The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Jan. 25 2001 11:30 PM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument


One can easily believe that Germany is in the midst of a national debate about the events of 1968. Recently published photographs of German foreign minister Joschka Fischer battling police 32 years ago have led to much argument—not just about whether Fischer is fit for office, but about the actions of an entire generation of Germans who took to the streets in the late 1960s in protest over the Cold War. (For Neal Ascherson's column about Fischer, click here.) But well-known poet and journalist {{Hans Magnus Enzensberger#2:{B1311FFE-FBFB-11D2-B228-00105A9CAF88}&doc={D5C73C19-F13A-11D4-B99E-009027BA226C}}} says that the hullabaloo is merely the work of an absurdly fidgety media. In an article published by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Enzensberger writes: "Facts that have been known for 30 years are treated as a sensation and turned into headlines. With the sole exception of the relatives of the victims—from Benno Ohnesorg who was shot by the police, to Siegfried Buback who was shot by terrorists—it is obvious that no one is really interested in this story, least of all the people who triggered the jabbering in the first place—not even the millions who stylized themselves into 'members of the class of '68' after the fact, in the delusion that this would confer some sort of distinction. You need only mention that you are a veteran of that era to cause everyone younger than you to roll their eyes in utter apathy."


Writing in the New Republic, Simon Blackburn appraises the life and thought of A.J. Ayer and corrects a familiar conservative argument against Ayer's views on ethics. "It was the apparent downgrading of ethics that … stung … conservatives…. But in truth Ayer's position is not so very terrible: finding that ethics is a matter of which attitudes to hold does not make it either simple or unimportant. A person who believes this about ethics can still act ethically or unethically. And the positivists' approach to evaluative language—their view that finally it has no foundation in reality, that it must be used on other grounds—is arguably the principal part of their edifice that still attracts significant philosophical support."


Few would disagree that Will Ferrell's impersonation of George W. Bush on "Saturday Night Live" is pure genius. To visit "SNL"'s site, click here. In an interview with the New York Times, Ferrell says: "I try to get as good as I can, and then I kind of almost throw it out, and then I go on just mannerism and what comes to me comedically in terms of attitude and play it that way. I don't sound that dead-on like him. It's a blending of trying to get his facial stuff down and just kind of like the beady eyes and his mouth kind of droops a little bit."


Malcolm Bull explains the thinking behind Slavoj Zizek's The Fragile Absolute—or, why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? in the London Review of Books. "Psychoanalysis traditionally inclines toward suspicion—what we take to be goods are actually the expression, or the repression, of their opposite—but Zizek takes it further: perhaps the worst is for the best. Zizek has long fuelled this argument by working the rich seam of black humor that developed under Communism, but in The Fragile Absolute he finds a new source in the New Testament. According to Zizek, hate is the new love. Jesus said: 'If anyone come to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.' Here, hatred does not imply an irrational antagonism, but a self-destructive act of renunciation."


The anthropologist Clifford Geertz weighs in on the controversy that preceded and followed the publication of Patrick Tierney's book about the Yanomamö people of southern Venezuela, Darkness in El Dorado. (For an article about the book and the furor, click here. To read a controversial article in Slate by John Tooby about the book, click here.) In Geertz's view, the dissemination of ideas and information in the age of the Internet and 24-hour TV news is merely about "velocity and volume," and this development will have an adverse affect on traditional notions of scholarship. "We are entering, we are told, a weightless, frictionless, speed-of-light age in which we will all be but address nodes in an endless flow of information packets, scurrying message handlers continuously assaulted from all directions. So far as scholarly life is concerned, that is still more specter than reality. ... However, to judge from the on-line blizzard of charge and countercharge that has attended the mere rumor of Patrick Tierney's blistering indictment … it may not do so very much longer. Such established academic customs as looking into books before reviewing them, editing drafts before publishing them, and couching even polemic in consecutive argument may well be on the way out. … In cyberspace, it is velocity that matters." But what, exactly, is wrong about velocity and volume? Is it really speed that Geertz deplores, or is that debates which once took place exclusively in universities are now aired in public?


Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth, did not win the Whitbread Prize; it was awarded to Matthew Kneale for a novel called English Passengers. In the New York Review of Books, John Lanchester explains the brilliance of Smith's book. In part, as Lanchester says, White Teeth is a response to a speech made by British politician on the subject of immigration in the 1980s. "He imagined Asian and Afro-Caribbean citizens of the United Kingdom watching a cricket match between their former homelands and their adopted country, and posed a question: 'Which side do they cheer for? It's an interesting test. Are you still looking back to where you came from or where you are?' " Lanchester writes: "As Northrop Frye once pointed out, 'To answer a question is to consolidate the mental level on which a question is asked.'White Teeth is not so much an attempt to answer "the cricket test" as to encompass it, to move beyond it, and to show why things are more complicated and more multivalent than it implies."

Writing in Lingua Franca, Jim Holt takes up the question of how to comprehend staggeringly large numbers. "How big is a killion? That, in case you didn't know, is a legendary number so enormous that the mere apprehension of it is fatal to humans. It stands to reason that such a number exists. Humans are finite; numbers go on forever; eventually numbers must become lethal in their sheer immensity. But how do we come to know truly huge numbers? One way is by naming them. ... The first really impressive number that most of us encounter as children is 1 million. … Far larger numbers, however, can easily be named. In English, we can get up to a primo-vigesimo-centillion (10366) or even a milli-millillion (103000003). These two numbers greatly exceed a googol (1 followed by a 100 zeros), a neologism famously coined by the nine-year-old nephew of the mathematician Edward Kasner. Yet the googol system of nomenclature can be effortlessly extended by the term 'googolplex' (1 followed by a googol of zeros, or 10googol), which leapfrogs far beyond a milli-millillion."


In response to the news that the execution of Timothy McVeigh might be broadcast on national television, a correspondent to the New York Times writes: "If the death penalty acts as a deterrent, this execution, if not all executions, should be televised nationally to promote such deterrence." In Writ, Edward Lazarus says that we can expect many more federal executions now that George W. Bush is in the White House and with John Ashcroft's likely arrival at the Department of Justice. He goes on to say: "The new President is a staunch proponent of the death penalty. He also avows a deep devotion to racial justice and equality. One of the first great challenges of George W. Bush's presidency will be to reconcile these two irreconcilable commitments—that is, to come to terms with the fact that Timothy McVeighs of the world deserve to die, yet the system that would put them to death remains, despite the best of intentions, seemingly irreparably flawed."


What should be the first book George Bush reads in (or perhaps just acquires for) the Oval Office? The president is obviously uninterested in poetry (there was no poet at the inauguration), and though the new first lady is an enthusiast for literature (The Brothers Karamazov is her favorite novel), W.'s reading tastes are murky. With China likely to be major part of the new administration's foreign policy, how about The Tiananmen Papers? In the New York Times Book Review, Jonathan Spence says of the book: "Like the compilers of 'The Pentagon Papers' before them, the anonymous Chinese author and his American editors clearly want their revelations to have a somewhat similar effect, opening up for scrutiny and debate a host of issues that have been covered up by government silence or misrepresentation, and assigning responsibility to those political leaders who most clearly should bear it." Writing in Feed, Scott McLemee suggests that the new president's views on China could be informed by taking a look at Titanic. "Released in China during the spring of 1998, James Cameron's film saturated post-Maoist society to a degree uncannily familiar to residents of late-capitalist America. As Jonathan Noble writes in a recent issue of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, Titanic-mania included the full compliment of promotional tie-ins: posters, trivia contests, photo spreads in major newspapers, even advertisements on the sides of buses in Beijing and other cities (a first). You could buy Titanic beer, cosmetics, and bath accessories. A new expression had to be coined, shishang xiaofei kuangchao, meaning 'crazy frenzy of fashionable consumerism.' "


Two well-known writers are composing their memoirs. Gabriel García Márquez, according to Vanessa Thorpe, "has been writing the definitive work of his life. ... The new project is an autobiography and its theme is the way we misremember and re-tell our own stories. In it, using a liberal dose of hokum and his own brand of special effects, García Márquez sets out a version of his life for readers to remember him by." The historian Eric Hobsbawm is also writing about the time of his life, and you can expect that an aspect of his book will also be about how the past can be so easily forgotten. Quoted in the Observer, Neal Ascherson says of Hobsbawm's generosity as a host: "Eric is still very much a Fifties bohemian, in a way. He loves, say, the idea of some weird drink brought back from Slobodnia in an odd-shaped bottle. You have to watch yourself or you are falling over before the food arrives."


