Category Archives: reading

Make of it what you will

From time to time I happen upon a bit of text that just has to be passed around. Here’s today’s:

Wake words*

Perhaps he was mothersmothered
(born into the muddlecrass, at a time when wimwin).
The mamafesta delivered when he was yung and easily freudened.

For a while, a tenorist who saw the world cycloptically—
in his bachelure flat, the life lamatory, listening to ladies’ lavastories—
bewilderblissed and inn sane, he mistributed the unfacts alcoherently.

Nowanights, he looks at the fadographs with violet indigonation.
An iciclist who fell on a pineapple but still climbs the bannistars
With his tellavicious langurge (or langwedge) points a colliderorscope
at the chaosmos, tells with puerity his rheumaniscences
and awaits a funferall, barks like a duck “quark quark”!

[* Almost all of these words were invented by James Joyce and used in Finnegans Wake]

Peter Kennedy, Literary Review Dec 2016/Jan 2017 pg 58

Not My Circus; Not My Monkeys [but surely some nearby somebody’s]

I’m forever finding things that seem to apply to people and situations that aren’t precisely my own but do need rediffusing in some medium. Here’s one that just snuck up on me:

Imagine a world where speaking or writing words can literally and directly make things happen, where getting one of those words wrong can wreak unbelievable havoc, but where with the right spell you can summon immensely powerful agencies to work your will. Imagine further that this world is administered: there is an extensive division of labour, among the magicians themselves and between the magicians and those who coordinate their activity. It’s bureaucratic, and also (therefore) chaotic, and it’s full of people at desks muttering curses and writing invocations, all beavering away at a small part of the big picture. The coordinators, because they don’t understand what’s going on, are easy prey for smooth-talking preachers of bizarre cults that demand arbitrary sacrifices and vanish with large amounts of money…

The analyst or programmer has to examine documents with an eye at once skeptical and alert, snatching and collating tiny fragments of truth along the way. His or her sources of information all have their own agendas, overtly or covertly pursued. He or she has handlers and superiors, many of whom don’t know what really goes on at the sharp end…

(from Ken MacLeod’s preface to Charles Stross’ The Atrocity Archives)

balm in Gilead?

Trump connected to the segment of the population that was prepared to believe that racism was realism, misogyny was locker-room talk, inconvenient facts were media myths, and viciousness was the new normal. Just as surely as he has redrawn the electoral map, he has radically altered the Overton window. No Presidential candidate before him had ever mocked a disabled reporter, or bragged about his penis size during a debate. What kept every other candidate before him from stooping to these tactics, presumably, was deference to social norms. But norms can be swept aside.

(Andrew Marantz, in New Yorker news blog)

I wrestle with the personal means to come to terms with the new sociocultural reality, and consider employing tools like Colin Woodard’s recent books (which deserve a careful rereading: American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America and American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good), and the prescient writings of Thomas Frank in The Baffler and in his Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, and George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. As so often before, Christopher Lydon’s Radio Open Source is helpful in reminding me to think more broadly about what’s in front of my nose.

I’m not sure that gnawing old bones of socio-political argybargy is good for the blood pressure, let alone the soul, though I can’t entirely ignore what comes at me via New Yorker and NYRB and various lefty blogs I follow. As an antidote, I’ve found it soothing to read Ursula Le Guin’s novellas and short stories (The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin and The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin), and I’ve just picked up the beloved Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter Miller Jr. –can you believe it first appeared in 1958???) for the fourth or fifth time.

I’ve also been deeply into Thomas Rid’s Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History, and via that engagement I’ve dipped into Gregory Bateson again, via Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology, a book I tried to read maybe 20 years ago but bounced off of, feeling discomfort with Bateson’s concept of epistemology (I basically didn’t grasp what he was talking about). This morning I ventured to the Auxiliary Library in the barn and quarried my copy of Bateson’s Naven and what did I find but

What has happened has been the growth of a new way of thinking about organization and disorganization. Today, data from a New Guinea tribe and the superficially very different data of psychiatry can be approached in terms of a single epistemology—a single body of questions.

We now have the beginnings of a general theory of process and change, adaptation and pathology; and, in terms of the general theory, we have to reexamine all that we thought we knew about organisms, societies, families, personal relationships, ecological systems, servo-mechanisms, and the like.

(Gregory Bateson, Preface to the second edition [1958] Of Naven)

“And the like” indeed. So: back once again to General Systems Theory, which beguiled me 45 or so years ago, abstractions high-flown enough to calm the yammer of daily helpings of News of Fresh Disasters.

