Recommended Reading, Late 2013–May 2014


Kara Walker

Around this time last year I posted a number of articles, essays, and interviews that I had enjoyed reading. Here is an equivalent list for 2014. Once again, the selection is of pieces I was able to save to Instapaper, and does not include things I read in print. These are listed in the order in which I read them; a quote accompanies each link.

Nick Faust, “Get Off,” The New Inquiry. “Artists are giving themselves over and opening themselves up to those things that stick out, that linger, that give pause, that provide both evident visible pleasure and inwardly-kept satisfaction, that they can’t get out of their head, that horrify them but they come back to, that humiliate and punish, that build and nurture, that annoy and tease, that they find themselves needing more and more of.”

Arthur Krystal, “The Missing Music in Today’s Poetry,” Chronicle of Higher Education. “Simply put: I miss what I used to enjoy. I miss the poetry I used to hear in my head after reading it on the page. I miss the sound it used to make. Very little of what I read now seems truly memorable in the sense that it lends itself to memorization.”

Thessaly La Force, “A Teacher and Her Student: Marilynne Robinson On Staying Out of Trouble,” Vice.  Robinson: “Consider this incredibly brief, incredibly strange experience that we have as this hypersensitive creature on a tiny planet in the middle of somewhere that looks a lot like nowhere. It’s assigning an appropriate value to the uniqueness of our situation and every individual situation [that is the mind’s role].”

Pico Iyer, “Hyderabad in Five Colors,” New York Review of Books online. “Now India is drawing from some of the global order’s latest fads, but only by superimposing them upon what still, poignantly, remains one of the most uncared-for and impoverished populations on earth.”

Mike Sperlinger, “Two Slight Returns: Chauncey Hare and Marianne Wex,” Afterall online. “In their choices, the vicissitudes of their reputations, and the political valencies of their work, there are parallels which suggest how vocations can unhinge careers, and how giving oneself over entirely to the work might mean abandoning it altogether.”

Jacob Mikanowski, “Papyralysis,” Los Angeles Review of Books. “The very fact that books are frail physical objects is part of what makes them endearing. They’re like us. We don’t live in a realm of pure thought, and neither do they.”

Brian Droitcour, “Splay Attention,” The New Inquiry. “For me, ten seconds can feel like an excruciatingly long time to look at a painting or a photograph. If I’m writing about a work, maybe I’ll suppress my impatience and give it a full sixty seconds. Looking at an image for fifteen minutes—even five!—is hard to fathom.”

Zadie Smith, “Man Vs. Corpse,” New York Review of Books. “I stared at this drawing, attempting a thought experiment, failing. Then I picked up a pen and wrote, in the margins of the page, most of what you have read up to this point. A simple experiment—more of a challenge, really. I tried to identify with the corpse.”

Suzanne Hudson, “Last Call,” “This trip to Venice was something else. My curiosity about what happened after the official story ended got the best of me.”

Mark Slouka, “Nobody’s Son,” The New Yorker online. “I lost my father this past year, and the word feels right because I keep looking for him. As if he were misplaced. As if he could just turn up, like a sock or a set of keys.”

Andrew O’Hagan, “Ghosting,” London Review of Books. “The left-wingers I have known are always full of questions, but Assange, from the first, seemed like a manifestation of the hyperventilating chatroom. It became clear: if I was to be the ghost, it might turn out that I was the least ghostly person in the enterprise.”

Rebecca Solnit, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” The New Yorker online. “Public space, urban space, which serves at other times the purposes of the citizen, the member of society establishing contact with other members, is here the space in which to disappear from the bonds and binds of individual identity. Woolf is celebrating getting lost.”

Leslie Jamison, “Which Creates Better Writers: An MFA Program or New York City?” The New Republic. “I think the volume asks quite a bit more: Not so much whether writers can be taught but what it means that they are getting taught, and what it means that we keep asking this question about the legitimacy of the discipline; what our anxieties about the institutionalization of writing might teach us. The volume asks who pays the bills, and how; and also how these flows of money—the pressures they generate and the institutional affiliations they produce—affect the work itself.” [N.B.: Jamison also just published an essay collection titled The Empathy Exams, one of the best books I’ve read this year.]

Haley Mlotek, “Tracing Ana,” The New Inquiry. “There was no label large enough for all the art that Mendieta made. That is, until she died, and there was one label for what she was: gone.”

Hilton Als, “The Sugar Sphinx,” The New Yorker online. “The diary [Kara] Walker keeps is not explicitly personal; it’s a historical ledger filled with one-line descriptions about all those bodies and psyches that were bought and sold from the seventeenth century on, when slavery became the American way of life and its maiming shadows pressed down on black and white souls alike.”

Ruth Margalit, “The Unmothered,” The New Yorker online. “I had a mother, and now I don’t. This is not a characteristic one can affix, like being paperless, or odorless. The emphasis should be on absence.”

Where’s the Rage? Kamila Shamsie and Pankaj Mishra In Conversation,” Guernica. Mishra: “It’s then that you begin to suspect that the asymmetries of power that have shaped relations between the West and the rest of the world also exist in the realm of literary criticism.”

Nick Thorpe, “Why We Should Love Material Things More,” Aeon. “If Western consumer culture sometimes resembles a bulimic binge in which we taste and then spew back things that never quite nourish us, the ascetic, anorexic alternative of rejecting materialism altogether will leave us equally starved. Who, then, can teach me how to celebrate my possessions with the mindful, celebratory spirit of a gourmet?”

Recommended Reading, January–June 2013

101 Spring Street. Photo: Josh White.

101 Spring Street. Photo: Josh White.

Near the beginning of the year I began saving articles, essays, and interviews that I liked to a folder in Instapaper. Here is a selection of my favorites, in the order in which I came across them. Bear in mind that this does not include anything I read in print, or many things I read online; the article had to go into Instapaper first before it could be logged in my “favorites” folder. Nevertheless, get your preferred read-it-later bookmarklet or printer ready.

Wells Tower, “The Old Man at Burning Man,” GQ. The magazine’s description: “It’s something we’ve all been meaning to do. The father-son bonding adventure. You know: the big fishing excursion, the road trip down Route 66. Last year, Wells Tower took a completely different approach with his dad: Burning Man, the world’s largest chemically enhanced self-expression festival. They went to witness the Slut Olympics. They went to see the art. They went to discover what draws 60,000 people to one of the least hospitable places on Earth. Then they set up camp and took off their clothes. And things got truly interesting.”

Michelle Kuo and Albert Wu, “Imperfect Strollers, Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, W.G. Sebald, and the Alienated Cosmopolitan,” Los Angeles Review of Books. From the essay: “Two recent debut novels, Teju Cole’s Open City and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, question such optimism in the transformative potential of the flâneur’s wandering gaze.”

Jhumpa Lahiri, “Notes from a Literary Apprenticeship,” the New Yorker. From the essay: “My love of writing led me to theft at an early age. The diamonds in the museum, what I schemed and broke the rules to obtain, were the blank notebooks in my teacher’s supply cabinet, stacked in neat rows, distributed for us to write out sentences or practice math.”

Ariel Dorfman, “My Lost Library: Books, Exile, and Identity,” Chronicle of Higher Education. From the essay: “The initial, customary words (“Ariel? Tengo malas noticias. I’ve got bad news.”), were followed by a surprise. The victim was not a human being. It was my library.”

Brian Blickenstaff, “The Saga of Tomsan,” Slate. On how an American journeyman revolutionized Japanese soccer—and why it isn’t happening in the U.S.

George Scialabba, “Progress and Prejudice,” Salmagundi. From the essay: “I, at least, am the lucky beneficiary of two or three centuries of progress. And since the carbon footprint of classical music, great novels, independent film, and most of my other chief pleasures is fairly low, it seems like sustainable, universalizable progress. Do I embody moral progress as well? That’s a harder case to make, but not impossible.”

George Packer, “Upgrade or Die,” the New Yorker online. Are perfectionism and inequality linked?

Rob Horning, “Google Alert for the Soul,” The New Inquiry. From the essay: “Earlier notions of authenticity were premised on a unique interior self that consumerism would help us express, but social media have made that untenable. In response, authenticity is shifting, describing not fidelity to an inner truth about the self but fidelity to the self posited by the synthesis of data captured in social media—what I here call the data self.”

Benjamin Kunkel, “Aftermath and Prelude,” n+1 online. From the essay: “I didn’t expatriate myself for political reasons. But a part of my reluctance to come back to live in the US, as I did in December, was political estrangement from this country, something easier for me to deal with when I’m abroad.”

Joshua Rothman, “The Impossible Decision,” the New Yorker online. On whether or not to go to graduate school.

Greg Allen, “101 Spring Street by Donald Judd (and ARO Architects),” Architect. Changing nothing about Donald Judd’s original vision for his cast-iron building home and studio made for an unprecedented restoration project for ARO.

Richard Nash, “What Is the Business of Literature?,” Virginia Quarterly Review. As technology disrupts the business model of traditional publishers, the industry must imagine new ways of capturing the value of a book.

Justin Erik Halldór Smith, “Interpreting Tino Sehgal,” From the essay: “What generally happens is a sort of split between two possible approaches among the interpreters. One is to riff, to recount impressions of whatever the quotation might induce one to think (or even to feel). The other is to try, within the constraints imposed by the work, to be as scholarly as possible and to get at what the author might in fact have meant. I belong squarely in the latter camp.”

Adam Kirsch, “Rocket and Lightship,” Poetry. Billed as meditations on life and letters.

Sandra Allen, “In Patagonia in Patagonia,” the Paris Review Daily. From the essay: “By the time I’d finished Shakespeare’s introduction to the Chatwin, I felt convinced I’d never needed a book as badly as I needed In Patagonia in Patagonia.”

Ian Crouch, “The Curse of Reading and Forgetting,” the New Yorker online. From the essay: “Looking at my bookshelves, I am aware of another kind of forgetting—the spines look familiar; the names and titles bring to mind perhaps a character name, a turn of plot, often just a mood or feeling—but for the most part, the assembled books, and the hundreds of others that I’ve read and discarded, given away, or returned to libraries, represent a vast catalogue of forgetting.”

Laura Owens, “‘It’s Spelled Motherfuckers.’—An Interview with Rachel Kushner,” the Believer Logger. Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers is one of the best books I’ve read this year. And her publicist deserves a raise for Kushner’s omnipresence in media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic.

Christy Wampole, “The Essayification of Everything,” the New York Times. From the essay: “I would advocate a conscious and more reflective deployment of the essay’s spirit in all aspects of life as a resistance against the zealous closed-endedness of the rigid mind. I’ll call this deployment ‘the essayification of everything.'”

John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Mr. Lytle: An Essay,” the Paris Review. The first line: “When I was twenty years old, I became a kind of apprentice to a man named Andrew Lytle, whom pretty much no one apart from his negligibly less ancient sister, Polly, had addressed except as Mister Lytle in at least a decade.”

Joanna Kakassis, “Austerity Lentils,” Foreign Policy. (Link may require you printing the article or logging in to the website to read it.) Subtitle: “What a country cooks when it’s collapsing.” That country: Greece.

James Fenton, “What Are We Going to Do About the New Philip Larkin?,” the Threepenny Review. From the essay: “In the story of Larkin’s estate we find examples of both radical tidying up and extensive preservation.”

Michael Sanchez, “2011: Art and Transmission,” Artforum. From the essay: “Art is no longer discovered in biennials and fairs and magazines, but on the phone.”

An Update

Lisa Oppenheim, Passage of the moon over two hours, Arcachon, France, ca. 1870s/2012, April 11, 2012.

Among other things, my new job at Aperture Foundation involves overseeing what is published on In that capacity I have had the chance in recent months to interview artists, curators, and photojournalists and to commission essays and reviews of books and exhibitions. You can see all of it by pointing your browser to Here is a round-up of some of those pieces.

In March, I commissioned my friend Rob Giampietro to discuss the legacy of ECM Records, a jazz label based in Munich whose aesthetic rigors he appreciates in this fine essay.

In April, I interviewed Greg Allen about his curatorial effort “Exhibition Space,” which was on view this spring at apexart in New York. We discussed the role of photography in the Cold War space race, and in particular NASA’s Project Echo.

In May, I spoke with artist Sara VanDerBeek about her new exhibition at Metro Pictures in New York. I’ve followed Sara’s work since the beginning of her career, and wrote about her for Aperture in 2011. I also commissioned photographer Barney Kulok, who recently published a book on Louis I. Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park, to review a new book about Le Corbusier’s relationship with photography. He turned in a much broader, more ambitious essay on the relationship between buildings and pictures that I was proud to publish. I also talked to photojournalist Michael Kamber, who was the New York Times’s principle photographer in Baghdad from 2003 to 2012. He had just published a new anthology of interviews with combat photojournalists called Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq. I also chatted with photographer Anne Hardy about her exhibition at Maureen Paley in London, where she exhibited, for the first time, standalone sculptures not used in the creation of her photographs. Lastly, in the just-published Summer 2013 issue of Aperture (#211), I introduced a portfolio of photographs by Lisa Oppenheim, whose work I’ve long admired.

This month, I spoke with an old friend, artist Tony Feher, about the newest iteration of his twenty-five-year survey exhibition, and about the process of looking back on more than two decades of artmaking and life. An edited version of our conversation was published on

“We Don’t Go ‘Gazing’ At Art”

Although Ingrid Rowland’s thoughtfully critical review of Hans Belting’s Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science is not available in full online, it contains a small disquisition on a topic of interest to theorists of and writers on contemporary art. The relevant excerpt:

Belting’s arguments suffer particular damage in English translation because they hinge so directly on the word almost always rendered as “gaze.” In academic English for the past three decades or so, “gaze” has conjured up a whole series of associations that originate with Jacques Lacan and his ideas about the way that sight shapes thought (or “scopic regimes,” which sounds only slightly less outré in French than it does in English). To our collective misfortune, “gaze” and “the gaze” entered the Anglophone vocabulary through a translator’s effort to find the right English word to match Lacan’s “regard.” But “gaze” is not that word. Lacan’s regard meant an incisive look that has nothing whatsoever to do with gazing. “Gaze,” like “berserk,” is one of the marvelous Scandinavian contributions to the English vocabulary for mental derangement. It means an unfocused, mindless kind of looking, the kind of stupefied contemplation that brings to mind operative lovers doting on miniature portraits of the beloved, the rapt stare that Narcissus showered upon his own reflection, and stargazers turned upward obsessively to the heavens in the minds of their unappreciative contemporaries. A gaze is, indeed, the exact opposite of a pointed and precise regard, or an equally pointed and precise German Blick. Translators of Chinese and japanese have usually used the word “view” for this kind of intelligent looking—a much more appropriate description of the activity at hand, as our own English usage proves: we say “point of view” and “viewer,” rather than “point of gaze” and “gazer,” because gazing never focuses on a point, and we don’t go “gazing” at art, or “gazing for” someone, we go “looking.” Tellingly, Belting drops the misleading term for his own discussion of Al-Hazen’s optics and speaks of “seeing” and “glancing.”

By now, however, one translator’s unhappy choice in rending Lacan has become the byword for two generations of English-speaking scholars who would classify themselves as “critical” and “theoretical” while accepting, uncritically and with utter lack of theoretical sophistication, a grossly misleading term for one of their fundamental concepts.

For the rest of Rowland’s review, see the December 29 issue of The New Republic.

Bright Colors in the News

Police shoot water cannons as Jammu Kashmir state government employees shout anti government slogans during a protest outside the civil secretariat in Srinagar, India, May, 5, 2008. (Dar Yasin/AP)

The use of bright colors has entered the news in two unexpected ways this week. On Friday, Time’s Lightbox blog reported on the use of pink dye in the water cannons the government uses to fight political protesters in Uganda. The report included a stunning-looking—if dispiriting to think about—slide show demonstrating how the dyes, in a rainbow of colors, have been used elsewhere in recent decades. Today’s New York Times includes a story about the riotous colors—a “scourge” of tastelessness, according to some—used in the rebuilding of Baghdad. A slideshow accompanies the report.

Albert C. Barnes Before His Gallery

Earlier this week I read Nathaniel Peffer’s New Schools for Older Students (1926), part of a series of books about adult education in the United States produced for the Carnegie Corporation. Other titles in the series, published from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, address the university extension movement, chautauquas and lyceums, correspondence schools, and public libraries. New Schools for Older Students fills in the interstitial spaces of the picture, bringing together a miscellaneous sampling of institutions and endeavors that fostered learning for its own sake—what Peffer calls “cultural education.”

Each of the report’s seven sections encompasses a type of adult-education effort, with individual examples; the fifth focuses on “Corporation Educational Programs.” Peffer discusses courses conducted by the American Institute of Banking, the Standard Oil Company, and Westinghouse Electric, the latter of which enrolled roughly 5,000 of its employees in East Pittsburgh. The offerings of these companies are relatively straightforward, in that they mostly focus upon teaching employees skills they can use to get ahead in their careers at the company. Such initiatives conform to what historian Lizabeth Cohen has called “welfare capitalist” policies, which sought, in the wake of labor unrest and shop-floor organizing during the 1910s, to redirect incipient working-class solidarity into an attachment to the company.

Albert C. Barnes

Albert C. Barnes

“One unique venture should be noticed,” Peffer continues, “not because it has a general application to this field but because it is an interesting example of what may be done under special conditions. The Barnes Foundation of Philadelphia is the educational outgrowth of the A.C. Barnes Company, manufacturing chemists., but it is primarily the product of a unique personality…” So begins his introduction to an aspect of Albert C. Barnes’s educational efforts of which I was previously unaware. There is, of course, the famous art gallery Barnes set up in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, home (for a little while longer, at least) to his spectacular, idiosyncratic—and idiosyncratically presented—collection of artworks, many of them modernist masterpieces. But even while he was amassing this amazing ensemble of paintings, sculptures, and other objects, Barnes was working (with John Dewey and others) to provide educational opportunities for the workers who manufactured Argyrol, the antimicrobial drug that made him immensely wealthy. Here is part of Peffer’s description of what went on, which I offer without further comment beyond a recommendation that you bear in mind when it was published.

His fortune was made in a few years and, as he says, having no interest in wealth or commercial success per se, he took advantage of his position to give free play to his ideas. His business absorbs little of his own time and not all the time of his employees. Philosophy, psychology and art share the attention and the time both of himself and his employees.

The plant is a study group or club as much as an industry. There are about twenty employees. The men are all Negroes; no white man has ever held a job there. The women, about equal in number, are all white. There is not much work to do; in summer there is non at all, as the materials used in the preparations manufactured by the company cannot be handled in hot weather. Finding, then, that all the work that needed to be done could be finished in five or six hours a day, while the customary workday was eight hours, Dr. Barnes asked himself what to do with the remaining hours. The answer came naturally out of his own inclinations: study. So they began to study. Continue reading

Joanna Merwood-Salisbury, Chicago 1890

Detail view of the facade of the Reliance Building. Photo: Geoff Hoffman/Flickr.

The Reliance Building (Photo: Geoff Hoffman/Flickr)

This month I have been reading books on the history of Chicago. I’ve enjoyed several that are deemed classics in their fields—namely William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and Carl Smith’s Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief. But rather than sing their praises yet again, I want to mention a new book, Joanna Merwood-Salisbury’s Chicago 1890: The Skyscraper and the Modern City (University of Chicago Press, 2009). It’s a slim, engaging study that places a handful of the city’s first skyscrapers, including The Monadnock, the Masonic Temple, and the Reliance Building, in the context of the raucous decade during which they were erected. While Merwood-Salisbury does include some formal description, a far greater proportion of her book is given over to analysis of “architecture and anarchy,” strikes by building trades union members, and the skyscrapers’ relationship to civic reform efforts, such as sanitation. Even the technical innovations that allowed the skyscrapers to reach above ten stories in the first place, such as steel-frame construction, are examined from the standpoint of their impact upon the labor that goes in to their building. This push-and-pull between aesthetics and politics played out in the pages of The Inland Architect, the house journal of the city’s architecture professionals, and the newspaper and periodical press, which Merwood-Salisbury mines to strong effect.

Rorotoko, a website that publishes original first-person statements by authors that describe their books, featured Chicago 1890 at the beginning of the month. Here are a few of Merwood-Salisbury’s own words:

→ The book is firstly a reinterpretation of some well-known architectural masterpieces by Chicago architects Louis Sullivan, Dankmar Adler, Daniel Burnham, and John Wellborn Root, notably the Monadnock (1885-92) and the Reliance Building (1889-95). I examine these buildings not only as important artifacts in architectural history, but also as sites for a contentious debate about the future of the industrial city.

Chicago’s defining events, including the violent building trade strikes of the 1880s, the Haymarket bombing of 1886, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and Burnham and Bennett’s 1909 Plan of Chicago— feature large in the book as the context in which the skyscraper, at the turn of the twentieth century, was imagined, built, and finally repudiated. This approach to architectural history provides a new way to look at the work of important American architects, understanding their designs as specific responses to modern urban phenomena.

To read more from this interview, click here. To see a video recording of a lecture on this subject that Merwood-Salisbury delivered at the Skyscraper Museum last year, click here.

David Blumenthal and James A. Morone, The Heart of Power

I’ve just finished David Blumenthal and James A. Morone’s The Heart of Power: Health and Politics in the Oval Office (University of California Press), which discusses eleven presidents’ encounters with illness alongside their attempts to influence health care policy. Blumenthal, professor of medicine and health policy at Harvard Medical School and an adviser to Barack Obama, and Morone, a professor and chair of political science at Brown, are certainly up to this task, and the book is a pretty good, if sometimes repetitious, read. Particularly engaging are chapters on the Democrats who dreamed of Heart_of_Powernational health insurance, from FDR and Harry Truman to JFK and Lyndon Johnson. The chapter on Johnson draws on newly released archival material to present a “secret history of Medicare” that counters the popular narrative granting credit for the program to Senator Wilbur Mills. It turns out that LBJ, master manipulator of Congress that he was, was in on Mills’s “surprise” packaging of three separate bills—the ones that became Medicare Part A, Medicare Part B, and Medicaid—all along, graciously working behind the scenes to clear the path for the senator to dramatically reverse his longstanding anti–health insurance stance (and even following this narrative line in his autobiography).

I’m neither a health care expert nor a scholar of Johnson, so I can’t assess how fresh this “secret history” really is. Yet the book, published by the University of California Press, is obviously aimed at a broad audience, ostensibly offering ballast to anyone debating health care in 2009 and 2010. The final chapter goes so far as to offer “eight rules for the Heart of Power,” among them “passion,” “speed,” “hush the economists,” “go public,” and “manage Congress.” Curiously, though, it seems that Sam Tanenhaus, editor of both the New York Times Book Review and the Times’s Week in Review section, is among the only editors to have responded to the book. I guess the vicissitudes of book publicity will always escape me: I would imagine that powerhouse academic authors plus reputable academic press plus hot-button topic would equal widespread review attention. But despite the fact that The Heart of Power was featured on the cover of the NYTBR, where it was reviewed by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and was the prompt for an article in the Week in Review, there’s not much else out there. (I canvassed the web and Lexis-Nexis.) Here’s an interview with Morone on Open Source, a radio program based at Brown. These pieces came out in September, so perhaps others are on their way. For what it’s worth, Reich’s assessment of the book, and his description of Obama’s action on the authors’ lessons, seems to me insightful and fair. Here are his thoughts on the latter topic:

The book was written before President Obama began his push for universal health care, but he seems to have anticipated many of its lessons. He’s moved as quickly on the issue as this terrible economy has let him, and he has outlined his goals but left most details to Congress. Nor has he been too rattled by naysaying economists (although the cost estimates of the Congressional Budget Office set him back). The question remains whether, in the months ahead, he can knock Congressional heads together to clinch a meaningful deal, and overcome those who inevitably feed public fears about a “government takeover” of health care and of budget-busting future expenditures. “The Heart of Power” suggests that the odds are not in his favor.

David M. Henkin, City Reading

Henkin_City_ReadingDavid M. Henkin’s City Reading (Columbia University Press, 1998), the last book I read in 2009, comes close to my current ideal of the historian’s first book. It offers a fresh look at familiar territory: in this case, the public spaces of antebellum New York City. It’s short: based upon Henkin’s 300-page dissertation, the main text is a mere 180 or so pages. Despite that brevity, it engages a big idea: the formation of a new public in the wake of the city’s rapidly growing—and changing—population and economy. (This public is brought together, Henkin suggests, by reading in public, with commercial signage, handbills and posters, newspapers, paper currency, and the like as the citizenry’s common texts.) In doing so, Henkin is unafraid to push back against received wisdom: he suggests a somewhat novel conception of the nineteenth-century “public sphere” that counters Jürgen Habermas’s many followers, who lament everything after the demise of eighteenth-century coffeehouse culture. The book is rooted in thorough research: Henkin went through several archives’ worth of lithographs and photographs depicting the city, then interwove the insights he gained from them with contemporary observations drawn from New Yorkers’ diaries and visitors’ travelogues. He has marshaled enough evidence to convince readers that he isn’t extrapolating too broadly from too shallow a pool of sources. And the writing is largely free of obscurantist jargon. City Reading has weaknesses: to my mind, in striving to demonstrate the emergence and coherence of this new public Henkin underemphasizes the consistent confrontation among New York’s varied residents—which led to such clashes as the 1849 Astor Place Riot and the 1863 Draft Riots, both mentioned in passing in the book. (For more on this, see, for example, Lisa Keller’s 2008 book Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London, also published by Columbia.) Yet novelty, ambition, depth, and (especially) brevity seem to me admirable traits for a young scholar to aim for. To read reviews of Henkin’s book, click here and here.

Some Favorite Books Published in 2009

The editors of Frieze magazine invited me to write about some of my favorite books published this year. My response was paired with that of Amit Chaudhuri and is published in issue 128 (January-February 2010). To see the piece in context, and to read Chaudhuri’s list of the year’s literary highlights, click here. Of the books I mention, the only one I reviewed was by Steve Nicholls; read that review by clicking here.

My reading last year was a whiplash affair; I caromed between books on contemporary art and books on American history. Among my favourites were Jackson Lears’ Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 (Harper), which expands upon the insights of his first book, No Place of Grace (1981). Whereas that earlier volume cast a series of late-19th-century anti-modern prophets as unwittingly complicit in the arrival of therapeutic consumer culture, in his new book Lears views the period as a cauldron of proactive revitalization. This search for new spiritual and physical beginnings led, he persuasively suggests, to unintended consequences – not least to martial ambition and America’s arrival on the world stage as an imperialist power.

Later in the summer, I enjoyed my friend Suzanne Hudson’s study Robert Ryman (MIT Press), subtitled ‘Used Paint’. The book not only shrewdly frames Ryman’s practice as a pragmatic ‘open inquiry’ made up of constituent parts (primer, paint, support, edge, wall) but also includes a brief and fascinating discussion of Victor D’Amico, an unknown-to-me pioneering art educator who worked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from the 1930s to the ’60s. Another book from MIT will no doubt prove of enduring value: Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson’s Institutional Critique, an anthology of artists’ writings that follows their collection of artists’ writings on Conceptual art published in 2000. That the new anthology opens with a 1966 essay by Wiesław Borowski, Hanna Ptsazkowska and Mariusz Tchorek, and that it interpolates early contributions from South America with more familiar texts by the likes of Andrea Fraser, Hans Haacke and Allan Kaprow, indicates the editors’ attention to the art-historical shifts of the last decade. Institutional Critique will certainly be worked into the syllabuses of many graduate art history courses. Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, the latest 750-page brick in the multi-volume ‘Oxford History of the United States’ published by Oxford University Press, should likewise find its way onto the reading lists of US history surveys. My admiration for both Wood’s earlier books on the American Revolution and the OUP series is widely shared (by, for example, Pulitzer Prize committee members). Though I’ve only dipped into Empire of Liberty it seems as well-crafted a narrative and as talented a synthesis of recent scholarship as one would expect.

But of all the reading I did last year, nothing sticks out in my mind as brightly as does a hilarious brief passage in scientist and documentary filmmaker Steve Nicholls’ Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery (University of Chicago Press). To depict nature’s bounty, Nicholls scrutinizes the copious written descriptions left behind by the first European explorers of North America. The abundance and vitality of flora and fauna worked both to the advantage of such adventurers and, as indicated by the words of one hunter in the Carolinas, occasionally to frustrating disadvantage: ‘We saw plenty of Turkies, but perch’d upon such lofty Oaks, that our Guns would not kill them, tho’ we shot very often, and our Guns were very good.’

Seymour Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery

NB: I wrote this last week for a class, but the book is recently published and available, so I thought I’d post it to the site. Slavery and abolitionism are not my specialties, so this piece is largely descriptive; please don’t look to the text below for an understanding of where Drescher’s book fits within the historiography of slavery and abolitionism.

Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (Cambridge), a sweeping comparative history of slavery and its eradication, is the fruit of Seymour Drescher’s fifty years of scholarship on the topic. As the title indicates, Drescher is particularly interested in abolition, and he therefore examines historical developments based on their effect, whether positive or negative, on the institution of slavery. His analyses of local events focus primarily upon Britain, France, the Iberian peninsula, and their New World colonial outposts; less attention is devoted to slavery in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Drescher’s book is arranged in three broad narratives: one concerning the “extension” (or rise) of slavery; one focused upon slavery in “crisis”; and one charting the “contraction” of slavery. A shorter fourth section discusses the unexpected “reversion” to slavery during the second quarter of the twentieth century (which took place in the forced-labor camps of the Soviet Union and Germany).

Drescher_abolitionAt the outset of his book, Drescher describes slavery as a “perennial institution” and outlines the ways in which Christians and Muslims enslaved each other (but not their co-religionists); describes the organization of African society and its ability to facilitate of the export of slaves after initial Portuguese contact; and the shift from Mediterranean to transatlantic slaving. He suggests that a “freedom principle” arose in the consciousness of serfs and peasants in northwest Europe during the fifteenth century, leading to the gradual incorporation of contracts for labor and the recognition that a line divided those who possessed a modicum of freedom from the far greater number of people who did not.

What, then, inaugurated abolitionist movements? Drescher suggests that increasing New World agitation on behalf of national independence and individual emancipation during the American Revolution, the messy Franco-American revolutions of the 1780s to the 1820s, and the Latin American revolutions of the 1810s and 1820s created a situation in which European citizens could no longer ignore the contradiction between “free soil” policies at home and the use of slave labor at the edges of empire. Drescher believes that this contradiction was felt most acutely in Britain, and that the nascent abolitionist movement there capitalized upon a rising tide of moral indignation among the general public. Through an expanded print sphere, increasing associational activity, and the process of mass petitioning, British abolitionists led three waves of protest (1787-88, 1791-92, 1806-07) whose cumulative force resulted in the abolishing of the slave trade by Britain’s government. Indeed, the fact that Anglo-American societies possessed “the most highly developed public sphere on the face of the earth” during the Age of Revolutions was “the most distinctive, durable, and consequential development in the demise of New World slavery.” By virtue of Britain’s global naval dominance during the first half of the nineteenth century, it was able then to “internationalize” abolition through a patchwork of bilateral treaties with powers in Old World and colonies and emerging nations in the New World.

Two more popular pushes in Britain, which Drescher describes with obvious relish, led to the emancipation of all of the empire’s enslaved peoples in 1833. He is careful to note, however, that the later efforts to transition from slavery to free labor do not follow the immediatist policies of Britain and France (which abolished slavery—for the first time—during its own revolution, in 1794). Instead, the tenacity of slaveholders, their fears of slave rebellions, and the inability of abolitionists to prove free labor more efficient than slave labor, as well as the fact that attacks on slavery seem always to arrive at the height of the institution’s economic power, conspired to create a situation in which gradual emancipation predominated. (One striking thread running through Drescher’s book is the fact that slave rebellions in the Americas often worked against the interests of slaves back in the halls of power at the seat of empire.)

