Archive for January, 2011

St. Jerome in His Study
Albrecht Dürer, 1514

Being a fan of Language Log in general and a keen reader of their Prescriptivist Poppycock section in particular, I have to say I was unconvinced by these pieces on student writing, here and here (via LoOG). A few admissions upfront, when I was studying in Germany I was one of a handful of native English speakers, thus a pseudo-authority on the language. This power was disconcerting. Who am I to proclaim definitively if “juxtapose” is the right word for a sentence? Nearer the theme of the two essays, I have never had to grade a stack of undergrad papers. Whenever I have read classmates’ work I have found it quality stuff. Inasmuch as I have a pedagogical ethos, it envisions student and lecturer engaged in a joint enterprise of learning and exchange of ideas. Grades and grading are secondary if not suspect. Altogether, I do not identify with the authors of The Elements of Clunk and Bar Jester’s Writing Seminar. My sense of humor changes given the power dynamic, tread carefully when the learned direct jibes at the learning.

Writing instruction serves two goals. First, to induct students into a sort of ordered imaginations where being concise, precise, and clear are highly valued. At its worst, this can be a kind of hazing – instructors haranguing students about the fixed rules in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. The second goal of writing instruction, to help the writer find their voice, or better yet, help writers develop their abilities in a number of voices, from humorous informal to magical realist. Some of the most memorable academic writing I have read marshalls voices beyond that of staid academician. The best authors all evince a dynamism that goes well beyond, tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them. “A specter is haunting Europe” has a literary quality, a vividness of voice that we should aspire to.

Perhaps all that’s to say, “rules” are made to be questioned. Maybe assessing and evaluating the “rules” will lead to more informed writers. Also, I had to laugh at some of Ben Yagoda’s grievances in the Elements of Clunk. As an American living in London I’ve heard complaints about Americanisms entering British English. I had not seen Americans complaining of Britishisms entering American English until Yagoda’s piece enlightened me. As my British friends would needle me, the language is called English. What petty, pointless boundary making: while or whilst, among or amongst, punctuation inside of quotations marks (American style) or punctuation outside of quotation marks (British style). Who is so knowledgeable that they can claim the “right” answer for such stylistic matters. Ignore pedants peddling prescriptivist poppycock please.

Why not erase some of the barriers between poetry and prose?


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(via FP Passport, Getty images)

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

— Langston Hughes

Non-interference? Not when we paid for those tanks in Tahrir Square. Not when Egypt flouts human rights obligations. Not when Egypt implicates Great Powers’ geostrategic interests. Not when Hosni Mubarak initiates a North Korea level information lockdown. No to non-interference. Not in an interdependent world.

When humanitarian interventionists speak, others imagine, “Send in the Marines!” Intervention can take many forms: condemning violence, forming a contact group, convening the UN Security Council in emergency session, withdrawing the ambassador. Intervention exists on a continuum with many steps well short of engaging the military. Also, the US has already supplied $30 billion worth of interference to the Mubarak regime.

For me, the controlling questions are: interference to what end? how can we interfere constructively?

As for stability’s sentries, guarding authoritarian regimes because “they are our sons of bitches”, I think the Egyptian people are channeling Amiri Baraka, “Up against the wall Motherfuckers!”

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Caravaggio, c. 1598

For the most part, yes.

America has a unique story to tell, so does every other nation on earth. America’ story includes pioneering technological achievements and social liberalizations as well as grave human rights abuses and unspeakably cruel atrocities. Once again, fairly similar to the stories of every other nation on earth. The American story is a human story, complete with all the foibles and follies that the history of human endeavors entails.

Elevating the American story, mythologizing the Founding Fathers, sacralizing the US state as a city upon a hill, all these historical readings are also all too common among the nationalistic in societies around the world. In most societies, political leaders can further their ambitions by stroking the egos of the populace. National greatness feeds on the plaudits of politicians.