WHAT TO MAKE OF ANDi Various philosophers were asked by the Telegraph for their reactions to the news about the first genetically modified primate, ANDi the monkey. Noam Chomsky says: "Is it possibly a step towards dealing with serious health problems for humans? I think it is and this kind of work should not be wiped out." Michael Dummett: "I don't have any objections to using monkeys. They are animals—I don't think we should give them the vote. However, I don't think we should have an arrangement by which parents decide what children they want." Richard Rorty: "It's disturbing—but lots of change in science is disturbing."

Stanley Crouch
was one of the novelists invited to read from their work at one the inauguration's fringe events. In an interview published by Salon, Crouch was asked if he met President Bush. "I did. He told me, 'I'm ready.' I asked him, How are you going to handle this race business? And he said well, his appointee for education secretary is a big supporter of the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx, which has been an incredible success educating poor minority children. He wants to use it as a model. He seems confident that it will work."


In a discussion of 2001, Stanley Kubrick's movie, and 2001, the year, Anatole Kaletsky challenges the notion that we're living in a time of social upheaval. "It is arguable," he says, "that technical and social change is slower today than at any time since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Anyone with a sense of history must surely acknowledge that, in terms of social change, we baby boomers who were born in the years after the Second World War, have lived our entire lives in a period of extraordinary stability. … To suggest that our generation has experienced a rate of social change remotely comparable to the revolution that separated our comfortable baby-boom adolescence from our parents' impoverished (or gilded) youths in depression-era Britain (or, in my case, in the famine-ravaged Russia and dismembered Poland of the interwar years) is manifestly absurd."


In a review of Michael A. Bellesiles'Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, Jackson Lears argues that "the most influential mythic narrative composed by the contemporary right is the story of Americans and their guns. It is a Turnerian tale of frontier self-reliance. In British colonial North America, the story goes, boys learned to shoot almost as soon as they could wipe themselves. … Small wonder that the colonial militia became such a fearsome fighting force; it was composed of crack shots, citizen soldiers who would learn guerrilla warfare from the Indians and practice it to perfection on the hapless British redcoats in the Revolution. Following the revolutionaries' victory, the Second Amendment to the Constitution affirmed every individual's right to bear arms—a right that has remained crucial to the protection of personal liberty against intrusive government power."


Earlier this week, Emily Wax reported on the National Council of Teachers of English's ejection of J.D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye from school reading lists because the central figure, Holden Caulfield, was white and privileged. The head of the NCT's Commission on Literature, Michael Moore has replied to Wax's report. "I was dismayed to see the quote that was attributed to me in Tuesday's Washington Post. I did not refer to Holden Caulfield at any time as a privileged, white male (whose time had passed). I did say that multicultural literature is here to stay. The context for that quote was that more and more teachers have been exposed to many different writers and are using literature for many different purposes. I said that the so-called canon represented a lot of thinking over a long period of time, but that teachers choose the literature they teach to fulfill a purpose. I suggested that if a teacher thought there were good reasons to teach Catcher or not to teach it, that was really what teaching is about."


"The question is whether our humanity will control technology, or the other way around. That's the crucial issue." In the opinion of Dr. Leon Lederman, at one time head of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, this is the question that will dominate the new century. In its wisdom, the Food and Drug Administration has decided that technology will control humanity by declaring that genetically modified food does not need to be labeled as such. In addition, the FDA says farmers and food companies who wish to label their produce as "not genetically modified" cannot do so. As the New Scientist says, the biotech industry, as represented by the Biotechnology Industry Organization"applauded the new regulations, which will go into effect in 60 days."

In the Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson says that with the Clinton years almost behind us, expect Democrats to return to their stomping grounds. In short, count on much fulmination against cuts in government expenditure as well as spleen and invective aimed at the rich. Ferguson forgets to add that we can also expect lots of plaintive whining from conservatives about the urgent need to "roll back" legislation signed by President Clinton—for example, laws banning assault guns. As an article in the National Review suggests, however, the whining has already begun. Gun enthusiasts will doubtlessly feel a shot in the arm after reading Dave Kopel, Dr. Paul Gallant, and Dr. Joanne Eisen's article, which argues that gun regulation is "repressive." "Gun-owners are increasingly unwilling to sacrifice more rights in a futile effort to appease prohibitionists," the authors write. "At the same time, the gun-prohibition lobbies are trying to get people to view gun owners with the same kinds of mean-spirited, irrational fear and hatred that were once inflicted on black people who moved into white neighborhoods. 'They' must be dangerous, the hate groups warn."


