012. Not every pick is new and you’ll see some selections here that may not flit across the landscape of other favorites lists—but we’ll be posting the books that made our radar blink all week long, with salutations to the authors, ideas, and publishers (large and small) that keep us coming back for more.
Today, we’re off and running with picks from Carol Fisher Saller, our assistant managing editor of manuscript editing at the Press, author of The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (Or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself), and editor of TheChicago Manual of Style Online’s Q & A + Rodney Powell, our assistant editor acquiring in film and cinema studies and all-around movie guru:
What the Zhang Boys Know, by Clifford Garstang (Press 53, 2012), is a tender look at the residents of the Nanking Mansions condos in the unevenly gentrifying Chinatown of Washington, DC. The boys are the small children of a recent widower, Zhang Feng-qi, and what they don’t know is equally to the point, as the novel’s interwoven short stories take us behind the condo doors of Feng-qi, a gay couple and their little dogs, a sculptor, a desperate and penniless young woman, and others, both to see what the other residents can’t and to view developments through yet another individual’s eyes. Garstang’s forte is the short story—most of these first appeared in literary journals—and this is his second novel in stories. His first, In an Uncharted Country (Press 53, 2009), is every bit as affecting. —Carol Fisher Saller
I like to circle around subjects over an extended period of time, so it’s not surprising that my favorite book of 2012, Kazan on Directing, was first published in 2009 (the centenary of Kazan’s birth). It includes excerpts from his notebooks, personal journals, and correspondence, as well as other texts, both published and unpublished—a fascinating combination of detailed comments about individual projects and general ruminations about the art of directing for both stage and screen. Go to the chapter on Death of a Salesman (Kazan’s favorite among all the plays he directed) and be engrossed by his analysis of that great work, taken from a notebook entry and script notes. Then go on to a letter he wrote to the four principal actors several months into the run after he attended a performance and found them coasting. I think you’ll be hooked, and ready to investigate the fascinating relationship with Tennessee Williams on four plays and two films—and I haven’t even mentioned the memorable collaborations with Marlon Brando from A Streetcar Named Desire to On the Waterfront. Elia Kazan, whatever his failings, was a major American artist, and Kazan on Directing helps us understand why that is so. —Rodney Powell
The devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy to the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States, the Caribbean, and Eastern Canada continues to exceed early damage estimates, with almost 66 billion dollars in losses currently anticipated for the US alone, and a death toll of 253 afflicting seven nations. In his recent book The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History, John R. Gillis articulates—and even anticipates—how our relationship to the sea has begun to take on new and potentially catastrophic dimensions. Accounting for more than 100,000 years of seaside civilization, Gillis argues that in spite of mass movement to the coasts in the last half-century, we have forgotten how to live with our oceans. Applying this knowledge to our tenuous responses to this most recent disaster, Gillis explains how a shift in education, awareness, and planning might yet allow us to learn the lessons necessary for sustainable coinhabitance with the seas. You can read more of his thoughts on what we can do below.
“History Has Lessons for Post-Sandy America” by John R. Gillis
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Americans are finally beginning to ask themselves whether or not it might be advisable to build up to the edge of the sea. It is dawning on us that we are dealing with a human-made rather than natural disaster. The surge of populations to the sea has been accelerating in recent decades and losses have begun to mount astronomically as expensive properties, encouraged by federally-subsidized insurance, crowd the seashore. On American coasts, a culture of coping—the product of thousands of years of human habitation, on shores that began in prehistoric Africa and ultimately circled the globe—is rapidly vanishing.
Our ancestors knew not just how to live on the sea, but with it. They came there to enjoy the most productive environment the world could offer: in terms of what the land could provide, as well as the even-richer marine biota located just offshore. First as hunters and gatherers, and later assisted by sail and ultimately steam, coastal societies generated social and economic resources greater than their inland neighbors. In the early modern period, it was by means of seaborne empires that Europe extended its world dominance. The United States was born coastal, discovered and settled by sea. In 1837, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted for the young republic a glorious maritime future. The opening up of the North American continent ultimately turned this country inward, but it has always been multishored, facing out toward the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Gulf.
America’s native people had been farmer-fishers. The Europeans who followed them were similar in their orientation to both land and sea. These settlers, like the hunter-gatherers they replaced, were highly mobile, moving alongshore in search of their livelihood. They built dwellings of light, transportable materials and when they settled permanently, they confined themselves well back from the sea, often facing away from what they knew to be its ever-present dangers. These people were not risk-averse, but they were well-informed and cautious about the ways of the sea. Their beaches were strewn with wrecks, as testimony to the uncontrolled power of the oceans to take, as well as give, life. They did not ask to be rescued but instead coped as communities.
In the late twentieth century, older coastal inhabitants have been largely displaced by interior populations who have come to shore to recreate rather than earn their livings. These new residents have confined the fishers to a few small ports, taking over the beaches between, and clearing away even the memories of working life, not to mention the life-and-death struggles that once played out on the seas. Today, the beach is supposed to be the place where we get away from the world—and even the thought of its troubles. Fishing villages have now been turned into some of the world’s highest-priced real estate, forcing fishers and clammers to live elsewhere, as they commute to the few working waterfronts that still exist. In most places, these have been replaced by what John Cheever called a “second shore,” ports of “antique shops, restaurants, and tea shops.”
Gone are not only the old coastal peoples but their well-developed cultures of risk and coping. Risk has been displaced to the national treasury; coping is left to governments at the state and federal levels. This new coastal generation no longer knows how to live lightly on the shores or how to construct portable buildings that can be removed from the path of danger. Earlier generations knew the sea to be an ever-present risk, but did not treat it as an enemy from which there can be no retreat. Americans now fly flags in the face of hurricanes and resist the pulling back of lighthouses threatened by beach erosion as a betrayal of national sovereignty.
The first response of politicians to Sandy—to restore and rebuild in place—was not at all promising, but there is still time for wiser counsel. Already there have been calls for risk to be gradually shifted from the government to property owners. Instead of quick fixes like manufacturing bigger sea walls and expensive storm barriers, we can wait for nature to do its part by rebuilding barrier islands and wetlands. But we also need to do our part by educating the public on the history and culture of risk and coping. We can do the first by taking financial responsibility for our own mistakes. The second can be accomplished by sensible coastal planning and new building codes that are informed by the history of local resilience, which has much offer if we are only willing to consult its long record.
John R. Gillis is the author of The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History; Islands of the Mind; A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values; and Commemorations. A professor of history emeritus at Rutgers University, he now divides his time between two coasts: Northern California and Maine.
A riddle: What does Captain Ahab have in common with Sherlock Holmes?
