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January 26, 2007
So you're the kind of person who's always late. And you're the kind of person who has been trying to correct that for years. And you're a little clever, so you've set all your clocks forward a few minutes to accomplish this. But, uh, unless you're a fool, you've learned that the clock is in fact fast, since you set it that way, and that you can correct for it and cut it as close as ever. Without allowing for traffic or subway trouble.
But wait! What if there were a clock that was fast, but you couldn't know how fast. You just know that it's probably fast but varies within a certain range of the actual time. So you couldn't trust that it was 15 minutes ahead. Could be two minutes. You better get going.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 05:58 PM
January 26, 2007
I'm not touching the debate between Chris and Evan with a 10-foot pole. However, the question about differing opinions as to the conflict or non-conflict between reason and faith reminded me that -- writing for Ideas, in April of 2003 -- I once interviewed a woman whom we dubbed (in the item's headline) "the pope's phenomenologist." It is difficult to imagine any field of inquiry less friendly to the claims of faith than phenomenology, but.... well, read about it yourself.
The item does not seem to exist online any longer, so here it is:
ON MARCH 22, Pope John Paul II took a break from his peacemaking efforts to meet with a delegation from the Hanover, N.H.-based World Phenomenology Institute. The Polish-born philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, the organization's president and an old friend of the pope from his days as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, presented him with a copy of the institute's new encyclopedia of "Phenomenology Worldwide." According to a Vatican press release, the pope thanked the group for "this important scientific contribution" -- and then went on to thank God for having allowed him "to participate in this fascinating undertaking."
Founded by the philosopher Edmund Husserl a century ago, phenomenology holds that direct intuitions of the world -- achieved through suspending, or "bracketing," every possible assumption one might have about the nature of objective reality -- form the only basis of truth. In the 1970s, Tymieniecka's close intellectual collaboration with Wojtyla resulted in the definitive, English-language edition of his phenomenology-inspired 1969 treatise "Osoba i Czyn" (The Acting Person), reportedly the source of many of the ideas developed in his later encyclicals. After he became pope in 1978, Vatican officials uncomfortable with Wojtyla's interest in modern, secular philosophy tried unsuccessfully to suppress the revised version of the book.
During her recent audience with him, Tymieniecka recounted to Ideas in a telephone interview, "The pope described phenomenology as 'an attitude of intellectual charity toward man and the world and, for the believer, toward God.' Although we may long to discover the true meaning and ultimate foundation of human, personal, and social existence, we'll never do so until we've learned to view reality, and one another, without any prejudice or schematisms."
Tymieniecka in 1978
Posted by Joshua Glenn at 02:11 PM
January 26, 2007
Bring the theology, baby! [No, that's not the right tone ... let me start over.]
In your last post, I think you eloquently sum up, and defend, the Harris position that you have to make an irrational leap (of faith) to embrace the tenets of any religion. But my intention was never to pick a fight with that view.
My point is that, instead of the excellent recent reviews in TNR, which pitted agnostics against atheists, I hungered to read a clash between someone who holds your views and someone who believes that there is nothing -- nothing -- irrational about religion. By now, I'm persuaded that you think no one holds such a position -- or if they do, they're making a sort of Philosophy-101-level logical error.
The Catholic line of argument, however, on display in a publication like First Things (I just happen to read it more than actual Papal encyclicals!), is that reason alone will guide you precisely to the truths God has revealed through Scripture and the doctrinal writings of the Church. Reason alone will persuade you of God's existence, of the existence of miracles (it is reasonable to believe eyewitnesses, observes the Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne), of the afterlife, of the Resurrection, and so on. You will get to the truth most quickly if you unite reason and faith -- as you correctly point out the Pope himself advocates and embodies -- but, by definition, reason and faith can't conflict (because revealed Truth is, indeed, true).
When Sullivan starts making that argument it strikes you as hopelessly woolly. It bugs you. Exactly! That collision is where I think the action is -- or, at least, the action that's most relevant in, as Harris puts it, a Christian nation.
Posted by Christopher Shea at 01:15 PM
January 26, 2007
Speaking again of the future of the book, a reader sends in a referral to a strange mini-movie, or mini-multimedia presentation (say that five times fast) created by the Museum of Media History, Special Projects Division, about what the media landscape will look like in 2015. It's largely about the voiceover, so you'll need to have the volume on.
