Category Archives: reading

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.

O Tempora

A couple of days ago I walked the course of the Blueberry Cove Half Marathon (13.1 miles on our lovely peninsula) and spent yesterday recovering. A measure of my malaise is in the reading: I took up Dorothy Sayers’ Clouds of Witness (vintage 1927) and was transported to a place and time where this sort of dialog was a possibility:

“You’d better toddle back to bed,” said Lord Peter. “You’re gettin’ all cold. Why do girls wear such mimsy little pyjimjams in this damn cold climate? There, don’t you worry. I’ll drop in on you later and we’ll have a jolly old pow-wow, what?” (pg 72)

Such Eternal Verities are Therapeutic.


I’m always pleased to turn a corner and discover something I’d known nothing about, another oddly-shaped puzzle piece that must fit in somewhere. Recent case-in-point: at my much-loved local indy bookstore I stumbled upon a book about books in Renaissance Venice, Alessandro Marzo Magno’s Bound in Venice: The Serene Republic and the Dawn of the Book and it begged to be taken home (visiting a good bookstore is for me akin to ‘going to look at a puppy’, about which my sister said “there’s no such thing as…”). Started reading it, and it’s delightful in several dimensions. For one thing, the translation from the Italian is spritely and you have the sense that the original must be especially well-written; and it’s stuffed with tempting asides. Here’s a description of the contents of a bookshop:

…prints, views of cities near and far, images of people that viewers would be unlikely ever to see first-hand; books in foreign or remote languages, but spoken by many visitors to the city, which as a melting pot is perhaps rivaled only by present-day New York. So here we have works in Armenian, a Bohemian bible, a text in the Glagolitic alphabet of medieval Croatia, another in Cyrillic, and, naturally, given that the Jewish ghetto in Venice, established in 1516, is the first in history, numerous volumes in Hebrew… (pg 17)

Well, ‘Glagolitic’ isn’t breakfast-table conversation out our way, or wasn’t until today. Good old Wikipedia is right there with everything I wanted to know and then some, and the facts are duly filed away against the day when the knowledge might come in handy in some as-yet-unforeseen way. And so it goes, day by day and book by book.

beware tl;dr

In the last few days I’ve been reading Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D. T. Max. Not sure how I got started on it (maybe via Elaine Blair’s NYRB piece or possibly via Max’s reminiscence re: the title or thanks to some more recent but untraceable blog post), but ensnared I am. I haven’t been a big DFW fan, though I’ve seen a lot of chat about his literary significance. I’m stalled about halfway through Infinite Jest, and Consider The Lobster has been on the to-read pile for a year or more.

This morning’s blogroll brought me Jon Evans’ Such DFW. Very Orwell. So Doge. Wow., and that pointed me to DFW’sTense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage, which is a deliciously detailed exposition on Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage (the article was originally published in Harper’s in 2001, and is reprinted in Consider the Lobster). I hadn’t thought I’d be in the market for a[nother] Usage tome, but the Brown Truck will be delivering it on Tuesday. Here are some extracts from Tense Present that may trick you into reading the whole thing (if you can get past the old tl;dr bugaboo, you’ll probably love it):


From one perspective, a certain irony attends the publication of any good new book on American usage. It is that the people who are going to be interested in such a book are also the people who are least going to need it, i.e., that offering counsel on the finer points of U.S. English is Preaching to the Choir. The relevant Choir here comprises that small percentage of American citizens who actually care about the current status of double modals and ergative verbs. The same sorts of people who watched Story of English on PBS (twice) and read W. Safire’s column with their half-caff every Sunday. The sorts of people who feel that special blend of wincing despair and sneering superiority when they see EXPRESS LANE — 10 ITEMS OR LESS or hear dialogue used as a verb or realize that the founders of the Super 8 motel chain must surely have been ignorant of the meaning of suppurate. There are lots of epithets for people like this — Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Language Police. The term I was raised with is SNOOT. [see fn below] The word might be slightly self-mocking, but those other terms are outright dysphemisms. A SNOOT can be defined as somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it.