Yahoo! lost its battle with the French government to auction Nazi memorabilia on its Web site, as Lee Dembart writes in the International Herald Tribune. But it remains unclear what motivated the French government to pursue Yahoo! in the first place. A French citizen can presumably travel to a foreign country and purchase exactly the same memorabilia. Why penalize the Internet? As Dembart suggests, anti-Americanism as much as anti-Nazism seem to be the issue. The decision is odd not least because of France's reluctance to discuss its collaboration with the Nazis during the German occupation, a theme of Mosco Boucault's documentary film, Terrorists in Retirement. As Alan Riding writes in the New York Times, "between the time Mr. Boucault began shooting the 90-minute documentary in 1982 and its single broadcast on French television in 1985, it also provoked a heated debate that mirrored France's growing discomfiture over its wartime role. … Movies, books and two war-crimes trials of French collaborators, Paul Touvier and Maurice Papon, have told a less uplifting story of the deep involvement of the collaborationist Vichy regime and of the French police and militia in the deportation of 76,000 Jews from France to Nazi death camps. … With three of the film's 'terrorists' still alive, perhaps it is time for the documentary to be shown again in France." Perhaps Yahoo! could be persuaded to sell the movie on its Web site.


"Everyone knows someone who's touched by the issue of drugs, so if you can make the dramatic thriller elements more satisfying then you can get away with talking about the other stuff. And people are certainly coming to see it." So says Stephen Soderbergh, director of Traffic, in an interview with the Guardian. The impact of Soderbergh's movie has been so great that the New York Times recently held a colloquy to discuss the film's portrayal of the so-called "war on drugs." The panel included "former addicts, a convicted dealer, a medical historian, a prosecutor, a retired drug agent, a sociologist, an advocate for needle exchanges for addicts and a psychiatrist." In the Evening Standard, Christopher Hitchens says that Traffic"may do to the 'drug war' what certain Roaring Twenties films did for Prohibition—in other words, expose it as a corrupting and dangerous racket. … A rebellion against the stupidity of the 'war on drugs' is the next big thing in American politics and society. Every time the first step—the decriminalisation of marijuana—has been put to a vote it has been carried with large majorities, even in states as conservative as New Mexico. … One has the sense of a long-standing taboo beginning to lose its power."

Peter Maass
 has joined the ranks of authors and journalists who have taken the Internet into their hands by launching their own sites. Unlike Andrew Sullivan's burdensome home page (which invites readers to choose between "heavy" and "lite" versions, as if, as in the case of Budweiser, one wanted to be presented with such a choice), Maass' page is simple and striking. The designer is Matt Haughey, a founder of the discussion page Metafilter.


The journalist Auberon Waugh died in the night. For many readers of the Telegraph, the Spectator, the New Statesman, and Private Eye, he was one of the most accomplished British columnists of the last 30 years. His views were often reactionary, sometimes radical, frequently angry, but never, ever plain. In the Guardian, Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes: "His father [Evelyn] died at 62 and his mother at 57—and he suffered from ill-health all his life, partly resulting from severe wounds sustained during national service at the age of 18. That may, in part, have accounted for the acidic personality which made him the most verbally brutal journalist of his age. Everyone who met him remarked on the contrast between his ferocity in print and his personal geniality, but this was hard to explain to those who didn't know him, especially if they had been on the rough end of his pen." Waugh's friend A.N. Wilson writes about this contradiction in the Evening Standard. "Anthony Powell, one of the figures whom Bron [as Waugh was known by friends] mocked and vilified in season and out, used to say that there was a strong vein of sadism in both the Waughs, père et fils, and this was probably true. But whereas Evelyn Waugh enjoyed tormenting people socially, Bron could do it only at one remove. He refused to be resentful, though he caused such resentment in others. The gallant refusal to whinge about his ghastly father was matched by his perverse attitude to drink-driving. Two of his sisters were run down in motor accidents, one fatally. He was bitterly grief-stricken by Meg's death, but, to the point of tedium, he lambasted the police for trying to make the roads a safer place. He appeared to regard the freedom to drive when drunk as one of the inalienable human rights."