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January 22nd, 2016

Shirley Hazzard’s Introduction to Geoffrey Scott’s THE PORTRAIT OF ZÉLIDE



We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think

“Zélide’s wit and beauty, her prodigious intelligence are not without arrogance. For most of her life, however, pride will be countered by a disarming honesty of self-appraisal. Her Gallic rationality is similarly moderated by cordiality. Among her finest attributes is simplicity of conduct: springing from people disposed to take themselves seriously, she has little taste for self-solemnity.” — Shirley Hazard

This week, our featured book is We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays, by Shirley Hazzard, edited with an introduction by Brigitta Olubas. For the final post of the feature, we have excerpted Hazzard’s introduction to Geoffrey Scott’s classic biography, The Portrait of Zélide.

January 21st, 2016

Colin Dayan’s Ethics Without Reason



With Dogs at the Edge of Life

Simon Waxman of the Boston Review recently wrote an excellent reaction/review to With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan, “Colin Dayan’s Ethics Without Reason.” We have a short excerpt from his article here, and we can’t recommend the full article highly enough.

Colin Dayan’s Ethics Without Reason
By Simon Waxman

Dayan, a longtime friend of Boston Review and valued contributor to the magazine, has explored related matters in our pages before. Her discussions and conclusions are often unsettling, questioning “the pretense of humane treatment” promoted by organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and humane societies, which routinely and systematically kills the animals of whom they market themselves as protectors. Dayan also is not a supporter of animal rights, which, like the human equivalents that inspire them, can foster in their bearers the quality most desired by the elites who seek to control and exploit them: docility. Meanwhile, the rights paradigm legalizes punishment of those animals that must be lived with, as opposed to above. In essence, the animal rights agenda has enshrined in law the social acceptability of the dumb, pocket-sized accessory who can only breathe and eat—and, then, only with a human hand to feed it—while subjecting to suspicion and penalty any animal of vigor, independence, intelligence, and, yes, capacity for danger.

Alongside her perhaps-surprising misgivings about rights, Dayan harbors sympathies that many abhor. One chapter of With Dogs at the Edge of Life traces the life, legal struggle, and philosophy of Bob Stevens. A downhome pit bull breeder, Stevens has been prosecuted by the state of Louisiana for distributing dogfighting films and earned the enmity of preening urban pet owners who like to dress up their twelve-pound toys and parade them at parties. These owners lack something that Stevens, for all his hard edges, does not: “admiration and respect for an animal’s sheer bodily strength, fierce intelligence, and courage,” which “promise a reciprocal engagement that has been lost in most human experience.”

Dayan’s goal is not just to scrutinize the pieties of animal rights activists, however. Doing so is an element of a larger project in which the boundary between human and non-, between reason and simply being together with other beings, becomes unstable. Following displaced and disdained dogs, purged from increasingly genteel cities everywhere, Dayan pursues a critique of enlightenment itself, particularly that version on which capitalism is founded. “Through the dogs’ eyes, we sense a world devoid of spirit, ravaged of communion,” she writes, inspired by films shot from the standpoint of dogs. These animals who once owned the city alongside human residents are no longer welcome among “the high-rise developments, the spruced-up neighborhoods of the neo-Western globalized citizen.”

There are no answers, easy or hard, in With Dogs at the Edge of Life, and this, finally, may be the point. “The bold enmeshing of humans and dogs—and the seagulls, pigeons, chickens, and cats in their midst—requires that we suspend our beliefs and put aside our craving for final answers.” The answers are themselves the problem. We have—by force, persuasion, and trickery—been drawn to a single answer: money and the comforts it buys. Call it progress in the capitalist mode. The issue of this progress is visible everywhere, from the comfort of killing law never seen in action, to the comfort of gleaming cities devoid of untamed life, to the comfort of faith in a human reason that eradicates all ambiguity and mystery. Indeed, one of the starkest, most material visions of this progress is the puny, slavish body of the dog lived above rather than with.

The full article can be read at the Boston Review website.