Answer: Both characters were created by writers who sailed on whaling vessels, who knew firsthand the heft of a harpoon, the bite of raging gales and the blisters raised by oars.
. . .
A second riddle: What does Dangerous Work have in common with Moby-Dick?
A few of a hundred possible answers: Both books disguise great depth beneath the cloak of an adventure story. Both offer accounts of what was once a major industry, comparable in relative terms to today’s oil industry. Both should be read from cover to cover, shared with friends and revisited in front of a warm fire. And both, for different reasons, are books to treasure, the kind that kindle and rekindle a love of words and a feeling of irredeemable debt to the men behind them.
The dissemination of a war against terror has depended on a locution full of historical and contemporary ironies, for terror began its lexical life as the policy of the state, and wars are traditionally waged by states, so the war against terror can be (and has been) deciphered as the war of the state against itself. But international events are not the only sources of interruption of or distraction from the working out of memorial vocabularies for the dead of 9/11. There is also the ongoing negotiation between commerce and commemoration at the WTC site, a process that pits the declared obligations of memory and due respect against those of a future civic life, both economic and cultural. It is easy to cast the moguls of Manhattan as insensitive and materialistic, but the memorial process has also been aggressively suborned by the politicians, whose avowed respect for the dead is not beyond suspicions of present and future self-interest. Debates about the use of the site have not been unmarked by the assumption that the dead should bury the dead and thus by an embarrassingly hasty inclination to get on with life. Many residents have made it clear that they do not wish to live in a national memorial emptied of retail, full of tourists by day and deserted by night. On the other side, melancholic extremes can also be identified among some of the survivor families and other involved groups who want the site to remain always a shrine to the departed.
. . . .
The event we call 9/11 has a past that we can rediscover, a present that we must monitor, and a future we can project. Many of us who were addressing even the most circumscribed of publics—our students or fellow academics—felt the urge, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, to make a statement, to testify, to register a response, to initiate some sort of commemoration. Many of those responses to the form of grief, sorrow, shock, and above all, self-recrimination at the appearance of carrying on as before. The rhetoric veered wildly between sympathy and self-importance—as if it were a moral duty that each of us should speak—but what was notable was the need to register awareness of some sort. Many people all across America, not only those who knew one of the dead or knew someone who knew someone, reported feelings of acute personal anxiety and radical insecurity, but there was never a point at which this response could be analyzed as prior to or outside of its mediation by television and by political manipulation. With the passage of time it may come to appear that 9/11 did not blow away our past in an eruption of the unimaginable but that it refigured that past into patterns open to being made into new and often dangerous forms of sense.
Walk into a low-income, minority school today, and you are likely to see halls plastered with the same optimistic slogans that have come to serve as fixtures in most American public schools. Walk into a classroom, however, and you are likely to see two unique realities that undermine those clichés: students mechanically preparing for standardized tests and teachers “teaching” from mandated instructional packages, otherwise known as scripted curricula. Written by private corporations that also serve as powerful lobbyists for school reform policy, these “teacher-proof” plans prescribe not just the content of a given lesson but every sentence that teachers will read off to their students in the course of a class. Accounts of teachers’ work with these curricula run from the ridiculous (the scripts allotting no time for teachers to repeat themselves) to the perverse (the common technique of call-and-response drills, a system of militaristic hand signals that accompanies one such program). In the words of Robert Slavin, creator of the Success for All Foundation, a supplier of premade curricula, scripted lessons promise not to “leave very much to chance” and instead offer a “relentless” approach to ensure productive activities “down to the level of minute-by-minute in the classroom.” The prevalent use of scripted curricula in many urban districts nationwide suggests that because poor children come to school less prepared than middle-class children, they must sacrifice discovery and innovation for efficiency, regimentation, and routine. For teachers, districts’ adoption of such curricula has produced unique professional and ethical challenges. Teaching from scripted lessons is like working in an “intellectual straightjacket,” explained one teacher. “I know that teaching Success for All is a charade,” confessed another, but “if I don’t do it I won’t be permitted to teach these children.” In a situation in which the educators who teach the most disadvantaged children possess the least opportunity to design creative and intellectually rewarding classrooms, students’ and teachers’ rights alike have been sacrificed.
Today, teachers in the precarious position of needing to win back the professional “right” to control their work more than ever before. How did they arrive in this position? Eighty years ago, in the midst of the Great Depression, the concept of teachers’ rights reflected academic freedom issues and bread-and-butter concerns, particularly salary, tenure, and promotion. That concept grew more complex as midcentury teacher unionists linked professional rights campaigns to new sets of issues, including job assignments, the right to discipline students as they saw fit, and the right to teach without parental interference. Inextricable from larger conversations about racial discrimination and civil rights, these later understandings of teachers’ rights linked students’ welfare and teachers’ interests in broad yet often incompatible ways. Parents, education activists, and community organizations became the targets of these campaigns as much as education administrators, leaving unionized teachers an isolated if nevertheless sizeable interest group. Today, we have entered a new era in a story of teachers’ rights. For many educators, current mandates that require them to focus on test preparation and use prepackaged curricula ensure that their students receive a second-class education and leave teachers as the disseminators of it. In addition to the negative impact this system has had on students, then, are the complex questions it poses to the profession: Does designing one’s own curriculum or determining the course content in one’s classroom constitute a professional right? Are teachers’ rights violated when they are mandated to treat students in ways they find unethical? What is the role of teacher unions in improving teacher quality? And to what degree toes it make sense to frame professional decisions and performance in terms of a discourse of rights?
. . . .
The Teachers Union recognized these institutional shortcomings as well, although it projected more faith in individual teachers to overcome them. Teacher Unionists committed themselves to protesting widespread forms of economic discrimination, and they believed that teachers could make a significant difference in the quality of children’s lives until society changed. Their ability to ally themselves with the oppressed communities they served offers an important example of how liberal whites and blacks worked collaboratively to reform schools. One of the most affecting themes in minority parents’ accounts of their work with the Teachers Union was the way in which Unionist teachers taught them “what can happen when teachers voice their protests, when they don’t just stay for two terms.” To many black parents, teacher accountability and teacher quality were inextricable from working conditions that promoted professional commitment, including teachers’ freedom to comment and dissent.
These two models of teacher unionism are all the more important to revisit now in a political and educational climate that appears to hold little faith either in schools as public institutions or in the individuals who teach in them. One of the lesser recognized effects of this lack of faith is the way in which it has curtailed teachers’ ability to dissent from practices and philosophies they find unproductive, unethical, and unprofessional. Former Minnesota Federation of Teachers president Louise Sundin has compellingly explained how the No Child Left Behind Act has set teacher unions back. “We spent 20 years trying to professionalize teachers,” she has argued, “and now we’re getting thrown back into the industrial model, because it’s top down, it’s organized around hierarchy, and it’s line supervisor oriented. You do the curriculum this way because that’s the way we’ve decided it’s going to be better.”
