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Archive for September, 2016

Thursday, September 29th, 2016

Eric Kandel on Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko

In the following excerpt from his new book Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures, Eric Kandel examines the power of Rothko’s painting and his transformation from a figurative to an abstract painter. In describing Rothko’s abstract paintings for the Rothko Chapel, Kandel writes:

The sensation is both ambiguous and remarkable, and it affords us an opportunity to create new meaning. Moreover, the harmony among the beautifully displayed paintings in the chapel—a harmony that characterizes Rothko’s late work—is striking. None of Rothko’s figurative paintings are remotely capable of evoking as emotionally rich and varied, as spiritual, a response as these reductionist dark canvases.

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

William Guynn on Film’s Depiction of Historical Trauma

Unspeakable Histories. William Guynn

“Recovery of experience can be harrowing and is particularly so in films that speak about traumatic events in the catastrophic twentieth century. All the films evoke unresolved historical situations—unresolved for the communities that experienced them and for the historians who attempt to understand them—situations that continue to inflict individual and collective pain.”—William Guynn

The following is an interview with William Guynn, author of Unspeakable Histories: Film and the Experience of Catastrophe

Question: How does film portray history in ways that are unavailable to more conventional historical accounts

William Guynn: Unspeakable Histories is my second book on historical film. In the first, Writing History in Film, I wanted to show that film is capable of representing historical events, authentically and in its own terms. A good many historians are loath to take seriously any historical representation in film. Historical films, they contend, always lapse into the mode of fiction, and historians have plenty of evidence in the historical film genre to support their allegations. To make my argument, I selected a body of historical films to analyze which did not adhere to fictional models and did not fall back on the easy tactic of a dominant voice-over narration. What I found was that, unlike written history, these films used symbolic strategies and artful editing to transform the concrete images and sounds of film into the basic characters of historical narration: social groups, not individuals, involved in collective actions that occur in a space and time that is more cognitive than material.

I was very much aware that film does not lend itself easily to historical representation. Images are not words and have none of the discursive power of language. Indeed, the innovative forms developed by the filmmakers I studied subverted, so to speak, the relatively effortless narration of the fiction film. I began to ask myself: Is there another way that film can relate to the historical past? Is the medium, with its tangible connection to the world it “captures,” capable of depicting the past in modes that are even more authentic than what historical interpretation can give us?

Q: What was the role of Frank Ankersmit’s work in shaping your view of film’s possibility to represent history

WG: In Sublime Historical Experience, Ankersmit makes a radical gesture: he sections off the two putative components of historical discourse that historians had always considered inseparable. On one side he places historical interpretation—historiography proper—in which the historian, from his “objective” perspective, produces finished narratives extracted from bodies of facts. On the other side he exposes what supposedly lies “underneath”: raw experience, that immense domain infused with emotion and mood, historical sensation, to use Johan Huizinga’s concept. Liberated from the constraints of interpretation, Ankersmit suggests that experience can speak its own “language.” Indeed, that is what I found in the films discussed in Unspeakable Histories—where the return of the past occurs in fragmentary images and sounds, embedded in concrete places and subjected to the unfolding of time. Historical experience speaks in intuitive flashes, disturbingly primal and atavistic.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on films that speak about the catastrophic events of the twentieth century?

WG: Because those events are still alive! Despite the passage of time, the gradual disappearance of witnesses, and all that historians have written, the Holocaust, Stalinist atrocities in the West and the East, the brutal Pinochet coup d’état, the Cambodian and Indonesian genocides are still massively unresolved. Not only for those who experienced them directly but for the generations that inherit them. Historically speaking, trauma is a social possession. Footage of the Warsaw Ghetto shot by Nazi propagandists, for example, reawakens terror and desire in the hearts of survivors, who are driven to recover their experience through the concrete traces the images provide. And trauma can be contagious. Subsequent generations of Jews often share the victims’ sense of dread when confronted with the traces of a still living history. Moreover, these same images may burn in the consciousness of the spectator who is exposed to something like an unmediated experience of the past. Historiography orders and classifies events, but it cannot neutralize those events that continue to smolder in collective consciousness.