January 21st, 2016

Shirley Hazzard’s Introduction to Iris Origo’s LEOPARDI: A STUDY IN SOLITUDE



We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think

“Great sensibilities are born into exile. As he came to an understanding of his powers, and of the cruel seclusion of his existence at Recanati, Leopardi was not the first to feel homesickness for a setting he had never known—for the stimulus and sympathy of kindred spirits to whom art and thought, and the heart’s affections, were supreme: a country that he had inhabited in books.” — Shirley Hazard

This week, our featured book is We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays, by Shirley Hazzard, edited with an introduction by Brigitta Olubas. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from Hazzard’s introduction to Iris Origo’s study of Italian lyric poet Giacomo Leopardi.

January 20th, 2016

Energy’s Image



Chaos Imagined

“Turner’s ambitions took him beyond his abiding interest in the unstable and ephemeral, the chaos of impermanence and the vast disruptions of unimaginable forces. It drove him to attempt to see and unveil the underpinnings, the living energy, even in scenes where water, earth, and air virtually dissolve not in turmoil but in tranquil luminosity.” — Martin Meisel

This week, our featured book is Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science, by Martin Meisel. In the final post of the feature, we are happy to present an excerpt from the book’s chapter on the art of J.M.W. Turner, “Energy’s Image.”

January 20th, 2016

New Book Tuesday: Why America Misunderstands the World, Jewish Graphic Narratives, and More!



Why America Misunderstands the World, Paul Pillar

Our weekly listing of new titles:

Why America Misunderstands the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception
Paul R. Pillar

“How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs
Tahneer Oksman

Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court
Audrey Truschke

The Ethical Economy: Rebuilding Value After the Crisis (Now available in paper)
Adam Arvidsson and Nicolai Peitersen

January 20th, 2016

Book Giveaway! We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays, by Shirley Hazzard



We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think

“In these essays there is a lovely sense of witnessing a brilliant and judicious mind at work. Shirley Hazard has a way of finding the right phrase, and capturing a tone and a rhythm, that offer a sort of sensuous pleasure to the reader. She cares passionately about writing, the life of the mind but also the public realm. As in her novels, her essays display the quality of her sympathy, her ability to make distinctions as well as connections, and her acute analysis. She is an inspiring presence in our literary life, and having these essays is both a gift and a revelation.” — Colm Tóibín

This week, our featured book is We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays, by Shirley Hazzard, edited with an introduction by Brigitta Olubas. 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 We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address.

January 19th, 2016

A Reflection, by Martin Meisel



Chaos Imagined

This week, our featured book is Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science, by Martin Meisel. Today, we are happy to present a guest post from Meisel in which he discusses the origins of the massive undertaking of researching and writing Chaos Imagined.

A Reflection
By Martin Meisel

Sometimes I am asked how I came to write this book, one that strays so far from the umbrella of my credentialed competence. It happened after publication of an earlier book called Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England. My editors, the formidable Miriam Brokaw and Jerry Sherwood, then with the Princeton University Press, asked me, “Well, what’s next?” I really didn’t know. But like most scholars I had a file of bright ideas that I might want to follow up one year or another, and I offered some of those: a book on Dickens, about whose imaginative superabundance and uses of plot as symbolic instrument I had a lot to say (“Yes, go on.”). One on Ben Jonson’s plays, whose comedic brilliance delighted me. Something on prediction in literary studies (“Interesting.”). A book on the theater of professions—journalism, medicine, law, politics, the clergy, theater, the military. A book on Sean O’Casey’s plays, which I had been teaching (and acting, from the podium) with great relish (“Uh huh. And?”). A book on the idea of “chaos” and its attempted representations—the obverse, so to speak, of the usual premise in the history of ideas, not to say the study of cultures and societies, where an investigator typically sought to elicit “cosmos,” that is, ideas of order, as in the Elizabethan (or Tobriand Islander) “World Picture.” It had struck me, moreover, that imagining and representing the extreme of disorder—chaos—had a history. The “shape” of chaos varied, not only from place to place, but, even in our own evolving culture, over time. “Do that!” said my editors in chorus. “All right,” I replied, being of indecisive character and grateful for firm guidance, though tenacious, indeed stubborn, once I had come to decision. A decision is too valuable an achievement to forego.

