Sunday Reading

by zunguzungu

Elizabeth Gumport is against [book] reviews” in N+1:

Newness is not a fixed property. There must be a less arbitrary, more sensible way to encounter books, an organizational scheme better suited to identifying and highlighting excellence; one which doesn’t foreground mediocrities simply because they are the newest mediocrities. “Recent” is not a synonym for “relevant.”

Reviews are the product of a Protestant society, and like the New Testament they tell us time is infinite. If you believe in the persistence of the soul after death, you are unlikely to feel you are squandering your life on earth. No decision is your final one, no word your last; after every moment is another. In a chronologically-driven theology, there is time enough for all things, including book reviews.

But writers of book reviews like Tom Lutz, M.A. Orthofer, and Edward Champion beg to disagree. I tend to be sympathetic to the broad point she’s making, but am totally and always unimpressed by explanations that start with an abstractions like her quasi-Weberian “Protestant Society” as a way of explaining some contemporary phenomenon. To the extent that Weber was on to something, it had a lot more to do with the political economy that early protestants found themselves in, and the same is true here: if you want to understand why book reviews fulfill a vital function in the economy of literary production, start with the problem of over-abundance of new books and writing and the limiting factor of attention-span:

Via Jay Smooth, for example, see this from Nitsuh Abebe:

Fifteen years ago, the main problem a lover of music— or film, or television, or other varieties of pop culture— would experience was scarcity. It took money to get hold of the stuff, and if you liked anything weird, it took effort, too. As a result, the default mode was to like what you could. In fact, the best way to demonstrate to others that you cared and were discerning about music was to like things— to have enjoyed exploring all these realms that took some effort to get to.

Over the past decade and a half, this situation seems to have reversed. The problem people talk about now is not scarcity but glut: a glut of music available to consume, a glut of media to tell you about it, a glut of things that desperately want your attention. Somewhere along the way, the default mode has taken a hard shift in the direction of showing your discernment by not liking things; by seeing through the hype and feeling superior to whatever you’re being told about in a given week. Give it the attention it wants, but in the negative.

This extends far outside of music. There’s an entire Arch Snarky Commenter persona people now rush to adopt, in which they read things on the Internet and then compete to most effectively roll their eyes at it. And there’s nothing inherently terrible about that; a lot of the phenomena we read about every day can afford that kind of skepticism. It’s interesting, though, just how overclocked a bullshit detector can get– to the point where we’re verging on a kind of paranoia about things that are, in the end, mostly trying to offer us pleasure.

A propos of that, tape recorded music is doing well in Zimbabwe because cassettes are harder to copy. (ht)

Georgetown professor, Christine Fair demolishes the silver-tongued Christopher Hitchens’ piece on Pakistan and Bin Laden (“From Abbottabad to Worse”) by using facts and expertise. This is why it’s good to read analysis from people with deep knowledge of the place being analyzed.

At the Washington Post, Ezra Klein talks about what he thinks was wrong with Inside Job, sort of, basically coming down on the side of saying that the economy is really hard to understand, and that good people were legitimately blindsided by what happened. Yves Smith tells him to stick to being wrong about health care, at tremendous length, and leaves not much standing. Ouch. Also Dean Baker got some hits in first.

The exchange is worth noting since we can see the aftermath of the financial meltdown being translated into political “lessons”: from Klein’s position (at the Washington Post), the idea of corruption at the top is being poo-pooed, while the vitriolic author of Econned is vitriolic about the corruption she sees him as covering up for (and representing). If you look at it that way, it’s quite a predictable contretemps. I confess to being pretty much completely convinced by the Smith/Baker side of the argument, for what it‘s worth. Reading Yves Smith’s book will do that to you, I think; it’s very smart on the ways economics — as an intellectual discipline and a political ideology — functions to blind people in exactly the ways Klein is framing as somewhere between inevitable and an external feature of the landscape. What he argues to be an confusing complexity of a system — organically produced by the logic of that system — she argues to be a produced obscurity, and shows how it has been, at great and persuasive length. In other words, while it doesn’t mean she’s right to point this out, Klein is the talented amateur who wandered onto the turf of a talented expert with a long list of citations under her belt. Placing his short column next to her accumulated corpus isn’t even a fair fight; she wrote a book — and hundreds of blog posts — arguing at great and persuasive and authoritative length the position he tries to dismiss in a couple hundred words. Perhaps the problem is that bloggers don’t read long things because they’re too long?

