10/23/12

In Today’s Mail

“I majored in English Literature for my undergraduate and graduate study in China, and I know well about the cultures in Eastern and Western world. Now I am working as a senior English editor in the largest college press of China…. Since college time, I have dense interests in studying culture issues and observe Western culture with black eyes.”

I know. It’s happened to me too. You just get better at dodging.

10/23/12

More from the Memory Man

Maurice Halbwachs, author of two great books about social and collective memory (1925 and 1950), was briefly a visiting professor at the University of Chicago in 1930, as faithful readers of Old Printculture will remember. Continuing his adventures: a visit to Robert Hutchins, the boy wonder who reshaped the curriculum of the University of Chicago during his presidency, 1929-1951.

On Friday morning Ogburn took me to see the president of the University, Mr. Hitchins [sic]. 33 or 34 years old, very young in appearance, Hutchins has never been (or only vaguely been) a professor. His main job is to bring to the University donations from millionaires…. He has already come up as a possible candidate for President of the US, on the Democratic ticket. He’s a ‘big man.’ (Letter to Yvonne Halbwachs, 25 October 1930.)

“Big man,” quoted in English, must refer to the anthropological type of the tribal leader (described in Melanesia) who gains power by concentrating command over foodstuffs and redistributing them to allies.

Well worth observing: very distinguished, full of life and activity, with something magnetic about him. I pass on the regards of Richard McKeon, whom I’d seen in New York. This caused Hutchins to wax eloquent in praise of Etienne Gilson, and he seemed provoked to learn that Gilson is at Toronto.

McKeon was at Columbia, but would return to Chicago in 1932 and rule the humanities, as people have told me, with an iron hand, or rather with two iron hands, one named Aristotle and one named Aquinas. McKeon’s teacher in Paris had been Etienne Gilson, who now, Hutchins learns, has accepted a visiting position at Toronto and not let any of his Chicago friends know! Will Toronto, a well-known den of medievalists, corner the market and leave Chicago in the cold? What’s a gang leader to do? Here, a beautiful transition or non-transition, directly after the last sentence:

Then we talked about gangsters. That very morning the papers were announcing the death of Aiello, a big gangster boss, who had been tricked into an ambush by associates of Al Capone. Just when he was about to get into a taxi a machine gun started to shoot at him from the second story. He ran into a neighboring alley and there, from a third-floor window, another machine gun pumped more than a pound of lead into him. The police stood by watching. The gangsters are in charge of the illegal distribution of alcohol and carry out their attacks freely. This Aiello had killed a dozen or so guys in his time. … Quite a country. The papers are full of such stories, which make for terrific headlines. I’m reading a novel of the Wild West by Edna Ferber now… The cowboys and robbers of those times aren’t a bit more colorful than what you see in Chicago today. Seems that Americans, or Middle Westerners anyway, have this violence in their blood. It’s less prosaic than Babbitt, anyway.

Well observed, Mr. Sociologist!

10/22/12

Lost Vegas

I just spent three days in Las Vegas, to which I must reluctantly return in another three days for another conference. I have to say that it’s the most horrible place in the world.

People

This is, I recognize, a feeling profoundly mediated by social class. The word “vulgar” kept coming to mind. And of course it came to mind about other people (though not just people) who were clearly having the time of their lives in Vegas. It would be a mistake to confuse those people with America–to take all this as the felt symptom of a difference between me and them that would reinforce precisely the suspicious class structure of the word “vulgar.” Instead it would be good, with compassion, to figure out who exactly loves Vegas, and to ask ourselves what needs are being met by it–what forms of inadequacy in their own lives makes the forms of Vegas an adequation or a salve. A project for some other time.

Environment

Even the outside feels like it’s inside. It’s in this sense that it’s like Disneyland–the sense of a fully consistent experience, of living inside a Gesamntkunstwerk, is common to both. No escape, visually, spatially, aurally.

I have never been in a place that felt so contemptuous of its living environment. The absolute and total violence of the disregard for the living desert–which I can only imagine, since at this point it’s completely dead–is what allows someone to build up buildings that smash down and erase every trace of the land and its otherness. That done, of course, you need to build a new outside, which the hotels have done, in the form of interior gardens designed to approximate living spaces the builders do respect. These of course borrow their architecture and flora from southern Europe.

Adventure

We’re at a ridiculous and expensive steakhouse in the Bellagio. (We had made reservations at a Japanese place in the same hotel but somehow the reservation got switched.) Fifteen minutes in, we have drinks and are talking. A woman comes up and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I take your picture to celebrate this occasion and these beautiful ladies [handwave at the XXs of the group]?” No, of course.

