Monday, April 14, 2014
by Charlie Huenemann
In 1746, Hume returned to London after touring Europe as tutor and caretaker of the mad Marquess of Annendale. He was not sure what was next in his life. He was already 35 and somewhat ashamed of not having yet made a career for himself. He resolved to return to Scotland, but at the last minute he received an unexpected invitation to serve in a military expedition to Canada. The invitation came from Lieut.-General James St Clair, a distant relative of Hume whom he had recently met. The opportunity hit Hume at just the right time, and he wondered if this was the beginning of a career in the military.
The plan for the expedition was to approach Quebec by way of the St. Lawrence River in August. Hume set his affairs in order and reported for duty. But what followed was not the exciting onset of an adventure at sea, sails rippling in the wind, but three months of fits and starts. When the wind was not favorable, they were stuck in one harbor or another; when the wind was favorable, the orders from the Navy changed and kept them from going anywhere.
By the end of August, the orders changed dramatically. Forget Canada; the new plan was to invade the French coast and cause a distraction from the campaign taking place then around Flanders. But winds were unfavorable once again, giving St Clair the opportunity to remind the Navy that for this new assignment he had no maps, no military intelligence, no horses, and no money.
The Navy sent along a major and some ship pilots to help plan for an invasion - though, as it turned out, none of them could provide any helpful information. Thus, as Hume put it, the company "lay under positive orders to sail with the first fair wind, to approach the unknown coast, march through the unknown country, and attack the unknown cities of the most potent nation of the universe".
On September 15th, they undertook to do just that, setting out for Lorient in Brittany with about 50 ships and 4500 men, with the guidance of a map bought in a shop in Plymouth. They arrived at the French coast in the evening of September 18th. But instead of invading right away, the commanding admiral waited to land until the following morning, and on the morning they encountered winds that prevented their landing for two more days. This of course gave the French plenty of time to see them, sound alarms, and prepare a defense of some 3,000 militia, plus cavalry. The wind finally relented and the invading British troops landed, diverting at the last moment to an unoccupied section of the coast. They chased some French soldiers into the hills and issued a general declaration to villagers in the area that they would not be harmed if they did not oppose. Hume was apparently so excited that he simply co-signed this declaration "David," forgetting to supply his last name.
What followed then was the sort of comedy of errors one could easily see coming. The British troops began to poke around the unfamiliar territory, engaged in some minor skirmishes, sacked a village, and entered into a firefight in which they ended up shooting at each other. Rain kept pouring, morale was low, and many soldiers just wandered off into the French countryside.
“Did you like your father,” my friend asked?
The Tongues of His Black Boots Say
as my father sleeps the world goes on
his black boots are by the door
he left them there unlaced
the right run down at the heel
the left toe scuffed
his blue shirt hangs on a hook
wrinkled below the belt line
where every morning
its tails were tucked
there’s no forgiveness in pasts
just now and here, defeat
is the hardest epiphany
the tongues of his
black boots say
by Jim Culleny
by Gautam Pemmaraju
Suave locus voci resonat conclusus
(How sweetly the enclosed space responds to the voice)
—Horace, Satires I, iv, 76 (in Doyle, P, Echo and Reverb:
Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording, 1900 – 1960; 2005)
The whispering gallery that runs along the inner periphery of the dome of Gol Gumbaz, the mausoleum of the medieval Bijapur sultan Muhammad Adil Shah (1626 – 56 CE) is an acoustic marvel. Multiple echoes of up to ten in number can be heard in the dome on a single clap. And a reasonably soft whisper can be heard across a distance of a hundred and thirty feet. The tourists visiting the place are mostly prone to whoop, shout, and clap with great enthusiasm, overwhelming the dome with dense sonic information. At quiet times though one can savour its rich, amplified reverberance—the timbre, colour and tone of the spoken word assumes an elevated quality, as if it were imbued by the sheen of something beyond earthly artifice.
Such sonic modulations appear to us to be of a higher order, sanctified by primordial forces. And in our own mimetic appropriations, of sermons and speeches, chants and songs, drones and dirges, we seek to texturize our words with an otherworldly aura. The use of delay effects in sound recording allows us then to ritualistically edify our anxieties and inadequacies and transpose them into reverberant solemnity.