As W.G. Sebald eloquently suggests, the past is not over and done with; it lies in wait for us. It is enough to enter a courtyard in Paris neglected by time to be struck by objects from the past that protrude into our present—this Sebald gives as an example of a triggering experience. The films I study are full of objects that trigger such uncanny moments: a desacralized monastic church alive with the spiritual yearnings of Polish officers held prisoner there; solitary women combing the Atacama desert for the bones of their massacred loved ones; the desolate walls and the neon lights of a Khmer Rouge prison; the rooftop terrace where Indonesian gangsters murdered countless victims by garrottage.

(more…)

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

This is Your Brain on Jackson Pollock — Eric Kandel on Art

“We understand how visual information is processed and things like this. And we understand where pleasure centers are, and how they interact with that. We know where memory centers are. But the details of perception of art, we’re just beginning to explore.”—Eric Kandel

Earlier this month, Eric Kandel, appeared on Science Friday to talk about his new book, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures. In the interview, Kandel describes what we can learn about the brain by looking at the work of Abstract Expressionists. These twentieth-century painters boiled visual art down to a few fundamental components—line, color, form, light, and texture. Our neural circuitry is hardwired to prefer images we can identify, which makes abstract forms more difficult to process. At the same time, abstract forms leave the door open to interpretation, stimulating the higher-level areas of the brain responsible for creativity and imagination.

Here is a short excerpt from the interview in which Kandel describes some of the pleasures of viewing the work of J. M. W. Turner. You can listen to the entire interview below:

IRA FLATOW: And it seems like in your book, you point to how the artists themselves evolved from one form of art to the other.

ERIC KANDEL: Amazing.

IRA FLATOW: Give me your favorite example.

ERIC KANDEL: Take Turner. I show two wonderful images of Turner. Now, this we’re talking about the 1800s, early painting around 1815, 1820. He shows one of his most favorite themes, a ship fighting the force of nature at sea. It’s rocking and rolling–

IRA FLATOW: It’s a real ship. It looks like a ship, a classic ship.

ERIC KANDEL: And you see the elements. You see the rain coming down. You see the moon. You see absolutely everything. He comes back to the same theme 50 years later. And it’s very abstract. You don’t see the details very clearly at all, but the effect on me is even stronger.

IRA FLATOW: Because you’re filling in those spots with your life experience.

ERIC KANDEL: And that’s so satisfying. Getting your own mind involved is a very satisfying activity. The more you become engrossed in something, the more you can use your own thought processes. For most people, the more enjoyable it becomes.

IRA FLATOW: Can you, as a scientist, see the mind doing that, understand how it fills in, brings life experiences?

ERIC KANDEL: Not really. Our understanding of brain science has progressed tremendously in the last 100 years. Even in my academic lifetime, 50, 60 years. But we’re at the beginning of understanding this enormously complicated problem. We understand how visual information is processed and things like this. And we understand where pleasure centers are, and how they interact with that. We know where memory centers are. But the details of perception of art, we’re just beginning to explore.

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016

New Book Tuesday: Entrepreneurship, Dispossession & The Environment, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and More.

Dispossession and the Environment, Paige West

A Brief History of Entrepreneurship: The Pioneers, Profiteers, and Racketeers Who Shaped Our World
Joe Carlen

Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea
Paige West

A History of Brooklyn Bridge Park: How a Community Reclaimed and Transformed New York City’s Waterfront
Nancy Webster and David Shirley

The Quotidian Revolution: Vernacularization, Religion, and the Premodern Public Sphere in India
Christian Lee Novetzke

The Columbia University College of Dental Medicine, 1916–2016: A Dental School on University Lines
Allan J. Formicola

Violence and Civility: On the Limits of Political Philosophy (now in paper)
Étienne Balibar. Translated by G. M. Goshgarian

Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth (now in paper)
Alison Bashford

The Art of Being Many: Towards a New Theory and Practice of Gathering
Edited by geheimagentur, Martin Jörg Schäfer, and Vassilis S. Tsianos
(Transcript-Verlag)

Migration – Networks – Skills: Anthropological Perspectives on Mobility and Transformation
Edited by Astrid Wonneberger, Mijal Gandelsman-Trier, and Hauke Dorsch
(Transcript-Verlag)