The world needs far more introspective citizenries, as thoughtful and self-reproachful as the post-Holocaust Germany self-reflections. All too often, in the struggle between remembrance and forgetting the triumphs are remembered and the disappointments are forgotten, or worse elided into a master narrative of ultimate triumph. As in, we need not consider the misdeeds of the past, they have been overcome. We (rightly) expect more from post-World War II Germany and Japan, we should expect more from ourselves.

This focus on exceptionalism would be so much harmless chatter were it not animated by deft political entrepreneurs. Unctuous flatterers beguiling the public with tales of their triumphal past,* often accompanied by Othering all those “dissimilar” societies outside our national borders, or even more sinister, Othering those in out midst, the “traitors” within. While there are varying levels of exclusivity in this construct, someone must be the outsider. Once we have this self/other construct, aided by narcissistic notions of our national greatness, the stage is set for battle. As mentioned earlier, unending and unfruitful conflict accompanied by human misery.

* This public-politician relationship is more complex, probably encompassing the Daniel Goldhagen Christopher Browning debate, Hitler’s Willing Executioners versus Ordinary Men.

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Better robes on this side of the pond. Surpreme Court of the United Kingdom (AP Photo)

The Highest Court in the Land is an hour long BBC4 documentary on the UK’s Supreme Court, viewing the court through four of the twelve justices’ eyes. Unfortunately it isn’t equal to the task of being the definitive treatment of the topic. As soon as an issue is raised, it is promptly dropped. The gender imbalance, there is only one woman among the twelve justices, and the educational background of the justices, only one of the four justices profiled has not been privately educated, are touched upon. But there is not a serious analytic look at the issues. Also, the biographies of the four justices are rather sparse. The UK Supreme Court’s predecessor, the Law Lords, is hardly discussed at all.

Given the amount of access to the court, the documentary would have benefited from being far longer. It could have easily been divided into three parts, covering at least those points I found wanting: the history of the Law Lords, the biographies of the justices profiled, and the cases the justices review. The viewer could then benefit from a more meaty treatment of a fascinating topic. Overall, Highest Court would be suitable as a secondary school level treatment of the institution. As a rudimentary introduction to the UK Supreme Court Highest Court succeeds. But it can not serve as the definitive reference on the early days of an institution in its early years (the UK Supreme Court was established in 2009).

Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done. – Lord Chief Justice Hewart

No TV cameras please. US Supreme Court
(via Wikipedia)

The video footage of oral arguments before the UK Supreme Court prompted the title. The Supreme Court of the United States does not televise its hearings, perhaps motivated by a fear of lèse majesté. The issue is perennially debated, and so far the Court has decided to keep the TV cameras out. This exclusion of the wider public’s eyes is the wrong decision. The Oyez Project does an excellent job at making audio recordings of oral arguments more accessible, but Oyez is not enough. The medium of our age involves images, people speaking their own words before our eyes.

The public would come away from televised oral arguments with a greater appreciation of the institution of the Supreme Court and the issues under discussion. It is true that oral argument only comprises a small percent of the materials involved in a case. Briefs present issues in far more depth, delving into arguments and history with citations. But oral argument draws out the issues the justices are thinking about.

An intermediate position, preventing soundbites on the nightly news, another worry of those skeptical of TV cameras, would be to release the video at a later date. That compromise is not entirely satisfactory, but strikes me as fair. I would still hold that there is nothing to fear in allowing the public to view the oral arguments on television. The magic of the Court is not in disembodied voices overlaying photos (as C-span rebroadcasts oral argument), it is in the deliberation. The public deserves more access to that crucial moment of discussion.

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A speech worthy of a president. Kennedy inaugural (via Wikipedia)

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
— JFK, inaugural address, January 20, 1961

Presidents have a choice as to which cultural buttons they press. They can lean heavily on nationalism, exceptionalism, and Manichean divisions. They can stoke American anxieties or try to sooth nerves. Not to overstate presidential powers, single handedly, presidents can not upturn deep social trends, and all too often presidents simply channels waves of public emotion. Nonetheless, presidential speeches matter, particularly their themes over long periods.