Early September ushers in Labor Day, and with it, the unofficial end of summer. For Alice Kaplan, the John M. Musser Professor of French at Yale University, the summer may have appeared especially brusque, arriving on the heels of her recently published literary-cultural memoir Dreaming in French. The book, an animate portrayal of three iconoclastic American women—Angela Davis, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and Susan Sontag—during their ubiquitous junior-years abroad, explores the lures that the City of Light would cast on them in their formative years and beyond, from themes of seduction and escape to rising political consciousness and the struggle for selfhood.
Kaplan spent a portion of July blogging her experiences in Algeria for the Best American Poetry blog, considering literary and political culture in light of the French colonial experience, and evaluating the changes facing the nation 50 years after it fully declared its independence from France:
People like to say there was no Arab spring in Algiers because everyone was still traumatized by the violence in the 1990s. On the other hand, the “Place des martyrs”—the big gathering place at the base of the Casbah—is completely blocked off for public works (metro etc). And during the events in Tunisia, there were so many police in Algiers that the city, long known as “Alger la blanche,” white Algiers, became “Alger la bleue”—blue Algiers. Also, out of the blue, the university professors got a 200 percent raise in salary last year. Making their salaries comparable with their Tunisian and Moroccan counterparts. How to measure the chilling effect of the death of a gentle activist in Oran?
Before embarking on her travels, Kaplan sat down with novelist Arthur Phillips (The Tragedy of Arthur, 2011) to discuss Dreaming in French from another vantage: the lingering experience of expatriate identity, and how it continued to shape the lives of Davis, Bouvier Kennedy, and Sontag, long after they returned to American shores. Kaplan and Phillips elevate their tête-à-tête to a #longreads-style literary conversation, informed by both of their recent works, and filled with insight into how traveling to places foreign to our sense of self helps us to become something other than what we were before:
The 100th birthday of the great bluesman Muddy Waters arrives next April, but a recent encounter with an extraordinary (and previously unpublished) photograph of Waters prompts us to start the celebration early. It was made in Chicago in 1951 by photographer Art Shay, who himself celebrated a birthday this past spring—his 90th. Shay is a favorite of ours; his prodigious body of work includes the most memorable images we have of Nelson Algren’s Chicago. He shared his recollections of this photograph for us:
“The editor of the New Yorker ended his review of the new Keith Richards book Life with a plangent line from Richards asserting he could never be as good as Muddy Waters or as black. I met the generally acknowledged Father of Rock and his wife Geneva in 1951. Time magazine had sent me to the south side club in which he was performing. I arrived early as usual and there he was, strumming his guitar and cuddling his woman in the hallway. Slivers of dying winter light came down across the pair from some blessed window giving me barely enough natural light. He strummed a greeting using my name letter by letter. Billy Corgan noticed the first print of Muddy in the trunk of my car and bought it to hang in his studio next to vintage prints of some other music giants like the Beatles, Billie Holliday, and Ella Fitzgerald.”
For more on Muddy Waters, check out our books on issues surrounding blues culture, including:
Sometimes, especially during the month of August, I become a passive psychic channel for the erudition of others. The rest of the country heat-implodes; media denizens go on vacation; I begin and abort blog entries wherein I replace the names of the late medieval nuns from Craig Monson’s Divas in the Convent with characters from the 1980′s sitcom Murphy Brown. In the meantime, certain anonymous (not really: Hi, Ben!) Press purveyors of flash fiction rise to the challenge posed more than two years ago by certain other anonymous literary types (I C U JEFF WAXMAN): who can write the best bookstore heist story starring Parker, antihero extraordinaire, in less than 350 words? At the time, the winner took home a collection of 12 Parker novels penned by Richard Stark, all of which had recently been reprinted by the University of Chicago Press. Because of my failure to assemble an animated GIF of Donald Westlake, our new champion Ben Balskus, will win a prize no less credible—the below image of the U.S. paperback first edition of Richard Stark’s The Seventh, whereon cover model Parker eerily resembles Gerard Depardieu. Congrats, Ben! Can’t wait to read your next piece on Green Card!
For Ben’s excellent take on all things criminal-biblio, see his short “BOOKSTORM” below. For more information on Richard Stark’s Parker novels, visit their University of Chicago Press homepage here.
By Ben Balskus
Parker busted the glass in the door with his left elbow, then reached inside and let himself in. The store was quiet; no alarm, just as he’d expected. Bookstores didn’t need alarms. There was no money in books. Grofield was always telling him that. Of course it hadn’t stopped him from using his take from the Reno heist to open an independent press and publish poetry.
This job had been a piece of cake. They’d gotten the money and were turning onto Stony Island when a black SUV smashed into the driver’s side door. Kessler and Peterson, both out on impact. Parker had seen the car out of the corner of his eye and braced himself, but somehow in the crash he’d lost his gun. It was sloppy, the way it all went down. He was getting old.
It was Waxman, had to be. He’d come up with the plan, and was the only one of them who lived in town. But had he planned the double-cross himself? Parker didn’t think so. Waxman was easy-going, the kind of guy who carries a tab in every bar in the neighborhood. He must’ve owed money to the wrong kind of people, and they’d leaned on him hard.
But Parker pushed all that to the back of his mind. He was in a bookstore, with no gun, a money-sack with fifty grand, and two Outfit boys hard on his heels.
He dropped the money next to the register and began to stalk the aisles like a panther. The Great Gatsby? Paperback, too thin. A River Runs Through It? Too sentimental. He paused by the kiddie display and picked up a hardcover edition of Harry and the Half-Blood Prince. It had the right weight, and sharp corners, but he put it back down. He couldn’t crack a man’s skull with a children’s book.
He found it in Reference. Clothbound, gold headbands, the Magnum of books. Perfect heft, and the glossy jacket wouldn’t hold prints.
On the 100th anniversary of his birth Tuesday, one may wonder what the Nobel laureate would say about the more controversial policies now unfolding across America. What would Friedman have thought about the recent advances in school choice, an idea he developed in 1955? How would he react to the government’s decision to tax Americans who do not purchase health insurance? Would Friedman take a position regarding the financial impact of soaring public union pensions on state economies? As an expert on monetary policy, certainly Friedman would have an opinion regarding the federal government’s bailout of the financial industry and its impact on our personal freedom.