As Adam Fish just put it:

What is needed are new modes of counter-hegemonic governance. Towards that goal I am going to do nothing. Social evolution is slow and silent not obvious and obnoxious. It is time for a break into scholarship and away from reactionary tabbing back and forth from The New York Times and Breitbart, The Guardian and Drudge.

lots of little bits

The strangest things float through the mind unbidden. As we were driving back from a day at Acadia National Park, the phrase “he shot him into doll rags, naturally” drifted in and then out again. Mmmm, I thought, I know I read that somewhere sometime… but how could I find it again? 20 years ago it would have been impossible, but with Google a search for “doll rags naturally” got one single hit, a certified BINGO: IF Science Fiction March 1961, in a story by Julian F. Grow, “The Fastest Gun Dead” … I was a high school senior then, and must have happened on that issue of the mag (though I don’t remember doing so), or maybe I read it a couple of years later in 7th Annual Edition: The Year’s Best S-F (1963).

I don’t advise a Google search for “doll rags shot” (too many distressing results, pro- and anti-gun). Take it from me that the phrase means lots of little bits…

argybargy du jour

All those years ago I was drawn to Anthropology because I thought it was a comprehensive and comprehensible way to MAKE SENSE of the world around me; and in my years as a prof I approached teaching Anthro in the same spirit, looking at the great variety of solutions to the practical problems of living that people had developed over the vastnesses of time and space (well, 10,000 years or so; and terrestrial space, but still…), returning again and again to the observed Fact that the Emperor was Naked. And now I find myself looking to one particular/peculiar strain of the discipline to, once again, [try to] make sense of the contemporary world.

Lately I’ve been reading a number of things that have fundamentally the same message. Much seems to emanate from David Graeber, and is concerned with bamboozlement in many forms:

…a kind of strategic pivot of the upper echelons of US corporate bureaucracy — away from the workers, and towards shareholders, and eventually, towards the financial structure as a whole… corporate management became more financialized, but at the same time, the financial sector became corporatized with investment banks, hedge funds, and the like largely replacing individual investors. As a result the investor class and the executive class became almost indistinguishable… (19)

…the last two centuries have seen an explosion of bureaucracy, and the last 30 or 40 years in particular have seen bureaucratic principles extended to every aspect of our existence… (27)

What was being talked about in terms of “free trade” and the “free market” really entailed the self-conscious completion of the world’s first effective planetary-scale administrative bureaucratic system. (30)

…public and private bureaucracies finally merged together in a mass of paperwork designed to facilitate the direct extraction of wealth. (35)

If one gives sufficient social power to a class of people holding even the most outlandish ideas, they will, consciously or not, eventually contrive to produce a world organized in such a way that living in it will, in a thousand subtle ways, reinforce the impression that those ideas are self-evidently true. (37)

…what we call “the public” is created, produced through specific institutions that allow specific forms of action — taking polls, watching television, voting, signing petitions or writing letters to elected officials or attending public hearings — and not others. (98)

(The above from The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. There’s much more I’d transcribe from Graeber’s writings, including Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and of course Debt.

A similarly resonant voice: Tariq Ali in the latest London Review of Books:
The New World Disorder (Vol. 37 No. 7 · 9 April 2015)

But social democratic reforms have become intolerable for the neoliberal economic system imposed by global capital. If you argue, as those in power do (if not explicitly, implicitly), that it’s necessary to have a political structure in which no challenge to the system is permitted, then we’re living in dangerous times. Elevating terrorism into a threat that is held to be the equivalent of the communist threat of old is bizarre. The use of the very word ‘terrorism’, the bills pushed through Parliament and Congress to stop people speaking up, the vetting of people invited to give talks at universities, the idea that outside speakers have to be asked what they are going to say before they are allowed into the country: all these seem minor things, but they are emblematic of the age in which we live. And the ease with which it’s all accepted is frightening. If what we’re being told is that change isn’t possible, that the only conceivable system is the present one, we’re going to be in trouble. Ultimately, it won’t be accepted. And if you prevent people from speaking or thinking or developing political alternatives, it won’t just be Marx’s work that is relegated to the graveyard. Karl Polanyi, the most gifted of the social democratic theorists, has suffered the same fate.

