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Archive for the 'Author Interview' Category

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

Tunisia and the Arab Spring

Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly

This week, our featured book is Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly, by Safwan M. Masri, with a foreword by Lisa Anderson. Today, we are happy to present an interview with Safwan Masri on The SnideShow podcast, in which Masri discusses Tunisia’s government, the Arab Spring, and his new book.

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

Why Only Art Can Save Us, Part II

Why Only Art Can Save Us

The following is part II of an interview with Santiago Zabala, author of Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency. You can read part I here.

Question: Heidegger’s Schwarze Hefte (Black Notebooks) have an important place in your book. Can you explain why? Aren’t you afraid of the anti-Semitic passages of this book?

Santiago Zabala: The reason I used these books is that they contain, as his other writing of the same epoch, a number of statements on emergency and its absence that are central for my research. As far as the anti-Semitic passages: I obviously condemn them, but they don’t have much to do with his philosophy. Let’s please remember Heidegger is not the only great philosopher to have racist and antidemocratic views: Aristotle justified slavery, Hume considered black people to be naturally inferior to whites, and Frege also sympathized with fascism and anti-Semitism. Although Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazi Party has been known since the late 1980s, the recent publication of his Black Notebooks offered more evidence of his racist (anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic) views, triggering a backlash. If Jürgen Habermas, among others, has recently expressed perplexities regarding the ongoing fascination with Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, it’s because the attempt to channel his anti-Semitism into the history of Being is absurd. It’s part of what David Farrell Krell calls the “Heidegger scandal industry.” Together with other Heideggerians such as Krell, Richard Polt, and Gregory Fried, I think it’s important to continue to both read and criticize his philosophy despite his unacceptable racist views.

Q: Besides Heidegger, which other philosophers help you to create this new aesthetics?

SZ: Arthur C. Danto, Jacques Rancière, Gianni Vattimo, and Michael Kelly have all contributed in different ways. Danto, through his theory of the end of art, has helped me understand how truth has become more important than beauty; Rancière showed me that aesthetics is irreducibly political in its distribution and imposition of the sensible; and Vattimo indicated the hermeneutic consequences of art’s ontological status. Kelly, it could be said, triggered the whole project. In A Hunger for Aesthetics he writes that “the main goal of aesthetics today is to explain how the transformation of demands on art to demands by art is already a reality in some contemporary art.” These demands are linked to the absence of emergencies produced by our metaphysical condition. This is why aesthetics must be capable of interpreting these demands rather than “reality.”

Q: By “reality” you are referring to so-called speculative or new realist aesthetics that seek to judge or describe works of art independently of their effects, environment, and relations?

SZ: Yes, although I would not call “new realism” a new philosophy but the latest descriptive metaphysics. The adherents of this movement are brilliant at marketing it through book series, conferences, and blogs, making the public believe it’s something new, but they embody the absence of emergency we discussed earlier. Although these “new” philosophers justify their theoretical beliefs in different ways, seeking to demonstrate—despite Thomas Kuhn—the supposed stability of a particular scientific understanding of the world, their work is part of a global call to order or, as Boris Groys recently pointed this out in E-Flux, a return to psychology and psychologism. It is curious, as Simon Critchley rightly pointed out, that just “when a certain strand of Anglo-American philosophy (think of John McDowell or Robert Brandom) is making domestic the insights of Kant, Hegel and Heidegger and even allowing philosophers to flirt with forms of idealism, the latest development in Continental philosophy is seeking to return to a Cartesian realism that was believed to be dead and buried.” If, as Graham Harman suggests, aesthetics ought to become “first philosophy,” it is not because it can understand the “cryptic inner reality” that makes the effects of art possible, but rather because aesthetics can provide a way to interpret the emergency of art’s existential disclosures. After all, as Žižek says, “there is no ‘neutral’ reality within which gaps occur, within which frames isolate domains of appearances. Every field of ‘reality’ (every ‘world’) is always-already enframed, seen through an invisible frame.”

Q: Is this “invisible frame” what you call hermeneutics? What role does the philosophy of interpretation have in the book?

SZ: Yes, interpretation is the invisible frame through which we understand the world, and ignoring it is simply silly at this point of the history of philosophy. Hermeneutics is a philosophical stance focused upon the interpretative nature of human beings. Although juridical and biblical hermeneutics played a significant role throughout the history of hermeneutics, Hans-Georg Gadamer, in Truth and Method, decided to emphasize its aesthetic nature. Instead of its aesthetic nature I stress interpretation’s anarchic nature. The interpretation required to draw us closer to genuine appearance must be anarchic and existential, that is, suited to “venture into the untrodden and unformed realm of the opening of the emergency” as Heidegger says. If we can save ourselves through art’s existential claims it’s because interpretation is a vital practice where the interpreter, as Vattimo says, “must also become, fatally, a militant.” In sum, this book develops a radical hermeneutic conception of art and aesthetics by way of a philosophical and political engagement with Heidegger, as well as with contemporary artists who help demonstrate and apply this vision.

Q: For the cover you chose an image of The Ninth Hour, the most celebrated sculpture by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, which represents Pope John Paul II lying on the ground after being struck by a meteorite. Can you explain how it relates to the book?

SZ: The sculpture’s title alludes to the ninth hour of darkness that fell upon all the land when Christ cried out “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This alludes to this book’s title, which paraphrases Heidegger’s famous statement that “only a God can still save us” when he was asked whether we could still have any influence now that we are so overpowered by technology. Heidegger alludes not to God’s representative on earth, as portrayed in Cattelan’s work, but rather the absence of Being, which in our technological world has become the essential emergency. The goal of this book is to thrust us into this emergency as it is revealed through works of art. I was very happy to see this sculpture also used in the opening credits of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope series, which I enjoyed very much.

Q: Beside Cattelan’s work on the cover, there are twelve works in your book by artists from all over the world. Can you talk a little about why you chose these particular artists? Aren’t you afraid, as Mark C. Taylor said, that art often “loses its critical function and ends up reinforcing the very structures and systems it ought to be questioning.”

SZ: I agree with Taylor. But the same goes for philosophy or other intellectual activities. In order to challenge the lack of emergency in today’s society it is necessary to understand that these emergencies concern all of us. I’m referring not only to climate change but also to social media and global terror. I do not think that among artists there is greater freedom than among philosophers. How framed we are within the “very structures and systems” we should question does not depend on our field of research but rather how much we are inclined to disclose the absence of emergency. This is why I agree with Heidegger when he said the “artist remains something inconsequential in comparison with the work—almost like a passageway which, in the creative process, destroys itself for the sake of the coming forth of the work.” My choice of these artists or, better, their works, is not based on their nationality but rather in these emergencies. I think most of the artists were quite surprised by my request to use their work in the book as I’m not in the art world, a curator or an art critic. Either way, I’m very grateful they allowed the reproduction of their work.

Q: Why did you only present visual works or art?

SZ: Because they were easier to reproduce in a book. They are not necessarily better at disclosing the essential emergency than other forms of art such as dance, music, or cinema. I do refer to TV series (Hung), theater (Young Jean Lee’s plays), and songs (Tom Waits’s “The Road to Peace”) that also disclose emergencies.

Q: Some critics believe “relational aesthetics” is over. Has the time arrived for an “emergency aesthetics”?

SZ: I’m not certain whether the time is right as I’m not an art historian. Either way. I took my chances as I think the works of art I discuss disclose “an emergency turn” or “sensibility” in contemporary art. The problem is what we understand as an emergency. What is important for me is that the traditional relationship among the art object, the artist, and the audience is not simply overturned, as in relational aesthetics, but also disturbed, agitated into new action by the danger revealed by art’s ability to thrust the viewer into emergency. This move toward emergency art has also given rise to similar aesthetics theories, such as Jill Bennett’s “practical aesthetics,” Veronica Tello’s “counter-memorial aesthetics,” and Malcolm Miles’s “eco-aesthetics,” where emergencies also play a central role. The theoretical proposals of Bennett, Tello, and Miles, like my own emergency aesthetics, do not simply regenerate aesthetics through artistic practices but also respond to current vital issues. Hal Foster’s latest book, Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, confronts the problem of emergency, but he does not distinguish between emergency and absence of emergency.

Q: Does your book have anything to do with the Emergency Biennale?

SZ: I don’t think so. I learned about the biennale while I was writing the section on Jota Castro work’s in chapter 2. He created the biennale together with the curator and critic Evelyne Jouanno in order to draw attention to the suffering in Chechnya. While I find their biennale interesting, I’m concerned with a variety of emergencies, not only the one in Chechnya. But events like this biennale are important as they embody the “globalization of the art world” that Danto talks about.

Friday, September 15th, 2017

Why Only Art Can Save Us, Part I

Why Only Art Can Save Us

The following is part I of an interview with Santiago Zabala, author of Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency. Part II of the interview will appear tomorrow.