In this brave new world, Google becomes Googlezon through the merger that implies and competes with Microsoft to make all the world's information accessible -- and alterable by end users, essentially, obviating apparently the need for journalism. Traditional news outlets cease to exist, or, say, decide to go offline and become "newsletters for the elite and elderly" (that's the New York Times he's talking about).
Gotta say I think this is bunk. First of all, 2015 is way too close for these predictions. Second, the need for journalism is less about information now than it is about having an informed person working a beat in some part of the world you can't get to at the moment -- say, Lebanon -- tell you what's really happening (and not just what happened). The Times will have its place even when it is presented in some heretofore undevised medium wherein a 3-D array of virtual screens appears before us (as it does for Tom Cruise in Minority Report, or was it A.I.) and we select information by pulling one out of the sky.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 10:49 AM
January 26, 2007
Yes, I still think that religious faith is crazy from any purely rational perspective -- because the Pope, presumably by his own admission, is not purely rational. Perhaps in place of crazy I should have said "in opposition to reason" or "specious." I would cite Sam Harris here, from the opening of his exchange with Andrew Sullivan:
My use of the word [faith] is meant to capture belief in specific religious propositions without sufficient evidence -- prayer can heal the sick, there is a supreme Being listening to our thoughts, we will be reunited with our loved ones after death, etc.
I don't think that's such a bold claim or definition; it's the one I was using. Sullivan replies:
I believe that God is truth and truth is, by definition, reasonable. Science cannot disprove true faith; because true faith rests on the truth; and science cannot be in ultimate conflict with the truth.
But that to me is strange, if not wrong. Science can't disprove truth, he says. Well, what if it were definitively proven that the world wasn't created in seven days? Would the Pope revise? Moreover, belief in the truth that can't be proven may be truthful (tautology) but it is not an example of good science, since science rests on repeatable, undeniable evidence.
I would cite Harris again:
For instance, you claim that many fundamentalists are tolerant of dissent and capable of friendship with you despite their dogmatic views about sex. You also remind me that many devoutly religious people do good things on the basis of their religious beliefs. I do not doubt either of these propositions. You could catalogue such facts until the end of time, and they would not begin to suggest that God actually exists, or that the Bible is his Word, or that his Son came to earth in the person of Jesus to redeem our sins. I have no doubt that there are millions of nice Mormons who are likewise tolerant of dissent and perfectly cordial toward homosexuals. Does this, in your view, even slightly increase the probability that the Book of Mormon was delivered on golden plates to Joseph Smith Jr. (that very randy and unscrupulous dowser) by the angel Moroni?
Posted by Evan Hughes at 10:29 AM
January 25, 2007
In the underreported story of the last 24 hours, two highly placed Ohio election officials in the crucial 2004 state's most populous county were convicted of "rigging a recount of the 2004 presidential election to avoid a more thorough review." This was one of the longer stories available, four or five times longer than the Times'. The officials "worked behind closed doors for three days to pick ballots they knew would not cause discrepancies when checked by hand, prosecutors said," thereby avoiding a machine recount or a hand count of all votes in the county.
The resulting change seems not to have altered the results of the election, though of course no one can say what a county-wide recount would have yielded, since they were hand-picking ballots. It seems safe to say that that wouldn't have made any difference, either, since Bush's margin of victory in Ohio was over 100,000 votes. Nevertheless, this represents a gross violation, and one that unfortunately is so unsurprising to newspaper editors and the country that it merits only a short AP story.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 01:44 PM
January 25, 2007
Evan, do you think the Pope (not to mention Sullivan) shares your view that the Christian beliefs of ordinary Americans are "of course ... crazy from any purely rational perspective"?
In fact, he -- they -- would say that reason and faith dovetail precisely. In fact, the current Pope's major theological statements so far have all stressed that the division you think is so obvious -- faith here, reason here -- is a disorder of modern secular society.
In the debate I linked to, Sullivan makes that point at great length (though he departs from the Pope on the subject of what reason implies and faith compels, raising a whole other set of issues).
You write that if faith were provable, "we'd call it knowledge." They do call it knowledge.
