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Archive for the 'Author Postings' Category

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Bolaño, Epiphanies and Imminence — A Post by Chris Andrews

Roberto Bolano's Fiction, Chris AndrewsThe following post is by Chris Andrews, author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe. You can also read our interview with Chris Andrews about the book:

At the end of “Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories” (in Between Parentheses), Bolaño writes: “read Chekhov and Raymond Carver. One of the two of them is the best short-story writer this century has produced.” Chekhov died in 1904, so either Carver wins by elimination, or Bolaño is suggesting that with just a toe in the century Chekhov beats all his epigones. In any case, the coupling is significant, for both Carver and Chekhov wrote epiphanic short stories. Describing the cards taped to the wall beside his desk in “On Writing,” Carver says: “I have a three-by-five up there with this fragment of a sentence from a story by Chekhov: ‘… and suddenly everything became clear to him.’ I find these words filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that’s implied.”

In Bolaño’s work there are moments when everything becomes clear to a character … or seems to be on the point of becoming clear. Sometimes the character has what the German critic Gunther Leypoldt, discussing Carver, calls an “arrested epiphany”: one that fails to deliver any definite content. This is what happens in “Gómez Palacio” when the director of the local arts council takes the narrator to her special place, which turns out to be a truck parking area in the desert, from which they can see the headlights of cars on a distant stretch of road. The narrator is initially skeptical, and with good reason: his host seems to be slightly crazy and has a taste for practical jokes. But then something happens:

I saw how the light, seconds after the car or truck had passed that spot, turned back on itself and hung in the air, a green light that seemed to breathe, alive and aware for a fraction of a second in the middle of the desert, set free, a marine light, moving like the sea but with all the fragility of earth, a green, prodigious, solitary light that must have been produced by something near that curve in the road — a sign, the roof of an abandoned shed, huge sheets of plastic spread on the ground — but that, to us, seeing it from a distance, appeared to be a dream or a miracle, which comes to the same thing, in the end.

Up to the explanation (“that must have been produced …”), the lyricism of this long sentence suggests something marvelous, and although the green light seems to breathe only for a fraction of a second, the aura created by the descriptive language does not vanish so quickly, partly because the explanation is conjectural, and partly because the final equation relativizes the importance of the physical facts: if dreams are miracles, why not hallucinations and illusions too? And yet this portent leads nowhere, and the narrator interrupts the lyric flight: “Then the director started the car, turned it around and droved back to the motel.”

(more…)

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Making Sense of Afghanistan’s Electoral Crisis — A Post by Noah Coburn and Anna Larson

“While Kerry again has brokered a deal between feuding candidates, there is no reason to believe that this deal will ultimately hold and it is the candidates who will ultimately determine whether there is a peaceful transition of power or not.”—Noah Coburn and Anna Larson on the recent elections in Afghanistan

Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan, Noah Coburn and Anna LarsonThe following post is by Noah Coburn and Anna Larson, coauthors of Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan: Elections in an Unstable Political Landscape:

Following the last minute intervention of John Kerry, the elections in Afghanistan to replace Hamid Karzai as president, have entered a chaotic period of counting, re-counting and accusations of fraud and corruption. How do we make sense of the power plays that are going on on both sides? Often forgotten in the mainstream press, these elections are actually the fifth in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001, and turning to look back at some of the lessons from these elections can help us think about the current process. We’ve spent much of the past six years tracking candidates, officials and voters in Afghanistan and our book, Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan: Elections in an Unstable Political Landscape, provides some important lessons.

First, elections are shaped by the cultures and history that they are held in. Too often local forms of democracy are ignored and we recount the long history of democratization (and sometimes de-democratization) that Afghanistan has experienced since its first elections in the 1950s. Clearly there is no evidence to suggest that elections or democracy are somehow incompatible with Afghan culture. Despite this, a group of former commanders and the political elite, have manipulated elections over the past decade to consolidate their own power. This has created more skepticism about elections on the part of many Afghan voters. The high turnout in the 2014 elections suggests that most Afghans want to see a new direction in the government away from some of the nepotism of the Karzai regime. However, the current wheeling and dealing between Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai, and Kerry points to the fact that it is the political elite alone that control the resources in the country and this vote is unlikely to change that.

(more…)

Friday, August 8th, 2014

Househunting in the Homeland — Part 2 of an essay by Wendy Law-Yone, author of “A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma”

“It struck me for the first time how stable, how fixed was the life of a dictator…. He was the immovable, centrifugal force that had sent thousands of Burmese citizens spinning out into the troposphere of permanent displacement.”—Wendy Law-Yone

A Daughter's Memoir of Burma, Wendy Law-YoneThe following essay is by Wendy Law-Yone, author of A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma. This is the second part of her essay (read part one here) looking back at her return to Burma after years of exile:

The young reporters were watching us drive up and down the road at snail speed, peering at the house numbers from the open windows of our taxi. As we approached once more the high wall in front of which they were gathered, I asked the taxi driver to stop.

They crossed the road toward us in a pack: four women and two men in their twenties and thirties, cameras and press ID’s swinging from their necks, a boom microphone leading the way.

“What are you looking for, Auntie?” The sassy girl with the ponytail leaned in through his window to address me.
“House number Fourteen A,” I said. ‘We can’t seem to find it.’ I got out of the car to stretch my legs, and was immediately surrounded.
“Hello, Auntie! Where are you from, Auntie?”
“From this very street. I used to live here. At Number 14 A.”
“When, Auntie?”
“Long before any of you was born.”
“And Auntie now lives in – ?”
“London.”
“London!” Ah’s! and Aw!’s of wonderment. I might have mentioned the moon.
“But tell me,” I said. “What are you all doing here, anyway?”
“Waiting for the prisoner release,” said the girl with the ponytail brightly. Then, seeing my blank look, “Auntie does know about the prisoner release?”