[fn: …which term itself derives from an acronym, with the big historical family joke being that whether S.N.O.O.T. stood for “Sprachgefuhl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance” or “Syntax Nudniks of Our Time” depended on whether or not you were one.]

Descriptivism so quickly and thoroughly took over English education in this country that just about everybody who started junior high after c. 1970 has been taught to write Descriptively — via “freewriting,” “brainstorming,” “journaling,” a view of writing as self-exploratory and -expressive rather than as communicative, an abandonment of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, etymology. For another thing, the very language in which today’s socialist, feminist, minority, gay, and environmentalist movements frame their sides of political debates is informed by the Descriptivist belief that traditional English is conceived and perpetuated by Privileged WASP Males [fn: which in fact is true] and is thus inherently capitalist, sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, elitist: unfair. Think Ebonics. Think of the involved contortions people undergo to avoid he as a generic pronoun, or of the tense deliberate way white males now adjust their vocabularies around non-w.m.’s. Think of today’s endless battles over just the names of things — “Affirmative Action” vs. “Reverse Discrimination,” “Pro-Life” vs. “Pro-Choice,” “Undercount” vs. “Vote Fraud,” etc.

These are tense linguistic times. Blame it on Heisenbergian Uncertainty or postmodern relativism or Image Over Substance or the ubiquity of advertising and P.R. or the rise of Identity Politics or whatever you will — we live in an era of terrible preoccupation with presentation and interpretation. In rhetorical terms, certain long-held distinctions between the Ethical Appeal, Logical Appeal (= an argument’s plausibility or soundness), and Pathetic Appeal (= an argument’s emotional impact) have now pretty much collapsed — or rather the different sorts of Appeals now affect and are affected by one another in ways that make it almost impossible to advance an argument on “reason” alone.

Take, for example, the Descriptivism claim that so-called correct English usages such as brought rather than brung and felt rather than feeled are arbitrary and restrictive and unfair and are supported only by custom and are (like irregular verbs in general) archaic and incommodious and an all-around pain in the ass. Let us concede for the moment that these objections are 100 percent reasonable. Then let’s talk about pants. Trousers, slacks. I suggest to you that having the “correct” subthoracic clothing for U.S. males be pants instead of skirts is arbitrary (lots of other cultures let men wear skirts), restrictive and unfair (U.S. females get to wear pants), based solely on archaic custom (I think it’s got something to do with certain traditions about gender and leg position, the same reasons girls’ bikes don’t have a crossbar), and in certain ways not only incommodious but illogical (skirts are more comfortable than pants; pants ride up; pants are hot; pants can squish the genitals and reduce fertility; over time pants chafe and erode irregular sections of men’s leg hair and give older men hideous half-denuded legs, etc. etc.). Let us grant — as a thought experiment if nothing else — that these are all reasonable and compelling objections to pants as an androsartorial norm. Let us in fact in our minds and hearts say yes — shout yes — to the skirt, the kilt, the toga, the sarong, the jupe. Let us dream of or even in our spare time work toward an America where nobody lays any arbitrary sumptuary prescriptions on anyone else and we can all go around as comfortable and aerated and unchafed and unsquished and motile as we want.

And yet the fact remains that, in the broad cultural mainstream of millennial America, men do not wear skirts. If you, the reader, are a U.S. male, and even if you share my personal objections to pants and dream as I do of a cool and genitally unsquishy American Tomorrow, the odds are still 99.9 percent that in 100 percent of public situations you wear pants/slacks/shorts/trunks. More to the point, if you are a U.S. male and also have a U.S. male child, and if that child were to come to you one evening and announce his desire/intention to wear a skirt rather than pants to school the next day, I am 100-percent confident that you are going to discourage him from doing so. Strongly discourage him. You could be a Molotov-tossing anti-pants radical or a kilt manufacturer or Steven Pinker himself — you’re going to stand over your kid and be prescriptive about an arbitrary, archaic, uncomfortable, and inconsequentially decorative piece of clothing. Why? Well, because in modern America any little boy who comes to school in a skirt (even, say, a modest all-season midi) is going to get stared at and shunned and beaten up and called a Total Geekoid by a whole lot of people whose approval and acceptance are important to him.[26] In our culture, in other words, a boy who wears a skirt is Making a Statement that is going to have all kinds of gruesome social and emotional consequences.