Posted by Christopher Shea at 01:25 PM
January 25, 2007
I wanted to respond to Chris's post about exchanges over faith and atheism, some of which were sparked by recent books deliberately attacking religion, like Richard Dawkins's book "The God Delusion." Chris says reviews by big-time book critic James Wood and by the eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel were "brilliant and literate" but didn't really get to the heart of things because they "seemed detached from the debate the atheist authors were trying to start about the actual beliefs held by actual religious Americans."
I suppose that is true, but of course those reviews (and I think Nagel's was particularly fascinating) meant to achieve that detachment -- to take a wider view and challenge the assumptions of a Dawkins or a true believer. I agree with them that if we want to have an intellectual debate about "the actual beliefs held by actual religious Americans," that's something of a non-starter. Of course they're crazy from any purely rational perspective, as Sam Harris says, because religion rests on faith in something that can never be proved. If it could, we'd call it knowledge.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 12:56 PM
January 25, 2007
Tom Friedman argues [subscriber-only] that what the Islamic world needs is a Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Peretz, co-owner of the New Republic, calls Friedman "deluded," and his hopes for reform "desperate and pointless," given the primitive, tribal nature of politics in the Islamic world.
Poor Tom Friedman. He is looking for a Muslim Martin Luther King. There is none, Tom. If one were living on earth, they'd break his windows. Imprison him. Or kill him. Finished.
Matthew Yglesias asks: Ahem, what happened to the real Martin Luther King, Jr., here in the tolerant, liberal West?
Posted by Christopher Shea at 12:15 PM
January 24, 2007
At Radar, which is hard to keep track of, what with folding and relaunching three or four times, Maer Roshan and co. have come up with a good idea for a feature piece: the worst colleges in America. Their teaser line on the article: "Twisted teachers! Suicidal students! Courses on 'Silence!' and 'Leisure.' Come along on our exclusive tour of the worst colleges in the country." Pretty cool.
Wow, California State University-Chico comes in for a beating, but hard to argue they don't deserve it: "While Chico is the most notorious party college on the planet -- 69 students were arrested on St. Patrick's Day last year -- on average, a full 15 percent of them actually manage to graduate in four years." (By the way, that sentence is sic: I have a strong view that the antecedent of "them" can't be inside em-dashes. Moreover, there's an unintended implication that we're talking about 15 percent of those 69 arrested students rather than the student body.)
Bennington College gets laurels for Worst Trust-Fund Baby College. That happens to be true, in my anecdotal experience. The tuition is $44,000. Need I say more? Worst Ivy goes to Cornell, where a student gets quoted with this zinger: "'I haven't overheard a single intellectual conversation in three years, unless it was between Indian or Asian students,' writes an architecture major on Students Review." Ouch. Worst college of 'em all? University of Bridgeport, as if Bridgeport didn't have enough bad press.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 04:57 PM
January 24, 2007
The International Rescue Committee, a highly respected Non-Governmental Organization -- by the way that's kind of a dumb term. My elementary school is an NGO -- that rates highly whenever charities are compared or rigorously monitored, is deeply involved in Darfur at the moment. (If that isn't a situation calling for a rescue committee...)
Using the advent of Web technology in all corners of the world, they're now getting the word out not only about the disaster but about all the good work that donated money is doing: they've got a blog going, written by an aid worker in the field. That's right, apparently Darfur has Internet access? Could this be? Anyway, the blog isn't navigated in the usual way; use the Next and Previous links at the top to move between entries.
All very interesting. Particularly the fact that IRC and others are giving locals a chance to do more than eat and be sheltered. They're loaning cameras and displaying the resulting photos. They're looking at art work. They're sitting down and talking about lives and dreams. It's pretty great.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 03:10 PM
January 24, 2007
To me, there was something dissatisfying about many of the reviews of recent pro-atheism books by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Many of them -- notably those by the literary critic James Wood and the philosopher Thomas Nagel, in the New Republic [both links subscriber-only] -- took the position that of course many of the literalist beliefs of religious Americans were absurd (belief that God cares about one's bank balance, that one has direct conversations with the deity, that God saved your grandmother because you prayed for her -- but oddly did not respond to the prayers of Grandma's roommate in the hospital).
