01/9/13

Slurp!: An Interview

I had a great time talking with Barak Kushner about his recent book on the history of ramen in Japan and beyond. You can listen to our conversation here.

(For a list of previous interviews on NBEAS, click me.)

01/5/13

“The Russian Kurosawa” at the University of Chicago

A series of screenings and a roundtable discussion of four films by Akira Kurosawa based on Russian literary sources is scheduled to take place at the University of Chicago on May 10-12, 2013 at the brand-new Logan Center for the Arts. In anticipation of the event, the following excerpts are meant to alert readers and Kurosawa fans to the event and its purpose.

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The films to be shown are: The Idiot (1951), Ikiru (1952), The Lower Depths (1957), and Dersu Uzala (1975).

For the full program and screening times visit: https://ceeres.uchicago.edu/kurosawa.

 

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01/1/13

Across the Year Line

Frances’s parents (her mother and stepfather, to be precise) and my parents were more or less best friends during a period that was probably among the best of their lives–I’m guessing, of course, because adults are always mysterious to children. I’d known Frances since kindergarten. By age 10 or 12 (we were only a few months apart in age) she had long russet hair, long skinny legs, a long freckled nose, a humorous voice, and excellent swimming style. My swimming style was more an aquatic rampage. Opportunities for comparison abounded, for we were at their house pretty much every weekend, for the Saturday and sometimes for the Sunday, since they had a swimming pool. Frances and I had younger siblings whom we majestically ignored. The grownups lay on chaises longues and drank long drinks; we chased and dunked each other in the pool.

grownups

(From left: Frances’s stepfather and mother, my mother. 1970.)

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12/18/12

Duck and Cover

I grew up in a small Kansas town that seemed at the time far removed from just about everything except the Soviet Union. Most of the U.S.’s planes were put together in Wichita (still known as the “Air Capital of the World”), which meant it was a first-strike target by that other superpower. Wichita sits about 130 miles east out on highway 50, and according to predictions and all sorts of maps bloomed with damage estimates, we (give or take a few megatons) would be erased with it.  I somehow understood all of this relatively early.  We practiced ducking and covering in the middle-school hallway, ostensibly to prepare for tornadoes, but the weather contributed little to the ambient fear of the time.

Shortly after Sandy rewrote the East Coast, my son told me about his class’s hurricane drill.  They turned out the lights and were instructed to huddle away from the door and to be very quiet.  In the wake of the Newtown shooting — a town just 60 miles north of us — we received messages from the school principal and our kids’ teachers advising us to talk to our children about what happened (best to get out in front of it all) and offering suggestions about how to go about that.  The upper grades would dedicate time to questions and discussion.  At home we broached and comforted and consoled more or less as advised.

This will be the legacy of Newtown:  Mass shooting is a children’s fear now, one they practice for and live with — one that, unfortunately, can no longer surprise even them.

12/15/12

Bugs, Bodies, and the Emperor: This Week’s Interviews

For your listening pleasure, you can find two new interviews from my recent podcasty travels on the New Books Network this week. If you’re looking for some stimulating book-related material to listen to while you’re mixing up eggnog or counting down the hours to the end of grading papers and exams:

1. The Poetics of Sovereignty: I had the pleasure of speaking with the very thoughtful Jack Chen for NBEAS about his recent book on literature, rulership, and a fascinating emperor of the Tang Dynasty.

2. The Insect and the Image: Janice Neri and I spoke for NBSTS about her beautiful new book on the imaging of insects in early modernity and its surprisingly wide-ranging consequences for understanding the history of science, art, and global exchange.

Happy holidays!

12/13/12

Jameson’s similes

This is a list of most of the similes using “like” in Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism.

The prestige of these great streamlined shapes can be measured by their metaphorical presence in Le Corbusier’s buildings, vast Utopian structures which ride like so many gigantic steamship liners upon the urban scenery of an older fallen earth. (36)

It strikes one then, in that spirit, that neofigurative painting today is very much that extraordinary space through which all the images and icons of the culture spill and float, haphazard, like a logjam of the visual, bearing off with them everything . (176; love the echo of the last line of Gatsby!)