The public sphere, though preeminent in Drescher’s account, is only one lens through which he views abolitionism during the nineteenth century. In each region on which he focuses, Drescher not only examines the impact of newspapers and public outcry, but also women, the church, the working and middle classes, and slaves themselves. Drescher’s comparative perspective allows readers to understand more fully which of these factors were real agents of change in which region; for example, whereas in the inaugural push for abolition in Britain depended to a large extent on the efforts of women and the church, they played a much smaller role in the initial efforts toward abolition in places like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Brazil. Few previous considerations of abolitionism have ranged as widely as does Drescher’s; even a recent collection edited by Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John Stauffer, Prophets of Protest, limits itself largely to the United States. Drescher’s synthesis of a broad range of materials and his comparative perspective offer readers an opportunity to consider anew the history of slavery and abolition in our country.

Ryuichi Sakamoto, Playing the Piano

I am enjoying Ryuichi Sakamoto’s new box set of live solo piano music. It’s titled, simply enough, Playing the Piano, and comes out on Decca/Universal next month (according to Amazon). The version I found contains over two hours of music, much of it pastoral and beautiful. One piece, however, sounds nothing like the others. In “Composition 0919″ Sakamoto treats the keyboard like a drum kit or a computer chip, substituting pure rhythmic drive for his usual emphasis on melody. It reminds listeners that Sakamoto creates not only beautiful film scores but also experimental electronic music. In particular, I’m reminded of “08:21:61,” the second track on SND’s newest album, which you can preview for comparison’s sake by clicking the song title’s on this page. (These compositions may be an acquired taste; my wife, for example, dislikes both.) An enterprising music fan in Japan has uploaded footage of Sakamoto performing on April 28, 2009, at the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall. Interestingly, Sakamoto nestles baby grands side-by-side on stage; one is a computer-aided player piano that performs alongside him. The music begins at 1:50.

Can anyone tell me the general thrust of his two-minute introduction? Most of what he played during the concert was not given so elaborate an explanation, so I’m curious to know what he is saying. For a taste of the rest of the album, click here to watch him perform “Hibari.” Sakamoto is currently touring Europe; click here and scroll down for dates and information.

Art Education Questionnaire

My copies of Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), edited and introduced by Steven Henry Madoff, arrived with today’s mail. Here is part of jacket copy: “Art School brings together more than thirty leading international artists and art educators to reconsider the practices of art education in academic, practical, ethical, and philosophical terms.” Among the contributors are Thierry de Duve, Boris Groys, Robert Storr, Raqs Media Collective, Charles Esche, Ann Lauterbach, Ute Meta Bauer, and Daniel Birnbaum. Madoff invited me to formulate a questionnaire concerning art education and circulate it among prominent artists. The respondents, who discuss their experiences as both students and teachers, are Ann Hamilton, Dana Schutz, Fred Wilson, Guillermo Kuitca, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Matthew Higgs, Mike Kelley, Paul Chan, Paul Ramírez-Jonas, Piero Golia, Shirin Neshat, and Thomas Bayrle. Madoff_art_school_coverMy introduction and a selection of the artists’ answers are below. For more information on the book, visit its page on the MIT Press website.

Questionnaire Introduction

Some of the twelve prominent contemporary artists chosen to respond to this survey received fine art training in university and art school settings; one studied chemical engineering, and another studied in a workshop setting outside the bounds of academic institutions. Nearly all have, at some point, taught art themselves. With so diverse a group—whose practices, it should be said, are also varied—the lessons to be drawn from their answers are not clear-cut. Nevertheless, several broad themes emerged. First, most of those surveyed agree that you have to learn the rules in order to break them. Whether our respondents felt that M.F.A. programs should be organized by discipline, some grounding in technique seems a necessary prerequisite to the free exploration that these programs should ideally encourage. Second, in looking back at their own educations, many felt that additional study of the liberal arts or humanities would have served them well in their careers as artists. Third, the interviewees were less concerned about the effects of the art market on art education than one might expect, given the hand-writing tone of many articles and essays on the topic. Fourth, and perhaps most important, nearly all agreed that no matter how much time one spends housed in institutions, the lessons that nourish an ongoing, sustainable career can come from anywhere—and that anywhere is often outside academic settings. This may be allied to the first observation. Beyond the specifics of discipline, medium, or technique to be gleaned from professors in art school, what young artists might benefit from most is the time, space, and gentle guidance necessary to be receptive to such unpredictable lessons—to learn a way of seeing that does not occlude any avenues for inspiration or growth. This assertion may be a commonplace, but whether art schools can make a space for this—or, perhaps more accurately, whether professors and students can carve this space out from institutional demands—may be one of the defining questions that such institutions face.

Selected Questions and Answers

In art school, did you learn how to sustain yourself as an artist, both creatively and professionally? Did you feel prepared to be an artist when you graduated?

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe: I learned how to make art, but I don’t think I’ve ever been able to keep up with what “professional” means, except that I’ve noticed that regardless of fashion, it consistently involves personality rather than argument to an extraordinary degree.

Ann Hamilton: I don’t know whether I felt prepared; I think I was all too aware of the holes in my knowledge and in my inability to be articulate about my work. I was, like everyone graduating, overwhelmed by the prospect of balancing the making of work and making a living. Actually, I don’t think that has changed too much—it’s not a challenge that goes away. But what I did feel prepared for was having a studio practice; I knew what that meant to me. I knew that my studio was in the books I was reading and in the flea markets and junk stores I visited. I knew I liked to look at objects and that the forms I created came as a process of response to a situation. I was just coming to understand, as I graduated, that a studio is a state of mind and not a physical location.

Mike Kelley: There was no art market when I was in school. Being a professional artist at that time was an ideological position. I showed, I traveled, I lectured, but I did not make money from these activities. I considered myself a professional artist and was trained to be one, and I functioned as one within that world. But if professionalism is defined by economic success—well, that’s just not what it meant at the time. There is, of course, a far different attitude about this now. I do feel that my graduate experience prepared me for the art world as it existed at that time. It made me aware that art was an international phenomenon and that I could network within it. For example, as a performance artist, I knew where I could perform—and I did.

Mike Kelley, Educational Complex, 1995. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Mike Kelley, Educational Complex, 1995. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Did your art school give you any sense of having an ethical commitment to the community that it was located in?

Paul Chan: No. Where I was, in downtown Chicago, you actually didn’t want to be a part of the very local community. The neighborhood where I lived, with other art students, outside downtown, gave us more of a sense of participation. We started a gallery in Pilsen, on the South Side. This is a complicated question, but the school itself did not instill in us this sense of commitment. Then again, I never really plugged in to what the school would offer that would give me that chance.

Paul Ramirez-Jonas: In a general sense, no. In a limited sense, some of my teachers thought that art should be a critique of the art world and the use of art as a commodity. My formative experiences regarding ethics, community, and politics took place as an undergraduate—outside the field of art. Although I was shy to get involved, my friends in university were extremely active in politics, environmental issues, etc. Even in high school (in Honduras), one had to complete a year of civic service to receive a diploma. It all added up to a series of examples of the importance of action, not just talk. In comparison, my experience in art school was shockingly disengaged. This contrast between university and art school reflects my current experiences as a faculty member. I can’t help but think that this situation relates to my answer to the first question [about the most valuable lesson learned in art school].

With hindsight, would you do it the same way if you had the choice? If not, how would you have gone about your education as an artist?

Shirin Neshat: If I had a chance to repeat my education, I would take some time off between undergraduate and graduate school. My rather unproductive years in graduate school were mostly due to the fact that I wasn’t intellectually prepared to be an artist, and mostly I was never able to place myself as an Iranian within Euro-centric art history. Today I firmly believe that my return to art was provoked by the way in which I immersed myself in life experiences, encountered certain individuals and institutions, and lived in particular political environments that helped to shape and develop my art.

In fact, after I graduated from school, I became artistically inactive for nearly ten years, until the moment when I felt emotionally and intellectually motivated. I generally feel that young artists should be cautious not to get too trapped in a vacuum, where their imaginations look mainly to their intuitions as the source, as opposed to knowledge and experiences that can only be gained outside of school boundaries.

Piero Golia: I think that by never going to school, I never came out of school. I wouldn’t change that at all. In a way, because I never graduated from art school, I’m still not done. It’s easy to see today how students don’t go to school to learn but rather to receive the stamp that says “I’m an artist.” And if you pay $40,000 a year to go to school, you really expect that stamp to get you in to a lot of places. That’s one of the big dangers of the art school system in America. If you go to law school, you come out a lawyer: I can take the bar, I can go to court and argue a case. But when you graduate from art school, you are not necessarily an artist. It’s not enough just to attend, whether for a week or for years and years.

By not having a degree, I will never be able to tell people, “I am an artist,” in an officially sanctioned way. So no, I don’t regret anything. Well, I regret everything, but that has to do with Catholicism and a whole host of other issues. I regret everything, but I’m proud of everything too.

Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s Hat

NB: I wrote this last week for a class, but the book is recent and widely available, so I thought I’d post it to the site.

This month New York City celebrates the four-hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival in the waters of the river that now bears his name. Only five weeks earlier, the French explorer and trader Samuel Champlain, aiming to expand his pelt trade, fought a decisive battle against Mohawk tribesmen alongside the lake that now bears his name. That same year, the Dutch set up their first permanent trading post in Asia at the west end of the island of Java. By 1609, in other words, commerce was knitting together the entire world. What united the English captain, the French explorer, and the Dutch republicans? All were seeking China’s access to fabled riches. “Europe and China are the two poles of the magnetic field of interconnection” historian Timothy Brook describes in Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World.

vermeer's_hatThis idiosyncratic and entertaining history uses five paintings by Johannes Vermeer and two additional artifacts to explore this global trade. Small details in the canvases—the officer’s hat in Officer and Laughing Girl, the globe resting on a cabinet in the background of The Geographer, the silver coins about to be weighed in Woman Holding a Balance—act as “doors,” in Brook’s phrasing, that open onto the seventeenth century, an age of worldwide mobility and social “improvisation” driven by the trade in porcelain, tobacco, silver, and other products. This was the first era in which isolation was exceedingly difficult, as the Chinese would learn: The globe had become “an unbroken surface on which there was no place that could not be reached, no place that was not implied by every other place.”

The officer’s hat, for example, is impressively elaborate, with a broad brim surely made from the fur of beaver pelts (as opposed to less stiff wool felt). But by 1657, the approximate date of Vermeer’s painting, the European beaver population had been decimated, so it’s fair to assume the material for the officer’s prized possession had been slaughtered and skinned in what is now Canada. In explaining how this pelt ended up in a Delft drawing room, Brook offers a sharp précis of the early Canadian beaver trade that focuses on Champlain and the “ladder” of tribal alliances that brought him westward and into contact with foes like the Mohawks. So, too, the silver coins in Woman Holding a Balance lead Brook on a journey across the world. First noting that Vermeer’s depiction of money-counting is positive, possibly reflecting a new “ethic of accumulation,” Brook goes on to describe the silver boom town of Potosí in Peru and the complicated networks of exchange by which hundreds of tons of its natural resource ended up China. Among his many vignettes Brook highlights the ways in which standardized currencies were changing the conditions for trade and explains the interdependence of Spanish settlers and Chinese workers in the trading outpost in Manila (even after a massive battle that led to the decimation of this Chinese population).

Why did so much silver end up in China, making it a “tomb of European moneys”? At the time, there were few European goods that the Chinese didn’t already make for themselves, often of a higher quality and at a lower price than what the Portuguese, Spanish, or Dutch could offer. So the European traders exchanged the raw material they were extracting from new-world colonies for porcelain, spices, textiles, and tea. It was a massive trade: Approximately three million pieces of porcelain arrived in Holland in the fifty years after the first boatload (which was captured from the Portuguese) docked in 1602.

Brook describes in great detail the cultural exchanges that attended this bartering. He suggests that these sustained interactions not only required accommodations from each party but also actively fostered what historian Fernando Ortiz called transculturation, the process “by which habits and things move from one culture to another so thoroughly that they become part of it and in turn change the culture into which they have moved.” Brook, a historian of China whose specialty is the Ming dynasty that came to an end during this period, seems to be an advocate of openness to this process. He consistently details the ways China tried to fend off Western influences, from tobacco to Christianity, while noting the advantages gained by the Dutch, such as sole trading rights with Japan, by virtue of their monomaniacal desire for trade and profit.

Much goes unexplored in Brook’s discussion, including the political conditions that gave rise to this global trade and the newly invented corporate structures that underlay it. Yet his synthesis of material drawn from autobiographies, the writings of other historians, ledger books, and, of course, Vermeer’s paintings, is sophisticated and expertly told. Brook describes China as the great lure that “haunted the seventeenth-century world,” and shows how desire for its riches opened the first lines of global interconnection that mark the world in which we live today.

Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City

Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes.

Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes.

From afar, it is easy to imagine the spectacular economic gains in capitalist China as being created ex nihilo, the cumulative effect of a magical reserve—millions of laboring bodies. How else to explain the recent double-digit GDP growth, year after year? Yet as both history and everyday life remind us, with every gain there is a concurrent loss. It is one of the virtues of Jia Zhang-ke’s recent film 24 City (2008) that he focuses on particular losses: the psychological and physical wounds inflicted upon the employees of Factory 420 in Chengdu, first under Mao’s regime in the 1960s and 1970s, and then during the shift from a planned economy to a market economy, the effects of which are still being felt today. The factory, recently purchased by a real-estate development company that will replace the warren of brick structures with gleaming high-rise condominium towers, is the nucleus for diverse lives, many marked by quiet tragedies.

As the complex’s buildings are emptied of their machines, stripped for copper wire and other materials, and finally demolished, a handful of workers—chosen from among the 130 Jia interviewed—tell their often painful stories. Unflagging dedication to the Factory 420 enterprise seems invariably to conflict with personal ambitions, leading to the separation of family members and the frustration of efforts to find love. It may be difficult for Western audiences to understand the seemingly extreme sacrifices made by these people. But the employees of Factory 420 forge and repair aircraft parts used by the military, and the exigencies of national defense—first against Chiang Kai-Shek, then during the brief Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979—compel submission. (The film’s opening shot is telling: Heated ingots of steel, glowing orange, are one by one pounded into shape.) Job security is not necessarily offered in return: Wartime needs slacken, the factory shifts to the production of consumer goods, and one middle-age woman recounts being laid off in 1994 despite never missing a day on the floor.

Jia has deliberately woven fictional narratives into his documentary structure as an acknowledgment of the imprecision of memory and the instability of any “truth”—whether state-mandated or private and emotional. This is an unacknowledged point in the film itself, and the plausibility of the fictional monologues and the restrained performances of his hired actors render it fairly moot. 24 City does not seem primarily a commentary on the mutability of history; that is only one of its themes. Here I agree with Kevin B. Lee’s assessment in Slant: “What emerges in 24 City is a moving three-fold meditation: on the many stories of a bygone era, both epic and banal, that are bound to be left untold and forgotten; the many fictions woven—whether by the media, by our ancestors, or by ourselves—into our understanding of reality; and a dying ideology’s legacy on how its people tell their stories.” That the coming order, no more than a shake of the kaleidoscope, is bound to produce its own difficult stories and complex legacy is apparent in the monologues delivered by two characters—a television news presenter and a personal shopper—representing a younger generation.

Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes. Hao Dali (Lv Liping).

Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes. Hao Dali (Lv Liping).

This is all communicated with commendable formal control: Jia intermingles lovingly framed slow tracking shots of the factory buildings and Screen Test–style silent portraits of anonymous  workers with his talking-head interviews. The images of the disheveled environment linger just long enough to communicate pathos without becoming treacly; the additional silent protagonists radiate dignity and imply all the other stories for which Jia’s interviewees stand in as representative examples. (The soundtrack, too, is relatively discreet: two brief compositions—one for a solo trumpet and another, more plaintive one, for strings—recur throughout.) 24 City does justice to the particular histories of a few individuals without forfeiting an important larger narrative about the country’s experiences under its various political and economic regimes. This is no small feat in so giddily unsettled an environment as twenty-first-century China.

For additional reviews, see David Hudson’s roundup at The Daily. 24 City runs through June 18 at IFC Center in New York, and opens soon in Columbus, OH, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Boston, and elsewhere. Click here for more information and to watch the trailer.

Steve McQueen’s Giardini

My severest disappointment in not attending this year’s Venice Biennale is missing the premiere of Steve McQueen’s new film Giardini. McQueen, to my mind one of the best artists of his generation, shot the half-hour-long film in the public garden that houses the national pavilions used during the Biennale. What he depicts, though, is the period of their disuse, those misty February days in which the miniature monuments are boarded up, dogs wander through the moist grass, and a woman pushing a shopping cart daily scatters bread to a fleet of birds. This description, of course, is derived only from seeing excerpts (in this video interview with the artist) and stills, and from reading about the film. (David Hudson has a media round-up at The Daily.)

Steve McQueen, still from Giardini, 2009

Steve McQueen, still from Giardini, 2009

Though it appears already to be a favorite among people who broadcast their immediate opinions to the world, perhaps McQueen’s film will be accused of being merely “charming.” (After the engaged, ongoing installation Queen and Country and the lacerating feature film Hunger, of course, I think McQueen has earned the right to a moment of “mere” aesthetic revelry.) But for those coming in to the British Pavilion out of the social imbroglio that is the Biennale’s preview, Giardini’s attentiveness to the small beauties of a timeless, hushed city might feel like a rebuke. Why travel to Venice in early June, when the city abounds with tourists and professional colleagues, when the opposite end of the calendar offers such tranquil beauty (and weather that better suits a romantic temperament)? Why rush about in a four-day frenzy, seeing hundreds of rooms full of art, when the slow roving over one small patch of land turns up such graces?

Reading about McQueen’s film prompted me to pull off the shelf Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark, a lovely small book about wintertime Venice. I read it not long after my own first visit to the city, in August of 2003. (I avoided the art crowd, but not the tourists.) The film still above brought to mind this passage from very early in the book: “The backdrop was all in dark silhouettes of church cupolas and rooftops; a bridge arching over a body of water’s black curve, both ends of which were clipped off by infinity. At night, infinity in foreign realms arrives with the last lamppost.” Here is another, unrelated passage that I marked at the time:

In winter you wake up in this city, especially on Sundays, to the chiming of its innumerable bells, as though behind your gauze curtains a gigantic china teaset were vibrating on a silver tray in the pearl-gray sky. You fling the window open and the room is instantly flooded with this outer, peal-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers.

Three snapshots from Iceland

In May, 2007, I traveled to Iceland for the opening of a specially commissioned project by artist Roni Horn. (I wrote about the experience for While there I was struck not only by the feral beauty of the country, but also by the high cost of consumer goods. The American dollar was weak, the Icelandic kronor was strong, and, for example, the cheap Thai takeout I ate one night, which would have cost seven or eight dollars in New York, cost the equivalent of twenty-two. At the time I chalked this up to the currency discrepancy and the fact that many, if not all, of the ingredients had to be imported from some distance away. Fifteen months later, the Icelandic economy crashed in spectacular fashion, and the autopsy reports now being published suggest that I may also have been experiencing one side effect of an enormous bubble: According to journalist Michael Lewis, “From 2003 to 2007, while the U.S. stock market was doubling, the Icelandic stock market multiplied by nine times.” Lewis’s article, published in the April 2009 issue of Vanity Fair, follows Rebecca Solnit’s October 2008 report from “Iceland’s polite dystopia,” published in Harper’s, and accompanies Ian Parker’s dispatch, published in this week’s New Yorker. (The latter is available in full online only to subscribers.) Lewis summarizes the first part of the problem this way: “When, in 2003, [Icelanders] sat down at the same table with Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, they had only the roughest idea of what an investment banker did and how he behaved—most of it gleaned from young Icelanders’ experiences at various American business schools. And so what they did with money probably says as much about the American soul, circa 2003, as it does about Icelanders.”

At one point, Lewis describes the harbor-front development I saw in Reykjavík: “The rocks beneath Reykjavík may be igneous, but the city feels sedimentary: on top of several thick strata of architecture that should be called Nordic Pragmatic lies a thin layer that will almost certainly one day be known as Asshole Capitalist. The hobbit-size buildings that house the Icelandic government are charming and scaled to the city. The half-built oceanfront glass towers meant to house newly rich financiers and, in the bargain, block everyone else’s view of the white bluffs across the harbor are not.” Here is a photo I took of this construction work on May 11, 2007:


Solnit was one of the first writers-in-residence at the apartment Horn constructed as part of her installation. (Horn’s photographs illustrate the article.) She mentions at the start of her essay that she bumped into the country’s president at an art opening–likely Horn’s exhibition at the Reykjavík Art Museum–and asked for a meeting. Solnit, too, notes an American strain in the contemporary Icelandic character: “ ‘I think the twenty-first century will be a fascinating period,’ [the President] said, a period in which we will ‘see the relevance as well as the renaissance of small states.’ But the vision he described as we ate our catfish and salmon seemed decidedly mainstream, even American. He celebrates small states mostly for how they function economically and in the international society of states.” Whereas Lewis focuses solely on the world of finance, Solnit, as has been the case with her historically, discusses the environment and political protest (or lack thereof). Parker, arriving to report for the New Yorker in December of last year, encounters the first flickerings of just that protest. From the article abstract online: “To see Iceland this winter was to be reminded of that queasy split second during which a spectacular injury decides on its accompanying level of pain. But if Iceland’s economic misery was largely still to come, its cultural and political trauma had been immediate. Iceland was having a revolutionary moment, if of a sometimes hesitant and self-mocking sort.”

Department stores and modern art at the turn of the last century

I’ve just finished William Leach’s 1993 book Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, which “tells the story of a fundamental transformation in the culture and economy of America—the rise of mass-market consumerism and the attendant shift to a society ‘preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition, with more goods this year than last, more next year than this.'” It is very good at tracing how networks of mutual support arose between big business and institutions (education and government in particular). What I did not expect to find was the following bit of information about the reception of modern art in the United States. While my radar sets off alarms about the categorical nature of its first sentence, the rest is fascinating:

It was in the department stores, not in the museums, that modern art and American art found their first true patrons. The pastel paintings of John La Farge, one of America’s most original colorists, appeared in the show windows and picture galleries of Marshall Field’s in 1902. Field’s conducted its “Hooser Salon,” a picture gallery for young artists from Indiana and Illinois. In 1910 Theodore Dreiser, in walks about Philadelphia, saw in Wanamaker’s a Fauve-style mural in four panels, depicting scenes from Parisian life, by the American Anne Estelle Rice. Hung above the first-floor elevator, it “suggested” to Dreiser “a sense of life and beauty.” “The light,” he raved, “the space, the daring, the force, the raw reds, greens, blues, mauves, whites, yellows!” (Rice, an artist trained in Paris at the Academy of Art, founded by Rodman Wanamaker, was to become one of Dreiser’s many female lovers.)

The Gimbel brothers, inspired by the Armory Show of 1913, became among the most ardent supporters of modern art, buying up Cézannes, Picassos, and Braques, and displaying them in their store galleries in Cincinnati, New York, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. Five years later Carson, Pirie, Scott in Chicago exhibited the work of Americans Henri Bellows, William Glackens, and John Sloan in its new galleries on the fifth floor, as well as the paintings of the Taos Society of Artists of New Mexico.

John Wanamaker, the man most apt to advertise his stores as “public institutions,” was, not surprisingly, also the most innovative merchant of all in his display of art. He deplored the way museums jumbled pictures together “on the walls, destroying the effect of the finest things,” and month after month, to sustain customer interest, he rotated pieces in his personal collection from the store “studio” in Philadelphia—a Constable here, a Reynolds there, to say nothing of a Titian or a Turner, a Wanamaker favorite—to his New York store and back again. (Of the “moderns,” Wanamaker admired Manet the most.) He applied what he called the “new display principles,” setting a standard later followed by museum curators. He wanted to make art “breathe” by giving it plenty of space on the walls, as if it were to be sold. “What is not for sale,” he said, “is still for sale.” “Everything that is lovely, everything that is worthwhile needs the eyes of the merchant … to show it off to best advantage.”

I wonder what it must have been like for a housewife from Cleveland to come across, in 1916, a painting by Cézanne or Braques in her local department store. I also wonder to what extent such display strategies are acknowledged in a book like Bruce Altshuler’s recent Salon to Biennial: Exhibitions that Made Art History, Volume I: 1963–1959. Anyway, one thread of Leach’s book that may be interesting to readers of this site discusses the evolving relationship between curators at the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Newark Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History and department store owners, industrial designers, and trade associations during the first decades of the last century.

UPDATE, 2/24: Alex Farquharson reviews Salon to Biennial in the current issue of Frieze magazine, and offers this summation and, in a parenthetical aside, a relevant detail:

The aim of Salon to Biennial is to offer direct access to archives normally consulted by professionals only: the bulk of its material consists of installation shots, reproductions of catalogues and publicity material, statements by its organizers and several reviews (ranging from the sympathetic to the vituperative). Consequently, Altshuler’s words – consistently insightful and measured – are restricted to the essentials (some readers will wish Altshuler had given himself more interpretative licence). Beginning 42 years – but only three exhibitions – before The Avant-Garde in ExhibitionSalon to Biennial is essentially a 20th-century narrative whose way is paved by ‘Salon des Réfusés’, the Impressionists’ break with the official Salon in 1863. Volume Onewisely leaves the reader on the brink of the 1960s, with ‘The New American Painting’ (1959) – Abstract Expressionism’s (and New York’s) supposed triumph over Europe – acting as a cliff-hanger.

More often than not, exhibitions are selected for the central role they played in ushering in key avant-garde tendencies, even if the original circumstances were touchingly modest (we learn that ‘The First Brücke Exhibition’ was held in a Dresden lighting shop, for example).

The article is available online to registered users of the magazine’s website.

79,936 AD – 80,495 AD

On Kawara, "One Million Years," installation view, David Zwirner Gallery, New York, 2009

Last Saturday, Valentine’s Day, I celebrated with my fiancée in a somewhat unconventional manner: For a little more than an hour, we read numbers aloud, from 79,936 to 80,495, in a small recording studio. We did so as part of artist On Kawara’s decades-long ongoing project One Million Years, which was being presented at David Zwirner Gallery. From the gallery’s description:

One Million Years is a monumental 20-volume collection, comprised of One Million Years [Past], created in 1969 and containing the years 998,031 B.C. through 1969 A.D., and One Million Years [Future], created in 1981 and containing the years 1996 A.D. to 1,001,995 A.D. Together these volumes make up 2,000,000 years. The subtitle for One Million Years [Past] is “For all those who have lived and died.” The subtitle for One Million Years [Future] is “For the last one.” Documenting the passage of chronological time, each leather hardbound volume  contains 2,068 photocopied pages. The size of each volume is 12 ¼ x 10 x 3 ¼ inches and weighs 8 lbs. 12 editions of [Past] were produced from 1970 to 1971, and 12 editions of [Future] from 1981 to 1998.

Since 1993, invited guests, in pairs, have been recording an audio version of the artwork that is later presented on CDs. Julia and I were the final participants in the first live recording of a public reading; prior to our session, four pairs a day had read, five days a week, for four weeks.

Kawara is perhaps best known for his “date paintings,” which is the colloquial name given to his “Today” series, begun in 1966. Each work in the series must be completed by midnight on the date it is started, and depicts the date (in white text on variously colored monochrome backgrounds) in the language and grammatical conventions of the country in which it is made. Each is made by hand, and accompanied by a cardboard box in which the painting rests when not on display; often a clipping from the day’s newspaper lines the interior of the box. I am a fan of Kawara’s art in general, and this series in particular, and have profited from the temporary suspension of the present afforded by viewing exhibitions of these paintings. Despite their specificity—JANUARY 25, 1966; 9.JULI 1976; 27 MAI 1993—I usually feel mildly unmoored from time’s ceaseless regularity as I contemplate them. The mental effort of reconciling the present to the past causes my sense of both to dilate and contract.

Somewhat to my surprise, then, while recording our allotted numbers I didn’t think much about the past, the future, or the passage of time. (At one point, though, I began to imagine what certain animals might look like after 78,000 years of additional evolution.) For the first half hour the predominant feeling, because the recording took place in the semi-public environment of an art gallery, was a performer’s self-consciousness. We were sitting in front of a large window and could see everyone who came into the gallery as clearly as they could see (and hear) us. It was less difficult than I had suspected to keep track of our place in the black binders full of pages printed with miniscule rows of numbers, and after a few minutes I began confidently acknowledging those on the other side of the glass by nodding my head. I waved at small children and at the many friends who trooped through the space in the final hours before the exhibition closed.

After a while, the experience shifted and became more intimate. My performance was for Julia. She was reading even numbers and I was reading odd numbers. Though in my concentration on the dates for which I was responsible I neglected to listen to the particular numbers she was reading, I was deeply aware of the sound of her voice  in my ear and of her physical presence at my side. The call-and-response became tinged, very subtly, with erotic feeling.

Being enclosed in an intimate space and on view to the public became a metaphor for the bond we share, and to which we had made a lifelong commitment just one week before. It didn’t feel like us against the world, but rather us in the world, indivisibly together. All too common are the tragic events in life that make you aware of the bonds that connect you to friends and lovers. Rarer are the happy occasions in which relationships are instantiated. I am grateful to On Kawara for inadvertently providing one to me.

William Maxwell’s The Outermost Dream

To counterbalance the effects of reading several books about the political economy of Gilded Age America, my bedtime companion last week was William Maxwell’s essay collection The Outermost Dream. First released in 1989, the collection gathers book reviews largely published in the New Yorker, where Maxwell served as fiction editor for forty years. Maxwell was, of course, himself an accomplished novelist and short-story writer (two volumes collecting this work were published last year by the Library of America). But the strongest impression I gathered from The Outermost Dream is one of an editor’s sensibility: ego suppression and attention to the delicate arrangement of material. Written with sympathy for and out of curiosity about his subjects—he avoided writing about fiction, choosing instead to discuss memoirs, correspondence, diaries, and biographies—Maxwell’s essays judiciously arrange for the reader the salient, character-summarizing facts of remarkable lives. They don’t skimp on qualitative judgment, especially when the work under consideration is a biography. But Maxwell’s powers of distillation and his ability to communicate his enthusiasm subliminally, as it were, are remarkable.

It turns out that I couldn’t entirely leave behind the second half of the nineteenth century: My favorite piece in The Outermost Dream is the first, a review of Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer and first published in 1940. (Maxwell’s review, I believe, dates from the early ’60s, when the diary was reprinted.) Reverend Francis Kilvert, previously unknown to me, was a rural curate who worked and traveled, during the 1860s and ’70s, in villages dotting the rural marshes along the border of England and Wales. His diary was published fifty years after his death, and near the outset of the review Maxwell devises a wonderful mechanism for communicating to readers the “lost” world Kilvert inhabited: collapsing reflections and impressions recorded across multiple years into a plausible “week” in Kilvert’s life. Here is how this section of Maxwell’s review begins:

Kilvert boarded comfortably with a Mrs. Chaloner, whose house was directly across the road from the village pub, and his life in Clyro went by in, roughly speaking, this fashion:

On Sunday he preached, when and where he was needed—at Clyro Church in the morning, at this or that nearby village chapel in the afternoon. He paid sick calls on elderly parishioners and read to them from the Bible. He dined rather often at the vicarage. And he seldom had time on Sunday to write in his diary.

On Monday he went to the school, where, as he taught the children reading, he was struck by the appearance of Gypsy Lizzie (“the dark soft curls parting back from the pure white transparent brow, the exquisite little mouth and pearly tiny teeth, the pure straight delicate features, the long dark fringes and white eyelids that droop over and curtain her eyes when they are cast down or bent upon her book”). In the afternoon he drove, with Mr. and Mrs. Venables, to the Hardwick Bazaar for the Home Missions. Or, the weather being particularly beautiful and there being no invitations, he walked to Broad Meadow to see old David Price, who was in bed and weaker than when he saw him last, and poor Captain Brown, who was “lying on a sofa covered up with a rug and suffering a good deal. But he was very bright and lively and grew animated and indignant in discussing the wrongs of the Navy, the misdoings of the present Government . . . .”