and this announcement by William Arkin, via Gizmodo, of a Twitter feed covering a lot of the same dolorous but important ground:

o here’s what I plan to do: Expose. Explain. Secrecy and euphemisms are carpet-bombing us into submission. I’m sick of the parameters of the sanctioned debate. So instead I will try to treat the secret world like a sports league: There are coaches, players, commentators, bookies, and marketing geniuses. We’ll have something to say about all of them, something to reveal every week. The teams are the NSA, the CIA, FBI, Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Department of Homeland Security, TSA, ICE; and that’s just Division I. There’s a Division II playing somewhere else, far more obscure but nevertheless influential and odious, populated by billion-dollar institutions like the Counter-Narcoterrorism Program Office or the Defense Threat Reduction Agency or U.S. Army North, real parasites on the American spirit, survivors because what they do festers in the dark. Each has a history and personality, a lineup, a budget cap, a general manager, a narrative to sell.
(much more and very worth reading)

Smacked upside the head

Sometimes it’s a bit of text, sometimes a phrase in a tune, sometimes a (photo-)graphic, but the experience is pretty much the same: a brief guffaw loosed at the sheer excellence/audacity/brio of the thing. Case in point, this from the end of a piece by Charles Simic, from New York Review of Books, which just rolled in via RSS:

Here, to give you an idea, is the beginning of a story called “Water Liars” from a collection of [Barry Hannah’s stories] called Airships:

When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beers to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another. The line-up is always different, because they are always dying out, or succumbing to constipation, etc., whereupon they go back to the cabins and wait for a good day when they can come out and lie again, leaning on the rail with coats full of bran cookies. The son of the man the cove was named for is often out there. He pronounces his name Fartay, with a great French stress on the last syllable. Otherwise, you might laugh at his history or ignore it in favor of the name as it’s spelled on the sign.

I’m glad it’s not my name.

This poor dignified man has had to explain his nobility to the semiliterate of half of America before he could even begin a decent conversation with them. On the other hand, Farte, Jr., is a great liar himself. He tells about seeing ghost people around the lake and tell big loose ones about the size of the fish those ghost took out of Farte Cove in years past…

Having previously read the story and knowing what was coming, reading this far was all that was required for my purpose, which was to close my eyes and go to sleep with a smile on my face.

Maybe epiphany is a sufficiently weighty word to bear this freight of delight. I guess I could say that I live for such moments of glee, and this one sent me directly to Amazon to snag Hannah’s book on the Kindle.

A photographic example from the just-concluded trip to France is another suchlike, a scene I glimpsed for just a moment while ankling around in Pont-Aven (on the south coast of Brittany) and had the wit to capture:

Everything about this is just right: the apparent transparency of some of the figures, the dim reflection in the window glass through which I shot, the illusion of depth in the room, the moments of movement transfixed… I took a lot of pictures that I like in that fortnight, but this one seems to me the most glorious. I might never have seen the opportunity if I hadn’t just been to the Florence Henri exhibit at Jeu de Paume…

addendum: it occurred to me to try a bit of manipulation, inspired by the Qu’est-ce que la photographie? exhibit:

LRB in the New Year

Enticed by Jenny Diski’s recent columns tracking her cancer diagnosis, I succumbed to a year’s subscription to London Review of Books. I’ve spent several days reading bits from the Archive, and found a whole new vein of delicious and highly literate prose. A few examples follow:

From a review of 3 biographies of Charlie Parker:

Jazz may have been born and raised in brothels, gin joints, chthonic nightclubs, rather than respectable performance spaces, but it was a music of devilish complexity, exacting technical fibre. Musicians in touring jazz bands and orchestras had to satisfy the clamour of their weekend audience for beats that could be danced into the floor; satisfy their own high creative standards; and also find a way to leap unscathed between dense volleys of beckoning myth and image. (Ian Penman, “Birditis”, 23 Jan 2014)

And no American would (or could?) have written

In public the conversation has the same steely glint of challenge in one direction and moue of camaraderie in the other that you sometimes see when Jews tell stomach-curdling Jewish jokes, while the uncircumcised grope in their bag of possible socialised reactions for a way to respond. (Jenny Diski, “I haven’t been nearly mad enough”, 6 Feb 2013)

Many LRB articles seem like the sort of tutorial essays one imagines might be presented to Oxbridge dons: artful intro, controversy summarized, evidence adduced, competing arguments critiqued, case made. But by more erudite and well-informed writers than undergraduates can possibly be.

Adroit skewering is one hallmark, clarity another:

…Walt Rostow, who beguiled Washington with his five-stage programme for ‘The Take-Off into Self-Sustained Growth’, which, by contrast, claimed that industrialisation was the key. Rostow tied the United States to a series of unsavoury autocrats and littered the world with unprofitable steel mills.