Question: Is this book for the philosophical community or the art world?

Santiago Zabala: It’s for both. I’m more interested to know what the art world will have to say about it as I can predict the philosophical community’s reactions to theories such as the one I explore here. A philosopher who posits that only those who thrust us into the “absence of emergency” are intellectually free today risks being marginalized as a radical who is surpassing the limits of rationality or common sense. But the problem is precisely this common sense. To be intellectually free today means disclosing the emergency at the core of the current absence of emergency, thrusting us into knowledge of those political, technological, and cultural impositions that frame our lives. I think the art world (from artists to curators and art historians) is better prepared for challenges, change, and even emergencies.

Q: How does this new book relate to your previous books?

SZ: Why Only Art can Save Us, like Hermeneutic Communism (coauthored with Gianni Vattimo), further develops my ontology of remnants, which I first illustrated in The Remains of Being. While in Hermeneutic Communism we tried to respond to what remains of Being through politics, here I attempt to respond to what remains through art, that is, how existence discloses itself in works of art. As with other post-metaphysical questions there is no straightforward response here, but simply an indication or sign from the future that we are compelled to interpret. In this book I’m interested in not only the signs but also the obligation this question implies, that is, the existential responsibility. This is why I agree with Slavoj Žižek when he calls for “a refined search for ‘signs coming from the future,’ for indications of this new radical questioning of the system … the least we can do is to look for traces of the new communist collective in already existing social or even artistic movements.” Recently, Vattimo and I explained why hermeneutic communism is still the most viable way to confront political emergencies such as the refuges crisis, ISIS attacks, or Trump’s presidency. Now the point is to tackle other emergencies that politics does not reach.

Q: You say that politics does not reach these emergencies because “the absence of emergency… has become the greatest emergency.” Can you explain the difference between “emergencies” and “essential emergencies”?

SZ: In order to explain this difference, it is first necessary to distinguish Heidegger’s “absence of emergency” (“Notlosigkeit”) from the popular “state of emergency” (“Ausnahmezustand”) of Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmidt, and Giorgio Agamben. The latter is a consequence of the former. Heidegger’s emergency does not refer to the “sovereign who decides on the exceptional case,” but rather to “Being’s abandonment,” which also includes the decision of a ruler to announce an emergency. If a political leader can decide upon a state of exception or emergency when Being has been abandoned, then the epoch’s metaphysical condition is its greatest emergency, and this condition explains the rise of the term “emergency” in the work of Bonnie Honig, Elaine Scarry, Janet Roitman, and many others. When Heidegger, in various texts of the 1940s pointed out how “lack of a sense of emergency is greatest where self-certainty has become unsurpassable, where everything is held to be calculable, and especially where it has been decided, with no previous questioning, who we are and what we are supposed to do,” he was concerned with this metaphysical condition. For example, we now live in a world where we are constantly under surveillance, and even the future is becoming predictable through online data mining. The problem has become not the emergencies we confront but rather the ones we are missing. These are the essential emergencies.

Q: Is the Trump presidency an emergency or an essential emergency?

SZ: He is an essential emergency. The fact that we did not predict he could win the presidency does not constitute an emergency per se; we all knew that whoever won the election would pursue or intensify the previous administration’s policies. Unfortunately, Trump is intensifying them and concealing even more the essential emergencies of climate change, civil rights, human rights, and others, which are now hidden behind his new appeal to order. He seems to be the incarnation of the absence of emergencies, determined to deny the most obvious emergencies by creating a condition that defines an emergency as anyone’s saying he is wrong. If the greatest emergency has become the lack of a sense of emergency, then art’s alterations of imposed reality, the new interpretations it can demand, disclose this emergency and demand a different aesthetics. The goal of this book is to outline this aesthetics of emergency or an ontology that posits art as fundamental to saving humanity from annihilation.

Q: And how can art save us from this?

SZ: Even though a work of art, such as a song or a photograph, is not that different from other objects in the world, it often works better than commercial media or historical reconstructions as a way to express emergency. The difference is one of degree, intensity, and depth. Media photographs can be truthful, but they are rarely as powerful as a photographic work of art. The series Soldiers Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan by Jennifer Karady or the Rwanda Project of Alfredo Jaar are paradigmatic examples here. Genuine art has the ability to disclose this emergency and help us grapple with it practically and theoretically. This is why Heidegger believes there is a fundamental difference between “those who rescue us from emergency” and the “rescuers into emergency.” The former are a means for “cultural politics,” that is, a way to conceal the emergency of Being; the latter are events that thrust us into this emergency. This distinction between artists and creators does not define who is more original but rather what is more essential: the emergency or its absence? If many artists have lost touch with the absence of emergency it’s not only because they are framed within cultural politics but also because as professional artists they have become the means of such culture. This is probably why Heidegger emphasized how the “growing ‘affability’ of the ‘profession of art’ . . . coincides with the secure rhythm that originates from within the predominance of technicity and shapes everything that is instable and organizable.” While some may consider this aesthetic theory a simple contribution to the discipline, its primary aim is ontological, that is, to specify how Being and existence are no longer givens but are rather the points of departure to overcome oblivion or annihilation. In sum, art should not simply be treated as an aesthetic object, but rather as an existential event that can save us from the essential emergencies.

Q: Is this why you call for the overcoming of aesthetics?

SZ: Yes, but this does not mean aesthetics must disappear. Rather, it has to surpass those metaphysical frames that conceal the absence of emergency. Against the ahistorical mode of aesthetics, which represents, orders, and manipulates beings and leaves us without a sense of emergency, emergency aesthetics dwells in this emergency. Contemplations of indifferent beauty, which rest on the correspondence between propositions and facts, are overcome in favor of interpretation and interventions that retrieve what is ignored by this traditional reflection. The emergency aesthetics I present does not simply overcome measurable representations and indifferent beauty but most of all creates the conditions to respond to the existential call of art in the twenty-first century. Only art can save us because, as Hölderlin pointed out “where danger is, also grows the saving power.”

Q: How is the book structured?

SZ: The book is divided into three chapters, each of which responds to the others. So while the last chapter, “Emergency Aesthetics,” outlines how to answer the ontological call of art in the twenty-fist century through hermeneutics, the second chapter responds to the “Emergency of Aesthetics” that I begin with. This emergency consists in the “indifference” that characterizes beauty as well as its “measurable” contemplation. Given that each chapter responds to the others, the reader is invited to read the book forward or backward as long as the works of art considered are interpreted as representing the possibility of salvation from metaphysics, that is, as revealing an aesthetics of emergency.

Q: Chapter 2 is divided into four sections that analyze contemporary social, urban, environmental, and historical emergencies through twelve works of art. Did the works of art suggest the emergencies or the other way around?

SZ: The artworks suggested or, better, “thrust” me into essential emergencies. So, for example, when I confront the works of Néle Azevedo, Mandy Barker, and Michael Sailstorfer, who create works out of melting ice, ocean pollution, and trees, we are thrust into environmental emergencies caused by global warming, ocean pollution, and deforestation. The same occurs with the “social paradoxes” generated by the political, financial, and technological frames that contain us: the “urban discharge” of slums and plastic and electronic wastes and the “historical accounts” of invisible, ignored, and denied events. These are not addressed properly in the public realm and have become essential emergencies.

Q: And in addition to the aesthetic examination, how do you document the nature and history of each emergency?

SZ: There is a lot of research behind my discussion each emergency, and I rely on the work of renowned economists, political scientists, and investigative journalists. In the case of social media, represented by Filippo Minelli’s Contradictions series, the investigations of Jose van Dijck, Lev Manovich, and Evgeny Morozov were very useful as they also indirectly explained how the artist’s work emerged in the first place. I also use the work of the political scientist as Georg Sorensen, the urban theorists David Harvey, and the historian Ilan Pappé. The reconstruction of these emergencies through renowned thinkers allows the reader to see how serious the concern of the artist is. If truth in art has become more important than beauty, as Arthur C. Danto once said, its because artists “have become what philosophers used to be, guiding us to think about what their works express. With this, art is really about those who experience it. It is about who we are and how we live.”

Part II of the interview will appear tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

Author Theodore Martin and Series Editor Matt Hart Discuss *Contemporary Drift*

Contemporary Drift

Recently Theodore Martin, author of Contemporary Drift: Genre, Historicism, and the Problem of the Present just published in the Literature Now series, and Matt Hart, a co-editor of the series, discussed Martin’s new book. Here’s their conversation:

Matt Hart: In the opening paragraph of Contemporary Drift, you write that your goal isn’t to say what “the contemporary” means but, instead, to explore “how difficult the question is to settle.” Why is that? I mean, why is it so hard to define the contemporary and what do you gain by focusing on the difficulty of that question, rather than trying to answer it?