Auntie did know. Only Auntie had been distracted and forgotten the big news: Six hundred political prisoners were to be released that day—yet another earnest of the government’s dedication to reform.

“General Ne Win’s grandsons are coming home any minute!” one of the boys blurted out. “That’s why we’re waiting here, in front of their house.” I stared at the house with the high wall across the street, slow to take in the revelation.

In 2001, the year before his death, Ne Win had fallen foul of the ruling military clique and been placed under arrest together with the daughter with whom he was living. The following year, the daughter’s husband and three sons were imprisoned on charges of plotting a coup.

Ne Win died in 2002; his daughter was released from house arrest in 2006, but his grandsons had remained in prison. It was they who were about to be released.

“You mean,” I said, “they still live here?”

It struck me for the first time how stable, how fixed was the life of a dictator. Since assuming power in 1962, Ne Win had lived on this street, and died on this street, exactly where, as a fifteen-year-old, I had last set eyes on him. He was the immovable, centrifugal force that had sent thousands of Burmese citizens spinning out into the troposphere of permanent displacement.

(more…)

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Househunting in the Homeland — An Essay by Wendy Law-Yone, author of “A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma”

A Daughter's Memoir of Burma, Wendy Law-YoneThe following post is part 1 of an essay by Wendy Law-Yone, author of A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma. For more on the book, you can also read our interview with Wendy Law-Yone

It was last day of my two-week tour of Burma, and the calendar was auspicious. Friday January 13th, 2012. Friday the thirteenth, at the beginning of a leap year! An excellent day to wrap up the business of househunting in Rangoon. That was how I had slugged the page in my notebook listing the homes I had once lived in and was determined to track down. HOUSEHUNTING.

I was born in Burma, but fled the country in 1967, at the age of 20. My father, Ed Law-Yone, publisher and editor of The Nation, Burma’s best known English-language newspaper, was still languishing in political prison when—desperate to escape the crushing police state my country had become—I decided to decamp. Accompanied by my brother Alban, I headed for the Thai border, choosing the “backdoor” route favored by smugglers and insurgents. Long before we reached the border, in the southern port of Moulmein, we were picked up by the secret police, and jailed for two weeks of interrogation.

Eventually, in May 1967, I was granted permission to leave the country—as a stateless person. Since then, I had been back only once: in 2001, after a 33-year prohibition. Some states are particularly pitiless toward their prodigal sons and daughters. The Burmese military regime was one of those states. Or had been.

(more…)

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

The Medical Challenge — A Post by John S. Haller Jr.

Shadow Medicine, John S. Haller Jr.The following post is by John S. Haller Jr., author of Shadow Medicine: The Placebo in Conventional and Alternative Therapies:

“The placebo has undermined the positivist model of biomedicine by interjecting subjectivity, uncertainty, and ambiguity into the clinical encounter. It suggests that a specific disease or illness does not exist apart from the manner in which the society conceptualizes it and addresses it.”—John S. Haller Jr.

Conventional medicine is founded on the belief that the body is the outcome of material forces. Given this assumption, it looks to physiological, pathological, biochemical, and molecular processes derived from physical matter to diagnose and treat disease. Its basic tool is the randomized clinical trial, guided by the fact that its active pharmaceutical substances “work” (even when the patient is unaware of their administration) and that their effects can be demonstrated, measured, and replicated. As authority figures, conventional physicians not only project a certain level of scientific legitimacy but purport to have legal authority, political privilege, and cultural acceptance—entitlements that also come with obligations that include standardized training, accreditation, licensing, and regulation.

While the randomized clinical trial provides the most credible information for justifying a specific treatment, its ultimate value remains uncertain because much of what happens in a trial fails to capture the myriad of independent and/or related variables that affect the physician/patient encounter. For all its hype, the randomized clinical trial remains an imperfect tool. Although it informs individual clinical expertise, it does not (and should not) replace it. Conventional medicine has overestimated the value of its clinical trial and more creative methods are needed that compare “whole treatments” rather than just the normative components which biomedicine is most acquainted.

In contrast to conventional medicine, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) defines health in psychological and spiritual terms and emphasizes patient individualization and self-healing. It is founded on a philosophy of organism known as “vitalism” which explains life not by the laws of physics and chemistry but by a principle, force, or spirit-like power that comes from beyond the material world to animate organic matter. Consisting of a mixture of religion, mysticism, cosmic energy, disbelief in Western reductionism, and an increased fascination with Eastern philosophies, CAM encourages a more metaphysical encounter with the world, one that questions the basic assumptions about the nature of reality. In this new setting the patient’s experience becomes intensely personal and compares strikingly to certain types of spiritual awakening. In its intuitive approach to healing, the goal of the healer is to assist the individual in finding harmony with nature.

(more…)

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Do we execute innocent people?

The Wrong Carlos

“Our book challenges readers to consider the evidence we have carefully arrayed—and to test each phrase in the book against all of the relevant evidence on the point to which readers can quickly link on the web site—and decide for themselves whether our criminal and capital justice systems are reliable enough to keep innocent people from being executed.” — James S. Liebman

This week our featured book is The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution, by James S. Liebman and the Columbia DeLuna Project. In today’s guest post, James S. Liebman gives an account of the origin of The Wrong Carlos as a research project and book, and explains how he hopes readers will read and react to the story of Carlos DeLuna’s execution.

Be sure to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Wrong Carlos!

Do we execute innocent people?
James S. Liebman

Do the three dozen American states that authorize death as a punishment for murder execute innocent people? That is the fundamental question at the heart of The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution, a book coauthors and I published last week with Columbia University Press.