Only an old-fashioned communism and an old-fashioned psychoanalysis stood out upon the agrarian landscape like immense and ugly foreign bodies, history itself (equally old- fashioned  in those days) being very effectively consigned to the dusty ash can of “scholarship.” (183-84)

I think we now have to talk about the relief of the postmodern generally, a thunderous unblocking of logjams and a release of new productivity that was somehow tensed up and frozen, locked like cramped muscles, at the latter end of the …(313)

Like the three wishes in the fairy tale, or the devil’s promises, this prognosis has been fully realized, with only the slightest of modifications that make it unrecognizable. (320)

…at one and the same time more abstract and more concrete, and a feature whose essential materialism can be measured by its scandalousness for the mind, which avoids it or hides it away like plumbing. (356; this one especially good because it’s such a surprise, and doesn’t explain itself)

inward conceptual defense mechanisms, and in particular the rationalizations of privilege and the well-nigh natural formations (like extraordinary crystalline structures or coral formations excreted over millennia) of narcissism and self-love…(358)

It would now seem that, far from becoming extinct, the older genres, released like viruses from their traditional ecosystem, have now spread out and colonized reality itself… (371)

We have all those things, indeed, but we jog afterward to refresh the constitution, while by the same token computers relieve us of the terrible obligation to distend the memory like a swollen bladder retaining all these encyclopedia references. (383)

And here is my favorite Jamesonian simile of all, from The Political Unconscious:

Only Marxism can give us an account of the essential mystery of the cultural past, which, like Tiresias drinking the blood, is momentarily returned to life and warmth and once more allowed to speak, and to deliver its long-forgotten message in surroundings utterly alien to it. (383)

12/12/12

PODCAST RECOMMENDATION: Lunch Box with Ed and John

The number of podcasts currently available can almost be put in a one-to-one correspondence with infinity.  Which means you might not have heard about this relatively new, relatively small operation called Lunch Box with Ed and John.  The Ed and John here are poet Ed Skoog and novelist J. Robert Lennon.  They talk about lunch, sure, but food serves (as it usually and rightly does) as a vehicle for conversation between good friends about writing, poetry, the ubiquity of sandwiches, and the work of a life.  Consistently good stuff.

ITunes link.

12/12/12

“The Historian and the Etymologist” concluded: some thoughts

I recently concluded “The Historian and the Etymologist,” an experimental Twitter essay. You can find it on Twitter as #etym1, or consolidated and explained here.

Some things learned:
– Next time, the form should incorporate participation/feedback from others as the essay is being written/posted.
– Fundamental to this form is a creation of meaning by reading across the blanks in the narrative
– The extension of a Twitter essay in time is necessary (…or is it?…) to convey an argument or narrative, but this extension of the essay in the form of discrete, immediate, successive posts over time is *very*, very tricky: we are different selves with different understandings and concepts at different times, and these selves don’t necessarily follow coherently on one another.
– I definitely want to experiment with this format again, and change it up completely. Stay tuned…

12/8/12

Goodbye to Aleppo

For Inna, Jörg and Ilonka

 

Clashes are raging in the Syrian city of Aleppo as government troops and rebel forces battle for control. (DemocracyNow! Headlines, July 24, 2012)

Whereas I used to follow the reports on the popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, I have caught myself shunning news from Syria, especially the visual footage from the urban battlefields: Daraa-Damascus-Hama- … When about two years ago the tumult of the Arab Spring broke out in the Middle East, an anxious thought of Syria immediately crossed my mind. I expected Syria to join. Knowing the country’s uneasy political past, I sensed how badly it was likely to turn out. The long-lasting silence from Syria was ambiguous: It could be a sign that Syria was doing better and would be able to solve its long suppressed conflicts by taking a path of reform. Or maybe it was the silence of a population too broken in spirit to mount a protest. Deep down, however, this silence gave me hope that Syria might be spared this time the bloodshed of post-revolutionary Egypt and especially that of the excruciatingly brutal civil war in Libya. When the protests finally started, I did not follow them. Glancing only briefly at the headlines, I inexplicably and for a long time hurried to turn away to something else. I did not want to dwell on my reaction, until suddenly in mid-summer I saw Aleppo in the headlines.