Theodore Martin: A great many people study contemporary culture without agreeing—or even feeling the need to agree—about what “contemporary” means or what its historical boundaries are. This fascinates me. How should it be possible to get such critical mileage out of a concept that has no consensus definition? When I suggest that we focus on the difficulty of defining the contemporary, I mean to call attention to the simple fact of these competing definitions. Faced with the question of whether our contemporary moment begins in 1945 or 1973 or 2001, it would be nice simply to be able to choose one of these options and get on with it. But I strongly believe that would miss the point.

MH: Miss the point how?

TM: Because there are bigger and more complicated questions at stake. How do we decide in the first place that the contemporary means what we think it means? How do we manage to make sense of the lived and living history of our volatile present moment? This how—the conceptual and critical work that give us some basic idea of what counts as contemporary—is at the heart of my study; it is what I think the “difficulty” of the contemporary names and illuminates.

MH: So should we give up on trying to define “the contemporary”?

TM: Definitely not. There’s a considerable distance between difficulty and impossibility; I don’t think it is impossible to define the contemporary. Nor do I mean to suggest that the difficulty of the contemporary inevitably terminates in plurality, multiplicity, or undecidability. I simply think that the real work of analyzing and unpacking the concept of the contemporary should be expected to yield something more significant than a set of dates.

MH: Do you think it’s always been hard to define the contemporary? Or is there something about the “contemporary contemporary” (sorry!) that makes it particularly tough to pin down?

TM: That’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I began writing this book, and I think it’s an extremely important question to get right. On one hand, this means acknowledging that the problem of defining the contemporary—of grasping the historical moment one is living in—is in one sense the central historical dilemma of modernity. Since at least the French Revolution, modern historical consciousness has been shaped by the question of what it means to live in a present that seems in some fundamental way distinct from the not-so-distant past.

MH: So what’s different about the present?

TM: It seems to me that both the desire to pin down the contemporary and the difficulty of doing so are more pronounced today than they have been before. It’s not hard to imagine why that might be. The story of modern capitalism is a story of constant acceleration. All the temporal rhythms by which we measure contemporary life—from economic cycles to news cycles—have sped up to unimaginable degrees in the past half-century. In this context, we can see how the hyper-accelerated forms of capitalism that have reshaped western societies over the last several decades would ultimately conspire to make the present an intensified site of anxiety, instability, and uncertainty. That uncertainty—the sense of being at sea in a present that is itself at sea in history—is what my book calls “drift.” What is unique about the problem of the contemporary in our contemporary moment, I would suggest, is the way it indexes the unprecedented challenges that come with trying to orient ourselves in a present that is, in very real and historically specific ways, more adrift than it ever has been before—while also reminding us that such challenges are not themselves sui generis but have their own history.

MH: In your book, you pay particular attention to five familiar narrative genres—realism, film noir, the western, the detective novel, and post-apocalyptic fiction—and you argue that “the historical drag of genre” gives us a kind of analytical counterweight to the “drift” of the present. Can you explain what you mean by “drag”? How does paying attention to genre help us think historically?

TM: I see genre and the contemporary as two versions of the same problem: the problem of how we articulate an image of the present by deciding where it departs from the past. In the case of the contemporary, that image is prone to uncertainty and drift; we hear the term constantly but can never be quite sure what it means. Genre, in turn, counteracts that drift by allowing us to trace the process of exactly how our ideas of the contemporary get formulated.


Friday, June 23rd, 2017

Mark Kennedy in UND Today


“Kennedy began teaching courses on business statesmanship and business success in the age of activism. He conducted a research project at the University of Pennsylvania, taught at Johns Hopkins, HEC Paris, New York University, and Notre Dame. Later, he was recruited to George Washington University, where in addition to leading a school, he taught a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on Shapeholders and led courses on public affairs around the world.” — Jan Orvik

This week, our featured book is Shapeholders: Business Success in the Age of Activism, by Mark R. Kennedy. For the final post of the week, we are happy to present an excerpt from an article by Jan Orvik that originally appeared in UND Today. You can read the article in its entirety here.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy!

Kennedy’s new book takes on ‘Shapeholders’
By Jan Orvik

Shareholders. Stakeholders. And shapeholders?

The subject of a new book by UND President Mark Kennedy, Shapeholders: Business Success in the Age of Activism, zeroes in on how political, regulatory, media and activists can shape – or shift – business practices.

The “shapeholders” term was coined by Kennedy’s son, Charles.

“The main point of the book, which was released on May 9, is that you have stakeholders, shareholders and shapeholders,” Kennedy said. “Shapeholders are different than stakeholders or shareholders. They are the politicians, media and activists who can shape a firm’s opportunities and risk, even though they have no stake in an organization’s success.”

For example, Kennedy said, employers and suppliers can push companies to change, but there are limits to how far they can go because they have a stake in the success of those organizations. Activists, who often don’t have stake in a company, can cause conflict. As Kennedy observed, “the only stake an environmental activist may want in a coal company is a stake through its corporate heart, yet that activist can still shape the opportunities and risks of a coal company.”

“Companies are often out of their element when talking to shapeholders, resulting in more conflict,” said Kennedy. His book discusses engaging shapeholders in the long term to both advance business and benefit society.

Trip around the world

The book is a result of Kennedy’s global expertise.

After he left Washington, D.C., the former Minnesota Congressman took a trip around the world. Like the protagonist in the classic adventure novel, Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne, he began in London and spoke at the Reform Club, which was founded in 1836. Kennedy’s talk, “Focus to Finish First,” postulated that the world is now so global and competitive that there is no choice but to be No. 1 in what you do.

Read the rest of the article at UND Today.

Wednesday, June 21st, 2017

Mark Kennedy discusses Shapeholders


“This book defines the social activists, media outlets, politicians, and regulators who have no stake in a company but a powerful ability to shape its future as shapeholders. It identifies effective strategies for engaging them.” — Mark R. Kennedy

This week, our featured book is Shapeholders: Business Success in the Age of Activism, by Mark R. Kennedy. Kennedy has recently done a couple of excellent podcast interviews, in which he delves into some of the important topics featured in his book.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy!

First, Kennedy was a guest on Money Life with Chuck Jaffe (download an mp3 here). In the show, Kennedy and Jaffe take a deep dive into the ways that shapeholders impact market value.

Second, Kennedy appeared on the Center for Strategic and International Studies podcast “Building the Future: Freedom, Prosperity, and Foreign Policy with Dan Runde” (you can listen below). Runde and Kennedy discuss Kennedy’s political career, international trade and protectionism, and small businesses in the United States.

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

How Quarks Turned into Cultures

Quarks to Culture

“What were the innovations that developed along the forward path in time that went from quarks to culture to form a sequence of transitions to new fundamental levels? To help focus, I coined the term ‘combogenesis.’ Combogenesis is the genesis of new types of things and relations by combination and integration of previously existing things.” — Tyler Volk

This week, our featured book is Quarks to Culture: How We Came to Be, by Tyler Volk. Today, we are happy to present a short excerpt from an interview that with John Horgan at Scientific American‘s Cross-Check blog. You can read the interview in full at the Cross-Check website.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy!

How Quarks Turned into Cultures: Big-picture biologist Tyler Volk talks about his book on “How We Came to Be”
By John Horgan

What is combogenesis?

In answering the question about a count I was led onward to a next one: What were the innovations that developed along the forward path in time that went from quarks to culture to form a sequence of transitions to new fundamental levels? To help focus, I coined the term “combogenesis.” Combogenesis is the genesis of new types of things and relations by combination and integration of previously existing things. For those into “emergence” theory, I would say that combogenesis is a special subset of emergence. But combogenesis is more precisely defined and leads to a logical way to distinguish levels and then ask questions about contrast and comparison across levels. Its use is restricted in this book to the levels that built-up a “grand sequence,” from the fundamental particles of physics through biology and to geopolitical states….

A related concept is offered in the book’s Part 3: combogenic convergence. Once one has in hand the levels of combogenesis as a set of similar “things,” one can ask about themes or parallels within that set. Examples include parallels in the levels that originated biological and cultural evolution (respectively, prokaryotic cells and human tribal metagroups), and in the levels that followed those “evolutionary base levels” (respectively, eukaryotic cells and agrovillages).

Could the next great transformation spawned by combogenesis be what some call the Singularity?

The final level I cover is the geopolitical state. It originated thousands of years ago at different sites around the world at different times. The obvious question is, what happens next? The logic of combinogenesis would indicate a merger of nations. I see nations as cultural evolutionary descendants of the ancient states, all on the same level of the geopolitical state, similar to the way that ancient simplest animals and modern large mammals are on the same level of multicellularity.