The trouble—which turned out to be the reward—was that this project demanded at least some competence in areas where I might have general knowledge, but neither depth nor expertise. So it embroiled me, not just in research, but in education—educating myself in myriad matters, like mathematical notation in ancient Greece, rival schools in ancient philosophy, subjects and approaches in art history, thermodynamic theory and its development, history of warfare, philosophy of science, literature in languages I couldn’t read. As a scholar, I have always had a fear—a sort of death’s-head presence in my preconscious—of turning into a version of the Reverend Mr. Casaubon, the dry-as-dust scholar in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, engaged in a work called “The Key to All Mythologies,” designed to prove that all mythologies were corruptions of the true nature and history of things to be found in the Holy Bible. The trouble in his case, apart from the hubristic ambition of his project, was that he was ignorant of the language and scholarship of contemporary philology and biblical criticism, not to say archaeology, much of it in German. And here was I, with a project of similar scope and ambition, and with any number of manifest deficiencies. And then in the end—even if I were to rise to the challenge—there was the threat of what one might call the imitative fallacy: writing a book about chaos that was itself chaotic. For with so uncontainable a subject, where so much that seemed relevant turned up around every corner, the end result could be hash, a potpourri with neither structure nor standpoint, rhyme nor reason. In that case, thought I—as time passed, and I detoured sporadically into other projects, but always came back to this one—I will have had the pleasure of nosing about in so many fascinating, exotic, and sometimes forbidding locales, the pleasure I hoped to bring to my students every day: of learning.

And so here is the result—Chaos Imagined—only made possible, I suspect, by what I have managed to leave out. I hope its readers will also find some pleasure in it, and some enrichment of the kind it gave so abundantly to me.

January 18th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science, by Martin Meisel



Chaos Imagined

“Martin Meisel’s magnum opus is a heroic act of defiance against its own subject matter: an enlightening, judicious, cohesive history of three millennia of thought about the terrors and attractions of chaos. The book moves with steady confidence through literature, science, art, and philosophy, illuminating many varieties of darkness, finding convincing and original connections across centuries and continents. With authority and energy, it creates a whole new field of study.” — Edward Mendelson, Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University

This week, our featured book is Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science, by Martin Meisel. 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 Chaos Imagined. 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, January 8th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word! Below the giveaway form, you can also read an excerpt from the first chapter, “Shaping Chaos.”

Shaping Chaos

January 15th, 2016

The Press and Authority — Roy J. Harris, author of “Pulitzer’s Gold”



Spotlight

“If Spotlight leaves viewers with something to think about going forward, let’s hope that it’s a more critical understanding of how we view authority figures in general — and that the journalists who monitor them have the duty to help keep them honest.”—Roy J. Harris

We conclude our week-long feature on Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism, by Roy J. Harris Jr. with a post on Harris’s recent article on Spotlight, published on Cognoscenti, WBUR’s blog. The story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into sex abuse among priests is covered in the book’s chapter Epiphany: The Globe and the Church

In the article, Harris discusses about Spotlight‘s depiction of how the Globe discovered the cover-up of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The film as he and others have acknowledged have put journalism in a good light and shows their power to effect change.

While the story reveals the impact journalism can have and represents a devastating critique of a powerful institution, challenges still exist. The film, as Harris describes it, offers an excellent portrayal of how the reporters came to grips with having to expose an institution that enjoyed a certain prestige and authority. Marty Baron, who was the editor at the Globe during the breaking of the story, recognizes the difficulties of covering certain institutions:

Marty Baron sees “Spotlight’s” message as extending far beyond the church scandal and the role of the press. Baron, now The Washington Post’s executive editor, noted in a recent email exchange with me that people in general — not just journalists in search of a good story — often balk at learning too much about organizations with generally favorable reputations. “Many charitable nonprofits, from arts institutions to those with a social purpose, get a pass on close examinations because they are seen as doing good. And many do good, but that shouldn’t exempt them from accountability,” according to Baron.

Yet journalists have a special challenge in breaking through the deference that surrounds such organizations and celebrities. “One reason institutions can escape examination is because they are sources for reporters,” Baron wrote. “That’s often the case with prosecutors, police and firefighters, who over the years escaped the more critical attention that their enormous power calls for. That deference has already begun to erode, as evidenced by a lot of reporting over the last couple of years.”