Performing Authorship: Strategies of “Becoming an Author” in the Works of Paul Auster, Candice Breitz, Sophie Calle, and Jonathan Safran Foer
Sonja Longolius
(Transcript-Verlag)

Toward Diversity and Emancipation: (Re-)Narrating Space in the Contemporary American Novel
Marcel Thoene
(Transcript-Verlag)

Visiting the Visitor: An Enquiry Into the Visitor Business in Museums
Edited by Ann Davis and Kerstin Smeds
(Transcript-Verlag)

Photography in Latin America: Images and Identities Across Time and Space
Edited by Gisela Cánepa Koch and Ingrid Kummels
(Transcript-Verlag)

Working with Nature in Aotearoa New Zealand: An Ethnography of Coastal Protection
Friederike Gesing
(Transcript-Verlag)

Improvisation erforschen – improvisierend forschen / Researching Improvisation – Researching by Improvisation
Beiträge zur Exploration musikalischer Improvisation / Essays About the Exploration of Musical Improvisation

Edited by Reinhard Gagel and Matthias Schwabe
(Transcript-Verlag)

Zeitschrift für interkulturelle Germanistik (Journal of Intercultural German Studies), Vol. 7, Issue 1/2016
Edited by Dieter Heimböckel, Georg Mein, Gesine Lenore Schiewer, and Heinz Sieburg
(Transcript-Verlag)

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016

Eric Kandel on “What Is Art For?”

In the following talk, “What Is Art For,” Eric Kandel discusses some of the ideas central to his new book, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures

Monday, September 26th, 2016

Book Giveaway! “Reductionism in Art and Brain Science,” by Eric Kandel

This week our featured book is Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures, by Eric R. Kandel.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Reductionism in Art and Brain Science to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, September 30th at 1:00 pm.

Joseph LeDoux, author of Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety, writes, “Eric R. Kandel seamlessly moves between the intricacies of science and art, weaving their histories into a common narrative that illuminates both fields and shows they have more in common than is often assumed. It is a fun and informative read that anyone with a curious mind can enjoy and learn from.”

For more on the book, you can read the book’s introduction:

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

A Look Inside a “Conversational Firm”

The Conversational Firm

“Most interesting to me was the fact that this company, which was so vocal about rejecting conventional bureaucracy, ended up adopting some bureaucratic practices over time—but this happened precisely because employees used their voices to speak up and say when certain conventional practices that had been rejected would not be useful. It struck me that a whole new model was emerging, one in which cross-hierarchical conversation was a central mechanism for confronting business challenges.” – Catherine Turco

This week, our featured book is The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media, by Catherine J. Turco. Today, for the final post of the week, we are happy to provide a short excerpt from an interview with Turco conducted by Kara Baskin for MIT Sloan School’s Newsroom. You can read the interview in its entirety here.

What new approach to communication did you find inside TechCo?

What most excited me was the realization that there is a new organizational model that companies can shoot for today. I believe this model has become possible—and perhaps even necessary—on account of the communication technologies now available and the habits and expectations that today’s employees bring into the workplace. I call the model the “conversational firm,” and it’s the idea that organizations can have far more open dialogue across the corporate hierarchy than we ever before thought possible. (more…)

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

Employees Speaking Up: The TechCo Wiki

The Conversational Firm

“Perhaps most interesting, the employees’ upward communication on the wiki was so startlingly open at times that I found myself wondering if this might be a setting in which employees had finally transcended all the theorized barriers to ‘speaking up’ to hierarchy…. Such public voice and dialogue simply have no precedent in past accounts of corporate life.” — Catherine J. Turco

This week, our featured book is The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media, by Catherine J. Turco. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from Turco’s account of the TechCo internal wiki.

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

A Conversational Firm for a Conversational Age

The Conversational Firm

“[The Conversational Firm] will demonstrate that even if we retain certain elements of conventional Weberian bureaucracy (including a hierarchical decision-making structure), it is now quite possible to build firms in which the opinions of employees are heard, firms very much engaged in public discussion of their techniques. In this conversational age, with our new tools and platforms for voice, it is possible to build more conversational firms.” — Catherine J. Turco

This week, our featured book is The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media, by Catherine J. Turco. Today, we have an excerpt from The Conversational Firm, in which Turco explains her concept of the “conversational firm,” and tells how TechCo is a perfect vehicle for her to use in exploring what a “conversational firm” can be.