The prosaic use of delay effects in recorded sound—echo and reverberation—has its place in modern times, but the phenomenon has for long resided in the realm of mystical experience. The Greco-Roman mythical character Echo, a nymph condemned to repeat all that she hears, is a tragic figure by all accounts. Rebuffed by Narcissus, the heartbroken Oread hides herself in woods, caves and mountain cliffs. She withers away there in loneliness, her flesh wasting away and bones turning into stone till all that is left is her voice. In this reduced, etheric spectral state, all she can do is to reply to anyone who calls out to her.
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
All my life, I've been called a Madrasi. This is false, funny, and ironic. For those that live north of the Vindhyas in India, all four of the southern states connote a ubiquitous "Madras", or in other words the land where people speak Madrasi (otherwise knows as four distinct languages Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, and Tamil). But Madras, or to call it by its current, official, and always locally more kosher name Chennai, was never home to me. I visited Madras, and I lived in Bombay. Madras was heat, provinciality, incoherence, and conservatism. For the longest time, it occupied the second position on a list of cities that I vowed to never inhabit. Number One is still held by New Delhi, and I hope it doesn't indulge in similarly stymieing my life plans. Hush I tell myself, lest the Gods have sharp ears. Evidence indicates otherwise, but you never know.
Madras, I am told by the many books I peruse in the hopes of gaining intellectual familiarity, is where modern India began. This old colonial outpost that had the likes of Robert Clive, Elihu Yale, and Arthur Wellesley pass through dates back to the 1640 settlement of Madraspatnam. For those seeking a primer, I highly recommend Bishwanath Ghosh's Tamarind City and of course, S.Muthiah's Madras Discovered.
Seeking this selfsame city of sepia fame, I wander off one bright Madras morning, dragging a friend and relucatant early riser to Fort St. George, one of the arteries of the colonial enterprise. Disembarking from the train at Beach station sharp at seven am, bright and caffeinated, we walk past a still sleeping old town through NSC Bose Road, and the various Chetty streets, named after differently famed members of the Chettiar community. Each street differentiates itself by the goods it sells; electrical appliances in one, upholstery in the other, plumbing equipment in yet another.
The art-deco buildings are magnificent, and often magnificently ratty. The politics of heritage preservation are apparently a nationwide phenomenon. I receive atmospheric consolation from this history that seems like so many other histories of so many other old towns. I do what any self-respecting debutante to urban studies might do, take many pictures. Fort St.George, the Armenian church with many buried Armenians and nary a community, Armenian Street, abandoned pushcarts, modernist architecture, all fodder for my newly obsessive need to know this city.
Ciprian Muresan. I'm Too Sad to Tell You. 2009
Perceptual experience is a distinctly privileged way of knowing about the world. Not only is perceptual experience ultimately the bridge between mind and world, but it also trumps other ways of knowing. When another way of knowing about the world – inference, introspection, memory, and testimony – and experience disagree with one another, experience will be kept and the other will be dropped unless we have strong reason to believe that what we're experiencing contains an illusion or a hallucination. So, if you were to tell me that my sister is in Melbourne, and later that day I saw her walking across the street from where I am here in Adelaide, I would immediately drop the belief based on testimony that she is in Melbourne. However, an alternative situation may be this: I know that my sister has a doppelgänger who lives here in Adelaide. So in this situation, if I happen to believe that you're a reliable source of information, I'd probably believe instead that I'm actually seeing my sister's doppelgänger.
The moral is this: experience, privileged as it is, is still judged against what we already happen to know – as are the other sources of knowledge. When a proposition arrived at by inference or testimony disagrees with something I already know, I'm going to subject that proposition to much closer scrutiny than I otherwise would. Furthermore, experience, privileged as it is, always involves interpretation. In the first case, where I see my sister, and the second case, where I see my sister's doppelgänger, provide me with identical data. Each of the perceptual experiences are indistinguishable from my first-person perspective. The fact that interpretation is involved in perceptual experience is what explains how it's possible to come to different conclusions from identical perceptual experiences.