Read the rest of this entry »

January 14th, 2016

Are You Resolved to Eat More Insects in 2016? — The Insect Cookbook



With The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet now available in paper and given that many of us have resolved to eat better, or at least differently, in 2016, we are re-posting Marcel Dicke’s TED Talk. In the video,Dicke, coauthor of The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet, discusses the environmental and nutritional importance of eating insects:

January 14th, 2016

All the Editor’s Men — Pulitzer’s Gold and Watergate



Pulitzer's Gold, Roy J. Harris

In the following excerpt from Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism, Roy J. Harris looks back at the oft-told but frequently misunderstood history behind Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting of Watergate. In the passage, Woodward himself challenges the mythology that has grown around their coverage.

“People don’t win Pulitzer Prizes by being for; they usually win them by being against. “—President Richard M. Nixon, to the national association of broadcasters, march 19, 1974

Bob Woodward had not seen the movie All the President’s Men for twenty-five years. Then one day in mid-2005 he sat down with his eight-year­ old daughter Diana while she watched it for the first time. Noticing her squirming a bit, the Washington Post assistant managing editor asked what she was thinking. “The guy pretending to be you doesn’t look like you at all,” Diana told him. And what else? “Boring, boring, boring,” she said. “And she’s exactly right,” Woodward agrees, chuckling—not just about the movie, but about the nature of the Watergate investigation itself. “Because it’s about fitting little pieces together. You don’t know what you have when you publish a little piece, but you publish it anyway.” (See video below with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein discussing the story behind All the President’s Men)

Any squirming of his own on the topic of Watergate may have more to do with how often he has been asked over the years to rehash the role of “Woodstein”—as the Post editors nicknamed the duo of Woodward and Carl Bernstein during their investigation—in the events that led to Presi­dent Richard Nixon’s August 1974 resignation. Just a few months before the father–daughter movie viewing, another flurry of national publicity erupted when Deep Throat chose to identify himself. Woodward’s cel­ebrated secret source turned out to be W. Mark Felt, the number two man at the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the time of the Watergate probe. (A smoke-wreathed Hal Holbrook, stepping from behind pillars in an eerie, dark garage, played him in the 1976 film.)

Alan Pakula’s movie—with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein and Jason Robards as the Post executive editor Ben Bradlee—actually holds up well today. For adults, at least, it now plays as a historical/political thriller. The mystery is not whether the presi­dent will fall but how two reporters and one cantankerous editor helped precipitate it, starting with the simple assignment to report on arrests after a break-in at the Watergate office building’s Democratic National Committee offices.

Missing from the film, of course, is a historical perspective tying the Nixon administration’s criminal activities to a greater political motive—something that four decades now permits. In recent years Woodward and Bernstein have offered an analysis positing the president’s “five wars of Watergate.” starting with attempts to stem the anti–Vietnam War move­ment, the White House strategy expanded to interfering with perceived enemies in the news media and in the Democratic party, to undermin­ing the legal system by paying hush money to witnesses, and lying to investigators. The final “war” was against history, in the reporters’ view, and included the portrayal of spying, burglaries, and dirty tricks against administration targets as “capers” rather than episodes in a coordinated mission to subvert governmental processes.2
In one oft-quoted snippet from the White House tape recordings even­tually released during the Watergate investigation, Nixon in July 1971—a year before the Watergate break-in—is heard telling chief of staff H. R. “Bob” Haldeman and secretary of state Henry Kissinger: “We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy. They’re using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear?”

Read the rest of this entry »

January 13th, 2016

Ponzi’s Scam Exposed! — An Excerpt from Pulitzer’s Gold



The exposure financial improprieties has been a staple of prize-winning investigative journalism for decades. One of the more famous cases is, of course, Charles Ponzi, whose shady dealings were uncovered by the Boston Post. In the following excerpt from Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism, Roy J. Harris shows how Edwin Grozier and other Boston Post reporters helped take down the once popular Ponzi:

January 12th, 2016

New Book Tuesday: The Misinformation Age, The End of Progress, and More New Books



A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age

Our weekly listing of new titles now available:

A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind
David J. Helfand

The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory
Amy Allen

Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights
Sherry F. Colb and Michael C. Dorf

Impersonal Enunciation, or the Place of Film
Christian Metz; Translated with an introduction by Cormac Deane; Afterword by Dana Polan

Race and Secularism in America
Edited by Jonathon S. Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd

Coming to Our Senses: Affect and an Order of Things for Global Culture
Dierdra Reber

The Immigrant Other: Lived Experiences in a Transnational World
Edited by Rich Furman, Greg Lamphear, and Douglas Epps

January 12th, 2016

An Interview with Roy J. Harris, author of “Pulitzer’s Gold”



Pulitzer's Gold, Roy Harris

The following is an interview with Roy J. Harris, author of Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism

Question: 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize. In looking over the winners for public service journalism, what struck you most about what has changed in journalism during this period and what has stayed the same?