I began thinking about this question in 2000 and 2002, when colleagues and I issued two studies of rates of serious error found by courts in U.S. capital cases: Broken System I: Error Rates in Capital Cases, 1973-1995 and Broken System II: Why Is There So Much Error in Capital Cases and What Can Be Done About It?. The studies and a follow-up article documented judicial findings of serious error in over two-thirds of all U.S. capital cases that courts reviewed between 1973 and 1995. Nearly all of those findings involved the kinds of legal errors known to undermine the accuracy of the determination that the defendant committed the crime and that he or she deserved to die for it. (more…)

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Erik M. Conway on The Role of Neoliberalism in Climate Change

“Market fundamentalism allows us to continue believing that we’re not responsible for climate change or its impacts.”—Erik M. Conway

Erik M. Conway, The Decline of Western CivilizationThe following post is by Erik M. Conway, the coauthor (with Naomi Oreskes) of The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future

One of the important intellectual underpinnings of the American refusal to undertake significant efforts to mitigate climate change has been the economic doctrine of neoliberalism. The term is rather amorphous, and means different things to different people. Naomi Oreskes and myself use it in the sense of what George Soros called market fundamentalism. Market fundamentalists believe in the perfection of economic markets as they currently exist, and that only markets “free” of government interference can protect individual liberty.

There are many things wrong with market fundamentalism, but the aspect of it that’s preventing us from dealing with climate change effectively is that markets as they currently exist don’t account for the cost of pollution. It’s free to dump carbon dioxide and methane and many other things into the atmosphere. In other words, we use the atmosphere as an open sewer, and don’t charge anyone for dumping stuff into it. In economic terms, pollution is an “externality,” a thing that exists outside the market system.

Market fundamentalists like to speak of the “magic of the market place.” Somehow, they think, markets will magically fix these externalities. But markets can’t fix problems that are external to those markets, no matter how hard we wish they would. That sums up the problem. Market fundamentalism is a form of magical thinking. And unfortunately, otherwise reasonable people routinely engage in this sort of magical thinking.

The good news is that, at least in principle, it’s fairly easy to fix this externality. In the 1970s, economists interested in reforming environmental regulation away from what they called “command and control” restrictions towards more market-friendly policies revived an old idea, the idea of pollution pricing. Emissions trading, what we now refer to as “cap and trade,” was one way to establish a price on pollution. Pollution taxes are another (economists often call this kind of tax “Pigovian,” after their inventor, Arthur Pigou). Both are simply ways of extending the market system to cover air and water pollution as well.

(more…)

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Jenny Davidson Chooses the Best Books on Hoarding!

Reading Style

The following is a post by Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences:

The TV show Hoarders has brought a good deal of attention to what happens when our instinct to accumulate runs out of control; an inability to discard things when we are supposed to be done with them can ruin a hard drive, a book project, a house, a life.

In strictly literary terms, as long as the capacity to select and winnow remains, the accumulation of things can be a gift (the lists in Moby Dick, Homer’s catalog of ships, James Boswell’s lifelong practice of recording and storing the sayings of great men). But there is always the risk, with books like Richardson’s Clarissa or (in a very different vein) George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice novels, either that the writing will proliferate to a volume that readers are unwilling to tolerate (Richardson) or that it will extend over a duration that creates a huge amount of frustration in readers hungry for the next installment (Martin). All of which is to say that hoarding seems to me one of the great literary topics of our time: I want to read a good nonfiction book about it, something roughly akin to Alice Flaherty’s fantastic account of hypergraphia in The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain.

For now, though, a list of five of my favorite books about hoarding:

Randy G. Frost and Gail Steketee, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things
An essential guide to the disorder. Not at the literary level of Oliver Sacks, but then what is? Grippingly readable, full of fascinating observations and insights. Among other things, it caused me to look back on the house of family friends in childhood, a house that was astonishingly messy, and say, “Oh, that wasn’t ordinary mess, that was hoarding before there was really a name for it!” Full of useful suggestions and resources if you or someone you know is in need of help for hoarding or a related syndrome.

Jessie Sholl, Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother’s Compulsive Hoarding
A compelling memoir about what it means to be the adult child of a parent whose hoarding makes her house uninhabitable. Thoughtful, well-written, full of empathy.

Sara Ryan and Carla Speed O’Neill, Bad Houses
A brilliant graphic novel with a puzzle-like structure, this coming-of-age story considers the beauties and terrors of the estate sale, and more particularly what it lets us understand about people and their relationship with the objects that fill up their houses.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, vol. 1
There are other reasons to read Knausgaard, of course, but in addition to his startling reconfiguration of the relationship between experience and narration and his extraordinary way with sentences, he also gives us one of the best literary depictions I know of how the thing we call hoarding can destroy a lived environment.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Many of the characters in this novel suffer from one kind of cognitive or psychological disorder or another; the novel as a whole offers some kind of a theory of disorders of accumulation, and the writing speaks to that in all sorts of ways. But the scenes that describe something closest to what we would now call hoarding are those set in Krook’s rag-and-bone shop.

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Michelle Obama and Epidemiology: An Inspiring Example

“American children can learn from someone like Michelle Obama, who decides on the basis of scientific evidence, not on mere speculation.”—Alfredo Morabia

Enigmas of Health and DiseaseThe following post is by Alfredo Morabia, author of Enigmas of Health and Disease: How Epidemiology Helps Unravel Scientific Mysteries

In her May 28th New York Times op-ed, The Campaign for Junk Food, Michelle Obama offers a lesson to Congress and an inspiring example to American children. She explains that before she began advising on policy to reduce child obesity, she first looked to “what works”.