Unfortunately, Obama’s state of the union channeled American status anxiety over the rise of China and uncertainties about America’s place in the world. Frankly, there will not be another American Century; certainly not in the sense that the post World War II era and even the post Cold War moment signaled American super then hyperpower status (of course, this point does not make for a rousing SoTU opening). The theme Obama has alighted upon, calling for a Sputnik moment, may be politically useful in the short term, but in the medium and long term this salve corrodes the mortar of international cooperation.

A Sputnik moment is useful because it mobilized the public. Obama hopes that attention will focus on the investments that will extend America’s superpower status. Physical and social infrastructure, so high speed rail and quality K-16+ education, are to be revitalized. As to this program for action, I wholly agree. But Obama’s reasoning presses buttons marked “Danger”.

There is not a great distance between Obama’s galvanizing call and stoking fear of the Other. Under this line of thinking, America is engaged in a giant race among the nations, with opponents like China, India, and South Korea. A high quality of life is not enough, America is charged with being superior to everyone else. The tensions of this self-aggrandizing reasoning show. The SoTU at once looked with envy at South Korea’s high speed internet and praised the US-South Korea free trade agreement. If we’re racing to win the future, why trade? Why cooperate? Envy, competition, and othering easily tip over into narcissism, protectionism, and xenophobia.

The justification Obama should have deployed: Infrastructure investments are necessary in their own right. Even if China’s economy were shrinking by 10% a year and South Korea were as destitute as North Korea, America’s infrastructure needs maintenance and investment. An infrastructure overhaul helps Americans lead more environmentally sustainable and productive lives. A capital program is worthwhile in and of itself. (America has been coasting on the investments of its forebears, inheriting state of the art and bequeathing second rate. I blame the low tax fetish, but that’s for another day.)

The home of global governace.
UN Security Council Chamber
(via Wikipedia)

In pretending that America can go on forever as the world’s largest economy, Obama is peddling a fiction. A more responsible path would be to prepare for the very realistic possibility that America will be the second, or perhaps third, largest economy by mid-century. Certainly, China and India will have status more commensurate with their populations by then, if not sooner. American leaders must encourage the populace to deal with this power transition gracefully. Prepare for a multipolar world. (What’s more, try to root that world in international institutions, international law, and consensual cooperation.)

This preparation for multipolarity means selling international cooperation hard. The Economist’s recent special report on global leaders (Jan. 22),

“All the interesting problems cross boundaries,” says David Ellwood, the dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Some straddle borders. Some straddle disciplines. Some require co-operation between business, government, academia and non-profit groups. “So you have to train people to cross boundaries,” Mr. Ellwood concludes.

If fear must be used, if it is absolutely necessary to have a bogeyman, make that opponent disease, environmental degradation, climate change, or any problem that touches on the global commons. But giving American uncertainty a human face, fretting over losing this imagined race, that way lay unending and unfruitful conflict. Along with profitable arms makers goes human misery.

Pablo Picasso, 1937

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(PostSecret, via Sociological Images)

Flipping through Vogue’s Ultimate Catwalk Report Spring/Summer 2011, as one does, three things came to mind.

First, the Devil Wears Prada offers two justifications for the fashion industry. The Anna Wintour based character offers the travels of cerulean through the industry into the assistant’s wardrobe as a marker of the sophistication that goes into design. The second justification for the eccentricities of the fashion industry is offered by the first lieutenant character. He argues the magazine has published great artistic minds, what’s more it is art that you wear. The New York Times review of Devil had gently ticked off the fairly feeble nature of these justifications. I didn’t come away from the film thinking fashion is truly deserving of the Great Art label. Looking at £500 sandals in the Catwalk Report, I remembered the feebleness of those justifications.

Second, a point Sociological Images frequently covers, the use of “nude” or “flesh-toned” as a color, to the exclusion of those with darker skin.