Having introduced the technique, Maxwell pushes it a little further, switching rapidly from season to season and year to year:

On Saturday (now it is February) he goes out early into the dim, dark morning. The air is warm, sweet, and fragrant. There is a promise of rain, and the garden trees are all in a charm with the singing of birds. An iron east wind; bitter, piercing cold (it is now a different February). He walks to Hay and buys galoshes, calls at the Castle, and while he is there, the four Miss Llanthomases come in. He hears of Mary Bevans misadventures in going to the Hereford Hunt Ball…

Here Maxwell deftly imparts the sense of routine that structures most lives, imparts odd details about Kilvert (the peculiarly attentive description of the young girl), and gives us a sense, through the extended quotations, of how Kilvert wrote about his own life. Most of the essays in this collection do their work as imperceptibly as this one. In addition to the essay on Kilvert, I especially recommend the ones on Isak Dinesen, Andrei Amalrik, Louise Bogan, E. B. and Katharine S. White, and Colette.

Tiffany & Co. Heraldry Department

One of the books I read for class this week was Sven Beckert’s The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850–1896. It’s a brisk, well-written account of, as its subtitle indicates, the development of a self-conscious upper class in New York during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Beckert, now a professor at Harvard, was a doctoral student at Columbia, and one can sense the influence of his dissertation adviser Eric Foner in this book. (Make of that what you will; I offer the comment solely to help locate it for those familiar with the historiography of the period.) Though it is primarily an economic and political history, it also incorporates some commentary on the upper-class culture of the period. As always with a good work of scholarship, an odd, telling detail or two will stick out of such a book like a coin gleaming on the sidewalk. In The Monied Metropolis, two examples of the excesses of New York’s bourgeoisie caught my eye.

The first follows from a quote from William Graham Sumner, an influential Yale professor and free-market advocate: “It is commonly asserted that there are in the United States no classes. . . . On the other hand, we constantly read and hear discussions of social topics in which the existence of social classes is assumed as a simple fact.” Beckert then adds the following piquant example:

As if to prove these observers right, bourgeois New Yorkers themselves enacted these class lines: Starting in 1898, annual Christmas feedings for the poor in Madison Square Garden attracted the rich and powerful, who would sit in the galleries and private boxes staring down at the city’s lower sorts (a full 20,000 of them) who ate below them.

A few pages later, discussing bourgeois New Yorkers’ attempts to appropriate European aristocratic culture, Beckert notes that “Tiffany & Co. opened a heraldry department in the 1870s to design coats of arms.” While a quick Lexis-Nexis search didn’t net anything about the annual event at Madison Square Garden, I am fascinated by the idea of Tiffany-designed fake heraldry, and suspect my friends Stuart and David, who run the organization Dexter Sinister, would be, too. Interestingly, an internet search led me to the website of the American Heraldry Society, which contains a page detailing the artistic creativity of the various coats of arms adopted by Congress throughout the nineteenth century. The last example included is The Tiffany Seal Emblazonment, designed by James Horton Whitehouse—perfect name!—in 1885. Here is the description:

In 1881, with the centennial of Independence having just passed and that of the adoption of the great seal just around the corner, a wave of public interest in the seal and arms, combined with the worn condition of the existing dies, led the Department of State to make inquiries about contracting for a new engraving of the great seal. In 1883, the New York firm of jewelers, Tiffany & Company, was selected for the job, and turned to its chief designer, James Horton Whitehouse, to prepare the drawings. Meanwhile, however, the department official in charge of the seal had contacted a number of luminaries in a variety of fields for advice on the design. These included the country’s leading botanist (for advice on the olive branch), an eminent professor of art history at Harvard, the same college’s librarian, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the well-known author Edward Everett Hale, and the two most prominent American heraldists of the day, William H. Whitmore and William S. Appleton of the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s Committee on Heraldry. The “experts” debated virtually every component of the design: Should the arrows be conventional barbed arrows or stone-headed arrows in the American Indian style? Should an American olive or European olive branch be used? Should the eagle be portrayed heraldically or naturalistically? Should the tips of the wings be pointed up or down? How many feathers should be in its tail?

With all this debate, it’s a miracle that Whitehouse ever finished the job, let alone that he produced the beautifully executed emblazonment that has graced the great seal ever since. In fact, he may have done the job too well. Combined with a spirit of bureaucratic standardization that characterized the late 19th and early 20th centuries–it was the era in which numerous state legislatures fixed the design of state arms according to fixed models–the artistic quality of the Tiffany rendering soon drove almost all other emblazonments out of official use. Whitehouse’s staid, dignified, but static eagle, drove the fierce birds off of the Army’s regimental colors and the Navy’s Presidential flag. When federal agencies whose seals featured the national arms had the dies re-cut, they almost invariably directed that the new dies match the rendering of the arms on the great seal. Indeed, ever since 1885, whenever the Department of State has needed to replace a worn-out seal, it has mandated that the replacement replicate the Tiffany design almost exactly. The only change, almost imperceptible, was the addition of tiny dots indicating the color gold among the rays of the glory in the crest, introduced in the die produced by Max Zeitler of Bailey, Banks and Biddle in 1904. Since then, the production of a new great seal has involved no artistic creativity, while the production of other items on which the arms are traditionally used, from uniform cap badges to passport covers, has been little more than a cookie cutter operation. In the process, a vibrant heritage of heraldic artistry has been sadly lost.

A small image of Whitehouse’s design is available at the link above. I would love to see some examples of the Tiffany heraldry department’s work for prominent New York families, and wonder how easily one might be able to extrapolate information about the period and its elites’ aspirations from such visual material.

Notebook: Interview with Kathleen A. Foster

My interview with Kathleen A. Foster, senior curator of American Art and director of the Center of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has been published on Over the course of two decades, Foster has researched the life and art of Thomas Chambers, a mid-nineteenth-century American painter who specialized in marine paintings and landscapes. Her exhibition of his work, “Thomas Chambers: American Marine and Landscape Painter, 1808–1869,” was on view last autumn at the Philadelphia Museum, and opens this Sunday at the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, New York. It will subsequently travel to the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. Perhaps because of its future presentation in New York, the Times didn’t review the exhibition while it was in Philadelphia. Edward Sozanski, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s art critic, did, as did Sanford Schwartz, in the New York Review of Books, who had this to say:

We are left with a painter who may have chosen, because he saw a ready, paying audience for it, to work in a kind of flat, unillusionistic, decorative style—or who was simply unable to paint or draw, like his brother George in England, in a more “lifelike” or realistic way. Whatever his motivations, Chambers’s sense of space, shape, and color, far from becoming dim or anemic over time, probably seems more robust and delicious today than in his own day. At the very least, his gleaming, Technicolor world will make a few would-be painters among viewers think that maybe they can finally take a stab at it.

With his inflamed coppery skies, distant lavender-touched mountain ranges, parakeet-green waterfalls, countless ways of showing white-capped waves, and dark forests highlighted with patches of orangy-red and ivory-white, Chambers’s pictures can flood your senses with the excitement of carnival color and intuitive brushwork. Mountains loom, pathways dip and rise, clouds dance across the sky, and the sails of his ships billow (or crumble in images of naval warfare) according to, it seems, some impetuous sense of design. Even his largest pictures, which are some four feet wide (most are in the vicinity of two and a half feet wide), have about them the spirit of sketches that have been worked up. We look at bold, clear-cut areas of light and dark, seemingly thrown into place with a rhythmic assurance.

Foster wrote the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, which is co-published by the Philadelphia Museum and Yale University Press.

Ted Solotaroff

Last summer I pulled Ted Solotaroff’s The Literary Community: Selected Essays, 1967–2007 from the shelves of free galleys at the office where I then worked. I was intrigued by the title, and was encouraged by the blurbs from Ian McEwan and Richard Stern, both of whom I have read and enjoyed. I had also been primed by my discovery, thanks to scattered blog posts, of Wilfred Sheed’s writing; in Solotaroff, I hoped to encounter another smart, sympathetic, now underappreciated critic active during the 1960s and ‘70s, decades often celebrated today as a high-water mark for (American) literary fiction. Solotaroff’s preface boded well: “As with people,” he writes, “I find that I have more to say about writers than I admire than about those I don’t. This does not preclude registering judgments that spring from a lessening of interest or esteem, for the point of reviewing an author is to deliver the experience of reading him or her, and to be less than candid is to weaken the conviction that has otherwise come to praise.” Sensible words that betrayed the sensibility—urbane and generous; not nearly as funny or pyrotechnic a writer as Sheed, but never dry—I would find throughout the collection, whether Solotaroff was discussing Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Saul Bellow, Alfred Camus, or A.B. Yehoshua. I began dipping into it regularly, and, with more than a month before school inflected the direction of my attention, I picked up an earlier collection, A Few Good Voices in My Head, at a used bookstore in Chicago. It, too, rewarded attention.

During the first week of August, I finally read “The Literary Community,” the lecture-turned-essay that gave the newer book its title. It was initially delivered in 1996 on the occasion of the Whiting Writers’ Awards ceremony. At one point a slightly melancholic tone entered into Solotaroff’s address:

As a New York literary editor and reviewer and occasional writing teacher, I was in touch for most of the past forty years with the literary community and its resources and problems, but I understand better now what it is and how it works for a writer because in recent years I’ve been living the life of an isolated and increasingly obscure member of it. About five years ago I left my place in the limelight and the Buzz, such as my portion was, and went off to live in a little town near Hampton Bays, Long Island: the working man’s Hampton, where culture begins at the little local library and ends at Blockbuster Video. Though I had anticipated and hoped for the solitude it conferred, I was surprised and dismayed to find out how soon the phone stopped ringing. The silence in my new study was matched by an even stranger silence in my head: not the silence of peace and contemplation, but the silence of inertness. I had taken my mind away from publishing and was crestfallen to find that, without its relationships and routines jogging my brain cell, not much was going on in there, except, now and then, a pounding cognitive dissonance.

At that point, having enjoyed so much of Solotaroff’s writing, I resolved to write him a letter expressing my appreciation for his work. I scanned the New York Times website to see if he was still alive, and to see learn what, if anything, I could about his recent pursuits. No obituary, and not much information, either. I inserted the task of writing to Solotaroff somewhere midway down my to-do list. I was very immediately shocked and a bit crestfallen to discover, just a few days later, an obituary of him in the paper. He had died at age eighty, of complications from pneumonia. I hadn’t known him, of course, but at the very moment he passed away his was one of the “few good voices in my head.” In “The Literary Community,” Solotaroff went on to say:

I had retired from publishing mainly to write a memoir, the story of my family and myself. Along with the time and solitude that early retirement confers, I felt I needed precisely the absence of the Buzz, which would be at best distracting and at worst destructive to my task. For I knew what the buzzers wanted, having so recently been one myself. I particularly knew what they wanted from an author like myself: they wanted to know all about what it was like to work at Commentary when Norman Podhoretz was changing his mind back in the ‘60s; or about editing Book Week by myself during the five month strike of the World Journal Tribune; or about the experiences of starting and maintaining New American Review, preferably with the lowdown on working with Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and Susan Sontag et al; or about my relationships with the New York Jewish intellectuals and the counterculture renegades; or about my adventures in trade publishing with both the Helen Wolffs and the Richard Snyders.

This did indeed sound interesting, and now The Nation has brought into print an excerpt of precisely that memoir, which Solotaroff had apparently been working on at the time of his death. The first part of “Adventures in Editing,” which covers his time with The Normans (Podhoretz and Mailer); his experience learning how to write for general-interest audiences in the office of his Commentary colleague Sherry Abel; and his interactions with Philip Rahv, among others, appears in the February 9 issue. It is characterized by the same sharply drawn portraits, self-deprecation, and crystal-clear prose as are the review-essays collected in The Literary Community, A Few Good Voices in My Head, and The Red Hot Vacuum. A second part of the article will appear in next week’s issue. For additional reading, here are links to the Times obit, an appreciation by Max Apple published in the Forward, and a blog post by James Wolcott.

George Steiner on scholarship, in a new collection of his essays

New Directions has published George Steiner at the New Yorker, a collection of fifty-three of his essays written for the magazine between the years 1967 and 1997. Here is an part of the introduction to Steiner’s review of the correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem:

It may well be that scholarship of the very first order is as rare as great art or poetry. Some of the gifts and qualities it exacts are obvious: exceeding concentration, a capacious but minutely precise memory, finesse and a sort of pious skepticism in the handling of evidence and sources, clarity of presentation. Other requisites are scarcer and more difficult to define. The truly great scholar has a truffle hound’s nose for the hidden but key document, for the concatenation of apparently disparate circumstances. He glimpses the purloined letter where others stare at wallpaper. Like a dowser, he senses the significant deeps underneath the long-trodden surface. He detects the flaw in the crystal, the false not in the archive, the covert pressure of that which has been falsified or gagged. He adheres obstinately to what Blake called “the holiness of the minute particular” but unfolds from it the application, the generalizing inference, that can alter the whole landscape of our historical, literary, and social perceptions.

But even these talents and their infrequent combination do not determine what is crucial to preeminent scholarship. No less than the master translator or actor or performer of music, the truly great scholar becomes as one with his material, however abstruse, however recondite. He melts the strength of his own personality and technical virtuosity into the historical epoch, the literary or philosophic text, the sociological fabric that he is analyzing and presenting to us. In turn, that fabric, that set of primary sources, will take on something of its interpreter’s voice and style. It will become his writing without ceasing to be itself. There is now an ancient China that is Joseph Needham’s, a Hellenistic civilization that speaks in the accents of the late Arnaldo Momigliano, a mapping of grammars which will for a long time to come carry the imprint of Roman Jakobson. Yet in each case the alchemy reinstates the strength of the material.

It is perhaps needless to say that Steiner has long been recognized for scholarship of precisely this sort; if nothing else, the figures he cites at the end of this passage indicate the breadth of his erudition. And it is interesting for me to see, in this 1990 essay, Steiner’s mention of Needham. Last year, in another book published by New Directions, My Unwritten Books, Steiner wrote at length of his unfulfilled desire to write a book-length study of the great Sinologist. Anyway, although I’ve only read the essays on Benjamin and Sholem, Anton Webern, Guy Davenport, Simone Weil, and a riveting thirty-five-page analysis of Anthony Blunt’s double life, I can recommend George Steiner at the New Yorker wholeheartedly. No doubt owners of The Complete New Yorker already have this material in their possession, but the inexpensive and lightweight New Directions paperback makes the essays far easier to carry around and read.

Interview: James Calvin Davis

James Calvin Davis is associate professor of religion at Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT. He is the author of The Moral Theology of Roger Williams: Christian Conviction and Public Ethics (Westminster John Knox, 2004) and editor of On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Works of Roger Williams (Harvard, 2008). After spending much of my autumn researching Roger Williams, and having benefitted both from Davis’s one-volume selection of Williams’s writing and his own interpretation of the Puritan dissident’s life and work, I contacted Davis to request an interview. This conversation was conducted by e-mail during January 2009; the links you’ll find in the questions and answers were inserted by me and are not to be seen as endorsements by Davis. More on Williams can be found in this December 29, 2008, TSWTT post. –BJS

* * *

In the last fifty years, historians and theologians have done much to situate Roger Williams in his seventeenth-century context and to tease out the details of his religious thinking. Recently, scholars have made great efforts to incorporate his concept of freedom of conscience into histories of the first amendment. Yet you look at Williams through the lens of morality. Can you speak about how this aspect of Williams’s thought (and life, if applicable) first appealed to you?

I first became interested in Roger Williams as a graduate student in ethics. While doing graduate studies, I developed an interest in Puritanism, and the ways in which Puritan figures and the Puritan culture helped shaped the moral and political culture of the United States, beyond the stereotypes of Puritan prudishness and theocratic control. My studies led me to Williams, and the more I read of Williams, the more I was convinced of his relevance to contemporary ethics, especially (at first) a prominent question in contemporary religious ethics, the relationship between religion and morality. Do we need religion in order to maintain a public morality? Can Christians in particular make a contribution to a vision for public morality without either appearing to endorse theocracy or appealing to a universalistic basis for morality? These kinds of questions brought me back again and again to Williams, and the more I read of him, the more fascinating a figure I was convinced he was, and the more relevant I was convinced his worldview was to our “modern” questions of public ethics. Eventually I decided to write my dissertation on him.

It has been twenty years since the last significant publication of Roger Williams’s writing, Glenn W. LaFantasie’s edition of his letters. Aside from the long time since that publication and the scant number of copies of earlier editions of his writing, what prompted you to prepare a one-volume, modernized edition of Williams’s texts?

I was motivated to prepare the collection during my graduate studies. The more I read of Williams, the more I thought others ought to as well. His continuing relevance to questions of public morality, church and state, and civility in politics seemed obvious to me, but few scholars as late as the 1990s were appealing directly to Williams because his writings were so inaccessible. Another result of this inaccessibility was that people were misunderstanding Williams, specifically missing the central importance of religion to his liberal worldview. (Incidentally, this misinterpretation still occurs; Martha Nussbaum’s work laudably resurrects Williams for a wide audience, but she insists on minimizing the impact of his Puritan religion on his views, interpreting him instead as a pre-Jefferson Jeffersonian.) I became convinced that returning Williams to a prominent place in our intellectual heritage, and getting students and scholars to read his works, required a readable edition. I hope this collection does just that.

Near the end of your introduction to On Religious Liberty, you describe Williams’s experience as a kind of “moral anthropology” that allowed him to devise an “internal argument” for the cause of religious liberty. Will you elaborate on the idea of his “moral anthropology” a little bit?

What I mean by that is that Williams offers a theological understanding of human morality, including claims about the universality of conscience and the reliability of natural moral capabilities, that allows him to argue that public morality doesn’t require government defense of religion. This is an approach that’s likely to be much more persuasive to traditional Christians (and perhaps other religious persons) than appeals to Enlightenment assumptions about the alleged private nature of religion and the preference of reason over religion. So in that way his approach allows him to make an “internal argument” to his co-religionists (then and perhaps today) for why they should support religious liberty and find alliance with secular devotees of the “separation of church and state.”

You mention in an answer above the popular (and recurrent) misinterpretation of Williams as a kind of Jeffersonian founding father born a century early. While some have suggested that, through Locke, those who conceived our country’s first amendment may have been influenced by Williams, that is not the same thing as saying they embodied his intellectual spirit—which turned precisely on the centrality of theology to his thought. Who, since Williams’s own day, embodies for you the intertwined concern for religious principles and liberal political values? I suspect you may say eighteenth-century Baptists, given the mention of them in conjunction with your discussion of Locke in the introduction to the new volume, but please feel free to pick a few figures from disparate eras.

Well, you’re right that I think the main lineage of Williams’s perspective on religious liberty is religious, and most obviously represented by the Baptists. Although the Southern Baptist Convention sometimes seems to forget the preference for “separation of church and state” advocated by their intellectual heir, historically Baptists in America have been instrumental in arguing for religious freedom, encouraging popular support for religious freedom, and demonstrating that the institutional separation of church and state can be very, very good for religious communities as well as the larger society (their prominence on the American religious scene is the best evidence). But it’s not just the Baptists who represent this theological legacy. Williams was a Puritan Calvinist, and the Calvinist tradition in the United States (e.g., Presbyterians and Congregationalists) continue his commitment to religious liberty. Furthermore, one can make the argument that Williams’s commitment to religious liberty has transformed Roman Catholicism’s perspective on the issue. Once quite hostile to the idea of true religious liberty, the Catholic Church did an about-face on the subject in the 1960s during Vatican II. The principal influence on the Church regarding this issue was an American Jesuit named John Courtney Murray, whose theological arguments show the clear influence of, among other thinkers, Roger Williams. These days even political philosophers are rediscovering Williams, most notably Martha Nussbaum, whose recent book Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality puts Williams front and center in this American tradition (though, as I said in an earlier answer, I don’t think she gets his theological indebtedness quite right). So although his influence is indirect, Williams’s effect on religious and philosophical commitments to religious liberty—in the US and more globally—is undeniable.

Which other books or essays on Williams have you found particularly helpful, either as a good introduction for readers new to him or as particularly revelatory even for those who may be familiar recent scholarly work?

Anything Edwin S. Gaustad has written on Williams is a must-read. Specifically, I’d recommend his most recent book published by Oxford in 2005, entitled (imaginatively enough) Roger Williams. He has such a readable style; that small book makes a great introduction to Williams and his importance. In addition, I warmly recommend Timothy Hall’s book Separating Church and State, in which he introduces the reader to Williams’s thought and its importance to the legal tradition of religious liberty. Hall’s book influenced me greatly.

Lastly, would you care to describe in any detail the book on “religion and the debate over moral values” that you are working on?

The book is called Good Faith Reasons: Religion and America’s Perennial Battle over Moral Values. This book, written for a general audience, is a call for clarity in the seemingly endless debates over moral values and the role of religion in those public debates. Looking at the history of religious involvement in public moral debates in this country, I argue that there is nothing wrong and a lot right with religious people wanting to contribute to American moral culture from a religious point of view. At the same time, a healthy debate over moral values has to acknowledge explicitly that there are a lot of different ways to prioritize which moral values are most important, and which values issues are most important. So in the end, the book is a call to secular liberals to be more open to religious contributions to public moral debate, and a call to religious conservatives to be open to the probability that they’re not the only ones in those debates with some kind of commitment to moral values.

Reading recommendation: Benjamin Kunkel in n+1 issue seven

One of the chief virtues of n+1, the newish journal of literary and cultural criticism, is its willingness to bring what I consider to be modernist attitudes (read: emphases on “seriousness” and morality) to bear upon contemporary phenomena. A case in point is Benjamin Kunkel’s remarkable essay “Drawn and Quartered on the Internet,” in the current issue, which carefully parses how four common types of internet usage affect public life. Because it is not now available online, I will seek here simply to outline its argument, present a few quotations from it, and encourage you to seek it out in your local bookstore.

Rather than adopt a utopian (“Technology will set us free!”) or pessimistic (“The internet fosters a kind of illiteracy!”) stance, which can obscure the topic by focusing upon future effects, Kunkel wisely and briefly acknowledges the internet’s fundamental impact on contemporary society, then attempts to ground his analysis in the experience of the internet as it now constitutes itself. He considers the internet, like the street, as an arena in which to act publicly. To organize his analysis, Kunkel presents a graph with an x axis that ranges from anonymity to identification and a y axis that ranges from expressiveness to reticence, then plots pornography, politics, commentary, and information, his four chosen modes of internet usage, in the quadrants those axes create.

Pornography, information, and commentary on the internet may be self-explanatory. (David Denby is currently receiving a lot of press attention for Snark, a denunciation of the typical form internet commentary takes.) With his term “politics” Kunkel refers to the “Gotcha!” mentality of political discourse in the internet age, in which a politician becomes a “closely monitored individual with neither the glamour of the entertainment celebrity nor as many changes for public redemption in the aftermath of a scandal.” After elaborating on each concept, Kunkel adds: “Pornography, politics, commentary, and information go together in the sense that each one, in its pure form, appears to illustrate a motto that is a variation on the mottos of the other three: I will (or won’t) tell you who I am while I do (or don’t) say how I feel. Laid out schematically like this, the four roles we’ve isolated begin to look like four moral positions.”

Having recapitulated this as context, I’d now like to quote two striking paragraphs:

This separation of pornography, politics, commentary, and information is less a theoretical position than an observed tendency. The isn’t and will never be complete; the different modes can still overlap. But the porn performer’s admission of lust, the politician’s acceptance of responsibility, the commenter’s avowal of an opinion, the informationist’s presentation of facts—more and more these things take place separately, while at the same time we seem to observe a relative (though not necessarily an absolute) decline of what might be called holistic communication or self-presentation.

These activities in their isolation overwhelm the blending or combinatory operations visible in much art and argumentation, not to mention in any ordinary life. The result is a set of separate if not perfectly sealed chambers devoted to activities inhuman in their purity. In the pure lust of porn and the pure facticity of information there is something appealing; only neither realm can be inhabited by a real person. In the politician’s total responsibility—his responsibility to a false idea of a thoroughly coherent self—there is something grotesque, as there is in the commenter’s total irresponsibility. But once again, neither realm can be inhabited by you or me.

This seems to me, based on more than a decade’s familiarity with the internet, true, and Kunkel’s description of this scenario as “an atmosphere of moral unreality” seems sound. What is dismaying is how, yet again, the technological implications of a new invention obscure its cultural implications; what we can do with it covers over what it may be doing to us. It is sobering to pause for a moment, as Kunkel has, and consider the unreflecting manner in which so many of us, myself included, have embraced the internet, especially as its conventions now seep out of the virtual realm and into other aspects of our daily lives. In fact, I’m surprised that more discussion of this essay and its implications has not arisen online. (This space is more commonly used for information than commentary, so consider this post a prompt for that discussion more than an opening salvo in it.) Matthew Boudway’s post on the blog of Commonweal magazine seems to be the only substantive mention of it now online. I once again recommend finding a copy of n+1 and reading the rest of Kunkel’s essay.


Several weeks ago Leonard Lopate interviewed on his radio program two obituary writers whose stories of the useful pressures of deadlines, necessitating last-minute scrounging in the library or on the phone (in search of evocative details), were quite charming. So I subscribed to the RSS feeds of a few newspaper and magazine obituary pages, and have just come across one in The Economist worth sharing. Although it’s without a byline I presume it was written by Anne Wroe, one of the two radio-program guests (the other was Marilyn Johnson). Its headline reads: “Gaston-Albert-Célestin Lenôtre, king of patissiers, died on January 8th, aged 88.” Beyond my never-to-be-realized fantasy of someday meriting being called “king of patissiers”—I would settle for “king of pastry eating”—some of the salient details, for me, are in this passage:

Food of all kinds he loved and lavished. At the banquets he organised at the Elysée Palace or Versailles—for he was also, from the 1960s, a caterer in the grand style, happily feeding thousands—peacocks of Parma ham stood on the tables, alongside whole stuffed pigs. His base in Yvelines, a suburb of Paris, was an industrial-sized site incorporating a school where, on any day, 400 working chefs would be retraining in every branch of cookery. But patisserie-boulangeriewas his passion. Visiting Paris as a hungry teenager, his chief impression was of bread: “good bread, real bread”.

His first sweet creation, a rice pudding, had been offered to his discerning chef-parents when he was 12.

Both images, of the Fordist pastry factory and the child trying to please his parents, are piquant (if you’ll pardon the term). I know many people who turn first to the obituary pages each morning. I’ve never done so, but in paying attention so far this year to those published in The Guardian, The Independent, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Economist, I’ve read several that lead me to understand why journalists increasingly consider The Dead Beat, as the title of Johnson’s book has it, a plum assignment. The simulating variety of subjects it offers, if nothing else, would be a welcome contrast to being, say, responsible for covering the doings of a small-town government.

Notebook: Lecia Dole-Recio review

Lecia Dole-Recio, Detail from <i>Untitled (blk.wht.crvs.cnvs.)</i>, 2008, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 62 x 59"

Lecia Dole-Recio, Detail from Untitled (blk.wht.crvs.cnvs.), 2008, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 62 x 59"

My review of Lecia Dole-Recio’s new exhibition at Casey Kaplan Gallery, on view until February 7, has just been published on Images of the show’s artworks are available on the gallery website; the artist also has an exhibition on view right now in Los Angeles, at Richard Telles Fine Art, where you can see more images of her art and read her bio. When Dole-Recio participated in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, I wrote a brief catalogue essay describing her work that is now available on my website. My friend Michael Ned Holte, whose writing I referenced in my recent review of Sharon Lockhart’s new film, has also written about Dole-Recio; his February 2006 review of her last Los Angeles gallery exhibition is available here.

UPDATE, 1/22: Christopher Knight reviews the exhibition at Richard Telles for the Los Angeles Times.

Separating Detroit from “Detroit”

Scott Hocking, <i>Ziggurat</i>, 2007-2008, an installation in an abandoned building in Detroit

Scott Hocking, Ziggurat, 2007-2008, an installation in an abandoned building in Detroit

Throughout the middle of the 1990s, I made annual springtime pilgrimages to Detroit, where I attended a weekend-long hardcore music festival. Two years ago, while dating someone originally from the city who kept a book of former mayor Coleman Young’s sayings on her nightstand, I began paying attention to its fortunes once again. Last summer, at the invitation of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, I spent a week touring around the city and attempting to get a grasp on its art scene. Instead of writing a conventional catalogue essay that limited itself to discussing the artworks included in the exhibition, I had hoped to obtain a somewhat more nuanced understanding of how the art scene there constitutes itself, and how the city’s infrastructure impacts upon what kind of art the city’s artists make. The brief text I ended up writing was limited, of course, both by how little time I actually spent there and by the constraints imposed by the difficulties inherent in slipping one’s own perspective (in my case, the perspective of a Manhattanite prone to simple awe at the radically different physical landscape of today’s Detroit).

Now the Columbia Journalism Review has brought to my attention Matt Labash’s article on Detroit published in the December 29, 2008, issue of the Weekly Standard. The CJR writer, Elinore Longobardi, favorably compares Labash’s 10,000-word report with other recent analyses of “Detroit”—not the city, but rather the metaphor for the US auto industry. As the executives from the Big Three automakers were paraded in front of Congress, I thought back to my experience in Detroit and crossed my fingers that some enterprising journalist or writer would soon travel there and report back to the rest of us what it is actually like. (Or, of course, that someone in Detroit would be recognized as an apt chronicler of the city and widely read.) Such an endeavor seems important not only for understanding the current economic woes and infrastructural problems that beset us all but Detroiters more acutely, but also because the city may also function as a laboratory for testing solutions to those problems. Or so one can hope.

Labash’s article, to a Detroit outsider, is a solid start: He inventories the current state of the city’s infrastructure, schools, economy, and government through a depressing litany of facts; profiles Charlie LeDuff, a Livonia native who once worked for the New York Times but recently returned to the Detroit News; visits an dramatically underfunded firehouse with LeDuff and hears grim tales from the firefighters; talks with political consultant Adolph Mongo and Oakland County executive L. Brooks Patterson, a homeless man named Wayne, and an urban explorer and photographer named Randy Wilcox; and even mentions the urban farming that was one focus of Rebecca Solnit’s 2007 essay on the city for Harper’s (here’s a link for those without subscriber access). What’s good about Labash’s essay is that, until the very last line, he doesn’t get too sentimental. Nor, for that matter, does he optimistically transmute the city’s problems into little more than opportunities for outsiders to fix them, a line of romantic thinking I admit I succumbed to at various points while I was there. The CJR commendation notes the relative lack of this kind of on-the-ground reporting, and cites a few examples that I haven’t read but pass on:

Recent months did give us some, if not many, other examples of good national or international reporting on the city but, interestingly, they are almost all from European or Canadian newspapers. None of them drew us in quite as surely as Labash did. But The Irish Times had a notable piece. As did The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business (which also impressed us recently with reporting on Lehman Brothers). As did The Guardian. Like Labash, these writers see the effects of Detroit’s misfortune more clearly than its causes. But by going to the city, they all come back with some good material.

And what was everyone else doing? By and large, run-of-the-mill stories on “Detroit,” where the real Detroit tended to make only cameo appearances at best. And even on the rare occasions when the city moved to center stage, reporting tends to read more like a postcard—Be glad you aren’t here!, Regards, The National Media—than a serious portrait.