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12/4/12

Genentech: An Interview

I had the pleasure of speaking with Sally Smith Hughes recently about her book on the history of Genentech and the business of recombinant DNA technology. You can find our conversation here.

(For a list of previous interviews on NBSTS, click me.)

12/4/12

Sitcoms of yesteryear

Among the more popular premises for a sitcom is the fish out of water. Under this general rubric you will find many of the long-running shows of the last fifty years, often organized around the classic social situations: race, class, gender, and sexuality.

Race: The Jeffersons, which was an offshoot of one of the original fish-out-of-water scenes, the loosely veiled but still basically racial All in the Family, whose theme song (“guys like us we had it made… those were the days. … do you remember way back when, girls were girls and men were men… those were the days”) made it clear that Archie Bunker’s biggest problem was that he was a fish out of time — but of course for white folks to be out of time is always to be out of “race” as well. (If you have six minutes watch this amazing clip where Archie, late in the show’s run, takes on the KKK and calls himself “black”.) (Also in this category: Family Matters.)

Class: Two Broke Girls, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (not Roseanne; I’m talking about sitcoms where the basic premise is that someone is out of joint);  Sexuality/Gender: Three’s Company comes to mind (but not Will & Grace). Something like Modern Family seems to be trying to wrap all of these up in a single package (which is interesting, because it has to produce wholeness out of that incongruous mix, but of course, that’s the point.)

But none of these categories quite capture the strangeness of the science fictional sitcom, in which the fish is an alien and the new swimming pool is the planet Earth. It’s so strange I think it’s easy to forget that through the 70s 80s and 90s the alien-on-Earth was a basic premise for television comedy. Mork & Mindy for the 70s, ALF for the 80s; and Third Rock from the Sun for the 90s. (There was also Small Wonder (amazing!! theme song), but that was about a robot.)

I have almost nothing to say about this but to that the other night as I fell asleep I was overcome with the marvel of this kind of sitcom. Aliens yes, but aliens and comedy just doesn’t seem plausible. I mean, what a crazy thing, no? It seems totally unimaginable that such a show would be on television today. And so I found myself wondering what kind of culture we are that used to allow these shows, and now doesn’t. It could all just be random noise, of course, but the critical, close readerly demand for total necessity leaves me wanting more.

12/2/12

Republicans on Copyright


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A few years ago at the instigation of Paul Saint-Amour Ted Wesp and I spent a few months thinking and writing about copyright (results in Paul’s edited book, here). Ever since I’ve been convinced not only of the importance of copyright for thinking about the history of aesthetic production, but also of its vital contemporary impact on the entire economic life-world, ranging from patent law (and its implications for technological or medical developments) to the field of culture.

Crooked Timber points me to the Republican Study Committee’s new thinkpiece on copyright, which argues against it from a radical capitalist/libertarian perspective. I am not going to read the entire RSC piece, and neither are you, so here instead is the quote CT pulls out:

Copyright violates nearly every tenet of laissez faire capitalism. Under the current system of copyright, producers of content are entitled to a guaranteed, government instituted, government subsidized content-monopoly … It is a system implemented and regulated by the government, and backed up by laws that allow for massive damages for violations. These massive damages are not conventional tort law damages, but damages that are vastly disproportionate from the actual damage to the copyright producer. … we do know that our copyright paradigm has … Retarded the creation of a robust DJ/Remix industry … Hampering scientific inquiry … Stifling the creation of a public library … Free 12-year copyright term for all new works – subject to registration, and all existing works are renewed as of the passage of the reform legislation. If passed today this would mean that new works have a copyright until 2024.

Ummm. Amen?

11/30/12

On the Phone

It was a few years back, at some big reception at the Goethe-Institut or the British Council, in Hong Kong or Taipei– forgive me, I’ve been to a lot of parties. (The fact that I can’t remember the details doesn’t mean I had an exceptionally good time.) As my friend and I were navigating the big room, looking for anyone we knew, I heard some French being spoken over to the side, and halloed: “Bonjour les francophones!” The answer came back: “Pas francophones, nous sommes français.”

