Category Archives: america

travel blindness

I went to Paris last weekend. I have a friend there with an apartment, flights are cheap in the off season, and I’ve never been there before. As might have been expected, I learned absolutely nothing about France. But I did come away with a lot of food for thought about America – specifically, how books work in the United States. Says Gilles Deleuze: “travel does not connect places, but affirms only their difference.” He’s right: sometimes you needs to get away from a place to think about it.

Three observations, then, on how books work in the United States w/r/t my French observations. This post is perhaps less liberal in its interpretation of books than we usually are around here: bear with me for a bit, there’s still plenty of rampant generalizing.

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Wandering around the Sorbonne, my friend & I came upon the Librerie Philosophique J. Vrin and went in. It’s a good-sized bookshop that’s devoted entirely to used and new philosophy books, mostly in French, although the neatly categorized shelves are noticeably peppered with other languages. On the Saturday evening I was there, it was full of browsing customers: it’s obviously a working bookstore. We don’t have philosophy book stores in the U.S. One finds, of course, no end of religious bookstores, but unless I’m tremendously mistaken, there’s none dedicated solely to philosophy. (And as far as I know, there’s only one poetry bookstore remaining in the U.S.)

It’s a(n admittedly minor) shock to find oneself in a philosophy bookstore. But a deeper question tugs at me: why aren’t there philosophy book stores in the United States? I’m certainly not qualified to judge what the existence of J. Vrin says about France, but its lack of an analogue in the U.S. clearly says something (besides the obvious “the market won’t support it”). Are we not thinking about big ideas and shipping them about in books? Are the only people who need to read Plato our neocon overlords? Why don’t we need books like these?

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Another thing you notice at J. Vrin, as well as elsewhere in Paris: how monotone the books are. It’s not quite a color-coordinated bookstore but it’s close: just about every spine is white, a smaller number being yellow, a smattering of other colors. If you pull a book out, the cover designs are mostly in a classic French style: lots of space, Didot type, some discreet flourishes. These two are typical:

agamben.jpg     derrida.jpg

I’m not tremendously interested in French book style of itself, though: I’m more interested in what this minimalist tendency reveals about American book design and the ideas behind it. A trio of comparisons: the French on the left of each pair, the American on the right:

deleuze.french.gif     deleuze.english.jpg

casanova.french.jpg     casanova.english.jpg

nothomb.french.jpg     nothomb.english.jpg

The American covers seem more designed – not necessarily better designed, that goes both ways – but they clearly exist as marketing. The French book covers aren’t advertising in the same way that the American book covers are. The implication here seems to be that French books are for reading, rather than for looking at. Nobody’s going to pick up one of those because of the way the cover looks. It’s presumed that the reader is already interested in the content of the book; what’s on the cover won’t change that interest. There’s a lot more variety in the American books: I might be persuaded to pick up the Deleuze book on Proust (where the quotation above came from) because it looks nice, or dissuaded from picking up the Amélie Nothomb book because it looks so horrible & the title was mangled into something out of Crate & Barrel.

herr tschicholdThere’s an essay by Jan Tschichold, the doyen of modern book design, advising the reader that the jacket of a hardcover book should be taken off and thrown away as soon as you get the book home. This seems heretical to a book collector (or designer), but I think his point ultimately makes sense: books shouldn’t exist as art objects, they exist to be read. Design should focus attention on, not deflect attention from, the ideas in the book. American book design has drifted away from that precept. (Tschichold, were he still alive, might argue that it’s failed entirely: that essay appears in a book titled The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design which has hardened into an art object: get a used copy for $102.50.)

Probably I didn’t need to go to France to figure this out: scrutinizing the Spanish and Bangla bookshops and bookcarts in my neighborhood reveals book covers that are closer to French than American design.