But for whom is the picture meaningful? For someone for whom this is a memorable occasion, someone for whom the memorialization of a once-in-a-lifetime meal turns it into an “experience.” I was reminded of the photographs that are automatically taken at the roller coasters in amusement parks, so that one gets off the thing and looks at the pictures, delighting in the expressions of fear, horror, and pleasure as they were recorded only minutes ago. Perhaps the Bellagio can move to such a system in the future, so that guests would leave the restaurant to spend minutes looking at photographs of themselves eating, drinking, talking, or, in some undreamt-of but surely plausible future, of themselves looking at photographs of themselves eating and drinking and talking, or of photographs of themselves looking at photographs, looking at photographs, looking at photographs.

10/19/12

Duties of citizenship

All this talk of taxes keeps making me think of my naturalization interview.

Earlier this year I applied for Korean citizenship. (I will still retain my U.S. citizenship.) As in the U.S., the naturalization process requires an interview, for which I diligently prepared (mostly the night before). The interview tests the applicant’s knowledge of:

1. 애국가 The national anthem (first verse)
2. 한국어 능력 Korean language ability
3. 국민으로서의 자세 Citizen’s comportment (the 4 duties, community spirit, national holidays)
4. 자유민주적 기본질서 Basic tenets of liberal democracy
5. 국민으로서 기본소양 Basic knowledge (using public transportation, dialing 112 in case of emergency, where to throw away trash)

(these are my poor translations from the information sheet, which you can download here)

The U.S. publishes its list of questions that might be asked in a naturalization interview. (If you’re interested in these questions, see SL Kim’s excellent old post.) But in the above list, only three are specific: the national anthem, the 4 duties, and the national holidays. It’s the 4 duties which really interest me. These are:

국방의 의무 National defense duty
납세의 의무 Duty to pay tax
교육의 의무 Educational duty
근로의 의무 Duty to work

My eldest son happens to be studying democracy in his 6th grade social studies class, and his textbook emphasizes the balance between rights and duties. But in the naturalization interview there were no questions about rights. Only duties. Not just to defend the country and pay tax (which one might guess) but also the duty to educate oneself for the required amount of time and use that education to help the country develop (“개인의 성장 및 나라의 발전에 이바지하기 위해 필요함”). The duty to work in order to help the country develop but also for one’s own happiness and competitiveness (모든 국민이 나라의 발전을 위해 일을 해야 할 의무, 개인의 행복과 나라의 경쟁력을 높이기 위해 필요함).

In the actual interview, I was asked a lot of other questions, from all sorts of areas (including a question about Dokdo, and another about whether I would choose to stay here or be evacuated with the Americans if war should occur). But the duty question was what stayed with me, especially as I watched the presidential debates.

Perhaps more on this later. It’s been a long time since I blogged. Baby steps.

10/18/12

Marks of Experience

Really interesting series of photos over at the Slate photo blog by Claire Felicie portraying Dutch Marines before, during, and after a tour in Afghanistan. Studying these faces, I tried to articulate for myself the differences among the before, during, and after (but especially the before and after). There’s a certain placidity in the before faces, even in the first one with the furrowed brow, a certain relaxed slackness around the mouth, even in those with pursed or slightly smiling lips, that disappears in the subsequent shots. Editing? Lighting? The framing and titling? I’m sure these all play a role in our perceptions — we’re primed to look for differences, to share in the photographer’s witnessing of changes wrought by war. However inaccessible the internal changes may be, though, the physical changes seem unmistakable.

The photos invite our scrutiny, demand it, even. But the faces, at once open and closed, only give us so much. In the midst of my looking, poring over the gazes, the wrinkles on the foreheads and around the eyes, the set of the jaws, the turns of the mouth, I started feeling a bit unsettled by my own interest in confirming the marks of war on them. I started to worry that perhaps these images, despite what Felicie may have wanted to do, end up romanticizing the experience of combat in the way Chris Hedges argues in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, assuring us that the necessary human sacrifices have been made so that we can keep believing in nobility and goodness.

10/16/12

Liberal Guilt

So the other day I heard someone say, with the impression that it would be illustrative and moving, that in the wake of a recent natural disaster that killed hundreds she canceled a planned trip to Europe.