Now the logic of combogenesis would indicate that for a planetary scale to develop as a truly new level in the grand sequence, that scale will not take place from the domination by any current government or government system. Were that to become the case, it would not be a substantial innovation but simply an increase in size of a current pattern. Thus the logic leads us to think more radically about the structures that might result in a coming planetary stage.
Now, those into the Singularity—where cheap machines match and then surpass human general intelligence—can spin scenarios of utopias or dystopias. I agree with Nick Bostrom, we need to be thinking about the matter of AI a lot more. The internet-AI is participating in the coming planetary scale. In fact, we all need to be thinking and talking about and debating the human future a lot more, rather than simply letting it happen or letting certain powerful individuals in government, tech, or finance determine it (a complex topic, because voters and consumers weigh in). I tend to think about new international “organs” of the planetary scale. Please, no Borg-like future. I personally lean toward a desirably complex world but one more decentralized across multiple modalities compared to today.

Personal, cognitive evolutionary dynamics (one’s internal decision-making, with its evolutionary “recipe” of processes of propagation, variation, and selection) need to be part of this evolution toward planetization. After all, important structures of cultural evolution are linked to patterns laid down in earlier levels of the grand sequence. Specifically, the animal body (level 8) participates in the next level of the animal social group (level 9), with the animals themselves remaining the main unit of evolutionary adaptation, because the animal body had and has a life cycle that involves death and therefore was subject to intense selection. In our genus Homo ancestry, this led to increased brain size and new cognitive capabilities. Despite our current lives in multiply nested social systems, we have inherited this intense degree of individuality from several levels down. Let us keep that, even if a planetary scale is coming into being.

We need more imagination about all this. David Grinspoon, for example, in his book Earth in Human Hands, is wonderfully on the case here, proposing a “Sapiezoic aeon” to come (if we are successful). My hope is that pattern-thinking-tools developed from the grand sequence and prior transitions of combogenesis can help contribute to such new imaginings of our future.

Read the article in full at Scientific American’s Cross-Check blog.

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

Interview with Ashley Shelden, author of Unmaking Love

Unmaking Love, Ashley Shelden

“What I see in contemporary literature—in novels that I discuss in the book and those that didn’t make it in—is an understanding of love that runs counter to [a] traditional story. In these novels, love is not a uniting, conservative, or peaceful force; love is more often aggressive, violent, divisive, and corrosive.”—Ashley Shelden, author of Unmaking Love: The Contemporary Novel and the Impossibility of Union

The following is an interview with Ashley Shelden, author of Unmaking Love: The Contemporary Novel and the Impossibility of Union:

Question: Love is typically seen as sentimental and conservative, and perhaps because of that, other queer theorists and critics tend to focus on desire or sex. With this in mind, why are you so interested in love?

Ashley Shelden: It’s not that I’m not interested in desire or sex as analytic categories. Indeed, so much of the theoretical and intellectual work in psychoanalysis and queer theory that has galvanized me focuses on these concepts. Motivated by this work, I wanted to think more deeply about love in theory and literature in order to rethink the uses to which it has been put both intellectually and politically. In this way, my project is in sympathy with Laura Kipnis’s Against Love. I don’t necessarily agree with Kipnis’s arguments in that book, but I am invigorated by her impressive capacity not to accept received ideas and her commitment to putting pressure on all our assumptions about love.

I think you’re right, then: love is often used coercively as a sentimental force of conservation—to maintain the primacy of marriage, to occlude differences, to pacify and render inert disruptions to the dominant order. But what I see in contemporary literature—in novels that I discuss in the book and those that didn’t make it in—is an understanding of love that runs counter to this traditional story. In these novels, love is not a uniting, conservative, or peaceful force; love is more often aggressive, violent, divisive, and corrosive. It’s this unfamiliar version of love in which I am most interested because it flies in the face of what we commonly assume love to be.

Q: It sounds like part of what appeals to you about the alternative account of love that contemporary novels articulate is the light these novels can shed on politics. What political concerns does love allow you to consider anew?

AS: Let me just say here that when I think about the political uses of love, I don’t have in mind a sense of politics as partisan. By “political” I mean the ways we adjudicate on relations within the social. I want to clarify this point because my book is not necessarily suggesting new definitions of love for progressive political ends. Instead, my aim is to think about the ways that love is used to organize—and indeed disorganize—sociality. In that way, the political relations that love informs are quite broad. The first political issue that we might think of in relation to love is, of course, same-sex marriage, the mantra for which is “love is love.” But beyond the intimate sphere of loving relations, love also pertains to the recognizably contemporary issue of relationality in a globalized, transnational world. In the book, I use Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and Hari Kunzru’s Transmission in order to think through the amorous dimensions of transnational connectedness.

Another political issue that the question of love brings to the fore is the question of “the other” and otherness. Jacques Lacan famously suggested that there can be no love for an other, and we can only love sameness, that which reflects back to us the image of ourselves. This idea enlivens my project as it concerns issues relating to ethics—if love is directed only at sameness, then this idea suggests that there is something destructive in love’s seemingly unifying force. In order to love another, I must obliterate the other’s otherness, making that person into a fictional reflection of myself, which effectively eradicates the other in her particularity.


Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

Michael Green on Rex Tillerson’s Beijing Visit

By More Than Providence

This week, our featured book is By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783, by Michael J. Green. In a recent appearance on NPR’s Morning Edition, Michael Green tells Steve Inskeep about what the Chinese think of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as Tillerson meets with Chinese officials as part of a trip to Asia.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of By More Than Providence!

Thursday, March 9th, 2017

Reconstructing Strangelove

Reconstructing Strangelove

The following is an interview with Mick Broderick, author of Reconstructing Strangelove: Inside Stanley Kubrick’s “Nightmare Comedy”:

What attracted you to this project and how did it evolve over time?

I grew up in Australia during the 1960s, so I was a cold war kid. The year I was born (in Melbourne), Stanley Kramer brought Gregory Peck, Ava Gardiner, Fred Astair, Anthony Perkins and Donna Anderson to town to film On the Beach. It was a big deal for the Australian postwar generation as it seemed to put Melbourne on the map. At that time Australia was awash with the cultural – and increasingly the political – influence of America, from Hollywood movies and rock and roll to controversially partnering with the USA in the war in Vietnam. As a child I was fascinated by the science fiction and espionage shows that Australian television ran. I saw endless re-runs of programs such as The Outer Limits, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission Impossible. I was also part of the ‘sick’ generation, growing up with Mad magazine and the deliberate campiness of the Batman series. At some point I realized that many of these TV programs involved plots about nuclear weapons and related atomic technologies. Sometime in the 1970s while in my early teens I saw Dr. Strangelove on commercial television and remember being simultaneously enthralled by the suspense, and simultaneously amused by the comic antics and sexual jokes that my pubescent mind strove to make sense of. Later, repeated viewings of Kubrick’s film on TV during the era of Watergate, rapprochement with China and the Soviets, and the withdrawal from Vietnam confirmed for me the outrageous hilarity of Strangelove’s script and its ongoing relevance.

The idea for a comprehensive, historical book on Dr. Strangelove stemmed from merging my twin interests in nuclear history and screen studies. In 1982 I had written a large undergraduate thesis on auteurism and Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre. I followed this up with a postgraduate thesis that analyzed what I called “nuclear movies” as a genre, including a chapter on Dr. Strangelove. In 1988 I published the first detailed reference work on atomic themes in cinema, Nuclear Movies, and updated this in 1991, cataloguing nearly a thousand feature-length dramas from around the world. I dedicated the book to Kubrick, “who taught me to start worrying”. Of all the nuclear movies I watched Strangelove seemed unsurpassed in capturing the essence of the nuclear mindset, not only throughout the cold war but a mindset still with us today.

What was your biggest surprise in writing the book?

I was staggered to learn that Kubrick had made concrete plans to relocate to Australia with his family in order to avoid what he anticipated would be a thermonuclear war between the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. in the early 1960s. This was no flight of fancy. While deeply immersed in the vexed problem of the “thermonuclear dilemma,” Kubrick saw the rising tensions in Berlin and what led to the Cuban Missile Crisis as the most dangerous period in humankind, and he was right! Throughout 1961-62 Kubrick liaised with Australian embassy officials, banks and tax advisors on his imminent move ‘downunder.’ He sought out information concerning possible projects, including the story of Ned Kelly, a notorious 19th Century bush-ranger. Kubrick calculated that Perth (the capital of Western Australia, where I currently live), would be the least likely location affected by fallout or prone to a Soviet attack. He established bank accounts and transferred funds. He obtained visas for himself, his wife and three daughters and was all set to go. Famous for not flying, Stanley had bought tickets on a cruise ship, but when he found out that he would have to share a bathroom, the trip was off! Apparently the idea of spending months at sea sharing toilet space with complete strangers was intolerable; he would much rather face thermonuclear war. But as his wife Christine recalled with some amusement, by that point the tension in Berlin has subsided.