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Back to advertising: in the windows of wine bars, one sees volumes of Deleuze and Julia Kristeva, not exactly what we usually construe as light café reading. These books are cultural signifiers: presumably the right sort of passersby see them and understand that the winebar is the right sort of place for people like them. Could you do this in the U.S.? You could; by putting Stanley Cavell and Peter Singer in the window, I suspect that you’d attract a lot of confusion and maybe, if you were lucky, some shabby grad students. In Paris: pretty people. (Are they actually interested in Kristeva and Deleuze, or are they just interested in the wine? Again: no idea.)

It’s worth pointing out that Paris didn’t seem technologically reactionary to me: books haven’t succeeded at the expense of newer media. Paris is full of wireless, for example, and URLs are splattered all over advertisements. If anything, books seem to have succeeded with new media: a casual flip through the enormous number of channels on my friend’s television yielded a couple of book review programs. Again: books are part of the cultural discourse there in a way that isn’t the case here.

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I haven’t mentioned snobbery yet, though that’s obviously an essential part of this discourse. No one imagines that the majority of the French care that much about Derrida, and it’s clear the French have their own problems which don’t need my interpretations. And more importantly: it would be foolish to jump to the conclusion that America is anti-literary. I’m reminded of the bit in Proust’s Time Regained where the Baron de Charlus, equally drawn to both sides in WWI, declares himself pro-German because he’s surrounded by people parroting pro-French platitudes and he can’t stand them. I won’t deny that there’s a little bit of Charlus in my stance. But I do think that the lens of snobbery can be a useful way to scrutinize how cultural capital works, and this analysis can be broadened to look at the sort of big-picture questions we’re interested in at the Institute. Nor am I the only one who’s noticed this: a better analysis than my own can be found in Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters (depicted above in both French and American editions), a book from a few years ago:

. . . New York and London cannot be said to have replaced Paris in the structure of literary power: one can only note that, as a result of the generalization of the Anglo-American model and the growing influence of financial considerations, these two capitals tend to acquire more and more power in the literary world. But one must not oversimplify the situation by applying a political analysis that opposes Paris to New York and London, or France to the United States.”

(p. 168.) Casanova’s book is a nice (and readable) study of how literature functions globally as cultural capital; this review by William Deresiewicz in The Nation is a serviceable introduction. It’s a useful text for thinking about how big ideas have historically been “legitimated” (her term) and disseminated. Along the way, she can’t help but make a strong case for Paris being the historic arbiter of much of the world’s taste: Joyce, Faulkner, Borges, Wiesel (a list which could be extended at length) all first came to global prominence through French interest.

Another reminder that things are different in different countries: earlier this week, Pedro Meyer, the Mexican photographer who runs ZoneZero had a long lunch with the Institute, where he reiterated that the way books function in the U.S. is not necessarily the way they function in Latin America, where books are much scarcer and bookshops generally nonexistent. Meyer’s concerns echo those of Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe who blisters at American critics arguing that African novels are universal, only with different names:

“Does it ever occur to these [academics] to try out their game of changing names of characters and places in an American novel, say, a Philip Roth or an Updike, and slotting in African names just to see how it works? But of course it would not occur to them. It would never occur to them to doubt the universality of their own literature. In the nature of things the work of a Western writer is automatically informed by universality. It is only others who must strain to achieve it . . . I should like to see the word ‘universal’ banned altogether from discussions of African literature until such time as people cease to use it as a synonym for the narrow, self-serving parochialism of Europe, until their horizon extends to include all the world.”

(p. 156 in Casanova.) Culture cuts both ways. It’s important to remember that the ways books (and, by extension, their electronic analogues) function in American society isn’t the only way they can or should function. We tend to fall into the assumption that there is no alternative to the way we live. This is myopia, a myopia we need to continually recognize.

pinter and the nobel prize

pinter.jpg Twice in one year now the Swedish academy has used the Nobel Prize as a political swipe at the Bush administration, first giving the peace medal to Mohamed ElBaradei of the IAEA (a difference of opinion on disarmament, you could say), and today awarding the prize for literature to British playwright Harold Pinter, who in recent years has been a vocal critic of US and British policies, once referring to Tony Blair as a “deluded idiot.”
But recent years aside, Pinter undoubtedly deserves the prize for his life’s work in the theatre, where he developed a politics far more complex, painful and profound than what is on display in his latter-day fumings (generally right though they may be) about American empire.
In college I acted in one of Pinter’s later plays, Ashes to Ashes (1996), a mysterious single act about a marriage in crisis, and a good example of the kind of frightening moral puzzle, encompassing the personal and the political, that Pinter excelled at creating. In a comfortable English living room, in a comfortable English university town, a woman seems to psychically rupture before her husband’s eyes, traumatized by events she relates only in part, and which she could not possibly have been alive to experience.
She confesses to having had an affair with the warden of a Nazi death camp, and having lived with him there. She describes the horror of the place, obscenely channeling the Holocaust as a sort of sexual taunt toward her mystified husband, but at the same time communicating her distress at the slow suffocation of their marriage. It is a sickening game, but one they must play in order to cut to the heart of their relationship. Ashes to Ashes is a domestic play, but somehow the entire century speaks through it.
On a more general note, it’s encouraging to see a dramatist get recognized on this scale, a statement about the continued relevance, at least in concept, of the theatre — an unmediated medium in a thoroughly mediated age. It also says something about language. Pinter, whose bleak but darkly humorous sensibilities were formed in bombed-out, post-WWII England, uses language sparely and with scalpel-like precision. Playwright David Hare said of him:

“Pinter did what Auden said a poet should do. He cleaned the gutters of the English language, so that it ever afterwards flowed more easily and more cleanly.”

His plays have the ominousness of still water, the words like stones breaking the surface. You have to read and feel the ripples. In an age where mass media, and now the internet, have devalued words, Pinter found a way to make them startling again. He also understands the power of silence.
Elevating Pinter as international spokesman for the left, the Swedes missed the point. His recent protests haven’t been terribly interesting or original. But in missing, they still struck gold. All this media attention cannot really convey the power of his plays. Hopefully, this will lead to a reinvigorated interest in producing them. They still speak vitally to our times.

podcast: discussing neil postman’s “building a bridge to the 18th century”

book_building_a_bridge.jpg (Annotated audio recordings of this discussion appear further down.)
On the dedication page of “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century,” Neil Postman quotes the poet Randall Jarrell:

Soon we shall know everything the 18th century didn’t know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us.

Though often failing to provide satisfying answers, Postman asks the kind of first-order questions one hears all too infrequently at a time when technology’s impact on our social, political and intellectual lives grows ever more profound. Postman has been accused of deep reactionism toward technology, and indeed, his hostility toward computers and telecommunications betrays an elitism that discredits some of his larger, and quite compelling observations.
In spite of this, Postman’s diagnosis is persuasive: that the idea of technological progress bequeathed by the Enlightenment has detached from reason and become a runaway train, that we are unquestioningly embracing new technologies that unleash massive change on our family and communal life, our democracy, and our capacity to think critically. We have stopped asking the single most important question that should be applied to all new technological innovations: does this technology solve a problem? If so, then at what cost? To whose benefit? And at whose expense?
Postman portrays the contemporary West as a culture without a narrative, littered with the shards of broken ideologies – depressed, unmotivated, and therefore uncritical of the new technologies that are foisted upon it by a rapacious capitalist system. The culprit, as he sees it, is postmodernism, which he lambasts (rather simplistically) as a corrosive intellectual trend, picking at the corpse of the Enlightenment, and instilling torpor and malaise at all levels of culture through its distrust of language and dogged refusal to accept one truth over another. This kind of thinking, Postman argues, is seductive, but it starves humans of their inspiration and sense of purpose.
To be saved, he goes on, and to build a better future, we would do well to look back to the philosophes of 18th century Europe, who, in the face of surging industrialization, defined a new idea of universal rational humanism – one that allowed for various interpretations within its fold, was rigorously suspicious of religious or any other kind of dogma, and yet gave the world a sense of moral uplift and progress. Postman does not suggest that we copy the 18th century, but rather give it careful study in order to draw inspiration for a new positive narrative, and for a reinvigoration of our critical outlook. This, Postman insists, offers us the best chance of surviving our future.
Postman’s note of alarm, if at times shrill, is nonetheless a refreshing antidote to the techno-optimism that pervades contemporary culture. And his recognition of our “crisis in narrative” – a formulation borrowed from Vaclav Havel – is dead on.
September 19: Bob, Dan, Kim, and Ben discuss Postman’s book at our new Brooklyn office (special prize if you pick out the sound of the ice cream truck passing by).
1. Bob’s preface – thoughts about how we do business at the institute (1:56) (download)

2. Ben’s first impressions – childhood under threat… Dan’s first impressions into discussion – a Clinton-era book, sets up a rather straw man caricature with the postmodernists, but society’s need for a narrative is compelling – why the Christian right has done so well… Postman seems to be assuming that progress is a law, that there is a directed narrative to history – problems with how he treats evolution. (6:43) (download)

3. Bob: Postman is much better at identifying problems than at coming up with solutions. Which is what makes him compelling. His stance is courageous. People assume with technology that just because something can be done it should be done. This is a tremendous problem – an affliction. If you could go back in time and be the inventor of the automobile, would you do it? People get angry at the responsibility this question imputes to them. How can we put these big questions at the center of our work? (13:34) (download)

4. Another big question… “An electronic community is only a simulation of a real community”? Flickr, Friendster, Howard Dean campaign? What is the vehicle for talking about this? What format is best for engaging these questions? Looking for new forms that illuminate or activate the questions. (15:43) (download)

5. Where/who are the public intellectuals today? [The ice cream truck passes by.] Strange bifurcation of the intellectual elite – many of the best-educated people most able to deal with abstraction make their living producing popular media that controls society. (10:07) (download)

6. Is capitalism the problem? Postman’s bias: written language will never be surpassed in its power to deal with abstract thought and cultivation of ideas. But we are arguably past the primacy of print. What is our attitude toward this? (9:39) (download)

7. What opportunities for reflection do different media afford? Films on DVD can be read and reread like a book – the viewer controls, rather than being controlled – a possibility for reflection not available in broadcast. What is the proper venue for discussing this? Capitalism is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. How do we create, if not a mass agitation, then at least a mass discussion? Tie it to the larger pressing problems of the world and how they will be better addressed by certain forms of discourse and reflection. Averting ecological catastrophe as one possible narrative – an inspiring motivator that will get people moving. How do find our way back into history? (10:09) (download)

8. What should we read next as counterpoint/antidote to Postman? The Matrix – are we headed that way? (12:33) (download)

9. How do we organize new kinds of debates about technology and society? Other issues to be addressed – class, race and gender inequality. (11:26) (download)

losing america

I still have my husband’s visitor pass for 2 World Trade Center. He had clients on the 34th floor, so he visited frequently. On the morning of September 11, 2001, after the first plane hit, he called to tell me he was safe in his midtown office. He stayed on the phone with me as I sat on the front porch of our Brooklyn apartment to watch, helplessly, as the Trade Center Towers burned and fell. In the weeks following, I walked around in a daze, overwhelmed by the grief I felt for people I did not even know and for the city itself, which seemed strangely animate in the wake of the disaster; like a wounded giant. That the nation rushed to our aid and poured out its heart to us made things easier, but not many outside the city understood how bad it was. (To get a sense of what things were like in New Orleans in the days following the hurricane, I recommend this incredible First Person Katrina Account published on “Democratic Underground.”)
In that context, I’ve been trying to understand the enormity of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, but I can’t even begin to. September 11 seems small by comparison. We didn’t lose our homes. Our city didn’t drown. Our citizens were not abandoned, starved, mistreated, and driven to despair. My heart goes out to these victims whose suffering is exacerbated by leaders who are failing them so profoundly and, in some cases, so willfully. Attempts to deliver food, water, and much-needed relief to stranded survivors were purposely thwarted by armed authorities including the National Guard. (see Boing Boing’s September 9th article Katrina: Authorities bar Red Cross from NOLA; Blackwater gets carte blanche). The Red Cross Disaster FAQ page also has this answer to the question: Hurricane Katrina: Why is the Red Cross not in New Orleans?