This strikes me as an excellent model for assuaging one’s survivor guilt more generally, but it would benefit from some nuance. For instance many things happen that don’t quite arrive to the level of canceling a vacation; upon hearing about the deaths of a few people in, say, Norway, in a train accident, you might refuse to put sauce on your pasta for that evening’s dinner; or upon reading that some ridiculous percentage of Americans are planning to vote for Mitt Romney (a tragedy in multiple dimensions), you could forgo your morning coffee. It’s not wearing a chalice, but hey, it’s a start.

10/12/12

Breathe In

“It is possible to imagine circumstances in which air would be a part of wealth. If it became customary to sojourn long in places where the air does not naturally penetrate, as in diving-bells sunk in the sea, a supply of air artificially furnished would, like water conveyed into houses, bear a price; and if from any revolution in nature the atmosphere became too scanty for the consumption, or could be monopolized, air might acquire a very high marketable value. In such a case, the possession of it, beyond his own wants, would be, to its owner, wealth; and the general wealth of mankind might at first sight appear to be increased, by what would be so great a calamity to them. The error would lie in not considering, that however rich the possessor of air might become at the expense of the rest of the community, all persons else would be poorer by all that they were compelled to pay for what they had before obtained without payment.”
John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy (1848)

10/10/12

Hey, I just met you, and this is kooky, but here’s my number! Tongue Labouti!

Top Ten Scandalous-Sounding Names For Fictional Intimate Acts Generated By Putting Chinese Transliterations Of Terms From A Fourteenth Century Collection of Mongolian Documents Through Google Translate This Afternoon:

10. Martha and The Black Mahama
9. The Fire of the Original Clean
8. Wipe Tuo
7. Scattered Jill Police
6. Tongue Assassination
5. The Black Dingban of Ghana
4. The Wood Answer
3. Satisfied Door
2. Satisfied Speed Children
1. Kazakhstan Tongue Labouti

10/10/12

Jadeite Cabbage with Insects

My wife was given the gift of a pen from which dangles a plastic replica of the National Palace Museum’s “Jadeite Cabbage with Insects.” The object (the original, not my wife’s pen) has its own Wikipedia page that includes the claim that, “The Jadeite Cabbage has been called the ‘most famous masterpiece’ of the entire National Palace Museum, and along with the Meat-shaped Stone and the Mao Gong Ding, it is considered one of the Three Treasures of the National Palace Museum. It has been chosen by the public as the most important item in the museum’s entire collection.” The NPM website has a series of short films about the Cabbage.

10/10/12

Career Moves

Poetry reading by Stephen Cushman. Live music and live poetry are great things. But among the least remunerated activities in this culture of ours.

10/10/12

The rise of the “Nones”

So here’s something interesting:

In 2007 Pew Research Center surveys, 15.3% of U.S. adults answered a question about their current religion by saying they were atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” The number of religiously unaffiliated respondents has ticked up each year since, and now stands at 19.6%.

While the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown significantly over the past five years, the Protestant share of the population has shrunk. In 2007, 53% of adults in Pew Research Center surveys described themselves as Protestants. In surveys conducted in the first half of 2012, fewer than half of American adults say they are Protestant (48%). This marks the first time in Pew Research Center surveys that the Protestant share of the population has dipped significantly below 50%.

The decline mainly occurred in the number of those surveyed identifying as white Protestants, whether evangelical or “mainline” (their term). Catholics, for their part, held roughly steady.

Damn. I thought it’d be easy to get a table for brunch after the Rapture.

Full Pew Study available here. (You might want to cross yourself or to place a wafer on your tongue before clicking.)

10/9/12

Natural History According To US Weekly (in which we suppose that aliens wipe out the entire planet except for the web archive of US Weekly and recreate human natural history from that archive)

“I felt like my vagina died,” she shared of her sex life with [former husband]. “Turned off. Lights out . . . you can lie to your relatives at Christmas dinner and tell them everything on the home front is just peachy. But you cannot lie to your vagina.” … “Sometimes your vagina dies,” she explained. “Then you know it’s time to go.” – from “Olivia Wilde: Jason Sudeikis and I Have ‘Sex Like Kenyan Marathon Runners’,”  Us Weekly 09.10.2012

 

Vagina: (n) Symbiotic organism connected to and communicatively linked with a human woman’s body. Has preternatural powers of lie-detection, especially during Christmas and in matters involving stone fruit. Illuminated when functional. Can proceed through repeated life-cycles with several successive births and deaths, each signaling a change in the locomotive pattern of host woman. Can be resurrected, especially by Kenyan marathon runners.

10/9/12

De Minimis

It is strange to be inside a system in which I am to an adjunct what an adjunct is to a tenured professor.