I’ve pondered as a counterfactual history, in some parallel quantum universe, that Kubrick made it to Australia in late-1962 and set about producing a Strangelove-esque satire, but as he entered pre-production, the northern hemisphere was tragically and ironically engulfed in a thermonuclear war sparked by mistakes made in Berlin or Cuba. Had Kubrick completed such a film from the relative safety of Australia, his primary audience would no longer exist to see it.

The book draws from a considerable range of primary materials. How did you get access to these?

A year or two after Stanley Kubrick’s death in 1999, I contacted his eldest daughter, Katharina, through a newsgroup dedicated to Kubrick’s work. Katharina had engaged with this list to publicly dispel various rumors and factual errors about her father that had long circulated in the media. Katharina kindly arranged for me to pitch my manuscript proposal to her mother, Christiane, who accepted the idea and after the estate had managed to begin cataloguing the voluminous boxes of the filmmaker’s files and documents, I spent a fortnight researching at the family home north of London in April 2005. Around the same time I undertook research in the USA where I interviewed Kubrick’s early career producer-partner, James B. Harris, and his long-time attorney, Louis C. Blau. I also met and interviewed screenplay co-author Terry Southern’s wife Carol and son Nile. This led to further interviews with Strangelove film editor Anthony Harvey and titles and “pie fight” cut-up advertising artist Pablo Ferro. While in the U.K. I interviewed David George, the son of co-screenplay author Peter George (aka Peter Bryant), who had written the source novel for the movie (Red Alert aka Two Hours to Doom). Both David George and Nile Southern generously provided assistance in accessing their respective father’s archives.

Tell us something about your book’s historical veracity?

One of the benefits of Reconstructing Strangelove’s long gestational development was that as the years passed more and more historical material came to light from multiple, and sometimes unexpected, sources. From the late-1990s I had been following the post-cold war document declassifications being released online by the wonderful National Security Archive in Washington DC. When I learned in 2001 that President Dwight Eisenhower had issued a Top Secret pre-delegation authority to lower echelon commanders permitting them to “expend” nuclear weapons, it became crystal clear to me that George and Kubrick had legitimately premised their story upon an entirely plausible scenario – one where a paranoid U.S. Air Force general could unilaterally order his wing of B-52s to bomb Russia with thermonuclear weapons.

Another fundamental element of the Strangelove plot involved the concept of a special code used to safeguard nuclear weapons and that a dedicated radio communications device aboard the B-52 would interact with the arming mechanism. At the time of the film’s development through to theatrical release this officially unacknowledged mechanism was highly sensitive information and classified. The U.S. Air Force persuaded Columbia Pictures, the film’s backer and distributor, to add a silent rolling title at the beginning of the film boldly stating that the Air Force safeguards would prevent the events depicted in the film from ever occurring. We know now, from repeated declassifications of important departmental and agency records, and from oral histories, that this claim was patently false.

As part of his extensive research Kubrick had amassed a substantial library of works on nuclear and military strategy. He had met with key theorists in the field, including Thomas Schelling, Alastair Buchan and former RAND Corporation analyst Herman Kahn. Alongside Peter George’s practical military experience and service contacts in NATO, Kubrick had the ear of numerous experts but he had himself become highly proficient in comprehending and communicating the paradoxical, if not absurd, complexities of nuclear brinkmanship. A good deal of the genius of Dr. Strangelove, and its continued relevance today, stems from the film’s attention to detail, not only in historical accuracy and production design, but in the perverse and pervasive discourse of nuclear strategy.

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

Extreme Domesticity

Extreme Domesticity and Tainted Witness

“I use the term “extreme” to jar us out of the common assumption that domestic spaces are always stable, banal, and conventional—invested in traditional family values and complacently bourgeois. The goal of my book is to trouble our stereotype of domestic life by exploring versions of home at odds with the normative ideal. I do so by looking at the non-conforming households of gender rebels, the marginal households of those dealing with dislocation and economic insecurity.” — Susan Fraiman

This week, we are featuring two exciting new books from our Gender and Culture Series: Extreme Domesticity: A View from the Margins, by Susan Fraiman, and Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives, by Leigh Gilmore. Today, Susan Fraiman answers questions about what exactly she means by “extreme domesticity,” the importance of acknowledging the labor and skill of domestic labor while avoiding romanticizing the concept, and how she uses literature to examine conceptions of domesticity.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a copy of both books!

Question: I’m curious about your title. What do you mean by “extreme domesticity”? Are you talking about a return to pre-technological, labor-intensive homemaking—as in making our own clothes, growing our own food?

Susan Fraiman: Definitely not. In fact, I would distance myself from what is sometimes called the “new domesticity”: a zealous return to artisanal housewifery, extreme crafty-ness, often understood in counter-cultural or even feminist terms. What I do have in common with this impulse is my appreciation for the labor, skill, and potential for creativity involved in keeping house, whether or not you take a DIY approach. At the same time, I would never want simply to romanticize domestic labor or lose sight of the way women have historically been oppressed by unpaid work in their own homes or low-paid work in someone else’s.

Q: In that case, how exactly is the domesticity of your book “extreme”?

SF: I use the term “extreme” to jar us out of the common assumption that domestic spaces are always stable, banal, and conventional—invested in traditional family values and complacently bourgeois. The goal of my book is to trouble our stereotype of domestic life by exploring versions of home at odds with the normative ideal. I do so by looking at the non-conforming households of gender rebels, the marginal households of those dealing with dislocation and economic insecurity. So “extreme” has a number of meanings for me. It refers to homemakers seen as immoderate or outlandish, whose gender/sexuality is stigmatized as dangerously eccentric. It also refers to those in extreme circumstances, whose home life is precarious as a result of poverty, violence, and/or immigrant status. I consider a wide range of domestic figures, but they’re all outsiders of some kind. A few are even literally out-of-doors.

Q: Your book spans several centuries, multiple genres, and brings together a number of unlikely suspects. Who are some of the “outsider” women and men you discuss?

SF: I should start by noting that I’m a literary and cultural critic, not a social scientist. All of my examples are drawn from texts (as opposed to ethnographic research). As such they are images of domesticity, at one remove from actual lives. They do, however, tell us a good deal about how we conceive of the domestic. In addition to reflecting our views, images also have the ability to shape them. As for which texts I discuss, many are novels: from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) to Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993) and Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging (1997). I also take up Edith Wharton’s classic design guide, The Decoration of Houses (1897), as well as depictions of Martha Stewart, that delightfully bad girl of good housekeeping. A last chapter draws on memoirs and participant-observer accounts of homelessness.

Q: Can you say more about the last chapter? I know you mentioned literal outsiders, but aren’t homeless women and men defined as such because they’re lacking in domesticity? If they have no homes, how do they count as domestic subjects?

SF: I would put it a bit differently. If you have no reliable shelter, your domesticity is broken up and embattled, but it doesn’t cease to exist. You still need to eat something, sleep somewhere, store your stuff, struggle to achieve a bit of personal safety, privacy, and coziness. If anything, when you can’t take “home” for granted, your domestic efforts are that much more urgent, ongoing, and visible. The figures discussed in this chapter include a mother in a welfare hotel, a guy camping out with his dog, a woman and her shopping cart, along with several robust subcultures of “homeless” people. The latter provide examples of collaboration as well as violence, political activism as well as poor conditions, and the chapter as a whole offers many examples of domestic agency as well as difficulty. If homelessness puts enormous pressure on domestic needs and routines, it also serves to highlight the aspects of everyday life shared across the board, whether or not we are securely housed.

Q: I have one last question. You describe this as a feminist project, but you’ve already noted the historical confinement of women in domestic spaces, restricting them to the drudgery of domestic labor. In what sense is your largely “appreciative” approach to domesticity a feminist intervention?

SF: As I say, my goal is not to romanticize housekeeping. It’s also true that the ideology of proper domesticity generally serves to enforce norms of gender, class, sexuality, and race. That said, it’s too often the case that domestic figures, practices, concerns, and spaces are the objects of condescension and blanket dismissal. Because women continue to be primarily responsible for household labor, everything associated with houses and housekeeping is strongly feminized and consequently trivialized (and this is true even when men are involved). In other words, the bias against all aspects and forms of domestic life is strongly tied to biases against women and phenomena identified as “feminine.” By stressing the diversity of domestic arrangements, by appreciating housekeepers of all genders, and by valuing the gestures that go into making a home, I am hoping to push back against that bias.

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

An Interview with Jeffrey Severs, Author of “David Foster Wallace’s Balancing Books”

David Foster Wallace's Balancing Books

“Immersive reading of literary fiction, especially in Wallace’s ragged, tangential, footnoted forms, reminds us that the minds of others are wonderfully textured, unpredictable places—and forgetting that underlies nearly every ethical problem we encounter, as Wallace demonstrates again and again.”—Jeffrey Severs

The following is an interview with Jeffrey Severs, author of David Foster Wallace’s Balancing Books: Fictions of Value:

Question: How do you account for the continuing popularity of David Foster Wallace in 2017, especially his novel, Infinite Jest?

Jeff Severs: Infinite Jest has certainly become the book on which many young intellectuals test their reading mettle, much like Gravity’s Rainbow was for me when I was in college in the mid-1990s. Many of my most ambitious undergraduates often come to my courses already in love with Infinite Jest or some of his essays and wanting to read the books that inspired Wallace. Certain parts of Infinite Jest have become quite apt descriptions of how we entertain ourselves and communicate in the 21st century: Wallace’s “InterLace” network of film-cartridge distribution predicted the rise of Netflix and supposedly total “choice” over TV, and his deadly Entertainment is an exaggeration that exposes how unhealthy our everyday media habits can be—think of what we’re saying by making the bodily metaphor of “binge-watching” commonplace. Whenever I feel weird about where I’m looking (camera or screen?) during a Skype call, I think of Infinite Jest’s hilarious account of the demise of video-telephony. He understood how machines would continue to make being in touch easier but never resolve fundamental anxieties about communication, like “Does this person truly understand me?” and “Am I just narcissistically talking to myself here in the guise of a conversation?”

Q. Wallace has experienced an upsurge in critical interest since his 2008 suicide. How does his untimely death figure in the culture’s reception of him and your own appreciation of him?

JS: If you’ve ever been through depression or addiction yourself or been close to someone with those struggles, Wallace’s work offers illuminating descriptions of how those states can frame every thought and comprise the air of every breath. Those who love Wallace’s work and find wisdom in it tend to recognize that his intimate descriptions of the mind consuming itself are absolutely heroic. Immersive reading of literary fiction, especially in Wallace’s ragged, tangential, footnoted forms, reminds us that the minds of others are wonderfully textured, unpredictable places—and forgetting that underlies nearly every ethical problem we encounter, as Wallace demonstrates again and again.

It’s very difficult to say anything about Wallace’s suicide in relation to his writing that seems simultaneously true, right, respectful, and attentive to his complex understanding of authorship, autobiography, fiction, and the ability of language to represent feeling. Beyond being sad that we will see no more books from him, I prefer to think of writing and thinking about him after his death as an opportunity to be the kind of active, involved reader he was obsessed with cultivating—a way of helping make his work into a nuanced, communal dialogue that doesn’t begin and end with him. That’s what he seemed to want most.


Thursday, January 26th, 2017

On Modernist Magazines, Little and Small — A Conversation with Eric Bulson and Donal Harris (Part 2)

On Company Time, Donal Harris

“Just about every serious author working in the U.S. contributed to big magazines in some capacity, and plenty of writers worked for them for multiple years, if not decades. Lots of them complained about this situation, but I found it an interesting occupational fact that shaped their ideas about what it means to be an author or ‘professional writer’ and what it means to produce literature. And, on the other side, I wanted to know why these magazines thought it was a good idea to hire poets to write copy!”—Donal Harris

This is the second part of a two-part conversation between Eric Bulson, author of Little Magazine, World Form and Donal Harris author of On Company Time: American Modernism in the Big Magazines (You can read part 1 here).

Bulson and Harris shift their focus from small to big to examine how magazines like Time, Life, The Crisis, shaped the direction of modernist literature the work and careers of W.E.B. Du Bois, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather and others. (Here is part one of their conversation):

Eric Bulson: On Company Time proves that Modernists weren’t as antagonistic to big magazines as we’ve been led to believe! So, how does this shift in focus influence our understanding of that period in literary history we call “modernism”? Are Willa Cather and W.E.B. Du Bois really modernists? Do we need to rethink, maybe even throw out the term?

Donal Harris: I don’t think anyone will be surprised to find out Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or even Gertrude Stein, occasionally crossed paths with big magazines. But what I discovered is that just about every serious author working in the U.S. contributed to big magazines in some capacity, and plenty of writers worked for them for multiple years, if not decades. Lots of them complained about this situation, but I found it an interesting occupational fact that might influenced their ideas about what it means to be an author or “professional writer” and what it means to produce literature. And, on the other side, I wanted to know why these magazines thought it was a good idea to hire poets to write copy!

Does the fact that a lot of American modernists made a living by selling their talent as writers mean that we should do away with the term? I don’t think so. No more so than discovering little magazines’s longer and wider history outside of Western Europe and the United States (which I was fascinated to find out about!) means that we should get rid of that term. It just means that we think about modernism’s proclaimed market aversion slightly differently. Rather than a fact on the ground, it’s a rhetorical gesture that helped to differentiate modernism’s various types of experimentation from the innovations happening in mass-market magazines.

A side effect of this altered approach is the new visibility of people like Cather and Du Bois within modernism. They took both their magazine work and their literary aspirations very seriously, and they thought about them as two sides of the same coin. I mean, it’s hard to imagine the originality of McClure’s magazine without Willa Cather, and it’s hard to imagine Cather’s novel The Professor’s House without what she learned while editing McClure’s.

EB: The story you tell about Big Magazines ends with the arrival of television. Was TV really as powerful a force as you argue here?

DH: Ending with the rise of television in the early 1950s was partially a decision of convenience, to be sure. The book is about the relationship between various forms of print media and the people who write and publish them. So I end when a new, non-print media takes the history of journalism and literature in a different direction.

Certainly what you call the “little wireless magazines” pushes forward the artistic possibilities of electronic communication to a much earlier date, which I found compelling. The periodical world I wrote about is less sanguine about these changes. In 1948, when T.S. Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature, about one percent of American households owned televisions. When Hemingway won it in 1954, over fifty percent did, and by 1958 over eighty percent did. And you can watch magazine circulations fall as television spreads. It was only natural for magazine editors to see the flood of television screens as a bad omen for their own longevity.


Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

A Conversation with Leonard Sherman

If You're in a Dogfight, Become a Cat!

“In dogfights, as in business, strong players may gain a temporary advantage, but fighting for dominance with traditional weapons usually takes a heavy toll on all combatants, and the prospect for renewed battles remains a constant threat.” — Leonard Sherman

This week, our featured book is If You’re in a Dogfight, Become a Cat!: Strategies for Long-Term Growth, by Leonard Sherman. Today, we are happy to present an interview with Sherman, in which he explains the title of his book, details how companies can drive long-term growth, and lists companies that have successfully broken away from the pack by becoming a cat in a dogfight.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a copy of If You’re in a Dogfight, Become a Cat!.

What inspired the unusual title of your book?

My motivation for writing this book grew out of thirty years as a management consultant and venture capitalist, working with a lot of companies struggling to restore profitability and growth. I observed a number of common causes of these business challenges, so when I joined the faculty at Columbia Business School, I made growth strategy the focus of my research.

The curious title of my book metaphorically captures the competitive challenge all businesses eventually face, as well as the management mindset required to sustain profitable growth. In dogfights, as in business, strong players may gain a temporary advantage, but fighting for dominance with traditional weapons usually takes a heavy toll on all combatants, and the prospect for renewed battles remains a constant threat. As examples, the ongoing dogfights between Walmart and Target, HP and Dell, and United and American Airlines have taken a heavy toll on all players. Cats are a different breed of animal—clever, solitary hunters who are more inclined to explore new territory and to redefine the game on their own terms than to engage with the pack in a no-win dogfight. Cats are agile and innovative, and seek their prey (or in business terms: customers) with tactics that dogs cannot easily replicate. In the business dogfights cited above, Amazon, Apple, and Southwest Airlines have clearly exhibited catlike behavior.

You point out that most companies fail to sustain long-term profitable growth. Why do they fall short?

The critical starting point for an effective business strategy is a genuine, customer-centric business purpose—by which I mean a corporate ideology that inspires an organization and provides strategic clarity on the purpose and priorities of the enterprise. I want to emphasize this point because it often gets short shrift. Skeptics might scoff at this notion, noting that every company says the right things about their vision but often acts differently. After all, Wells Fargo was founded on being “a trusted provider that builds lifelong relationships one customer at a time,” and VW was committed to “offer attractive, safe and environmentally sound vehicles.” But these aberrations serve to reinforce the imperative of a customer-centric vision that really guides corporate behavior. Companies that have the best track record in sustaining long-term growth have remained true to their founding corporate vision, including Johnson & Johnson, 3M, IKEA, FedEx, Starbucks, Apple, Costco, JetBlue, and of course Amazon. Commenting on the importance of Amazon’s customer-centric business purpose, CEO Jeff Bezos said: “We’re stubborn on vision but flexible on details,” and “whenever we get into an infinite loop and can’t decide what to do, we try to convert it into a straightforward problem by saying, ‘well, what’s better for the consumer?’” An abiding genuine commitment to delivering superior customer value serves all stakeholders well. (more…)

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

On Modernist Magazines, Little and Big — A Conversation with Eric Bulson and Donal Harris (Part 1)

Little Magazine, World Form, Eric Bulson

“I would love to believe that writers, critics, editors, and translators have been and will continue to be everywhere connected, but that is not and never has never been the case. The cold reality of literary history teaches us otherwise, and the little magazine is a great place to examine how this whole concept of a world republic of letters did and did not work globally in the twentieth century.”-Eric Bulson

Below is the first part of a two-part conversation between Eric Bulson, author of Little Magazine, World Form and Donal Harris author of On Company Time: American Modernism in the Big Magazines.

In this first part, Harris asks Bulson about his book and how it challenges the ways we have thought about the form and content of modernist magazines, their role twentieth-century global literature, and the promises and limitations of little magazines in creating a “world republic of little magazines” (In tomorrow’s post, Bulson will ask Harris about the “big” magazines):

Donal Harris: The term “little magazine” refers primarily to the non-commercial journals printed in the United States, England, and Western and Central Europe between the two World Wars. But little magazine, world form takes a different approach, both in terms of geography and time frame. What new constellations of magazines and literary scenes did you find when you thought about the legacy of this medium more broadly?

Eric Bulson: Like so many other people who have studied modernism over the years, I was under the impression that little magazines were really a western phenomenon. That, of course, is not true at all, and so the more I looked for examples from outside the usual Paris-New York-London orbit, the more I began to uncover constellations that I never knew existed.

One of the more surprising examples for me early on was Black Orpheus, a little magazine that came out of Nigeria in the 1950s, and had a major influence on the direction of what we now call Anglophone literature. And Black Orpheus was a major wake-up call for me. Once I knew that these other little magazine hubs existed, the more I began to realize that the whole timeline and geography for the little magazine was severely restricted and misleading. In fact, the old narrative that it was born with the French Symbolists in the 1890s and died at the end of the 1940s with the beginning of World War Two just doesn’t work globally. Once you modify the geographical frame, in fact, then you must change the timeline. The little magazine is born at different times in different places, and trying to get our heads around this whole idea requires that we develop new strategies for thinking about what the little magazine is and where it has been.

Donal Harris: You spend quite a bit of space discussing the idea of “form” as an overlooked aspect of scholarship on little magazines and periodicals in general. How do you see the “form” of little magazines changing (or remaining constant) during the twentieth century? And does periodical form have an impact on the content that gets included in the magazine?

Eric Bulson: Form is absolutely critical to our understanding of the historical, social, political, economic, and, of course, literary meaning of little magazines. It’s interesting, in fact, that the emphasis on form was something that book historians and art historians figured out decades ago but literary critics were slow to pick up on. Yes, the cool covers and edgy design have garnered lots of attention but not in any rigorous, analytical way. They are more of a side-show, or an after-thought, for those who are interested in getting to the “real content” of little magazines. Taking our cue from a tradition of those non-literary critics that think of the little magazine as an art object and as a medium can help us to reframe how we understand the relationship between the form and content, what’s in the little magazine and what the little magazine is made of.

One very important example for me was VVV, a Surrealist magazine printed in the United States during World War Two. It’s a magazine, yes, but it’s also a traveling art exhibit for the surrealists who chose voluntary exile after the Nazis arrived in France. There are visually stunning installations in these pages from Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp and so many others, so that reading through VVV actually feels like walking through a gallery. But as interesting as that experience might be, the payoff comes in thinking about the politics of this form, the very idea that the shape, design, structure becomes a way for these exiled surrealists to find a place for art in an increasingly repressive, violent world. So form is not just about the structure, design, and sequence: it is also about the materiality of the experience, what paper gets used for the contents and cover design, what ink and typeface are available, who does the printing and with what machines and which compositors.


Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

A Cautionary Tale on Education Investment Flops: Jonathan Knee on Squawk Box

Class Clowns

“When you try to mix your philanthropy with your investing, you tend to do both badly…. The important thing about good for-profit education is that it’s sustainable, it’s got a sustainable business model.” — Jonathan A. Knee

This week, our featured book is Class Clowns: How the Smartest Investors Lost Billions in Education, by Jonathan A. Knee. On Friday, December 16, Jonathan Knee appeared and discussed the dangers of investing in education on CNBC’s Squawk Box. To start the week’s feature, we are happy to share the video of his interview below.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for your chance to win a free copy of Class Clowns!

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

An Interview with Aarthi Vadde, Author of “Chimeras of Form”

Chimeras of Form, Aarthi Vadde

“I am most interested in those moments in modernist and contemporary fiction where unachievable dreams of global transformation yield critical insights into the world as it currently exists.”—Aarthi Vadde

The following is an interview with Aarthi Vadde, author of Chimeras of Form: Modernist Internationalism Beyond Europe, 1914–2016. In the interview, Vadde discusses how literature and literary form allows us to see the possibility of internationalism and communal politics in a new way. She considers how the work of writers such as Zadie Smith, James Joyce, and Rabindranath Tagore explore and critique imperialism and globalization and imagine new political communities.

Question: Why look to literature for ways of understanding the possibilities and limitations of internationalism and international community?

Aarthi Vadde: It’s an important question. Part of my argument in Chimeras of Form is that literature is an overlooked medium for thinking about internationalism and international community. People are much more likely to turn to the discipline of history for an account of specific international movements or political philosophy for a definitional or normative account of internationalism. But literary works are vital too because they take us into zones of experience and imagination that history and philosophy cannot reach.

The writers that interest me most, from Rabindranath Tagore to Zadie Smith, reflect on the lived conditions of imperialism and globalization; they regard internationalism as a communal aspiration that confronts the day-to-day ambiguities and inequalities of these large-scale formations. Such ambiguities and inequalities are often invisible in expository language, but they become palpable through literary language. The study of literature returns abstract theories of internationalism to specific cultural milieus. Moreover, literary works open up political formulations of international community to poetic forms of examination and reinvention.

Q: How did this discourse or imaginings of internationalism change over the period you cover in the book?

During and after World War I, many writers, artists, intellectuals, and politicians expressed the need for international cooperation as an antidote to national competition and aggression. The League of Nations was founded in 1920 as a bastion of liberal internationalism, and it sponsored the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation (ICIC), which boasted an elite membership: Henri Bergson, Marie Curie, and Gilbert Murray among others. Its events brought Albert Einstein, Rabindranath Tagore, H.G. Wells, and Thomas Mann into the fold. The ICIC associated internationalism with cross-cultural understanding, but that only went so far. It was a largely European affair, and, as Tagore, James Joyce, and other writers in my book point out, such cultural internationalism could not fully flourish on the back of colonial exploitation.

The discourses of internationalism that interest me most are the ones that sought to blend proposals for cultural exchange with materialist critiques of the conditions that make such exchange difficult or coercive across continental and global lines of power. We see such imaginings of internationalism stirring in the 1910s-20s and peaking in the 1950s and 1960s during the era of decolonization. They persist through to the 21st century even if their targets of criticism have changed. Whereas the British Empire was the target of internationalist critique in the first half of the twentieth century, we now see global institutions like the World Bank, human rights organizations, and transnational states like the European Union come under scrutiny for extractive economic policies, political interventionism, and racialized immigration and asylum laws. The key now is to balance criticism and reform of these internationalist institutions with support for their existence in the face of resurgent xenophobic populisms worldwide.


Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

An Interview with Gayle Rogers, author of “Incomparable Empires”

Gayle Rogers, Incomparable Empires

“But we should ask ourselves why we (and anyone, globally) might wish to study foreign literatures? To make ourselves better, more well-rounded humans? That’s a lofty and often immeasurable goal. To understand better the cultures that we fear, the cultures of the markets our country is entering, to understand our own syncretistic pasts? All complicated, too. And then, how much is enough?”—Gayle Rogers

The following is an interview with Gayle Rogers, author of Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature:

Question: What was the role of empire in shaping how Americans saw themselves and their culture over the past century?

Gayle Rogers: I have always had a profound interest in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the “splendid little war” that set into motion many trends that are still unfolding in our contemporary moment. I came across this amazing speech from 1899 by William Graham Sumner, a famous sociologist and anti-imperialist. It was called—and this is not a typo—“The Conquest of the United States by Spain.” Sumner believed that this new stage of American imperialism, marked by the country’s first overseas interventionist war, would ultimately ruin the country, just like imperialism had ruined Spain over the course of several centuries. He claimed that the United States had “beaten Spain in a military conflict” but was “submitting to be conquered by her on the field of ideas and policies.” In other words, we were on a course to become the new Spain—a formerly great empire that had gradually lost all of its foreign territories (including large swaths of the United States itself) and, at the turn of the twentieth century, found itself bankrupt, broken, and largely forgotten on the world stage.

This notion that a growing empire would cause America’s cultural ruin led me to the larger issues that this book takes up: namely, the relationship between geopolitical power (often exercised through imperialism) and literary eminence. A common narrative holds that the United States was a minor or second-rate literary scene at least until the late 1800s—that we were derivative, that we mostly imported British and French texts that held higher and more enduring cultural value. And then, we emerged onto the global literary stage right around the moment that we began acquiring overseas territories, consolidating our new territories and states in the west and southwest, and intervening all across the western hemisphere. In essence, against Sumner’s claims, American empire meant the birth of a globalized American literature.

Q: So, greater empire, greater literary prominence?

GR: The Spanish-American War looks like a well-placed axis in which the United States surges and Spain declines, with geopolitical and literary fortunes neatly yoked together in both cases. Of course, it’s not so simple, and as I knew from reading a good deal of literature of the early twentieth century, many leading authors believed that such a narrative was either horribly misleading or, if accurate, the signal of a terrible future for America in particular.

Q: To what extent are the imperial fortunes of Spain and the United States unique, or how do they speak to larger cultural or literary questions?

GR: I realized that this case study—the U.S. and Spain—actually framed a host of larger issues about the way we write literary histories: the models and assumptions we rely on, the trajectories and paths we follow in them. The modernist author John Dos Passos looked at the state of literature in the mid-1910s and concluded that great eras of empire actually strangle fruitful literary production, and so, he hoped that America’s new empire would quickly collapse in order to allow its literature to truly flourish. He saw a model in post-imperial Spain, where his peers like the novelist Pío Baroja were headlining what he believed was a new golden age of Spanish letters in the wake of an empire’s collapse.


Thursday, November 10th, 2016

Interview with Donal Harris, author of “On Company Time”

Donal Harris, On Company TIme

“New media technologies and working conditions re-balance the relationship between journalism and literary writing.”—Donal Harris

The following is an interview with Donal Harris, author of On Company Time: American Modernism in the Big Magazines. In the book, Harris tells the story of American modernism from inside the offices and on the pages of the most successful and stylish magazines of the twentieth century, looking at the careers of writers such as Willa Cather, W. E. B. Du Bois, Jessie Fauset, James Agee, T. S. Eliot, and Ernest Hemingway.:

Question: How did your interest in journalism begin?

Donal Harris: My first white-collar job during and after college was at a local weekly newspaper. I started as a reporter and feature writer, and I eventually served in just about every possible capacity: copy editor, section editor, page designer, managing editor. I even made a couple (unsuccessful) advertising calls. I was better at some of those jobs than others, but they showed me that producing a paper every week is exhausting, exhilarating work that requires a special approach to reading and writing. It also exposed me to the wide range of work that gets lumped under a term like “journalism.”

Q: How did the literary element come in?

DH: That begins with James Agee, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Death in the Family, and co-authored an extremely strange book about Alabama sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Famous Men explicitly denounces how newspapers and magazines represented the plight of poor folks during the Great Depression, so I was surprised when I discovered that the original idea for the book was assigned to him as a story for Fortune magazine. Fortune was published by Time Incorporated, at the time the largest media company in the United States, and it turns out that Agee worked at Time Inc. in some capacity for most of his adult life. On Company Time, at least in part, began as my attempt to make sense of how Agee’s and other writers’ (including Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, W. E. B. Dubois, and T. S. Eliot) day jobs fed into their attitudes about “serious” writing outside of work.

Q: But Agee deeply resented working for Time Inc., right? Is that a common theme in the writers you discuss, that they disparage their experiences in journalism?

Donal Harris: We’d miss a lot of what’s interesting about the intersection of journalism and literature in the twentieth century if we took the writers at their word.

Agee did often badmouth Time Inc. and especially Henry Luce, its co-founder. But Agee also often bragged about how good he was at the job, and how generous the company was in regards to pay (and paid leave). While digging through his files at the University of Tennessee, I found an office memo, on Time Inc. letterhead, that touted a cover story Agee wrote as the ideal piece of Time writing. I think it says a lot about his relationship with Time that, first, the memo exists and, second, that he saved it.

Your larger point is valid, though. Agee’s showy anti-journalistic stance is one note in a long chorus about the terrible effects of journalism—or more generally “mass culture” writing—on literary writing. Journalism is commercial so it privileges sensationalism; it’s presentist so it doesn’t understand history; it’s focused on information, so the style is boring. It’s worth noting that the feeling of superiority works the other way, too. There are obvious claims one could make about the “usefulness” of journalistic work and writing – journalism is the fourth pillar of democracy, right? But, in the period I cover, there are also a number of arguments about the superiority of journalism’s style. It strives for clear and transparent language, while novels and poems in the early twentieth century are often purposefully difficult.


Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

Interview with Jeremy Rosen, Author of “Minor Characters Have Their Day”

Minor Characters Have Their Day, Jeremy Rosen

“Genre is more than just a publishing category or marketing device…. Genres reflect the concerns of the historical moments in which they flourish. Minor-character elaborations reflect the interest of readers and writers in revisionist histories, in new angles on old stories…. They also demonstrate the playful, mischievous attitude toward the classics … [and] the sense that the classics aren’t simply there to be worshipped, but are books that we can take over, play with, and remake in whatever way we see fit.”—Jeremy Rosen

The following is an interview with Jeremy Rosen, author of Minor Characters Have Their Day: Genre and the Contemporary Literary Marketplace:

Question: What got you interested in contemporary novels that convert minor characters from classics into protagonists?

Jeremy Rosen: It started when I heard about Lo’s Diary by the Italian novelist Pia Pera, which retells Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita from the young girl’s perspective. Lolita is one of my all-time favorite novels, and I was intrigued but also a little skeptical about this retelling. I was in graduate school at the time, and taking a class on postmodern novels that included stuff like Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which focuses on Rochester’s first wife, the so-called “madwoman in the attic,” from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

And then, just like the new word you learn and then start seeing everywhere, books featuring formerly minor characters started popping up everywhere I looked. Wicked the Broadway musical based on Gregory Maguire’s novel premiered around this time. And Alice Randall published her novel The Wind Done Gone, which imagines that Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind had a half-sister who was a slave. Then Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer in 2005 for March, which makes a protagonist of the absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and I could go on and on… What I realized was that I was seeing a vibrant phenomenon unfold, a genre that was “blowing up,” before my eyes, and I wanted to try to explain why that was happening.

Q: So why are so many contemporary writers focusing on minor characters from classics?

JR: When I tell students, and friends, and other people I meet about this research, they often say a couple things: that there must be no new ideas left, and that what I call “minor character elaborations” sound just like spinoffs and sequels in film. And I think these are right to an extent, but they don’t tell nearly the whole story. First, because seen from a certain angle, there have never been any new stories. From what little we know about Homer, he just wrote down and standardized what were already very old oral tales when they came to him. And the Greek tragedists like Sophocles and Aeschylus were likewise working with and transforming already ancient material. Rewriting, or what literary theorists call “intertextuality,” is really the oldest game in town.

On the other hand, some new things are happening here. Rewritings that focus on minor characters, especially on women and other socially marginalized groups, certainly have a new emphasis. Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife, for example, takes the extremely masculine world of whaling and says: where were all the women? Naslund picks up on the single line in all of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick that mentions that Ahab was married. (And you think your partner has some bad moods!) Naslund takes that line and expands it into a grand narrative about what it would have been like to be the wife of a sea captain, who is at sail for years at a time, in the nineteenth century. A great many of these novels reflect a contemporary concern for the kinds of people—women, servants, slaves, non-Europeans—that were not often protagonists in classic literary works, in response to the wealth of stories we have that focus on the experience of white, male, upper class heroes.

Q: But you also suggest that there’s some merit to the comparison to Hollywood sequels and TV spinoffs, right?

JR: Absolutely. I chose the admittedly clunky term “minor character elaboration” because these books seem to me to differ from “spinoffs” in some important ways. When contemporary novelists seize on a minor character, we tend to get a picture of the character that is totally different than the brief glimpse we got in the classic. But when Joey from “Friends” gets his own show, we don’t suddenly find out that Joey was a much deeper, much more interesting person than we ever thought when we watched “Friends.” We just get more Joey.

That said, I think a lot of the forces driving the explosion of “minor character elaborations” are closely connected with the reasons we see such a rage for sequels and spinoffs in Hollywood, as well as all the “genre” films and TV shows out there: all the vampires, superheroes, zombies, and fantasy worlds. These phenomena all have a lot to do with transformations in media, in the publishing and film industries, which have undergone a major consolidation in the past several decades. The multinational media corporations that control much of the publishing industry like to minimize their risk. And totally unique books that have no connection with prior works are tough to explain and market. Whereas, “Like Harry Potter but sexier!” conjures up something we all know. Rewritings of classics tap into a known quantity, as well as prestigious literary names. And they have a genre formula that is easy to encapsulate in a few words: “Shakespeare’s King Lear from the court jester’s perspective!” (This describes Christopher Moore’s hilarious, bawdy novel Fool.) In the economic context of contemporary media consolidation, publishers have found familiar authors and genres to be reliable ways of grabbing readers’ attention.