I hope that “serious portrait” continues to be written. You can read some of LeDuff’s recent Detroit News articles by clicking this link. The artwork depicted above is by Scott Hocking, who skillfully guided me through the city during my visit. And here is part of the introduction to my catalogue text:
In most cities, one takes building materials for granted. Fitted seamlessly into intact structures, whether new or refurbished, a brick is not a brick, a wooden beam no longer a wooden beam. Looking at a house or a storefront or a factory is a gestalt experience; one sees house, storefront, tower, factory. Here in Detroit, as beams weather and rot, bricks crumble and accumulate as rubble, and glass breaks off into shards, the individuality and tactility returns to each material. To move through this cityscape is not to be presented with composed images; the experience is far more haptic, sensuous. The space around each building adds to this sense of embodiment, as one can see them from all sides, like sculptures, as one circles the block. Given this, it seems like all artists in this city should naturally become sculptors.

This is not to wax romantic about ruins, but merely to acknowledge very real infrastructural differences between Detroit and many other metropolitan hubs. This city’s difference from Chicago, the place where I grew up, is obvious from the vantage point of a small oval window high above its streets. Whereas in Chicago the avenues are asphalt conduits spreading outward from the waterside outcropping of towers, linking broad swaths of indistinguishable gray rooftops, in Detroit empty lots surge unexpectedly close to downtown. Uninhabited space, not quite ready to be inhabited again, surrounds you as you drive out the broad radial spokes of Michigan, Grand River, Woodward, Gratiot, and Jefferson. Broad swaths of sky, rare in the Manhattan I now call home, loom above.

Any artist who practices in this environment, and who draws sustenance from the community it shapes and supports, must therefore have a different vantage point from those who work in innumerable, undifferentiated elsewheres. New York comes to mind as an abstract social field, an incestuous pileup of ambitions rather than an agglomeration of buildings, and a place you move through in a semi-disembodied manner; so do London and, increasingly, Los Angeles. Detroit, on the other hand, remains a very real place with history, a past that has not yet been paved over or didactically annotated for tourists. The empty space, of course, poses its own problems: Among other things, it is a centrifugal force that tugs at the social bonds with which an art scene comprises itself.

Melville and the Shakers

I’ve never read a biography of Herman Melville, so I guess it’s understandable that I didn’t know he moved in 1850 to Pittsfield, MA. (He wrote Moby-Dick there, at Arrowhead, his home, which is now a National Registered Historic Landmark.) Today a short piece in the New York Times by Verlyn Klinkenborg—a wonderful writer, in my opinion; I subscribe to an RSS feed that notifies me whenever he publishes in the paper—opens this way:

When the thermometer bottoms out, I remember, again, that winter isn’t a season, it’s a place. Just over the hill is the 19th century, and somewhere beyond the river lies the 18th. Why winter should seem so much more continuous with the past than summer does is never clear to me. But this morning it’s 3 degrees, and I can hear Melville, a few miles north of where I am, writing to his sister: “The weather here has been as cold as ever. Other than the weather I know not what to write about from Pittsfield.”

In October, 2007, my girlfriend and I drove up Route 9 from Bard College and, without intending to, ended up across the border in Pittsfield, where we found Hancock Shaker Village and spent a delightful afternoon. A quick Internet search told me that Melville did something similar, although he visited the Shaker community in Mount Lebanon, NY:

Melville usually wrote in the mornings and took his family for carriage rides in the late afternoon, after a midday meal. Among their favorite outings were visits to the Shaker settlement at Mount Lebanon. […] Unlike Charles Dickens, who found the Shakers “grim” and quipped that their women were so ugly he could understand why their men were celibate, Melville was charmed by their simple handcrafted inventions, their singing, their dancing, and their nondoctrinal practice of religion. Eager to learn more about their unusual beliefs and practices, he bought a copy of A Summary View of the Millennial Church, or the United Society of Believers, Commonly Called Shakers (1848).

That excerpt is from Laurie Robertson-Lorant’s biography of the writer. Melville apparently attended their religious services. Note to self: Find a copy of Melville’s journals and see what he himself said about these encounters.

UPDATE, 1/26: Thanks to Greg Allen, of, for pointing me to Hawthorne’s account of a summertime visit to a Shaker community in the company of Melville, included in the book Twenty Days with Julia & Little Bunny by Papa.

Notebook: New Sharon Lockhart film

Sharon Lockhart, Lunch Break, 2008, production still from a color film in 35 mm transferred to HD, 83 minutes.

Sharon Lockhart, Lunch Break, 2008, production still from a color film in 35 mm transferred to HD, 83 minutes.

My review of Sharon Lockhart’s new film Lunch Break (2008), which will be presented this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival, has just been published on In a nod to the detailed “notebook” posts Caleb Crain publishes at his (consistently excellent) blog, which offer notes and background information on his essays and reviews, I’ll try here to present some context for my comments on the film. What follows will make more sense if you click on the phrase “my review” at the outset of this post and read it first.

The first thing that should be taken into consideration is that Lunch Break is part of a larger project that includes another, shorter film, titled Exit (2008), and several series of photographs. In order to write this review, I watched the two films but did not have access to images of the photographs.

The second thing to note is that my review is based on watching a DVD copy of the film at home, and that very few people who endeavor to see Lunch Break—whether in a cinema setting, as at Sundance, or in a gallery—will see it as I did. When the film was premiered recently, at Secession in Vienna, it was housed in a custom-designed hallway-like cinema created by the Los Angeles–based architecture firm Escher GuneWardena. Click here to see installation views from and read about that exhibition. Lockhart has collaborated with this firm on the design of past installations, examples of which can be found at the firm’s website.

In preparation for writing, I re-read several reviews of and essays about Lockhart’s work. One that is available online was written by my friend Michael Ned Holte on the occasion of Lockhart’s last film-and-photograph project, Pine Flat (2005). His essay can be found here. Pine Flat was generally well-received, and I enjoyed it both in a gallery environment (at Barbara Gladstone in New York) and in a cinema setting (at the Museum of Modern Art). For a dissenting view, read this review by Jerry Saltz, which was originally published in the Village Voice.

In my review of Lunch Break, I mention recent films by Tacita Dean, Mark Lewis, and James Benning. A web-quality clip of Dean’s film Kodak (2006) is available online at [Thanks to Martin Herbert for pointing out the link.] A handful of stills, however, are available at Kultureflash. James Quandt discussed the film in a November 2006 review of Dean’s exhibition at Schaulager in Basel, Switzerland, and I wrote about the film, which I saw at the Guggenheim Museum in 2007, in the premiere issue of the magazine Paper Monument. Lewis’s film Children’s Games, Heygate Estate (2002) is available (in a web-quality version) at his personal website. I saw that film in an exhibition at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies circa 2002 or 2003, and later reviewed Lewis’s first New York solo show for Artforum. Lastly, I saw James Benning’s RR (2007) at a New York Film Festival press screening and other recent films of his at a screening last September at Dia Beacon, where the filmmaker also spoke before an audience with curator Lynne Cooke. There is an avalanche of commentary on this film available online, much of it capably rounded up by David Hudson at GreenCine Daily, his former blog. Cinema Scope magazine has also made available online a long interview with Benning.

Lastly, the film is a study of the workers at the Bath Iron Works, in Bath, Maine. The company website is located here, but even more information about it, including a list of the ships it has built (primarily for the US Navy), is available at this Wikipedia page.

I’m unsure where and when Lockhart’s recent series will appear in New York, but I’ll update this post whenever I find out.

Hocquet Caritat

Consider this post a bookmark (“book mark”?) meant to spur my own further library research.

Early in Thomas Bender’s New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City, from 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time (1987), he comments briefly on a figure previously unknown to me, Hocquet Caritat. Bender writes, “If there was any one indispensible institution in the intellectual life of New York in the 1790s, it was the bookshop tended by the French immigrant Hocquet Caritat. His bookshop brought European learning to New York; he imported the Enlightenment. His contribution to ‘the literary life of New York,’ Gilbert Chinard has rightly observed, ‘can hardly be overemphasized.’”

This is the New York of the Friendly Club, a coterie of budding intellectuals and businessmen spearheaded by Elihu Hubbard Smith. (Bryan Waterman’s Republic of Intellect: The Friendly Club of New York City and the Making of American Literature is on my nightstand’s to-read pile.) Smith died at twenty-seven, in 1798, and the club dissipated; Bender notes that in 1801 “Caritat tried to re-create the group … when he established a ‘Literary Assembly’ in the reading room he organized at the City Hall in association with his bookshop.” Although it never really got off the ground, it is notable that in 1803 Caritat also invited women to participate in this assembly’s activities.

According to Thomas Augst and Kenneth E. Carpenter’s Institutions of Reading: The Social Life of Libraries in the United States, by 1800, “Caritat had a library of over 3,000 volumes and a stock of books for sale or rent of over 30,000 volumes. His 1804 catalogue included almost 2,000 novels.” It was located, according to George Gates Raddin, at 93 Pearl Street, near Old-Slip, and then later moved to No. 1 City Hotel, Broadway (on the block immediately above Trinity Church). Raddin seems to be the definitive scholar of Caritat; his 1953 book The New York of Hocquet Caritat and His Associates, 1797–1817, sometimes referred to as Hocquet Caritat and the Early New York Literary Scene, seems to be the most influential single volume on the subject.

A bookseller, librarian, publisher (of Charles Brockden Brown among others), and friend to autodidacts in early New York—definitely someone to learn more about.

“The Sentence Is a Lonely Place”

So says short story writer Gary Lutz, whose address to the students of Columbia University’s writing program, delivered last September, has been reprinted in the January issue of The Believer. Thankfully it is one of the texts reproduced in full online. (Link via The Dizzies.) Here is an excerpt:

I can’t remember reading anything with much comprehension until eighth grade, when, studying for a science test for once, I decided to try making my way quietly through the chapter from start to finish—it was a chapter about magnets—and found myself forced to form the sounds of the words in my head as I read. Many of the words were unfamiliar to me, but the words fizzed and popped and tinkled and bonged. I was reading so slowly that in many a word I heard the scrunch and flump of the consonants and the peal of the vowels. Granted, I wasn’t retaining much of anything, but almost every word now struck me as a provocative hullabaloo. This was my first real lesson about language—this inkling that a word is a solid, something firm and palpable. It was news to me that a word is matter, that it exists in tactual materiality, that it has a cubic bulk. Only on the page is it flat and undensified. In the mouth and in the mind it is three-dimensional, and there are parts that shoot out from it or sink into its syntactic surround.

Hints of Lutz’s unique style (somewhat muffled at this point in the lecture), as well as evidence of what he is discussing, appear in this passage. I would have great difficulty were I try to try imitating Lutz’s granular, volumetric sentences. In fact, I have no desire to try. But every now and again I feel a craving for them, and so I turn to one of his story collections (Stories in the Worst Way and I Looked Alive) or to Christine Schutt’s A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer, which I find rewarding in similar ways—a thought I was grateful to find confirmed by Lutz’s own comments on her work, later in the lecture. (Others, for all I know, might bristle at the comparison.) Lutz continues:

It took me almost another decade after graduate school to figure out what writing really is, or at least what it could be for me; and what prompted this second lesson in language was my discovery of certain remaindered books—mostly of fiction, most notably by Barry Hannah, and all of them, I later learned, edited by Gordon Lish—in which virtually every sentence had the force and feel of a climax, in which almost every sentence was a vivid extremity of language, an abruption, a definitive inquietude. These were books written by writers who recognized the sentence as the one true theater of endeavor, as the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy. As a reader, I finally knew what I wanted to read, and as someone now yearning to become a writer, I knew exactly what I wanted to try to write: narratives of steep verbal topography, narratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummated language—the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.

He then tries “to explain what it is that such sentences all seem to have in common and how in fact they might well have been written,” and the effort is, to me, worth reading in full. He performs a very particular form of close reading that may very well follow you into whatever book or magazine you subsequently read. Also of interest: Three years ago The Believer published an interview with Lutz, which is not online in full but is nonetheless to be found here.

The work that remains to be done

This morning, while waiting for water to come to a boil, I read the brief titular essay in Wendell Berry’s collection What Are People FOR? It was first published in 1985. An hour later, opening today’s Times to the Op-Ed page, I came across “A 50-Year Farm Bill,” an editorial Berry coauthored with Wes Jackson. The similarities between the two are striking—and sobering.

1985: “The departure of so many people has seriously weakened rural communities and economies all over the country. And that our farmland no longer has enough caretakers is implied by the fact that, as the farming people have departed from the land, the land itself has departed. Our soil erosion rates are now higher than they were in the time of the Dust Bowl.”

2009: “Civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland. This irremediable loss, never enough noticed, has been made worse by the huge monocultures and continuous soil-exposure of the agriculture we now practice. To the problem of soil loss, the industrialization of agriculture has added pollution by toxic chemicals, now universally present in our farmlands and streams. Some of this toxicity is associated with the widely acclaimed method of minimum tillage. We should not poison our soils to save them.”

1985: “Equally important is the question of the sustainability of the urban food supply. The supermarkets are, at present, crammed with food, and the productivity of American agriculture is, at present, enormous. But this is a productivity based on the ruin both of the producers and of the source of production.”

2009: “Industrial agricultural has made our food supply entirely dependent on fossil fuels and, by substituting technological “solutions” for human work and care, has virtually destroyed the cultures of husbandry (imperfect as they may have been) once indigenous to family farms and farming neighborhoods. Clearly, our present ways of agriculture are not sustainable, and so our food supply is not sustainable.”

The two texts dovetail further. One can only imagine the frustration of sounding the same alarm, rationally and eloquently, for decades without the gratification of hearing it echo through the halls of power. I’m glad nonetheless that Berry keeps up the effort. I should add, though, that while I admire his brief essays, which are often published as opinion pieces, I prefer Berry’s longer efforts. See, for example, “Writer and Region” in the collection cited above. One of the most powerful I’ve read recently was titled “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits” and published in the April 2008 Harper’s.

Being thorough about listening to my music collection

Unwound. Date unknown, photographer unknown.

Unwound. Date unknown, photographer unknown.

During the decade after I discovered punk rock music and DIY culture in the early 1990s, I consumed music voraciously. I ordered albums from record-label and distributor catalogues; attended shows, up to four nights a week, in sweat-scented basements, bowling alleys, bars, church recreation halls, and all-ages clubs; and dissected Maximum Rock’n’Roll, Punk Planet, and other zines like a Talmudic scholar. Yet at some point after I moved to New York in 2001, I became a passive music listener. I didn’t listen to music less often—even today silence descends upon my apartment only when it’s time to sleep—but I rarely pulled the seven-inch singles out from beneath the bed or made mix CDs (or, God forbid, tapes) for friends. Listening to music gave way, as my guiding passion, to looking at art and to reading books.

Most of what I listen to is now housed on my computer. Because of a hard-drive failure last summer, the iTunes “play count” of thousands of songs I had amassed and listened to repeatedly was reset to zero. About a month ago, after a majority of my music had passed through my speakers again, I set myself the task of listening to every remaining unplayed song in my digital music library at least once by the end of the year—a total of about three thousand tracks. I missed my deadline by two days, but late this morning I finally listened to the last track: Unwound’s “Disappoint,” from The Future of What (1995).

The endeavor sparked realizations both basic—“Duh!” moments—and more fascinating. In the former category, I discovered I never knew Ida’s “Golden Hours,” from Ten Small Paces (1997), was a cover of a Brian Eno composition, despite having listened to his version of it, on Another Green World (1975), several times. In the latter category, esoteric continuities cemented themselves in my mind. For example, the guitars on Messele Asmamaw’s “Ethiopia Hagere,” on the second volume of the wonderful “Ethiopiques” series, brought to mind the seven-track suite Christopher Willits contributed to a compilation, E*A*D*G*B*E, released a few years ago by the experimental electronic-music label 12k. (Here is a link to a sample of the Asmamaw; here is a link to the sample of the Willits. Draw your own conclusions.)

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my quixotic endeavor would serve to reconnect me, partially, to a world from which I’d drifted away. I’d forgotten how urgent, vital, and trenchant are certain songs by hardcore groups from the 1980s and ‘90s like Bad Brains and Born Against. (Seriously, how great are the albums Nine Patriotic Hymns for Children and Battle Hymns of the Race War?) I’d forgotten the pleasures, first learned at an early age from my father, of great Motown music. I had never known that Bach’s French Suites, as played by Glenn Gould, are as delightful as the English Suites (especially Suite No. 2 in A Minor) that I treasure so much.

It’s perhaps appropriate that the last song I heard on this month-long quest was by Unwound. The Olympia-based trio and the DC-based group Hoover have been for over a decade two of my favorite bands, offering energy and sustenance through all manner of changes in my life. The Future of What and Hoover’s posthumous “documentation” album are both among my desert-island discs. Perhaps, since there are no rules here and I am feeling inspired, I will try to write in the coming months a few personal accounts of the experiences, still vibrant in my mind, of seeing the bands whose music was once like oxygen in my blood.

In the meantime, in the spirit of sharing a rediscovered enthusiasm, here is an MP3 of “Disappoint”:

Smart commissioning: LRB and Drew Gilpin Faust

Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War has received incredible press attention, both because it is a well-written work by a respected historian and because its author was recently named president of Harvard University. Eric Foner praised it in The Nation; Geoffrey C. Ward did as well, in The New York Times Book Review. (The NYTBR has also made the book’s first chapter available online.) Many of the those reviews were published in January of last year, when the book came out. Others, arriving later, rightly paired Faust’s book with Mark S. Schantz’s Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death, which was released last May and covers similar territory. These include Adam Gopnik’s review, in The New Yorker; James M. McPherson’s, in the New York Review of Books (not available free online); and T.J. Jackson Lears’s, in Bookforum.

What, then, does an editor do if he or she knows his piece is to be published months after the critical reaction to Faust’s book has been established, and after her book’s relationship to Schantz’s has likewise been outlined? Someone on the staff of the London Review of Books had the presence of mind to pair Faust’s work with another book, Mark E. Neely’s The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction (PDF excerpt here), and to commission the review from a historian whose primary focus is Europe. That 7,500-word review, by Thomas Laqueur, appears in the December 18 issue. The treatment of Faust’s book benefits from the novel juxtaposition with Neely’s title, as well as from the comparisons to European wars that Laqueur is able to draw. I had thought I wouldn’t want to read another review of Faust’s book, but the smart commissioning—and the quality of the resultant essay—drew me in.

Roger Williams in the eyes of historians since 1950

Bloudy Tenent

(Image courtesy Library of Congress; link to Google Books scan of the text)

One of the two term papers I wrote this past semester surveyed the reputation of Roger Williams as it has broadened and deepened since about 1950. Here is part of the introduction (minus footnotes, but with links):

In the public imagination, Roger Williams—Puritan dissident, founder of Providence, tireless proponent (in both England and New England) of freedom of conscience—does not loom as large as does some of his fellow Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers or the founding fathers of the United States. Yet for historians of the Puritan settlers in New England, religious historians, and, to an increasing degree, legal scholars, Williams has become, in the previous half-century, a major figure. He is considered in relationship to his fellow Puritan settlers, his English contemporaries, and to those like Benjamin Franklin who, approximately one hundred years after his death, made indirect use of some of his key ideas. He is present in debates about both British colonial theology and politics, and is now central, as he should be, to any conversation about the interface between the two subjects in seventeenth-century New England. On Religious Liberty, a new selection of Williams’s writings edited by James Calvin Davis, is the first of his own words since the publication, in 1988, of Glenn W. LaFantasie’s two-volume collection of his letters and, before that, the 1963 reprint (and small expansion) of the six-volume Narragansett Club edition first published between 1866 and 1874. (In 1951, Winthrop S. Hudson edited and wrote the introduction to a reprint of Williams’s little book Experiments of Spiritual Life and Health [1652], which was meant as a letter of encouragement to his wife Mary.) An accessible, sensitively modernized, one-volume selection of Williams’s major writings is made more important by the realization that the Narragansett Club volumes were published in an edition of less than two hundred sets and the Russell & Russell reprint of 1963 in an edition of four hundred sets. Any opportunity to revisit the words of a historical figure is bound to provoke assessments of his or her legacy, and Davis’s selection provides an excellent opportunity to consider Williams’s place in the historical landscape. What aspects of Williams’s life and thought have been emphasized by historians in the last half-century?

I spend approximately 4,500 words answering that question, and then conclude:

James Calvin Davis, who edited the volume of Williams’s writings that prompted this survey, has written his own book on Williams, titled The Moral Theology of Roger Williams: Christian Conviction and Public Ethics. Eschewing biographical fastidiousness for theological interpretation, Davis sees Williams’s twenty-first-century relevance as extending beyond First Amendment debates to also include helping “Christian thinkers [grapple] with the relationship between confessional integrity and participation in public moral discourse.” He offers Williams as progenitor of a middle way between Christian particularists and universalists, someone who could balance theological integrity and a concern for civic society. This seems, after the last half-century of Williams scholarship, eminently sensible—a nuanced, occasionally self-contradictory Williams who can be seen as an example for our time without being extracted from his own era for the purpose of making a point. LeRoy Moore, in his 1965 article, deemed what I’ve called the “theological turn” the beginning of a realistic assessment of Williams’s life and thought. At the time, Moore’s use of the term may have been somewhat premature. But after several decades of further study, in which Williams’s thinking has been connected to early Separatists, General Baptists, exemplars of millenarian thought, his fellow Puritans in Massachusetts, and others who lived before, during, and after his life; his correspondence has been rounded up and sensitively annotated; and exhaustive studies of his Biblical interpretation have been conducted, we may now have a fairly “realistic” portrait of Roger Williams.

If so, this figure—dismissed literally by his fellow Puritans and figuratively by their eighteenth-century chroniclers, resuscitated and elevated by nineteenth-century biographers and historians eager to place him at the headwaters of American democracy, and finally situated contextually and thoroughly vetted by recent scholars—seems ready for mainstream attention. In 2005, Edwin W. Gaustad introduced him to a general-interest audience in a brief biography (filled with pictures, maps, and excerpts of other secondary material) that is part of a series that also features Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, and Mark Twain. LaFantasie condensed his deep knowledge of Williams into an article for the popular magazine American History in 2007. Ethan Fishman, a professor of political science, suggested in a 2007 essay in The American Scholar that contemporary religious groups have ignored Roger Williams at their peril. And Martha Nussbaum, one of our country’s most respected, astute, and prolific political and ethical philosophers, acknowledged the new publication of Williams’s writing with a rapturous review—it resuscitates the dreaded word “hero” used by Progressive historians—published in The New Republic, in which she suggests Williams’s “work and career provide the basis for a politics based on equal respect for conscience.”

Van Wyck Brooks once made the distinction between “highbrow” and “lowbrow,” appointed the characteristics to Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin, respectively, and suggested that each figure, in “their singular purity of type and in the apparent incompatibility of their aims … determined the American character.” Thirty years ago literary critic Quentin Anderson recast Brooks’s terms—he uses “practical” and “visionary”—and suggested that the struggle between the two types occurs within each American. Reverse their order and these terms capture something of the complex portrait we now have of Roger Williams. A visionary cast out of Massachusetts Bay Colony for his fervid beliefs, he was nonetheless practical enough to survive among the Indians, maintain both a family and a transatlantic network of intellectual contacts, and found a settlement extant nearly four centuries later. The successful reconciliation of these contradictory impulses was essential to Williams’s character, and offers perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from him today.

After reading over a dozen books on Williams’s life and thought, I find my interest in him has not abated. He remains for me an admirable, if eccentric, character.

Rene Daalder’s Here Is Always Somewhere Else

Not long after I moved to New York in 2001, I was hired by a gallery on far west Twenty-second Street. At the time the curator (and now Greene Naftali Gallery director) Jay Sanders and the artist Richard Aldrich were working on the same block, and we comprised an unofficial Bas Jan Ader fan club. We passed photocopies of essays about him back and forth like contraband and eagerly discussing the finer points of his art and its interpretation. In the intervening years Ader has been definitively taken up by the art world at large. (I recognize, of course, that that process was well under way when I first discovered his work.) In 2005, as part of PERFORMA, Jay organized a screening of Rene Daalder’s then in-progress documentary about the artist. Unfortunately I missed the event, but that film, Here Is Always Somewhere Else: The Disappearance of Bas Jan Ader, was completed last year and has now been released on DVD. Unfortunately it is rather disappointing, as my review (just published on makes fairly clear, though its faults are instructive. It was tempting to go on at length about Ader in this review, but eventually I decided that this wasn’t the appropriate venue. I still harbor the desire, somewhere deep down, to write at length about Ader’s work—or, rather, Ader’s work itself and the experience of encountering it directly after imbibing the myth that now surrounds him.

Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, H-SHEAR

howe_book_coverYesterday morning I completed what is perhaps the longest book I’ve ever read: Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (Oxford University Press). The transformation that Howe studies involves the “revolutions” of both communications and transportation during the period. This is in marked contrast to earlier interpretations of the era, which have tended to focus on Andrew Jackson (cf. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Sean Wilentz) or on the “market revolution” (cf. Charles Sellers). In her lucid, engaging New Yorker review of What Hath God Wrought, historian Jill Lepore details some of the background information concerning Howe and Sellers:

Howe’s book is the most recent installment in the prestigious Oxford History of the United States. This would not be worth mentioning except that the book that was initially commissioned to cover this period, Charles Sellers’s “The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846,” was rejected by the series editor, the late, distinguished historian C. Vann Woodward, and it is Sellers against whom Howe argues, if with a kind of gentlemanly diffidence. (Oxford did publish Sellers’s book, in 1991, just not as part of the series.) Sellers, a historian at Berkeley, claimed that the greatest transformation of the first half of the nineteenth century—indeed, the defining event in American and even in world history—was no mere transformation but a revolution, from an agrarian to a capitalist society. “Establishing capitalist hegemony over economy, politics, and culture, the market revolution created ourselves and most of the world we know,” Sellers wrote.


Sellers’s was the thesis that launched a thousand dissertations; evidence of the market revolution seemed to be everywhere; it seemed to explain everything. In “The Market Revolution Ate My Homework,” a thoughtful essay published in Reviews in American History in 1997, the historian Daniel Feller observed that “a monograph that presupposes a market revolution will certainly discover one.” His caution went unheard.

So it is a rare and refreshing kind of heresy that Daniel Walker Howe, who studied briefly under Sellers at Berkeley in the nineteen-sixties, and who is best known for his 1979 book, “The Political Culture of the American Whigs,” refuses to use the term “market revolution” in his grand synthesis. (Signalling his quarrel with the other recent sweeping interpretation of this period, Sean Wilentz’s pro-Jackson “The Rise of American Democracy,” Howe dedicates his book to the memory of John Quincy Adams, Jackson’s political nemesis, and avoids using the phrase “Jacksonian America,” on the ground that “Jackson was a controversial figure and his political movement bitterly divided the American people.”) Howe has three objections to Sellers’s thesis. First, the market revolution, if it happened at all, happened earlier, in the eighteenth century. Second, it wasn’t the tragedy that Sellers makes it out to be, because “most American family farmers welcomed the chance to buy and sell in larger markets,” and they were right to, since selling their crops made their lives better. Stuff was cheaper: a mattress that cost fifty dollars in 1815 (which meant that almost no one owned one) cost five in 1848 (and everyone slept better). Finally, the revolution that really mattered was the “communications revolution”: the invention of the telegraph, the expansion of the postal system, improvements in printing technology, and the growth of the newspaper, magazine, and book-publishing industries.

Howe’s dedication signals his admiration for Adams; Henry Clay is the other figure he holds in greast esteem. (In fact, Howe engages in some potentially dicey “What If?” speculation three-quarters of the way through the book, deciding that perhaps the United States would have fought neither the Mexican War nor the Civil War had Clay won the extremely close presidential election of 1844.)

Anyway, this is all potentially year-old news were it not for the fact that I just discovered, via Ralph E. Luker’s post on the HNN blog Cliopatria, that H-SHEAR, the electronic mailing list of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, has lately sponsored a series of essays on particular aspects of Howe’s book. In class, my professor related the story that of all the prizes Howe’s book won—including the Pulitzer Prize and the New-York Historical Society American History Book Prize—the author was most proud of receiving SHEAR’s book prize. So it is particularly interesting to read assessments of the book from the perspectives of economic history, political history, Native American history, etc. The easiest way to find all of these responses is to click here, which takes you to a search for Howe’s name in all of the 2008 messages on H-SHEAR; those in the series are titled “HOWE FORUM.”

Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah


Matteo Gorrone, <i>Gomorrah</i>, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 137 minutes. Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone).

Matteo Garrone, Gomorrah, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 137 minutes. Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone).

Last Thursday afternoon I had the pleasure of seeing Gomorrah, director Matteo Garrone’s sixth feature film and winner of the Grand Prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. It plunges viewers directly into the vicious lives of the Neapolitan mafia (the Camorra) as they unfold in and around an oversize, crumbling modernist apartment block. The Camorra, with its tentacles reaching into in every aspect of Naples’s social and economic life, exerts a gravitational pull on the several youths whose stories Garrone chronicles—among them Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), who delivers groceries for his mother’s market before being initiated into one faction of the underworld, and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) and Marco (Marco Macor), teens who hope to turn their petty crimes into an independent fiefdom of their own. (Interestingly, at several points in the film Marco acts out scenes from Scarface, evidence that cinematic myths are now inextricably entwined with the figures’ hard-knock lives.) As if to emphasize how encompassing the Camorra really is, the film also focuses on the elderly Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), a longtime payoff delivery man who is distraught by the nameless centrifugal forces pulling apart his world.

The story was adapted by a handful of sreenwriters from Roberto Saviano’s journalistic exposé of the same name, which received much attention when it was published, first in Italy (causing Saviano to go into hiding) and then in English. Perhaps because of this multi-author adaptation, narrative clarity is difficult to come by in the film: one never truly understands which factions are battling and why, who is in charge of the cocaine trade that underpins much of the activity, or how these groups interact with that (perhaps narrow) slice of the population not directly involved with illegal activities. Perhaps this can be seen as paralleling the chaotic jumble of shifting alliances that marks the characters’ lives. It took a while to adjust to the lack of broader context, but the two-and-a-quarter-hour film more than makes up in excitement and visual beauty for what it lacks in narrative cohesion. (A favorite shot, one of the few to offer a broader perspective on the film’s relentless violent assault, depicts youths playing in a small plastic swimming pool on a balcony while thugs patrol the rooftop just above them.)

GreenCine Daily has two posts with roundups from Cannes and the New York Film Festival. One of the critical comments, by John Magary, sums up my feelings about the film fairly well: “There’s no Don Corleone here, no Family to pin. There’s just terminal disease.” From a piece in The Guardian: “In casting his film, Garrone made a point of using local people as extras, adding an unpolished intensity to his documentary-style camerawork. We are always uncomfortably close to the action, like another member of the crowd; in the dimly lit corridors and cramped kitchens, we are not granted the privilege of seeing what’s about to happen. Garrone said he wanted to film Gomorrah like a war report, because that is, essentially, what it is.” Click here for the trailer. It opens in New York at the IFC Center in February.

Robert H. Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination

In late September I posted to the site a review of Daniel Vickers’s book Farmers and Fishermen that I had written for a class. Here is the review I wrote of Robert H. Abzug’s 1994 book Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (Oxford University Press).

Front-page detail from William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper <i>The Liberator</i>, April 23, 1831

Front-page detail from William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper

Robert H. Abzug’s engaging study of nineteenth-century reform-movement figures, including those who agitated for temperance, abolitionism, and women’s rights, argues that their aims can only be understood in the context of their religious thinking. Readers must “try to comprehend the sacred significance they bestowed upon … worldly arenas” (viii). Abzug, professor of history and at the time of this publication director of the American Studies program at the University of Texas, offers roughly chronological, loosely linked portraits of some of the era’s increasingly fervent and frequently popular reformers, from the late-eighteenth-century physician Benjamin Rush through abolitionist firebrand William Lloyd Garrison to women’s-rights pioneers Sarah and Angelina Grimké. Though Abzug’s approach sometimes leaves readers short on cultural and social context, and tends to barely sketch in the movements’ later developments, the book’s thumbnail spiritual-intellectual biographies convincingly place cosmological thinking at the heart of his protagonists’ zeal.