I think the most important measure of a thinker’s influence are his once-controversial ideas that are now considered so obvious that no one seriously disputes them. I’ve recently been reading a collection of Friedman’s Newsweek columns from the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when he was at the peak of his fame and influence. Among the proposals he wrote about most frequently were: severing the link to gold and letting the dollar float, fighting inflation by reducing the growth of the money supply, ending the draft, abolishing wage and price controls, and cutting taxes.
Friedman had a two-part counterattack. Part one was to argue—fairly persuasively—that monetary policy rather than fiscal policy was the key to recovery from the Great Depression.
Part two has a more complicated legacy. The straightforward reading of Friedman’s point about monetary policy and the Depression is that, yes, a propserous market economy does require active public sector management of the demand side of the economy. But Friedman wanted it to be read a different way, as an example of the damage done by the government doing bad things. These characterizations are basically equivalent, but Friedman’s way better suited his ideological proclivities regarding income redistribution. But faced with a new depression, Friedman’s way of putting this has created two problems. One is that on the right a lot of folks view calls for central banks to adopt appropriate monetary policy as just another form of government activism. Meanwhile on the left thanks to co-branding between a monetary focused view of macroeconomic policy and Friedman’s views on other matters, many view it as a kind of sellout to argue that business cycle problems can be cured with monetary policy.
“Put another way, tradition and community are not mere inheritances passively received form the past and certainly not merely fetters on human freedom. Tradition, to early nineteenth-century workers, included both their craft skills and the rights they claimed for this “human capital” against the incursions of inhuman capital. Tradition is in part the process by which successful claims to rights are reproduced in each generation. Some of these rights may be encoded in formal law; all are underpinned by transmissions of culture and understanding. Not only does the reproduction of tradition require action (and therefore always involves the production of new culture at the same time). It may also require struggle, when the claims posed within tradition—to justice, for example, or fairness or food when hungry—are attacked by other ideas—say of efficiency or one-sided revisions of property rights. Likewise, community is both an achievement and a capacity. It constitutes a field of action within which people can pursue the objects of their lives. It may be more or less egalitarian but usually empowers some more than others. It constrains more than enables. But is also incorporates investments made—sometimes over generations—in building it. It is not only a ground for individual and family projects but also the basis for much collective action. And communities were basic to the struggles of nineteenth-century workers against the incursions of capitalism, perhaps more basic than class, though the two are not contradictory.”
Robbins Barstow was a pioneering maker of home movies—Disneyland Dream (1956), which you see above, is one of literally hundreds of films he completed from 1929 (when he first received a camera) until his death in 2010, many of which star his immediate family. Disneyland Dreamwas named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2008, with the following citation:
The Barstow family films a memorable home movie of their trip to Disneyland. Robbins and Meg Barstow, along with their children Mary, David and Daniel were among 25 families who won a free trip to the newly opened Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., as part of a “Scotch Brand Cellophane Tape” contest sponsored by 3M. Through vivid color and droll narration (“The landscape was very different from back home in Connecticut”), we see a fantastic historical snapshot of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Catalina Island, Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios and Disneyland in mid-1956. Home movies have assumed a rapidly increasing importance in American cultural studies as they provide a priceless and authentic record of time and place.
I watched the 35-minute film (which features a cameo by a very young Steve Martin at the 20:20 mark, wearing a top hat and hawking guidebooks) for the first time yesterday and was struck by its seeming perversion of techniques later perfected by the experimental video artists of the 1970s—or highbrow art in general, in this most quotidian form of hamming-it-up for the camera. Part of that is probably triggered by the instant nostalgia now, more or less obviously, shopped around by our contemporary culture—indeed, there’s a lot to say about Barstow’s 16mm-amateur outtakes that lines up with issues of public vs. private intimacy, the ubiquity of the non-place (Marc Augé’s ever determinate/indeterminate anthropological positioning), and the secular pilgrimage. But there are also moments in the film that directly echo the verité techniques of filmmakers like Shirley Clarke
This post is sponsored by a trip to my parents’ house—on a non-descript island in the Detroit River, among the postindustrial, downriver suburbs of southeastern Michigan, where I have found four books heldover from my high-school years as a resident of said home: D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, T. J. Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life, Carl Sandburg’s Poems from the Midwest, and The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Were I to know then what I know now:
that Women in Love could not be more rife for celebrity baby names (Birkin) and maxims: “Your democracy is an absolute lie.”
in a more or less tentative stab at adult self–becoming, I had at some point highlighted the following in Clark’s essay on Olympia: “Prostitution is a sensitive subject for bourgeois society because sexuality and money are mixed up in it. There are obstacles in the way of representing either, and when the two intersect there is an uneasy feeling that something in the nature of capitalism is at stake.”
The O’Hara poems with folded pages are “Oranges,” “After Courbet,” and “In Memory of My Feelings,” which in no way do I sanctify as the Frank O’Hara poems I would turn to today in time of crisis (“and the poet takes up the knives of his wounds to catch the light”)
But Carl Sandburg: Stalker of Wheat, Player of Railroads. Carl Sandburg runs through the smooth muscle of any Chicago list, haunting revisionist histories with “Onion Days” (“Mrs. Gabrielle Giovannitti comes along Peoria Street every morning at nine o’clock”), and caterwauling over ethnographic analyses with “Child of the Romans” and “Mamie.” Crazy Carl (“indubitably an American in every pulse-beat”—H. L. Mencken), the grand old Swede, was a lifelong Social-Democrat (who married Lillian, the sister of Edward Steichen—who once, too, came and left Michigan) whose Chicago Poems took on the city from German saloon to shovel, from the Halsted Street Car to the Polish folk-home. Even the heat—Carl knows:
In a Breath TO THE WILLIAMSON BROTHERS
High noon. White sun flashes on the Michigan Avenue
asphalt. Drum of hoofs and whirr of motors. Women
trapsing along in flimsy clothes catching play of sun-
fire to their skin and eyes.
Inside the playhouse are movies from under the sea. From
the heat of pavements nad the dust of sidewalks, passers-
by go in a breath to be witnesses of large cool sponges,
large cool fishes, large cool valleys and ridges of coral
spread silent in the soak of the ocean floor thousands
A naked swimmer dives. A knife in his right hand shoots a
streak at the throat of a shark. The tail of the shark
lashes. One swing would kill the swimmer . . . Soon the
knife goes inot the soft underneck of the veering fish . . .
Its mouthful of teeth, each tooth a dagger itself, set row
on row, glistens when the shuddering, yawning cadaver
is hauled up by the brothers of the swimmer.