Rather than dwell on such "obvious" false beliefs -- obvious to the reviewers and the authors under review, that is -- the reviewers directed their polemics against Harris's and Dawkins's purported arrogance and lack of imagination, for failing to concede that there might be, philosophically speaking, something superhuman and supernatural out there, however unlike the Christian God.*
However brilliant and literate, the reviews seemed detached from the debate the atheist authors were trying to start about the actual beliefs held by actual religious Americans.
This exchange is more satisfying. Beliefnet has asked Harris, author of "Letter to a Christian Nation," and the devout pundit Andrew Sullivan to exchange a series of email messages on the subject of faith and atheism. (Sullivan doesn't just believe it's philosophically possible a supernatural entity exists, but embraces the Holy Trinity, miracles, and the Resurrection.) They start out polite, but things really heat up here.
*Maybe it's a New Republic thing. Literary editor Leon Wieseltier took exactly the same approach in reviewing Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell," in the New York Times Book Review.
Posted by Christopher Shea at 12:40 PM
January 24, 2007
As reported in today's Globe, Boston is now looking into the idea of appointing a Poet Laureate for the city -- or at least one councilman is advocating the plan. (I was trying to figure out if Massachusetts has a designated poet, and came across the answer via this amusing page.) It's a neat idea, no? Someone should sing for the city that is among the most literate (the most literate?) in the country and world, but has been drained of all publishing houses and prominent magazines (other than the Globe's, bien sur). If New Jersey gets Bruce Springsteen, who's our guy or gal? Tell me it's not Aerosmith or the Cars.
It has been remarked by an Ideas editor that the late Peter Davison would have made an excellent Boston laureate were he alive today. I would add that Robert Lowell's, um, a little downbeat, but what a poet, and a Boston man. Davison can be heard reading from Lowell's work here, if you have an Atlantic subscription.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 12:26 PM
January 24, 2007
The New York Times has a very cool feature on its website today -- I think I remember them doing something similar last year -- that allows you to search the text of the president's State of the Union addresses since 2001 for a particular term ("Social Security," for example, or "Bin Laden"), and then to compare the frequency of that term, year by year, against other terms.
The term "freedom," for example, appears eight times in Bush's 2001 address, 14 in 2002 ("freedom's price," "freedom's power," "freedom's victory," etc.), five in 2003, eight in 2004, then a whopping 21 in 2005 (all in the last half of the speech) and 17 in 2006 (mostly in the first half; what to make of this shift?), and then a paltry three last night. One could spend all day monkeying with this software...
Posted by Joshua Glenn at 11:12 AM
January 24, 2007
Maybe President Bush thought he was quoting the Bible (or maybe not) in last night's State of the Union. But actually, he was quoting John F. Kennedy Jr. Back in 1997, in a Word column, I rapped an editor's letter in JFK Jr.'s magazine, George, for its execrable prose, including the syntactically defective misquotation "To whom much is given, much is expected, right?"
President Kennedy had used a version of the quotation -- "For of those to whom much is given, much is required" -- that was grammatically complete, though less florid than the King James version of Luke 12:48: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required." But John-John's stripped-down version is the one Bush has been using for years.
Of course, lots of familiar quotations get shortened or sweetened in everyday use: "Nice guys finish last," "Money is the root of all evil," "Play it again, Sam." (See Ralph Keyes's excellent book, "The Quote Verifier," for hundreds more.) But most of them remain grammatically sound, even when their sense is warped.
So how does this abbreviated Bible quote keep chugging along when essential parts of it have fallen off? I've always assumed that its users think that since it sounds quaint, it doesn't have to make sense -- like the people who think "their cups runneth over" is adorably archaic.
So I was pleased to see that theory echoed by Mark Liberman, at the end of a long and erudite discussion with fellow linguists, at Language Log this morning:
My current guess is that we encounter fused relatives in historical sources -- Shakespeare, some bible translations, and so on -- and we grasp the intended meaning without being able to process the form. . . . There's a sort of grammatical get-out-of-jail-free card given to high-sounding old-fashioned sentences in which relative clauses serve as noun phrases. Thus if you come across such a sentence, you should figure out what it ought to mean, and not worry too much about how it gets there."