The British ‘Modernisers’ (almost the first use of the term) of the 1830s and 1840s believed that if the government got rid of the idle landlords and dealt direct with the peasants, Indian farming would really take off. Unfortunately, the East India Company still needed vast quantities of rupees to support its great military apparatus, and the reforms created a bunch of aggrieved ex-landlords and a peasantry groaning under the British collectors, who tended to be more relentless than the old taluqdars and zamindars. Thousands of small farmers were driven into the hands of moneylenders and, under new British regulations, were eventually forced to sell up for not paying their taxes. A British official at the time lamented that ‘in the landed property of the country a very extensive and melancholy revolution has been effected’. Rather than warding off discontent, the land reform helped to precipitate the most terrifying mutiny in the history of the British Empire.
(Ferdinand Mount, “That Disturbing Devil”, 8 May 2014)

And in the vein of Western economic history, this adroit summary of stuff I think I ought to have known:

At the same time as trading in securities was frozen, the London money market broke down. This had even more dramatic consequences: half of world trade at that time – and almost all of British trade – was financed via one of the major instruments traded on the money market, the sterling bill of exchange. This was a transferable promissory note, usually with a three-month maturity, that offered a convenient means of settling international transactions. An American merchant buying silk in Japan, for example, could pay for his goods with a sterling bill, which the Japanese merchant would then sell to a bank in Japan in exchange for local currency. The sterling bill would next be presented to an ‘accepting house’ in London (essentially a merchant bank, like Rothschilds or Schröders) that, for a fee, would ensure payment in case of default. The bill would then be sold again on the secondary market via a discounting house, typically to a bank that would hold the bill as a means of increasing its liquid reserves. When payment on the bill was due, the American merchant would send to London the amount he owed for the silk he had bought in Japan. Since sending actual bullion was impractical, and since the money he owed was in pounds sterling, the merchant would typically purchase another sterling bill using dollars he had earned from selling the silk at home, and that bill would pay off his debt to the bank in London. In this way, sterling bills facilitated the vast expansion of international trade in the late 19th century, providing a ready means of connecting most of the globe in an integrated commercial network. One of the first important tasks in the drawing up of international law was to regulate the global use of bills of exchange at the Hague Conferences of 1910 and 1912. Some considered these bills superior to gold – ‘more economical, more readily transmissible, more efficient’, as one Canadian banker put it. The City’s secondary market in sterling bills linked the world’s banks in a common system of exchange: its investment opportunities encouraged more than seventy foreign banks to open branches in London, with as much as half of the money changing hands on Lombard Street originating from outside the country. As early as 1873, Walter Bagehot referred to the London money market as ‘by far the greatest combination of economical power and economical delicacy that the world has ever seen’. (Jamie Martin ”
Better off in a Stocking”, 22 May 2014)

A good way in to Piketty:

The story of modern economic thought can after all be told as the shift from political economy, as its practitioners thought of it, to the discipline now simply called economics. With the ‘marginal revolution’ of the 1870s (named for Jevons’s theory of ‘marginal utility’), economics acquired a true scientific basis or – in the other extreme of judgment – lent itself to constructing mathematical alibis for capitalism, whose real behaviour it studiously ignored.

In general, economists favour mathematical modelling of axiomatised exchange relations over economic and other kinds of history; concentrate on individuals rather than classes or groups as economic agents; emphasise the preferences freely expressed in transactions rather than restrictive social circumstances; and describe self-sustaining equilibria of supply and demand when capitalist economies are striking for their growth and instability.

Economists, endowed until a few years ago with more authority than other scholars, now appear in the eyes of many to have produced models of efficiency and harmony whose perfection was won at the cost of reality. The mathematised dream of some future catallaxy – Hayek’s lovely word for the spontaneous peaceful order that would result from maximum liberation of the market – bore little resemblance to actually existing capitalism. Since the crash, behavioural economics has generated much of the excitement in the field, but it too is better equipped to make sense of individual economic actors than of the mutually determining trajectories of social classes and national economies. (Benjamin Kunkel, “Paupers and Richlings”, 3 July 2014)

Alas that it took me so long to discover LRB. Every article I’ve read has been enlarging, drawing me into new territory, or deeper into what I thought I knew already. More to chew upon, more to squirrel away… which leads me to wonder: Just how walled-off is LRB? So much of what I’ve read in the last few days of archive exploration seems of genuine and lasting value and even profundity, such that many reviews really ought to be attached to the original books, or cross-linked between compared volumes…

Reading lately

I read pretty much all day, when I’m not looking and/or listening (and sometimes then, too), or doing something that focuses my attention on some motor activity. It would be difficult to keep track of that reading, though I generally do record in my journal what books I start or finish on a particular day, and I sometimes make cryptic notes, or save links to Zotero, or even occasionally hatch out blog postings. Often enough, the things I read fit more or less into ongoing dialogs and burgeoning collections, though systematic linkage isn’t all that common. Themes like Time do seem to recur, and I’m conscious of occasions to fit things read into my own personal chronology.