Outside in the street is the murmur and singing of life in the
sun—horses, motors, women trapsing along in flimsy
clothes, play of sun-fire in the
“And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”
Heat wave as repression? Not an exact science. But something about the sweltering temperatures this weekend (the feeling of exodus, perhaps, but not migration) prompted a return to The Grapes of Wrath. 1936 was the year that set many of the record temperatures in the United States that we’re now dabbling in breaking; it was also the year of the coup d’etat that triggered the Spanish Civil War (farewell, Abraham Lincoln Brigade!), and a massive sit-down strike by the United Auto Workers in Flint, Michigan. In the middle of the Dust Bowl’s prairie-afflicted sandstorms and the Depression, our wealth inequality peaked and would remain at the highest levels the country had seen, until just prior to the Too Big to Fail crisis (2007).
In July of 1995, a similar wave struck Chicago. NASDAQ topped 1000, we tried to “disarm” Iraq, and a slow municipal response converged with the elderly poor living in the heart of the city, ushering in unprecendented deaths (over 700) and procedural calamity.
Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock (under Iraq? Unforgiveable pun?), yesterday’s Supreme Court decision to uphold the majority of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), ruled in the National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius, likely caught your attention. Despite attempts to repeal the act by both the 111th and 112th Congresses, the Court determined that the government mandate for health care was a tax, and thus fell under Congress’s taxing authority, with the caveat that the federal government could not withhold Medicaid funds in their entirety to states that refused to comply with Medicaid expansion. The Washington Posthas a helpful electronic cheat sheet that explains how the legislation will affect you directly in the months and year to come, based on the type of insurance you do or do not carry, your income, and household status. With that in mind, we asked scholar Beatrix Hoffman, author of Health Care for Some: Rights and Rationing in the United States since 1930, to weigh in on Court’s ruling in light of her own research on America’s long tradition of unequal access to health care. Her thoughts follow below.
A Historic Ruling for Health Care
The Supreme Court shocker that (mostly) saved the Affordable Care Act adds a new chapter to the history of health-care reform in the United States. As we heard frequently throughout the debates, several presidents and numerous politicians have proposed national health-care plans in the past. Over the course of nearly 100 years, only Lyndon Johnson was successful, with the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. Then, when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in March 2010, Barack Obama achieved the most sweeping reform in history. Yesterday, just a single vote by Chief Justice John Roberts saved the entire law from being declared unconstitutional.
This was the first time that national health-care reform faced a constitutional challenge. Medicare was funded through a payroll deduction, which (the Supreme Court just reminded us) was fully within Congress’s power to tax. Medicare’s framers deliberately grafted their new health-insurance program for the elderly onto a popular, efficient, payroll-tax-based system that already existed and was fully constitutional: Social Security.
President Obama and the members of Congress who wrote the Affordable Care Act broke with this successful reform tradition by rejecting the option of expanding Medicare or otherwise building on existing tax-based social insurance programs. Believing such an approach to be politically unfeasible, they instead opted for the “individual mandate,” which requires the uninsured to purchase private health insurance, an idea that originated in a conservative think-tank and was first applied in Massachusetts under then-Governor Mitt Romney. Despite this dramatic political compromise, the individual mandate did not succeed in capturing the votes of the Congressional opposition—not a single Republican voted for the Affordable
“A lawyer walks into a bar”—oh, you’ve already heard it. “A one-legged lawyer walks into a bar”—no? That, too?
How about this one? I’m working on my timing. “What’s the difference between a good lawyer and a great lawyer?” Give up? “A good lawyer knows the law. A great lawyer knows the judge.” Is that funny?
n 1873, Robert Vischer coined the term Einfühlung in “On an Optical Sense of Form: A Contribution to Aesthetics” in order to designate a sort of personification—the projection of human feelings on the natural world. Vischer was concerned with our ability to feel ‘into’ nature and art, and Einfühlung picks up from the German Romantic tradition of Johann Gottfried Herder and Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardernberg (Novalis) as a process of poetic identification with the natural world and its underlying spiritual relationship with man. Part of Vischer’s interest laid in the fact his father Friedrich Theodor Vischer had, a generation earlier, written the monumental Aesthetik and attempted the use of Einfühlen in order to describe architectural form in congruence with German Idealist philosophy and the rebellions of 1848–49.
Vischer relegated empathy to the place between purely responsive and intellectual feeling, stating “like the immediate feeling, empathy leaves the self in a certain sense solitary. The outward appearance remains a source of unconscious enticement and subjection.” Part of the argument formed here is the processional nature of Einfühlung: it’s only through projection, exchange, and return that the distinctions between internal and external, outward appearance and inner emotion, can be resolved. The first relation of empathy is to one’s self. It’s between the rise of Vischer’s text in the late nineteenth century and the construction of philosophical aesthetics as a dominant category of the discipline that psychologist Edward Titchener translates the term Einfühlung as empathy for the first time, in 1909—four years after Freud’s publication of The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious.
By this point, the concept of empathy had been transformed by Theodor Lipps, who altered the usage of the term from the domain of aesthetic appreciation to the social and human sciences—ultimately linking our aesthetic perception with our perception of another embodied person as a “minded creature.” The risk here is extrapolating empathy from a metaphoric engagement with optics, perception, and aesthetics and shifting it to our earliest understandings of motor mimicry (advanced already by Adam Smith, as early as 1853), anticipating work with imitation, mirror neurons, and physiological response by as much as 150 years. Though Lipps’ argument is grounded in facial expressions (if we see an angry face on another person, we have a tendency to “imitate” it), he extends this concern with empathy to all mental activities requiring “human effort,” including self-reflection.
It’s this sort of empathy-as-simulation that Freud will pick up on, opening The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious with a d
Welcome to a new era of Mark Rothko–fixation. This presupposes, of course, the longstanding cultural caché of what has come to be known as the Rothko Case, from its late 1960s origins to the more recent insider piece “A Matter of Rothko,” penned by David Levine for Triple Canopy. We note Bert Cooper’s office-befuddling investment in an early Rothko abstraction during an episode of Mad Men (which viewers would see give way to Hokusai’s The Dream Of The Fisherman’s Wife); we watch Alfred Molina’s star-turn in John Logan’s play Red (2009), which fictionalized Rothko’s creation of a series of murals for the tony (no pun intended) Four Seasons restaurant in Midtown Manhattan’s Seagram Building; we narrate along with Simon Schama‘s Power of Art television documentary, which profiled the murals project as one of eight masterworks by eight artists with Schama’s occasionally unrestrained literary flair (“Just how powerful is art? Can it feel like love or grief?”).