Abzug correctly characterizes the first half of the nineteenth century as a period of profound instability, during which time American citizens grappled with the definition of the country itself, the practical application of the separation of church and state, and the shift to a commercial-industrial economy. “Reform sects arose largely in New England,” Abzug notes, “a region particularly hard hit by each of these historical forces” (5). New England’s tight weave of social, political, and religious order not only helped provide a religious underpinning for the reformers’ secular causes, it would also be the locus of resistance to the changes that these figures advocated. In recasting sacred communal identity and covenantal theology to suit their own purposes, Abzug’s “religious virtuosos” threatened the cosmic underpinning of two centuries of New England life. The ensuing friction between tradition and innovation across the northeast propels Abzug’s stories.

Yet the father figure of these religious-minded secular reformers lived not in New England but in Philadelphia. Dr. Benjamin Rush drew upon late-eighteenth-century intellectual currents, including Republicanism, the Scottish Enlightenment, and millennial Christianity, to devise a “remarkable program for social and personal change: abolition, temperance, elimination of the death penalty, human treatment of criminals and the insane, [and] educational reform” (12). These revolutionary goals, presented to the public mostly through pamphlets during the Revolutionary era, were rooted in the same “framework of American identity and Godly judgment” (16) that would likewise ground those who inherited his reform spirit. Rush, like his successors, sought a ritual life that would bring all Christians together, a task that necessitated a “cosmic vision outside of individual sects” (19); the idea of America itself became Rush’s sustaining “church,” and the ideal against which all claims to millennial truth were to be judged. The “radiant strands of [Rush’s] Christian Republican vision” (27), however, would not survive the turmoil of the 1790s; his legacy was the application of the language of the jeremiad to a post-Revolutionary America that endorsed pluralism and religious toleration.
Continue reading

The earliest telephone numbers in New York; area codes

The answer to one question in this week’s “FYI” column, in the Times‘s city section, is totally fascinating. Here is the question and response:

Q: Given the ubiquitousness of cellphones, it’s easy to forget that telephones are historical artifacts, but I’ve often wondered: What is the oldest telephone number still in use in New York?

A: Here’s an educated guess.

Telephone numbers were introduced in the city in 1880; callers told the operator the number they wanted. The Spring exchange is thought to be the oldest named exchange to have survived into the 1960s, the era of all-digital dialing and the gradual elimination of exchange names.

Phone exchange listings with phone numbers first appeared in New York Times advertisements in 1882; an example was Spring 255, for a funeral parlor.

The older numbers had two or three digits. Later, four digits were used. In December 1920, as the phone company prepared for direct local dialing, all numbers became four digits. The older two- and three-digit numbers acquired four digits by adding one or two zeroes: Spring 255, say, would have become Spring 0255.

Four-digit exchange numbers remained standard until Dec. 31, 1930, when a fifth digit was added, as in PEnnsylvania 6-5000, the famous Hotel Pennsylvania number, which still exists in its numeric form, 736-5000. But in the 1920s, subscribers with dial telephones were using the first three letters of the exchange name, dialing the numbers that corresponded to the letters (SPR for Spring would have been 777.)

So for the oldest numbers still in use, you might look for 777-0XXX or 777-00XX, whose two- or three-digit ancestors may have been in use a century ago under the Spring exchange.

I’m not particularly good at math, but I’m great at remembering numbers. I used to be able to list the area codes of just about every major city in the United States. This was a party game at the kinds of not-so-exciting parties I attended between the ages of twelve and, say, nineteen. At the time, all three-digit area codes had either a zero or a one as the middle digit. As I understand it, only as the number of two-phone-line homes increased and cell phones were introduced was the technology generated to create more area codes than such a limitation could supply. A quick check of Wikipedia seems to confirm this is partly true and prove that the website’s contributors have too much time on their hands:

The United States has experienced rapid growth in the number of area codes, particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s. There are two main reasons for this. First, there is the increasing demand for telephone services (particularly due to widescale adoption of fax, modem, and cell phone communications). The second and more important reason is due to telecom deregulation of local telephone service in the United States beginning in the early to mid-1990s. At that time, the Federal Communications Commission began allowing telecommunication companies to compete with the incumbent local service provider (usually by forcing the existing monopoly service provider to lease infrastructure to other local providers who then resold the service to consumers). However, due to the original design of the numbering plan and telephone switching network which assumed only a single provider, number allocations had to be made in 10,000-number blocks. Thus, anytime a new local service provider entered a certain market it would be allocated 10,000 numbers by default, even if the provider managed to obtain few (if any) customers. As more companies began requesting numbering allocations, this caused many area codes to begin exhausting their supply of available numbers (code “in jeopardy” in telecom jargon), and additional area codes were needed. In reality many of the new telecom ventures were not successful and while the number of area codes started increasing rapidly, this did not necessarily translate to a much larger number of actual telephone subscribers as large blocks of numbers lay unassigned to any “real” subscribers due to the 10,000-number block allocation requirement.

In general, area codes were added either as “splits” (in which an area code was divided into two or more regions, one retaining the older area code and the other areas receiving a new code), or “overlays”, in which multiple area codes were assigned to the same geographical area. Subtle variations of these techniques have been used as well, such as “dedicated overlays” (in which the new overlaid area code was reserved for a particular type of service, such as cell phones and pagers (the only true example of this was area code 917 in New York City) and “concentrated overlays”, in which some of the area retained a single area code, while the rest of the region received an overlay code.

After the remaining valid area codes were used up in expansion, in 1995 the rapid increase in the need for more area codes (both splits and overlays) forced NANPA to allow the digits 2-8 to be used as a middle digit in new area code assignments, with 9 being reserved as a “last resort” for potential future expansion. At the same time, local exchanges were allowed to use 1 or 0 as a middle digit. The first Area codes without a 1 or 0 as the middle digit were Area code 334 in Alabama and Area code 360 in Washington, which both began service on January 15, 1995. Area codes, or “number planning areas” ending in double digits, such as toll-free 800, 888, 877, and 866, personal 700 numbers, and high-toll 900 numbers, are reserved as easily-recognizable codes(ERCs) and are not issued to actual areas (Nevada was denied lucky 777 for this reason).

A highlight of looking up this information on Wikipedia: “‘Area Code’ redirects here. For the song by Ludacris, see Area Codes (song).”

Sharon Core at Yancey Richardson Gallery

Sharon Core, Strawberries and Ostrich Egg, 2007, color photograph, 17 x 23".

Over the weekend my review of Sharon Core’s new exhibition at Yancey Richardson Gallery was published on It begins: “What pictorial genre seems to require less interpretive acumen than the painted still life? Accumulations of fruit and fish and fowl are all exquisite surfaces, and invite surface readings. But photographer Sharon Core, after making a reputation with images of her re-creations of Wayne Thiebaud’s dessert tableaux, proves once again with her exhibition ‘Early American’ that profound questions of representation can reside within simple compositions.” The title of her exhibition references her use of early American painter Raphaelle Peale’s still-life paintings as sources. In browsing catalogues, monographic studies, and journal articles about Peale while preparing the review, I came across one book that seems particularly interesting: Alexander Nemerov’s The Body of Raphaelle Peale: Still Life and Selfhood, 1812–1824 (University of California Press, 2001). Core’s exhibition remains on view until December 6; for a selection of images that are larger than the ones available on the gallery website, please visit this post on the The Moment, the T style magazine blog.

Sydney Smith’s “recipe for combating low spirits”

Sydney SmithAfter publishing the post below, I pulled out The Selected Writings of Sydney Smith, edited and with an introduction by W.H. Auden. In his introduction, Auden offers this: “Physically, [Smith] was swarthy, sturdy tending to stoutness and suffering in later life from gout. Mentally, like so many funny  men, he had to struggle constantly against melancholia: he found it difficult to get up in the morning, he could not bear dimly lit rooms—’Better,’ he wrote, ‘to eat dry bread by the splendour of gas than to dine on wild beef with wax-candles’—and music in a minor key upset him. Writing to a friend who was similarly afflicted, he gave his own recipe for combating low spirits.”

1. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°.

2. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea.

3. Be as busy as you can.

4. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you, and of those acquaintances who amuse you.

5. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.

6. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling and emotion, not ending in active benevolence.

7. Keep good blazing fires.

8. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.

Auden glosses the compendium drolly: “This illustrates well enough both the virtues of his mind and its limitations.” I can vouch for suggestions two, three, and seven; when I’m down, I actually tend to avoid friends, and much prefer scalding hot shower-baths to ones that give me a slight chill.

Raritan, Volume I, Number I

“Writing, depending as it does on those enabling assumptions by which ideas are produced and understood at a particular cultural moment, is also, for the kind of critical intelligence discussed and at work in these pages, an act of resistance to those assumptions.” So suggests Richard Poirier, founding editor of Raritan: A Quarterly Review, in that magazine’s inaugural editorial, published in the Summer 1981 issue. He continues:

What we can best know about an idea of an event cannot, in this view, be gotten from a Chicago syntopicon but only from a critical, sceptical inquiry designed to uncover the conditions within which they are given birth and achieve recognition. A case in point, as Thomas Edwards suggests, is the production of a species of event called “popular culture” and its reception, under that rubric, by certain people to whom event of high culture apparently offer a distinctly different order of experience. On this and many other subjects we plan to run a variety of pieces ranging from theoretical essays to review-articles of specific works, authors, and performers. Raritan will not, as a rule, print stories or poems, though when it seems appropriate we’ll make a few exceptions, and though most contributions will be solicited, anything sent in will be considered.

Poirier’s debut issue featured the following articles: Leo Bersani, “Representation and Its Discontents”; Harold Bloom, “Agon: Revisionism and Critical Personality”; Jay Cantor, “On Stanley Cavell”; Denis Donoghue, “Leavis and Eliot”; Thomas R. Edwards, “Popular Culture and Intellectual Pastoral”; and Poirier’s own “Writing Off the Self.” I mention this now because, as the blurry cameraphone photograph above indicates, I now own a nearly complete set of the magazine’s hundred-odd issues. The magazine is holding a special back-issue sale, and as a belated birthday present I bought one copy of every issue that could be found in its offices, as well as inaugurated a subscription. Happy will be my bedtime reading for months to come.

Bruce Robbins on contradictions inherent in the term “intellectuals”

Bruce Robbins, in a review of Stefan Collini’s 2006 book Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain published in the journal Modern Intellectual History, provides this fascinating discussion of the tensions inherent in the term “intellectuals”:

The intellectual enters the public sphere when she or he makes use of the authority gained in [a] specialization in order to speak on a subject for which that specialized expertise does not in fact provide a source of legitimate authority.

As Collini presents it, this process of conversion remains something of a mystery. How does it happen? When and why does it fail to happen? Are certain currencies of knowledge more easily converted into public standing than others? Is there a conceptual or rhetorical talent by which the intellectual herself can facilitate this exchange? Or is it once again a matter of what “the” public (but which one?) is prepared to perceive as valid and valuable? Without venturing theoretical answers to these questions, Collini’s account manages to explain a good deal of what has been and continues to be said about intellectuals—most strikingly, why the topic should have generated so much vituperation and self-misapprehension. If intellectuals are obliged by definition to oscillate between the poles of genuine expertise in a particular specialization and speaking generally in the public sphere, then they are permanently vulnerable to the opposite charges of having “sold out” to journalism, on the one hand, and of having retreated from the public sphere into the ivory tower, on the other. Out of this tension within the concept itself come disappearance narratives according to which particular intellectuals or intellectuals as a group have prostituted themselves in the media, or gotten caught up in masturbatory self-involvement, or whatever. Such narratives make sense only if they are seen as independent of the putative details of individual careers and historical moments and are taken instead as the diachronic workings out of the contradictory demands that the concept itself places on intellectuals. As Collini says, “movement between these two poles is inherent in the logic of the role itself” (58).


At any rate, it seems worth asking whether there perhaps exists a form of intellectual authority that might not involve a transfer of qualifications or cultural capital from one domain to another. Can one become an intellectual without trading on a capital amassed elsewhere, but simply by means of work done on the premises, as it were? Are we sure that some sort of conversion or crossover is essential to being an intellectual? After all, the sort of creative synthesis often associated with interdisciplinary scholarship is also a phenomenon that necessarily occurs within disciplines, not to speak of other professions and institutions. It is something for which a good journalist or labor union organizer or representative of Doctors Without Borders might receive a normal salary. If publics are multiple and if address to a singular, comprehensive public is illusory, if there is no “society as a whole,” then some specializations may already be public enough, in this diminished sense of public, to boast their own intellectuals.

The Dreyfus Affair paradigm also raises a related question about the presumed centrality of professional credentials in the making of the intellectual. Are we sure it is a rise in the status of specialized knowledge that is the definitive source of the new counterauthority? Collini quotes the right-wing riposte of Brunetière: “I don’t see that a professor of Tibetan is qualified to govern his fellow men.” Some of the force of this remark seems to come from the irrelevance of academic knowledge as such, but some surely comes from the particular randomness ascribed to knowledge of Tibet. Brunetière seems to be ridiculing the idea that knowledge of a distant and exotic nation might be of pertinence to the issues facing turn-of-the-century Frenchmen. If so, then perhaps xenophobic ridicule deserves a more than incidental place in the birth-of-the-intellectual story. At a moment of crisis when national loyalty was so much at issue—Dreyfus’s, of course, but also that of the Jews and of all those, recently named as intellectuals, who came to Dreyfus’s defense—it seems reasonable to speculate that there may also have been something peculiarly constitutive about what Collini calls “the ‘foreignness’ of intellectuals” (126). The Dreyfus Affair might be read, from this perspective, as offering a different sort of founding myth, not so much one in which professional credentials get mobilized as one in which the category of the intellectual arises in response to accusations of national betrayal and, with or without mobilizing those credentials, intellectuals acquire a newly authoritative voice. That would help explain why the category has remained affiliated with the problematic relationship between national identity and cosmopolitanism.

This line of thought would lead to the question of whether and how cosmopolitanism—the ability to take a distance from the interests of one’s nation, to weigh one’s national loyalty against loyalty to the interests of humanity as a whole—might paradoxically become a source of local authority, something to be valued within one’s nation. This is not the place to pursue this question further. But we can at least recognize its formal resemblance to the contradiction that Collini himself takes as central to the intellectual. While asking how anyone can turn professional credentials into public authority, we could also ask how antinationalism can ever turn into national influence, can confer cultural authority within a given nation. In other words, perhaps the tension between specialized knowledge and public standing is itself only one specialized version of a more general paradox. One way to phrase this more general paradox (probably not the best) would be to set opposition to society against reward by society. How can it happen that society rewards its own opposition? Why should there be a social place for social criticism? How can a dissident be socially influential and yet remain a dissident?

This excerpt is roughly one-sixth of the full review-essay, and I encourage anyone interested in the passage to consider reading the whole thing, which is available online here. Further discussion of Collini’s fascinating book took place in the July 2007 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (which is available through the Project MUSE database). Thanks to for the original link to Robbins’s text.

Chatter on New York’s streets, circa 1962

Yesterday afternoon, during a conference held at Columbia University on Lionel Trilling and his legacy, the eminent historian Fritz Stern recalled one day in 1962, during the Cuban Missile crisis, when he met Trilling on the corner of Broadway and 116th Street. Unsure whether nuclear missiles would rain down on New York, Stern cautiously admitted to Trilling that he wished he would survive an attack, if only to see what life would be like afterward. Trilling replied in a serious tone: “I hope I survive, too; I know a lot of Shakespeare by heart.”

This morning, reading Julian Bell’s review of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman in the New York Review of Books, I came across another piece of not-so-idle street chatter from that historically frought moment.

In fact The Craftsman’s initial point of departure, Sennett tells us, was a wish to reply to an argument to put him by Heidegger’s pupil Hannah Arendt. Back in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Arendt told him in a New York street that the dire predicament in which nuclear physics had placed the planet proved that technology could not be its own master, for “people who make things usually don’t understand what they are doing.” 

In advance of reading Marilynne Robinson’s new novel

I eagerly await the moment when I can sit down to read Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, Home. In the meantime, the media blitz surrounding it is in full swing. Ruth Franklin, writing in the October 8 issue of The New Republic, discusses the absence of God from contemporary American fiction, places Robinson in relation to this lack, and then offers useful context for understanding this book:

All this is to say that Marilynne Robinson stands virtually alone. Staring with Housekeeping—an uncanny little novel, published in 1981, that quietly established itself as a cult classic—Robinson has devoted her entire career to the investigation of the spiritual life. Or I should say “spiritual living,” because her books wrestle with the question of what it means to confront the world as a religious person, a person who is committed to the tenets of Christianity—which Robinson summed up, in an essay published a few years ago in The American Scholar, as “grace, generosity, and liberality”—while at the same time participating as fully as possible in daily human existence. “What I might call personal holiness,” she remarks, “is in fact openness to the perception of the holy, in existence itself and above all in one another.”

In Housekeeping, perhaps because Robinson did not dare directly to broach such an unfashionable subject in her first novel, such perceptions are largely kept beneath the surface, emerging in the symbols and the subtexts of this extraordinarily rich work about two abandoned children under the care of a loving but deeply unconventional aunt. Twenty-three years went by before her second novel appeared. Then came Gilead, the life story of a Congregationalist preacher named John Ames, told in a diary-style letter composed over a period of weeks and intended for his young son to read as an adult. At the start of the book, Ames, who became a father late in life—he is seventy-six years old—has been recently diagnosed with angina pectoris, and reports that “a flutter of my pulse makes me think of final things.” As Ames reminisces about his father and grandfather and contemplates the path his life took, the novel’s true story gradually emerges from his meandering thoughts: the transgressions of Jack Boughton, the son of his closet friend, and Ames’s inability to forgive them.

In a profile in The New York Times Magazine, Robinson remarked that she had been trying to write a different novel, “a darkly comedic story of a woman ‘abraded’ by her experience of the world.” One day she tried writing a poem in the voice of the elderly preacher who was a minor character in the book, and out of this Gilead rapidly emerged. Now, four years later—the blink of an eye, in Robinsonian time—we have Home, which must be some form of that previous novel.

Much has been made of Robinson’s religiosity, the biblical cadence of her prose, and her attempts to “perceive the holy.” Although many online commentators discussed her review, in 2006, of Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, fewer have noted “Credo,” an essay she published in the spring 2008 issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, which I take to be the most recent explicit iteration of her view of Christian religion. (A subscription to the publication is available for free; I called the magazine’s office when I heard Robinson’s essay was to be published there, and received not only the spring issue but also the autumn issue.) Robinson’s essay is long and consistently rewarding, but I’ll excerpt only one notable passage:

I have read that certain physicists, grappling with what is apparently the anomalous weakness of the force of gravity, have posited the existence of another universe, whose influence is felt by ours. Earth’s gravity, they say, could be a consequence, a sort of shadow effect, of that other reality. Such a notion might never be accessible to any sort of test, but I think it serves very well as metaphor. Anomalies in our thinking might simply mean that we have no conception of what is in play, what other university of intentions, presence, passion, and grace liberates our limbs, lightens our burdens, softens our fall, permits a weightiness that is not entrapment. The physicists remind us every day that anomaly is very much to be respected, and that knowledge proceeds by conceding the existence of reality beyond our knowledge—“dark energy” being one striking recent example. I feel that reverence requires a somewhat greater humility relative to the nature and the will of God. So I explore along the lines of imagination, memory, intuition, learning what I can by the means that are given to me.

As I have said, I am not of the school of thought that finds adherence to doctrine synonymous with firmness of faith. On the contrary, I believe that faith in God is a liberation of thought, because thought is an ongoing instruction in things that pertain to God. To test this belief is my fictional practice, the basis for the style and substance of my two novels and the motive behind my nonfiction. This might seem to some people to be paradoxical, a religious believe in intellectual openness. This would seem like a contradiction in the minds of religion’s detractors and also, apparently, in the minds of a significant number of its adherents. I think of Wallace Stevens’s “the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.” I think of Theodore Roethke’s “I learn by going where I have to go.” Calvin called the universe a school in which we are to be instructed. This feels deeply right to me. And I think of Paul’s saying, “It is for freedom that Christ made us free.”

It is obvious that Robinson comes by her language not only from a deep understanding of Christian literature, but also from the faith that underpins her interest in it. In recent years I have found myself increasingly attracted to what might be called the literary qualities of religious discourse, in particular Christian writing. (This may account for some part of my interest in early American history.) Yet I was not raised in a particularly religious household, and my fascination has not yet been accompanied by spiritual yearning. I have wondered at some length whether the language that appeals to me could be available to me as a writer. Late last year, reading the poet Christian Wiman’s book Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, I came across this passage in his “Notes on Poetry and Religion”:

I think it is a grave mistake for a writer to rely on the language of a religion in which he himself does not believe. You can sense the staleness and futility of an art that seeks energy in gestures and language that are, in the artist’s life, inert. It feels like a failure of imagination, a shortcut to a transcendence that he either doesn’t really buy, or has not earned in his work. Of course, exactly what constitutes “belief” for a person is a difficult question. One man’s anguished atheism may get him closer to God than another man’s mild piety. There is more genuine religious feeling in Philip Larkin’s godless despair and terror than there is anywhere in late Wordsworth.

With this in mind, I asked Robinson after a reading last April whether she felt that unbelievers can make full use of religious language. Somewhat to my surprise, she disagreed with Wiman’s initial assertion quoted above. I hope someday to read further thoughts from her on this topic, whether in an interview or in her own writing.

In the meantime, some additional reading related to HomeThe Paris Review has interviewed Robinson for its “Art of Fiction” series, and made the transcript available online; Bryan Appleyard recently profiled Robinson for The Times of London, calling her “the world’s best writer of prose”; the critic James Wood reviewed Home in The New Yorker; the critic A.O. Scott reviewed the novel for the New York Times Book Review; and the New York Times has also made available online the book’s first chapter.

Daniel Vickers, Farmers and Fishermen

For class I wrote a review of Daniel Vickers’s 1994 book Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work In Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630–1850 (University of North Carolina Press). Here it is, for the sake of it:

Detail from the cover of Farmers and Fishermen

Detail from the cover of Farmers and Fishermen

Farmers and Fishermen displays Daniel Vickers’s magisterial command of the local literature of Essex County, Massachusetts, as well as of historians’ interpretations of the labor performed there in the first two centuries of European settlement. Vickers aims, in this clear, accessible narrative, to fill a gap in the knowledge of preindustrial America concerning the structure of labor relations in the region’s farming and fishing communities. In doing so he confidently stitches together the available literature on the topic with observations drawn from sixteen years of archival research. The latter effort involved both the creative interpretation of documents much pored over by other historians, such as the Massachusetts Tax Valuation List of 1771, and the development of vast tables of data drawn from county court records, farmers’ and merchants’ account books, and diaries. The conclusions he draws from these materials—that in the first century of settlement the farming and fishing communities were each drawn together into unique webs of interdependence; that after 1675 the labor structure on land and on sea changed in different ways; and that after the Revolutionary War the social bonds underpinning work began to fray, leading eventually to the nineteenth-century industrialization of the region—are always measured, and, because they do not stray far from the documents at hand, are convincing.

The fundamental problem facing those who wished to replicate English patterns of labor relations in the new world was that “whereas labor and capital had been the cheapest factors of production in the Old World, they were the dearest in the new.” (325) Because achieving “competency,” the settlers’ term for comfortable independence, led independent men to acquire their own property whenever they could, “those who needed help generally had to depend on those who were not free.” (4)

On land, the farming regime that New England settlers left behind recognized the household as the basic unit of production. This, combined with the labor shortage in Essex County during the first decades of settlement there, meant that the dependent figures who provided assistance clearing forests, constructing farm buildings, and tilling and hoeing fields were typically the sons of farm owners. The “productive relations” between fathers and sons in New England families, Vickers argues, has never received extended study, and his depiction of how boys, teenagers, and young men fulfilled their roles at home convincingly illustrates that “the two were interdependent on each other.” (73)

In the coastal waters off villages like Salem, Ipswich, Gloucester, and Newbury, settlers discovered abundant populations of cod that could be exported back to Europe, but were faced with similar labor shortages—and, for that matter, a lack of knowledge about the trade, since few were fisherman in England. Borrowing the example of Newfoundland, New England merchants and middlemen depended on skilled outsiders to execute the catch, and engaged them in a clientage relationship. An outfitter “advanced to each company of men the necessary provisions and equipment for the voyage; in return, they promised to sell him at current prices the entire catch.” (103) These relationships, although not familial, nonetheless created bonds of interdependency between those who had the capital to outfit the ships and those who did the work of hauling in cod, line by line.

Throughout Farers and Fishermen, the confidence borne from deep familiarity with his material allows Vickers to civilly but thoroughly overturn assumptions, parse distinctions, and adjudicate between rival factions among historians of preindustrial New England. At one point in this early section of the book, Vickers attempts to overturn a century of received opinion about the early cod fishery—that it was worked by “farmer-fisherman” rather than those who fished alone. Here he laments the “intellectual respectability” (136n) granted the notion by Bernard Bailyn; later in the book he adroitly shows that neither “market” nor “social” approaches to early American economy, both of which have numerous adherents in recent scholarship, are entirely correct. When he agrees with a historian’s work, though, Vickers is gracious; he leans on the scholarship of, among others, Virginia DeJohn Anderson and Christine Heyrman throughout the book.

In the five decades after 1675, Vickers makes clear, the fishing industry, by then the dominant sector of New England’s fledgling economy, changed direction. As capital accumulated in the colony, merchants and fisherman both acknowledged a distinction between capital and labor, and the bonds of clientage began to dissipate. No longer were fisherman-owners of shallops receiving advances on their catch in order to outfit their ships; instead, merchants were reinvesting profits in new (and larger) ships of their own, then hiring fisherman as laborers to pilot them, for longer periods of time, into deeper offshore waters. In the earlier system, “credit was the financial expression of delegated power.” (162) Now, as “the same customers or their children discovered that their accounts were being squeezed, their loyalty evaporated.” (162) By historical standards, this transition occurred very quickly, and it caused social and cultural gaps to open both between merchants and a nascent laboring class of fisherman and between “seaward and landward society.” (189)

Farmers experienced relatively little of this dramatic change before the Revolutionary War. Instead, the peculiarly tight bonds of interfamilial dependence morphed gradually into webs of local integration. Sons would work not only for their fathers, but also exchange their labor with neighbors, and, with increasing frequency throughout the eighteenth century, work outside the home (whether in military service, at sea, or, most frequently, by taking up a craft). Vickers’s reliance on seventeenth-century court records, which are filled with background descriptions of the cases, is here replaced by more speculative work; he infers eighteenth-century changes in the structure of farm labor through such means as parsing the habits of self-identification in those newly utilitarian legal documents and identifying the tools listed in the inventoried estates of farming householders. Although roles were shifting, most rural men “generally outgrew their reliance on manufacture as they accumulated land.” (257) The ideal of owning land as the precursor to independence held fast throughout this period.

Because it is largely outside the purview of his study, Vickers’s final chapter, juxtaposing the increasingly capitalist structural organization of farming and fishing with the early industrialization of the region, is brief. He aims to give evidence of the ways in which preindustrial ideas and social structures influenced capitalist development, and while his depictions of a rising merchant class, an increasing occupational diversity, and the opening of regional and American markets are sound, the details of this preindustrial legacy to industrial development are not wholly clear. Vickers notes that, in the fishing industry, “the conditions of the early national period re-created those of the 1640s,” when “both productive manpower and equipment were scarce in a context of high prices and the disruption of translatlantic fisheries.” (267) On the evidence of the book itself, however, such correspondences seem just as likely to have been set in place by the need for credit to fuel a rapidly expanding marketplace as by inherited social models of productive labor. Yet Vickers has done so thorough a job documenting one segment of economic life in New England before the American Revolution that it seems churlish to complain about details at the fringes of his purview. “Throughout this book the aim has been to view the relations of productive comparatively across time and space and to distinguish the forms that dependency assumed,” (258) Vickers writes. On that score, this study succeeds. Farmers and Fishermen brings into sharp focus the period that led to New England’s widely examined nineteenth-century industrial revolution.

“For many reasons a man writes much better than he lives”

Samuel Johnson, in The Rambler no. 14, titled “On the Life of an Author vs. His Writing,” notes:

It has long been the custom of the oriental monarchs to hide themselves in gardens and palaces, to avoid the conversation of mankind, and to be known to their subjects only by their edicts. The same policy is no less necessary to him that writes, than to him that governs; for men would not more patiently submit to be taught, than commanded, by one known to have the same follies and weaknesses with themselves. A sudden intruder into the closet of an author would perhaps feel equal indignation with the officer, who having long solicited admission into the presence of Sardanapalus, saw him not consulting upon laws, enquiring into grievances, or modelling armies, but employed in feminine amusements, and directing the ladies in their work.

“It is not difficult to conceive, however, that for many reasons a man writes much better than he lives.”

Although the connection is somewhat indirect, I was reminded of this passage when reading a newly published essay by the novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick. “Writers, Visible and Invisible” is adapted from her acceptance speech at the 2008 PEN/Nabokov Lifetime Achievement Award. (She also won the PEN/Malamud prize for short fiction; see this notice published in The Guardian.) In the essay, printed by Standpoint, a new magazine, she writes:

And here at last is the crux: writers are hidden beings. You have never met one – or, if you should ever believe you are seeing a writer, or having an argument with a writer, or listening to a talk by a writer, then you can be sure it is all a mistake.

 And, later:

…we had better recall that celebrated Jamesian credo, a declaration of private panic mixed with prayerful intuition, which so many writers secretly keep tacked over their desks: “We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.” The statement ends, memorably: “The rest is the madness of art.”

The madness of art? Maybe so. But more likely it is the logic of invisibility. James has it backwards. It’s not the social personality who is the ghost; it is the writer with shoulders bent over paper, the hazy simulacrum whom we will never personally know, the wraith who hides out in the dark while her palpable effigy walks abroad, talking and circulating and sometimes even flirting. Sightings of these ghost writers are rare and few and unreliable, but there is extant a small accumulation of paranormal glimpses which can guide us, at least a little, to a proper taxonomy. For instance: this blustering, arrogant, self-assured, muscularly disdainful writer who belittles and brushes you aside, what is he really? When illicitly spotted facing the lonely glow of his computer screen, he is no more than a frightened milquetoast paralysed by the prospect of having to begin a new sentence. And that apologetically obsequious, self-effacing, breathlessly diffident and deprecatory creature turns out, when in the trancelike grip of nocturnal ardour, to be a fiery furnace of unopposable authority and galloping certainty. Writers are what they genuinely are only when they are at work in the silent and instinctual cell of ghostly solitude, and never when they are out industriously chatting on the terrace.

Of course Ozick looks back to to James. The essay is as well turned as is the rest of her work, and well worth reading.

From Guy Davenport’s “Findings”

“What lives brightest in the memory of these outings is a Thoreauvian feeling of looking at things—earth, plants, rocks, textures, animal tracks, all the secret places of the out-of-doors that seem not ever to have been looked at before, a hidden patch of moss with a Dutchman’s Breeches stoutly in its midst, aromatic stands of rabbit tobacco, beggar’s lice, lizards, the inevitable mute snake, always just leaving as you come upon him, hawks, buzzards, abandoned orchards rich in apples, peaches or plums.

“Thoreauvian, because these outings, I was to discover, were very like his daily walks, with a purpose that covered the whole enterprise but was not serious enough to make the walk a chore or a duty. Thoreau, too, was an Indian-arrowhead collector, if collector is the word. Once we had found our Indian things, we put them in a big box and rarely looked at them. Some men came from the Smithsonian and were given what they chose, and sometimes a scout troop borrowed some for a display at the county fair. Our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.”