On a related note, Paul Krugman’s review of Jeff Madrick’s Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present:

The great financial crisis of 2008–2009, whose consequences still blight our economy, is sometimes portrayed as a “black swan” or a “100-year flood”—that is, as an extraordinary event that nobody could have predicted. But it was, in fact, just the most recent installment in a recurrent pattern of financial overreach, taxpayer bailout, and subsequent Wall Street ingratitude. And all indications are that the pattern is set to continue…The first thing you need to know about the cycle of financial overreach, crisis, and bailout is that it was not always thus. The United States emerged from the Great Depression with a tightly regulated financial sector, and for about forty years those regulations were enough to keep banking both safe and boring. And for a while—with memories of the bank failures of the 1930s still fresh—most people liked it that way. Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, however, both the political consensus in favor of boring banking and the structure of regulations that kept banking safe unraveled.

John Quiggan is doing an ongoing series on the value of Marxism after “revolution” has been given up as the horizon of progress.  First, he does Class; second, he does Crisis.

Seagull steals video camera, and the video that results:

Pablo K’s read on Game of Thrones nicely complements Ludic Despair’s screed. And definitely read this instead of watching The Green Lantern.

Shorter The Supreme Court: “It’s Only Illegal to be Stupid; Gender Discrimination is Fine.” As Jacob Remes points out, this highlights once again why we can’t rely on courts to do our work for us, why we need organizing and action instead of legalism.

Related, on the clear conflicts of interest that Clarence Thomas is cool with because he’s a disgrace as a Supreme Court Justice.

The GOP refuses to negotiate the debt limit in order to protect tax breaks for people earning half a million a year. And if Congress does nothing, the deficit will disappear:

Radley Balko’s series, Myths of the Criminal Justice System.

Glenn Greenwald’s been killing it this week. But you already knew that.

More from the exploding file on police harassing people who try to film them. And then there’s the Al Jazeera report on the clusterfuck in Miami.

Four reasons to join the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And in the “How technology will be used in the future to prevent citizens from using technology to watch over the government”category:

Apple has been much maligned in the press recently for filing a patent application covering a camera system with infrared technology that could, among other things, allow the recording functionality to be shut off by a third party. For example, in its application, Apple shows how the technology could be used to “prevent illegal image capturing” at a rock concert. To us, this sounds like a familiar story: one where the content industry pressures technology companies—or, Congress—to limit fans’ ability to access and share their content, even when that sharing is perfectly legal. As we’ve said before, it’s a real shame when the promise of innovation is stifled by Hollywood’s demands.

But this time, there is an even more real threat. The availability of mobile phones with video capability has allowed activists around the world the ability to capture and disseminate important footage, often in the absence of news reporting. If a government were to gain access to and utilize Apple’s technology, the result could mean disastrous consequences.

Mike K notes that

the FTC has given a thumbs up to the Social Intelligence Corp. archiving seven years worth of people’s Facebook posts, posts that can then be used as part of their background checking service for job applicants” and points out that “Hard and soft forms of behavioral surveillance technology are maturing into things legible and deployable for employers and recruiters at exactly the moment when employees have little-to-no aggregate bargaining power.”

It’s really worth noting how short the jump from “frowned upon behavior like drinking” to the category of “criminality” becomes for these people, too:

“You cannot believe the things that we see. The amount of references to drugs and alcohol and the amount of provocative photos and the things that people say is jaw dropping,” says Max Drucker, chief executive of Social Intelligence Corp. “People that we see that are applying for jobs that have this kind of really incriminating information out there.”

I certainly hope none of you have ever documented the thought crime of referring to drugs or alcohol on facebook, or of saying something provocative anywhere ever.

The UC Regents continue to be totally corrupt about for-profit education.