Roy J. Harris: What’s very clear is how the quality of the Pulitzer winners—the depth of the reporting and the powerful change they brought about—increased sharply after the first few years the prizes began to be awarded. That suggests that the very creation of a system for honoring top-notch journalism encouraged more great reporting to be done around the country. But also, the variety of the top journalism projects—a diversity greater in public service than any other category—began to expand during that century: another major change. What’s stayed the same is that the predominant characteristic of the winning reporting has been tenacity on the part of the journalists to tell a story that others don’t want told.

Q: In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about how changes in the news industry are threatening the kind of journalism that the public service journalism prize highlights. What is your sense of the future for investigative journalism of this kind?

RJH: First the positive view: A surprising number of young journalists continue to enter the profession; they’re learning quickly, and doing great work. They also seem to value the tradition of great reporting, as I learn from the students I speak with regularly. While the digital world makes it harder to determine real news from the chaff, budding reporters also find that the Internet greatly broadens their access to valuable, verifiable resources. On the negative side, the news infrastructure to support reporters financially is seriously failing. New structures—like those created by new online sites and by privately supported programs like ProPublica and California Watch—aren’t coming online quickly enough to make up for the deterioration of traditional newspapers. New sources of financial support must be found for public service journalism, which is often the most expensive kind, if these young reporters are to be kept on the job.

Q: Much like the justly celebrated new movie, Spotlight, your book tells the story behind the story—about how journalists do their jobs. What is the value for general readers of understanding the ways in which journalists and the news industry work?

RJH: Before Spotlight, I argued that the behind-the-story approach of the Watergate movie All the President’s Men was a great model. Both that great movie and Spotlight are realistic, and take an inspirational look at what the media can do for our citizenry. And both concentrate on projects that won the Public Service Pulitzer—the subject of my book. I found in my research that less-well-known winners offer the same kind of excitement, though perhaps on a local level rather than a national or global level. That applies to non-journalists as much as to journalists, although the result of the journalism may be more local or regional than the ousting of a U.S. president or the exposure of a global Church scandal. From researching the stories in Pulitzer’s Gold I also found that to trace these Pulitzer winners through the years is to expose readers to the twists and turns of American history over the decades. What happened historically is important as is the role of the First Amendment, which keeps our system strong, and our citizenry informed.

Read the rest of this entry »

January 11th, 2016

Donald Trump and the Destruction of the American Century — Brian Edwards



Brian Edwards, After the American Century

In a recent article in Salon, They’ve destroyed us worldwide: Donald Trump, George W. Bush and the destruction of the American century, Brian Edwards, author of After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East, examines what has happened to the more hopeful version of America that the country once exported. While acknowledging that the idea of “The American Century,” always had the ulterior motive to strengthen the United States militarily, economically, and politically, there was also a sense that American culture was infused with a sense of hope and innovation that could be taken up by others. Edwards writes, “The American century was built on a positive aura, not hate. From the romantic comedies of classic Hollywood to Coke’s ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing,’ America exported the promise of love.”

Even during the “American Century,” anti-Americanism, of course existed, but the recent events surrounding Donald Trump’s comments about Muslims coupled with recent U.S. policies have presented a very different portrait of the United Stated, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. As Edwards suggests, “Trump’s bearing is all swagger, but he and his zealous supporters project a weak and defensive stance to the world. They have redefined the United States as hostile and fearful.”

Recent developments also represent a shift from the post-9/11 period Edwards explores in his book. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, many advocated for and implemented initiatives that resurrected the cultural cold war policies:

So, Hillary Clinton could be found championing the hip-hop initiatives that looked a lot like the jazz tours of a half-century earlier. In 2011, commenting on a state-sponsored trip of a hip-hop artist to Damascus, she said: ‘Hip-hop is America. . . . I think we have to use every tool at our disposal.’ As secretary of state, she was early to embrace what was called digital diplomacy, with young staffers leading the charge.

