September 9, 2014

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Reading: The Struggle

nybooks.com | Article Link | by Tim Parks

The conditions in which we read today are not those of fifty or even thirty years ago, and the big question is how contemporary fiction will adapt to these changes, because in the end adapt it will. No art form exists independently of the conditions in which it is enjoyed.

What I’m talking about is the state of constant distraction we live in and how that affects the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction—for immersing oneself in it and then coming back and back to it on numerous occasions over what could be days, weeks, or months, each time picking up the threads of the story or stories, the patterning of internal reference, the positioning of the work within the context of other novels and indeed the larger world.

Every reader will have his or her own sense of how reading conditions have changed, but here is my own experience. Arriving in the small village of Quinzano, just outside Verona, Italy, thirty-three years ago, aged twenty-six, leaving friends and family behind in the UK, unpublished and unemployed, always anxious to know how the next London publisher would respond to the work I was writing, I was constantly eager for news of one kind or another.

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September 2, 2014

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John Searle: The Philosopher in the World

nybooks.com | Article Link | by Tim Crane

On May 22, the philosopher and longtime New York Review contributor John Searle gave a public lecture at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) on “Consciousness as a Problem in Philosophy and Neurobiology.” During Searle’s visit, Cambridge Professor of Philosophy Tim Crane interviewed him about his work and the state of philosophy today. The following is drawn from their conversation.

Tim Crane: In our discussion earlier today, you talked about questions of rights and freedom. This is a bit of a new departure for you, isn’t it?

John Searle: I have never written much about political rights and political power. But if you have a theory of social ontology it ought to have implications in other areas of social philosophy concerning other issues. Social ontology is a beautiful subject by the way. We all live with money and private property, and universities, and governments, and summer vacations: What’s their ontology? How do they exist? How can there be an objective fact that this piece of paper is money, but it’s only money in virtue of our subjective opinions? That’s a big question I have tried to answer. And I think my theory of social ontology has important implications for political philosophy. One is on the notion of human rights, universal human rights.

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August 26, 2014

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Known Unknowns of the Class War

aaww.org | Article Link | by Naeem Mohaiemen

When you turn to page 186 of In the Light of What We Know, you encounter an illustration. The novel’s two main characters have by this point discussed many things, and readers may have already been craving visual aids. But this is the first time the text is interrupted by a diagram. You sense, therefore, the arrival of a crucial digression.

The illustration is of a diagonal line that runs from the top left corner of the diagram to the bottom right, interrupted mid-way by a vertical rectangle. On the other side of the rectangle, two diagonals slope downward in the same direction as the first, one atop the other. If you are not particular about the condition of your books (as I am not), you will have the urge to fold the page to better work out the optical illusion. It appears as if the descending diagonal line continues, after interruption, along the upper diagonal on the right. But folding would reveal the opposite—that it is actually the second, lower diagonal that it is joined with.

Named “Poggendorff’s illusion,” after the nineteenth-century German physicist Johann Poggendorff who discovered it in a drawing, the illusion is something Zafar, the novel’s British-Bangladeshi protagonist, starts explaining to our unnamed narrator. But as with many other incomplete yet meticulously plotted diversions within Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, Zafar does not finish the story. It is up to the narrator to fill in the gaps, after “consulting pages on the Internet,” as one of the novel’s many Infinite Jest-like footnotes inform us.

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August 21, 2014

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Emily Gould, Literary Narcissism, and the Middling Millennials

edrants.com | Article Link | by Edward Champion

Richard Wright was 32 when he published Native Son. Dinaw Mengestu was 26 when he published All the Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. Edwidge Danticat had two novels and a short story collection under her belt before she was 30. James Baldwin published Go Tell It on the Mountain when he was 29. Publishing fiction was neither an act of vanity nor a declaration of entitlement for these formidably talented figures. Their novels were all serious works of art peering fearlessly into America’s troubled soul, demanding that readers pay attention and alter their reality by a bristling strand. Their stories burned from their typewriters and computers as naturally as kindling on an uncontainable fire.

Yet an insufferable new group of mediocre writers and book boosters, armed with a 24/7 presence on social media, has emerged not only to debase literature, but to drive out vibrant, risk-taking literary lights with the advocation of childish, anglophonic, and apolitical narratives that read more like the old Sassy articles once devoured by preening teens. (Indeed, the obsession with nostalgia and adolescent mimicry is so commiserable that this group’s indefatigable flight from adulthood at such a late age is quite embarrassing when compared against the commendable industry of RookieMag‘s teen prodigy Tavi Gevinson.) To some degree, this is an offshoot of what Tom Whyman has smartly identified as “cupcake fascism,” whereby embracing empty bourgeois comfort supplants even the most half-hearted engagement.

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August 11, 2014

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In the Near Future, Only Very Wealthy Colleges Will Have English Departments

newrepublic.com | Article Link | by James Pulizzi

Within a few decades, contemporary literature departments (e.g., English) will be largely extinct—they’ll be as large and vibrant as Classics departments are today, which is to say, not very active at all. Only wealthy institutions will be able to afford the luxury of faculty devoted to studying written and printed text. Communications, rhetoric/composition, and media studies will take English’s place. The change isn’t necessarily an evil to be decried but simply reflects how most people now generate and read narratives and text—they do it on digitally based multimedia platforms.

Why should college students read narrative prose when they get their fill of stories from television, cinema, and interactive video games? Narratives currently live in many different media, and there should be nothing wrong with academics considering them alongside print narratives. Defenders of the traditional curriculum mostly believe students need to read these printed texts if they are to be truly educated, cultured members of our society. That’s the gist of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and many an essay from right- and left-leaning critics alike, including Adam Kirsch’s recent essay “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments.”