The category corrective meant this: although in principle all French-speakers are Francophones, because that’s what the word means (Frankos, “French,” plus “phonê,” voice*), in practice the word is restricted to “people who speak French or something like it, and aren’t French.” French people don’t refer to themselves as francophones, unless by chance they work for the ministerial office of Francophonie, which really exists. The office, that is, exists; it exists in order to make Francophonie, a virtual nation spread out through Europe, Africa, North America, the Caribbean and parts of Asia, exist. The large area of Francophonie is to the small country of France like a sail that pulls the boat ahead into future history and away from extinction. But when it comes down to it, to be a mere Francophone is, as my interlocutors showed with their instantaneous reaction, a second-best to being French.

It would be more normal for France to count itself among Francophone nations, but what would that take? A definitive overcoming of colonial relations between the ex-metropole and the former outposts? A stronger sense among French that their place in the world depends on that of their fellows in Francophonie?

Languages have wobbly borders that don’t usually coincide with states, citizenships, or ethnicities. It is useful– sometimes, even, useful to nations– to have a way of referring to speech communities apart from political jurisdictions. In the case of Francophonie, to mark the difference that follows (perhaps, too, that which preceded) political independence; in the case of Sinophonie, to mark the difference between the big nation that thinks of itself as the One True China and the other nations, areas or diasporic groups that use the Chinese language** while carrying a variety of passports.

Sinophonie? Does anyone say that? Sinophonia? In French, the suffix “-phonie” is what the linguists call productive, that is, it confers meaning on the compounds to which it is attached. I might refer to a Mexican village as “Tlotzilophone,” to distinguish it from the Hispanophone one just to its north. If you never heard of Tlotzil, you’d now know that it was a language, the language spoken throughout Tlotzilophonie. But the power of the suffix to make sense weakens when it’s carried over into English (as it has been probably only a handful of times).

When people talk about “the sinophone”– to back up my last assertion, the suffix seems almost exclusively destined to a career among adjectives– in English, it’s not to exclude Big China, or is it? I’ve heard people speak of “Sinophone literature” in such a way as to exclude what we might call “Chinese and Taiwanese literature,” in other words to reserve the sinophone label for cases where Chinese is used as a minority language. At other times I’ve heard people use “sinophone” in the inclusive sense, meaning all Chinese-speaking areas including the putative Chinas. (Chinese, however you define it, is hardly a minority language in China, though those who know a little more about the place will chip in here to remind us that there are plenty of non-Sinophone citizens of Big China, people who speak languages related to Turkic or Thai or Tibetan, for example, and have putonghua or another topolect of Chinese only as an auxiliary language.)

“Sinophone” operates as a calque on “Francophone,” as the application of the logic of Francophonie to the domain of Chinese extraterritorial speech. But that analogy is sure to hiccup, like all analogies, at certain points. Some, but not all, Francophone regions are populated by descendants of French emigrants, as virtually all of Sinophonia (I think) is populated by descendants of Chinese emigrants. Other regions, the majority in both area and population, are Francophone as a result of conquest or enslavement. That might be true of some areas of China too, but in a far more distant past. And at another level, the persistence of French had to do with the exportation of educational protocols by the Grande Nation herself, something that wasn’t obviously true of the Middle Kingdom in recent decades but now, with the Confucius Institutes, is perhaps taking form.

The relevance of “-phone” comes into view when there is a doubt about the coincidence of nationality and language– that much I’m sure of. But just what the relations of inclusion and exclusion are, and how they came about, and to what degree the different “-phonies” are usefully talked about as a set, are all up in the air for me. What do you say, Shu-mei Shih? Victor Mair? Can I get you on the phone?


* The residual purist in me shudders at the Latin-Greek kludge. In Greek “Frangoi” are Franks, i.e., Western Europeans. “Gallophone” would be the Greek-Greek suture, but no longer recognizable to any French speakers but perhaps Gaullists or Gaulois.
** More accurately, “a Chinese language.” And the mechanism whereby these languages are recognized as Chinese has little to do with speech, phonê, but mostly with the writing system. A poor workman blames his tools.