Collected in The Geography of the Imagination.

“Does Time Run Backward in Other Universes?”

In the May issue of Scientific American, which I have begun skimming online since the novelist Marilynne Robinson cited it several times in a lecture I saw her deliver last month and an artist friend in Miami explained to me his recent fascination with theoretical physics, has a fascinating article on the arrow of time.

The arrow of time is arguably the most blatant feature of the universe that cosmologists are currently at an utter loss to explain. Increasingly, however, this puzzle about the universe we observe hints at the existence of a much larger spacetime we do not observe. It adds support to the notion that we are part of a multiverse whose dynamics help to explain the seemingly unnatural features of our local vicinity.

The article goes on to explain entropy, discuss gravity’s relationship to entropy, explain what the distant future of our known universe might look like (total emptiness), and then gets to the subject of time:

The striking feature of this story is the pronounced difference between the past and the future. The universe starts in a state of very low entropy: particles packed together smoothly. It evolves through a state of medium entropy: the lumpy distribution of stars and galaxies we see around us today. It ultimately reaches a state of high entropy: nearly empty space, featuring only the occasional stray low-energy particle.

Why are the past and future so different? It is not enough to simply posit a theory of initial conditions—a reason why the universe started with low entropy. As philosopher Huw Price of the University of Sydney has pointed out, any reasoning that applies to the initial conditions should also apply to the final conditions, or else we will be guilty of assuming the very thing we were trying to prove—that the past was special. Either we have to take the profound asymmetry of time as a blunt feature of the universe that escapes explanation, or we have to dig deeper into the workings of space and time.

The author, Sean M. Carroll, explains several theories for time’s asymmetry, then introduces his own:

In our new scenario, the preexisting universe was never randomly fluctuating; it was in a very specific state: empty space. What this theory claims—and what remains to be proved—is that the most likely way to create universes like ours from such a preexisting state is to go through a period of inflation, rather than fluctuating there directly. Our universe, in other words, is a fluctuation but not a random one.

This scenario, proposed in 2004 by Jennifer Chen of the University of Chicago and me, provides a provocative solution to the origin of time asymmetry in our observable universe: we see only a tiny patch of the big picture, and this larger arena is fully time-symmetric. Entropy can increase without limit through the creation of new baby universes.

Best of all, this story can be told backward and forward in time. Imagine that we start with empty space at some particular moment and watch it evolve into the future and into the past. (It goes both ways because we are not presuming a unidirectional arrow of time.) Baby universes fluctuate into existence in both directions of time, eventually emptying out and giving birth to babies of their own. On ultralarge scales, such a multiverse would look statistically symmetric with respect to time—both the past and the future would feature new universes fluctuating into life and proliferating without bound. Each of them would experience an arrow of time, but half would have an arrow that was reversed with respect to that in the others.

To read the rest, click here.

Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers

I’ve just finished Susan Jacoby’s 2004 book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, which I enjoyed reading. It is an account of freethought from Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and Virginia’s 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom to present-day battles between those supporting and fighting the teaching of evolution. The book’s tone remains fairly measured throughout, and her gallery of “infidels”—Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, Robert Ingersoll, Emma Goldman, Roger Nash Baldwin, Madalyn Murray O’Hair—provides a welcome counterpoint to the figures that usually crop up in histories of American thought. Ingersoll in particular comes across as a winning figure, and Jacoby includes the eulogy he delivered at Walt Whitman’s funeral, on March 30, 1892, as an appendix. From that oration:

He came into our generation a free, untrammeled spirit, with sympathy for all. His arm was beneath the form of the sick. He sympathized with the imprisoned and despised, and even on the brow of crime he was great enough to place the kiss of human sympathy.

One of the greatest lines in our literature is his, and the line is great enough to do honor to the greatest genius that has ever lived. He said, speaking of an outcast: “Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you.”

His charity was as wide as the sky, and wherever there was human suffering, human misfortune, the sympathy of Whitman bent above it as the firmament bends above the earth.

He was built on a broad and splendid plan — ample, without appearing to have limitations — passing easily for a brother of mountains and seas and constellations; caring nothing for the little maps and charts with which timid pilots hug the shore, but giving himself freely with recklessness of genius to winds and waves and tides; caring for nothing as long as the stars were above him. He walked among men, among writers, among verbal varnishers and veneerers, among literary milliners and tailors, with the unconscious majesty of an antique god.

That last word brings to mind Michael Robertson’s new book, Worshipping Walt: Whitman’s Disciples (Princeton), which I have not yet seen, but which various reviews have made sound appealing (see brief commentaries in the New Yorker and the New York Observer).

Rules for Harvard Freshmen, 1741

The blog Boston 1775 has posted Harvard’s rules for incoming class of 1741.

In the 1700s, ordinary schooling for Boston boys ran from about age seven to age thirteen or fourteen, if they lasted through the whole course. Therefore, the few boys who went on to college were still truly boys, only in their early teens. Usually they graduated college at eighteen, still years away from their legal majority.

The fact that college students were the age of high-school students now, and away from their families in an nearly all-male environment, helps to explain such traditions as these rules for Harvard’s incoming class in 1741.

1. No Freshman shall wear his hat in the College yard, except it rains, hails, or snows, he be on horseback, or hath both hands full.

2. No Freshman shall pass by his Senior, without pulling his hat off.

3. No Freshman shall be saucy to his Senior, or speak to him with his hat on.

4. No Freshman shall laugh in his Senior’s face.

5. No Freshman shall ask his Senior any impertinent question.

6. No Freshman shall intrude into his Senior’s company.

7. Freshmen are to take notice that a Senior Sophister can take a Freshman from a Sophimore, a Master from a Senior Sophister, and a Fellow from a Master.

8. When a Freshman is sent of an errand, he shall not loiter by the way, but shall make haste, and give a direct answer if asked who he is going for.

To read the final thirteen rules, click here. (Link via Blog 4 History)

Marilynne Robinson, then and now

The contributors to Reading Room, the New York Times blog dedicated to discussing books in depth, are currently focusing their energies upon Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel Housekeeping. Click here for the moderator’s introductory post.

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Robinson at DePaul University in Chicago. She read two essays, one of which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. I typed up a portion of my notes and e-mailed them to Patrick Kurp, of the blog Anecdotal Evidence, and he excerpted them online in this post:

Underpinning the first paper she delivered was her assertion that nothing is as complex as the human mind, and that various deterministic theories (Freud, economic rationalism, selfish-gene theory, etc.) do harm to this fact. She doesn’t understand “why human beings are so persistent in their attack on what is most distinctive about them.”
She then asserted that “if you do not believe in thought you cannot believe in faith” and, in a swipe at Christopher Hitchens and his ilk, that “those who attack faith devalue thought.” Later on in the essay, she praised Calvin’s assertion that “an encounter with the other is always an encounter with God,” said that she tries to live by that understanding, and stressed that reverence is the proper way of relating to the “shining garment of reality” in which God reveals himself constantly.

Lastly, an excerpt of Robinson’s 2007 commencement-day speech at Amherst has been published in the current issue of Harper’s. The full text of the speech, titled “Waiting to Be Remembered,” is available online at Amherst magazine.

Poussin: Two writers, two ledes

A week or so ago, The New Republic published Jed Perl’s review of the Nicolas Poussin exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now T.J. Clark has written a review, for the London Review of Books, of that exhibition and the simultaneous Gustave Courbet retrospective. Both are worth reading, and both have rapturous ledes. Here’s Perl:

“Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, takes us deeper into the inexhaustibly complex relationship between nature and culture than any other exhibition I have ever seen. When Nicolas Poussin sets men and women amid vast landscapes, he is reflecting on our experience of the natural world, and nobody has more beautifully woven together sensation and imagination, instinct and intelligence, freedom and design. There is a curiously pungent juxtaposition of naturalistic immediacy and pictorial artifice in Poussin’s landscapes, whether he is representing a darkly luxuriant tree, a placid lake, a cloud-strewn sky, an elegantly designed city, or a handsome Ovidian hero. Somehow, the immediacy and the artifice reinforce each other. The paintings are finally about our struggles to understand what we feel, to objectify the subjectivity of our experience. Poussin’s admirers will not be surprised to see this seventeenth-century artist who is often pigeonholed as a chilly classicist re-framed as something of a romantic. What most people are going to be unprepared for is the big-heartedness of his vision as it is revealed in this epochal show.

Here’s Clark:

Once or twice in a lifetime, if you are lucky, the whole madness of painting seems to pass in front of your eyes. It felt that way to me in New York this spring, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where two great exhibitions – one exploring Nicolas Poussin’s role in the invention of the genre we call ‘landscape’, the other an endless, stupendous retrospective of Gustave Courbet – are happening a few corridors apart. I stumbled to and fro between them day after day, elated and disoriented. They sum up so much – too much – of what painting in Europe was capable of, and they embed that achievement so palpably in a certain history. Behind the glistening meadows and the huntsmen in the snow one catches the smell of autocracy and public burnings, of permanent warfare and bankers with impeccable taste.

Clark, of course, is the author of The Sight of Death, a book-length “experiment in art writing” about two paintings by Poussin. The Poussin exhibition remains on view until May 11, and the Courbet retrospective comes down May 18. For more information, click here.

Lindsay Waters’s “call for slow writing”

In an article published three weeks ago at Inside Higher Ed, Lindsay Waters, executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, discusses the relationship between books and essays in humanistic scholarship, and makes a claim for the latter:

Books are the standard now, and for me to ask you to think that the future will feature the renaissance of journals and the replacement of the book by the essay might seem crazy. (You should know that it does not seem crazy to many of the leading university press publishers.) My suggestion is not crazy; it’s utopian. We don’t live in that world I am asking you to imagine, the world in which essays are the norm, but if we were to imagine that world could exist even for a second, how might seeing things that way cause us to change what we are doing?

We need to slow down, and remember that the essay has been the main form for humanistic discourse. The book is an outlier. Many of the writings that changed the direction a scholarly community was marching toward were essays. Think of Edward Said’s “Abecedarium Culturae” or Paul de Man’s “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” to stay in recent history and not begin, as I easily could, an epic catalog from Montaigne’s “De l’amitie” onwards. Some of the most important books are collections of essays, sometimes assembled with no pretence to forging a unity of them, such as John Freccero’s Dante: The Poetics of Conversion. One could give many examples.

There is no good reason why the essay should not replace the book, and a lot of good reasons why it should.

The rest of the essay is worth a look, as is Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship, a spirited little pamphlet Waters published a few years ago with Prickly Paradigm Press.

“The Varieties of Intellectual Experience”

In a post published last week at the U.S. Intellectual History blog, Tim Lacy writes:

Most past works of U.S. intellectual history have focused on public and private figures, institutions, and books that could in some sense be considered “canonical.” I refuse to dismiss all the historians who did that work, in blanket fashion, as caring only about the elites of U.S. history. Rather, I submit to you that those historians explored, in a considered conservative fashion, what they believed others could not question as topics of inquiry. This is not to deny that race, class, and gender did not factor into those choices, but rather that definitions of what constituted regular intellectual activity affected their work. It seems to me, then, that too much consistency has been sought from historical intellectual agents by intellectual historians.

The essay continues at some length, eventually calling for an “event-based intellectual history,” and is worth reading.

J. M. Coetzee: A brief comment and several reviews

(Photograph by Tony Cenicola for the New York Times)

I have just completed the last book I will read this year: J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, Diary of a Bad Year. Each review of the book has of course discussed its three-stream or three-band structure. The first stream, at the top of the page, presents a series of brief, sharp essays by a character only minimally different in biographical detail from Coetzee himself; they reflect on politics, ethics, and many other aspects of contemporary life. Beneath that, separated by a thin black line, is an interior monologue created by that character during the essays’ composition. Beneath another black line that begins twenty-five pages in, the reader encounters the thoughts of Anya, a young woman the Coetzee doppelgänger hires to type the essays printed at the top of the page. Several reviewers have noted that readers can choose whether to read the three streams simultaneously or consecutively. But, having read them simultaneously, the extreme control Coetzee exerts over this potentially unwieldy configuration gives reading them simultaneously a richness that I cannot imagine would come forth if read the other way.

At the outset of the novel, Coetzee and the book’s designer have arranged the text such that no sentence runs from one page to the next, thus giving the reader a natural pause with which to skip down to the next stream; only after forty-two pages does a sentence run across the gutter, causing one to read ahead with one narrative and then circle back to catch up on the next. By this point, all three streams have been introduced and the reader is relatively comfortable with how the pages are divided. Only then does Coetzee begin to push and pull the structure. Roughly halfway through the novel, the streams begin diverging fairly sharply in pace and tone, giving the story as a whole a fascinating kind of elasticity; on page 107, the third stream—recording dialogue between Anya and her boyfriend, Alan—not only fits with what came before it on page 106, but might also be seen to offer a comment on the stream just above it. Later still, Coetzee presses further, introducing a temporal malleability in which the streams no longer march in lock step, but lag behind and pass each other like runners in a race. The three tales remain bound together in the reader’s mind, and feeling the tension this generates offers a pleasure that conventionally structured novels, in which one can easily discern flashbacks and the like, rarely convey.

There is much to be said about the book, but aside from this comment on structure I leave it to professionals. Here are links to reviews by James Wood in the New Yorker, Judith Shulevitz in Slate, Hilary Mantel in the New York Review of Books, and Kathryn Harrison in the New York Times Book Review.

Coincidentally, when I read books I often make notations in the margin, and I was surprised to discover that the spread depicted above, in a photograph that accompanied Harrison’s review, was one I marked as being particularly important (I placed an asterisk next to the second stream). Did an editor purposefully choose a potentially important spread to reveal, or is this mere coincidence?

UPDATE, 01/01: Richard Eder reviews the novel in today’s New York Times. He picks up on another aspect of the interplay between the streams that I neglected to mention: As Anya becomes more fully embodied as a character, C.’s short essays dwindle in power (and length, as if he were losing his ability to concentrate).

And from here on, the pages divide: the top third, C.’s philosophical opinions; the middle third, his account of Anya, as well as his feelings; the bottom third, her account of C., as well as hers. Gradually the last two parts grow more vivid, while the opinions grow dustier. Anya expands into her reality; C. deflates, magnificently, into his.

UPDATE, 01/02: The Village Voice publishes a review of the novel by Allen Barra.

UPDATE, 01/04: Art Winslow reviews the book in the Los Angeles Times.

UPDATE, 01/07: Adam Begley reviews the novel in the New York Observer.

UPDATE, 01/10: Amelia Atlas reviews the book for the Barnes & Noble Review.

F. Scott Fitzgerald interview

I share a birthday with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was born on this day in 1896. He happens to be among my favorite writers—I have read The Great Gatsby four times and This Side of Paradise twice (so far), and keep The Crack-Up at hand for regular browsing. Last week The Guardian published an excerpt of the author’s interview with Michel Mok, conducted on his fortieth birthday, September 24, 1936.

“A writer like me,” he said, “must have an utter confidence, an utter faith in his star. It’s an almost mystical feeling, a feeling of nothingcan- happen-to-me, nothing-can-harm-me, nothing-can-touch-me.

“Thomas Wolfe has it. Ernest Hemingway has it. I once had it. But through a series of blows, many of them my own fault, something happened to that sense of immunity and I lost my grip.”

Morris Dickstein includes an essay on Fitzgerald, titled “The Authority of Failure,” in his book A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World. In it he describes the interview quoted above:

Into this picture [a time when Fitzgerald was publishing poignantly self-searching articles about his failure to take care of his talent] came a reporter for the New York Post, perhaps not so different from the Murdoch-driven paper it is today, a reporter with the ominous name of Michel Mok, to interview Scott for his fortieth birthday. There was a scent of blood in the water. Fitzgerald was under a nurse’s care at an inn in Asheville, North Carolina, but he was still drinking, and the reporter described in wretched detail how he kept popping up for a thimbleful of gin from the makeshift bar, how his face twitched and hands shook as he described his life and made the usual drunkard’s rationalizations.

The front page of the Post the next day told the whole story: “The Other Side of Paradise / F. Scott Fitzgerald, 40 / Engulfed in Despair / Broken in Health He Spends Birthday Re- / gretting That He Has Lost Faith in His Star.” What had been eloquent if not wholly frank in Fitzgerald’s own articles became pathetic in the tabloid version. Time picked up the story and gave it much wider currency. The effect on Fitzgerald was catastrophic. He thought he was ruined and took an overdose of morphine, but luckily vomited it up. He felt his credibility as a writer and a serious man was gone. The Post interview was perhaps the lowest point he reached in the decade, but it fixed his image as a washed-up, self-pitying writer, a miserable caretaker of his talent, the relic of a distant and unlamented era. (Even a decade later, when reviewers like Lionel Trilling wrote about The Crack-Up, Edmund Wilson’s collection of his late friend’s articles and letters, they would still point to the effects of the Post story on Fitzgerald’s waning reputation.)

In a limited sense this image endures even today.

I agree with Dickstein that Fitzgerald’s late writings are beautifully haunted by his “crack-up,” and likewise hold up his 1932 essay “My Lost City” as an “emblem for this last phase of Fitzgerald’s work.” Its passage describing Fitzgerald’s first ascent to the top of the then newly built Empire State Building is one of my favorites from his entire corpus:

Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits—from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground.

Dickstein digs deep into this passage, but I’ll let it stand. This will be today’s only post.

Sharon Hayes in midtown

At half past noon on Monday, the artist Sharon Hayes emerged from the UBS tower on Sixth Avenue (between Fifty-first and Fifty-second Streets), microphone stand and small amplifier in hand. She set them down on the sidewalk and, without preamble, began speaking the text of an anonymous love letter, catching and holding the eyes of passersby willing to meet her gaze. She spoke plainly, addressing a “you” seemingly far away, perhaps in the Middle East. The letter’s tone was melancholic and its details were specific to our moment, addressing not only the war, but also the steam-pipe explosion in Manhattan and other recent events; it began by mentioning the arrival of autumn. Fifteen or so people stood at the curb listening and watching; by the time she had recited the six- or eight-minute letter three times, seamlessly blending the end of one recitation with the beginning of the next, another ten office employees had stopped to take the measure of her action. The insertion of private woe into the impersonal environment resounded in me and—somewhat unexpectedly—brought to mind the Maximilian Colby song “Balance,” which combined an anonymous woman’s recording of Judy Grahn’s epic poem “A Woman Is Talking to Death” (1974) with a long, brooding hardcore song. (The mid-‘90s hardcore band is now so obscure it is difficult to learn about it online, much less hear its music.)

The performance, titled Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time for Love?, is part of Art in General’s twenty-fifth-anniversary exhibition, at the UBS Art Gallery. Hayes repeated it at 12:30 PM each day this week, each time reciting a different letter. Phrases recur, including “I am so much yours I am no longer myself,” and the sign-off, “… I choose my words carefully, and I say to you goodbye.” The dominant sentiment remains longing: “Why can’t you be my country?” the narrator asks at one point, encapsulating Hayes’s fusion of personal anguish and political circumstance. As the week progressed, repeat viewers could begin to stitch together a narrative: The two lovers had once been together in New York; the absent partner’s family demanded that she leave the United States; the left-behind partner offered to leave, too, but was rebuffed; now they communicate primarily by letter, with distress and bewilderment as the communicative motifs.

Who is the author of these letters? Each speculation colors the interpretation of the performance. Is it Hayes herself, and is this public “respeaking” (to use the artist’s term for her earlier performances) as harrowing for her now as it was when it was happening? (And is it an ongoing correspondence?) Is the narrator fictive, making Hayes’s story a mirror held up to the audience of office workers on their lunch break, expressing collective emotions otherwise unacknowledged publicly? Small details continually overturn one’s conclusions without breaking the spell of the performance. On Thursday, in mentioning a political protest in Washington, DC, the letter’s author mentions wanting to “tell the fucking President to call off the National Guard.” The phrase could as easily have been uttered in 1967 as in 2007.

That so profound a resonance can be achieved through such simple means is testament to Hayes’s talent. She has for several years been “respeaking” historical texts and creating other performances that commingle the private and the public; for further reference, see this May 2006 Artforum profile of the artist, written by Julia Bryan-Wilson. Everything Else Has Failed… will stay with me for a long time.

Three glances back

Three recent long-format essays have cast retrospective glances at aspects of literary and intellectual life as it was lived twenty to twenty-five years ago. I first came across Joseph Epstein’s “‘The Literary Life’ at 25,” which revisits the article Epstein wrote for the inaugural issue of The New Criterion. Near the beginning of the piece, Epstein notes:

My earlier essay, reread today, does not seem to me wrong so much as it seems a touch quaint. No mention is made in it, for example, of computers, let alone all they have brought forth in the way of benefits and distractions in connection with the literary life. Instead I wrote at some length about the university seeming to be taking over literature, offering jobs to writers who could not have survived on their writing alone, making so-called creative writing programs fashionable, valuing writers according to their multicultural credentials quite as much as their qualities as pure literary artists. This has all now become pretty much status quo.

He then savages academic literary criticism, literary politics (“it is a small but genuine national disgrace … that Hilton Kramer was never awarded a Pulitzer Prize”), the New York Intellectuals, Susan Sontag, European writers, English novelists, American intellectual journalism, playwrights, poetry (“the Darfur of twenty-first century literature”), male American novelists, and more. One can tell by the parenthetical excerpts included in that last sentence that Epstein, with his rhetorical excess, now paints the target on his own chest; as such, the essay is entertaining if not edifying.

The second article, Scott McLemee’s reconsideration of Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, appears in the current issue of Bookforum. It is an altogether more measured analysis of the earlier work’s place in contemporary letters, and ends on an oddly hopeful note: Perhaps the masses of untenured intellectuals who are “not very well integrated into the [academic] system,” might change the tenor of public discourse.

The third, which revisits Harold Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, was published in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Here is an excerpt:

“The Closing of the American Mind” hit the scene at a time when universities were embroiled in the so-called canon wars, in which traditionalists in favor of centering the curriculum on classic works of literature faced off against multiculturalists who wanted to include more works by women and members of minorities. [ … ]

Today it’s generally agreed that the multiculturalists won the canon wars. Reading lists were broadened to include more works by women and minority writers, and most scholars consider that a positive development. Yet 20 years later, there’s a more complicated sense of the costs and benefits of those transformations. Here, the lines aren’t drawn between right and left in the traditional political sense, but between those who defend the idea of a distinct body of knowledge and texts that students should master and those who focus more on modes of inquiry and interpretation. However polarizing Bloom may have been, many of the issues he raised still resonate—especially when it comes to the place of the humanities on campus and in the culture.

Donadio then offers quotes from a number of prominent humanities professors, including Louis Menand, Mark Lilla, Tony Judt, Elaine Showalter, and others. All three articles make for engaging reading, for different reasons. If three examples mark a trend, what do these reassessments say about our moment?

On (re)discovering writers

The Observer has published another literary list, this time asking fifty notable writers to name “brilliant but underrated novels that deserve a second chance to shine.” Owing perhaps in part to differences in reading habits on either side of the pond, not only are many of the books new to me, but several of the writers as well. The novelist Elizabeth Taylor garners three nods: from Jane Rogers for Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, from Charlotte Mendelson for Angel, and from Jenny Diski for Blaming. (Perhaps her books are neglected in part because it is difficult to search for her on the Internet, that great digital spade exhuming neglected writing; she’s number two of the four Elizabeth Taylors registered by Wikipedia.) James Lasdun selected The Short Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, which also popped up recently at New York Times Book Review senior editor Dwight Garner’s blog, Paper Cuts. Here is what Lasdun has to say about the collection:

The improbably named Breece D’J Pancake was born in West Virginia in 1952, published some stories in the Atlantic, then shot himself at the age of 26 for reasons no one has been able to fathom. His dozen-odd stories were published posthumously in the States to great acclaim, then more or less sank from view. Cape published them here under the title Trilobites—nobody paid much attention. A small following of mostly southern and Appalachian writers has kept his name alive, but I think he deserves a place in the pantheon of great short-story writers. The best half-dozen or so of his brooding, beautifully constructed tales of life in the mountains and mining towns of West Virginia combine the terse economy of Hemingway with the dense eloquence of Faulkner and can be more touching than either. ‘Hollow’, about a young miner financially and emotionally at the end of his rope, is about the most powerful piece of short American fiction I know.

What are your recent discoveries? Similar lists—and by similar I mean British—have in the past led me to writers like Penelope Fitzgerald and Sybille Bedford. I enjoyed books by both, in particular Bedford’s memoir Quicksands and her travel book about Mexico, published both as The Sudden View and, later, A Visit to Don Otavio. More recently, a back-page NYTBR essay by the critic Morris Dickstein led me to John Williams’s Stoner, recently reissued by New York Review Books. I devoured it in twenty-four hours, unable to put it down despite its seemingly slow-burn plot: A farmer’s son enters the University of Missouri at the turn of the twentieth century, discovers and falls in love with the power of literature, and then settles into a stagnant career as a low-level English professor. The small rewards Stoner reaps from his work, frigid marriage, and seemingly dreary life, and the dignity they grant him, are beautifully rendered. Here are two passages. In the first, Stoner muses generally on love; in the latter, he looks back at particulars, thinking of the professor who introduced him to subject of his calling, his wife, and the woman with whom he had a brief but intense affair:

In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.


…Then he smiled fondly, as if at a memory; it occurred to him that he was nearly sixty years old and that he ought to be beyond the force of such passion, of such love.

But he was not beyond it, he knew, and would never be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there. In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him—how many years ago?—by Arthur Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and he had given it to Katherine, as if it had never been given before. He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simple: Look! I am alive.

My list of writers to discover seems endless. Recently, Patrick Kurp has introduced me to the names Evan S. Connell, Wright Morris, and Paul West; a friend in Los Angeles, who reviewed a new translation of Robert Walser’s The Assistant, recommended I begin with Walser’s Jakob Von Gunten or his Selected Stories; my girlfriend is heroically attempting to redress my ignorance about Canadian literature, to move me beyond Alice Munro. The horizon forever recedes, but I would never wish to meet it.

Gopnik on Proust’s letters

Last Tuesday I listened to the New Yorker critics Joan Acocella and Alex Ross discuss criticism; last night I listened to the New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik discuss Marcel Proust’s letters. This took place at NYU’s Maison Francaise, and marked the republication, earlier this year, of The Letters of Marcel Proust, selected and translated by Mina Curtiss and introduced by Gopnik. Two actors read three-to-five-letter selections of missives in rough chronological order, displaying the novelist’s development from late-nineteenth-century aesthete and social butterfly to daring, “morally sound” commentator, a “caterpillar slowly working his way inch by inch across society and Western consciousness.” Gopnik’s lip curled upward, conspiratorially, at some of the rhetorical excesses and “almost sycophantic” flattery Proust bestowed upon those he beseeched.

Several of Gopnik’s comments stood out, though I’m sure some are variations on what he has written for the book’s introduction, which I have not read. He suggested that we read writers’ letters for either love of their writing or out of fascination at the author’s winningness, placing Henry James in the former category (“I sometimes prefer his letters, which say ‘yes’ to perception and ‘no’ to tedious plots, to his late novels”) and Proust and Chekhov in the latter. He claimed that it was around 1907–08 that a “sharp conviction emerges” from the dandyish flattery of the earlier letters. He noted how courageous Proust’s position that “the only people who defend the French language are those who attack it,” expressed in a letter written around that time, must have been in that era, as it still holds a charge now.

Gopnik was, of course, asked when he first came to Proust, and expounded at length on reading Moncrieff’s translation—his favorite, “a masterpiece of English writing” and “the perfect balance between languages that draw from Shakespeare (English) and Racine (French)”—with his girlfriend (now his wife) in the summer of 1977. He also mentioned a “Talk of the Town” piece by John Updike about reading Proust in New York in the 1950s, which I came home to pull from the Complete New Yorker DVD archive but could not find. Nor could I find it by scanning the indices to Hugging the Shore and More Matter. Instead I offer, below the jump, one of Gopnik’s own “Talk” pieces, from the issue of September 17, 1990, that compares Proust’s house in Illiers to his co-op on Broome Street.

My favorite comment from the letters read last night: “I’m too lazy to write about things that bore me.” If only I had the fortune—or the will—to abide by that.

Continue reading

Susie Linfield on “why photography critics hate photography”

In the September/October issue of Boston Review, Susie Linfield, a longtime contributor to the magazine and the associate director of the cultural reporting and criticism program at NYU, has published a provocative essay on “why photography critics hate photographs.” If you’re willing to accept her central conceit—that Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, and, especially, Bertolt Brecht influenced late-twentieth-century photography critics’ understanding of the medium and its effects—it is an elegantly turned exposure of the limitations of writings on photography by Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and John Berger as well as a humane call for a more syncretic approach to picture interpretation, one that allows for warmth and emotion. A few quotes:

[Contemporary photography] critics view emotional responses . . . not as something to be experienced and understood, but, rather, to be vigilantly guarded against: to these writers, criticism is a prophylactic against the virus of sentiment.

[ . . . ]

These critics denied that a scintilla of autonomy—for either photographer or viewer—was possible; denied, that is, that the photographer could ever offer, or the viewer could ever find, even a moment of surprise, originality, or insight through looking at a photograph.

[ . . . ]

A greater problem, for Brecht and his followers, is what photographs succeed in doing, which is to offer an immediate, emotional connection to the world. People don’t look at photographs to understand the inner contradictions of [the world].

[ . . . ]

[Contemporary photography critics] don’t need to spend such ferocious energy distancing us from images. In doing so, they have made it easy for us to deconstruct photographs but difficult to see them.

My only quibble, interestingly, is with the one passage in which she analyzes specific photographs. In discussing images reprinted in Witness Iraq: A War Journal February–April 2003, Linfield, perhaps somewhat bravely, admits to the frustration caused by an image of “helpless” women, in chadors, grieving for a son apparently killed when a bomb was dropped on an outdoor market in Baghdad in late March 2003. Linfield instead praises two Iraq War photographs that, perhaps by coincidence, feature children; one in which a Marine coddles a young girl whose arm is bleeding, and one that depicts a hooded detainee cradling his young son behind barbed wire. She praises the contradictory interpretations that naturally arise from these atypical war images; their irresolvable nature—Who is helping whom? Who is guilty? What forces put these children in these situations?—necessitates an open-ended (and open-minded) search for meaning.

It seems problematic that Linfield should offer commentary on the political situation of the women depicted in the first photograph at the same time that she praises a very different type of picture as being better able to evoke complex responses, both thoughtful and emotional. However admirable it is for Linfield to admit a controversial reaction to the image in question, hazarding commentary on the women’s political situation—“I doubt that such sorrows can even begin to abate until the women in the cemetery take off their veils . . . and enter into the modern world to begin making modern politics”—is compromised by her very own analysis of the flaws that thread through the picture’s aesthetic elegance and stark portrayal of grief.

The reason I bring this up is because there is a small hurdle that I wish Linfield had surpassed in the essay. She goes on to call for more images that “suggest—though do not explain—the strange incongruities of the Iraq war,” but neglects to account for the fact that these pictures are necessarily few and far between, and that to be properly equipped to respond to the floodtide of photographs in the world (or even those coming from this particular conflict) one must engage many of the “compromised” (my word, not hers) images, one of which caused such dubitable reactions even in someone with so keen an intelligence as Linfield obviously possesses. Is coming “to the photograph as full human beings” possible when the photograph in question is, by the standard expressed in her essay, somehow incomplete?

Related: Linfield on photographing cruelty, which I have not read, and on Sebald et al., which I read and enjoyed.