A dialect of English is learned and used either because it’s your native vernacular or because it’s the dialect of a Group by which you wish (with some degree of plausibility) to be accepted. And although it is the major and arguably the most important one, SWE is only one dialect. And it is never, or at least hardly ever, anybody’s only dialect. This is because there are — as you and I both know and yet no one in the Usage Wars ever seems to mention — situations in which faultlessly correct SWE is clearly not the appropriate dialect.

Childhood is full of such situations. This is one reason why SNOOTlets tend to have a very hard social time of it in school. A SNOOTlet is a little kid who’s wildly, precociously fluent in SWE (he is often, recall, the offspring of SNOOTs). Just about every class has a SNOOTlet, so I know you’ve seen them — these are the sorts of six- to twelve-year-olds who use whom correctly and whose response to striking out in T-ball is to cry out “How incalculably dreadful!” etc. The elementary-school SNOOTlet is one of the earliest identifiable species of academic Geekoid and is duly despised by his peers and praised by his teachers. These teachers usually don’t see the incredible amounts of punishment the SNOOTlet is receiving from his classmates, or if they do see it they blame the classmates and shake their heads sadly at the vicious and arbitrary cruelty of which children are capable.

But the other children’s punishment of the SNOOTIet is not arbitrary at all. There are important things at stake. Little kids in school are learning about Group-inclusion and -exclusion and about the respective rewards and penalties of same and about the use of dialect and syntax and slang as signals of affinity and inclusion. [35] They’re learning about Discourse Communities. Kids learn this stuff not in English or Social Studies but on the playground and at lunch and on the bus. When his peers are giving the SNOOTlet monstrous quadruple Wedgies or holding him down and taking turns spitting on him, there’s serious learning going on … for everyone except the little SNOOT, who in fact is being punished for precisely his failure to learn. What neither he nor his teacher realizes is that the SNOOTlet is deficient in Language Arts. He has only one dialect. He cannot alter his vocabulary, usage, or grammar, cannot use slang or vulgarity; and it’s these abilities that are really required for “peer rapport,” which is just a fancy Elementary-Ed term for being accepted by the most important Group in the little kid’s life.

This reviewer acknowledges that there seems to be some, umm, personal stuff getting dredged up and worked out here;[36] but the stuff is relevant. The point is that the little A+ SNOOTlet is actually in the same dialectal position as the class’s “slow” kid who can’t learn to stop using ain’t or bringed. One is punished in class, the other on the playground, but both are deficient in the same linguistic skill — viz., the ability to move between various dialects and levels of “correctness,” the ability to communicate one way with peers and another way with teachers and another with family and another with Little League coaches and so on. Most of these dialectal adjustments are made below the level of conscious awareness, and our ability to make them seems part psychological and part something else — perhaps something hardwired into the same motherboard as Universal Grammar — and in truth this ability is a far better indicator of a kid’s “Verbal I.Q.” than test scores or grades, since U.S. English classes do far more to retard dialectal talent than to cultivate it.


Three Farmers: an obsession

(perhaps mostly for my own eventual rediscovery)

I’ve often had the experience that the first thing I read of a morning colors the day, setting in train what turns out to be a series of interlinked thoughts and explorations. Occasionally I’ve managed to catch the wave of that sequence and capture it to paper (or computer text), but more often stuff happens and I lose the train of associations. Or something shinier heaves into view and I’m diverted down some other path. This morning’s first read was a longish passage from Richard Powers’ Three Farmers On Their Way To A Dance (1985/1987), which I’m rereading in the wake of Powers’ marvelous Orfeo.