That shouldn't be read as an endorsement of the mangled quote, though. Liberman headlines his blog post "Ungrammatical timeless truths."
Posted by Jan Freeman at 10:30 AM
January 24, 2007
Globe film critic Ty Burr has just swapped places with colleague (and sometime Ideas contributor) Wesley Morris at the Sundance Film Festival. Wesley reported from Sundance every day via their Movie Nation blog, and now Ty is doing the same. They're also using that forum to comment on the Oscar nominations.
Here's Wesley after one day at Sundance:
You know a Sundance movie when it happens to you: the navel-gazing, that jaunty, slightly whimsical music, the unmitigated angst of a certain class.
Check them out!
Posted by Joshua Glenn at 07:32 AM
January 24, 2007
Yesterday I opened a package from Fantagraphics Books containing their latest treasure: "The Curiously Sinister Art of Jim Flora." As those of us wowed by the 2004 Fantagraphics release "The Mischievous Art of Jim Flora" can attest, Flora -- best known for his jazz record covers of the 1940s-50s -- was way ahead of his time. His deconstructed, surreal, grotesque (yet somehow cute) commercial illustrations would not look out of place hanging on the same museum wall with much of what is now hailed as high art.
Posted by Joshua Glenn at 07:17 AM
January 23, 2007
There is some new research into urban sprawl, boing boing reports. (Shouldn't it be called suburban sprawl? Always wondered that: the whole problem is that urban density doesn't hold up during growth, resulting in land area too large for the population. Anyway.)
What the research tried to determine, according to Science News, is whether sprawl makes you fat, basically. You never walk when the car is needed just to get milk. Picture L.A. and you see the problem. How far away is your mailbox?
One set of researchers decided there wasn't enough evidence, but others aren't so sure:
In 2004, [Deborah] Cohen and Roland Sturm of RAND asked more than 8,000 residents of 38 U.S. communities to list their health problems. The researchers also assessed the degree of sprawl in each resident's community.
"People reported more complaints -- more health problems -- when they lived in more sprawling areas," Cohen says. The excess of physical problems such as arthritis linked to sprawl was comparable to the change that would occur if the entire population suddenly aged by 4 years, Cohen and Sturm concluded.
Does vanity argue for moving to Manhattan?
Posted by Evan Hughes at 06:10 PM
January 23, 2007
Matthew Yglesias today jumps into the fray concerning the Bush administration's recent efforts in Somalia. Yglesias agrees with their most recent move -- "arranging for the safe passage of Sheik Sharif Ahmed formerly of the Islamic Courts Union to Kenya and encouraging the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia to work with him. Ahmed was one of the more moderate figures inside the ICU but also a very high-ranking official with perhaps a large following among the ICU rank-and-file."
An encouraging sign, to be sure. But Yglesias wonders whether it will work. Always a sticking point. He may be biased against the administration (he frequently is), but he paints a convincing and dispiriting picture, worth quoting at length:
[A]ny deal Ahmed may or may not cut stands at least as good a chance of reducing his credibility (he'd be selling out to foreign invaders and corrupt warlords) as it does of enhancing the [Transitional Federal Government]'s credibility.
Noting the ideological diversity of the ICU, we can also sketch out a very pessimistic scenario here. Already, Somalia is starting to "former Islamist fighters, who are suspected of being the backbone of Somalia’s growing insurgency" fighting against the Ethiopians and the TFG. The Ethiopians say they want to withdraw soon since Ethiopia isn't the USA and actually can't afford a prolonged occupation of a foreign country.
A few years from now, in short, the ICU or its lineal descendants may be back running Somalia again, except they'll have had their moderate elements purged.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 05:31 PM
January 23, 2007
The novelist Chang-rae Lee, a faculty member at Princeton, says all you need to know about the now-in-full-bloom controversy involving a "joke" op-Ed in the campus newspaper there that retailed numerous stereotypes about Asians: "Frankly the piece astounds me not so much for its racism as its stupidity."
Posted by Christopher Shea at 04:58 PM
January 23, 2007
In an interesting little episode, Vikram Chandra's publisher, HarperCollins, made hay out of a brutal review "Sacred Games" received from Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post's Pulitzer-winning book critic.