Case in point that prompts this posting is a wish to save a path to a New Yorker piece that deals with a specific time and a generation: Table Talk: How the Cold War made Georgetown hot describes a world of influential folk in 1950s and 1960s Washington, more or less focused on Joseph Alsop. The world portrayed is utterly foreign to my experience, and a long way from the Washington of the present (similarly foreign, thankfully), but the doings of those people –Kennedys, Kissinger, CIA operatives– surely warped my own world. There’s a certain fascination in exploring their time-and-place, as described in this interview with Alsop biographer Robert Merry (very 1996 in style):

Another recent (re-)reading is Nicholas Freeling’s Tsing Boum, a Van Der Valk mystery which plunges us into 1950s French military history, Dien Bien Phu and its aftermath. Again, outside my own experience, but an influential precursor to the American Vietnam disasters which so affected my own generation.

I’ve also been reading Jenny Diski’s The Sixties, a London-centered take on the decade by an astute observer (now aged 67; see also a recent London Review of Books piece)

Quite without irony, in walking away from the domestic and cultural structures of the Fifties and before, we found and formed our own quite rigid self-affirming groups in order to demand the right to express our individuality (6)… Along with anger and style, mockery was another way to identify who we were and who we were not (27)… The compromises that adults make cause much of the suffering in the world, or, at best, fail to deal with the suffering. Acceptance of one’s lot –maintaining a silence about what can’t be said, lowering your expectations for your own life and for others, and understanding that nothing about the way the world works will ever change– is the very marrow of maturity, and no wonder the newly fledged children look at it with horror and know that it won’t happen to them –or turn their backs on it for fear it will. (37-38)… The Sixties generation are getting to an age where the world is beginning to look quite baffling and alien. It happens to everyone as they grow older. People don’t notice you in the street, they aren’t very interested in what you have to say. We complain about how things used to be and how they are now– better then, terrible now. And it feels as if this is true. But perhaps it always feels true as the centre drifts away from you. (133)

For my purposes, ‘Generation’ is too diffuse and sprawling a unit. I’ve had several occasions to write about age cohorts as especially important sociocultural entities. The 3-year cohort (in my case, people born 1942-1944) seems to me to share formative influences that are truly binding and defining.

Tom Rush is pretty eloquent, for the greying:


I read a lot of books, pinballing amongst genres and across disciplinary declevities as I please, and investigating some very odd (or at least infrequently-visited) corners of the print world. Mostly I don’t try to inflict my idiosyncratic tastes on others, but sometimes a book comes along that’s just too good not to make a fuss about. Today’s case in point:

Alex Wright’s Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age.

Paul Otlet is probably not a person you’ve encountered before (and if he’s already familiar to you, I’d like to know how), but he belongs in the same visionary realm as Melvil Dewey (of library cataloging and 3×5 card fame), Ted Nelson (who instantiated hypertext), Tim Berners-Lee (pater of the World Wide Web), Doug Engelbart (of Mother of All Demos fame), Vannevar Bush (Memex and As We May Think), JCR Licklider (Man-Computer Symbiosis, ARPA), and a clutch of others (Watson Davis, Patrick Geddes, Emanuel Goldberg, Otto Neurath, John Wilkins) who will probably also be new to you. These people are arguably the primary architects/engineers/makers of the electronic world we all inhabit. The book is especially commended to

  • anyone interested in the history of Information, and the precursors of the Web in particular
  • anyone engaged with European intellectual history, and/or with the world of the first 50 years of the 20th century

Other books I’ve read that I’d put into the same heap, and reread in light of Wright’s book:

George Dyson Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence

James Gleick The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

John Markoff What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry

Ted Nelson Possiplex: Movies, Intellect, Creative Control, My Computer Life and the Fight for Civilization: An Autobiography

Fred Turner From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism

David Weinberger Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder

I’m just starting Wright’s Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages, and hoping for More Of Same.