First a bit of background. I’m sure that I first noticed Three Farmers (which I bought and first read in 1987) because of its cover illustration

–a photograph I’ve known and been influenced (or is it haunted?) by for 50-odd years. It’s by the German photographer August Sander, one of a dozen or so most influential in my own history of photographic aesthetic development (others: Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Paul Caponigro, Lartigue, Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï… another whole clutch of possible posts). Here’s the image in more or less its original form:

Sander’s photograph has the added poignancy of being taken in 1914, so it’s easy to see (obvious to our modern sensibilities) that the “dance” they’re on the way to is WW I. And that’s how the novel begins, with the narrator discovering the photograph in a Detroit museum. And here’s how Powers himself describes how the novel began for him, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts:

In the early eighties, I was living in the Fens in Boston right behind the Museum of Fine Arts. If you got there before noon on Saturdays, you could get into the museum for nothing. One weekend, they were having this exhibition of a German photographer I’d never heard of, who was August Sander. It was the first American retrospective of his work. I have a visceral memory of coming in the doorway, banking to the left, turning up, and seeing the first picture there. It was called Young Westerwald Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, 1914. I had this palpable sense of recognition, this feeling that I was walking into their gaze, and they’d been waiting seventy years for someone to return the gaze. I went up to the photograph and read the caption and had this instant realization that not only were they not on the way to the dance, but that somehow I had been reading about this moment for the last year and a half. Everything I read seemed to converge onto this act of looking, this birth of the twentieth century–the age of total war, the age of the apotheosis of the machine, the age of mechanical reproduction. That was a Saturday. On Monday I went in to my job and gave two weeks notice and started working on Three Farmers. (from Paris Review interview)

…and for a real shot of versimilitude, you can hear Powers tell the story himself via a Language Log post.

Anyway, what I read (and then re-read several times) this morning was seven extraordinarily densely-packed pages (pp 260-267), in the middle of a novel that follows at least three braiding strands of narrative, includes biographical excursions (Henry Ford, Sarah Bernhardt) and WW I detalia, visits multiple landscapes (Detroit, Boston, Maastricht…), and still finds room to include a chapter on the philosophy of photography and Sander’s glorious photographic quest/project, Man of the Twentieth Century.

The challenge before me now is to somehow extract just what it was that electrified me about those pages, and it’s almost as if I need to invent a new way to write, so as to represent the kaleidoscope of neuronal firings that ensued as I read. A series of extracts might do to begin, but they won’t hold still on the virtual page –each calls for a pop-up or callout (or more likely several) linking outward to other material. And Powers’ prose does that quite a lot, making it a bit difficult to read in straight lines. So I transcribe parts of the text that seem especially portentious, in the hope that I’ll eventually be able to assimilate their message/s:

Biographies ask the question “How do the details of this particular life demonstrate the spirit of its times?” Making the life conform to the times sometimes involves editing the first, sometimes reinterpreting the second. In both cases, biography always involves much footwork to keep the biographer’s footwork hidden… (pg 260)

All lives are messy aggregates: [Henry] Ford the farmer, Ford the illiterate, Ford the mechanical genius, the progressive, the reactionary, the anti-Semite, the philanthropist. Modern times are, by definition, a few billion times messier. Linking one aggregate to the other requires a good dose of editing, and thereby temperament. (pg 261)

The paradox of the self-attacking observer is this century’s hallmark. Psychologists now know there is no test so subtle that it won’t alter the tested behavior. Economic tracts suggest that Model A would be inviolably true if enough people realized its inviolability. Political polls create the outcome they predict. Even in the objective sciences, physicists, in describing the very small, have had to conclude that they can’t talk about a closed box, but that opening the box invariably disturbs its contents.