“What works!” because, as Michelle Obama writes, “when we rely on sound science, we can actually begin to turn the tide on childhood obesity.”

Today, Michelle Obama can stand in front of children who may ask her about the importance of fruits and vegetables, less salt, etc. for a healthy diet. She can explain that kids from schools in which lunch menus have slashed sugar, salt, and fat are healthier compared to kids from schools which keep offering junk food; that kids from neighborhoods without nearby grocery stores have poorer eating habits compared to kids from areas with fresh-food retailers; that kids who go to child care centers offering healthier food and more physical activity acquire healthier habits compared to kids who don’t. She can also state that after reducing access to junk food, there is less obesity compared to the situation before the launching of the Let’s Move initiative. It worked!

Now contrast the example of Michelle Obama’s to that of Congressmen fighting the changes she is promoting in the school lunch program. These Congressmen want to see more white potatoes, less fruits and vegetables, more sodium, fewer grains on the menu, and consider pizza sauce a vegetable. How would these Congressmen respond to children asking them: “How do you know that your initiatives will not hurt our health?” The reality is that they cannot answer the question because there is no evidence supporting these decisions. They can only say that they believe otherwise, and claim their right to do so.

(more…)

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

Jenny Davidson’s 10 Favorite Books About Reading

Jenny Davidson, Reading Style

The following is a post from Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences:

Since the internet has tipped us into the great age of listicles, I must confess that I have already been prolific in the matter of book-related lists online. Here’s a sampling:

Ten nonfiction books that have stayed with me.

My ideal bookshelf as painted by Jane Mount.

A post I wrote for the late Norm Geras about one writer who means almost everything to me.

Five of my favorite books about swimming!

The list I’ve made for today, though, tallies up ten of my favorite books about reading. Some of these I mention in Reading Style: A Life in Sentences; others are simply books that I read almost in a trance, mesmerized by the way they spoke about reading and writing, its delights and occasional tribulations.

Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
An absolutely delightful collection of essays about reading by the author of the unforgettable A Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors and the Collision of Two Cultures. Both of these books of Fadiman’s are on my list of all-time favorites.

Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading
A book that spoke to me so directly that I sometimes thought I must have written it myself in a dream! Spufford is better than any other writer I know on the spell that childhood reading casts on us and the external factors that may precipitate that kind of immersion in books.

Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading
Another book that I read with delight and a growing sense of relief—Manguel wrote this book so that I don’t have to!

Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read
A witty taxonomy, a playful provocation.

Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence
One of the funniest and deepest books I know about the bedevilment of a vocation for reading and writing by procrastination and all the other woes that flesh is heir to.

(more…)

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Analytic Philosophy’s Fire Alarm, by Santiago Zabala

Santiago Zabala

“I do not believe, as Gary Gutting (a philosopher whom I truly respect) recently pointed out, that the ‘continental-analytic gap will begin to be bridged only when seminal thinkers of the Continent begin to write more clearly,’ but rather that it will happen only when the imperialistic approach of analytic philosophy is left aside to allow other styles to emerge and educate without being attacked, dismissed, and, most of all, marginalized.” — Santiago Zabala, coauthor of Hermeneutic Communism and author of, among other works, The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy

Analytic Philosophy’s Fire Alarm
Santiago Zabala

Anyone who questions or raises doubts over analytic philosophy’s role or significance today indirectly pulls a fire alarm in our framed democracies, our culture, and our universities. The doubter will immediately be attacked theoretically, academically, and probably also personally. This has happened to me (and many other continental philosophers) on several occasions. It does not bother me at all. It’s just a pity things are this way. The books, essays, and articles that set off the alarm are not meant to dismiss analytic philosophy but simply to remind everyone it’s not the only way to philosophize. My concern is educational (given the prevalence of analytic programs in universities), political (given its imperialistic approach), and also professional (for the little space given to continental philosophers in academia). The point is that we are not even allowed to generalize or be ironic, an essential component of philosophy as Gianni Vattimo and Slavoj Zizek show in their practice.

The problem is not that John Searle was honored by George W. Bush in 2004 (with a National Humanities Medal) or that the research of other analytic philosophers is often funded by government grants but rather that these grants are not always distributed among other traditions. After all, philosophers are not supposed to simply analyze concepts in their university offices but also to engage with the political, economic, and cultural environments that surrounds them, as Judith Butler, Peter Sloterdijk, and Simon Critchley have done so well for years. (more…)

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

Musings on My Other Closet and Atheists in America, by Melanie E. Brewster

Atheists in America

“The suspicion that my atheism was “wrong” was only validated by pressure to keep my views a secret. Reflecting back, I don’t think that my mother’s explicit directions to remain closeted were intended to make me feel that I was broken or deviant; her response was just a reflection of broader cultural attitudes about atheism.” — Melanie E. Brewster

This week our featured book is Atheists in America, edited by Melanie E. Brewster. Today, we are happy to present a post by Melanie Brewster, in which she describes her experiences as an atheist growing up in the South.

Enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Atheists in America! Note: For readers in the Northeast, there will be a book release party for Atheists in America on June 25th at the Society for Ethical Culture in Manhattan from 7pm-10pm. Authors from across the country will be flying in to read their works. Open to the public. Email Melanie Brewster for more details.

Musings on My Other Closet and Atheists in America
Melanie E. Brewster

Surrounded by the smell of cheddar biscuits, dark wood, and stylized portraits of marine life, I officially “came out” as bisexual to my parents at a Red Lobster while home on spring break during my freshman year at the University of Florida. My father, who had often joined me in ogling celebrity women, knowingly shrugged, whereas my mother became tightlipped, teary, and whiter than the shrimp scampi on the dish in front of her. Her response, a refrain with which I was all too familiar, was “don’t tell Nanny.”