Over the past decade and a half, I have been charting the fate of American cultural products in the Middle East and North Africa, with extensive research in the region during a remarkable time. From Fez to Tehran, young Arabs and Iranians are intimately familiar with American popular culture. As I argue in my new book, After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East, a newer generation across the Middle East and North Africa made a distinction between America as a creator of cultural products and the United States as a geopolitical entity. That meant that through the 1990s and 2000s, they could continue to enjoy and consume our attractive culture without contradicting their increasing dismay regarding our policies in their region.

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January 11th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Pulitzer’s Gold



This week one of our featured books is Pulitzer’s Gold
A Century of Public Service Journalism
by Roy J. Harris Jr.

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 Pulitzer’s Gold 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, January 15th at 1:00 pm.

“Roy Harris is the master historian of the Pulitzer Prize. He has written the real inside story of the most serious journalism of the last century and provided a brilliant portrait of America. Know your journalism, and you will know your country and its values.” — Bob Woodward, The Washington Post

You can also read the chapter “Epiphany in Boston: 2003: The Globe and the Church” on the Boston Globe‘s story on the priest sex abuse scandal recently featured in the film Spotlight:

January 8th, 2016

Pariah Dogs



With Dogs at the Edge of Life

“Something about death and dogs makes us think and teaches us about how we come to know and when we ought to care.” — Colin Dayan

This week, our featured book is With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan. For the final post of the week’s feature, we have an excerpt from the introduction to “Pariah Dogs,” part three of With Dogs at the Edge of Life. In this excerpt, Dayan examines how the suffering of dogs has been represented in literature from the Odyssey to Coetzee’s Disgrace.

January 8th, 2016

An Interview with Colin Dayan



With Dogs at the Edge of Life

“It’s the relation between humans and dogs that matters to me, and what that tells us over time about what we have become as a society.” — Colin Dayan

This week, our featured book is With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan. In the first of two posts today, we are happy to present an interview with Colin Dayan recorded by Vanderbilt University, along with an excerpt from the article posted with the video.

Professor offers unsettling look at humanity with study of people and their dogs
By Ann Marie Deer Owens

A Vanderbilt University professor has researched true stories of people and their dogs—some tender and some disturbing—to make a compelling case for re-thinking our treatment of both of them.

Colin Dayan, the Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities and professor of American studies in the College of Arts and Science, is the author of With Dogs at the Edge of Life (Columbia University Press, 2016).

Dayan, who is also a professor of law, emphasized that it’s the relationship between dogs and humans that is important to her research. The actions surrounding that relationship provide tremendous insight into what we have become as a society.

“The book is making a plea for us to think differently about our relationships because this is a time, as I see it, of extinctions,” Dayan said. “Certain groups of people and certain kinds of dogs are labeled and easily disposed of.”

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January 7th, 2016

Dead Dogs



With Dogs at the Edge of Life

“Though they were friendly and vigorous, though there was in most cases no proof of actual fighting, the dogs were deemed “threats to the public” and could therefore be killed summarily. According to Louisiana law, “fighting dogs are declared to be contraband.” An arbitrary label put an end to their lives, without any recourse or appeal, without even notice to their owners. Not only were the dogs no longer personal property, but, once seized from their owners, they had become legally disposable too.” — Colin Dayan

Happy New Year! This week, our featured book is With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan. Today’s post, excerpted from the fourth chapter of With Dogs at the Edge of Life, lays out a 2005 case where fifty-seven pit bulls were confiscated, deemed “too aggressive to live,” and killed by the authorities.

Dead Dogs
By Colin Dayan

Early on Friday morning, March 11, 2005, a caravan of vehicles drove from New Orleans down Louisiana Highway 89 to a home outside the city of Lafayette, where the highway meets La Neuville Road in the heart of Cajun country. State police, a SWAT team, U.S. customs officials, and other federal agents, with the aid of the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (LA/SPCA), the Louisiana Humane Society, and the Humane
Society of the United States (HSUS), raided the home of Floyd Boudreaux. They confiscated fifty-seven American pit bull terriers and charged Boudreaux and his son Guy with fifty-seven counts of dog fighting and fifty-seven counts of animal cruelty. Arrested and handcuffed, they were read their Miranda rights and locked up in Lafayette Parish Correctional Center. The dogs were loaded in a truck and driven back to New Orleans. That night the LA/SPCA began killing the dogs by injection. They did not stop until the next day. By the time the Boudreauxs were released on bail on Monday morning, their dogs had already been cremated.