These are the recognizable bywords and clichées of our times. Casual talk abounds with the knowledge that there is no understanding a system without interfering with it… “All observations are a product of their own times. Even this one.” [cf Gartner Hype Cycle, for an über-current example]

This recursion is critical, not because it places a limit on knowing, but because it shows the impossibility of knowing where knowledge leaves off and involvement begins… (pp 261-262)

With every action, we write our own biographies. I make each decision not just for its own sake but also to suggest to myself and others just what choices a fellow like me is likely to make. And when I look back on all my past decisions and experiences, I constantly attempt to form them into some biographical whole, inventing for myself a theme and a continuity. The continuity I invent in turn influences my new decisions, and each new action rearranges the old continuity. Creating oneself and explaining oneself proceed side by side, inseparably. Temperament is the act of commenting on itself. (pp 262-263)

Each discrete life examines and explains everything it touches in a constant exchange of mutual defining and reshaping. By living, we become our times’ biographer. (pg. 263)

Although we cannot hope to pin down a view of our subject undisturbed by our observation, we can test if we have reached an optimal fit between the two.

One such test is unsponsored recognition. Each day as I sift through my many new experiences, I find a few that I recognize without having any memory or experience of them. I do not mean mystical déja vu; I mean the practical moment artists call epiphany and scientists call the instant of aha.

At this moment of recognition I temporarily stop taking part in the thing at hand and jump a level in the hierarchy of awareness, no longer looking at the object from my vantage point, but at myself from the vantage point of the object. This shift of awareness away from the looked-at to the act of looking creates the illusion of familiarity, since this moment of standing outside the observed system is common to all other such moments.

…What I am experiencing is neither precognition nor submersion in mystical vision. It is a by-product of the way consciousness is structured, the consequence of our unusual ability to make one level of our terraced awareness double back and appraise another. At the moment when the stuff holding our attention dissolves and gives way to an awareness of awareness itself we recognize a community with all the other similar moments we have gone through –a concord, or close fit, between hypothesis and measured result.

…By slightly changing our angle of observation, a copse of seemingly random trees reveals itself as an orchard. This specific angle of observation, then, has an independent validity, revealing an order not of the viewer’s making. Such a surprise visit of the orchard effect is always pleasurable –filled with the delight of recognition, a sense of the community of all explorers who also touch base at this common spot.

I continually write my own biography by my actions, mixing involvement with knowledge, accountable to those moments when both drop away to reveal the act of mixing –something a priori recognizable. This process does not differ measurably from the way I come to understand others, my time, or past times. Memory, then, is not only a backward retrieval of a vanished event, but also a posting forward, at the remembered instant, to all future moments of corresponding circumstance.

We remember forward; we telegraph ourselves to our future selves and to others: “Rescue this; recognize this, or not this, but the recognizing.” If we constantly reform the continuity of our past with each new experience, then each message posted out of an obscure or as yet unexperienced past represents a challenge to re-form the future. No action unchanged by observation. No observation without incriminating action. Every moment of unsponsored recognition calls me to return to the uninspired world, to continue the daily routine of invention and observation, to dirty my hands in whatever work my hands can do. (pp 264-266)

To compound the instant of aha, I rounded the corner smack into the three farmers, more familiar to me than my own parents, though I knew beyond doubt that I had never seen them or their photo before. For the next several months I would be obsessed with finding the exact message the image meant to send me, mistakenly looking for it in names, dates, and places.

I had to learn that that none of that had any real importance, did not in fact exist without active interference from me. The black-and-white print was less a document for archiving than it was a call to action… (pp 266-267)

Here are some links to other takes on the book:

Wikipedia on Three Farmers

Richard Powers’ own website

Minnesota Review interview (2001) with Richard Powers

summary from A Modest Construct

Signal or Noise? Information Theory and the Novel (John Gunders –the last half discusses Three Farmers)

…each of the three story lines cycles in a predictable order: Chapters One, Four, Seven, etc. follow the story of the extradiegetic narrator; chapters Two, Five, Eight, etc., the three farmers, and so on. Selectively reading every third chapter produces a coherent narrative that largely stands on its own. The relationship between the three threads in the novel is a tension that holds the narratives in position. Each is completely explicable on its own, yet the additional meaning provided by the parallel threads at once enriches and problematises the meaning of the threads. None of the threads in the novel can be considered as more important than any other, whether contemporary or historical, extradiegetic or essayistic, and while the events in the contemporary thread are subsequent to those in the historical thread, their importance belies the subordination implied by the term ‘subsequent.’ It is this idea that I call temporal flattening. While the fabula of one thread is located some seventy years in the past, its sjuzet is indistinguishable from the contemporary threads, in either style or diction…