And next month, we’ll reprint James E. B. Breslin’s Mark Rothko: A Biography, a 707 pp. (“a book of heroic dimensions,” reads the marketing copy) tome originally published in 1993 by the author of a previously acclaimed biography of William Carlos Williams:
When the book was first published, scholar and critic (and Guggenheim Fellow and Dedalus Foundation president) Jack Flam took it to task on several points in a #longreads review published by the New York Review of Books. What follows are snippets from the review and its resultant letters to the editor, in which Flam and Breslin, along with curator Sam Hunter, responded to each other’s points of address:
Sometimes, however, Breslin displays a lack of familiarity with other works of art. In his discussion of an early watercolor landscape, for example, he becomes involved in a rather more complicated analysis than this essentially derivative picture warrants, relating it to Cézanne’s watercolors, apparently without seeming to realize that the subject, composition, and rendering of Rothko’s painting are clearly similar to the watercolors of John Marin. Moreover, Breslin sometimes gives verbose and repetitive descriptions of Rothko’s paintings (as well as of many of the people Rothko knew), and he supplies biographical interpretations that can strain one’s credulity as well as patience. For example, Breslin unconvincingly relates Number 10, 1950 to Rothko’s memory of being constricted by swaddling clothes as an infant. Rothko himself, like the painting, is said to be “also soft-edged and sensitive,” and the structure of the picture is said to be an attempt to recover “a lost relationship” after the death of his mother. These seem more like free associations based on Breslin’s biographical research than comments about painting.
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Baudelaire’s perverse ode to Paris is reflected in Nelson Algren’s bardic salute to Chicago. No matter how you read it, aloud or to yourself, it is indubitably a love song. It sings, Chicago style: a haunting, split-hearted ballad.
Perhaps Ross Macdonald said it best: “Algren’s hell burns with a passion for heaven.” In this slender classic, first published in 1951 and, ever since, bounced around like a ping-pong ball, Algren tells us all we need to know about passion, heaven, hell. And a city.
He recognized Chicago as Hustler Town from its first prairie morning as the city’s fathers hustled the Pottawattomies down to their last moccasin. He recognized it, too, as another place: North Star to Jane Addams as to Al Capone, to John Peter Altgeld as to Richard J. Daley, to Clarence Darrow as to Julius Hoffman. He saw it not so much as Janus-faced but as the carny freak show’s two-headed boy, one noggin Neanderthal, the other noble-browed. You see, Nelson Algren was a street-corner comic as well as a poet.
He may have been the funniest man around. Which is another way of saying he may have been the most serious. At a time when pimpery, licksplittery and picking the poor man’s pocket have become the order of the day—indeed, officially proclaimed as virtue—the poet must play the madcap to keep his balance. And ours.
Unlike Father William, Algren did not stand on his head. Nor did he balance an eel on his nose. He just shuffled along, tap dancing now and then. His appearance was that of a horse player who had just heard the news: he had bet her across the board and she’d come in a strong fourth. Yet, strangely, his was not a mournful mien. He was forever chuckling to himself and you wondered. You’d think he was the blue-eyed winner rather than the brown-eyed loser. That’s what was so funny about him. He did win.
A hunch: his writings may be read, aloud and to yourself, long after acclaimed works of Academe’s darlings, yellowed on coffee tables, have been replaced by acclaimed works of other Academe’s darlings. To call on a Lillian Hellman phrase, he was not a “a kid of the moment.” For in the spirit of a Zola or a Villon, he has captured a piece of that life behind the billboards. Some comic, that man.
At a time when our values are unprecedentedly upside-down—when Bob Hope, a humorless millionaire, is regarded as a funny man while a genuinely funny man, a tent show Toby, is regarded as our president—Algren may be remembered as something of a Gavroche, the gamin who saw through it all, with an admixture of innocence and wisdom. And indignation.
It’s impossible to pick a representative interview from the hundreds conducted by Terkel in his lifetime, but this clip from 1961 with James Baldwin, and its opening—Bessie Smith’s Back Water Blues, which Baldwin remarks inspired his “forthcoming novel” (Another Country)—is good enough to take your breath away:
“Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,/Ancient footprints are everywhere./You can almost think that you’re seein’ double/On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs.”—”When I Paint My Masterpiece” (1971)
On August 30, 1964, a Sunday, Manhattan lay swathed in the heat of a summer afternoon. In their air-conditioned luxury suite high above the intersection of Park Avenue and 59th Street, the Beatles could hear the faint screams of fans who had gathered reverently on the sidewalks around the Delmonico Hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of Paul, George, John, or Ringo peering from behind a curtain. Those screams had rung in the Beatles’ ears for seven months as the cresting wave of Beatlemania rose higher and higher with no end yet in sight. In April the top five places in Billboard Magazine’s Top One Hundred chart were Beatles songs. On August 12, the film A Hard Day’s Night had opened in more than 500 theaters nationwide, earning more than $1.3 million its first week and making Beatlemania a performance for millions of fans to watch and join vicariously. In late August, the Beatles had five singles on the American charts and were winding up a triumphal coast-to-coast concert tour of the United States. Now, as they rested from their performance at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium the night before, they talked to their guest, Bob Dylan, who had driven down from Woodstock to see them. Without fanfare, Dylan pulled a couple of joints from his pocket, put a match to the twisted end of one, and passed it over. For the first time ever, the Beatles were about to get high.
This was, without doubt, one of the most consequential moments in the history of twentieth-century American popular culture. But it was also just five guys getting stoned. It was the birth of a cultural sensibility that would one day colorize Pleasantville, but it was also the first shot fired in the War on Drugs. Within a year, Dylan would release Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, albums that introduced many thousands of American teenagers to his peculiarly mordant version of the psychedelic sensibility and forever altered the ambitions of rock ‘n’ roll. More slowly and more elaborately, and ultimately reaching a far wider audience, the Beatles would follow the path marked out by getting high, an experience Paul McCartney called “really thinking for the first time.” Over the course of the next two years, long before most American teenagers of the ’60s had even heard of, much less taken, psychedelics, millions would find themselves stumbling after the Beatles as they raced from the innocent enthusiasms of Beatles for Sale to Lennon’s murky encouragement to turn off their minds, relax, and float downstream. By 1969, according to a Gallup survey of fifty-seven college campuses, 31 per cent of students said they h
Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945–82), hard-living, frenetic (libertine, bourgeois-scourging) New German filmmaker would have turned sixty-seven today, had he survived even into his forties. Strong-armed by the influence of Brechtian theater and Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967), Fassbinder went on to direct forty films and made-for-television performances—though like the Frenchman L. J. M. Daguerre and the American John Waters (puppet theater), Fassbinder’s background was the stage, and it showed. His early work is marked by a static camera and dialogue not conceivably of this world; he goes on the record in a piece later reprinted for Cineaste, where he states:
“I would like to build a house with my films. Some are the cellars, others the walls, still others the windows. But I hope in the end it will be a house.”