A Conversational Firm for a Conversational Age
By Catherine Turco

Despite bureaucracy’s apparent indestructibility, The Conversational Firm offers hope that it is possible to pry open the iron cage if we approach things from a new angle. By following what works and what does not work about TechCo’s various attempts to transcend bureaucracy with openness—and by examining when and how conventional bureaucracy slips back in along the way—the book provides insight into the opportunities and challenges of shooting for openness as well as the nature and durability of bureaucracy. Ultimately I argue that TechCo has found its way to something quite new and different from the iron cage—a new organizational form I call the “conversational firm.”

Such an organization does not do away with all the vestiges of conventional bureaucracy. In particular, it does not become an open, democratic decision-making environment. However, it does maintain a radically more open communication environment than we have ever seen before, and this fosters a more engaged workforce and a more adaptive organization. Using multiple communication channels to promote and sustain an ongoing dialogue with its employees, the firm is able to confront the tradeoffs of openness and bureaucracy directly and to leverage the collective wisdom of its workforce to navigate them. Through its ongoing conversations, the organization finds a way to challenge the market’s—and even its own— conventional wisdom, continually iterating and improving upon both the open and bureaucratic practices it adopts as it goes. (more…)

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

Introducing “The Conversational Firm”

The Conversational Firm

“‘The old ways of doing things don’t work anymore,’ TechCo’s CEO told me the first time we met. The ‘old ways’ he was referring to were most everything we think of when we think of a conventional bureaucratic firm: vertical hierarchy, centralized decision making, formal rules and guidelines to control employee behavior, corporate communication that follows the rigid lines of the firm’s organizational chart, and a staid culture that stifles individual expression.” — Catherine J. Turco

This week, our featured book is The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media, by Catherine J. Turco. To get the week’s feature started, we have excerpted Turco’s Preface to The Conversational Firm, in which she takes us a TechCo “Hack Night” and explains how TechCo is trying to get rid of what the company sees as outdated organizational structures and theories.

Monday, September 19th, 2016

Book Giveaway! The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media

The Conversational Firm

“Will twenty-first-century social media technologies finally liberate organizations from stifling bureaucratic hierarchies? After spending ten months closely observing a software firm, Catherine J. Turco, one of sociology’s brightest young stars, surprises with fascinating and nuanced answers. Brimming with vivid examples, The Conversational Firm will not only shape scholarly debate but also engage general readers interested in corporate life.” — Viviana A. Zelizer, author of Economic Lives

This week, our featured book is The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media, by Catherine J. Turco. 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.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Conversational Firm. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, September 23 at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, September 16th, 2016

Resistance Against Criminal Identities

Exiled in America

“Because many residents at the motel did not distinguish between types of sex offenders, a sex-offense conviction was automatically equated with victimization of a child…. Therefore parolees and those with sexual offense histories took different steps to resist the stigma of their offenses and create boundaries between themselves and the pedophile label.” — Christopher Dum

This week, our featured book is Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Motel, by Christopher P. Dum. Today, for the final post of the week’s feature, we have excerpted “Resistance Against Criminal Identities,” part of the book’s third chapter, in which Dum explains the stigmas (or, sometimes, the surprising lack thereof) associated with the criminal records of inhabitants of the Boardwalk Motel.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Exiled in America.

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

People on Food Stamps Aren’t Feasting on Filet Mignon

Exiled in America

“To be sure, there are individuals who may not use their resources wisely. But that is true across the socioeconomic spectrum. We should not waste our creative energy on coming up with new restrictions that dictate how the poor should behave. Instead, we should do just the opposite and direct our efforts toward policies that help people out of poverty.” — Christopher Dum

This week, our featured book is Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Motel, by Christopher P. Dum. Today, we are happy to present an article originally published on The Conversation, in which Dum argues that regulations dictating how the poor can spend government aid are unnecessary and counterproductive. Read the original article.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Exiled in America.

People on Food Stamps Aren’t Feasting on Filet Mignon
By Christopher Dum, Kent State University

There is a popular myth that welfare recipients are using food stamps to purchase luxurious food items such as filet mignon and lobster.