Orfeo continued

It was only two days ago Son John sent me a link to Laura Miller’s Salon review of Richard Powers’ Orfeo: A Novel and, intrigued, I got the book via Kindle. Been reading it ever since, underlining passages and even copying a few of them out. The first that got that treatment:

…people take up all kinds of hobbies in retirement. They visit the birthplaces of Civil War generals. They practice the euphonium. They learn tai chi or collect Petoskey stones or photograph rock formations in the shape of human faces… (Orfeo, page 2 or so)

Uh huh, I thought. Guilty. And it’s gone on like that, until I’m now 2/3 of the way through the book.

Again and again during this immersive reading I’ve found myself resorting to Google and other tools to elucidate some point, and I just found myself using Spotify to listen to Steve Reich’s Proverb, a realization of a Wittgenstein fragment

How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life

No surprise that YouTube has it too:

(and commentator Roger Brunyate sez: “Do read (preferably while simultaneously listening) Richard Powers’ sublime description of this piece on pages 245–254 of his new novel ORFEO…”)

Well. Just goes to show, if it needed reiteration, how amazingly interwoven (Ted Nelson would say ‘intertwingled’) stuff is. I do wish that it was easier to snag bits of text from the iPad version of Kindle, to free them from the silo, because there are many others I’m inclined to stick into my Commonplace books.

Today’s reading

I’ve been reading Richard Powers’ Orfeo: A Novel and giddily highlighting bits of Kindle text as I came to things that poked and niggled and amused. Lately I’ve been thinking about reading as an activity, a passion, a compulsion, a means to assemble the significant; all in the context of a passage through Ted Nelson’s autobiography Possiplex (on which I made lots of notes as I read, and over which I continue to puzzle). Here’s a wonderful description of a reader’s experience:

…after some paragraphs, a clause swerved and slid him sideways into a drift, a soft passage several pages on, in the middle of the right-hand page, a sense-rich description of a man and woman walking down a street in Boston on a July night, reprised, in misty da capo, again yet once more, his eyes making their closed circuit, hitting the right margin’s guardrail, looping back around and trying the line again, tracking along the circuit of text, slowing then slipping down the stripped cogway of slick subordinate clauses, retrying the sequence until his dimming sight and again found traction –the man, the woman, a moment of regretful truth along the esplanade– before snagging and starting the fuzzy looping climb all over again. (Powers Orfeo pg 54)

Perhaps it’s not irrelevant that I’m also reading Swann’s Way

Yesterday’s reading

Yesterday I encountered 4 texts that are still rubbing against one another in my mind (a recurring situation, though not all instances produce pearls), and it seems worthwhile to try to capture the thoughts provoked.

First was a review by Richard Wilk of Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, from American Anthropologist and sent by my friend Ron Nigh. Anthropologists generally grumble and sneer at Diamond’s methods and popularity, but Wilk’s review goes beyond the grumpiness and works over some of the implications of 40-odd years of changes in anthropology’s world view. Worth quoting at length to set the scene:

The World until Yesterday would have made a perfect textbook for the first introductory anthropology class I ever taught at Pima Community College in 1977… My tone in lectures was just like Diamond’s, showing a liberal appreciation for diversity, tinged with nostalgia and a sense of loss. This seemed like a respectful attitude toward people whose singularity was rapidly being gobbled up by a monolithic ” Western culture. ” We were comfortable with treating “traditional” peoples as timeless, immune from current events, so things they did 50 or 100 years ago could be recounted in the present tense…