To watch a Fassbinder film is to participate, if only through mediation, in the tailwinds of the director’s cultural persona, his bad-boy whipping-up of a post-fascist, prejudicial German zeitgeist. To cogently locate him politically, and to infer his contributions to post-war, avant-garde cinema nearly three decades after his death, is a bit trickier.
Coincidentally, it was almost thirty-eight years ago to the day that Fassbinder’s Martha premiered on German television. Martha was the film Fassbinder completed immediately prior to Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (perhaps his most acclaimed production), though it was initially released in the aftermath of that film’s successes. Shot entirely on 16mm, and dealing with typical themes for the director (the fascist undertones of traditional family structures, physical and emotional paralysis, sadism, hysteria, dead cats, obsession, exceedingly banal-yet-mortified facial expressions), it was Martha‘s DVD-release in 2004 that first allowed the film to reach many American audiences.
Never one to shy away from controversy, longtime critic and blogger Jonathan Rosenbaum took on the film—and Fassbinder—in “Martha: Fassbinder’s Uneasy Testament,” featured in his 2010 collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition, which collects some of Rosenbaum’s most discriminating pieces from the past four decades, including several like this one, which focus on newly circulating releases and other developments of the digital age. An excerpt follows below.
Part of my reluctance to join the Fassbinder bandwagon in the ’70s was that I couldn’t accept without qualms the critical industry’s interpretation of his work as left-wing and subversive—an interpretation that was intricately bound up with the rediscovery of Douglas Sirk’s ’50s Hollywood movies by Fassbind
Il mare ha delle punte bianche ch’io non conosco e il tempo, che bravo
si dimena bravo nelle mie braccia, corrompo docilmente—
e sottile si lamenta per i dolori al ginocchio a me toccàti.
Senza livore io ti ricordo un immenso girono di gioia
ma tu dimentichi la vera sapienza. Se la notte è una
veraconda scematura io rivorrei giocare con le belle
dolci signore che t’insegnavana che il dare o il vero, non
Sentnedo morire la dolce tirannia io ti richiamo
sirena volenterosa—ma il viso disfatto di un chiaro prevedere
altre colpe e docili obbedienze mi promuove cretine
Gravi disgrazie sollecitano.
Il vero è una morte intera.
From Palermo ’63 (1963)
Poem dedicated to Spatola
The sea has white points that I don’t know and tempo, so good
it wags good in my embrace, I corrupt sweetly—
and slight it laments the aches at the knee touched to me.
Without spite I remind you of an immense day of joy
but you forget true knowledge. If the night is a
trueful abature I would like again to play with the sweet
belles mister who taught you that giving or the true, is
Sensing sweet tyranny die I recall you,
eager siren—but the face stripped of a lucid prediction
of other faults and docile submissions promotes idiot
hopes in me.
The Academy of American Poets recently announced Jennifer Scappettone as winner of the 2012 Raiziss/de Palchi Book Prize for Locomotrix: Selected Poetry and Prose of Amelia Rosselli, an excerpt of which appears above. The collection is the first to bring together a selection of work in both English and Italian by Rosselli, one of the most important postwar European poets—a musician, musicologist, and self-defined “poet of research”—whose trilingual body of work fused the confessional sensibilities and eruditely broken-lyricism of John Berryman with the formal experimentation of Ezra Pound, and a troubadour’s flourish that extends from Dante to the French moderns. The $10,000 award is given every other year for the translation into English of a significant work of modern Itali
(First summer comes, and he’s the only one I ever feel like reading—)
“The greatest work of the twentieth century will be that of those who are placing literature on a plane superior to philosophy and science. Present day despairs of life are bred of the past triumphs of these latter. Literature will lay truth open upon a higher level. If I can have a part in that enterprise, I shall be extremely contented. It will be an objective synthesis of chosen words to replace the common dilatoriness with stupid verities with which everyone is familiar. Reading will become an art also. Living in a backward country, as all which are products of the scientific and philosophic centuries must be, I am satisfied, since I prefer not to starve, to live by the practice of medicine, which combines the best features of both science and philosophy with that imponderable and enlightening element, disease, unknown in its normality to either. But, like Pasteur, when he was young, or anyone else who has something to do, I wish I had more money for my literary experiments.”
William Carlos Williams, c. 1931
If you share an affinity for Williams’ four-diver white prose under the summer sun (“So I come again to my present day gyrations”), you’ll find him (or discussions of his work) here:
The Declaration of Independence was animated by a demand for “consent of the governed” and the promise of popular control has inspired a long and, at times, violent struggle for the right to vote by all Americans, the full and equal right to freedom of speech and assembly, and other essential rights.
Does the American government respond to the broad public or to the interests and values of narrowly constituted groups committed to advancing their private policy agendas? On one side lies democratic accountability; on the other a closed and insular government that is ill-suited to address the wishes or wants of most citizens. When politicians persistently disregard the public’s policy preferences, popular sovereignty and representative democracy are threatened.
The responsiveness of national policymakers to what most Americans prefer has declined and remained low for almost two decades.
Can we rely on competitive elections to fend off muted responsiveness to centrist opinion? After all, congressional Democrats suffered stunning setbacks in the 1994 elections following Clinton’s campaign for an unpopular health care reform plan and the Republicans’ congressional majorities were reduced in the 1996 and 1998 elections after they pursued policies that defied strong public preferences. We argue that electoral punishment may not be enough to improve the public’s influence on government: the responsiveness of national policymakers to what most Americans prefer has declined and remained low for almost two decades despite electoral setbacks to Democrats and Republicans. Politicians have worked hard to obscure their true positions and to distort the positions of their opponents, which makes it hard for the electorate to identify the policy positions of elected officials and to punish politicians for pursuing unpopular policies. In addition, most members of Congress today attach greater electoral importance to following the policy goals of party activists than responding to centrist opinion. The bottom line is that most politicians are keenly motivated and amply skilled at evading electoral accountability for long periods. Their success has impaired our system of accountability and sullied the quality of citizenship by eroding public trust and fuelling the news media’s increasing focus on political conflict and strategy rather than on the substantive issues raised by government policy.