On unemployment and blaming universities for it:

It makes no sense to blame universities for producing graduates who can’t get jobs, because the problem is the employers, not the employees. We don’t have a “shortage of qualified graduates”; we have an employment system that’s broken and harmful, an employment system that prioritizes the needs of business owners and managers over those of society and the general population, an employment system, in short, whose constant failure to sustain collective life and common dignity is scarcely to be blamed on the educational system. In the end, education is only one input into the employment system, and when the problem is that system itself, it just makes no sense to dump all the blame onto one of the system’s inputs. If you put someone through a meat grinder, no matter how well prepared for the experience they may be, no matter how much they’ve been educated to be a good, flexible, attractive lump of raw flesh, they come out ground to pieces.

Now, contrary to received wisdom, unemployment is in no sense inevitable. In fact, anthropologically speaking, the phenomenon of unemployment is an aberration. The majority of human societies have had no such thing as unemployment. This should be obvious, if we reflect for a moment on the structure of work in small-scale agrarian societies where people work primarily for themselves and for their household. There were, for example, no unemployed people among the Nuer of Sudan, at least not when E. E. Evans-Pritchard studied them back in the 1930s. He informs us that “there [was] enough land for everybody on the Nuer scale of cultivation… it is taken for granted that a man has a right to cultivate the ground behind his homestead” (p. 77). Or take the Gawans of Papua New Guinea, in Nancy Munn’s account. Gawan men and women alike were expected to work, and the lazy were condemned; as among the Maenge, “passivity [was] the social defect par excellence.” Nevertheless, “daily work,” which focused on the family’s garden, “is planned by each person or nuclear family… [and] a person’s participation in any wider group arrangements for work depends entirely on individual decision” (p. 75, p. 30). For that matter, Michel Panoff, writing about the neighboring Maenge, notes that it took an average of four hours of daily work per adult to feed a nuclear family.

Adam Kotsko on education and the excessiveness of math:

[T]here’s always something excessive in formal education, something that cannot be captured in a pure utilitarian calculation — that’s what makes it “education” rather than simple “training.” Furthermore, that excessive element corresponds to society’s own self-image. In what it forces kids to learn, over and above any straightforward utility, a society is telling a story about itself and its aspirations.

In a previous regime of education, the excessive element was classical education and particularly the study of the Latin language, a practice that continued (among elites) long past the point of Latin’s actual use as a common European language. It’s not difficult to understand the message behind this insistence on the importance of a dead language — it expressed a sense of connection to a broader Western heritage as well as to the task of universal empire-building. Presumably all those goals could be met by reading the works in question in translation, or else distilling their insights and strategies into contemporary works, making learning the actual Latin language excessive — yet that excessiveness is precisely the point.

In the contemporary U.S., the equivalent of the Latin language is surely mathematics. Indeed, math is frequently evoked as one of the first types of skills that one needs for today’s job market. Thinking back, however, I learned a lot of things in math class that were excessive. I’ve never needed to use algebra or geometry to any serious degree, let alone calculus.

Matt Taibbi writes the requisite Michele Bachmann is terrible piece for Rolling Stone. Abe Sauer suggests in The Awl that maybe fueling the backlash is not a good thing to do.

A profound and hilarious quip I made on twitter is immortalized.

Sexy Roman coins:


Mayor of Harrisburg on a hunger strike, sort of, over city’s budget woes.  And jail is better than being seriously ill without health care in the US.

Pulitzer Center’s section on great reporting in Africa.

Stephen Metcalf on why the philosophical father of libertarianism gave up on the movement he inspired.

Gin and Tacos goes to Vegas:

There is one and only one reason that this kind of unprecedented growth has been possible…no Hoover Dam, no Phoenix. No Las Vegas. No Los Angeles. Vegas and Phoenix barely existed in 1900 because they’re in the middle of a goddamn desert. There is no water and there were no power resources. The dam brought the electricity and fresh water that allowed the growth of infrastructure, industry, and population in places that could not otherwise have any of it. Now, for a million bonus points, who built the Hoover Dam?

A) The Free Market
B) The Federal Government
C) State and Local Government

Congratulations, B is correct!

The passage of the legislation to build it took many years and was vociferously opposed by private utilities in Arizona and California (Nevada basically had no population to speak of until the Dam) because they feared competition from government electricity. They used allies in the media, particularly Hearst and Chandler, to label the project as socialism. Eventually Republicans in California realized that the overall economic growth of the state would be more beneficial in the long run than parochial concerns about the profits of Southern California Edison, and they threw support behind the bill that Calvin Coolidge eventually signed. In the long run I’d say that thousand-percent growth of population and industry in the Southwest has made local utilities more money than they lost to Socialist Electricity.