The dogs were not crippled, maimed, or blind. Some had scars. Some had calluses. Most were healthy, described as “normal” on the LA/SPCA’s intake forms. Nineteen of the pit bulls were puppies, less than one year old. One of them would have whelped that weekend. Wendy Wolfson, at the time a veterinarian and medical director for the LA/SPCA, is now an assistant professor in shelter medicine at Louisiana State University, a program of study heavily funded by the HSUS. She testified that she conducted a hands-on exam of each animal: “We did a whole barrage of things to each dog,” she said. She later testified that she found evidence of dogfighting injuries in one or two cases so all the animals were labeled “fighting dogs.”

Once categorized as such, all the pit bulls were assumed to be inherently dangerous—too aggressive to live. Though they were friendly and vigorous, though there was in most cases no proof of actual fighting, the dogs were deemed “threats to the public” and could therefore be killed summarily. According to Louisiana law, “fighting dogs are declared to be contraband.” An arbitrary label put an end to their lives, without any recourse or appeal, without even notice to their owners. Not only were the dogs no longer personal property, but, once seized from their owners, they had become legally disposable too.

Three and a half years after the raid, in October 2008, the Boudreauxs were acquitted of all charges. If convicted, they might have faced ten years of imprisonment with or without hard labor for each count. Judge Kristian Earles found no evidence of any crime. The state’s case against them was so weak that he ruled without even asking the defense to call its witnesses. Floyd Boudreaux, a legendary dog man who had bred these dogs for most of his life, cried when the verdict was read. During the proceedings, the Boudreauxs’ lawyer, Jason Robideaux, condemned the LA/SPCA. “The State’s purpose in this case was to seize those dogs, the Boudreauxs’ dogs, and kill them, and thus, end the bloodline,” he said. “I don’t want to speculate as to the reasons.”

Boudreaux’s dogs were the product of two famous bloodlines: the generations-old Boudreaux line—his family hallmark since the 1930s—and the more recent “Eli Dogs,” named after Eli, a two-time pit winner, bred to Boudreaux’s Spook. Boudreaux had not pitted a dog in a fight since the late 1970s, when dog fighting was banned. Instead, his dogs appeared all over the United States in conformation shows and weight-pulling contests. The federal government enacted the federal dog-fighting law as part of the Animal Welfare Act in 1976, and Louisiana banned dog fighting in 1982. In an interview just before the raid, a year before his seventieth birthday, Boudreaux said he had “been working with the breed for over half a century. . . . My dad had ’em before I did, and then I had ’em before I went to grade school. My son too. It’s always been a family affair.”

Not until September 11, 2011, almost three years after the acquittal, did the LA/SPCA agree to a settlement, though it declined to comment on the terms. Father and son had sought damages for mental distress and loss of income they would have received from the sale of the dogs. They asked for about $300,000. “There’s no more Boudreaux/Eli breed,” Floyd said. “The mom and pop direct descendants that would not have been sold are dead. That’s 100
years of breeding that’s gone.”

January 6th, 2016

In Touch and Feeling with Dogs



With Dogs at the Edge of Life

“Can we engage our feelings without appropriation? Can we think through human and non-human mutuality without abstracting animals into what can be packaged and consumed—either as objects of moral concern or as literary device? Can we really think with dogs?” — Colin Dayan

Happy New Year! This week, our featured book is With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan. In today’s post, Dayan discusses the difficulty and the value of thinking and feeling with dogs.

In Touch and Feeling with Dogs
By Colin Dayan

     It is myself,
            Not the poor beast lying there

                    yelping with pain

     that brings me to myself with a start—

–William Carlos Williams, “To a Dog Injured in the Street”

Our greatest poets struggle with their response to and feeling with dogs. Elizabeth Bishop calls a stray, crippled, “depilated dog” to carnival as she laments a world that disallows and disposes of “anyone who begs, drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs,” in “Pink Dog.” John Berryman in the great ennui of “Dream Song 14” finds his tedium interrupted by a dog:

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

Out of the wear and tear of life comes the surprise. Something as ordinary as the wagging tail of a dog generates a miracle of transubstantiation. The dog and its tail take flight into “mountains or sea or sky,” while the poet remains. He inhabits and takes on what is left behind. The self turns into what a tail does. A nonhuman subjectivity is born in the conflation of the poetic I with the lilting, uplifting swish, sway, and shake of the canine hindquarters.