“Criticism and the Arts” panel (a longish report)

Given past experience with panel discussions, and common assumptions one brings to them, I didn’t have the highest hopes for one titled “Criticism and the Arts,” held last night at Hunter College. It featured Joan Acocella (of the New Yorker, Greil Marcus (author, most recently, of The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, Alex Ross (of the New Yorker and the weblog and forthcoming book The Rest Is Noise), and Mark Stevens (of New York magazine), four eminent critics one must respect no matter one’s opinion of their opinions. Thankfully, the panel was moderated adroitly by Wendy Lesser (of the Threepenny Review), and the brisk pace—two questions from Lesser to all four panelists; two more questions thrown open to them generally; three or four questions from the audience—engaged until the end, when it was “time for wine and fizzy water, so you’ll feel this is more of a conversation than an opportunity for us to talk at you.”

I found it somewhat surprising that I generally agreed with what all four critics said, though whether that surprise is rooted in disappointment that I’m affected by the same factors that influence their work (and no longer am independent firebrand, however self-styled) or pride that I can claim similar methodological concerns remains to be determined. Acocella came off as the seen-it-all chronicler (an aside: I’ve been particularly taken with her recent writing on books, notably this introduction to Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity; Ross the obsessive stylist and last-ditch proselytizer for an increasingly marginalized art form; Marcus the storyteller who sneaks autobiography into each ruminative, “mystical” association; and Stevens the skeptic—both about the use of an institutional “we” and attendant overidentification with one’s platform and an art market seemingly out of control. There were few insights about criticism in the abstract, but plenty about these writers’ practice.

Continue reading

A considered response to my talk

One attendee of my talk yesterday offered a lengthy consideration of what I said. Among other points was this, which I feel is worth sharing and which he kindly allowed me to post:

You suggested “one should live by the creed of verbs”, and even that “doing so flattens out the implicit hierarchies lodged in the terms, even potentially opening up the opportunity for radical—and instructive—role switching.” The problem with these statements is that they fail to account for the hierarchy implicit in their own articulation, a hierarchy made all the more acute when such statements arrive from the other side of a lectern. What one has said here is “i renounce my own authority”, and yet one performs this renunciation from the very position of authority that one seeks to renounce, and all the while retains ones symbolic title. Here the success of a renunciation of authority depends in advance both on the listeners belief in your authority to make this renunciation, and their granting you the space in which to perform it. However instructive such a gesture might be, and indeed your efforts to be forthcoming were, i think, honest and instructive, it falls far short of being ‘radical.’ Rather, such a gesture is more or less in keeping with the ambivalent attitude necessary to “get by” (your own words) in an art world where “to develop small communities is about the best we can hope for.” Doubtless, this regrettable state will persist, until we are truly prepared to “live by the creed of verbs” and unequivocally assume positions of social antagonism, inviting the risks that come with them, not only in the hope of someday achieving something better, but in the belief that, in acting now, we will have already done so.

And here is the part of my response that pertains to the above:

This too is well stated, and true. Knowledge of this is perhaps why I threw in a last-minute “take everything I say with a grain of salt.” It’s usually a point I try to make at the beginning of a talk, but, as I did mention at the outset, I was deliberately getting around my comfort zone yesterday. The only thing I can really say is that by “performing” my ambivalence I can show people who aren’t necessarily as ensconced in art-world institutions just how difficult it can be to move among them. I don’t claim ultimate radicality for this move, but I suspect, given how many lectures I’ve attended, that it is nonetheless rare. I really do wish that I had been warned (so to speak) about these things five or eight years ago, when I was just starting out or in school. The corollary to this is that I hope what it is I do outside the space of the lecture—the zine-making, the sharing of resources, even engaging in conversations like this one—will help the community in a way that could be perceived as “radical” when placed in the context of the art world at large. As you note, no doubt I’ll have to continue playing the game. There are two reasons: It’s only by doing so that I have the privilege of speaking to a group such as the one yesterday, and it’s also the only way I know (right now, at least) of making a living. So I do a lot of work, and admit that that work holds up a number of institutions that I think should be reformed, and in the meantime create as much of what the writer Gregory Sholette calls “dark matter”—essentially noninstitutional creativity and production—as possible. Until I’m more able to commit to that “dark matter,” which will take a combination of fiscal security and, for lack of a better word, chutzpah, this is the state I am in.

A few words

I had the pleasure of speaking to a fairly large audience at Parsons today. Here is one paragraph from my talk:

Instead, one should live by the creed of verbs—to review, to write criticism, to make art—rather than nouns. I have taken recently to saying that I “write about art” rather than “I’m an art critic.” Doing so flattens out the implicit hierarchies lodged in the terms, even potentially opening up the opportunity for radical—and instructive—role switching. Doing so likewise creates a situation in which one must apply oneself fully to each task, because there are no laurels to rest on. I have published several hundred pieces of writing about art in the past three and a half years, but having done so neither guarantees that what I write next will be mind-opening, authoritative, or even factually correct—alongside working as an editor, I work with and rely on editors, too—nor does it grant me intrinsic authority over any of you in the field of “art criticism,” much less in the art world at large. Perfect evidence of this lies in the fact that it’s quite possible that some of you, even knowing that I was coming to speak today, have never read anything that I have written.

I also spoke about understanding one’s own limits and not presuming to take up more resources (in the art world, that is) than one can properly use and maintaining a sense of community in the face of all kinds of forces that would tear them apart. It seemed to go over well. Here’s a quote that I was inspired by as I was planning the talk:

What with the fairs and the steroidal explosion of Chelsea, it’s no wonder that even the New York Times realizes that the current model of success for many artists is monetary. Can the interest in [Lee] Lozano be anything but the flip side of this coin? It’s up to us to heed Lozano’s cautionary quip, “Win first don’t last.” But the oxymoronic “Win last don’t care” is worth taking to heart as well. In the face of an autocratic regime bent on totalizing knowledge and war, many feminists have called for explorations of failure—as the only viable form of practice under today’s political and market conditions. Lozano offers a model not of failure per se but of a very particular form of achievement, in which when you win last and don’t care, you are capable of become a tool that transforms the rules of the game. — Helen Molesworth, from a review of “Lee Lozano,” Artforum, September 2006

The Uncertain States of America Reader

(Detail view of cover of mock-up made by designers)

As I publish this entry the Serpentine Gallery is celebrating the opening of “Uncertain States of America,” curated by Daniel Birnbaum, Gunnar B. Kvaran, and Hans Ulrich Obrist. As I mentioned in a parenthetical aside in this entry in June, I was asked by the three of them as well as Serpentine Gallery director Julia Peyton-Jones to edit an anthology of recent writing about contemporary art, politics, and the current cultural climate in the United States. The first of two editions of that volume, called The Uncertain States of America Reader, is being released tonight to coincide with the exhibition. (A second, expanded version will be published later this autumn by Sternberg Press.) This edition contains seventeen texts, is designed (by my friends Stuart and David of Dexter Sinister) to feel like an academic reader, and can be obtained now at the Serpentine Gallery, soon at the Walther König bookshop, and, a little bit later, in a few other locations around Europe for an intentionally low price—£6, I think. (The Sternberg Press version will be more widely distributed.)

Quickly realizing the scope of the project after I was initially invited to undertake it, I asked Noah Horowitz, who was hired by the Serpentine as an exhibition organizer and is a PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art, to coedit the anthology with me. Here is a brief excerpt from our coauthored introduction, which is available in full at

In recent years, many have noted the fashionableness of art that addresses its broader social context. The translation of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics into English in 2002 and the ongoing debate about this set of essays is one prominent example of this tendency. Others pertain to the intensification of discussion about the Internet’s (virtual) social power and the agency of extra-gallery/museum practices, the latter of which inspired “The Interventionists,” an exhibition curated by Nato Thompson and presented at MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts, in the summer of 2004. What has perhaps changed since the re-election later that autumn of George W. Bush is the zeroing in of (primarily European) interest in American art and artists. One could cite “Uncertain States of America,” “USA Today” at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, “This Is America: Visions of the American Dream” at the Centraal Museum, Utrecht, The Netherlands, and even “Day for Night,” the 2006 Whitney Biennial (curated by Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne, Europeans now ensconced in American institutions), as evidence of this trend.

This is undoubtedly a moment marked by a serious interest in the actions America is taking on the world stage—actions that have been described as cause for “grave concern.” We do not attempt to authoritatively engage these concerns here, but we do think that this sampling of discourse by and about a country’s visual artists leads to insights about its politics and society not gained elsewhere. [ . . . ] At the very least, it gives a sense of what it is like to live in the United States now, and it occasions some inspired debate.

(Table of contents of mock-up made by designers)

This edition of the book reprints the following texts:

“From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique” by Andrea Fraser

“Eric Buell, Art Mover” in John Bowe, Marisa Bowe and Sabin Streeter, eds., Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs

“Boundary Issues: The Art World Under the Sign of Globalism” by Pamela M. Lee

“Itinerant Artists” by Miwon Kwon (excerpt from One Place After Another)

“Tent Community: On Art Fair Art” by Jack Bankowsky

“American Mutt Barks in the Yard” by David Barringer (excerpt)

“Was ist Los?” by Seth Price

“When Procedures Become Market Tools,” Johanna Burton and Isabelle Graw in conversation

“New Live Queer Art” by Matt Wolf

“Renigged” by Hamza Walker

“Sublime Humility” by Paul Chan

“When Thought Becomes Crime” by the Critical Art Ensemble

“Startling and Effective: Writing Art and Politics After 9/11″ by Alan Gilbert

“The State, Spectacle, and September 11″ by Retort (excerpt from Afflicted Powers)

“Torture Culture: Lynching Photographs and the Images of Abu Ghraib” by Dora Apel

“Notes from New York” by Molly Nesbit

Trisha Donnelly, 2006

Also from our introduction: “The present volume is not a ‘portrait of the exhibition’s artists in text’ (an early, and mightily optimistic, vision). Nor is it a top-down survey of all that is novel and noteworthy in today’s art world. Cognisant of this exhibition’s ambitious modus operandi, to represent ‘a “new” vision in American contemporary art,’ we realize, of course, that some may view this publication as nothing but such a list, a currency-enhancing invocation of already-prevalent curatorial/critical interests. And we understand that such a publication indelibly sanctifies its content, that it operates as a value filter or, as Isabelle Graw observes in these pages, a ‘“sound bite” in order to underline claims for art historical importance or theoretical erudition’. Yet it is our underlying hope that this Reader belies such a roll-call of erudite endorsements, and that its contents engage audiences in unanticipated and fundamentally informative manners.”

So, I hope that if your travels take you to London or wherever else this volume may be sold, you’ll consider looking it over and purchasing a copy. I’ll be sure to post a notice when the expanded version is available later this autumn.

UPDATE, 9/12: Adrian Searle reviews the exhibition in the Guardian:

The overall tenor is sophisticated, charmless, disaffected and at times deliberately damaged. The collision of artists and works is also often incomprehensible. The pile-up of stuff might be, in part, collaborative, but the effect is merely wearying, a sub-Kippenberger-ish turn-off. [ . . . ] But does any of this tell us very much about America? To coincide with the exhibition, the Serpentine is publishing The Uncertain States of America Reader, a number of recent essays on art theory, the art market, 9/11, Abu Ghraib and the war on terror.

But the book has more heft than most of the art in the show. In the end there’s too much here that is silly, opaque and, to be honest, immature. How seriously should we take Uncertain States of America?

Well, at least he says something nice about the book, if you consider “heft” a good quality in a reader. Phew.

Kay Rosen answers a question

At the invitation of Matthew Higgs, I submitted a question—one of twenty, each submitted by a different person—to the artist Kay Rosen, whose last New York exhibition I reviewed in the September 2005 Artforum. It was for one of his “20 Questions” projects, and the Indiana-based artist’s answers have been printed in a small book published by Yvon Lambert Gallery to accompany her new exhibition, which opens a week from today. It was surprisingly difficult to come up with just one question, and so I ended up choosing one that weighed heavily on my mind at the time:

BRIAN SHOLIS: What do we do when language fails?

KAY ROSEN: My work has always attempted to demonstrate that language doesn’t fail, that readers, viewers, and listeners can construct meaning out of the most meager fragments. In a 1990 essay I discussed the issue of how to rescue language from a collapsed system (which I had devised through blocking out huge chunks of letters). “In the absence of a linguistic system, meaning appears to be thwarted and blocked, but the pieces actually attempt to function as re-signifiers of meaning rather than as de-signifiers. Instead of hampering reading, they intend to redirect it, forcing the viewers through another non-linguistic process of ‘reading.'” In the new sparsely populated work Exterior, Interior, one might approach the four letters E ER R in both a linguistic and non-linguistic way. Through the title or through their powers of observation and deduction, viewers might conclude that it has something to do with inside and outside and how coincidental and amazing it is that in this word structure corroborates meaning. That in EXTERIOR there is an exterior E-R and an interior E-R, that both are the same except for their location, and that the word is a construction that contains aspects of other physical constructions, like buildings and bodies.

Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children

After the difficulty I faced finding this book, I finally found a copy of The Emperor’s Children at Strand Books last week, and devoured it over the weekend. It skewers the pretensions of people who are young, overeducated, and trapped in the Manhattan media echo chamber, yet I couldn’t help but have sympathy for its rather odious characters. Many of the descriptions of New York are evocative as well. Here’s an observation made by a character named Danielle from the rooftop of her building on Sixth Ave. in the West Village:

Murray gestured away toward the Hudson. Following his arm, Danielle was struck again by the glory of the city around them, its glittering stalagmites and arterial avenues, strung with the beaded headlights of the ever-starting, ever-stopping traffic. Even the dark patches, the flat rooftops of the brick and brownstone buildings to the immediate south and west, or the hollow she knew to be a playground by day—even these ellipses were vital to the pattern. Farther downtown, a cluster of skyscrapers rose, alight, into the night, stold mercantile reassurance in the mad whimsy of the city.

And here’s an interior monologue by a twenty-year-old who has just arrived in the city. It’s an amplified version of what I suspect many of us felt upon arrival here, when it is so easy to ascribe symbolism to every small detail and then extrapolate outrageous, seemingly life-altering meaning from each:

Were he independent, he thought, he would scan the Village Voice classifieds, and craigslist, and find a flat to share with persons unknown. But somehow he couldn’t bring himself to do it: his life felt unreal already, his very flesh a tenuous thing, grounded here and now only by the Thwaites, by the small, growing, strangely delicious degree to which he was known. He couldn’t help but imagine himself disintegrating, falling away atom by atom into a million infinitesimal pieces, were he to allow himself to drift out the door into the cvast unknowing unknownness of New York City. The sensation was new to him—the way his claustrophobia in the subway had been new to him, and akin, although diametrically opposed, to that experience. In both cases, it was about feeling self-less, an Alice in Wonderland feeling, an appalling, thrilling, unsustainable feeling, a hollowing out. And just as he’d realized taht he needed to remain above-ground, he’d realized, too, that he needed to claim an apartment to which he had some logical, some traceable connection. Something that would keep him from drowning, or vanishing, or killing himself there.

The book is full of small things worth savoring, like how the run up to “ever-starting, ever-stopping traffic” in the first quote mimics what it describes, or the very subtle nod to l’affair James Frey in the second. Like all of the reviews I linked to here, I recommend the book.

UPDATE, 9/6: Despite my earlier concerns, an article by Motoko Rich in today’s New York Times asserts that sales of Messud’s book are much higher than expected:

Sonny Mehta, Knopf’s editor in chief, said that with the novel’s broad cast of characters and emotional realism, Ms. Messud had produced “a bigger book than anything she’s ever written.”

Knopf has gone back to press four times, and there are 56,500 copies in print. Booksellers have given strong support. “We ordered this book at a level to potentially break onto the best-seller list,” said Tom Dwyer, category director for trade books at Borders Group. Last week “The Emperor’s Children” hit No. 2 on’s Top 100 list.

James Salter, Last Night

On the plane yesterday I read James Salter’s Last Night, a slim collection of stories in which each tale would seem too brief were it not for the author’s aptitude for compression. More than any other fiction I’ve read in the past few years, the stories possess a quality I identify as “adult”—the light in these stories is amber, refracted through the bottom of a highball glass—despite the fact that Salter’s philandering protagonists expect, like children, to slip the yoke of consequence. They never do, and it’s to Salter’s credit that each denouement carries its own emotional weight.

Joyce Carol Oates, in an appreciation of Salter (NYRB subscriber–only link) written on the occasion of the publication in 2005 of Last Night, introduces his short fiction this way:

Dusk and Last Night are appropriate titles for Salter’s slender collections of stories, which unfold with dreamlike fluidity in an atmosphere of shadows and indistinct forms, like watercolors in a dark palette. As Salter’s novels are comprised of exquisite set pieces, often self-contained, so his short stories suggest novellas or novels compressed into a few pages. Both Dusk and Last Night, the new collection, contain memorable stories, yet a number of others (“Am Strande von Tanger,” “The Cinema,” “Lost Sons,” “Via Negativa,” “The Destruction of the Goetheanum,” from Dusk; “Comet,” “Eyes of the Stars,” “Platinum,” “Arlington,” from Last Night) move so swiftly and disjointedly as to arouse expectation in the way of trailers for intriguing films that turn out to be the films themselves, abruptly truncated. It’s as if the writer’s imagination has leapt ahead of his capacity for, or interest in, the work of expression; an impatience with formal storytelling and chronological development . . .

Next time you’re in a bookstore, pick this collection up and spend ten minutes reading one of the stories. I recommend “Such Fun,” “Arlington,” and “Last Night”.

Jonathan Franzen, The Discomfort Zone

Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone (FSG) is a beautifully written small book, surely a disappointment to those wishing to revisit the expansiveness of The Corrections, but undeniably winning for readers willing to be buoyed along by fluid, never-preening prose and the small insights, sadly often unusable, one gains about one’s past. Its six interlinked essays, two previously published in the New Yorker, are threaded through with references to the author’s mother—strict and emotional in his childhood, graceful and stoic in the slow arc of her dying—and one can’t help but think of The Afterlife, Donald Antrim’s recently published, equally pristine survey of more troubled family relations. Franzen’s crosscuts, such as those between family reminiscence and discussion of Peanuts creator Charles Schultz in “Two Ponies,” are effortless, a collage that allows in just enough of the world beyond his family without popping its seams. Even as his boyish awkwardness, usually around girls, turns into fecklessness, usually around women, and the repercussions of his eccentricities pile up, one can’t help but savor Franzen’s mellifluous voice and acknowledge that this is more than mere stopgap before his next novel.

More info: Publisher’s Weekly review; author page at the Complete Review; a report from a reading in the Columbia Spectator.

UPDATE, 8/21: Lev Grossman turns in a long(ish) profile of Franzen for Time.

UPDATE, 8/30: Michiko Kakutani, reviewing the book in the New York Times, isn’t as willing to suspend her dislike of the subject matter as I was.

UPDATE, 8/31: Emily Gordon at Emdashes weighs in on Kakutani’s review: “Does Michiko Kakutani have trouble with despair? Specifically, understanding what it might be like to be caught in it? Her self-congratulatory review . . . would seem to suggest that this is so, which would be an unfortunate deficiency in a critic of literature.”

UPDATE, 9/5: James Marcus published a review in this weekend’s Los Angeles Times Book Review, and links to it (with a brief preface) from his blog, House of Mirth.

UPDATE, 9/6: Today, a ringing endorsement from New York Observer books editor Adam Begley. The lede:

I’m not sure I can tell you the difference between a “personal history” and a memoir, but Jonathan Franzen’s contribution to the genre is so expertly shaped and composed, so genuinely, organically thought-provoking, that I wish I could yank it off the shelf where it will inevitably sit with the autobiographical writing of other hip authors perhaps too young to be writing autobiography (Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, Jonathan Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist, etc.), and toss it into the bleak anonymity of some loosely defined territory like “General Nonfiction.” The only problem is that the six essays in The Discomfort Zone, though they tackle topics as various as Charles Schulz, Franz Kafka and bird watching, are frankly autobiographical. Together they add up to an account, often artfully indirect, of Jonathan Franzen’s protracted coming-of-age—a period that overlaps, in part, with his development as a novelist. Though it never actually mentions either his first two novels or The Corrections (2001), The Discomfort Zone doubles as a map of the route Mr. Franzen traveled to get to the point where he could write his wonderful third novel. So this is, willy-nilly, a writer’s personal history.

UPDATE, 9/9: Here’s Theo Schell-Lambert’s review in the Village Voice.

UPDATE, 9/29: A review by Marjorie Kehe from the Christian Science Monitor

Leon Wieseltier and Jed Perl discuss inflicting “deep damage”

The Beiderbecke Affair has posted an excerpt of a conversation between The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier and Jed Perl, held earlier this year at the 92nd St. Y and reprinted in Columbia Magazine. Here is the first part of that excerpt:

Leon Wieseltier: I think that if a critic discovers a book or a show that he finds pernicious, it is his solemn responsibility to try to do as much damage to the fortunes of that as he possibly can.

Jed Perl: Totally. But the damage needs to be deep damage. It has to be damage that has an intellectual complexity to it. It’s not the kind of damage necessarily that knocks a book or a show out that day. It’s the kind of damage that even people who totally disagree are worrying about six months or six years later.

LW: I’ve always found that the really valuable attacks by critics only look like attacks. In fact, they’re defenses of things the critic believes have been attacked. They are responses to attacks.

JP: One of the things people forget or simply don’t understand is that the hardest thing a critic can do is write an extended attack on something you really and truly don’t like. It is awful to do. It’s hard. Very, very difficult. You have to think about he people you don’t agree with and what they think. You have to get into their minds. You have to develop arguments that are compelling. It’s much more fun to celebrate.

LW: I think that’s true, but there’s a lot of very empty praise out there—to the point where there are very few critics of any art form that I would trust about buying a book or going to see a ballet. Too many people are nice to too many people.

JP: That’s completely true, which means that it’s all the more important, when one wants to praise something, to praise it in a complex, substantial way. I’m not against attacks. I’ve done my share.

But one of the central obligations of the critic is to develop, over a period of time, a kind of verbal authenticity. I’m talking about a critical voice that tells the reader who this human being, who this critic, really is . . .

Click the first link above to read the rest, as well as instances of Wieseltier putting this theory into action.

“Uncertain States of America” at Bard (2 of 2) (warning: long post)

(The audience five minutes before the panel began.)

On Saturday afternoon I participated in a panel discussion at the opening of “Uncertain States of America” (see pictures two posts below), along with Yean Fee Quay, head of the exhibition department at the Reykjavik Art Museum (a future venue for the show), P.S. 1’s Bob Nickas, the Whitney’s Chrissie Iles, independent curator Molly Nesbit, and Trevor Smith, a curator at the New Museum. I was the youngest person on the dais by a fair margin; many more people whose work I respect sat in the audience; everyone offered pointed criticism and spirited defenses, and expressed themselves rather candidly—at least more so than at any other panel discussion I have participated in. I spoke third, after Iles and Nesbit, and was a little too nervous to phrase my thoughts very well. So this is a (hopefully) more coherent recapitulation of what I said.

The exhibition’s title has undeniable rhetorical force, and it’s probably fair to say that by substituting the word “uncertain” for “united,” a majority of those visiting the show will expect it to include artworks that comment explicitly on political or social-justice issues—to explicate the ambiguity, disunity, and precariousness implied by the title. While some artworks do elucidate aspects of this “complicated, fucked-up moment” (to use Nickas’s words), most do so obliquely, if at all. As Kori Newkirk stated during the artists’ panel that preceded our discussion, “I want my work to seduce first. The ‘political’ content can come in through the side door or window.” Tom Eccles’s elegant installation of the exhibition at Bard emphasizes this seductiveness. The suavity of the presentation and assuredness of the artists’ works—admirable traits in almost any exhibition—here suppress the uncertainty promised in the title and the political turn outlined in the rhetoric surrounding the show. There is a noticeable disconnect between what one expects and what one sees.

Instead, the uncertainty seems to be built into the curatorial process. European curators, no matter how familiar with America and American artists, will inevitably miss or misunderstand shades of complexity in art made here—and in its relationship to broader issues in American culture. (This runs both ways, as exemplified by the insipid, frequently diagrammatic politics in “The American Effect,” Larry Rinder’s 2003 exhibition.) Additionally, Birnbaum admitted at the panel that he and his cocurators, Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Gunnar Kvaran, chose “artists, not artworks,” and that much of the work on view was created specifically for the show—always a gamble.

The exhibition, as it moves from venue to venue, will “evolve” organically, with new works substituted for those already shown, new artists added, an ongoing series of performances and discussions, and additional publications (one of which I will help compile). The curators and artists spoke of the potential for future collaborations—and of the development of an “Uncertain States” community—as the exhibition lumbers from museum to museum. Considering that the exhibition itself cannot conceivably represent America, or even American art, it may be that this extra-art activity holds the greatest potential for “political” content, to create relationships that could have a potentially transformative effect on the communities visited by the show and in the communities in which the artists live and work. The forty-two artists (and artist teams) in Bard’s presentation are smart, dedicated, and good at what they do (no matter one’s opinion of their work); pairing them with the infrastructure of Bard College and the museum opens a very broad, if short-lived, horizon of possibility. Rodney McMillan’s re-presentation of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” speech, which was originally delivered at the University of Michigan’s May 1964 commencement ceremony, to my mind best fulfilled this potential among the art on view, and the implications of the performance will surely stick in my mind for some time to come. But for me, meeting some of the exhibition’s artists and initiating what will hopefully be long and fruitful discussions with them may in the long run hold greater value. If the extra-art activity that spins off from the exhibition fulfills the mandate generated by the show’s title and supporting rhetoric, and the show doesn’t, where does this leave the exhibition?

Lastly, I want to clarify an initial statement, given in response to a question from Birnbaum. When I said that including artists from “second-tier” American cities (Miami, Minneapolis, Portland) inevitably draws them out of their communities and into the globalized network of the art-world’s metropolitan centers, I was not rendering judgment, but simply stating plain fact. By virtue of the imprimatur granted their work by their inclusion in this exhibition, these artists will inevitably gain momentum that will bring them toward New York, Los Angeles, London, etc. A question that I think is worth asking: What does this do to the autonomy and sense of community in the cities from which these artists come? To attempt an answer is obviously beyond the curators’ responsibility—they need not make reparations to these art communities for plucking individuals from them—but what (if anything) can be done to ensure the continued flourishing of the art scene in, say, Houston? Is there anything that can be instituted systematically to ensure that the traffic in artistic talent heads two ways?

UPDATE (7/7): Roberta Smith reviews the exhibition in today’s Times.

DIY Art Project #2

1) Determine the dates of the four major art fairs—the Armory Show, Art Basel, Frieze, and Art Basel Miami Beach—in a given year.

2) Determine the dates exactly opposite those of the fairs.

3) Go to the “right place at the wrong time”—Basel in the winter, London in the spring, Miami in the summer, and New York in the autumn—and organize art-related events, especially ones that make the art market their theme or that would not normally find a place in the market.

4) Skip the fairs themselves.

William St. Clair on “the political economy of reading”

William St. Clair, in an essay printed in the May 12 Times Literary Supplement, attempts to reorient our understanding of the relationship between printed matter and its readers’ “mentalities.” The essay, a condensed version of the John Coffin Memorial Lecture in the History of the Book, is not available online in its TLS form, but the original can be found in PDF form here. A few excerpts:

Literary and intellectual histories, two of the disciplines that have traditionally attempted to retrieve mentalities, have mainly been written in accordance with the “parade of authors” convention. The writings of the past are presented as a march past of great names, described from a commentator’s box set high above the column. In literature, we see Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson. . . . In philosophy Hume is followed by Adam Smith, Rousseau, or whichever names the writer wishes. According to the parade convention, those texts which have later been judged to be the best of their age, or the most innovative in a wide sense, are believed to catch the essence, or some of the essence, of the historical situation from which they came. It is a convention centred on newly written works that, for the most part, denies an active role to readers. Another convention that has come in more recently, I call the “parliament of texts.” This presents the writings of a particular historical period as debating and negotiating with one another in a kind of open parliament, with all the members participating and listening. Thus, when news of the French Revolution reached England, there was an outpouring of books and pamphlets that discussed its implications, and took the debate from questions of immediate policy to philosophical concerns about the nature of human society, the role of the State, the justifications for political, social and gender hierarchies, and much else.

Under both of these conventions, the historian chooses the texts that march in the parade or sit in the parliament. . . . However, as ways of understanding how mentalities may have been formed by the reading of books, neitehr approach is complete or satisfactory. For one thing, any study of the consequences of reading in the past ought to consider those books that were actually read, not a more recent selection.

And then:

A political economy of reading can begin with the economic aspect of political economy. The “history of the book” is, among much else, the history of an industry, one which has parallels with, for example, pharmaceuticals and information technology, in which intellectual property is central. . . .

Over the whole print era, the links, both general and particular, between texts, books, reading and wider consequences appear to be secure. For example, the persistence of rural, religious, pre-Enlightenment constructions of Englishness into the industrialized urban world, the emergence of a distinctively working-class sceptical urban reformist culture, and the persistence of believe in astrology and other ancient supernatural systems, despite the efforts of Church and State—in all these cases, the overlap is with books and readers, not with authors and texts. . . . If I am right, and it is accepted that reading can be shown to have shaped mentalities, then the implications are immense. For, having disconnected outcomes from traditional text- and author-centred approaches, we have connected them to other ways of understanding complexity.

Because there is such a precedent for this type of inquiry—the work of Adam Smith, for example, as mentioned in the description of the full lecture given on the page linked above—St. Clair’s ideas seem natural, as if they should have already been in the air. And yet I don’t think I’ve come across, in a publication aimed at a more-or-less general readership, an essay that uses these methods to consider histories of publishing and reading. I can’t vouch fully for the original lecture, as I’ve only read the TLS-edited extract, but the latter is fascinating, so the former may well be worth a look, especially among those litbloggers who read this site.

A sneak peek at Olafur Eliasson’s “Light Lab”

While in Frankfurt this weekend, I had the pleasure of taking a tour of the new Portikus building, designed by architect Christoph Mäckler. One highlight was an up-close peek at Olafur Eliasson’s “Light Lab” installation, the first of a series of twelve. The work has made the building an instant icon—I saw countless tourists posing on the banks of the river with its orange neon arc in the background. Here’s a sneak peek at how simple are the means by which Eliasson makes this commanding image.

Rochelle Gurstein, “Mourning in America”

Leon Wieseltier has lately commissioned several articles that seem destined to be talked about, among them James Wood’s May 1 New Republic cover story, “What Harold Bloom Can Teach God,” and Rochelle Gurstein’s “Mourning in America,” a review of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Donald Hall’s The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon published in the same issue.

Gurstein’s essay begins straightforwardly enough, noting that “at the time of our most desperate need, we find ourselves abandoned to our own devices,” and goes on to discuss C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, the thread that stitches together her discussion of the two newer books. She notes that the “scarcity of memoirs of grief raises the possibility that even in our society of manic self-exposure, there still remains a taboo surrounding deaths that are not caused by natural disasters or human violence, the kinds of hideous things we routinely see in photographs in the media.” There is truth to this, and a wide body of literature discussing the same topic. What is interesting to me is that Gurstein finds significant flaws in the approaches both contemporary authors took to their accounts (which “could not be more different”), and her criticisms seem to leave little room for writers of death-focused memoirs working today.

After noting that the “static quality of Didion’s matter-of-fact style serves her well in capturing the tedium of the hospital routine,” Gurstein goes on to say:

[Didion observes] her every move from the outside . . . . This same spectatorial habit of mind is at work when Didion reports that the night her husband died she appeared so completely self-possessed that a social worker described her to the attending doctor as “a pretty cool customer” . . . . There is a difference between the distance that provides understanding and the distance that yields irony and an effect of superiority.

Didion’s minimal style runs into difficulty when it approaches anything having to do with the interior dimensions of things.

Hall’s book, in which “every detail is heartbreakingly immediate and particular,” nonetheless “all too easily becomes overly familiar, even intrustive,” raising “vexing questions about which kinds of things can be disclosed in public and which should remain unsaid.”