Challenging Yardley on his own turf, HarperCollins purchased an ad in the Post a few days ago that contrasted Yardley's pan ("massive deadweight of a novel... written in a droning monotone") with emphatic praise from the owners of one of Washington, DC's most influential independent bookstores, Politics & Prose ("vastly entertaining ... Tolstoyan"). The ad concludes, "Decide for yourself."
It's a battle of the arbiters. Yardley wrote that it is "almost inconceivable to me that American readers will rush to buy this novel." However, Politics and Prose reports that "Sacred Games" is their second-best selling new work of fiction, an impressive performance given its Brobdingnagian proportions.
(Read more about the episode here and here. Disclosures: My wife is an editor at the Post's Book World, and I've spoken with Yardley several times. I bought a book at Politics & Prose two days ago, for $16.95. It's a lovely place, but the clerks are a touch haughty. Maybe you would be, too, if your bosses were such players in the literary world.)
Chandra, who was at the Harvard Book Store last Thursday, reads at Politics & Prose tonight.
Posted by Christopher Shea at 03:28 PM
January 23, 2007
Speaking of the future of the book, as I did a couple of weeks ago and again last week, The Times of London has an article, somewhat oddly, on an event at the New York Public Library called Unbound, the topic of which was "a strange, complex and frequently obscure war that is being fought over the digitisation of the great libraries of the world." Google executives in the Google Book Search department (formerly Google Print) were in attendance, opining that "the majority of information lies outside the Internet."
That is an arresting and debatable but probably accurate point. Libraries are still great repositories of knowledge untapped by the Internet (though the Encyclopedia brings a lot of raw knowledge online). As the Times notes, "intellectual property rights and the internet are uneasy bedfellows. Google’s stated mission is 'to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful'. The words 'universally accessible' carry the implicit threat that nobody can actually own or earn revenue from any information since it will all be just out there." I don't read the mission statement quote that way, since accessible does not mean free and obviously Google hopes to make money.
But it is interesting that Google has not backed down from its clash with publishers: "American publishers are not happy. Before its 2004 announcement, Google had been doing deals with individual publishers to scan their books. But digitising the libraries would seem to render these deals defunct." The battle over intellectual property in the information age continues.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 12:10 PM
January 22, 2007
In a post at the Guardian's opinion weblog, Comment Is Free, Brian Whitaker argues that the English-language press is subverting accuracy and promoting divisiveness by its overuse of the word "Allah":
There is no logical reason for this. Why use an Arabic word in English-language news reports when there is a perfectly good English word that means exactly the same thing?
Various Arabic words -- jihad and sheikh, for example -- have crept into everyday usage because no precise equivalent exists in English, but "Allah" is not of that type. It is simply the normal word that Arabic speakers use for "God" -- whether they are Muslims or not. Arab Christians worship "Allah" too, and the first verse of the Arabic Bible informs us that "In the beginning Allah created heaven and earth."
I've never heard a style directive on the God-Allah question, and in practice it seems to be up to individual reporters and editors. Some accounts of Saddam Hussein's hanging, for instance, translate his last words as "there is no god but God"; others quote it as "there is no god but Allah."
For Whitaker, the indiscriminate use of "Allah" is "yet another example of the subtle ways that news organisations can influence people's attitudes, perhaps unintentionally."
By opting for "Allah" they are aligning themselves, in effect, with those who view international politics in terms of a clash of civilizations.
Some of the many commenters on the blog beg strenuously to disagree, on political or theological grounds or both. Still, it's hard to deny that "There is no god but Allah" sounds like a very different sentiment if you translate it as "There is no deity but God."
Posted by Jan Freeman at 07:04 PM
January 22, 2007
Over at The Valve, which I must endorse again, an Ideas piece, the essay by Sven Birkerts about the task of reviewing Vikram Chandra's hyped 900-page new novel, comes into play. While ribbing Birkerts for not having quite read the book, the Valve writer, Amardeep Singh, author of "Literary Secularism: Religion and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Fiction," has praise for Birkerts. He is annoyed, however, by a review in/on MSNBC/Newsweek by Malcolm Jones, in which the critic in essence admits he's "lazy" and would rather be watching TV if a novel isn't holding him.