We did not openly discuss my sexual orientation again for over a decade.

Though painful and distancing, “don’t tell Nanny” served as a signifier for all things taboo in my family. Nanny, my kindhearted, very Methodist grandmother served as a beacon of virtue, unsullied by the less savory truths about her grandchildren.

As I picked at my food, slouched in the blue pleather booth and no longer enjoying my crabcakes, I yearned for a time when parts of my identity would not be excised from the whole. “Don’t tell Nanny” was a phrase that I’d heard repeatedly since childhood in direct response to my stubborn nonbelief in a god, gods, or anything supernatural.

Despite her best efforts to indoctrinate me into religion – vacation bible study, youth group, prayers before bed – my mother’s proselytizing never took root. Driving home from church on Sunday mornings regularly yielded tense fights, in which I questioned, critiqued, and belittled what was expressed in the sermon. Unlike many atheist individuals, who were engaged in a religious or spiritual life prior to deconverting from their beliefs, I did not “leave faith” – faith never found me. As a child, I remember wondering what it would feel like to believe that a god was watching over you. I imagined that the presence of a ubiquitous guardian would be both awkward (e.g., does god even watch you in the bathroom?!) and comforting, and I often questioned if there was something wrong with me for not being able to believe. The suspicion that my atheism was “wrong” was only validated by pressure to keep my views a secret. Reflecting back, I don’t think that my mother’s explicit directions to remain closeted were intended to make me feel that I was broken or deviant; her response was just a reflection of broader cultural attitudes about atheism. (more…)

Friday, June 13th, 2014

Gay Men Choosing Fatherhood — Gerald Mallon

“Now that non-gay dads are addressing some of the issues relating to being a more involved parent, it is newsworthy. That made me mad.”—Gerald Mallon

Gerald Mallon, Gay Men Choosing ParenthoodWe conclude our series of posts about fathers with a post is by Gerald Mallon, author of Gay Men Choosing Parenthood.

As Father’s Day is approaching, I have been doing some thinking about men raising children; not just playing with them after work and on weekends, but actually taking an active role in the nitty-gritty aspects of parenting—doing homework, taking off from work to go on doctor’s visits, and leaving work early to pick up a sick kid at day care among other tasks. Media images of fathers still focuses on the former, but gay men who have chosen parenthood, such as the ones I interviewed and wrote about in Gay Men Choosing Parenthood, published by Columbia University Press in 2005, experience a different reality.

This morning while watching a television segment on Modern Fathers I found myself getting annoyed. Gay men who choose to be parents, dealt with many of these same parenting issues 20 years ago—but very few people noticed. Now that non-gay dads are addressing some of the issues relating to being a more involved parent, it is newsworthy. That made me mad. As I sat watching, and fuming a bit as I am wont to do (I have recently been given the appellation and I proudly accept it—the Larry Kramer of LGBTQ child welfare) I kept thinking of all of those Dads whom I interviewed almost a decade ago.

I have kept in touch with many of them. Some who were in couples are now separated from their partners; some are struggling with an older adolescent still living at home. For others, their children are now in college or living on their own and creating their own lives as young adults. The Dads are experiencing empty nest syndrome or loving being grandparents—all lives have been deeply affected but all still delight in the reality that they are Dads.

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Thursday, May 1st, 2014

My Thoughts Be Bloody, by Gil Anidjar

Blood

“What interested me most, though, in the case of vampires, and which turned out to be unavoidable, is that they make manifest an enduring association not so much of blood and life (this is an old and complicated matter which I try to interrogate as well in the book), but of blood and love.” – Gil Anidjar

This week our featured book is Blood: A Critique of Christianity, by Gil Anidjar. Today, we have a blog post by Gil Anidjar on the somewhat complicated relationship between vampires and blood in popular culture.

Enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Blood!

My Thoughts Be Bloody
By Gil Anidjar

I had thought I would stay away from vampires.

Which generally might seem like a good idea. Still, I have no particular investment in or animus against them. After all, they are said to be found in many ages and in all kinds of places, and not always nocturnal. Seriously though, Blood was growing, and growing (like a relentless, not necessarily battery-operated, monster), whereas I had already learned from Luise White’s wonderful book, Speaking with Vampires, which addresses the apparently fantastic and widespread stories of vampire firemen found in Africa. Why firemen? In a situation like this, one rarely asks: why vampires? White does. She compellingly argues that these stories constitute complex translations of a deep understanding of Western colonial power, leaving little doubt that there was — still is — something peculiar about Western powers and about their tenacious projections of vampirism in multifarious manifestations. I had nothing to add. Besides, one would have had to be locked away in a cave (or in a coffin) to miss the explosion of vampirism in popular culture, its recent accelerations, from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Blade, from True Blood to (what else?) Twilight. By the way, I am pretty certain this was all around the time I noticed an ad for the New York Lottery that suggestively assimilated this seemingly benign form of gold lust to vampiric desire (but it was meant in a good way). But it was before another public service announcement, by the New York City Office of Emergency Management, rethought the image it had disseminated of a child hanging in a stormy sky to propose safe modes of good parenting as alternatives to throwing you into a disaster zone (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” wrote Philip Larkin, “They may not mean to, but they do”). If you see something . . . But I digress. Today, who would disagree that, whether ancient or modern, vampires are good to think with? (more…)

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

RV-topia: Gatornationals at the Gainesville Raceway

James Twitchell, Winnebago Nation

The following post is by James Twitchell, author of Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture:

“The democracy of the RV parking lot may be the last of the much-eulogized American Exceptionalism.”—James Twitchell

Every March the small north Florida town where I live is overrun by swarms of drag-racers and their enthusiastic fans. On the Gainesville Raceway, a quarter-mile track a few miles out of town, everything on wheels that can have an engine attached is raced. You can watch rubber laid by motorcycles, old cars, new cars, a special category called “funny cars,” and, of course, the main attraction, the Brobdingnagian 8,000 horsepower top-fuel dragsters.