Third, the relative absence of people of color, despite a “Model Tribes” page where a model, Jourdan Dunn, optimistically comments that more black girls (her words) were on the catwalk. Dunn further comments, black girls were represented beyond a specific skin-tone of black, marking an improvement. If the pages of the Catwalk Report or Vogue magazine proper are anything to go by, people of color are still pretty underrepresented. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the “Model Tribes” designation either – Pouty Girls, Tough Girls, and Black Girls were among those exoticized. Racialicious describes the binary as “to be invisible or exoticized“. Not great choices.

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Pick a fugue, any fugue.
(Portriat of Bach, 1748, via Wikipedia)

For the past two weeks the New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini has been compiling his list of the greatest composers as an exercise in fun.

The Top 10 composers of all time. Now that’s the list I have secretly wanted to compile. It would be absurd, of course, but fascinating. (NYT)

Tommasini’s ground rules: Western classical music is the domain, no living composers allowed, and only eras since Baroque. Yesterday, Tommasini completed his list in a piece entitled simply, the Greatest:

  1. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 — 1750)
  2. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 — 1827)
  3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 — 91)
  4. Franz Peter Schubert (1797 — 1828)
  5. Claude Achille Debussy (1862 — 1918)
  6. Igor Stravinsky (1882 — 1971)
  7. Johannes Brahms (1833 — 97)
  8. Giuseppe Verdi (1813 — 1901)
  9. Richard Wagner (1813 — 83)
  10. Bela Bartok (1881 — 1945)

Blogs are made for list posts and I couldn’t resist adding my own. I can’t say that my list is as thoughtful as Tommasini’s. I watched his video on Bach’s prefiguring atonal music and can safely say my list reflects far less knowledge of music theory, less familiarity with some undoubtedly great composers, and a healthy dose of my own current personal taste.

1. Bach, 2. Mozart, 3. Beethoven.

The three top slots were pretty easy, though for me Mozart edges out Beethoven. How to speak about Bach without sounding pretentious? Tommasini may have beaten me to it (NYT). Initially, so in my late teenage years, I was fascinated by Bach’s fugues. Fugues are rounds, like Row, Row, Row, Your Boat, on steroids. You have the introduction of a subject, development, entry of subsequent voices, further development, and resolution. You could pick literally any Bach fugue and I was interested in how the different voices came together. This Youtube video illustrates what’s going on better than the words introdution, development, resolution.

Later I came to Bach’s religious work, specifically the Passions. I am not a religious person, but Bach’s religious works, well just go listen to St. Matthew Passion or St. John Passion. Your education is incomplete without hearing them – I think I just failed the pretentiousness test. Perhaps more on the Passions later.

Mozart beats out Beethovon due to a single musical piece that began my interest in opera. The Queen of the Night’s aria in the Magic Flute, Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen or the vengeance of hell boils in my heart. This video is of a Covent Garden production with Diana Damrau as the Queen.

Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,
Tod und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!
fühlt nicht durch dich Sarastro Todesschmerzen,
so bist du meine Tochter nimmermehr.

Verstoßen sei auf ewig,
verlassen sei auf ewig,
zertrümmert sei’n auf ewig
alle Bande der Natur
wenn nicht durch dich Sarastro wird erblassen!
Hört, Rachegötter, hört der Mutter Schwur!

Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart;
Death and despair blaze around me!
If Sarastro does not feel the pain of death because of you,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.

Disowned be forever,
Forsaken be forever,
Shattered be forever
All the bonds of nature
If Sarastro does not turn pale [in death] because of you!
Hear, gods of vengeance, hear the mother’s oath!

— via Wikipedia

In the aria, the Queen instructs her daughter to kill the Queen’s estranged husband Sarastro. The story is beside the point really, and I did not know it when I first heard the aria as part of a documentary. I was proabably interested in what those high notes were about – Fs above high C, or F6, you can’t miss them (Score). Who would write such a thing? Who would sing such a thing? My curiousity was piqued, if only to find out about that particular piece of music and what it meant.

That is enough for the moment, I can heartily endorse Tommasini’s first three choices. I can see his point that the list making gets harder as we go along. Tommasini observes that a shorter list, top five, or a longer list, top twenty, would be an easier task. Choosing ten composers is pretty difficult.

To be continued.

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