Commonly referred to as food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is designed to provide low-income individuals and families with nutritious meals. And it is a popular target for political attack. In 2014 Congress passed legislation that cut US$8.7 billion from the food stamp program. That’s a lot of money, but less than the previously proposed cuts $20.5 billion and $39 billion.

At the state level, a recent bill introduced by Republican Missouri State Representative Rick Brattin sought to prohibit SNAP recipients from using their benefits to purchase items such as seafood and steak, as well as cookies, chips, energy drinks and soft drinks.

The problem with this sort of legislation, and the thinking that goes with it, is that it ignores the harsh reality of extreme poverty. For many individuals receiving SNAP benefits, purchasing expensive raw seafood or steak is illogical, because they are so poor that they lack the means to prepare them. This sort of behavior also quickly drains SNAP funds that residents need to stretch out over an entire month.

How do I know this? From June 2012 to June 2013, I rented a room at a “welfare” motel in upstate New York. As a sociologist, I wanted to explore how residents of that motel actually lived.

While not all motel residents received SNAP benefits, all of them were by definition homeless, and all of them had to eat. As I grew to know dozens of them, they allowed me to observe their daily lives and in doing so, allowed me to observe how and what they ate. And trust me – it’s not steak and lobster.

(more…)

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

Photos of Life in the Broadway Motel

Exiled in America

This week, our featured book is Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Motel, by Christopher P. Dum. During the course of Dum’s research in the Broadway Motel, he took a number of photographs, which we have collected here along with Dum’s brief descriptions of the shots in order to give readers a sense of life in the Broadway.

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

Introducing “Exiled in America”

Exiled in America

“These revelations about the Boardwalk made it clear to me that the motel was not just a home for sex offenders. Rather, it housed a variety of marginalized populations (such as people who were mentally ill, disabled, struggling addicts, or working poor) who lived hidden from the public eye, in squalid conditions that many of us would consider unfit for habitation. I had found not only an interesting group of potential reporters but a unique location where they were socially embedded.” — Christopher Dum

This week, our featured book is Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Motel, by Christopher P. Dum. Today, we are happy to present Dum’s preface, in which he describes how his unique study came about, and what he hopes to reveal with his ethnographic account of the Boardwalk Motel.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Exiled in America.

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

New Book Tuesday: Data Love, The Gnostic New Age, and More New Books

Data Love

Our weekly listing of new titles now available:

Data Love: The Seduction and Betrayal of Digital Technologies
Roberto Simanowski; Translated by Brigitte Pichon, Dorian Rudnytsky, and John Cayley

The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion from Antiquity to Today
April D. DeConick

Chinese History and Culture: Seventeenth Century Through Twentieth Century
Ying-shih Yü; With the Editorial Assistance of Josephine Chiu-Duke and Michael S. Duke

Minor Characters Have Their Day: Genre and the Contemporary Literary Marketplace
Jeremy Rosen

Egocentricity and Mysticism: An Anthropological Study
Ernst Tugendhat. Translated by Alexei Procyshyn and Mario Wenning

Alienation (Now available in paper)
Rahel Jaeggi. Translated by Frederick Neuhouser and Alan E. Smith. Edited by Frederick Neuhouser

Towards a New Russian Work Culture: Can Western Companies and Expatriates Change Russian Society?
Vladimir V. Karacharovskiy, Ovsey I. Shkaratan, and Gordey A. Yastrebov. Foreword by Elena N. Danilova
(ibidem Press)

Medical Philosophy: A Philosophical Analysis of Patient Self-Perception in Diagnostics and Therapy
David Låg Tomasi. Foreword by Friedrich Luft
(ibidem Press)

Gendering European Integration Theory: Engaging New Dialogues
Edited by Gabriele Abels and Heather MacRae
(Barbara Budrich Publishers)

Staging the Ottoman Turk: British Drama, 1656–1792
Esin Akalin
(ibidem Press)

The Holocaust in Central European Literatures and Cultures: Problems of Poetization and Aestheticization
Edited by Reinhard Ibler
(ibidem Press)

Contributions to Alternative Concepts of Knowledge
Edited by Michael Kuhn and Hebe Vessuri
(ibidem Press)