• Access to New Orleans is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities and while we are in constant contact with them, we simply cannot enter New Orleans against their orders.
• The state Homeland Security Department had requested–and continues to request–that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane. Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.
• The Red Cross shares the nation’s anguish over the worsening situation inside the city. We will continue to work under the direction of the military, state and local authorities and to focus all our efforts on our lifesaving mission of feeding and sheltering.
• The Red Cross does not conduct search and rescue operations. We are an organization of civilian volunteers and cannot get relief aid into any location until the local authorities say it is safe and provide us with security and access.

The hero worship of 9/11 victims and relief workers, which bolstered morale and lent some humanity to the crisis, is almost entirely absent from the Hurricane Katrina “spin”. Katrina victims suffer the added humiliation of insensitive, uninformed, or blatently racist remarks made by elected officials who are trying to minimize the tragedy, shift blame to the victims, and deny responsibility. These quotes were selected from’s 25 Mind-Numbingly Stupid Quotes About Hurricane Katrina And Its Aftermath

“I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don’t have food and water.” -Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Sept. 1, 2005
“I mean, you have people who don’t heed those warnings and then put people at risk as a result of not heeding those warnings. There may be a need to look at tougher penalties on those who decide to ride it out and understand that there are consequences to not leaving.” -Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), Sept. 6, 2005
“I don’t make judgments about why people chose not to leave but, you know, there was a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.” -FEMA Director Michael Brown, arguing that the victims bear some responsibility, CNN interview, Sept.
1, 2005
“Now tell me the truth boys, is this kind of fun?” -House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-TX), to three young hurricane evacuees from New Orleans at the Astrodome in Houston
We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” -Rep. Richard Baker (R-LA) to lobbyists, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal
“I also want to encourage anybody who was affected by Hurricane Corina to make sure their children are in school.” -First Lady Laura Bush, twice referring to a “Hurricane Corina” while speaking to children and parents in South Haven, Mississippi, Sept. 8, 2005

And this from the Louisiana Senator:

“Thank President Clinton and former President Bush for their strong statements of support and comfort today. I thank all the leaders that are coming to Louisiana, and Mississippi and Alabama to our help and rescue. We are grateful for the military assets that are being brought to bear. I want to thank Senator Frist and Senator Reid for their extraordinary efforts. Anderson, tonight, I don’t know if you’ve heard – maybe you all have announced it — but Congress is going to an unprecedented session to pass a $10 billion supplemental bill tonight to keep FEMA and the Red Cross up and operating.” -Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Aug. 31, 2005, to which Cooper responded:
“I haven’t heard that, because, for the last four days, I’ve been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated. And when they hear politicians slap – you know, thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there’s not enough facilities to take her up. Do you get the anger that is out here?”

I can sympathize with the incredulity expressed by the writer of yesterday’s post on Daily Kos “The Conscious Decision to Let People Die”. I’m not naíve, I know that poor and middle class people are at the mercy of the rich and powerful and that if the rich don’t feel like helping, nobody can make them. But I was under the impression that some things are sacred, and that in America we don’t take food and water away from starving thirsty people. We don’t abandon our people to certain death, and we don’t sneer at those who are suffering. The way I understood it, American Freedom (with a capital F) had to do with the powerless having at least enough power to demand fair and humane treatment. I thought it meant that the hardworking tax-paying public could expect help in a time of dire crisis. I thought our Democracy had checks and balances to minimize corruption and incompetance. I thought America (even under the current administration) had something to do with being civilized, humane and fair.
I don’t anymore.
(The above has nothing and everything to do with the future of the book.)