Our analysis should not be confused, however, with naive populism. We recognize that the sheer complexity and scope of government decisions require elite initiative, at times without public guidance. And, on occasion, elites may need to defy ill-informed and unreasoned public opinion in defense of larger considerations and, instead, rely upon the public’s post hoc evaluations of their actions and their arguments justifying their actions. Franklin Roosevelt’s arming of mercha
Jules Feiffer, cartoonist-raconteur born in an era when caricature could be scathing, indicative, deeply personal, and most definitely not post-irony, is the author of Backing into Forward: A Memoir. The cult of Feiffer, which hinges on two of the versatile writer-artist’s best-known personas—illustrator of the beloved children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth and the man behind a much more adult-oriented series of comics, often penned for the Village Voice—revs up in Chicago this weekend in preparation for Feiffer’s conversation with Christopher Borrelli at the Printer’s Row. On the heels of this event, as Feiffer finishes up work on his graphic novel Kill My Mother, our own Miranda Sklaroff asked him a few questions about his process, inspirations, and the decision to make zillions by penning a work of pot-boiled realism:
MS: What made you decide to do an original graphic novel now?
JF: Pure avarice. About a year and a half ago, having made all sorts of changes in my life, I decided it might be a really good idea to make a lot of money fast. Therefore I was going to write a pot-boiler. It was going to be an action thriller, full of all the noir touches that I had grown up reading, adoring in Chandler, Hammett, et. al., and the movie versions thereof. Having written many of the scripts for Will Eisner’s The Spirit from 1949 to 1951, I thought it would be fun to return to an old form, this time strictly in prose, and that I could probably knock it out in a couple of months, sell it for a zillion, not to mention the movie sale, and after that, sit back and relax into my dotage. As it turned out, my pot-boiler never started to even simmer, and in rethinking what I could do about this, and still make zillions, it occurred to me that it might go faster (and be truer to the spirit of Eisner) if I turned it into a graphic novel. But, of course, get someone besides me to illustrate it. Because that sort of realism was not my style. And besides it would take much too much time—a couple of years at least—for me to draw, while there were all these other things that I would much rather do, like lie back and enjoy my dotage.
As it turned out, what I first envisioned as a hack job got more and more interesting, and I became more and more serious about it as I got further and further into the complexities of character and story. And by the time I had finished the first draft of the book that I had named Kill My Mother from the beginning, without a clue as to what the title meant, I had spanned a ten-year period from 1933 and the Great Depression to 1943 and the war in the South Pacific. And I had a cast of characters, larger than life, intricately involved, and most of them women. None of this was planned, it just decided to happen on its own. What happened after that is that WW Norton (and Bob Weil, my editor) loved the manuscript, and took it for granted that, of course, I was going to be the illustrator. I tried to explain to them that I would be 102 before I finished the book, but no one was listening to me, so I went home and started drawing pages that demanded a style that I had serious doubts that I could handle. I had, since early childhood, loved the a
Did you know that in a game of cultural touchstones, it’s only a single gesture or two that takes us from this:
“We do not live in the sort of universe in which simple lineal control is possible. Life is not like that.”—Gregory Bateson, “Conscious Purpose versus Nature” (1968, 47)
Today, we regard Gregory Bateson as the Kuhn-ian impresario behind systems-theory-based cybernetics—a friend of Jerry Brown’s and the ex-husband of Margaret Mead, Bateson was also the first to credit Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh as originating our modern concept of the double bind. Bateson wrote about somatic practices and linked the functions of the body to other epistemological systems, ultimately focusing on man’s capacity for scientific arrogance and purpose-driven, autocratic understanding. Interestingly enough, Bateson made a name for himself outside of cybernetic circles through his association with Stewart Brand’s CoEvolution Quarterly in the mid-to-late 1970s (other contributors included Witold Rybczynski, Wendell Berry, and Ursula K. Le Guin), which popularized the ideas of space- and media-based practices, often in a New Journalism-inspired style. The other star of CQ? Lewis Mumford, whose talk influential talk “The Next Transformation of Man” was transcribed in the fourth issue.
Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future explores the largely forgotten group of British thinkers—Bateson included—that tripped the light fantastic at the frontiers of psychiatry, systems management, politics, epistemology, and Eastern thought as the twentieth century came of age. In the excerpt that follows below, he locates Bateson’s ideas on schizophrenia and enlightenment alongside Western appreciations of Zen, as a form of what Foucault might call “gymnastics of the soul.”
Bateson noted a formal similarity between the double bind and the contradictory instructions given to a disciple by a Zen master—Zen koans. In the terms I laid out before, the koan is a technolo
The NYT’s 6th Floor blog ran a post yesterday by Amy Kellner about the installation of Yayoi Kusama’s career-spanning retrospective, which opens this July at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The show, the first to present a hearty selection of Kusama’s work to the West since LACMA’s Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama 1958–1968 (1998), was curated by Frances Morris, head of collections at the Tate Britain, where the show originated. Along with some excellent behind-the-scenes shots of “Fireflies on the Water,” originally installed for the Whitney’s 2004 Biennial and now a part of the Museum’s permanent collection, the post included an introduction to Kusama as an “adorable, polka-dot-obsessed Japanese artist.”
No one would argue with the obvious presence of dots, minimalist pop-blobs, flickering lights, and the omnipresence of concentric circles in Kusama’s oeuvre. But the use of the world “adorable”—in regards to an artist who has openly struggled with psychiatric problems, including obsessive and suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, and the decision to voluntarily commit herself to the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, where she has lived since the mid-1970s—seems a bit more problematic. Or is it? Is it problematic to label Kusama, cloaked in art-pop attire, sometimes hippie-robed, other times blending in with the haute-chic female artists of her day—sometimes appearing slight, other times ferocious—adorable? Is it a problem to label anyone whose illness intertwines with their public and private persona—as descriptively as their curiosity-drenched art, seemingly as much and a little a part of them as any other set of atoms triggering their chemical reactions—adorable? I don’t know. Maybe the argument is against “adorable” in general, for any artist. Because it strips away the complexity of the person behind the work, and because we catch ourselves in a creator’s grand narrative and lose focus on the intricacies and complications of the work (and Kusama’s work was nothing if not primed for all kinds of human experience).
The Whitney’s official press release calls Kusama “legendary, semi-reclusive, and still vibrant,” and a quick Google search adds a strand of adjectives to that short list: prolific, incessant, avant-garde, significant, influential, important, controversial, suffering, celebrated.
Reading Kusama’s autobiography Infinity Netmight shed some light on the issue of her appearance, and our own tendency to focus on her signature component:
By covering my entire body with polka dots, and then covering the background with polka dots as well, I find self-obliteration. Or I stick polka dots all over a horse standing before a polka-dot background, and the form of the horse disappears, assimilated into the dots. The mass that is “horse” is absorbed into something timeless. And when that happens, I too am obliterated.
So, yes, sensorially: Kusama is dotty. And in terms of word choice, she is worthy of admiration, as evidenced by the gesture of “adorable.” But the langua