The Global Social Sciences: Under and Beyond European Universalism
Edited by Michael Kuhn and Hebe Vessuri
(ibidem Press)

How the Social Sciences Think about the World’s Social: Outline of a Critique
Michael Kuhn
(ibidem Press)

The Pursuit of Pleasure: Overcoming a Civilizational Challenge
Arsen Dallan and Karlen Dallakyan
(ibidem Press)

Academic Culture: An Analytical Framework for Understanding Academic Work: A Case Study about the Social Science Academe in Japan
Kazumi Okamoto
(ibidem Press)

The Foreigner’s Guide to German Universities: Origin, Meaning, and Use of Terms and Expressions in Everyday University Life
Albrecht Behmel and Kelly Neudorfer
(ibidem Press)

Forum für osteuropäische Ideen- und Zeitgeschichte: Die Kirchen im Sozialismus am Beispiel Russlands und Polens
Edited by Leonid Luks, Gunter Dehnert, John Andreas Fuchs, Nikolaus Lobkowicz, Alexei Rybakow, and Andreas Umland
(ibidem Press)

Monday, September 12th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Motel

Exiled in America

“It is not often, after forty years in the field, that I actually get excited by a new scholar’s tone—that I find it so fascinating, so rich, so theoretically and analytically thick, that I go agog over it. Such is the case with Dum’s work.” — Peter Adler, University of Denver

This week, our featured book is Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Motel, by Christopher P. Dum. 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.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Exiled in America. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, September 16th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, September 9th, 2016

Carrie Preston On Being a Scholar-Teacher-Student

Carrie Preston, Learning to Kneel

“To write this book, I had to become a beginner rather than an expert.”—Carrie Preston

The following is a post by Carrie Preston, author of Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching:

To write this book, I had to become a beginner rather than an expert. I had to study an entirely new language (Japanese) and performance form (noh theater). The experience of becoming a student again—and often a poor student at that—taught me a good deal about being a scholar-teacher.

The ideal of the scholar-teacher emphasizes that research inspires great performances in the classroom. I remain committed to that ideal, but writing Learning to Kneel made me realize the need to develop strategies for making my research more accessible to my students. The book includes stories of my research process, various attempts to teach my scholarship, and also what my scholarship has taught me about teaching.

I originally intended to write a book called Noh Modernism (pun very much intended) about the ancient Japanese noh theater’s influence on early twentieth-century European and American drama, dance, poetry, and film. I decided to take lessons in noh performance technique because I was dissatisfied with previous scholarly accounts that suggested because W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Bertolt Brecht, and other “westerners” were more interested in their peculiar ideas of noh than the reality of the theater, actual research into noh performance technique is unnecessary. The artists certainly mystified noh, but scholars were advancing that mystification of a “foreign” art form by refusing to do the work it takes to learn about noh. I realized that deep research on noh requires taking lessons in the form, so I applied for a grant from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science that allowed me to become a visiting researcher at Hosei University in Tokyo. My hosts there helped me find a professional actor and master teacher who would take me on as a student.

In preparation for my time in Tokyo, I began taking Japanese language classes with undergraduates at Boston University. I found myself hiding in the back row, hoping that my professor would not ask me to come to the board to draw kanji characters. If my Japanese classes reminded me that learning something new can be scary, my noh lessons in Japan completely changed the way I thought about scholarship and teaching. Before each lesson, I had to fall to my knees before my teacher, or sensei.

Carrie Preston, Learning to Kneel

As I bowed, I spoke the formulaic phrase, “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” which might be translated as “Thank you for your help and guidance now and in the future,” or, as a fellow noh student suggested, “Please be kind to me during this lesson.” I received instruction while kneeling in seiza, a position with buns on heels that I found incredibly painful after a few minutes but was supposed to maintain for a half hour while I practiced chanting.

Carrie Preston, Learning to Kneel

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Thursday, September 8th, 2016

Michael Orthofer and Tyler Cowen Talk about and Shop for Books

Earlier this summer, Michael Orthofer, author of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, videotaped two conversations with Tyler Cowen. In the first see below, Orthofer explains why everyone should read more fiction, how we should choose books, why American popular literature is overrated, what he thinks about authors like Herman Melville, Fyoder Dostoevsky, Goethe, J.K. Rowling, Arno Schmidt, and many others, his recommendations for the best sites for readers, why studying literature at college was such a big disappointment, how much book covers matter, and why his opinion will never be the final word.