The success of The World until Yesterday shows us that even though many anthropologists have left it behind, the traditional past continues to have power as a stance for a critique the present. The vast distance between the West and “the rest” allows our audience to accept a gentle moral critique of modernity in an unthreatening way. After all, traditional people are fading away and becoming more like “us” as they adopt cash economies, learn to speak national languages, drink, and perhaps snort coke…
In anthropology, we are now used to seeing culture change as a contingent, political, and negotiable process, in which local people and communities must face and engage with bureaucrats, NGOs, large multinational corporations, distant markets, tourists, and conservationists. Diamond never mentions the mining companies that are ravaging parts of Melanesia, or illegal logging, corrupt politicians, and land theft. Nor does he perceive any conflict between conservationists and local people…

…I am sure Diamond will interpret anthropologists’ complaints about his work as political correctness, antiscience sentiment, or professional jealousy. That is much easier than recognizing that he has based his narrative on an analytical scheme that has been rejected; this work is like using phlogiston to explain what is happening in a particle accelerator.

The culmination of Diamond’ s imaginative generalizations about the traditional world is his lessons learned, a sequence of recommendations for how “we moderns” should treat our elders better, eat a more natural diet, learn more languages, and heal the violence of crime. These mild liberal recommendations are mostly aimed at individuals—there is no plan here for political or collective action, no hint of how we might challenge the power of corporations to determine what we can eat, or address the fundamental inequalities that feed crime and conflict. His plan is not going to change anything; it will only reinforce the fundamental National Geographic worldview of his liberal readers. Diamond’s book should, however, get anthropologists thinking about how we present our work to the world, both as writers and as teachers. I still teach introductory anthropology and find that the vast majority of textbooks are still structured like Diamond’s book, as an evolutionary progression, with “traditional” exotic ethnographic cases used to illustrate types of societies. We do not seem to have any master narrative that can displace the story of modernization, a morality play that has lost its radical potential. Do we pander to the crowd and tell stories that emphasize compassion and empathy while confirming fundamental prejudice in the search for a mass audience in the United States? Or do we have a story that can challenge Diamond’s analytical complacency?

For me the takeaway involves thinking about my own approaches to teaching Intro Anthro back in the days when I used to teach the course, and considering how I’d approach the task now. I abhorred the textbooks that publishers flogged and used my own handout materials instead, and assigned readings that were tangential (hell, orthogonal) to ‘straight’ anthropology –one year I had the students read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar as stimulus material, but in retrospect I wasn’t able to carry that off successfully (good idea, though). I wanted my Intro students to engage with how the world was changing, and how people everywhere were being messed with. I can’t really claim that I offered a consistent radical critique (like, I wasn’t trying to be a Marxist) or even that I had a coherent vision of what I wanted them to emerge from the course thinking –I mostly just wanted them to be more interested in what was going on around them.

So I wrote back to my friend Ron thusly:

Perhaps it’s just because it’s early Monday and I have the Diamond review rattling around in my mind, but I just encountered a video that seems at the moment to speak to the Problem of how to communicate anthropology to current audiences. A few hours from now it’ll seem silly to make such a suggestion, but for the moment…

Forget for a moment that you don’t (probably) know the backstory, like who Janelle Monae is, or other versions of the song (you can see the lyrics via ). Listen to it, note that the black lady in the sequin dress is Janelle herself, and note that this is taking place at an Industry event (Billboard Women in Music 2013), and read a bunch of the comments. Here you have it in microcosm: the t-t-t-tightrope is the path each person has to tread and negotiate,

Like the Dow Jones and Nasdaq
Sorta like a thong in an ass crack

aw hell, now watch

Compare and contrast. It’s All There. The Postmodern Condition: I gotta keep my balance.

Probably just as well that I’m retired.

Anyway, a bit later in the day I started reading Ted Nelson’s autobiography Possiplex, as wild and wooly a carnival ride as one can find these days, and ran across this snippet:

Profuse connection is the whole problem of abstraction, perception and thought. Profuse connection is the whole problem of expression, of saying anything. It is the problem of writing. It is the problem of seeing– we see and imagine so much more than we can express. Trying to communicate ideas requires selection from this vast, ever-expanding net. Writing on paper is a hopeless reduction, as it means throwing out most of the connections, telling the reader only the smallest part in one particular sequence. (pg 36)

I don’t really agree with Nelson’s ‘hopeless reduction’ take on writing, though I surely feel the tug of all the unsaid might-have-been links. Writing can invite readers to consider what they might not have thought of themselves, and provide launchpads to their own essays in ‘profuse connection’. Sometimes what you can offer to readers is a more expansive view of familiar territory, just by exploring and enlarging a word or phrase.