You don’t just watch these big rigs roar down the track, you feel them. They shake the spectator stands and scorch your eyes with a potent mix of burning tires, nitromethane, and exhaust. This particular event is called the Gatornationals and it’s a major stop along the National Hot Rod Association’s traveling circus.

Since the show lasts for three days, the parking lot is filled with another kind of machine—the recreational vehicle. During the day, many spectators, amped up by speed, fumes, beer, and no shade, get pooped. Hence many of them retire to the parking lot, get in the RV, rest up, and then return later. The races often run well into the night.

RVs are all over the place and of every conceivable kind: pick-up truck slide-in campers, van conversions, school-bus retrofit, and lots of what are called class A rigs in various conditions. Fans can park their RVs out in the woods, near the track, or rent a space in the parking lot.

The closer you camp to the hot asphalt, the more expensive it is. If you want to be at the finish line, the RV space will cost you $675 for the three days. But you can “camp” in the Motorhome Corral for $450. Or in the dirt parking lot with the, ugh, cars, for $75. What I find interesting is that various rigs from different economic strata park side-by-side in these lots as if Richie Rich and Hobo Hank are united by both this spectacle and love spending lots of time in what is essentially a motorized tent.

In Winnebago Nation I found the same mixing-up of social and economic status in the parking lots of football games, the NASCAR infield, the desert of Quartzsite, as well as on the Wal-Mart tarmac, or in the generic off-the-interstate campgrounds.

What we separate in our “sticks and bricks” communities, we dispense with when parking the RV. Occupy Wall Streeters take note: the democracy of the RV parking lot may be the last of the much-eulogized American Exceptionalism.

That said, there is the exception to this Exceptionalism. At Gatornationals there is a “gated community” where the royalty of Dragland assert their separation by erecting orange plastic fencing. This restricted parking lot is where the owners, drivers, and mechanics park their rigs. Like their racecars, these huge RVs are flashy and festooned with bling. These are the black-windowed monsters with the psychedelic paint jobs that you see whizzing past you on the interstate. Many of them are conversions of Prevost buses and can cost well over a million dollars. In the RV world, this is what the one-percenters look like.

James Twitchell, Winnebago Nation

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

Live Video, Then and Now — Michael Z. Newman

Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium, by Michael Z. Newman

The following post is by Michael Z. Newman, author of Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium:

“The non-linearity of videotape, digital recording, and services like Netflix and its rivals also speak to a long-standing fantasy, of media that satisfy personal desires for unconstrained agency.”—Michael Newman

Today there are two contrary trends in media temporality, which are also two competing visions for the future of entertainment. On one hand is the persistence of broadcast television, the most popular and profitable electronic media format ever. Many people and corporations would love for this kind of TV to go on unchanged forever. On the other hand is what Netflix calls non-linear TV, which follows no schedule. Think thirteen House of Cards episodes dropping all at once. The techies who speak in phrases like “disruptive innovation” are betting their venture capital that non-linear is going to be a live TV killer.

Since I have no time machine, I shouldn’t say which future is around the corner. But having looked at the history leading up to this moment in Video Revolutions, I do have some thoughts on how the past might help us to make sense of the present, and to recognize that the temporalities of both options have historically been invested with cultural value. Since ideas about technology tend to be much slower to change than technologies themselves, it seems like a good bet that the value of mediated liveness will endure.

When television was new, it was often distinguished by its capability for live broadcasting gathering audiences together, despite their physical separation, in communal experiences of performances and events of historical import. TV was to transport you from your comfortable chair at home to the stage or the ballpark, from your town to midtown Manhattan. This capability for immediacy and simultaneity made TV into the object of fantasies of improved communication. It also distinguished television from the most dominant mass medium of the first half of the twentieth century: the movies.

Liveness was an advantage broadcasting boasted over filmed news and entertainment, an advantage the commercial American networks used in setting the terms of their control of the airwaves under the sanction of the state. This might seem hard to believe today, but in the 1940s and 50s, movies were often held to be contemptible mass media trash, while the new medium of television promised to rise above them by offering a distinguished alternative.

This idealization of television and its close identification with liveness changed as TV’s cultural status declined and cinema’s improved. In part this was a function of TV’s adoption of recorded rather than live formats, though live production has never gone away. It was also a function of many other developments, including television’s quiz show scandals and more generally its reputation for fraudulence, and its close association with feminized and lower class audiences. When television’s reputation was that of a “vast wasteland,” sometimes the liveness of its early years, now considered a “Golden Age,” offered a contrast to the more culturally degraded kinds of programming that dominated in the 1960s and after.

In the early days of TV, video was a synonym for television, but the introduction of videotape in the 1950s began to change that. When video became a name for new forms and technologies, including video art and videocassettes for consumers, it was typically understood as a way of improving on television and ameliorating the problems associated with it, such as negative social effects and wasted cultural opportunity. This was often presented to the public as a solution to the problem of television’s control by the commercial networks who program a broadcast schedule of shows appealing most broadly, to satisfy sponsors and avoid trouble with them or the federal regulator. Video recording for the home, for instance, was presented as the liberation of ordinary viewers from the hegemony of the network programmer. Advertisements encouraged TV viewers: “make your own schedule” and “watch whatever whenever.” These were slogans for Sony’s Betamax in the mid-1970s. This notorious commercial for TiVo, which CBS refused to air a generation later (in 2000), makes the exact same appeal. You throw the network programmer out of the window and take his place as the one in control of your own viewing.