In this second video, Cowen and Orthofer go shopping at the Strand Bookstore in New York City and talk about book shopping and how to choose what to read next:

Thursday, September 8th, 2016

With and After Orientalism — Carrie Preston

Carrie Preston, Learning to Kneel

“After almost forty years of important and illuminating discussions of orientalism and ironic responses to the scourge of empire, I think a new space is opening for global or transnational scholarship and intercultural art. Participants in this space are not naïve about the continuing ramifications of empire … [b]ut they also want to move beyond irony and make room for pleasure, inspiration, even enchantment in the fraught encounters between cultures.”—Carrie Preston, author of Learning to Kneel

The following post is by Carrie Preston, author of Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching:

A century ago, W. B. Yeats’s first noh-inspired play for dancers, At the Hawk’s Well, was performed in Lady Emerald Cunard’s London drawing room with an invited audience that included Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot—one time we know for certain that these three great modernist poets were all together in the same room.

Also in the room was Ito Michio, the Japanese-born performer who choreographed and danced the role of the Guardian of the Well and went on to have an important career in American modern dance.

Ito Michio
(Ito Michio as the Guardian of the Well in At the Hawk’s Well (1916))

The French artist Edmund Dulac designed full wooden masks, made costumes, and composed and performed the music.

Edmund Dulac
(Edmund Dulac with other musician and the cloth to be folded and unfolded at the beginning and end of each play for dancers.)

It was a fascinating collaboration and avant-garde modernist performance experiment. Eliot, also a great critic, claimed that Hawk’s Well made him think differently of Yeats, “… rather as a more eminent contemporary than as an elder from whom one could learn.” For him, Yeats soared into the new modernist generation with Hawk’s Well. Plenty of critical ink has been spent on Yeats in the past century, but this play has tended to be something of an exception and embarrassment, largely because it’s a pretty good example of orientalism, exoticism, and cultural appropriation.

There were many warnings against writing a book focused on Hawk’s Well and modernist noh, certainly against moving to Japan to take lessons in noh performance technique. I was literally becoming an orientalist, part of that academic tradition Edward Said famously defined in 1978 as being based on essential distinctions between the so-called “Orient” and “Occident.” The “Orient” (primarily the Middle East for Said) is imagined to be spiritual, passive, effeminate, exotic, traditional, and inscrutable, while “the Occident’” is rational, aggressive, masculine, central, modern, and knowable. Said argued that scholarly and aesthetic accounts of “the Orient” justified empire, even when, as with Yeats and noh, the artists were celebrating nonwestern achievements to counter white European cultural stagnation. In later works, Said clarified that he viewed modernism as an “ironic” rather than “oppositional” response to empire. And in the decades that followed, critics have recognized that cultural exchange is inevitable in modernity and can’t simply be deplored, but few models of transmission emerged that did not emphasize irony, mimicry, or appropriation. Warnings from Said and other postcolonial theorists have contributed to my feeling that I should have been more ironic, certainly less enthralled, as I took noh lessons and researched modernist noh.

Yet, studying and participating in collaborative intercultural exchange, however fraught and full of mistakes, tended to encourage my optimism rather than irony. Accusations of orientalism and appropriation begin from a desire for cultural sensitivity, but they can unintentionally reinforce the notion of an unbridgeable divide between east and west. Certainly we can identify plenty of orientalist assumptions in Yeats, Pound, Dulac, and their collaborators, including Ito, one of the most successful performers to build a career out of orientalist performance.

But, after almost forty years of important and illuminating discussions of orientalism and ironic responses to the scourge of empire, I think a new space is opening for global or transnational scholarship and intercultural art. Participants in this space are not naïve about the continuing ramifications of empire, the offense of cultural appropriations that look more like theft, and the ways that outdated polarities like east and west still encroach upon our thought. But they also want to move beyond irony and make room for pleasure, inspiration, even enchantment in the fraught encounters between cultures.

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