The question of what can appear in public is even more pressing when it comes to descriptions of physical suffering and death . . . . There can be no doubt that these poems [in Without, Hall’s 1998 collection] testify to the depth and the tenderness of the couple’s love for each other; but their very delicacy raises the question of whether anyone should be privy to such intimate moments. How, one wonders, can such intimate moments maintain their character if outsiders are looking over their shoulders? [ . . . ] I suspect that even the heartbreaking beauty of Hall’s rendering of the moment of his wife’s death . . . does not in the end save it from the charge of invading Jane Kenyon’s privacy and his own.

Apart from the absurdity of charging a writer invading his own privacy, how does Gurstein reconcile this assertion with what seems like disappointment that this mini-genre’s landscape is so sparsely populated? If the writer’s response should not be clinical, self-aware, synoptic, and it should also not be intimate, precise, unsparing, what should it be?

While Gurstein is generous to Without, and especially to its titular poem, she is less so toward The Best Day the Worst Day, and so it seems that the answer is A Grief Observed. The “aesthetic amplitude” featured in Hall’s poems matches the “spiritual reach” of Lewis’s meditation. But must a prose writer working today rely on religion (or some other external bulwark)? I should hope not.

Jenny Price, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in LA”

A photograph taken last week in Los Angeles

I began reading the first article in The Believer‘s April issue, titled “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in LA,” as my plane took off from LAX. The article, to be published in two parts, is taken from Land of Sunshine, an essay collection edited by William Deverell and Greg Hise, and postulates that Los Angeles “is the ideal place to tackle the problem of how to write about nature.” That’s a counterintuitive proposition, to say the least. Despite some rhetorical excesses—such as listing eighteen topics the Los Angeles Times has reported on before identifying them all as “nature topics”—her broadening of the definition of “nature writing,” in part through tracing “stories that follow nature through our material lives” and understanding the ways in which class affects one’s perception of (and access to) nature, is pretty convincing. A quote, from right after the eighteen-strong list of Times topics:

These are nature topics all, about how we live in and fight about nature, and about how we use it more and less fairly and sustainably, and about the enormous consequences for our lives in L.A., as well as for places and people and wildlife everywhere. And such topics beg for a literature—for a poetry, for an aesthetics—because to clearly ponder our lives in and out of cities, we have to be able to imagine and reimagine these connections to nature.

(A side note: Price ends by discussing the Los Angeles River, which I pass over on foot on nearly every trip to LA, since at one point it cuts between several art galleries on La Cienega Blvd. I’m fascinated by it, and by how the creation of its concrete straitjacket remains the largest public-works project ever undertaken west of the Mississippi. Doug Aitken once tried to take a boat up the river, as discussed with Ed Ruscha in this Frieze interview, a quixotic project if ever there was one . . . )

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

At the train station in Malmö, Sweden, I picked up the Virago paperback edition of Gilead, Marilyn Robinson’s “demanding, grave, and lucid” 2004 novel. (It was published by FSG in the US.) There was a twenty-three-year gap between this book and Housekeeping, her 1981 debut, and, as many commentators have noted, it was worth the wait. The novel won the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was reviewed favorably at the New York Times (where it was one of the paper’s ten best books of the year), the Village Voice, the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, New York, Slate, the London Review of Books, The Guardian, and elsewhere. This is one case where I think you can believe the hype.

Neither book’s narrative recommends itself to me, yet the deliberative tone Robinson strikes perfectly counters her more lyrical passages, and I found myself connecting emotionally to the main characters of each. To use a phrase borrowed from Ann Patchett, a former student at Iowa who reviewed the newer novel for the New York Observer, Robinson’s characters “luxuriate in time,” living the reflective lives we wish we could enjoy. Thankfully, an added benefit of Gilead, little remarked upon by the book’s many reviewers, is that its form—a letter written by the dying, seventy-six-year-old Reverend John Ames to his young son—invites repeated readings; once you’ve finished the book and know the relationships between its eight or ten main characters, the one-to-three-page, diarylike entries are perfect for savoring individually.

After completing Gilead, I sought further commentary from Robinson, and found a lot on the internet. Beyond her brief faculty profile at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, there are a number of interviews, including one at The Atlantic, one at the LA Weekly, and one at There are also audio interviews from two NPR programs (one, two).

Cady Noland, “approximately”

This seems like a very bad idea, and one that will be very short-lived if Cady Noland responds to this exhibition the way she has to exhibitions that include artworks she actually made.

Cady Noland Approximately
Sculptures and Editions, 1984-1999

Conceived by Triple Candie, made in collaboration with Taylor Davis, Rudy Shepherd, and two other artists

This exhibition is the first survey ever devoted to Cady Noland’s oeuvre. It consists of objects made by Triple Candie and four artists that are based on sculpture and editions by Cady Noland that date from the mid-1980s through the late 1990s. The works were recreated from images found on the Internet and in exhibition catalogues. Though an attempt was made to replicate the original artworks as faithfully as possible, they are not reproductions. They are approximations that have been handicapped by practical limitations (e.g. lack of money and technical expertise; insufficient information about scale, materials, or color; the obsolescence of certain ready-made components; and a limited time-frame). By deliberately falling short of its target, the exhibition is meant to incite the public’s desire and curiosity to experience the real thing, which remains frustratingly elusive.

[. . .]

“Cady Noland Approximately” was conceived of conjointly with—and is meant to serve as a complement to—the exhibition “David Hammons: The Unauthorized Retrospective” that was presented at Triple Candie in February/March 2006. There are a number of important similarities between the two artists. Both are evasive figures whose art has been highly influential on younger artists. Both artists tightly control access to their work. Both have expressed dissatisfaction with the art world and have operated outside of it, on their own terms, albeit in different ways. The Hammons exhibition consisted of photocopies and computer printouts from existing reproductions; this exhibition consists of three-dimensional objects that are made from information gleaned from existing reproductions but which are not exact replicas. In comparing the two exhibitions, one question that arises is: “Which of the two compromised forms of replication is closer to the real thing?”

“Cady Noland Approximately” was made in collaboration with four artists: Taylor Davis, Rudy Shepherd, and two others who asked to not be named. None of the objects in the exhibition are individually authored. Cady Noland was not consulted, or notified, about this exhibition. She lives and works in New York City.

(It should be noted that I wrote and distributed an essay titled “Why We Should Talk About Cady Noland,” also without consulting her prior to its publication.)

Far be it from me to police what a gallery chooses to exhibit, but it seems to me that making an exhibition-of-photocopied-reproductions-as-homage in the spirit of one artist—an exhibition that leads even the Times to wonder if the artist is involved—is one thing. It is far different, and less malicious, than re-creating the artworks of an elusive artist, no matter how poorly and with how much transparency. As someone said last night at dinner, “This show cannot even begin to look like a Cady Noland show. Cady has very specific reasons for installing her objects the way she does; the relationships between them are of equal importance to the sculptures themselves. This cannot be re-created by others’ hands.” Hammons is enigmatic, and his relationship to exhibitions and the market can be seen, in some way, as part of his oeuvre; Noland’s relationship with the art world is much closer to a categorical “no.” In my mind, the differences between those stances outweigh the similarities described above.

It’s telling that two of the four artists enlisted to re-create these works insist on their own anonymity. If these aren’t Cady Noland sculptures, and those responsible for creating them aren’t willing to claim them as something else (à la Sturtevant, or some such), then what are they? As much as I would love to see a Cady Noland exhibition, this is the wrong way to go about it, and the wrong way to “incite the public’s desire and curiosity to experience the real thing.” That desire is already present, at least among cognoscenti. We need instead to stoke Noland’s desire to collaborate with a gallery or institution on an exhibition of her own work. This gesture harms that effort.

UPDATE (5/17): A few weeks ago, Edward Winkleman posted an entry on his blog about this topic, and several commenters took me to task for the remarks above; last Friday, Ken Johnson weighed in on the show in the New York Times (“The show might be seen as a chance to think about an oeuvre that . . . remains pertinent to what young artists . . . . Unfortunately, it is easier to see it as an attention-seeking stunt. No one who values Ms. Noland’s work is going to care about seeing inexact substitutes, and no serious critical judgments about her art should be based on such ersatz objects.”); and now Jerry Saltz has his say in the Village Voice (“The ideas are interesting and the organizers’ hearts are in the right place, yet the show falls flat.”).

The Life Aquatic with Matthew Barney

Still from Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9.

There is little new to be said about Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9, which was released a few weeks ago and is now screening at the IFC Center in the West Village. There were, of course, reviews in all of the major media outlets—the New York Times and the Village Voice, among many others—as well as numerous posts on blogs. (Girish’s comments were among the earliest and remain among the most well thought out.) As is to be expected, there is little impartial commentary; like all extremely ambitious artists, Matthew Barney seems only to draw fulsome praise or withering criticism, and the film, loaded with visual cues referencing the Cremaster series with which he made his name, will convert few critics and dissuade few fans. Overwrought pageantry and meticulously observed ritual, a fetishist’s appreciation of elaborate costuming, and all manner of viscous semiliquid materials figure prominently.

I enjoyed the film. A few brief comments:

– I agree with those who criticize Barney’s editing skills, as the film seems like an endless succession of eight- to ten-second takes; were it not for the Björk’s evocative soundtrack, there would be even less narrative thrust than can now be discerned. The film’s action hovers somewhere between nonnarrative and narrative states, and it suffers some for it.

– While there are plenty of striking moments, there is no single image in Drawing Restraint 9 as beautiful as individual scenes in his Cremaster films. (I’m thinking specifically of the use of the Chrysler building as a maypole in Cremaster 3 or the scene in which Barney jumps off a bridge into the Danube in Cremaster 5.)

– The ending seems tacked on, as if Barney had extra visual material—the kabuki clown, the woman vomiting pearls into the sea, etc.—that he wanted to include but couldn’t otherwise fit.

– Some commentators have glossed the reference to Douglas MacArthur in the beginning of the film, but I’m surprised that none yet have reached back to Matthew C. Perry, the original “Occidental Guest.” I know that the coincidence of their first names is just that, but it is a suggestive one nonetheless.

Gary Lutz interview

(Until May 1, most of the content posted to this site will comprise links to other essays, stories, blogs, and news items. I am facing down several deadlines that will likely keep me from posting original content.)

The writer Gary Lutz came up in a phone conversation I had with a friend on Friday afternoon. I have never read Gary Lutz’s short stories, nor have I read much writing by Ben Marcus, the author to whom I speculatively linked him. When Lutz’s collection Stories in the Worst Way was published, I read a sharply critical review of the book, filed his name away, and didn’t seek out other commentary. Then, in February, The Believer published an interview with him that reversed my earlier impression. I am now in search of a copy of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, which contains a piece by Lutz and was edited, coincidentally, by Marcus. (Marcus also blurbs Stories in the Worst Way, saying: “Gary Lutz is a sentence writer from another planet, deploying language with unmatched invention. He is not just an original literary artist, but maybe the only one to so strenuously reject the training wheels limiting American narrative practice. What results are stories nearly too good to read: crushingly sad, odd, and awe-inspring.”)

The Believer interview (not all posted online) offers an endearing portrait of the self-deprecating artist. Here are a few quotes:

BLVR: When you manipulate words like this, is it a technical process? Are you using many reference materials? Or is it mostly intuitive?

GL: I think that a lot of what I seem to be doing when I try to get from one end of a sentence to the other—a crossing that can take hours, days, weeks—is introducing words to each other that in ordinary circumstance would never meet . . . because I have some other hunch that they belong together, even though anyone else might write them off as entirely incompatible. I guess I work my way through a sentence by instigating these relationships—a perverse sort of matchmacking, apparently—and then to keep the words from getting too cozy, I might reach for an uncstomary preposition that plunges the sentence into some queasy depths. The whole undertaking seems to be alrgely intuitive and probably unnatural.

[ . . . ]

BLVR: Your acceptance of ambiguity seems more on the experimental side, while your interest in grammar seems more traditional. Would you ever call yourself a traditionalist?

GL: I think it helps somehow if prose that on the surface might seem vivid in its disrupture or overthrowal of the conventional is ultimately discovered to be pure grammatical fussbudgetry underneath. (A friend tells me I’m a Victorian at heart.) I probably would not have had a long-enduring, even morbid fascination with prescriptive grammar and punctuation if I weren’t convinced that exactitude in such matters was a lost cause.

[ . . . ]

GL: . . . A few years ago, trying to recover from a traumatic breakup, I made a study of hyphenation patterns in the New Yorker magazine back when William Shawn was in charge. I made the hyphen my lifeline, and I put my trust in William Shawn and his grammar genius, Eleanor Gould Packard. . . . I eventually fell in love with somebody else and slept deeply for a while.

Two more, unhooked from the questions that prompted them:

As for fiction versus poetry, the border between the two seems less secure than ever. A lot of writing passes back and forth without anyone summoning the authorities. Some people have told me that what I write is poetry, that it could be laid out as such. But I am a sucker for the old notions of poetry and would never think of my paragraphic jitter in that light. Besides, regarding my stuff as prose is a much more cost-efficient use of paper. The reader gets a full page.

[ . . . ]

Another way of looking at this, maybe, is that the motions of even the most centrifugally active mind or heart have a circumference, and the writer of a story s hould probably respect or even celebrate the fixity of the circumference. But within those limits, anything should be welcome to clamor on behalf of itself or rise to an occasion or veer off into ultimately pertinent digression.

Elsewhere online, Lutz has reviewed the new edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, for Slate; been interviewed by The Stranger; and has been appreciated, by Lawrence La Riviere White, on

“Utopia Station” at Princeton, Pamela M. Lee on the World Social Forum, and Slavoj Zizek in the LRB

On Thursday, March 30, I ventured down to Princeton’s campus for the latter half of “Utopia Station,” a two-day seminar devoted to the concept of free speech. As the press release had it: “We meet to examine this question and to move it.” I was interested in how this program of “talks, screenings, messages and images” would function in two ways. First, as part of a larger, two-year project at Princeton focusing on the study of utopia and dystopia in history, and second, as part of the larger “Utopia Station” project, which debuted at the Venice Biennale in 2003 and which has manifested itself variously since then.

Molly Nesbit, who is the ostensible ringleader of the project (despite the fact that it was conceived with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and a host of other artists, curators, and critics), emceed the affair. Her first words were aimed at disarming potential critics, specifically the capital-H Historians in the house who have been treated to eighteen months’ worth of serious academic papers on the topics at hand, and emphasized the experimental (if not quite provisional) nature of the mixed-media presentations on that day’s docket. The program itself was impressive, but almost from the start technical difficulties plagued the presenters and unexpected absences shortened the proceedings. Princeton’s computers did not play some of the artists’ DVDs properly: We saw only half of a video by Tiravanija and Philippe Parreno, and what footage we did see was punctuated by glitches and moments without sound. Obrist had left after Wednesday’s presentation, and neither Immanuel Wallerstein nor Martha Rosler could attend; Nesbit read short notes from all three. The dwindling audience murmured.

And yet there were rousing presentations. Liam Gillick, who was on stage with Carolee Schneeman and Rirkrit Tiravanija at the outset of the afternoon, outlined in eleven succinct points many problems with using the words “free” and “speech” in this context. (Unfortunately he read too quickly and there was no opportunity to discuss what he said.) A twenty-minute phone call to Michael Hardt, in Seattle, was illuminating, as the critic and theorist outlined his collaborative working process with Antonio Negri as well as the contours of the project now holding the duo’s attention. (A subsequent, pre-planned call to Negri was met with an answering machine.) Edouard Glissant delivered a rather poetic paper envisioning one particular type of utopia, translated on the fly from the French by a young woman who would have benefited from having more time to prepare her words. At the end of the evening, and with the help of an audience member’s laptop, we were treated to two short videos by Thomas Bayrle and a preview of the third part of Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest film cycle.

If judged on the terms it set out for itself, the second day of “Utopia Station” was not a success. Several speakers referred to the marathon discussions sparked by the first day’s presentations; Thursday was marked by its lack of interaction. Although I did not talk to any Princeton historians in attendance, it seemed to me that the attempt to shoehorn this presentation into the wider seminar mostly served to point out the deficiencies in “Utopia Station.” Having not attended the opening of “Utopia Station” in Venice three years ago, I was unable to ascertain fully the relationship of Thursday’s presentation to the original, though being at Princeton was certainly more intriguing—despite the imperfections—than my encounter with the rather inert remnants of the original on site in Venice two months after the Biennale opened.

Three years on from its initial viewing, there’s little more to be milked from the same cast of characters discussing (more or less) the same topics. But the connections that can be fostered by its drawing power are many. Despite my disappointment with the outcome of this “Utopia Station” event, the day trip was salvaged by an encounter with Bayrle and his wife on the train ride back to New York. He offered further thoughts on the films we saw, and on the works now on view at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, and clearly warmed to having four young interlocuters—teaching for twenty-odd years at the Stadelschule in Frankfurt has not dimmed his passion for pedagogical discourse. It was a great conversation . . . one that I wish would have taken place in the auditorium at Princeton.

* * *

At one point Molly Nesbit mentioned hearing Michael Hardt speak at Porto Alegre, which was a reference to a presentation he gave at the World Social Forum when it was held in that Brazilian town. Pamela M. Lee has an article on the WSF in the current Artforum. From that article:

Arguably, the relative merit of the WSF’s activities is measured less by the concrete implementation of policy than by the kinds of relationships the gatherings produce—a proposition that would seem to raise the question, How might this other world look? What role, in other words, would the visual in general (and art more conditionally) play in the WSF’s production and facilitation of a “world process”?

And later:

Indeed, what drew the greatest share of attention at the opening rally and elsewhere were not so much the classic signifiers of revolutionary politics, which fell just this side of perfunctory or routinized, but the circulation of media itself. In countless occasions that mimed something of the feedback-loop logic of the old Sony Porta-Pak, one saw participants videotaping, filming, or photographing other participants who, in turn, were doing exactly the same thing. This was a kind of global mirroring process in which capturing the act of mediation—whether the ad hoc TV stations scattered around the forum’s dispersed sites or the live projections in the more heavily subscribed sessions—seemed the most vital form of representation of all. What was at stake seemed not so much a clearly consolidated image of this media (that would be CNN territory, after all), but rather a sense of its potential mobility.

Slavoj Zizek has an article on a related topic, though his is not refracted through the lens of art. “Nobody has to be vile,” excoriates the “liberal communists” who have imported values championed at the World Social Forum (held this year in Caracas, Venezuela) to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, specifically Bill Gates and George Soros. To wit:

Some of them, at least, moved to Davos. The tone of the Davos meetings is now predominantly set by the group of entrepreneurs who ironically refer to themselves as ‘liberal communists’ and who no longer accept the opposition between Davos and Porto Alegre: their claim is that we can have the global capitalist cake (thrive as entrepreneurs) and eat it (endorse the anti-capitalist causes of social responsibility, ecological concern etc). There is no need for Porto Alegre: instead, Davos can become Porto Davos.

And later:

According to liberal communist ethics, the ruthless pursuit of profit is counteracted by charity: charity is part of the game, a humanitarian mask hiding the underlying economic exploitation. Developed countries are constantly ‘helping’ undeveloped ones (with aid, credits etc), and so avoiding the key issue: their complicity in and responsibility for the miserable situation of the Third World. As for the opposition between ‘smart’ and ‘non-smart’, outsourcing is the key notion. You export the (necessary) dark side of production – disciplined, hierarchical labour, ecological pollution – to ‘non-smart’ Third World locations (or invisible ones in the First World). The ultimate liberal communist dream is to export the entire working class to invisible Third World sweat shops.

We should have no illusions: liberal communists are the enemy of every true progressive struggle today.

David Nutt, “Melancholera”

Last week, while idly flipping through the current issue of Open City at the end of a long workday, I came across David Nutt’s short story, titled “Melancholera.” It chronicles, in first-person narration, the pendular swings from sickness to health of a young boy suffering from lupus, Lyme disease, spinal meningitis, and other serious maladies. The boy is precocious, smart enough to offer lucid observations about family, friends, and the ever-shifting terrain of his own body but never so clever as to seem a mere cipher for the author’s musings. The story moves along languidly, proceeding from the “Winter of Mysterious Stiffness” through the “Summer of Lethargy and Malaise” to the “Spring of Dizziness and Dementia.” Nutt is a very gifted writer, stringing together highly evocative phrases without once calling attention to his literary acrobatics. He even manages for the boy’s narration to conceivably impart clear impressions of all that he is missing while sequestered in various hospital beds. (See excerpt below.) “Melancholera” isn’t perfect, as the ending speeds unnaturally through the narrator’s teenage years to a vignette about his adult life with a loving, breadwinning wife. But it’s as close as I’ve encountered recently, and as good as anything published in the New Yorker, which makes it all the more stunning that, according to his bio on the contributors’ page, this is Nutt’s first published story. Three cheers to the intern or editor who pulled this one out of the slush pile.

An excerpt, chosen at random:

The doctor shook his head, spelled out the new illness on an index card I quickly tore to pieces and scattered in an assortment of wastebaskets. I couldn’t care less what it was called as I spent the beginning weeks of school confined to a hospital bed under close supervision. My body felt feeble and deflated, like a loose-fitting shirt someone else refused to wear. Sitting up became painful. Walking proved an absolute hazard. There were days I thought sneezing would be the end of me. I adopted a fierce regimen of hourly sulking, aware that new friendships were currently being forged beneath soccer field bleachers, freshly cemented pals-for-life peering up the shadowy hollows of coeds’ skirts. Meanwhile, I sat listening to my father read the telephone book in Elizabethan voice after he exhausted the children’s shelf of the hospital library.

The story alone is worth the cover price , but the issue also contains a pleasant-enough reminiscence of tea at the Plaza by Philip Lopate and a whimsical portfolio of watercolors (reproduced in black-and-white) by Molly Smith, a recent Columbia Graduate who has exhibited with KS Art.

Kevin Kopelson, Neatness Counts

In this slim, enjoyable book, cultural theorist and literary critic Kevin Kopelson uses the writer’s desk as an airstrip from which to lift off into flights of stirring exegesis. The five linked essays, on poet Elizabeth Bishop, novelist Marcel Proust, critic Roland Barthes, playwright Tom Stoppard, and travel writer Bruce Chatwin, use the orderliness (or lack thereof) of the writer’s desk as an lens through which to view the writers’ literary production. They are marked by an erudition that allows Kopelson to flit effortlessly from primary text to journal to correspondence to contemporary criticism—in one paragraph, he segues from Walter Benjamin (who could easily have been the subject of an additional essay) to Banana Yoshimoto. Although at times Kopelson is too caught up in his own critical reverie—especially in the essays on Barthes and Stoppard—the writing is always felicitous. The book is highly recommended.

Links: Kopelson’s page at the University of Iowa, where he teaches; the book’s page at the University of Minnesota Press; an excerpt from the introduction and another from chapter four.

Rambling through the fairs (with an emphasis on the “rambling”)

I have passed through the feelings that usually arrive on the Monday after an art-fair weekend–slight nausea, horror concerning who saw you do the things you can’t remember doing, bewilderment at how such a confluence of events came to be in the first place–and am now back to thinking somewhat clearly about what I saw and experienced over the weekend. (Recovery takes longer after the fair weekend in Miami, which is in every way so wildly unlike my everyday life in New York.) After ten hours on the Armory Show floor on Thursday, the result of which was posted here, I visited the LA Art Fair on Friday, and Scope and Pulse on Saturday.

My personal reactions to the Armory Show differ slightly from those of others I reported at While I too noticed the “missing center,” so to speak, the fair remains by far the best in the city. There were plenty of artworks I was glad to see—and that I might not have seen at all were it not for the fair—and, in most cases, the booths were more sensitively installed than those at the other fairs. The Armory Show suffered, as usual, from its location on Piers 90 and 92, which is uniquely inhospitable to trade shows; “lounges” mid-way down the corridors, like the one sponsored by Artforum, do little to temper the feeling that one’s journey will never end. The feeling is akin to trying to reach Gate 116 at Newark Airport, only without the moving walkways. The fair managers’ decision to decrease the number of galleries is admirable, but the resultant reconfiguration (such as moving some exhibitors upstairs into the former lounge area) definitely requires tweaking.

The Armory Show’s organizers were likewise smart to recognize that public (and collector) interest in art fairs is not a zero-sum game, and to support the presence of the other, “satellite” fairs, such as the three I visited and DiVA, which I missed. In conversation with various dealers, artists, critics, and curators over the weekend, I floated a test-balloon theory that stated the Armory Show is past its prime, and is now on the gradual downward slope that Art Chicago recently tumbled down at an alarming rate. I suggested a “shelf life” of approximately ten years for most fairs. Everyone seemed to think that the Armory Show is stronger now than Art Chicago ever was, and that the lure of New York would itself sustain a fair in a way that traveling to Chicago, say, or Cologne, never would.

So everyone seems to be in agreement that the Armory Show is fine, for now . . .

Continue reading

Museum, Inc.

I came across a copy of Paul Werner’s Museum, Inc.: Inside the Global Art World (Prickly Paradigm Press) just a few days after reading Todd Gibson’s blog post about the pamphlet. It’s a short book, digestible in one read, but it should be significantly shorter: After removing the unnecessary sexual metaphors and other adolescent locutions; the inappropriate references to Hitler and the Nazis; the bad puns (perhaps Werner’s greatest, and most frequent, offense); the factual errors (however small); and the side-swipes at individual artists and, oddly, teachers, one is left with a fairly smart, fairly jaded, 4,000-or-so-word magazine article about Thomas Krens’s tenure at the Guggenheim and contemporary museum economics. Werner, a lecturer at the Guggenheim for nine years, states his thesis most concisely at the end of chapter three: “In the traditional art museum today the people are allowed to be spectators; in the Guggenheim Museum they may on occasion be spectators of who they are; in no case, either in art, or politics, or museum-going, are they ever allowed to be participants.” Werner advocates “lifting the veil” from museum machinations in the name of creating a richer experience for visitors, a task he gave himself toward the end of his tenure on Fifth Avenue, incorporating “art criticism” into his group tours. I can only hope that his criticism, such as it is, was not delivered with as much smugness and flippancy as this book. A pamphlet should possess a quiet strength, persuading by the coruscating force of its logic. Every flash of insight Museum, Inc. presents is undercut by rhetorical overkill, often in the very same paragraph. It doesn’t help matters that Werner neglects to offer any alternative, however vague, to the situation he is denouncing so vociferously. I cannot recommend reading it.

(Allow me to present a sample of lines to be found within this book’s seventy-six pages: “I never metanarrative I didn’t like”; “While the League of Disgruntled Directors was busy castigating the hookers for its own repressed desires, Krens was standing on the corner in rouge and butt rider”; “Catalogs are what shrinks might call a transitional snobject”; “Remember, dahling, it is better to look free-marketous than to be free-marketous”; “Been there, been done by that.”)

The 2006 Whitney Biennial

Left: A detail view of the Peace Tower rising from the Whitney’s below-grade courtyard. Right: A fourth-floor installation view of Rudolf Stingel’s Untitled (After Sam) (2005-06) and Urs Fischer’s Untitled (branches) (2005), looking through Fischer’s The Intelligence of Flowers (2003-06).

“Day for Night,” the 2006 Whitney Biennial, opened last week, and, as usual, it has generated plenty of commentary. Here is a selection: Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times; Jerry Saltz in the Village Voice; Linda Yablonsky on Bloomberg’s wires; Lance Esplund in The Sun; Ben Davis on Artnet; Kriston Capps at Eye Level; Mia Fineman at Slate; James Wagner on his eponymous weblog (images here); my own comments—emphatically not a review—here, which were followed up by my colleague Michael Wang here.

None of this covers, of course, the peripheral considerations, which include Joao Ribas’s interview with the curators at ArtInfo, Biennial artist Momus describing his first performance in the galleries, and Holland Cotter’s article in Sunday’s Times about collective art practices. Or Siva Vaidhyanathan’s blog post that includes a link to his essay included in the exhibition catalog.

Then, of course, there is the discussion one has on the phone, in elevators, over dinner, at other openings. “The Europeans they chose don’t do a good job of showing how Europe is culturally distinct from the US.” “The ideas that have most occupied my thinking about art in the last year are not represented in the show.” “The show was really powerful; I left depressed.” “This is the worst biennial I’ve seen in a long time.” ;Being at the opening was like crossing a list of art-world people I don’t want to see with the stars of my iTunes playlist.” “The Momus performance made me want to stab myself in the eye.” “The fourth floor is boring.” “The fourth floor is the best.” “The second floor looks like ‘Greater New York’— and I don’t mean that as a compliment.” “They should make the Biennial smaller, only fifteen artists.”

A big show like this can’t help but be a mirror in which a critic ratifies his or her own personal taste, seeking out familiar names and favored styles. My own initial response conforms: I prefer the fourth-floor installation, with its measured pace, subdued air, and formalist and conceptual concerns. It seemed to me like a proper museum exhibition, one in which the potential for curatorial argument exists; the third and second floors seem too much like an unfiltered smorgasbord. What disappoints me most thus far is ease with which the radical, collective practices touted by the curators (and discussed by Cotter in his Times article) are subsumed into the greater exhibition. The same goes for Toni Burlap, Iles’s and Vergne’s fictional curator, whose presence is little (if at all) felt in the galleries. (Another disappointment: The catalogue costs $50, so I won’t soon be able to tell if these ideas receive greater prominence there.) But I get the feeling that if one has a few hours to spend with the plethora of film and video projects, there are many rewards to be gleaned. As I revisit the exhibition and attempt to discover them, I will post my thoughts here.

A good idea takes root a second time

Top: Zoe Leonard, Tree, 1997. Two installation views at Paula Cooper Gallery. (Photo: Bottom: Anya Gallacio, One Art, 2006. Installation view at SculptureCenter. (Photo: G. Paul Burnett/the New York Times)

Though the exhibition took place before I came to New York, images of Zoe Leonard’s 1997 show at Paula Cooper’s gallery have left an indelible impression on my mind. Now London-based artist Anya Gallacio has recapitulated the idea (albeit on a larger scale) in an exhibition that just opened at SculptureCenter in Long Island City. One can’t assume that Gallacio knew of Leonard’s work before conceiving her own, but the resemblance is even more uncanny than those “copies” that do raise hackles among art world cognoscenti, which makes it all the more surprising that neither Ken Johnson, in his otherwise thoughtful review of Gallacio’s exhibition in today’s Times, nor the SculptureCenter employee I spoke with last Friday knew of Leonard’s project. I’ll admit that Leonard is known more for her photographs than her sculptures, but has this (seemingly spectacular) ’97 sculpture sunk from collective memory? (Holland Cotter did mention in in two Times “Art Guide” columns in September of that year.) It would seem to me a shame, as it has always held a prominent place on my “shows I wish I had seen” list.

Harmonic Convergence

If you widely read enough, connections start popping up in the unlikeliest of places. To wit, a quote from this article in Slate:

Shrimp is, in fact, the most-consumed seafood in the United States. According to the National Fisheries Institute, the average American ate 4.2 pounds of the curved critters in 2004, up from to 2.2 pounds in 1990. How did shrimp surpass canned tuna, the longtime seafood champ, and become the nation’s favorite marine nibble?

Koerner goes on to credit a “shrimp-farming revolution.” There is one factor, however, that he neglects to credit. See this article in the New York Post:

A wacky “flying shrimp” stunt a Long Island woman claims killed her husband was inspired by a Jackie Chan comedy, a court heard yesterday in the opening of a $10 million lawsuit against the famed Benihana restaurant chain.

Toru Hasegawa, the head chef of a Munsey Park branch in Nassau County, said his staff began the popular practice of winging hot shrimp into diners’ mouths after the release of the Chan flick “Mr. Nice Guy” in 1998.

Obviously the fact that we no longer take the time to put shrimp on plates has led to our ability to consume ever-increasing amounts of the decapod crustacean.