So, how are we to understand "interpretation" in the context of perceptual experience? It's certainly not anything like conscious deliberation, otherwise its presence would be salient to us (and it's not at all), and further, experience would be much more plastic than it actually is, in that it would be affected by interpretation in a much more thoroughgoing way. So our background knowledge influences our perceptual experiences in a way that is automatic and unconscious. Should this consideration lead to scepticism about the reliability of our perceptual faculties giving us objective knowledge of the external world? I think the answer is clearly not.
by Mara Naselli
Minds cannot help but make meaning, even with only a suggestion of direction. When I taught manuscript editing, to put the mechanics of the work in perspective, I would write out a line of taspyograpgucal noasihfsnesnse theat qwe kcgan reasdsdo to illustrate the point. Your eye, reading the jumble above, found the letters to make the words. We make corrections and connections without thinking about them. We bend the contours of a line. We want order, not confusion, and will bring it into shape if we can.
This hunger for order applies to memory as much as it applies to reading. We know memory is plastic—it can even be invented. What interests me are the choices that occur someplace between consciousness and unconsciousness—our grasping letters that make sense and eliding the others so that the coherence of our interpretations and blindnesses are preserved. But what would a more careful reading look like? How do we allow a memory or fact to break into our consciousness and disrupt our domestic intellectual and emotional order?
On April 18, 1939, Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa urged her to write her memoirs, before her memory might fail her. Woolf was ready for a diversion—she had been working on a biography of the painter Robert Fry, puzzling out the difficulties of writing about another human being outside of the events of his or her life. Who was I then? she asks, turning the question onto herself. For the next year and a half, she wrote her recollections, conjuring the dead and their vanished Victorian world. “A Sketch of the Past” was edited by Jeanne Schulkind and published posthumously in 1976.
Which is to say these writings are, for all intents and purposes, works in progress, and to read them is a bit like editing them, interpreting and weighting the content, discerning a shape that might give contours to the genius they contain. To read Woolf’s draft of a memoir is to sit with her at her writing desk, after she has gone for a walk, read Chaucer, made notes on Robert Fry, written instructions to the housekeeper, or heard the drone of German planes overhead. She settles in, and we watch her wade into the past. Woolf’s writing is not simply recollection, rather her encounter makes the convergence of past and present an altogether new thing—waters not yet crossed.
by Thomas Rodham Wells
Parenthood is coming under increasing criticism as a selfish lifestyle choice. Parents' private choices to procreate impose expensive obligations on the rest of us to ensure those children have a decent quality of life and come out as successful adults and citizens, and that means massive tax-subsidies for their health, education, and so forth. We also pay to support parents' self-conception of parenthood, such as by providing lengthy paid paternal leave to allow them to ‘bond' with their children.
In addition there are environmental costs relating to the consumption of the children themselves. The choice to become a parent massively increases one's environmental footprint because it adds consumers who otherwise wouldn't have existed, and who may then go on to have children of their own. The environmental impact of a population is a function of population size multiplied by consumption per capita. Therefore, adding consumers must either lead to a greater environmental impact, or else to a politically directed reduction in per capita consumption to avoid that impact. With regard to carbon emissions, for example, it has been estimated that an American woman who has a child increases the carbon emissions she would have been responsible for by a multiple of 5.7 (source). If lots of people have children, the planet will be in even greater danger of cooking, unless all of us make very severe cuts to our consumption practices to keep humanity within the bounds of sustainability.
One might argue that children don't only impose costs on the rest of us. For example, because they may be expected to become productive workers as well as consumers, they will repay their ‘debt' to us by supporting the economic sustainability of our pension system (and thus allow us to continue to afford our habits of affluent consumption). But even if that were true to some extent, it does not affect the core criticism of the selfishness of parenthood, which is that parents do not stop to consider how their procreative decisions may affect others, including other would be parents. Since parents aren't motivated to have children by their commitment to supporting the social welfare system or otherwise contribute to society, they can claim no credit if that is how things happen to work out.
by Brooks Riley
by Carl Pierer
In the book "Existentialism – A Reconstruction" David E. Cooper devotes an entire chapter to inquiring the relation between philosophy and alienation. Cooper's interest is to make the point that "the issues of alienation are pivotal in existentialist thought" (, p.31). To do so, he includes a brief sketch of Hegel's and Marx' ideas concerning alienation. In line with these two thinkers, Cooper gives a rough outline for an argument that alienation is at the heart of the philosophical adventure. Since he is right in claiming that this take on philosophy amounts to a drastic shift in perspective for the (analytic) philosophy student, the idea deserves to be argued for.
The term "alienation" is strongly associated with the allegedly impenetrable, obscurantist writings of
Upon encountering the world, there is – at the very least – a perceived dichotomy. On the one hand, there is something that belongs to me, and there is something external to me. There is an I and a not-I. To realise this is to experience alienation. To take up Bertrand Russell's example in his Problems of Philosophy: "(…) let us concentrate our attention on the table. To the eye it is oblong, brown and shiny, to the touch it is smooth and cool and hard; when I tap it, it gives a wooden sound." (, p. 11) For the sake of argument, let us grant Russell the concept of table, of sense data, etc. Even if we strip ourselves of scepticism about these, there is an object presupposed. A something we can concentrate our attention on. This subject-object distinction is inherent in the grammatical structure of transitive verbs. To see means to see something. Without leaving the surface level, it appears that – intuitively, in our way of living - we distinguish between two entities: the I and the not-I. Alienation, then, denotes the partition of our existence into these two subsets.
by Hari Balasubramanian
In January this year, I visited Hospitalito Atitlán, a health care center for the Tz'utujil Maya in the town of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. There were two reasons for this visit. First, much of my healthcare work has been limited to the US system; I wanted to get a sense of what was going on in other places. Second, for many years I've been trying to learn about the indigenous cultures of the Americas; this had led me in the past to Mexico, Peru and Bolivia. I welcomed, now, this chance to spend a few days in a Mayan town in Guatemala.
Santiago Atitlán, a town of 30-40,000, is a 3-hour drive from Guatemala City, at the southwestern edge of Lake Atitlán. The lake fills a caldera formed in an eruption 84,000 years ago, and is surrounded by lush-green volcanoes, rising to over 8,000 feet. The majority of the people who live in the surrounding towns belong to one of two Mayan groups: the Tz'utujil and Kaqchikel. Santiago Atitlán is almost entirely Tz'utujil, while San Lucas Toliman is mostly Kaqchikel. Tz'utujil and Kaqchikuel also refer to two of the twenty odd Mayan languages in Guatemala (there are a few others in Mexico). All of them are still spoken, in sharp contrast to the fate of indigenous languages elsewhere in the Americas.
I arrived in Santiago Atitlán on a Sunday morning. The town is set along a slope that eases into the lake; Volcan San Pedro rises dramatically across a narrow section of the water, dominating the view. For a small town, the streets were a maze, and I lost my way each time. Many of the homes were make-shift; the farther I ascended away from the town center, the poorer the homes were. Almost all the Tz'utujil women wore brightly colored yarn based textiles with intricate patterns. On the main road along the lake's circumference, Toyota pick-up trucks – a common mode of shared local transportation – carried passengers who stood in the open rear. Then there were the brightly colored tuk-tuks, exactly like the three wheeler autos I knew in India – every one of them that I saw in Atitlán was made by Bajaj.
The pick-up trucks, the tuk-tuks, and even many of the paved roads were all new, I was told – part of the economic growth here after decades of conflict. In the last half of the 20th century, Guatemala, like other nations of Central America – El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras – went through a violent upheaval. The Guatemalan Civil War lasted from 1960-1996. A brutal right wing government fought against insurgents in the largely indigenous countryside. The Lake Atitlán region did not go unscathed; hundreds of people from Santiago were killed or disappeared; "everyone you talk to lost someone in his or her family" [link]. Since 1996, there's been a return to normalcy. While the region still remains relatively poor, its coffee plantations have done well, and the beautiful lake setting draws plenty of tourists.
by Sue Hubbard
It takes a certain chutzpah for an artist to dig out his early student work and put it on display for the world to access, especially in a rarefied Mayfair Gallery hidden away in a gracious Georgian house just yards from Claridges Hotel. In the case of Peter Doig, such confidence may well be underwritten by the fact that his White Canoe - a dreamy painting of a boat reflected in a lake like some post-modern version of Charon's craft - fetched the staggering sum of £5.7m in 2007 when put up for auction by Charles Saatchi.
Doig is something of an outsider. Born in Edinburgh in 1959, the son of a peripatetic shipping accountant, he lived in Trinidad from the age of two to seven, then moved to Canada until he was nineteen, where he took up such northern rituals as skiing and ice hockey. After leaving for London to study painting at St. Martin's, followed by an MA at the Chelsea College of Art, he supported himself as a dresser at the English National Opera and became absorbed in the emerging club scene frequented by the likes of performance artist Leigh Bowery and experimental film makers such as Isaac Julien. Chelsea College was a very different proposition, then, to Goldsmiths, the conceptual kindergarten that spawned Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst under the éminence grise Michael Craig Martin. It was full of painters still interested in the possibilities of what paint could do, despite the popular mantra that painting was a dead form. Doig was never allied to the conceptualist YBAs, or included in Saatchi's watershed show Sensation at the Royal Academy in 1997. And, unlike many of the YBAs, he continues to work alone, without a studio full of assistants. It doesn't appeal to him be surrounded by people he has to keep busy; to become a production line. He likes the "simplicity" of paint; "the directness, the dabbling quality"; and still believes in the possibilities of being able to surprise and innovate in this most ancient of media. People are always asking him when he's going to make a film. But he's not interested. His outsider status has meant that like many émigrés, he responds best to places he knows when he is not actually there. Canada was painted whilst in London, the Caribbean from the vantage point of his Tribeca Studio.
Sunday, April 13, 2014
Steven Malanga in City Journal:
Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon’s heart was pounding in late November 1964 when he entered a remote Venezuelan village. He planned to spend more than a year studying the indigenous Yanomamo people, one of the last large groups in the world untouched by civilization. Based on his university training, the 26-year-old Chagnon expected to be greeted by 125 or so peaceful villagers, patiently waiting to be interviewed about their culture. Instead, he stumbled onto a scene where a dozen “burley, naked, sweaty, hideous men” confronted him and his guide with arrows drawn.
Chagnon later learned that the men were edgy because raiders from a neighboring settlement had abducted seven of their women the day before. The next morning, the villagers counterattacked and recovered five of the women in a brutal club fight. As Chagnon recounts in Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists (originally published in 2013 and now appearing in paperback), he spent weeks puzzling over what he had seen. His anthropology education had taught him that kinsmen—the raiders were related to those they’d attacked—were generally nice to one another. Further, he had learned in classrooms that primitive peoples rarely fought one another, because they lived a subsistence lifestyle in which there was no surplus wealth to squabble about. What other reason could humans have for being at one another’s throats?
Over at Existential Comics:
David Meir Grossman in Tablet (Steve Reich, 2005. (Photo treatment Tablet Magazine; original photo Jeffrey Herman):
1. “You’re floating 10 feet off the Earth. Try to put your feet on the ground and ask the next question.” It’s Wednesday, March 26, and Steve Reich is haranguing me for my sucky interviewing skills. We’re talking over the phone because it’s two days before the Big Ears Festival, in Knoxville, Tenn., which Reich is headlining. That he’s less than pleased with my interviewing ability is in fact only making me more nervous, because Reich is a legitimate genius who has changed the shape of his chosen field. The New York Times called him “our greatest living composer,” and The New Yorker has said he’s “the most original musical thinker of our time.” So, if he says I’m blowing this, he’s probably right.
Reich is impatient, a quality that surely comes from having a mind that works 10 times faster than everyone else’s, most definitely including mine. At one point in our conversation I try to suggest that “WTC 9/11,” his disturbing 15-minute meditation on Sept. 11 that came out in 2011, reminds me of the Internet. The piece, written for the Kronos Quartet, uses one of Reich’s several trademark techniques, that of vocal sampling. Unlike other Sept. 11-related pieces, “WTC” does not offer redemption. Reich bumps the pre-recorded voices—friends, air-traffic controllers, first responders, cantors—shoulder-to-shoulder and cuts off the words mid-sentence, only to complete them later. It’s a tension-filling technique and can call to mind the way conversations take place over the Internet. Reich sees where I’m going with this and pointedly cuts me off. “I don’t follow chats, I don’t find it very interesting to do that. What I was doing on ‘WTC’ had nothing to do with the Internet whatsoever, OK?”
Corey Robin in Crooked Timber (image from Wikimedia Commons):
The first night of Passover is on Monday, and I’ve been thinking about and preparing for the Seder. I had a mini-victory this morning, when I was shopping for fish in Crown Heights. The guy at the fish store told me that thanks to the Polar Vortex, 90% of Lake Huron is frozen. Which means no whitefish. Which means no gefilte fish. So I put on my best impression of Charlotte in Sex and the City —”I said lean!”—and managed, through a combination of moxie and charm, to get him to give me the last three pounds of whitefish and pike in Crown Heights. Plus a pound of carp. Which means…gefilte fish!
Food is the easy part of the seder. The hard part is making it all mean something. When I was a union organizer, I used to go to freedom seders. Being part of the labor movement, I found it was easy to to see points of connection between what I was doing and this ancient story of bondage, struggle, and emancipation (a story, however, that we never seem to really tell at Passover).
Then, as my feelings about Zionism became more critical, I found a new point of connection to Passover: using the Seder, and the Exodus story, as a moment to reflect upon the relationship between the Jews, the land of Israel, and possession of that land, to ask why we think of emancipation in terms of possession. For a while there, we’d hold seders with readings fromMichael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution and Edward Said’s brilliant critique of Walzer inGranta: “Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution: A Canaanite Reading.”
But nowadays, the Seder is harder for me. I’m more puzzled by the meaning of slavery and emancipation; I find it more difficult to make the connections I used to make. The Haggadah seems stranger, more remote, than ever.
Keith Robinson and Angel Harris in the NYT (image from Wikimedia Commons):
Over the past few years, we conducted an extensive study of whether the depth of parental engagement in children’s academic lives improved their test scores and grades. We pursued this question because we noticed that while policy makers were convinced that parental involvement positively affected children’s schooling outcomes, academic studies were much more inconclusive.
Despite this, increasing parental involvement has been one of the focal points of both President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and President Obama’s Race to the Top. Both programs promote parental engagement as one remedy for persistent socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps.
We analyzed longitudinal surveys of American families that spanned three decades (from the 1980s to the 2000s) and obtained demographic information on race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, the academic outcomes of children in elementary, middle and high school, as well as information about the level of parental engagement in 63 different forms.
What did we find? One group of parents, including blacks and Hispanics, as well as some Asians (like Cambodians, Vietnamese and Pacific Islanders), appeared quite similar to a second group, made up of white parents and other Asians (like Chinese, Koreans and Indians) in the frequency of their involvement. A common reason given for why the children of the first group performed worse academically on average was that their parents did not value education to the same extent. But our research shows that these parents tried to help their children in school just as much as the parents in the second group.
Even the notion that kids do better in school when their parents are involved does not stack up.
Chris Mooney in Slate (photo via PBS):
We all know the Darwin fish, the car-bumper send-up of the Christian ichthys symbol, or Jesus fish. Unlike the Christian symbol, the Darwin fish has, you know, legs.
But the Darwin fish isn't merely a clever joke; in effect, it contains a testable scientific prediction. If evolution is true, and if life on Earth originated in water, then there must have once been fish species possessing primitive limbs, which enabled them to spend some part of their lives on land. And these species, in turn, must be the ancestors of four-limbed, land-living vertebrates like us.
Sure enough, in 2004, scientists found one of those transitional species: Tiktaalik roseae, a 375-million-year-old Devonian period specimen discovered in the Canadian Arctic by paleontologist Neil Shubin and his colleagues. Tiktaalik, explains Shubin on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, is an "anatomical mix between fish and a land-living animal."
"It has a neck," says Shubin, a professor at the University of Chicago. "No fish has a neck. And you know what? When you look inside the fin, and you take off those fin rays, you find an upper arm bone, a forearm, and a wrist." Tiktaalik, Shubin has observed, was a fish capable of doing a push-up. It had both lungs and gills. In sum, it's quite the transitional form.
Kavita Bhanot reviewsThe Gypsy Goddess by Meena Kandasamy in The Independent:
This is not an easy novel to read. There is no intention to entertain. It is, as the blurb tells us, a “novel about the impossibility of writing a novel about a real-life massacre.” The massacre in question took place in 1968 in Kilvenmani village, in the Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu, South India when 44 landless Dalit agricultural labourers, including women and children, were locked in a hut by a group of landowners and burnt alive. This reluctant novel fictionalises the events that led up to the attack – a long-standing battle between powerful landlords and the Communist party, who organised resistance against landowners, demanding better wages and working conditions. It was over the demand for an additional half-portion of rice that the labourers in Kilvenmani were crushed so brutally.
In some of the novel's most stunning passages, the attack itself is described, as the fire “lick[s] away” at its victims. Then there is the battle for justice, an impossible fight when the police are on the side of the landlords, when the political and legal system are disconnected from the lives of those at the very bottom. The long trial, in a language they don't understand (English) is like an absurd play for the villagers who seek justice: “How can they sit for so long in one place and silently listen?” asks one of the characters. “Even my buttocks have fallen asleep on this bench.”
The tree my father grew
from his garden I take an axe
and branch by branch
I break the tree
and set to work
the million maddened bits,
the fire of night.
Only for ash I keep.
by Daljitt Nagra
from Look We Have Coming Dover
Faber and Faber, London 2007
Saturday, April 12, 2014
First, Ali Gharib in the Forward makes the case for the cancellation, at The Forward's Foward Thinking:
The university, in tandem with its notice to Hirsi Ali that her award was rescinded, invited her to campus to expound on her views in a forum that did not confer upon her any honor.
That latter invitation was the lynchpin in Brandeis’s strategy to correct its mistake — the initial offer of an honor — in the best way possible: by preserving the notion that universities should be bastions of free thought, even for deeply unpopular ideas.
And it is that invitation which renders moot Hirsi Ali’s complaint that “neither Brandeis nor my critics knew or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced.” The issue with honoring Hirsi Ali was never what she may say — hence the standing invitation to speak — but rather what she has said.
Hirsi Ali’s record is plump with remarks that any tolerant, liberal institution should view with caution. Her personal narrative and work on women’s rights may tell a different, laudable story, but not one that outweighs the pattern of hostility toward a major world religion.
This hostility crosses boundaries beyond atheistic skepticism and into literal militant opposition to one faith in particular: Islam. Hirsi Ali claims her “critics have long specialized in selective quotation – lines from interviews taken out of context – designed to misrepresent me and my work.”
More here. Ayaan Hirsi Ali comments on the whole incidence, in The Weekly Standard:
When Brandeis approached me with the offer of an honorary degree, I accepted partly because of the institution’s distinguished history; it was founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, as a co-educational, nonsectarian university at a time when many American universities still imposed rigid admission quotas on Jewish students. I assumed that Brandeis intended to honor me for my work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religious in origin. For over a decade, I have spoken out against such practices as female genital mutilation, so-called 'honor killings,' and applications of Sharia Law that justify such forms of domestic abuse as wife beating or child beating. Part of my work has been to question the role of Islam in legitimizing such abhorrent practices. So I was not surprised when my usual critics, notably the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), protested against my being honored in this way.
What did surprise me was the behavior of Brandeis. Having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement, the university yesterday announced that it could not “overlook certain of my past statements,” which it had not previously been aware of. Yet my critics have long specialized in selective quotation – lines from interviews taken out of context – designed to misrepresent me and my work. It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree.
Gloria Fisk in The American Reader:
“World literature” is as heavily freighted as any of Apter’s Untranslatables, and many of its common usages have only slight relation to literary texts. It has worked historically to map the lines of inheritance—cultural and otherwise—that separate high from low, smart from dumb, timeless from temporary, haves from have-nots. When Goethe invoked weltliteratur in the early nineteenth century, it was to imagine how German poetry would supersede other nations’ to become “the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of men.” That assertion of the global value of local goods was built intoweltliteratur from the start, and Karl Marx borrowed the term decades later to theorize the economic value Goethe implied. For Marx, world literature was a cultural effect of economic compulsion, a testimony to the market imperative that “chases the bourgeoisie over the surface of the whole globe,” compelling them to “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”
World literature still connotes an expansionary move that is distinctly capitalistic, and Apter makes that connotation work for her purposes. Addressing an audience that imagines the university in opposition to corporate interests, she yokes the scholarly impulse to “anthologize” and “curricularize” to the imperative to monetize that chased Marx’s bourgeoisie across their national borders. Establishing that loose rhyme between world literature and the economic processes of globalization, she frames her argument about Untranslatables as a critique of them both, although she does not address any economic questions directly. She renders herself an occupier of Wall Street—and an opponent of corporate influence in higher education—without leaving the subject of literary theory.