It casts the reactionary, ultraconservative politics of Arizona, Orange County, Utah, and Nevada in high relief to point out that the coyote population would outnumber the humans in the region if not for Big Government doing what private industry would not – elevate national, long term interests over short term profit…

And Timothy Burke goes to Yosemite.

Anthropomorphic and Zoomorphic satirical maps

NYT discovers that they have crazy colorful trucks in Pakistan. Now if we could only figure out what it means when they throw the shoes, these people. It’s some kind of secret cultural code, I think.

You will be shocked to learn that private contractors are the real (and only) winners in the war on drugs in Latin America:

As tens of thousands of corpses continue to pile up as a result of the US-led “War on Drugs” in Latin America, private contractors are benefiting from lucrative federal counternarcotics contracts amounting to billions of dollars, without worry of oversight or accountability. U.S. contractors in Latin America are paid by the Defense and State Departments to supply countries with services that incl

ude intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, training, and equipment.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that our efforts to rein in the narcotics trade in Latin America, especially as it relates to the government’s use of contractors, have largely failed,”said U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, chair of the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight which released a report on counternarcotics contracts in Latin America this month. “Without adequate oversight and management we are wasting tax dollars and throwing money at a problem without even knowing what we’re getting in return.”

Washington doled out $3.1 billion dollars between 2005 and 2009, with spending having increased 32 percent over the five year period. DynCorp International was the big winner, racking in $1.1 billion, or 36 percent of total counternarcotics contract spending in the region by the Defense and State Departments. Other contractors benefiting from the spending include Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, ITT, and ARINC.”The federal government does not have any uniform systems in place to track or evaluate whether counternarcotics contracts are achieving their goals,” the report states…The lack of transparency, oversight and accountability by the Defense and State Departments on counternarcotics contracts was brought to light last year in a May 2010 hearing McCaskill held in which the Defense Department provided incomplete accounting on how “Drug War” money was spent on private contractors. Remarkably, it was revealed that the Defense Department actually outsourced their audit to a private contractor for the hearing.

Panel Summaries from Jadaliyya’s “Teaching the Middle East” conference, day one and day two.

This piece from Olivier Roy is, as always, really worth reading:

The strength of the pro-democracy movements in the Middle East is such that, for the first time in the Arab world, revolution has not attached itself to some grand, supranational cause: pan-Arabism, pan-Islamism, socialism, support for the Palestinians, anti-colonialism, anti-Zionism or anti-imperialism. These new movements are patriotic rather than nationalist, taking root in a domestic context and confronting the authorities without accusing them of being puppets of a foreign power.

This is not to say that the great geostrategic fissures have disappeared, but they exist primarily in the minds of the leaderships still in place which, when they haven’t been content simply to fight for their own survival (as in Libya or Yemen), have interpreted the revolts in terms of their wider regional implications. This is also true of the Israelis, who, like the Saudi regime in Riyadh, have been concerned only to cal­culate the likely consequences of the recent unrest. Though the western powers are congratulating themselves on a wave of democratisation that they have encouraged, they, too, are highly sensitive to the geostrategic dimension, as their silence on the repression of protests in Bahrain demonstrates.

This, too, is food for thought:

The “neutrality” of the events in Egypt also reveals something more profound, which many seasoned observers of the Arab world are reluctant to acknowledge. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite its emotional impact across the region, is not a factor in the present political mobilisation in the Arab world and no longer plays a determining role in shaping the foreign policy of Arab states, with the exception of Syria.

The evolution of the conflict will depend on relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians inside the historic borders of Mandate Palestine, not on the policies of Arab states. The Arab-Israeli conflict has given way to that between the Israelis and the Palestinians. One need only look at their discomfort at the new, pro-democracy movements to see that this irritates the Israelis as much it does the Palestinian leadership.