This bit of the essay, quoted by Singh, resembles Jonathan Franzen's point, made several places, that fiction has to compete with a lot of artistic entertainments, so why make it hard-going? Boy, did that notion draw the ire of experimental novelist Ben Marcus, in Harper's. (The piece isn't available online but is discussed here.)
Nevertheless, Singh gives a little credence to Jones' point that reading such a brick of a novel because it's your job has the effect of skewing a reviewer's reaction one way or the other. You either resent it or you have invested so much time that you feel bound to praise it: "Can’t just say, oh, it was OK." I'm not sure he's right about that. I once wrote 4,500 words about a 500-plus page novel I found important but, um, OK. (That might have been a mistake.) In any case, I give Jones even more credit for the humor value, and for acknowledging his lack of virtue as a critic.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 06:49 PM
January 22, 2007
Via Scott McLemee on Crooked Timber, I see that the Director of the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan body that reports to Congress, has written a memo spelling out new restrictions for its employees on speaking to the news media, which presents, he says, "very real dangers." Notwithstanding the fact that the CRS must maintain an objective stance and reputation and that its job is to report to Congress rather than the people, this is a somewhat odd stance. Journalists generally turn to CRS because, like, for instance, the Congressional Budget Office, it is designed to have no ax to grind and to present the hard numbers, without regard to politics. The reporters just want the facts, to do with them what they wish.
Moreover, Congress in a sense stands for the people, and it makes little sense to keep the proceedings of this organization a national secret. Besides, as McLemee says, journalists often get their hands on CBS reports, which are often posted online, and which they will use with or without accompanying quotes from the authors. This could have the reverse effect of making the agency appear slanted when it is not, depending on the context in a given article.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 03:24 PM
January 22, 2007
I'm not disputing Evan's contention that n+1's website is getting McSweeneyish. He could be right; it's been a long time since I checked in on the n+1 website, so I have no idea. But I would like to make two quick points about the interview with the individual described as a "commercial semiotician." (At the moment, the interview is accessible here.)
1) Evan doesn't make note of this, but the so-called commercial semiotician -- I'm pretty sure he refers to himself as a "semiotic brand analyst" -- is none other than A.S. Hamrah, the writer whom I compared to Roland Barthes in a Brainiac post a month ago. Barthes, of course, helped spring semiotics loose from linguistics departments; like Barthes, Hamrah employs the tools of semiotics to crack cultural codes. Just because he sometimes does so at the behest of the manufacturers of shampoo and soda pop doesn't mean he's not terrific at it. (Full disclosure: Hamrah and I have, in the not too distant past, collaborated on semiotic brand analysis projects paid for by the manufacturers of, like I said, shampoo and soda pop.) So let's not scoff.
In an Ideas column I once asked Slavoj Zizek about his decision to write copy for an edition of Abercrombie & Fitch's softcore magalog. "If I were asked to choose between doing things like this to earn money and becoming fully employed as an American academic, kissing [EXPLETIVE] to get a tenured post," he told me, "I would with pleasure choose writing for such journals!" I can relate.
2) I thought that everything Hamrah said in the interview was funny and interesting. But I didn't like the interview -- Hamrah's interlocutor, though no doubt a very intelligent person, insisted on sharing her less-informed opinions about branding, and that didn't work for me. That did make it seem kinda McSweeneyish.
Posted by Joshua Glenn at 01:25 PM
January 22, 2007
I checked in with n+1 today online. It's a fine magazine, and I look forward to the print edition every six months-ish. Their Web site is fleeter afoot but also usually quite serious and exceedingly well-written. Recently they published an excellent letter exchange involving Walter Benn Michaels, author of "The Trouble with Diversity."
But a quick read of a couple pieces today sends up a red flag or two. The cover article at the moment is an interview with a "commercial semiotician" about the new logo of Payless Shoe Source. Right. Not that it's not clever:
n+1: Maybe by making the “Payless” sort of ghostly and rounded and inconsequential, “Payless” becomes just another one of those words that doesn’t mean anything.
ASH: Exactly. This is about unmeaning.
Another recent, more lengthy item was a roundup of various writers' "eulogies for winter." As in, it's gone forever. Get it? This is starting to smell like McSweeeney's.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 12:08 PM