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Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

The EU: A Dictatorship of Freedoms (Part 2) — Albena Azmonova

Albena Azmanova

The following is part two of a post by Albena Azmanova, author of The Scandal of Reason: A Critical Theory of Political Judgment. You can read the first half of the post here.

“The grievances against austerity that are now being expressed in street protests and in voting booths are the grievances of distressed consumers; not of citizens demanding structural changes to the political economy of democratic capitalism.”—Albena Azmanova

THE STATE: MORE POWERFUL, LESS RESPONSIBLE, INVARIABLY LEGITIMATE

Albena AzmanovaHow has the coup d’économie managed to transform Europe into a Dictatorship of the Four Economic Freedoms? Above all, by altering the role of political authority in Europe. Public authority (at all levels of governance) has undertaken ever more policy action to intensify wealth-production, but less and less action to manage the social costs of growth-generating public policy. This is particularly evident with regard to social policy in the European Union.

EU integration has reduced the policy-making powers of member-states in welfare provision, while EU institutions, over the past decade, have increasingly started to taken action in this field. This shifting balance between member-states and the EU in itself is not alarming; it is not even interesting. The important question is not where policy-making authority is allocated, but what type of social policy ensues from the re-allocation of responsibility between states and EU’s central policy-making bodies. In this regard, three elements are noteworthy.

First: in the course of shifting responsibility from state to EU level, there is less and less public authority in charge of welfare provision. This is the case because the retrenchment of the state is not matched by an equal increase of policy action at EU level. In other words, what the states are losing in terms of capacity to secure social rights is not matched by an equal increase in the responsibility of the EU to safeguard these rights.

Second: since the adoption of the Single European Act, economic integration within the EU has been invariably interpreted in the terms of free-market capitalism (while in principle open markets are not synonymous with free markets).

This has resulted in a radically liberal form of welfare provision: one marked by subordination of social policy to free-market policy priorities, a race to the bottom in social protection.

Overall the range and nature of the responsibility of public authority has changed, which has affected the style of governance. At both state and EU level, public authority is undertaking ever more action to enhance market efficiency (for the sake of global competitiveness), with dramatic increase in social risk, but this same public authority has ceased to assume responsibility for the generated risk. Rather than a retrenchment of the state, we have the new phenomenon of increase in the power of governing bodies (and their capacity to inflict social harm), while their responsibility for the social consequences of policy action decreases. This discrepancy between power and responsibility is damaging for societies, as the exercise of power becomes ever more autocratic, even if all rituals of democratic politics are meticulously performed.

Arguably, the discrepancy between power and responsibility should be eroding the authority of states, as Richard Sennett has argued. This, in turn, could be expected to trigger a legitimation crisis of the system, and massive revolts. Yet, no such crisis has so far ensued, apart from the wave of largely peaceful popular protests in the course of 2011-2012 whose main theme is resistance to the politics of austerity, rather than change of the political economy of Europe away from neoliberal capitalism.

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Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

The EU: A Dictatorship of Freedoms (Part 1) — Albena Azmonova

Albena Azmanova

The following is part one of a post by Albena Azmanova, author of The Scandal of Reason: A Critical Theory of Political Judgment. We will post part two tomorrow. Azmanova will be speaking at The New School tonight at 6 pm.

“This almighty raison d’économie leaves no options: it is policymaking without politics, without ideological choices, it allows no alternatives”—Albena Azmanova

Albena AzmonovaJudging by this poster advertising the play “Europe Today,” something is amiss in Europe.

The European Union’s fate has been, of late, rather more bewailed and bemoaned, than celebrated. The most ominous pronouncement of Europe’s sorry fate have centered on the rise of technocratic rule riding high on the will of markets in what Margaret Thatcher called the TINA logic (borrowing from Herbert Spenser)—There Is No Alternative. The emergency appointments by EU authorities of two heads of European governments (Lucas Papandreou in Greece and Mario Monti in Italy) in November 2011, and tasking the newly appointed leaders to enforce (rather than negotiate) policies of austerity in their countries, does add fresh credence to the idea.

We seem to thus have lost our basic right to politics—that is, to the reasoned contest among alternative ideas about the shape of our present and the contours of our future, sacrificing it at the altar of the hegemonic common-sense of free markets aided by bureaucracies, while altogether preserving the democratic institutional order.

THE MISSING CRISIS OF CAPITALISM AND THE “NEW DEAL”

What is the evidence that something is amiss in the nature of European politics? The broadly proclaimed, yet missing, crisis of capitalism can serve as an empirical entry point into a diagnosis of Europe’s current malaise. In the midst of the recent global financial meltdown, we have heard much emphatic talk about the crisis of capitalism. However, what narratives about this crisis tell us is no more than that the financialization of the economy has created a crisis for capitalism—some difficulties in the creation of profit (such as deficient credit) which have been by now been overcome. Moreover, these difficulties, and the social misery they have inflicted, have not triggered a crisis of the system’s legitimacy. “We are not against the system but the system is against us,”, announced a slogan of the indignados—the peaceful demonstrators that who occupied public spaces across Spain in the early summer of 2011. Yet this cry of protest is ambiguous—it is more an appeal to tame the system, make it more inclusive, rather than to subvert or overthrow it.