This does not mean that these movements will not have any impact on the conflict. They will, in so far as they are awakening a taste for democracy and non-violence among Palestinians which will, in turn, prevent Israel from declaring itself to be the “only democracy in the Middle East” and the sole bulwark against terrorism and Islamism. The wave of democratisation has already forced Hamas and Fatah to find an accord because both fear being overwhelmed by a popular movement that would be anything but a third anti-Israeli intifada.

Sasha Frere-Jones wrote a piece in the New Yorker about Lady Gaga, Adele, and Beyoncé  and This.Blue.Angel runs him down like a freight train.

Anmanda Marcotte on movies where the male lead is routinely a decade older than the female love interest:

Once noticed in this movie, it began to bug me across the board: Ryan Reynolds is 11 years older than his love interest Blake Lively in “The Green Lantern”.  Ryan Gosling, who is 30,  is being paired off with 22-year-old Emma Stone in “Crazy, Stupid, Love”. Even Tom Hanks in “Larry Crowne” is 11 years older than Julia Roberts.  I’m sure there are more that have passed my notice; these were just the highlighted movies in the magazine.

Again, none of this would bother me if it was dealt with honestly or was rare as it is in real life.  But when it sits on the screen with no acknowledgment or explanation, it leaves the impression we’re supposed to think of the characters as peers, since they’re still just close enough in age you can assume they’re supposed to be the same age. Which, in turn, thwarts the onscreen image of what a woman actually looks like at any given age.  Ryan Gosling is allowed to be and look 30, but are we meant to assume that a woman around that age should look 22?  Are we really meant to believe that still-radiant Julia Roberts is the same age as puffy-eyed Tom Hanks?  What women look like at any given age is being subtly erased in movies when we’re supposed to assume smooth-faced Mélanie Laurent is roughly the same age as Ewan McGregor, whose face is replete with the lines of looming middle age.

Syrian men promise to marry women who were raped. Reportedly, a woman hacked off the head of her would-be rapist with a sickle and then paraded through a marketplace with it. So, there’s that.

Sappho has a round-up of what people are saying about the Greek debt crisis.

The “Sluts” of Hindi Cinema, via @abubanda.

On plagiarism:

It’s unfortunate that right now the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism. And the reason the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism is because their product is less and less valuable these days. When students plagiarize, there’s an implicit recognition that “I’m just doing this for the grade.” That’s why they do it. And that’s the way that the majority of students look at the university, and have been for some time now. At my college, the frats had rooms full of file cabinets full of plagiarized papers. Plagiarism is old news. It’s really not just that plagiarism is getting easier to do, with the Internet. The problem is now that the grade doesn’t even get you the job.

Now, I’m not saying there’s no virtue in forcing people to take classes in things they aren’t interested in. But plagiarism is going to happen in a society in which you are told, “This is something you need to do in order to have the life you want, and in order to have the life you want there are things you must do that you don’t want to do, and may even be incapable of doing. Now, we don’t really care where you went to high school, and we can’t speak to the quality of your English professors. So, here, write a paper about philosophy. And if you cheat, we will fucking expel you.” But if you don’t cheat, you’ll get a D, which is as good as being expelled. And that’s a rock and a hard place.

An interview with Professional Atheist-Christian Adam Kotsko:

One of the interesting things I’ve found from reading your blog is that you are in fact an atheist. What relevance do you see this theory having for atheists?

Well, first I want to hedge on this atheist question in some way, and say I’m not a traditional theist; but if I’m an atheist, I’m at least a Christian one. In any case though, I think that a lot of work by secular philosophers recently has been reclaiming the Christian tradition, and theological concepts, that provides some prima facieevidence for its relevance—people like Slavoj Zizek or Alain Badiou or Georgio Agamben. My work’s been very influenced by them as a way to reclaim the Christian heritage in a more convincing way than simply rejecting it because it has religiousness all over it.

At one point theologian Thomas Altizer posted on your blog that we haven’t really thought through a proper atheism yet.

Right. I think that you can see this with the New Atheists. Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ and Dennett’s books are a kind of simplistic critique of religion that’s basically not going to change anyone’s mind. I think there has to be more to say about religion other than the fact that it makes no sense as an empirical claim. That’s just too obvious to be interesting. I think that we as a society deserve a better form of atheism.

What’s Up Africa and Jay Smooth: