Protected: Review of 2009

December 31st, 2009 § Enter your password to view comments. § permalink

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Erdos as a guest

December 29th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Paul Erdos, Tom Waits, and women in Philosophy:

But he wasn’t just moving from one university or research center to the next in a restless quest for mathematical talent. He was on the move so much because he was holy hell as a house guest. —He “forsook all creature comforts—including a home—to pursue his lifelong study of numbers,” the blurbs will tell you. Bullshit. He forsook the bother and worry of creature comforts. Other people cooked his food. Other people washed his clothing. Other people kept him from wandering into traffic. Other people woke him in time for his “preaching” appointments. Other people filled out his paperwork.

Brecht: if sharks were men

December 28th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Linked, because it has slipped my mind for almost a year, and because it’s highly entertaining (if a little obvious). If sharks were men:

There would, of course, also be schools in the big boxes. In these schools the little fish would learn how to swim into the sharks’ jaws. They would need to know geography, for example, so that they could find the big sharks, who lie idly around somewhere. The principal subject would, of course, be the moral education of the little fish. They would be taught that it would be the best and most beautiful thing in the world if a little fish sacrificed itself cheerfully…

More romantics: Wordsworth

December 28th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Wordsworth, however, is a poet I’ve never been able to make mean something. The main reason, probably, is that I have no time for the pastoral. I’d rather see allusive intensity in the cities I love than in a natural world with which I find no connection.

But the above-linked article by Adam Kirsch turns up other reasons. Apparently “many of what we now see as the Victorian virtues—earnestness, mature optimism, easy authority—are first incarnated in his poetry“. And, perceptively:

If his first readers turned against him because he was undignified, today we are more likely to turn away from him because he is too dignified. He knows what he knows so surely, so completely, that he cannot think against himself; no poet besides Milton is as devoid of humor.

His emergence as the great, challenging poet of natural sympathy and his subsequent decline into dull institutional benevolence form one of the key instructive dramas of modern poetry.

And then, there’s the politics. Shelley embodied it with Queen Mab and the Masque of Anarchy. Byron died for it in Greece, and even Coleridge kept up some level of political involvement through his life. Wordsworth did absorb the afterglow of the French Revolution, but as a spectator rather than an actor. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” is no attempt to change the world, just a thrilling to the work others were doing around him. And even here, argues Kirsch:

“The Prelude” was written as an act of convalescence from and penance for politics, which he finally comes to see as “a degradation” fortunately “transient”

[Kirsch, admittedly, then goes on to praise Wordsworth’s “struggle to transcend the radicalism of his youth, to rescue its benevolent impulses while escaping its shallowness and intolerance“.]

Celebrity duel: Kleist vs. Rilke

December 28th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Have just emerged from reading Rilke’s Letters to a young poet. Surprised by how much I like it, given that I’ve come to think of myself as basically unsympathetic to Romanticism. I’ll chalk this one up to my general sensation of reverting to adolescence. But…

I tend to forget how late Rilke is. When he’s writing, well over a century has passed since the revolution in France and Young Werther in Germany. The years since had been filled by the aftershocks and farcical imitations of one, and the gradual swelling and dissipation of the Romantic movement kick-started by the other. Kleist, for example, feels like he should be writing later than Rilke. just as Marx had seen and analyzed capitalism at the moment of its birth, perceiving and criticising the mechanisms of the next decades, so did Kleist perceive the opposition between Romanticism and the Enlightenment, and find their synthesis. I’m thinking of his essay on hte Marionette Theatre, which punctures the Romantic idealisation of youth and innocence, while describing how the essential Romantic intensity can be reborn through experience:

…grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god…..we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence

Rilke, in 1903, is still a believer in innocence. His advice to the young poet remains at the level of “to thine own self be true”, never touching on the possibilities of schizophrenic self-invention which now endure as the only conceivable engine of intensity in a time of post-modernism.

One big cop-out

December 25th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

So Copenhagen failed, and we’re deep into the post-summit finger-pointing. Maybe we’ll be able to analyze the scatter-pattern of accusations, retrace what went wrong, and fix it. More likely we’ll just use the blame game as a convenient distraction from figuring out what to do next.
My favourite — both as an article, and because I agree with him — is Joss Garman in the Independent. He’s fiery about Obama (“a speech so devoid of substance that he might as well have made it on speaker-phone from a beach in Hawaii“), and Wen Jiabao (“sulking in his hotel room, as if this were a teenager’s house party instead of a final effort to stave off the breakdown of our biosphere.“). But he still finds a few likeable figures, such as Lula and Ed Miliband.
Mark Lynas is more simplistic. His much-forwarded Guardian piece has one villain: China

The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful “deal” so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame….
China’s strategy was simple: block the open negotiations for two weeks, and thenensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the west had failed the world’s poor once again.

Lynas staunchly defends both Gordon Brown and his own employer, the government of the Maldives*, while attacking the country chosen by both the British and American governments to carry the can. He tries very hard to present this support of the powerful as a contrarian position — and, given he’s writing for Guardian readers, I suppose it is. George Monbiot’s article, for example, is more typical in blaming America. “The immediate reason for the failure of the talks can be summarised in two words: Barack Obama“.
Lynas also snaps out a not-entirely-unfounded accusation against the NGO world: “Campaign groups never blame developing countries for failure; this is an iron rule that is never broken“.
It’s a shame he doesn’t go into more detail on this. Developing countries seem to have largely outsourced their negotiating teams in environmental summits to NGOs, and to first-world campaigners willing to work cheaply for the good of the planet. It’s the same trade of influence against expertise that happens when they rely on multinational corporations to provide legal or economic advice in trade negotiations — just with added idealism. This area must conceal some fascinating culture clashes and conflicts of interest, which I’d love to see somebody dissect for public consumption.
* It’s hardly encouraging that the Guardian lets Lynas gush about the president of the Maldives without mentioning his conflict of interest.

The Arabs: a history

December 25th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

The Arabs: A history, by Eugene Rogan, has just been published in hardback. The various reviews present it as an important work, perhaps even as a successor to Hourani’s History of the Arab Peoples — respected, but now somewhat long in the tooth. Hourani was Rogan’s “mentor”, whatever that means, but the younger historian has concentrated mainly on media and historical circumstances, in contrast to Hourani’s excursions into “demography, trading patterns and literature“.

Sadly, the reviews in the Guardian and Telegraph concentrate on the Arabs’ contact and conflict with the West. I’m hoping this is just an artefact of the British newspaper industry, not of a narrow focus in the book itself.

My new favourite christmas tradition

December 24th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink


A giant straw goat – the traditional Scandinavian yuletide symbol – erected each Christmas in a Swedish town has been burned to the ground yet again.

European referendums

December 23rd, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Inspired by the Swiss minaret ban, a reasonably unpleasant German group is trying to force a pan-European referendum on banning minarets. Apparently

The Lisbon Treaty, which has now entered into force, contains a provision for referenda subsequent to the collection of one million signatures in favor of the measure in question. Just how such a process might work, however, has yet to be sufficiently established.

If that’s true, surely we’re about to be deluged in referendums? A million signatures on a European level is nothing. It’s the kind of number Greenpeace could collect without breaking a sweat, for instance, let alone any party organization.
I can’t find much trace of it in the Lisbon Treaty (but the treaty is massive, and I have no idea where to look). The closest is this delightfully vague and toothless provision:

Not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of
Member States may take the initiative of inviting the European Commission, within the framework of its powers, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties.
The procedures and conditions required for such a citizens’ initiative shall be determined in accordance with the first paragraph of Article 21 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. [article 8A.4]


December 23rd, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

In September, a German military cock-up killed 142 people. mostly civilians. Here is a lengthy article covering not just the details of the incident, but how politicians on all sides downplayed it in the run-up to the election, knowing how opposed the German public were to the war:

“Not a single politician or senior military official told the public the full truth. The subject was to be kept off the radar during Germany’s fall parliamentary election campaign, so as not to ruffle the feathers of an already skeptical electorate. Now the incident has been magnified to a far greater extent than would have been the case if those involved had decided to come clean with the public in the first place.”

Much as I love Germany’s political system of consensus and coalitions, it does tend to result in situations just like this — where the political class stand together against public opinion, and nobody has much incentive to rock the boat.


December 23rd, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Alexander Lukashenko has often been referred to as Europe’s last dictator. All of a sudden, though, he seems to be on a push to rapidly liberalize Belarus’ economy and turn it into a high-tech paradise. But is this socialist island really ready to attract Western investors?

This is really simple. Business isn’t the opposite of dictatorship; it’s something almost orthogonal to it. If one man’s whim completely changes the government of a country, then it’s a dictatorship. Obviously I’m glad his current passions encompass encouraging business rather than staging purges, but that doesn’t make Lukashenko any less a dictator.

Sarko the troll

December 22nd, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

One one level, I know that mentioning French laws on the burqa is just playing into the UMPs tactics, which are basically a skilled case of legislative trolling. Ensure that what should be a non-issue stays constantly in the news, divert liberal energy into making a right-but-unpopular case, provide an way of expressing islamophobia under cover of women’s rights, keep the fear and distrust simmering.
Anyway, Libération has some more details on the form the law is likely to take. “So as not to appear discriminatory“, they write with justifiable snarkiness, the law will be against any covering of the entire face within a public space. Presumably they’ll spend the coming weeks assuring exceptions for skiiers, motorcyclists, beekeepers, and anyone else with a
non-religious reason to cover their face. [I guess they won’t do anything about balaclava-wearing anarchists, oddly enough;)]
Meanwhile laïcite is being played in the other direction, in reaction to the Swiss minaret ban. At least, it is providing the language in which to condemn a statement that “when there are more minarets than Cathedrals in France, it will no longer be France”.


December 22nd, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Ah, the ever-flexible French obsession with laïcite — now showing its good side, as the language in which to condemn a statement that “when there are more minarets than Cathedrals in France, it will no longer be France”.

Cities, spirits and Possession

December 21st, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ve been reading AS Byatt’s Possesion the last few weeks — lingering over it, because it’s a rich enough book to spend time over, and because I can’t think of anything else that could have the same effect. This passage (p.395) is a little at odds with the rest, but feeds into a big unspoken (and not terribly original) rant of mine on urban mythology — that mesh between Hobsbawm, Grant Morrison, Hogarth, Mike Davis, Erik Davis, and a whole lot more:

A spirit may speak to a peasant like Gode, because that is picturesque, she is surrounded by Romantic crags on the one hand and primitive enough huts and hearths on the other, and her house is lapped by real thick mortal dark. But if there are spirits, I do not see why they are not everywhere, or may not be presumed to be so. You could argue that their voices may well be muffled by solid brick walls and thick plush furnishings and house-proud antimacassars. But the mahogany-polishers and the drapers’ clerks are as much in need of salvation-as much desirous of assurance of an afterlife-as poets or peasants, in the last resort. When they were sure in their unthinking faiths-when the Church was a solid presence in their midst, the Spirit sat docile enough behind the altar rails and the Souls kept-on the whole-to the churchyard and the vicinity of their stones. But now they fear they may not be raised, that their lids may not be lifted, that heaven and hell were no more than faded drawings on a few old church walls, with wax angels and gruesome bogies-they ask, what is there?

Protected: Meme of the decade 3: 2006-2008

December 21st, 2009 § Enter your password to view comments. § permalink

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Rage, rage against the plying of the shite*

December 21st, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Enjoyably happy-angry things I’ve been reading, and failing to watch.

First, on RATM vs Cowell. K-Punk, my favourite over-the-top theoryhead londoner blogger, gives it the treatment you’d expect. But I prefer cannons_at_dawn, who has this to say:

I would love to see the seething boiling whirlpool of chips on the shoulder of the British public wash Rage Against the Machine to the top spot, there to earnestly quote Franz Fanon at their enemies until they give in, sobbing, and promise to buy Fair Trade

The collective impetus to make one’s voice heard in this particularly pointless arena is sadly unlikely to translate into participation in, say, next year’s general election. Or at least not unless some enterprising soul decides to exhume Screaming Lord Sutch.

What it will do, however, is demonstrate that there still exists a demographic which clings limpet-like to the hull of bloody-mindedness, prepared to momentarily stir themselves in the interests of nudging the seat of mainstream popularity with a heated toasting-fork

Earlier entries are also great fun. Including my new favourite description of the way the world ends: “a cardigan-wearing Geography teacher farting in a human face forever“.

Meanwhile, the Independent has a surprisingly good article rant about Copenhagen, by Joss Garman. I’d not previously heard of Garman (he’s young, and I’ve been abroad), but he seems to strike just the right balance of being furious without simply condeming mainstream politicians en masse.

And over in the day-job, we have another film out from VODO, free to download over bittorrent:

Boy meets girl — on OkCupid. Boy introduces girl to (fictitious) social filesharing site, The Lionshare. Girl digs site, but doesn’t dig boy. Boy mopes around the city, never thinking the Lionshare would be the thing that would lead her away from him.

The Lionshare is an important kind of film for all of us, because it’s the kind of film ‘anyone’ could have made — ‘anyone’, that is, who takes it seriously, writing dialogue (and in-jokes) prised straight from their own lives, the backdrop of their own homes for scenery, friends as actors and their own experiences as scenarios. These stories are ours, and this is the start of a new kind of cinema.

I confess I’ve not yet managed to watch it (still not in the right state of mind to settle down with a film :-)). On the whole, though, people seem to like it — and not just because it’s free. If you do watch it, I’d be interested to hear what you think about it.

*not my pun, but how could you not repeat that?

December 20th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Shocked to see some fire in the Independent:

The only part of this deal that anyone sane came close to welcoming was the $100bn global climate fund, but it’s now apparent that even this is largely made up of existing budgets, with no indication of how new money will be raised and distributed so that poorer countries can go green and adapt to climate change.

By Joss Garman, who is apparently involved in Greenpeace and in Plane Stupid. I like him!

Idle Talk

December 19th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Heidegger talks about how incessant chatter of culture and other public discourse harms and makes understanding difficult, because of its inauthenticity or “groundlessness”, which he explains as talking about something “without previously making the thing one’s own”. [source]

The word you’re looking for, Martin, is grok


December 15th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Der Spiegel, like everybody else, pulls apart Ban Ki-Moon

Jacob Heilbrunn, a commentator for the respected American journal Foreign Policy, called Ban “the world’s most dangerous Korean.” The moniker is a terrible insult, since by rights it belongs to Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s erratic dictator. But it’s also a gauge of the disappointment currently reigning in the United States. Heilbrunn fears the UN is rapidly becoming irrelevant under Ban’s stewardship. Ban’s sole achievement is having attained his post, Heilbrunn claims, calling the secretary-general a “nowhere man.”

Protected: Once more, with self-awareness [angst/headspace]

December 15th, 2009 § Enter your password to view comments. § permalink

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