Like the protests of the Spanish indignados, the citizens’ outrage in Greece against the conditions that the EU and the IMF imposed for the financial bailout of the government, the Occupy Wall Street movements, and the looting that ravaged English cities – all in the summer and autumn of 2011 – have signaled a growing popular discontent with the outcomes of the socio-political system – mainly with the dramatically uneven allocation of wealth and increasing social exclusion. However, while these movements express, in their distinct ways, public frustration with the socio-economic system of neoliberal capitalism, they rarely put into question its validity or evoke an alternative. These calls are at their best appeals for ‘fixing’ the system and making it more inclusive, and, at their worst, – exasperated cries of frustration and fear. If democratic elections are any indicator of prevailing preferences, the most recent round of national elections in Europe have confirmed that capitalism has considerable popular support. In the midst of the rampant economic crisis, the vote in Europe has gone to the right;, support to left parties has been at a historic low, while support to xenophobic populism is rising.

Most importantly, what is absent is a broad societal, cross-ideological coalition of forces mobilizing to protect society from the market, similar to the counter-movement against free markets that Carl Polanyi, in his The Great Transformation, observed to be taking shape in the early twentieth century. At the time, a consensus between the left and the right emerged on the need to constrain markets, a consensus which propelled the post-war welfare states. Instead, we now have governments, irrespectively of their ideological allegiance, running to the rescue of financial capital and big business, and implementing austerity programs to reassure capital markets, while society bears this with relative equanimity, despite the increasing price it is paying in terms of cuts to social insurance, to basic services for the most disadvantaged, general impoverishment and growing precarity. Social frustration is, instead, directed mainly into xenophobia. How can this be explained?

While we have been busy debating the crisis of capitalism, capitalist democracy (as a system of social relations and political rules) has metamorphosed itself into a new form, which the most recent economic meltdown consolidated, but did not cause. This new form is marked by a “new deal”—a new social contract (or legitimacy relationship) between public authority and citizens, which enables a particular style of rule, which I will attempt now to elucidate. Before I proceed, let me clarify the concept of a legitimacy relationship between public authority and citizens, which will be a focal point in the subsequent analysis of Europe’s political health.

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Monday, April 7th, 2014

Fashioning Appetite — Joanne Finkelstein

The following post by Joanne Finkelstein, author of Fashioning Appetite: Restaurants and the Making of Modern Identity, was first published on The I.B. Tauris Blog:

Fashioning Appetitle, Joanne FinkelsteinEvaluating one another’s taste is an ordinary aspect of everyday social life. We look for signs of taste in high fashion goods and social habits. This encourages us to speak to one another through material objects, and even though the definition of taste is constantly shifting, we use it to display who are think we are.

“A person of taste is someone who looks at a sausage and thinks of Picasso” (Dwight MacDonald 1944: 22). This pithy definition of taste was an ironic comment on the newly affluent post-war classes who were struggling with emerging art movements in painting, cinema and literature. The concern with fashionable styles of living was capturing the hearts and minds of the aspirational classes. Mid-twentieth century was an era of tightening conformity and judging people by their lifestyle habits was becoming the prevailing order. Russell Lynes (1949) famously defined taste along three dimensions—highbrow, lowbrow and middlebrow. He employed the antique notions of human physiognomy made popular by Johann Caspar Lavater in the eighteenth century to describe these positions. For Lavater, facial features revealed human qualities; low ears suggested criminality, thick lips were a sign of dissipation and a high forehead indicated intelligence and social superiority. Lynes adapted the metaphor to describe types of taste. Highbrow taste was expressed through well-fashioned appetites.

There was a deep irony in this: after exterminating millions across Europe on the basis of race and ethnicity, the new social order was describing taste and social value using eugenic concepts. This time around, however, the revolution was bloodless. Taste as a measure of human worth was not a killing offense but it was a cause of status panic across the newly affluent classes. According to C.W.Mills (1951) these groups were caught in a constant re-positioning of themselves within an ever-shifting mobile hierarchy defined by fashions, fads and foibles. In the post war era, social ranking was not only based on material possessions such as cars, furniture, art and household goods but also on signs of cultural capital produced by travel, leisure and luxury, and whether indeed individuals could see the influence of Pablo Picasso in the prosaic sausage.

Taste has been a contested idea since the seventeenth century yet it has endured into the present as a means of categorizing people and their habits (Bourdieu 1984: 2). How we handle objects and instruments such as cups and saucers, knives and forks, the habits and styles we develop for eating, drinking, standing and moving, have imposed a mannered overlay on the body and, to those watching our deftness with such objects, this is read as indicative of personal attributes. We see instances of mastery, or lack of them, in displays of individual competency and discernment. The raised pinkie finger holding the teacup and the unclipped vent on the new Burberry raincoat both signal the parvenu.

Taste brings attention to different types of desire. Pursuing an experience for its own sake because it is pleasing or reassuring or elevating, and pursuing a desire in order to gratify it and make it disappear, are two different impulses. The former involves detachment, of being able to recognize value in an idea without it having an immediate application, thus we enjoy art for its own sake; the latter is a more active process, a type of hunger, in which the desirable experience needs to be devoured and captured in order to nullify its insistence. Food, for example, can be both; it can be valued for its aesthetic qualities as well as being good to taste, a life-sustaining fuel. It has appeal as the subject for still life painting, as in the masterpieces of Carravaggio and Luis Meléndez, and it can be treated as a convenience as with the early modern chophouse and now with the food court in the local shopping mall.

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Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

The Story of James Kofi Annan

Survivors of Slavery

This week our featured book is Survivors of Slavery: Modern-Day Slave Narratives by Laura T. Murphy. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. Today, we are focusing on the story of James Kofi Annan, a former child slave in Ghana and the founder of the nonprofit organization Challenging Heights.

First, we have a video of James Kofi Annan accepting the 2011 Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize at Grinnell College, and in his acceptance speech, explaining the practice of modern slavery in Ghana and his personal experiences escaping from it:

Next, we have an excerpt from Survivors of Slavery in which James Kofi Annan writes “the story of his life”: