The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Oct. 28 2000 12:00 AM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument


Writing in Nature, David Adam says that genetic-engineering techniques have given scientists a much better idea about physical pain—and how to stop it. "Perhaps the most famous pain-triggering molecule identified so far is capsaicin, which gives hot chili peppers their powerful kick. Three years ago, a team of pharmacologists based at the University of California, San Francisco, led by David Julius, found the receptor protein that binds capsaicin and sets off its familiar burning sensation. Using nerve cells and chili extracts they could see how the receptor effectively opened a gate to admit pain."


Though marijuana is not, strictly speaking, a painkiller, many people praise the drug for the relief that it brings—for example, pot helps cancer patients recover from the extremely painful consequences of chemotherapy. (For Bruce Gottlieb's "Explainer" on the legality of using marijuana for medical purposes, click here; for New York police views about pot, read Slate's cop columnist, "Flatfoot" In the Guardian, Richard Davenport-Hines assesses some new studies about cannabis, particularly Leslie Iversen's The Science of Marijuana. Iversen "has produced the most authoritative and up-to-date scientific assessment of the medical uses of cannabis now available. … 'The argument that approval of the medical use of cannabis would be tantamount to encouraging the legalization of the drug for all purposes is clearly specious,' Iversen concludes, 'and is no justification for withholding an effective medicine from patients who need it.' "


Scott Malcomson's interesting new book about race, One Drop of Blood: America's Misadventure of Race, was reviewed by Orlando Patterson, who wrote that by the late 19th century the "one-drop rule" had "become a virtual law of nature among white Americans. As Malcomson points out, 'A little "black blood" could make you black, but it took a great deal of "white blood" to render a person white. … The sum of what you were not—Indian, black, slavemade you what you were.' And it still does. … Were the nation ever to acknowledge this, the result would be a cultural revolution that would outdo the 1960's."


Benjamin Miller "knows a lot about garbage." So says Gerard Koeppel in the New York Observer. Miller, the author of fascinatingly titled Fat of the Land: Garbage in New York—The Last Two Hundred Years (click here to buy it), is a former director of policy planning for the New York City Department of Sanitation, and as Koeppel writes, "knows the whole history of garbage creation and disposal in New York City and the physical and theoretical European antecedents. He understands the relationship between garbage and the broad spectrum of urban life, including transportation, recreation, energy, environment, politics and economics." The question of garbage is all the more pressing because Mayor Rudolph Giuliani insists that city's main dumping ground— Fresh Kills on Staten Island—will be closed by the time he leaves office in 2002. It's unclear where garbage will be disposed of after that date.


New York is not all garbage, of course, and for many people it remains the most attractive of cities. Nathan Glazer, writing in the New Republic, asks what is it about New York that makes it more appealing than any other American city. "It is not easy to say. … New York is not the largest city in the world, and soon it may not be even the largest city in the United States, and it is certainly not the most up-to-date city. … New York does not house a political capital nor does it house the greatest universities. It is the capital of fashion more than of culture." But, as Glazer says, "there seems to be no way of getting away from New York, even if history and theory give us no good reason to end there or to stay there." Earlier this week, Herbert Muschamp wrote about how some exemplary modern architects are, at long last, making their presence in Manhattan.


The oldest human dwelling has been discovered in Japan. An Agence France Presse story in the Times of India reports: " 'The remains are presumed to be 600,000 years old, as the layer of earth is that old. It is the oldest human dwelling structure in Japan and one of the oldest in the world,' Hiroshi Kajiwara, professor of archaeology at Tohoku Fukushi University in Sendai, told AFP on Monday. If the dating is confirmed, the discovery predates Japan's previously oldest known sign of human habitation in Chichibu, Saitama prefecture, just northwest of Tokyo, by roughly 100,000 years."

Is daylight savings time irritating? Maybe. Is it necessary? Maybe not. As the Christian Science Monitor says: "The semiannual ritual of switching from daylight saving time to standard time and back again annoys a lot of people. Too many clocks, VCRs, and computers to reset. Missed appointments. Interrupted sleep. Some folks complain it's like getting jetlag without leaving home." argues that DST should either be year-round or abolished. It also offers a useful history of the concept. "The earliest known reference to the idea of daylight saving time comes from a purely whimsical 1784 essay by Benjamin Franklin, called 'Turkey versus Eagle, McCauley is my Beagle.' It was first seriously advocated by William Willit, a British Builder, in his pamphlet 'Waste of Daylight' in 1907."


In a review of Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza's Genes, People, and Languages, geneticist Steve Jones writes about a journey he made to the Basque country. "A few years ago, in Bilbao … I saw a poster about blood-groups. 'Rhesus Positive?' it said. 'Are you a real Basque? Take the test!' Basques have the world's highest frequency of that blood type and, we now know, differ from other Europeans in many other genes." Jones, like Cavalli-Sforza, cautions against misinterpretation of such discoveries—"that although to understand history one must study genes, in the end it is culture that makes us human. We are not driven by DNA, but DNA can at least tell us where we came from. Where we may be going is, of course, quite a different question." To read Jared Diamond's article on Cavalli-Sforza, click here. To buy the book, click here.

Several weeks ago, The New Yorker published an article by Patrick Tierney about Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist accused of malpractice while conducting experiments in Amazonia. On the Letters page of the current issue of the magazine (Oct. 30), Samuel Katz, whose measles vaccine, Edmonton B, was administered to the Yanomamo by Naploeon Chagnon inVenezuela, says: "I am firmly convinced that the death and serious illness the Yanomamo experienced were due to a natural 'wild' measles strain." He goes on to say that thanks to the vaccine, measles deaths around the world have dropped "from eight million in 1963 to eight-hundred thousand today, and, one hopes, will someday allow us to eradicate this disease." (Click here to read an article by John Tooby debunking Patrick Tierney's book.)


In 1995, Richard Preston's The Hot Zone introduced Americans to a nasty disease named Ebola, which periodically broke out in Africa. Though there was never much danger of an Ebola outbreak in the United States, the way the disease killed people—vividly described by Preston—caused a minipanic. Scientists now believe that Ebola outbreaks depend on the climate, the New Scientist reports. "Jim Wilson of the World Health Organization and Compton Tucker of NASA have been studying climate data from the 1990s. The last series of outbreaks of Ebola began in 1994 and ended in 1996. Prior to that, the only documented outbreaks were in 1976, in Zaire and Sudan. 'We found that in 1994, a few months prior to the first outbreak, a very dry period in the African tropical forest was followed by a very, very sudden change to wetter conditions,' says Tucker. 'This change is remarkable. It only occurred once in that decade—in 1994."


Thomas Frank is the editor of the Baffler, a cultural review, and the author of a new book sharply critical of modern wealth creation, One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy. (Click here to buy it.) In an extract published by The Nation, Frank writes: "The 'New Economy' has exalted the rich and forgotten about the rest with a decisiveness that we haven't seen since the twenties. Its greatest achievement—the booming stock market of recent years—has been based in no small part on companies' enhanced abilities to keep wages low even while CEO compensation soars to record levels." In a review of the book, Nicholas von Hoffman says "Thomas Frank is a rare voice asking what the hell is going on in America: How comes it that, in the matter of a couple of decades, 10 percent of the population own 70 percent of everything of value and are using the money power to do whatever they want whenever they want, and it's supposed to be a new and higher form of democracy." Click here to read Alan Wolfe's review.

Like Frank, Pat Kane is critical of contemporary capitalism. "The constant watchwords of the new capitalism are flexibility, creativity, self-improvement. Workers are urged to 'get up to speed' with a runaway world: we must become mobile and tensile, enterprising and capable. Yet these injunctions come from companies which hire you for a year, six months, maybe even less; which might be taken over at any time; which try to wriggle out of long-term entanglements such as pensions, wage and holiday agreements; and which shed labour whenever there's a dip in the markets."

In an interview published by the Toronto Globe and Mail, Susan Sontag says she has "finally escaped the bondage of these essayistic projects and returned to the kind of writing I always wanted to do." The writing she is referring to is the writing of novels, and her latest, In America, has been nominated for a National Book Award. One of the characters in the novel, Maryna Zalewsky, was considered controversial, as the Globe and Mail explains: "Many readers wonder how close the character Zalewsky is to [the Polish actress Helena] Modjeska. One journalist in Paris recently asked Sontag why she didn't just write a biography of the actress. "The Polish actress is of no interest to me at all. Well, of very little interest to me. What's interesting is the idea of her story, which I could take and run with it, and put all kinds of other stuff in. My actual person isn't like her at all." To read Slate's Culturebox on Sontag and Modjeska, click here. To read an Atlantic Monthly interview with Sontag, click here.


The Guggenheim's exhibition of the clothes of Giorgio Armani opens today. To visit the Guggenheim's Web catalog, click here; for Armani's homepage, click here. The New York Times says of the exhibition: "Organized by Germano Celant and Harold Koda, 'Giorgio Armani' polishes up a familiar facet of urban life: the grand promenade through flattering reflections of ourselves (superimposed on fantasies of how much better we would look if we could afford nice clothes) that we take through the great shopping streets of Paris, Milan and New York. The show's pretext may be Mr. Armani, but its real subject is autoerotica, and the perverse generosity of which extreme narcissists are capable. And the show does it without mirrors."


George Bush's taste in art is appropriately conservative. The Republican presidential candidate tells ARTNews that his favorite artist is Tom Lea, a proudly Texan painter of profoundly Texan themes—ranchers, horses, and threatening skies. Among Lea's portrait subjects are General and Mrs. Chiang Kai-shek, which you can see at the Ransom Center's online catalog of Lea's work. Of Gov. Bush's views on the arts more generally, ARTNews says: "In government, the Bushes have promoted art more through personal involvement than through state policy. Laura Bush has turned her office into an informal art gallery featuring Texas artists she selects."

Benjamin Franklin should be recognized as the true patron of the Internet age, according to David Brooks. "In America … the most dynamic individuals work in the most generic buildings: These office parks are mostly built on hillsides … and they all look just the same. [O]ne figure from the American pantheon who would be instantly at home in an office park … is Benjamin Franklin. Franklin lived much of his life at the intersection of science and commerce. He understood the process of getting rich from intellect, which is the chief occupation of the information age."

The philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell had happy days and gloomy days, and in a 1952 article he explained to readers of the Guardian his experience of both. "I see Latin America throwing off the yoke of the United States and reverting to barbarism. I see the United States shorn of power, surviving like the Byzantine Empire as the last fading glimmer of a more civilised age, endeavouring to survive behind defensive walls and living on old ideas which the rest of the world will regard as archaic. This is what I see on a gloomy day."

reports on the discovery of the oldest-known organism—"a bacterium … trapped in a 250 million year old salt crystal recovered from a New Mexico salt pan." One of the scientists who conducted the tests tells the science journal "that conclusive proof … must await repetition of these results by another lab. The paper however forces one to pause when reaching for the condiments. 'The next time you sprinkle salt on your food, think what else you might be eating,' [the scientist] says."


SMALL WORLD WITH NO VIEW ONTO A LAKE The writing of Raymond Carver has been compared to paintings of Edward Hopper—both men depicted despair and loneliness. An edition of the writer's uncollected fiction and prose, Call If You Need Me, makes this comparison all the more vivid. Frank Kermode says that "Carver's world is something like a room in which the television is always on, unless you happen to be subjecting the neighbors to home movies. The ashtrays are overflowing. There may be an alcoholic, active or reformed, lying on the living-room sofa. Is he thinking about the pint of whiskey he has hidden under the cushions; or has he just got home from an exhausting AA meeting?"'s biography of Carver can be found here.

By numbers alone, you are more likely to be prosperous and educated if you speak English, though Barbara Wallraff makes several cautionary observations about the future of the language in the Atlantic Monthly. "A … paradox is that the typical English-speaker's experience of the language is becoming increasingly simplified, even as English as a whole grows more complex. If these two trends are occurring, and they are, then the globalization of English will never deliver the tantalizing result we might hope for: that is, we monolingual English-speakers may never be able to communicate fluently with everyone everywhere."