The vicissitudes, gaps, and blurring that these poets find in the sentience of dogs promise a renewal of self, as well as of language. To be “sensible” is to make meaning in its materiality: to think with the body. Yet it is a fine line between feeling for or with dogs and turning the non-human into source of inspiration or grist for academic argumentation—nothing less than yet another prompt to our poetic or moral thought or inquiry.

Can we engage our feelings without appropriation? Can we think through human and non-human mutuality without abstracting animals into what can be packaged and consumed—either as objects of moral concern or as literary device? Can we really think with dogs? This terrain of mutual adaptability puts us in the thick of what we are not. It asks that we step back and ask how we can know feeling that is not tied to our assumptions. Such a transforming regard also changes how we treat our fellow humans.

As our world becomes obscene in its greed and violence, I wonder if through the route of the dog we might find a practical and embodied way of being with others that doesn’t entail dominance and subordination. I do not advise that we lose sight of how brutality in the non-human world is part and parcel of the disregard and harm so pronounced in the human. But rather through a minded and felt—as well as “attentive” — empathy in all relations, I want to consider how we might dismantle individual preferment.

The route is not easy. Again, animality is what I want us to think about, not claims for humanity. The knowledge that matters has everything to do with perception, an attentiveness that might unleash another kind of intelligibility. Facing what is not our own or what we cannot know, in this bafflement we might relate most fully to what lies within, beside, and beyond ourselves.

Can we live in a world of contestation and entanglement? Such intimacy promises to lead us out of thought and into a feeling that renews another sense of the political. When William Carlos Williams died in 1963, Kenneth Burke wrote a moving reminiscence in The New York Review of Books.

Burke recalled that a few years after Williams, crippled with ailments, had stopped treating patients, they both walked “slowly on a beach in Florida.” Burke’s recollection affirms the meaning of empathy: a sentience that draws together two beings in a manner of experience that heals. It is tactile. It is a demanding reciprocity, a being together in a pain that can be healed if shared. In becoming acquainted with what lies outside the self, we enter into another kind of knowing.

For Burke, who felt sympathy for the dog—a feeling that did not help—this exchange captures what Williams called “contact.” The impetus for both his medical and poetic technique, this practice of discernment is not the precondition for uniqueness but rather an imperative to seek a more voracious if always provisional communion.

A neighbor’s dog decided to accompany us, but was limping. I leaned down, aimlessly hoping to help the dog (which became suddenly frightened, and nearly bit me). Then Williams took the paw in his left hand (the right was now less agile) and started probing for the source of the trouble. It was a gesture at once expert and imaginative, something in which to have perfect confidence, as both the cur and I saw in a flash. Feeling between the toes lightly, quickly, and above all surely, he spotted a burr, removed it without the slightest cringe on the dog’s part—and the three of us were again on our way along the beach.

Such contact demands a radical change in perspective. Not only does it complicate our understanding of the political, but it also escapes humanistic or morality-based assumptions.

Questioning the prescriptive force of morality—and its familiar companions, civility and reason, is crucial, it seems to me, in these times of exclusion and disposal. The radical inclusivity of such an appeal matters now more than ever. At the edge of a cherished humanism, what if we summoned instead a remote and uncertain reservoir on which all creatures might draw but from which most humans have learned to cut themselves off completely?

Early one morning last week I walked my dog Stella down the main street of the neighborhood. A white pick-up truck was waiting in a drive to enter the street. The dog ran up, as she sometimes does when white men in trucks, those I grew up knowing as “crackers” or “red necks,” look out at her. This is an inclination that I’m still trying to understand. She jumped, one paw on the seat of the man’s car, and another on his leg, and began to greet him powerfully with licks and nudges. He welcomed her and said in answer to my wonder: “She knows I’m sick, and that’s why she’s trying to help me. I’m dying.” Then he gently beat his chest, adding, “She can smell it. She wants to give me some relief.”