So I started thinking about candidates for words that might serve as centerpieces for an Intro Anthro course in 2014, terms to encourage ‘profuse connection’ applicable to multiple situations, and help to build a “story that can challenge Diamond’s analytical complacency”. Many words from Raymond Williams’ Keywords would make good candidates: Alienation, Civilization, Class, Community, Modern… the idea is not to define the terms, but to explicate their multiple meanings and senses and history of use, to see how they might broaden the questions we ask of the world around us. But we really want something that speaks to Wilk’s imperative for “seeing culture change as a contingent, political, and negotiable process” in which people everywhere are enmeshed. The example that came to me is Co-op[ta]tion, one important sense of which is “the process by which a group subsumes or assimilates a smaller or weaker group with related interests.” This fate happens to individuals and to groups, and is arguably the most potent instigator of ‘culture change’. Everybody is more or less on the t-t-tightrope at some point in their life; some make a successful passage, and some fall…

That could be an exciting class to teach.

Simultaneously I was finishing John Williams’ Stoner, which is more or less about teaching and academic life. It turns out that the book (originally published in 1965) was named Waterstones Book of the Year in 2013 (“The New Yorker called it “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of” earlier this year…”). Here are a few of the bits I was moved to copy out:

He planned the course during the week before the opening of the autumn semester, and saw the kinds of possibility that one sees as one struggles with the materials and subjects of an endeavor; he felt the logic of grammar, and he thought he perceived how it spread out from itself, permeating the language and supporting human thought. In the simple compositional exercises he made for his students he saw the potentialities of prose and its beauties, and he looked forward to animating his students with the sense of what he perceived… (pg 27)

…for many years, unknown to himself, he had had an image locked somewhere within him like a shamed secret, an image that was ostensibly of a place but which was actually of himself. So it was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked in his study. (pg 100)

…in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter. (pg 179)

It hardly mattered to him that [his] book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of his that he could not deny was there, and would be there. (pg 277)

Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers. (pg 3)

The fourth text in yesterday’s interconnected reading binge is Evgeny Morozov’s Making It, from last week’s New Yorker, which deals with hackers and makers, both terms that deserve the sort of historically-informed explication alluded to above.

When, in November, [Stewart] Brand was asked who carries the flag of counterculture today, he pointed to the maker movement. The makers, Brand said, “take whatever we’re not supposed to take the back off, rip the back off and get our fingers in there and mess around. That’s the old impulse of basically defying authority and of doing it your own way.” Makers, in other words, are the new hackers. (pg 71)

Morozov covers a lot of territory in a few pages and knits in a broad range of thinkers and doers, including Mary Dennett, Buckminster Fuller, Kevin Kelly, Murray Bookchin, Lee Felsenstein, Steve Jobs.

Then there are the temptations facing the movement. Two years ago, DARPA –the research arm of the Department of Defense– announced a ten million dollar grant to promote the maker movement among high-school students. DARPA also gave three and a half million dollars to TechShop to establish new makerspaces that could help the agency with its “innovation agenda.” As a senior DARPA official told Bloomberg BusinessWeek, “We are pretty in tune with the maker movement. We want to reach out to a much broader section of society, a much broader collection of brains.” (pg 73)

(Can you say ‘co-opt[at]ion’?)

Seeking salvation through tools alone is no more viable as a political strategy than addressing the ills of capitalism by cultivating a public appreciation of arts and crafts. Society is always in flux, and the designer can’t predict how various political, social, and economic systems will come to blunt, augment, or redirect the power of the tool that is being designed. (pg 74)

It was quite a day.