The so-called culture war that raged around Bloom’s book through the 1990s amid concern that including the disenfranchised’s voices would dilute (white, European) culture has largely passed, and yet the anxiety about English and the humanities in general lingers.

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July 1, 2014

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The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses

telegraph.co.uk | Article Link | by An Wilson

Can there ever have been a book with a more dramatic publishing history than James Joyce’s Ulysses – written in abject poverty and over a period of seven years during and just after the First World War; printed in Paris (at first, just two copies); vilified as obscene; burnt and impounded at British and American docks; and smuggled like forbidden hooch? (Amusing to read here of Ernest Hemingway’s part in the smuggling.)

Kevin Birmingham has a deep love of the novel, and knows everything about Joyce. His learned book is a gripping page-turner. Ulysses might have been indecent – if graphic language and an obsession with lavatorial and sexual functions is rightly so described. But, whether or not the book is indecent, the sheer decency of its early defenders will be what strikes the reader of this story.

There was demure English heiress Miss Weaver – who published early extracts from the book in an avant-garde journal, The Egoist, and gave Joyce £2,000 – a sum that provided him with an income of £350 (the equivalent today of £11,000). There were Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap in New York, whose Little Review published the first half of the novel in episodic pamphlets – until the notorious “Circe” episode was impounded by the authorities. There was the famous Sylvia Beach, proprietress of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, who published the first edition of Ulysses in book form. There was Arnold Bennett, a novelist of such a different complexion from Joyce’s, who could see, in an early review, that Joyce was “dazzlingly original. If he does not see life whole he sees it piercingly”.

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June 18, 2014

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Philosophy is a Bunch of Empty Ideas: Interview with Peter Unger

3quarksdaily.com | Article Link | by Grace Boey

Philosophy: you either get it or you don't. The field has its passionate defenders, but according to its critics, philosophy is irrelevant, unproductive, and right at the height of the ivory towers. And now, the philosophy-bashing camp can count a proud defector from the other side: Peter Unger, Professor of Philosophy at New York University, has come out against the field in his latest book, Empty Ideas: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy.

Unger has written extensively over the course of his career on various philosophical topics, and his best-known writings include Ignorance: A Case for Scepticism (1975) and Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (1995). As a no-holds-barred critique of mainstream analytic philosophy, Empty Ideas is a continuation of Unger's signature provocative style.

As a former student of his, I spoke to Unger in late May about Empty Ideas, his thoughts on the value of philosophy, Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, David Lewis, and the difference between philosophy, crystal healing and self-help (the answer: nothing that important).

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May 30, 2014

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Buzzfeed’s founder used to write Marxist theory and it explains Buzzfeed perfectly

vox.com | Article Link | by Dylan Matthews

Buzzfeed has achieved an outrageous amount of success in recent years, reaching 130 million unique visitors last November (over four times as many as in November 2012). There are a lot of reasons for that but a major one is the site's remarkable talent at relating to people. Many of the site's pieces work by letting readers revel in shared traits or experiences: "35 Signs You Went To A Liberal Arts College In The Early ’90s"; "19 Reasons We Are All Actually Every Single Disney Character"; "26 Struggles Only People With Small Bladders Will Understand." "Nobody wants to be a shill for your brand," former Buzzfeed chief creative officer Jeff Greenspan once told New York Magazine for a profile of the company's founder, Jonah Peretti. "But they are happy to share information and content that helps them promote their own identity."

So where did Peretti get that idea? Peretti's academic writings offer one clue. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz in 1996, Peretti published an article in the cultural theory journal Negations entitled "Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Contemporary Visual Culture and the Acceleration of Identity Formation/Dissolution." After the paper was mentioned in New York's Peretti profile, Critical-Theory.com's Eugene Wolters read through it, and found that it more or less lays out (and critiques) Buzzfeed's entire business model—a full decade before the company was founded. Read more...

Image courtesy of International Institute of Social History

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May 21, 2014

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New Journal Issues Now Available from The Humanities Collection

Bookstore | The Collection | New Directions in the Humanities

We are pleased to announce the publication of the following issues.

These issues are now available through our online bookstore. Participants of the 2013 conference and 2013--2014 Community Members may download full-text articles for free by logging in to CGPublisher.

These issues feature the following articles...

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May 1, 2014

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The Glory that was Greece, the Grandeur that was Rome

http://harvardreview.fas.harvard.edu/ | Original Article | by J. Kates

The other evening, sitting with friends, literate professional writers of my own generation, discussing boundaries between history and fiction, I made a reference to the ambiguities of Thucydides’ invention of historical speechifying. Suddenly, my table-mates looked at me as though I had sprouted a not particularly attractive horn. Thucydides! Where did that come from? A great gap seemed to yawn between what used to be called the Ancients and the Moderns, with the Ancients consigned to the “classics,” which are presumed to be in decline, and the Moderns content to talk about memoir workshops. At this point, I might be expected to bemoan the bemusement of my colleagues. But that bemusement is part of a conversation, not the end of one. There is no decline, and no lack of engagement, as Mary Beard demonstrates triumphantly in her collection of essays and reviews, Confronting the Classics (Liveright, 2013).

To put this as crisply as I can, the study of Classics is the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves. It is not only the dialogue that we have with the culture of the classical world; it is also the dialogue that we have with those who have gone before us who were themselves in dialogue with the classical world. . . . it is we who ventriloquise, who animate what the ancients have to say.”

Reader, I am no “Classicist.” Read more...

Image courtesy of Antonio De Lorenzo and Marina Ventayol / Wikimedia Commons

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